Brooklyn is still Brooklyn, and probably will always be. But Bedford-Stuyvesant isn’t Do-or-die Bed-Stuy anymore. Everybody remember the Bed-Stuy of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing? Granted it was a caricature of the real Bed-Stuy, but not a gross one. Well, out with that old Bed-Stuy and in with the new. Bed Stuy’s being renovated, rejuvenated, resuscitated, gentrified, diversified, pacified, revitalized, reorganized, and pasteurized…Pretty soon you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from Fort Green or Clinton Hill.
You know that song: in a New York minute? Well, it’s on point. Shit happens really quick in the big city of dreams!
I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, even before I moved to Asia change was well underway. But, when I’d pulled up to Ma’s house, the brownstone two-doors down (where an aging black couple used to live) the yard was littered with bikes…about ten of them, chained to every location you can chain a bike in a front yard. And standing in front of the house were 2 guys and a girl, dressed in Halloween get-ups (she was Sarah Palin, one of the guys was Batman and the other was a Fairy) Need I mention they were white?
I used to rant and rave til I was blue in the face about the evils of gentrification before I left NY. Not that I have a problem with white people. Gentrification isn’t white, it’s green. Green as the tree-lined historical Brownstone street i lived on. Green as the green-eyed monster I feel inside me that I couldn’t afford that house. And, green as the million dollars you can pay for a house in Bed-Stuy these days. No, some of my closest friends are gentrifiers, and they’re mostly black. I just took issue with the way it was displacing people left and right and destroying the character of communities, turning every town it feeds on into a carbon copy of the one it just digested. I used to write for a local paper in Brooklyn, and my articles on the subject were alarmist, totally devoid of impartiality. I was fiercely against it, and as inevitable as I knew gentrification to be, having witnessed it swallow Bed-Stuy’s neighboring neighborhoods of Clinton Hill and Fort Green whole, like some rapacious monster, I railed against it and did all I could to offset the toll it would have on my community. I took it personally.
But, in the end, like Jay-Z (A Bed-Stuy native) says If you ain’t in it for the money then get out the game. And when you come at an old couple rapidly approaching retirement age, like the couple who used to live in that home, who bought the house in the 70’s for 20 or 30 grand, with an offer 20 or 25 times that, it’s a cinch they aren’t going to think about any negative effects their platinum nest egg is going to have on the community they’re abandoning. They’ve done their time. 30 years in the ‘hood will fossilize any heart, and they’re not holding their breaths waiting for Starbucks and Sushi Restaurants to materialize, either. That’s just not their idea of the good life. A half a million can buy you a 2-bedroom co-op in Park Slope but in North Carolina or Georgia? Hell, you can live out your golden years in style.
Ma shared with me how many of our other seniors and some not-so senior neighbors have cashed in and relocated to greener pastures. I ain’t mad at them. I’m over it. Hell, life is short so why not take that long money? Ma doesn’t have a problem with white neighbors, or the skyrocketing property value (except for the increased property taxes that come along with it.) She doesn’t even have a problem with white people, in general. But, she ain’t too fond of the idea of white people living in her house. I won’t be too surprised if she takes in a long money tenant before long, though. She says she’s been getting juicy offers and she’s currently tenant-free and strapped.
I took a shower, threw on some clean clothes and headed out to meet my recently emancipated buddies Sharlene and Wendy. The bar they were waiting at was in Crown heights, on Schenectady Avenue. I parked around the corner from it and as I made my way back I saw a guy standing around the side of the building talking on his cell. I gave him a nod and said what’s up. He gave me a suspicious look. I kept it moving. I got to the front of the bar. The door was locked. I gave it a few taps. I’d been to this spot several times before I moved to Japan, so I knew the routine. it had a new name now but everything else on the exterior looked the same. The door was opened by an overgrown cat, with a no-nonsense I’d do you and your mother if you step outta line look on his face. I didn’t remember him but I oddly felt compelled to say what’s up. He cut me open with a look and nodded me into the lobby where he spread his arms wide indicating I should do the same. He frisked me down to my ankles, thoroughly, like a cop. If I’d hid a single edge razor blade in my Tims he would have corralled it.
Sharlene and Wendy and I go way back, over 25 years, so love-love was waiting for me near the bar, already drunk and mouthing off. We hugged and looked each other over. They looked exactly the same and that was very comforting. They told me I looked thin. When I left NY I was about 240 lbs. Now I weigh in at about 200. 40 lbs in 5 years…
“All that damn sushi,” Sharlene said.
“You eat sushi everyday?” Wendy asked, I thought earnestly.
“Japanese have a lot of different-” she started smiling. “-Funny…”
“Seriously, what do y’all eat over there?” Sharlene asked. I felt a little stab. Like a nailfile in my kidney.
“Who the hell is y’all? I ain’t Japanese.”
