Posts Tagged ‘bed-stuy

22
Nov
08

Home Alterations Pt. 5

My family wasn’t thrilled about my moving to Japan. They’d treated my announcement like I’d announced “I’m disowning all of you!” The fact that it has now been five years since my fateful exodus hasn’t helped the situation, either. Maybe they had alleviated their anxiety about my move by telling themselves, “Oh, he’ll be back in a year, perhaps the better for it.” Well, I am better for it, but I’m not back, and feeling further and further from being back each day since I’ve been back.

There’s a 12-13 hour time difference (depending on daylight savings) between NY and Yokohama, and this has an lousy effect on keeping in touch with family. Either they’re busy or I am. Either I’m asleep or they are. Because of Yahoo and SKYPE communication wasn’t cost prohibitive, but these timing issues slowly made the whole effort mendokuse (too much friggin’ trouble.) At least for my family it did, I presumed. That is, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

For my mother, initially (meaning pre-SKYPE,) it meant using some crazy international code before the number. And why should she have to? After all, I didn’t give birth to her. She was the one who sweat through umpteen hours of labor trying to squeeze out my oversized head. The least I could do was return the favor and alleviate the crucible of having to press three additional numbers every time she wanted to hear her son’s voice. Well, she was still tucked away in a rehab, where receiving any calls was a no-go, so contacting her was out.  That was a blow but I rolled with it.

I have 5 brothers and sisters. My oldest sister, and her two daughters, live in California so that wasn’t going to happen. My two older brothers and my younger brother are MIA. Seriously. I didn’t know where they were. No one in my family could say definitively. If I asked my younger sister, the person in my family I felt closest to, she’d probably laugh. My older sister might walk past my little brother in the street without recognition. Even my mother could only give me leads.

“Oh, last time I spoke to your brother he was calling me from somewhere Upstate. He gave me an address but, I don’t know where I put it.” In NY parlance, Upstate means prison.

So, when I say my family wasn’t thrilled, what I’m actually saying is my mother and my little sister weren’t thrilled. My older sister over in Cali… she was thrilled! It didn’t directly affect her at all, so she was able to look at it objectively. Moreover, she is the most optimistic person you ever want to meet, and very supportive of anything I undertake. I believe she could actually be a motivational speaker and be a big hit to the tune of 5 figures a shot! I swear. She has more energy, intelligence, and life experience- that spans the spectrum of life experiences- than anyone I know, and can eloquently and passionately convey her thoughts and feelings. And she can draw from her experiences the wisdom to go on, and go on with vigor. I envy her. I think she’d probably be a better writer than I’m trying to be.  She’s the fucking inspirational bomb, and truly gifted! Every conversation with her either leaves me rearing to go or drained from the mental energy it takes my often brooding and pessimistic ass to keep up with her.

My move would mean absolutely nothing to my three brothers. My younger brother I haven’t seen in a solid 10 years or so. He’s schizophrenic, clinically, and divides his time between the Hip Hop career he created in his mind, insane asylums and prisons (assuming there’s a difference.) My second oldest brother…He used to be in and out of jail, but went straight and moved to the country somewhere, last I heard somewhere in Delaware. We’ve lost contact and I haven’t really made an earnest effort to re-connect with him, nor has he with me. We didn’t get along well when we were kids and our relationship as adults, with our relationship as youth as its foundation, wasn’t that sturdy or stable. No, those two wouldn’t even notice I was gone.

But my oldest brother…He, I was crazy about. There was no father in my house growing up so he was the closet thing I ever had to a father. Though he was a career criminal, he wasn’t especially gifted at it. But what he lacked in skill he more than made up for with style and audacity. He was my hero, my idol, and my protector. He was the toughest of the tough guys in the neighborhood. The other guys feared and respected him and the girls adored and hated him. He had a pathological duality about him. He was as harmless as a housefly at times and as dangerous as a Black Mamba other times. He was as funny as Richard Pryor (no exaggeration) one moment and the next he’d just lose it. One time I had to pull him off of my other brother after he’d ht him over the head with a brick. Born a year apart, they’d had the consummate sibling rivalry. Because of him, for me, life in Bed-Stuy was a breeze. His reputation for cracking skulls wrapped me, and anyone in my circle, in a protective cloak. I rarely had an altercation when I was growing up. Except with my second older brother…he was a bully, and my only nemesis as a teen. And my oldest brother was the only thing standing between me and a regular asswhipping from him.

