A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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The 2nd Best Decision I’ve Ever Made

How many decisions do you make in the course of your life? Cereal or toast? (Neither) Coffee or tea? (Coffee) Open the bottle of wine or not? (Is it Friday? Then yes.). Life is chock-a-block with decisions, from the mundane to the momentous.

Every now and then you’re whistling along happily enough, tearing through the mundane decisions like a boss, when you come face to face with a giant one.

Marry me?
Should we start a family?
Should we buy a house?
Should we open the 2nd bottle? (Is it Saturday? Then yes.)

Sometimes they’re expected decisions you’ve been sort of prepping for your whole life, but sometimes they come out of nowhere.

In the back of my brain I knew my husband’s job might offer the opportunity to move overseas. But you know, when you’re talking about it, it’s all sure, great, what an adventure! It’s in the future. It’s the abstract. It’s not real.

Until he comes home one day and says, “Hey! There’s a job opening in Cyprus. What do you think?”

What did I think?

****

Have I told you how much I love NYC? Really? I mean have I really told you? Have I told you how the city boogied down deep into my bones until it became part of my DNA? Have I told you…oh, I have?

Forget Leaving Las Vegas, if there was an alcohol sopped memoir movie of this mid-section of my life, we could call it Leaving New York.

Leaving the city of my heart, where I fell in love, got married, had my babies…was tough. Like drag me away tough. Kicking and screaming tough. New York, man. It gets into your blood, it seeps into your pores, it worms its way…but enough about New York because I was leaving it.

On a jet plane, with two kids, a couple of suitcases, and a plan of action so loose it was jiggling like my post-baby muffin top.

And then there I was, in the middle of The Mediterranean. Me, my two kids, and a Yiayia down the street named Poppy. That was it. Me and a Greek Cypriot Granny. My entire life turned upside down because one momentous decision we made sitting in bed on a sunny Sunday morning while our second son slept a few feet away in our too small for two kids apartment.

****

For the first year, I was convinced it was, quite possibly, the worst decision I’d ever been a part of. Worse than the plaid pants with the ribbed yellow turtleneck get-up in 3rd grade. Worse than my hair in high school. Worse than every shitty financial decision we’ve ever made. (Note: Should you buy the one-bedroom apartment? Hell, yes you should).

I cried because I missed the election of Barack Obama. I cried watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. My mother and my sister came to visit us and when they left, I ugly sobbed on the sidewalk as the car pulled away. It was…not good. It was in fact, bad. Really bad.

Of course things improved, even within that first year. As nice as Poppy the Yiayia was, I made friends who were slightly closer to my own generation, more Breakfast Club than the Early Bird Special club. But still, it wasn’t until after we left Cyprus and, if I’m honest, well into our Copenhagen cycle, that I started to really think about the decision we made all those Sundays before.

****

It’s not always easy being an expat. There are times it is appallingly hard. Being a family unit without the support of nearby relatives as a buffer can be–well, let’s just say intense. Family time, I am often caught saying, is overrated.

Some things about it actually are great. Being abroad has given us an opportunity to bond in a way I’m not sure we would have had if we’d stayed in NY. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have had a bond, it would just be a different one. This one is born of living a specific experience all together, simultaneously.

Our horizons? Not broadened as much as exploded.

I’ve learned to stop fearing change, and, dare I say, embrace it. Or at least more so than before. I’ve gone so far outside my comfort zone, I’ve gotten jet lag. Bizarrely, I’ve learned how to relax. Let’s just say I’m now type B- rather than type A.

Is it Friday? Drink the wine.

Living as an outsider in a country that isn’t yours, when you don’t speak the language, or understand the nuance of the culture itself, often at the mercy of a job, teaches you nothing if not this: you can’t control everything. Some stuff yes, other stuff, no. I think, for a long time I got them mixed up.

It’s taught me that I really only truly need the people I love around me and a decent wine shop. Should we open the wine? (Is it Sunday? Sure.)

Being an expat has taught me how to offer my friendship..and receive friendship in return. It has redefined my concept of home, on every level imaginable. It has honed my criticism of my own country, but it has also deepened my love of it.

