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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I Measure in Cups

While loading the dishwasher I ran out of room on the top shelf, now overflowing with mugs. I lifted some out to examine them: an old freebie from work with a United Way logo on it, a hand-me-down from Mom with a huge chip on the side, and a thrift store find in a hideous shade of green with words painted on the side that reminded me to love Jesus. Not that it matters, but I bought that one for the size, not the words.

The mugs disgruntled me. Not because I don’t appreciate the goals of the United Way, or Jesus for that matter, but because not one of them was special, just screwball stragglers from the hard-to-reach side of the cupboard.

Several years ago, during the height of Mom’s disease, unwashed beer glasses filled my counters. You know, the slender ones that won’t fit in the dishwasher because they’re too damn tall. They stood like hangover trophies next to the sink, taunting me with my bad decisions until I washed them for the next round.

After Mom died in 2012, wine replaced beer. Most nights of the week, I‘d have two drinks or more. Stemless glasses shared a small amount of the top dishwasher shelf with sippy cups and my other coffee mugs, the grey Gordon Ramsey ones that came in the set – a gift from my husband.

I like wine. Love it, even: it’s the friend that comforts me on a cold night and eases the stress after a long day of chasing children and folding other people’s underwear and the therapy that numbs the burn of grief lingering from losing Mom.

I’ve said more than once that I am never drinking again. I fooled myself and made promises about staying away from those bright red blends that I wasn’t ready to follow through on.

So what? We all make mistakes.

I haven’t given up. I’m mapping out the person inside part by part, good decision by good decision.

For the last year, I’ve been drinking less and less alcohol. Each week I have to remind myself drinking wine isn’t my friend or my therapy. Sipping hot chamomile tea with a drop of lemon juice and a teaspoon of honey can comfort and ease me in a similar way. It won’t take away my grief, but that’s something I need to work through on my sober days.

I collected my misfit mugs in a grocery bag to donate and wrangled my child from her Elsa dress in her playroom to her car seat outside.

After unloading my band of unwanted oddballs at Goodwill, I hopped over to the new Hearth and Hand section at Target, which I’ve been drooling over since before Christmas. I’ve dreamt about Chip and Joanna Gaines renovating a fixer-upper for me, complete with a shiplap kitchen backsplash. Adding their coffee cups to my cupboard would be a distant but decent second.

I paced in front of the Hearth and Hand display, in complete awe of the details on the cream-colored stoneware, the sturdiness of the clay, the simplistic design. I grabbed one from the collection and Mom’s voice reminded me, pinch your pennies, Danielle. Hard times come fast, so save where you can. “But splurging can be fun and rewarding,” I said. Those mugs wouldn’t ever go on sale, and I could find cheaper ones on clearance, but they molded to my hand like they belonged there.

I bought four.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Join me for this week’s challenge over at YeahWrite!

Leaving Detroit

“See you soon.” Kiss your husband goodbye in Detroit. He’s going to New York to begin his career, and you’re staying to pack. He’ll come back to get you in one month so you can begin the next chapter of your lives together.

It’s okay to be scared.

Fold your clothes and place them into cardboard boxes. Long sleeves first, because it’s almost summer. If it’s on a hanger, you pack it that way. It will make unpacking in your new apartment easier. Leave out the sweatshirt with the Old English D, because you might need it at night when the cool breeze blows off the Detroit River.

Wrap the kitchen glasses in grocery bags because you can’t afford bubble wrap or newspaper. You don’t have many pots or pans, just hand-me-downs from your mom. You think of keeping one out in case you cook but decide to live on sandwiches, salads, and cereal. It’s only a month, after all. You pack them away and tape the box shut.

Leave the things you won’t have room for in your new life next to the trash chute. Old artwork and chairs from Ikea that won’t fit in the truck, the ripped Nelly Furtado hoodie that carries memories of late nights and laughter in its pocket, and the s-shaped shelf that used to hold photos of friends: someone will take it. Someone will love it or maybe throw it away.