I mentioned Franklin Avenue previously. My oldest brother RAN Franklin Avenue, he and his crew, and if something went down, you better believe he had a hand in it, or knew who the guilty party was. Unfortunately, the police knew this as well. He was the usual suspect, and usually guilty. Police at my door was not a rarity. Nor was the sight of my mother begging and crying before some judge for leniency. It was too late for mercy.

Before my previous trip home 3 years ago I’d searched on-line at the NYS Department of Correctional Services Inmate locator website and was able to locate my oldest brother. There he was, up in Fishkill, under one of his aliases of which the website had a list, at least the ones I knew. I’d sent him a letter and some loot and told him I’d be in town in the summer and to look out for me. I never got a response. I checked again before I departed and his status hadn’t changed so when I arrived in NY, Japanese girlfriend in tow, I decided to give her a rare experience and brought her with me Upstate to visit my brother. On a NY vacation, most Japanese never leave Manhattan, I’ve learned. My girlfriend got to see the real New York: Brooklyn, in all it’s glory and gore, and an American prison.

I’d actually never visited my brother Upstate before. I’d gone to Riker’s Island a couple of times, and several jails in the city, but I wasn’t about to go up to Sing-Sing (which is relatively close to NYC) or some of the other facilities he’d resided in wayyyy the fuck upstate, damn near in Canada.  I just wasn’t keen on seeing him in a cage, whether it was an hour away or a 6 or 7 hour drive away. Selfish, I know, but that’s me. However, I’d made an exception this time for a couple of reasons:

1-I hadn’t seen him in years and,

2- He is HIV positive and I really don’t know how many more opportunities I’ll get to see him.

The depressing idea of him dying alone, in prison, of that god-awful plague… Anyway, when we got there, I realized that it wasn’t quite a maximum security jail. More like a medium security, which means get those images of Shawshank out of your head. It means we didn’t have to talk on a phone through fiberglass, but could talk and touch and hug and have lunch and whatnot in the flesh. When they’d told him he’d had a visitor he’d come into the picnic area expecting to see some girl he’d convinced he wasn’t a lost cause. When he saw me and this tiny fine ass Japanese girl, he was so shocked and overjoyed he burst into tears, which isn’t exactly the thing to do in a jail, but like I said, it wasn’t Sing-Sing. It was a very emotional reunion but I think it added years to his life. He looked great. He always looks great when he’s been locked up for a while. While he’s in there he eats regularly and works out like a madman, but he doesn’t look like The Terminator. He’s more like Taye Diggs. Not bulky like a power lifter, but chiseled like a gymnast, a martial artist or a swimmer. Once he’s back on the street a while he starts to look like shit, again. The streets are his nemesis. He seems to thrive on incarceration.

This time around however, the website informed me that he had been released and so I had no idea where to find him. My mother had had a phone number for him but it was one of those disposable pre-paid cell phones, and apparently he had disposed of it.

So, that left my little sister and her daughter as the only family I could meet. I picked them up and we went out to dinner. In the car we carried a conversation about this and that but I was anxious and uncomfortable. I tried to relax and bask in the love that one can only feel in the company of loved ones, but I couldn’t. I felt estranged. We went to a diner my sister said was all that, called Purity Restaurant, over in Prospect Heights. The menu was oldtimey like the diners I loved growing up and the food was great. It was 8pm, but I had some pancakes and sausages anyway.

My sister hadn’t changed much. She was still her sassy, sarcastic, super intelligent self. But, something was different. She’d grown a little weary. She’d gained a bit of weight and that had her down. Her daughter was a teen and slowly falling out of adoration with her, and that was a hit. The men of quality that used to come knocking weren’t knocking as often and that was a blow, as well. So, she’d lost a little of her snap, but not irretrievably. I think she’ll be ok.

