My soul is a boulevard, and its name is Eastern Parkway.
After nearly a decade of bouncing around New York from place to place- from Bed-Stuy to Queens in Rego Park, then back to Brooklyn, to Clinton Hill, to Fort Green- my family eventually moved to Eastern Parkway, where I would remain for the next 20 years.
I was about 9 years old at the time.
I remember my first day at 225 Eastern Parkway, apartment 3A.
It was Labor Day, celebrated as always on the first Monday in September. I’d just come back from a school retreat to upstate, New York, which my mother hadn’t attended. I was with one of my mother’s friends and a teacher at the school (I think), and she was escorting me home. I was holding her hand tightly cuz what was going on around me was, frankly, scaring the shit outta me:
It was a parade, only not like any parade I’d ever seen!
I’d gone to parades before, of course. Macy’s Thanksgiving and Christmas Parades usually. Lots of people, lots of floats. Large floating characters I knew from TV: Pink Panther, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, etc…I was accustomed to marching bands or cars passing by with white people waving. Maybe a beauty queen, a movie star or the Mayor. That was a parade.
Yeah, as you might imagine, I was scared shitless and couldn’t figure out why the hell we were there. I was supposed to be going home!
“Mama Ramona!” I yelled. She couldn’t hear over the noise. “MAMA RAMONA!!!”
I tugged at her hand and she tugged back.
“Come on, Loco, we’re almost there!”
We fought our way through the crowds and eventually turned into the canopied entrance to a large apartment building, 225 on the canopy and door. People were everywhere! Even in the doorway of the building, and in the hallways. The building was right on the parade route. Finally we got into the elevator, crowded with laughing drunken people, spilled beer and empty bottles on the floor. The elevator made a buzzing creaking noise as it climbed painfully slow. A fluorescent light overhead blinked every couple of seconds. No one seemed to notice. I felt myself getting really uptight. Mama Ramona was watching the lights on the panel. We stopped, with a jolt, at what was supposed to be the third floor, but the elevator was not level with the landing. It was probably due to the weight of the passengers, I figured, but that didn’t make me feel any better. Another person who was getting off as well just hopped up onto the landing like this was the most natural way to exit an elevator. I’d already had a minor elevator phobia (that would eventually develop into a major phobia, encompassing all heights, later in life) due to an experience I’d had years ago at the World trade Center. So, I was shaken. But, holding tightly to my mother’s friend’s hand, we followed suit and made the little leap to the landing.
My mother, who hadn’t seen me in a week, was waiting there in a doorway to give me a big hug and kiss. I couldn’t have been happier to see her!
“Welcome to our new home, baby!”
I couldn’t even speak. I was in a state.
My ears were still ringing from men banging on what appeared to be metal garbage cans, from trucks filled with speakers blasting this music I’d never really heard before, the bass vibrating through me like a thousand hearts trying to enter my chest through my ears, and from the crowds, some half-naked, others looking lost in ecstatic joy I couldn’t even conceive at the time, screaming in unintelligible tongues; my eyes were still aching from the smoke that had filled the air, thick with an alien sweet fleshy aroma of barbecue and from street vendors selling all kinds of steaming strangeness, some even making eye contact with me, calling to me; pigs and some animals I couldn’t rightly recognize roasting on spits and chicken blackened til it appeared burnt oozing reddish grease and stinging my nose with exotic spices and vegetables of unknown origins with peculiar odors, the funk of bodies sweaty from dancing and heaving and cavorting about in exaltation.
And, all that I had survived to get to this point I felt was still too close for comfort; the safety of home had not been fully achieved. The noise was still there, like someone had turned down the volume from 20 to a hardly distinguishable 17, like all those outlandish creatures in brilliant alarming colors were still hot on my trail, conspiring to do me in.
I was overwhelmed and overwrought…and started crying right there in the doorway, in my mother’s arms.
“Hey!” my mother held me away, looking into my burning eyes. “What’s this about? You couldn’t have missed me that much!”