Each day after work, walk the dog around Comerica Park. Try to remember the way the home runs echoed off your favorite players’ bats. Remember the chants for Magglio, Verlander’s no-hitter, and Zumia’s wicked fastball. You wonder if watching the Yankees will give you the same joy. Will you forget how much you loved nestling into the crowd for a Saturday night game?

Remember the taste of the Hebrew National with just mustard, and the way the August sun would drop behind the top of the stadium as you took that first bite. Will New York have Hebrew Nationals or Ball Park Franks? Will the sunsets look different in Brooklyn? Will the sky change from blue to pink and crimson before settling in below the trees? Will the buildings be too tall to see the beauty? Will your neighborhood even have trees to look at, to smell in autumn, to catch snow in winter, and to bloom in the spring?

Before the big move, have your friends over one last time. Dance with them. Sing with them. Reminisce about the late night parties in your apartment. Tell them no one could ever replace them because they are so special. Look them in the eyes and promise you will never let go, even with hundreds of miles stretching between your palms and theirs.

They will promise the same.

But you know you’ve never been very good at keeping in touch from long distances.

When your husband comes home thirty days later, kiss him. Hug him. Tell him how much you’ve missed him. Smell his cologne. It’s the one scent that goes with you from the place you thought you’d live forever.

Remember why you’re going: his career, your future together. Detroit is crumbling, the auto industry has collapsed. If you stay, your s-shaped shelf and the happy faces in those photos may fall to dust with the city. Better to leave now and salvage what’s left.

Watch all your things get carried out: boxes, blue leather couch, old dresser, your favorite vintage lamp. One by one they leave your home and get loaded into the big, yellow truck. The things that can’t fit are the things you have to leave behind.

Say goodbye to the empty space, the parquet wood floors, the echo off your avocado-green wall, the memories of home.

It’s okay to cry.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Changing Horizons

We shared an underdressed kiss standing on the pavement in front of the airport. Bones rattled from February chill; breath turned misty like my eyes.

“Good luck,” I whispered into Justin’s shoulder as I untangled my arms from his back. “Maybe this will be the one.”

“Thanks.” He half smiled. “See you tomorrow.”

Justin boarded a New York-bound plane wearing his only suit pressed into neat lines.

I returned to our Detroit home with cold feet.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Early Nights

I’m standing in the middle of the bathroom with my faded fuzzy pink robe on. My hair is tied in a knot on the top of my head. “I bought a new toothbrush,” I say to my husband as I smear some Sensodyne on the bristles of my new Pulsar.

“Oh yeah?” Justin spits white foam into the sink.

“The bahhery died in my old one,” I say while brushing. “Can you beeyeve I only had it for like a monsh?” I spit. “Those things aren’t cheap.” I grab a flosser and look at Justin. I glide the flosser between my teeth, first top then bottom.

He plucks one contact from his eye then the other in a smooth, fluid-like motion. He blinks and brushes away the moisture dripping from his eyes with his finger. “Did you try changing the battery?”

I look into the mirror and push a wrinkle between my eyes to flatten it. Then I stretch the skin beneath my eyes up and out, looking left then right at my reflection. I barely remember what it’s like to have buoyant skin. “Yep. When I did, some metal piece inside the toothbrush broke.” I apply my prescription-strength anti-wrinkle cream to the thinning skin beneath my eyes, then I slather it on the rest of my face.

“Why did you buy the exact same toothbrush then?”

“It’s the only one I really like. I’m afraid of trying something new.”

“Makes sense, I guess,” Justin says before gargling with some enamel-restoring mouthwash.

“But you know what else?”

He spits. “What?”

“I opened the new toothbrush and some of the bristles are bent back and to the side. See?” I hold up the toothbrush for Justin to examine.

He squints his eyes to see, then puts glasses on his face to see better. “Well they don’t make things like they used to, I guess.”

Our eyes meet in the mirror. Him with his glasses he’s had for seven years, since I was pregnant with our first daughter. Me with my robe I’ve had for ten, since our first apartment in Detroit. I reach for the mouthwash on his side of the sink.