But, as she was catching me up on her life I felt an inkling of the reason I’d been feeling estranged. I couldn’t…no, rather I didn’t want to get into it with her until I had thought it out some more, though. My sister is a tough cookie. She has a heart as soft as butter, but she’d placed that butter in a meat locker a long time ago. I could thaw it out before I left for Japan. Our relationship was just that way. But, since then…I haven’t even put it to the test. She wasn’t being especially cold, though. Little stabs, like Sharlene and Wendy had made, little snide, verbal daggers that hit their mark with the precision of a circus performer.

I endured them, like a penance, from Sharlene and Wendy, mostly because they were drunk, but partially because they were friends. Their daggers stung. But my sister doesn’t drink. Not a drop. And, I was a little more vulnerable to anything that came from her mouth. She was my touchstone before I left. She was the person I could turn to for a reality check. I was the person she could open up with, let down her guard, be absolutely real with. I wasn’t prepared to accept daggers from her. Her daggers would draw blood.

I decided to avoid any serious topics.

On the way home, we dropped her daughter off at her cousin’s house. Then i told my siter that I wanted to drive by the old block to see if any of the old heads were about. She still lives in the area so it wasn’t nothing to her to see these people. But she said cool, anyway. We hit Franklin Avenue, and as I approached the signal at St. Johns and Franklin, I caught a glimpse of my oldest brother’s profile in my headlights.

“Oh shit!!!”

I pulled over and hollered out the window, “Yo Chuck!”

He was with a woman and turned around like he expected trouble. Then he saw me.

“Oh shit! Get out the car! Oh shit!!!” He started crying right there on Franklin Avenue.

I remember when he first told me he was HIV positive over ten years ago. He came to my old apartment and dropped that bomb on me. Back then everyone thought of it like a death sentence. Even though Magic Johnson was strutting around looking better than he had when he played ball. That was only because he was rich and had access to some super drug and the best healthcare imaginable, everyone believed. But for the average Joe the Plumber, it was deemed Death Row, you were a dead man walking. Everything about him had looked the same that day except for something in his eyes, or rather something that was no longer in his eyes. Even when I looked at his eyes through 3 inches of steel reinforced glass, in them I could still see that he was going to be alright. He could survive jail, no problem. He could handle them niggers in there. But, HIV? HIV had already begun its deadly task. The disease had killed something in him spiritually before it took its toll physically. We’d looked at each other that day. I don’t know why but he wanted me to see that he was dying inside. It was like he wanted me to see that the streets couldn’t kill him, jail couldn’t break him, but even the thought of this shit coursing through his body was destroying him. He was going to give up. I could see it. He was going to cash in his chips. He’d cried that day. Cried like a baby. I’d never seen him cry like that before. I couldn’t look at him. At this invincible mountain of a man, brought to this.

“Stop crying man!”

“This fucking shit…this…shit, it’s…”

“Man, crying ain’t gonna change shit,” I said but I broke down too. and we cried together for a long time.

And he was still crying 10 years later. I wasn’t. I stopped crying years ago when I realized that this dead man had been walking around dying for years, not months like I had feared. And if he had years then he had better fucking live them and stop crying. I had gotten really angry at him. Every time i spoke to him I told him what he should be doing with his life. I spoke to him like he wasn’t dying, because I didn’t want to deal with that. But, he still looked like he was waiting to die. 10 years, whenever he’s not in jail, he looks like this.

When I saw him crying today I cut him some slack. It must have been an emotional shock to see his favorite brother he hadn’t seen in 3 years and the sister he hadn’t seen in even longer than that. And I was so damn happy that I had decided to drive down that street. Serendipitous, was it not? That I could pick his profile out of a crowded street corner at night. It had that feeling of meant to be. I had resolved myself to the fact that this trip home I would only see a single sibling.

“Hello…” I said, to the woman with my brother.

“Yo, yo, this is my wife, man.”

“Your brother is so rude, hi, it’s so nice to meet you. He talks about you allll the time, his little brother in Japan.”

He’d told me about her before. That they were living together and planning to get married. I’d  thought that that was rather optimistic of him and was happy to hear it. I think he’d said that she was HIV positive as well, but I’m not sure and I wasn’t about to bring it up then. She was a little thing, looked about 40 something. Had that scratchy voice like a former lush, but she seemed really nice. She said that she had 4 kids and 3 grandkids. I was surprised but not too surprised. Young grandmothers are not that rare. Even Wendy is a grandmother and she’s only 41. Her daughter, all of twenty something now, had actually come to the bar the night I’d arrived and had a drink with us.