“You know what I mean…shit, you been there long enough.”
“Can you speak Japanese?” Wendy asked.
“Hell yeah, I hear him, when we be talking on the phone, yelling at his girlfriend in Japanese,” Sharlene snapped. “You better be nice to her.”
“Oh, yeah, how is she? It’s the same one, right? What’s her name? Yuki or Yuka or Yoko or Ukulele or something like that?”
“Why you didn’t bring her this time?”
Last time I came home I’d brought my girlfriend. We all went out one night and had an awkward time, but there was no bloodshed or damage done so I considered it a success. Bringing your un-black girlfriend to meet your late 30-something single black, where all the good black men at? They with white women or gay talking girlfriends is a little risqué. But, I guess since she was a minority, in America anyway, they cut me some slack.
They were doing most of the talking. Their pace was tricky to keep up with. I kept second guessing my contribution to the conversation. And they didn’t seem to notice, having grown accustomed to my not being there. It wasn’t like this before. We used to have a rhythm, a communication pattern. They might not have felt it but i felt the loss, and I thought it was a hell of a price to pay.
Though a little strained, we managed to laugh and talk for an hour or so, catching each other up but soon I started feeling a little edgy. I was taking in everything about the room. This was the Brooklyn I had been so looking forward to coming home to. Smiling family and friends who know me and can understand me completely. Places where the people who share my values and experience dwell: Home, be it ever so…dodgy?
We sat near the door and I couldn’t stop myself from checking it whenever i felt a draft. The people entering the place were, thankfully, subject to the same search I’d undergone. Several of them looked like they were bound to be carrying. I half expected one of them to pull out and blast the bouncer he looked so shady. It was supposed to be a Halloween party, but unless the guys all decided to come as Fifty-Cent or Wu-Tang Clan, they hadn’t read the advertisement. A number of girls came to, but they weren’t searched thoroughly. They were mostly dressed in the spirit of the evening. A couple of them wore ghetto versions of Catwoman, Playboy bunnies, French Maids and so on. How do you ghettoize a French Maid costume, you ask? Well, you add some bling-bling and silk-screened nails and put a 170lb sister with an ass that accounts for a third of that in it, that’s how.
I hadn’t been in a room filled with nothing but black people speaking nothing but English in 3 years. I’d forgotten what it was like. This was not the den of diversity that I had been boasting to the Japanese as the America I was a product of. And I had known this all along. I just needed something to use as defense against when Japanese persistently, though I believe unawares, assault me with their culture and philosophy and negative stereotypes about America and Americans. I’d illustrate visions of Manhattan for them to exemplify the diversity of America, to vengefully shame Japanese people. But, in these defensive moments I’d leave out the Brooklyn I grew up in, which however culturally diverse, racially was mostly monochromatic. Now, I felt a surge of my own hypocrisy.
Around me, there were several conversations going on, and one word kept jumping out of every conversation, spitting in my ear: Nigger! Everyone was using it. This is nothing new. It had been this way most of my life and so until five years ago, it was quite natural to hear it, ad nauseam. But, now…after not hearing it for such a long time…it was disconcerting. I mean, sure, the Japanese are xenophobes and some are racists as well, and when I hear Japanese use the word Gaijin as opposed to gaikokujin, and knowing formally that gaikokujin is to gaijin as negro is to nigger, I sometimes think of it being synonymous with nigger, minus the race specificity. But, I rarely hear that word unless I listen to Hip Hop or on rare occasions when I find myself in Ropponggi or Shibuya at a bar where other Black Americans are.
Actually that’s not entirely true. There was this Nigerian cat in Harajuku who’d called Black Americans Niggers in a way that informed me he actually believed that the proper way to refer to African Americans were as niggers. Ironically, he used nigger not only in a derogatory way but also in a deferential manner. It was the first time I’d heard it used that way. I stood there wide-eyed, open-mouthed, while he said shit like, “Some of these Nigerians guys are as lazy as Niggers but…” and “Sometimes I go to the bars in Roppongi and I see a lot of Africans trying to act like Niggers, but they’ll never be as cool as real niggers,” and “I used to want to be a nigger but I’m a business man. I just play nigger for that Japanese money.” The funny thing is if he had referred to Nigerians as niggers too I wouldn’t have had too much of a problem with it.
And, I’m not innocent of its use. I used to use it quite a bit…never in mixed company, of course (race-wise, not gender-wise.) But, to come home to hear Obama is my Nigger and If that nigger win, man, shit is gonna be off the hook! I felt like I had returned to Niggerworld.
Something else hit me about then. There, among my people, I understood every word uttered. every song played. understood every nuance, every emotion, every everything…and it had become a little overwhelming. I felt like I was a computer that had had its security system on high, blocking all cookies, suddenly having its settings changed to accept all cookies. I didn’t realize how immersed in Japanese culture I had been until then. Nor, the benefit of not accepting cookies. My processor slowed down considerably.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sharlene asked, genuinely concerned.