It has given me an understanding of being the odd one out, of being on the back foot, of having to pay attention. It’s deepened my appreciation for difference, from the minor to the major.

It’s taught me how to bake from scratch and how to live with less choice, and how to start using cloth napkins because paper products in Denmark are stupid expensive. Also that I don’t know how I survived as long as I did without an electric kettle.

It’s taught me that when someone is meant to be in your life, you find a way to make sure they stay in your life.

No dinner, no drama.

This decade long adventure has allowed us to get to know each other in a completely unfettered way. It’s just us over here. No insulation. All family, all the time. No Sunday dinners, but no Sunday drama either.

It has, quite honestly, fundamentally changed who I am as a person.

For the better.

So as I meander through the mundane, bus or train? (Bus) Pizza or Thai? (Pizza) Should we open that bottle of wine? (Is it Monday? Then no, you big lush), I can look back at some of the momentous with more clarity.

That decision we made all those Sundays ago, saying yes to taking that chance? It hasn’t always been easy, but it was probably the 2nd best decision I’ve ever made.

The Day The Music Died

2124885502_559cafa7f0Another anniversary of late summer remembrance and sky blue conversations.  Another year of promises never to forget.  Another solemn reading of those three thousand names; names slowly fading in resonance next to the names of the Newtown children, the Boston marathon victims, the countless others whose names we have never heard, the ones who are only afforded ink in a police blotter, whose faces have never made it onto television channels or newspaper headlines.  The ones whose names we will never know of because they live across oceans, across continental divides, across worlds.

September 11.  New York City.  My city.  The city of a million separate stories, but one of those stories was always mine.  I used to avoid the films and the television specials.  I used to avoid the memorials and the telethons.  I used to avoid the E train.  I used to avoid downtown.  I used to avoid the footprint, the hole, the void.  I could not close my eyes against the famous photograph of someone falling into nothingness.  I used to think, enough.  We should not dwell on or cocoon ourselves in maudlin memories.  We should move forward, move on.  But as I move farther from that sky blue day, both geographically and chronologically, I have had a change of heart.

Because those tributes and light shows and status changes and pauses for remembrance are right.  We should not forget.IMG_4100

We should not forget the lives that were lost that day.  We should not forget the loss of a way of life, regardless of whether it was naive or hedonistic or lived in coils of bubble wrap.  We should not forget the way the sun shone off the steel of those towers.  We should not forget the smell of burning fuel or the feel of scorched paper and ash that rained down for nights and days and nights again.  We should not forget the plumes of smoke that rose into the air, searching for some God to make sense or the tiny echoed plumes of a hundred thousand candles lit in lieu of prayer or lament.   We should not forget the faces of the missing, strung upon walls and barriers, hastily glued and plastered.  We should not forget.

Yes.  This is an American thing.  But even more, September 11th is a New York thing.  And I am, above all else, a New York girl.  I have not forgotten.  I remember.  I remember that we New Yorkers, infamous for keeping to ourselves, spoke to one another deep in the bowels of the subway tunnels in those late September days, on city streets and in hallways and office corridors and waiting in line for coffee.  I remember how we gave of ourselves, our time and money and blood.  I remember walking in the shadow of the missing.  I remember the bells tolling, not needing to ask for whom they tolled because they tolled for an entire city, a nation, a past.  We should remember.

I do not remember to fuel an anger toward a stranger in a strange land.   I do not remember so that there will be a scapegoat to blame, a donkey to pin a tail on, an easy target.  I do not remember so that we can justify (or not) boots on the ground and drones in the sky.  I do not remember for any of those reasons.  I remember because as time goes by and memories fade it is important to take a moment to reflect and to look forward.  To make a notation in the history books.  Like anything  that has a profound affect on a soul, a city, a nation, you need a rubber band snap every now and again to remind you.

We have moved forward.  By September 12, 2001 we had already begun.  Through the stench of the tragedy, through the sifting of steel, through a cloud of disbelief and discordance, the city moved forward.  But the need is still there.  The need for questioning and reasoning and the need to look deep within, the need so summon the strength to keep going, not just along the same path as before, but to forge a new and better road forward.

And that in and of itself, is a reason to remember.