We stood on that corner, on Franklin Avenue, the avenue he used to run in his hey day, and talked for hours, as a family. I’d found the love I’d longed for back in Japan. And it felt wonderful…like Thanksgiving. He had my sister, his wife and I dying with laughter. He joked about all those crazy adventures that are the stuff of legend on the Ave, of all the people he’d robbed and cops he’d beat up, and so many things he’d done on these hallowed streets. Everybody that passed by shouted a what’s up at him, and once they noticed that I was there as well, they showed me some love, too.

After a while, the laughter started winding down. My sister was genuinely happy to see him but she was ready to go, and so was I. We exchanged numbers. I gave him my SKYPE number.

“What about when you go back to Japan, how the hell am I gonna get in contact with you?”

“You can use that same number.”

“Huh?”

“It’s like you’re calling my computer…wherever my computer is I can talk to you.”

“Word! Fuck outta here!”

“Word, yo.”

It was like he hadn’t been living these past years. Granted he had limited access to computers Upstate but I still felt really sad, then. I gave him a big hug and told him I love him very much and I told his wife to keep him out of trouble, and keep his stupid ass off of Franklin Avenue, unless she wanted to be visiting him Upstate.

After I dropped my sister off, I went back to Ma’s house. And, I cried for a little while. Then I did some writing.

Loco

to be continued…

(Links to Previous parts below)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

22
Nov
08

Home Alterations pt. 4

Sundays in Yokohama, I wake up bright and early and play basketball, but Sunday in Bed-Stuy is a holy day. I couldn’t tell you which there are more of in Bed-Stuy: Fire hydrants or churches. When I was younger NY used to enforce Blue Laws on Sunday…grocery stores couldn’t sell alcohol, bars stopped serving after 4am, etc… Some of these laws are still in place, but rarely enforced. Liquor stores still can’t do business on Sundays though. But, I don’t think there’s a bar or club in the city that would survive if they stopped serving alcohol after 4am. Can you imagine Blue Laws in Japan? The whole country would shut down.

Bed-Stuy has some of the most beautiful and oldest churches in the city, and this Sunday morning found me taking a stroll around the old neighborhood, around 10am, trying to find a NY Times. Used to be you could find the Times any time of the day, and The Daily News and NY Post, the local tabloids, would be gone. Now, the Times are missing, too. That’s as clear an indicator of the changing demographics in the community as you can get.

Bedford Stuyvesant has some of the most beautiful architecture in NYC…maybe the entire country. It’s not a boast. It’s a fact.

Bed-Stuy Brownstone Architecture

Bed-Stuy Brownstone Architecture

bedstuy-streetscape

Bed-Stuy Brownstone Architecture

It’s a very old community and the homes average 100 years old. And these are some of the most coveted homes in the city these days. When I tell my Japanese friends that they are shocked. Old homes in Japan are not desirable, new ones are. The new homes in NY are not worth the cylinder blocks and sheet rock they’re built with. These brownstones were built to last. They were almost hand-built. Limestone, brownstone, intricate detailing and woodwork, fireplaces with painted tiles, stained glass windows, wainscoting, you wouldn’t believe it! On some blocks each house has something a little different about it than the others (See Pics) At the turn of the century (not this one, the previous one) Bed-Stuy was considered a suburb of Manhattan and so most of these homes were built for the affluent who had moved to Brooklyn to avoid the overcrowding and influx of immigrants coming into Manhattan. Ironic eh? Some even have stables for horses, servant’s quarters and dumbwaiters. Unfortunately, if you’re a tenant, and fortunately if you’re an owner or well off, they are very much back en vogue. And virtually exclusive in price already.

I love to look at them. I grew up in homes just like these. Not as an owner unfortunately. They weren’t kept up very well back then. Bed-Stuy had fallen into ill-repair, in every way imaginable. The history of Bed-Stuy is very fascinating, and being a student of it I could tell you all kinds of interesting tidbits, but thinking about them makes me a bit melancholy. So, I’ll pass right now. As I walked around I was overwhelmed by this melancholy.