He kisses my cheek. “Wanna fall asleep watching Ancient Aliens again?”

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

These Mountains

I never considered myself to be an outdoorsy kind of person, but this place has changed me for the better.

I’m sitting in an Adirondack chair on my deck, splintered from pelting snowstorms all winter. It’s the middle of July, but a crisp October-like air has raised the hair on my arms. 

***

These mountains sleep like bears during winter. The only sound I hear is the skis. They snore, gliding along the ice. Everything else is quiet. Green moss and wildflowers hibernate beneath the white blanket of snow, which muffles conversations along the trails.

***

The dogs are both resting at my feet. My family is sleeping inside – a modest space of brick and mortar for skiing. I didn’t notice what amazing things lingered beneath the snow when we purchased it.

In the summer, the mountains wake to play.

I hold coffee between my palms, watching the steam dance against the morning light that creeps between the trees. I breathe in the nutty aroma and wait for it to cool. Branches whisper to each other as the creek meanders along the limestone bed beneath it. Shadows shrink as the sun ascends from behind the trees, reflecting light off the gravel. In the distance, trucks ramble along the switchbacks only passing through, never stopping. They don’t know what they’re missing. Neither did I.

Up close, the mountains are a mix of greenery and jutting rocks. If you look between the trees, you see the green carpet that covers the ground and maybe even the occasional animal darting back and forth. But from a distance, the mountains look like turquoise ocean waves when sunlight strikes them. Closer ones are more vibrant and the ones farther back and closer to the sun are washed in light.

Any minute, Husband will clank his cup against the counter, then splash a bit of creamer in and pour his coffee. Kids will forage for food in the pantry, knocking over boxes and rustling wrappers. Dogs will click their toenails merrily against the floor. Toaster will pop. Cartoons will sing.

There is an unexpected energy that ebbs and flows between the hills and valleys: one that reveals what’s truly important.

There is no rush to go to dance practice or work or the grocery store. No pushing or shoving or arguing over toys. No frustration. No stress. We are disconnected, yet connected to each other and to something higher. 

Photo courtesy of Stocksnap.io

What I Remember

I don’t remember how sick Mom looked at the end. Or the number of days I sat watching her cling to life in hospice. I don’t remember what her breath sounded like the day she died. Or the faces of the strangers who stood beside me grieving because my mom had changed them for the better in some way.

But I do remember her beauty. The way her smile always reached her eyes and how she laughed from her belly each and every time. I remember how I wished I had her dark, flawless skin. I remember that her cascading brown hair smelled like coconuts and Rave hairspray.

Her nails always had red or pink polish covering them. She filed the tips to a point.

I remember we didn’t go to church because she said God lives in our hearts. She said miracles are all around us, and if we pay attention we will see them. Her beliefs didn’t fit neatly into one religion. She prayed, but also carried stones in her purse for good health and mustard seed in a charm for faith when she needed it most.

I remember that her good jewelry never sat in a box. Gold rings encircled each finger. Bracelets jangled from her wrists.

I remember her love for nature and that she liked getting dirt on her hands. She didn’t like flowers in a vase because they belonged in the soil. I remember the sound of her flipflops as she padded through the backyard, watering and pruning her garden. She knew how much light and water each of her flowers needed by heart.

I remember that she couldn’t sing and didn’t care. She’d shout the lyrics to any song while driving. She loved Whitney, Madonna, Diana Ross, and the Carpenters. At home, she’d move the couch and play Motown records so we could dance.

I remember her desire to do something more. She kept a scrapbook with pictures, cards, kind words, and trinkets she received from each patient she cared for while working as a hospice nurse. She grieved for them when they passed, but did her part to keep their spirits alive through sharing her memories with anyone who’d listen.

I remember her love for coffee. All day, every day. Never creamer or sugar. Always hot.

I remember her lesson to slow down and enjoy the little things. She always stopped to smell roses, and she always put her bare toes in the sand if she had the chance.

I don’t remember everything, but I remember what matters most.