Living in Bushwick

I loved New York. The screeching subways, the sidewalk Mariachi band members wearing shoes made of real alligators, the shopping in SOHO, the twenty dollar drinks at the hole-in-the-wall pubs, and the high-paying jobs by Midwest standards, the good, the great, and the crazy: I loved it all, at least for the moment.

Our first place in New York was a railroad style apartment, which means one room follows the next in a very open style, long and narrow. The apartment had end-to-end original pine floors, exposed brick, twenty-foot ceilings, and it sat on a slant. Like such a bad slant that round things often rolled from one end of the kitchen to the other. The tile in the bathroom had little pink roses on it and was probably the worst feature of our apartment at first glance, other than the four kitchen cabinets we had to cram our things into.

Bushwick, where we lived, was predominantly a Hispanic area renamed East Williamsburg to gentrify it and attract more young, white people. I liked Bushwick better. East Williamsburg mocked the hipster-friendly Williamsburg, where posh restaurants shared walls with dive bars and boutique clothing stores, nestled under the famous blue Williamsburg Bridge. My neighborhood wasn’t anything like Williamsburg.

We bought our vegetables and fruits from cash-only stands on the side of the street. We walked our dog through Maria Hernandez Park where guys played handball and girls watched from outside the court, laughing and chatting. Hands slapped balls, sending them thumping into the cement wall. Back and forth, they played all day long. Sneakers squeaked. Dogs barked. Upbeat Hispanic music blared from boom boxes. 

A thin, elderly man with leathery brown skin who often perched himself on the stoop next to ours became my first New York friend. He always smelled like tequila and cigarettes. Originally from Puerto Rico, he vowed to teach me Spanish. 

“Say hola.”

“Oh-la?”

“Spanish for hello.” He nodded and pulled a Marlboro Red from his linen shirt pocket.

“Hola!”

He struck a match against the brick building and lit his cigarette, taking a long, slow drag. “Muy bien,” he said through a cloud of smoke. He reminded me of a gangster from an old movie: so cool without trying.

More often than not, he told me stories about Bushwick.

“They used to call this street Vietnam,” he said. “Garbage cans with fires in the middle of the street. Drugs. Killings. Muy mal.” 

“Moo-ey mal?” 

“Very bad.”

“I see.” I tried to imagine the streets of my new neighborhood on fire, but I couldn’t. Instead, I saw a stream of people walking by. Some on their way to work, others out shopping or on their way to the bodega: hard-working, middle-class folks trying to make it in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Dreams can come true in New York if your skin is thick enough.“Why’d you stay?” I asked. 

He shrugged and squinted his eyes toward the park. “It’s mi casa.”

Photo courtesy of Niv Rosenberg on Unsplash

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The Price of a Drink

Electro house music crackled through the speakers as blue lights sent shadows drifting across nameless faces around me. More than once I thought I recognized someone from home, but I knew that was nearly impossible. I ran away from my abusive dad in the Connecticut suburbs, hours away from this shack of a bar in Brooklyn.

After my fourth week of working long hours in the city, my new friend, or whatever he is, James, and I were dancing and drinking away our fourth weekend in a bar. We left bills unpaid on the kitchen counter in our mouse-infested flat, so we could afford the New York nightlife.

“I need a cigarette,” I said, nodding towards the stairs.

‘What Kaitlyn?” James yelled over the music. He took another sip of his fifteen-dollar drink.

I raised two fingers to my lips and yelled, “smoke!”

James hid our drinks behind a speaker at the DJ booth and guided me with his hand at the small of my back up the stairs. The affection sent warmth through my hips as we ascended onto the cold street. Outside, he took off his vest and wrapped it around my bare shoulders. I wasn’t used to someone being so kind.

“I really like you,” James said.

I blew smoke circles into the Brooklyn air and scooted close to him. I found James on Craigslist. He was looking for a roommate, not a girlfriend. I liked him too, but wasn’t ready to admit it yet.

I flicked the butt of my cigarette and let out one last puff of smoke. “Ready?” I asked. James nodded.

Inside, he retrieved our drinks and we danced our way through the crowd until we found an opening on the dance floor. We synchronized our breaths with the beat, with each other.

After the set change, James downed the last drop of vodka from his cup and asked, “Do you feel okay?”

I nodded. I was safe beneath the disco lights. It was one place that remained constant. The place I could go when things went south at home.

“Something’s not right,” he said. I stopped dancing. James’ eyes were unfocused and his body swayed uncontrollably.

“James?” I asked. “Are you okay?” In the back of my mind, I already knew he wasn’t. Someone had slipped something in his drink and it was likely meant for me.

“I think so,” he yawned. “I need to go to bed.”

I wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and my knees threatened to buckle under his limp body. It didn’t matter. “Let’s get you home,” I said. I could feel his breath slowing against my neck. “Stay with me, James,” I said. I dug my heels in to get him up the stairs. Not one person looked. Maybe too many drunks pass by night after night to notice.

Outside, city lights glimmered beyond Brooklyn, now quiet except the whooshing cars in the distance and the clacking of my heels against the concrete.

“Kaitlyn,” he whispered into my ear, “I think somebody roofied me.”

“Shh. It’s okay, James,” I said. “We’re almost home now.”

When we reached the subway stairs, James collapsed. “James!” I shouted. I knelt beside him and grabbed his collar, shaking him. “Wake up, James!” He didn’t respond. I grabbed my phone from my back pocket and dialed 911. The gravity of not having him seemed too heavy to hold. Would I make it here alone?

“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

“Oh God. I think this guy…my friend…er boyfriend..was drugged.”

“Okay, Miss. Can you tell me where you are?”

“Umm….Yeah…I’m at the Bedford L train station stairs. Please hurry. He won’t wake up.”

***

Ten minutes later, James was being strapped to a gurney.

“Will he be okay?” I asked the paramedic, who responded by shaking her head uncertainly.

“We won’t know for sure until we run tests at the hospital.”

Please let him be okay. He’s all I have.”

Photo courtesy of Pexels