I couldn’t explain. I’m sure my face showed my confusion. Where the hell was I??? This wasn’t home! No way! Home was the top two floors of a brownstone on Washington Avenue, just off Myrtle Avenue, over in Clinton Hill, where we’d been living for about a year. I’d just made a couple of friends down the block. We were going to play Monopoly or Life, and eat Dannon blueberry yogurt.
“When are we going home?” I asked, my first words to my mother in a week.
Then she got it. I could see it in her face. That maternal understanding thing. She was, after all, a veteran at this, still in her late 30s and already the single mother of six children. She’d seen it all by then. Especially this anxiety with being in a new place. I was the middle child. Three older, two younger. She didn’t worry about how my older sibs would handle the move. They’d been there done that a number of times and she had every confidence they would just roll with it. My baby brother, all of three or four at the time, was too young to be affected much by the change. Only my younger sister and I would feel it. We had been away during the transition. Me at the retreat and my sister at a family friend’s place. I don’t think she’d planned much beyond that. I’d known we were moving, and honestly I was excited about it, but I didn’t know exactly when, only that it would be soon. I hadn’t said goodbye to my new friends at our previous apartment because I had expected to return to it before the move.
I had thought wrong. I cried harder.
“Come with me…” she said, and began pulling me inside. “Wait…take off your sneakers.”
“Huh?” I said,wiping my nose on my arm, looking down at my Pro-Keds. “What?”
“Take em’ off,” she repeated. “No shoe wearing in this house! Put them in that closet.”
I turned to my right. There were two large doors in the spacious corridor. I looked back at her but she had turned to Mama Ramona and was thanking her for bringing me home safely. I turned back to the two doors. I opened the first one. It was empty except for all the things you’d expect to find in an empty closet. I opened the other and there were a few coats hanging there. One I recognized as my own…also my older brothers’ and sister’s coats too. It sent a shiver through me. We really do live here, I thought, feeling betrayed somehow. On the floor were shoes. I took off my sneakers and tossed them inside.
“Neatly, dammit,” my mother scolded.
I straightened them out.
“Now,” she said, grabbing my hand and walking me through this strange apartment, with the too high ceilings and the too shiny parquet wood floors; like a museum it felt. The light fixtures on the walls were designed like candlesticks, fake wax dripping down the sides, which didn’t alleviate the almost Gothic feel of the place any.”You know how I promised you your own room?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling my first good feeling since I’d encountered Eastern Parkway. I looked at my mother’s amused grin, seeing the twinkle in her eyes. We walked passed a living room. I could see our old beatup furniture in this large glowing room. And in an adjoining room, separated by twin glass doors, I saw a room of equal size, with a large window and a chandelier hanging overhead.
Wait…a chandelier??? But, I kept on moving at my mother’s urging.
“Well, here it is!” she said, directing me into a little room on the opposite side of the long hallway from what I figured had to be a dining room. This room was not as big as the other rooms I’d seen. Not as big as the rooms on the Brady Bunch, either. But it was mine. There was my bed, with a new mattress! There was a window that looked out at a court yard, there was a closet, and a little sink in the corner, and another door lead to a small bathroom with a toilet and a miniature tub. “Yep, you even have your own bathroom…which you better use instead of your goddamn bed!”
Even her tone couldn’t diminish my joy.
“Is it really mine???” I asked, praying she wasn’t playing with me.
“Yep, it’s all yours!”
I threw my arms around her and gave her a hug she probably remembers til this day.
I hadn’t known I wanted my own room. All I knew is it was something my oldest brother, Changa, and my older sister Faraha, coveted, and that made it appealing. And my mother had given it to me. Me! Over them. I felt special…and, as a child stuck in the middle of a large family, it’s a feeling seldom felt.
I would find out in the days to come that this decision, which was fiercely contended by Changa, was made solely because I was a bed-wetter approaching adolescence, and the room had a bathroom. My mother had been trying for years to find out why my condition had gone on so long, but all the doctors told her was there was no medical reason for it. That my bladder was healthy. So it was probably due to some trauma or my childish mind’s way of crying out for attention. This from some quack at a clinic. Naturally, it didn’t sit well with my mother…nor me, for that matter. I didn’t understand what trauma was, and I wasn’t starved for attention, either. Especially when I’d stay over a friend’s house and be woken up by him punching me saying, “Man, you pissed all over me!” Who needs that kind of attention? Or, wake up in the middle of the night in a puddle and in a panic because I knew that it would mean an ass-whipping once my mother found out in the morning.