“I don’t know…I feel like…I don’t know. Maybe I need a drink.”
“You driving ain’t you?”
“Ah, fuck, that’s right…One won’t hurt.”
I knew what it was but I wasn’t going to get into it with them. I wasn’t sure how they would react. Living among the disproportionately thin, fashionably and ostentatiously sexy, yet otherwise conservative Japanese had somehow altered my idea of what’s what. The women at this club, for example. 5 years ago I probably would have been thinking damn, if I didn’t have a girlfriend I’d be all over that French Maid. But, now she looks like a woman in a cheesy get-up who doesn’t know she’s let herself go…and why would she? Her sense of what’s what is endorsed by every drooling male eye in the joint. So, I knew it wasn’t her who’d let herself go, but me. I was the one who was gone. And even though I was here in Brooklyn- home- in the flesh, essentially I was in limbo, torn between two worlds.
But, I’d only been home a couple of hours…some kind of culture shock was to be expected. So I tried not to overreact.
Wendy’s boyfriend came in. He’s the owner so the overgrown cat gave him a pound. He came over to me. I smiled and half-bowed only to see his extended hand before me. Shit. I took it and pulled him into a hug to cover-up my slip-up.
“What up, yo?” I said.
“Same ole…business is business. You still in Japan?”
“Yep, still there.”
“Must be good to you.”
“It has its moments…”
“I hear you. How them hunnies treating you?”
“Hunny, singular. She’s good to go!”
“Hunny singular??? Nigger, Yo ass ain’t never coming back!”
“I don’t know about that…” I said, feeling like I was lying. “if Obama pulls this off, and the economy bounces back, I might consider it…”
“Those some hellified conditions, yo…”
“Tru dat,” I agreed.
Man, it felt good to speak English with New Yorkers. But, something occurred to me while I was talking to him. I’d thought about how the guy talking on the cellphone outside reacted to my greeting as well as the bouncer’s reaction and the half-bow I’d given Wendy’s man. In Japan, every time I’d come across a black guy, 2 or 3 times a week, we’d, at minimum, nod in greeting and, if they were African, possibly even make it verbal. It’s like some unsung agreement, a non-verbal understanding, that we’re in this together. This being the quagmire that is life in Japan. In a nod, with a bit of eye-contact and a smile we’re acknowledging the paradise Japan is from time-to-time, and the cultural trappings therein as well as our common daily struggle to keep it together in an environment where doing so is a considerable accomplishment. At least, that’s my take on it. Africans tend to give more, will even get into a conversation if I don’t snub them. African-Americans tend to give less. I’ve even had them snub me before.
How can i tell the difference between an African-American and a full-blooded African, you ask? (Assuming I can’t hear him speak, of course.) If you’re asking you’re probably not black. So, I’ll tell you. The same way you can tell the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese person. Or an Italian and a British person. Or a Puerto Rican and a Dominican person, I suppose. You either can or you can’t. It took my living in Japan several years to tell the difference between a Japanese and a Chinese person on the spot. I still can’t tell the difference between Korean and Japanese people, though.
Anyway, I digress. The point is I hadn’t left my Japanese habits in Japan. I’d smuggled them through customs into America, a little cultural contraband.
“Yo, I’m gonna bounce…Jet lag is kicking my ass,” I told my friends. It wasn’t a lie, just a little exaggeration. I just needed to get away for a spell.
“OK,” Sharlene sighed. “But don’t forget…we’re going canvassing in Philly tomorrow bright and early.”
“I think I’ll be alright by then.”
I was feeling a minor buzz from the one drink I’d nursed back at the bar and decided to take a spin around the old neighborhood. It was about 1:30am. I drove over to my favorite Chinese Restaurant, Kum Kau, over on Myrtle Avenue in Clinton Hill and bought some sesame chicken and brown rice and then headed home.
On the way I drove up Franklin Avenue from Lafayette Avenue. Franklin Avenue was the Avenue when I was growing up. If something went down there’s where it happened. If someone got shot or stabbed, it either originated on Franklin or ended up there, or it was done by or done to someone from there. But, The Ave is rich with memories for me and many of my old friends still live on and around it.
As I drove along it I noticed something and I couldn’t believe my friggin’ eyes. Here it was, damn near 2am, and Franklin Avenue was alive…that’s not the shocking part. Between Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street, possibly one of the toughest and notorious 10 block strips in the Bed-Stuy I grew up in, I passed about 40 or so odd white people, couples, singles, dog walkers, some costumed, some looking inebriated, just a-celebrating Halloween, or casually strolling, carefree, like they were in Williamsburg or DUMBO.
I didn’t even see any black people. It was like some crazy Twilight Zone episode.
There goes the ‘hood…
to be continued…