“Thank you, mommy!” I said. then something occurred to me. “Can I sleep here tonight?”
She left me standing there looking around my tiny room, basking in my special-ness, examining the walls. Where would I put my Spider-Man shrine? Where would I put my Bruce Lee poster (The one from “Chinese Connection” with him holding the nunchucks ready to crack some Japanese ass)? I leapt on the bed, landing with a plop and slid right off, banging my head on the metal frame. While I sat there rubbing my head, with the other hand I lifted the sheets and saw the plastic covering over the mattress. To protect the new mattress from my mattress-devouring urine, I surmised. Ingenious! My piss had eaten through so many mattresses over the years.
Then, I ventured out of my room and checked out the rest of the environs.
Wow! Four bedrooms, three bathrooms, living room, dining room, and a kitchen. 10 rooms in all. A hallway wide and long fed into all of the rooms on either side of it.
The front-most room, the master bedroom, where my mother had set up shop as her space, had bay windows that looked out at the parade I had an hour earlier passed through. We sat there together and watched the festivities. From above it didn’t look so scary: a million black people vibing to different flavors of music emanating from many sources- calypso over there, reggae over here, funk down below disco from the hallway, all synthesizing into a kind of jazz of the spirit. My mother’s foot was tapping and her hand was tapping the window sill lightly, rhythmically, as she stared out with unfocused thought-filled eyes.
I heard a clamor, blasts from horn players warming up their lungs and instruments, coming from across Eastern Parkway. There was a park directly over there, I noticed, and that’s not all. Off to the right across another street , there was a massive white stone building looming over everything. It looked like one of those museums in Manhattan I’d gone to on school trips. There were benches filled with hundreds of people set up on the street in front of it.
“What’s that?” I asked pointing at the building.
“That’s the Brooklyn Museum,” she said, smiling. “Beautiful, ain’t it? Next to it is the Botanic Gardens, and down the way a little is a great big library!”
She knew I’d get a kick outta that. The way I devoured books. And she was right. I would spend years in that library. Then she returned her eyes to the revelry below and her mind to whatever was occupying it.
“This is gonna be great,” she said, aprpos of nothing, more to herself than to me.
She’d been bouncing around for years, as I mentioned, with the six of us in tow. Trying to find a place where she could raise us. All the other places we’d called home had been much smaller. The seven of us crowded into apartments built for far fewer. My mother had us all in the same school at the time, a Pan-African family school, so our educational needs were being met, as far as she was concerned, as well as our cultural and spiritual needs. But, we were growing. Three teenagers, she had by then. My brothers were starting to get into more and more trouble. Fights with students, with teachers, with other parents even. Robbing, stealing, lying…and God knows what else. Her oldest, my sister, although very smart and responsible, was into boys now and starting to get a little difficult to manage. And, then, there was me. And though I didn’t give her much trouble at the time, comparatively, I was prepubescent, a bit more sensitive than my older siblings and well on the way to becoming a handful. How would she deal with me?
Yeah, she had a lot on her plate.
To make ends meet, she was braiding hair and doing odd jobs off the books while collecting social service checks and food stamps, to keep a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food in our bellies. No father figure in the home, no dependable man to speak of…what man in his right mind would want to take on a half-grown family with six hungry mouths? Not the men she’d come across, and my father was long gone, off starting another franchise! No, she was on her own.
In a new home. Large enough for all of us to stretch out, and beautiful to boot.
A fresh start, she was probably thinking.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be just fine…” she said, nodding her head reassuringly like she’d been having a conversation with some insecure friend.
And, again, she was right…well, partially anyway. The Parkway had a lot in store for all of us.
And, my Patronus…well, the heart and soul of it is the Parkway!
to be continued…