Around the corner from my house was an old school, abandoned a good portion of my life. Homeless people used to squat in it. Well, no more. It’s a school again. (See below)

Before (old PS 70)

Before (old PS 70)

After (renamed Excellence Charter School)

After (renamed Excellence Charter School)

I have never been a Christian, but I love the architecture of the churches in my neighborhood, and the sense of community they inspire. Some of them are very old. Take Mt. Lebanon baptist (below)

Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church

Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church

Bridge Street AME

Bridge Street AME

Notice how it is made of the same stock as the homes, yet is grander at the same time. This speaks to the relationship of the church to the community. I don’t necessarily agree that a community ought to have this kind of relationship with a religion, but it looks great doesn’t it? I wish i had pictures of the homes on that block to show here. I’ll search around see what i can find. It’s one of my favorite blocks in Bed-Stuy. So, while the school represents the changes underway, the church represents just the opposite…steadiness, stability, a “we’ve always been here and we’ll always be here” appearance. Is it a delusion?

akwaaba Mansion / Bed & Breakfast

Akwaaba Mansion / Bed & Breakfast

Bread Stuy Cafe

Bread Stuy Fine Coffees and Cakes

There were several new cafes, restaurants and bars along my way. The cafes weren’t Starbucks but had a similar vibe and an equal or higher price.  I stopped at one for a cup and seated inside (yappari) was a group of white 20-somethings having a little meeting over coffee and assorted laptops. It reminded me of a cafe I frequent in Yokohama, only here the staff and owners are black. It was a cafe back when I left as well, called Mirrors. it was owned by a black couple I know, a couple of gentrifiers, who also bought a huge mansion around the corner which they converted into a Bed & Breakfast and several other enterprises. Now the cafe is owned by another black couple of gentrifiers I knew in passing. They changed it around a bit. They weren’t in when I stopped by but I could see that business was good.

And they had a NY Times (-:

Change is inevitable. I guess I’m a little conservative. The Bed-Stuy I grew up in had no cafes nor bed & breakfasts’. There were white people but they might as well had been black they’d been in the ‘hood so long. The houses were always beautiful but the security measures defaced many of them, and the need for tenants caused many of the houses to be converted into 2, 3, and 4 family houses, owned in many cases by an absentee slumlord. Gunshots ringing out in the day and night were commonplace, blood trails in the asphalt were not shocking. Drug dealers and users were everywhere. Businesses and services were few; mostly barber shops and beauty salons, grocery stores, liquor stores and supermarkets. Just the essentials, or the parasitic businesses that profit from despair and/or ignorance. But, this was what I grew up in and it became a part of me, so i feel a certain sentimental attachment to that ‘hood, an allegiance, however dubious, to the place that produced me.

So different from the super-clean, super safe, super quiet town in Yokohama where I live now. Where I can sleep with doors unlocked and windows unbarred. Where the only dodgy element in the neighborhood is, well, if you asked my neighbors, is me.

Still, I love Bed-Stuy. I love the old one, and the new one growing from the old, as well.

I’m a little torn, though. Inside me there lurks a gentrifier, too. While most of my friends loved the ‘hood, I actually loved to get out of the ‘hood. My best friend and I were of a similar mind, and we always made out for other locales. it was like a ritual. We’d get whatever we needed for the trip from the hood: weed, blow, whatever… and then head out to areas of NYC where we weren’t especially welcome but were quieter, cleaner, and more picturesque. We called these places sanctuaries. My favorite was Fort Hamilton, a totally white neighborhood out by my favorite bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.) We’d go out there and smoke blunts and drink blackberry brandy and talk and laugh about the things that I guess teens talk and laugh about, with a backdrop like this:

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

I was always kind of an outsider in Bed-Stuy. I knew people, people knew me, I was safe, I understood what was happening, but I always had a vision of something different. I always knew I was destined to do something different, perhaps even special, with my life. My friends and family seemed to sense it, too. I was the first person in my blood line (that I know of…at least going back several generations) to graduate from University. I didn’t feel anything special about it. No special sense of pride. I actually grew up inexplicably feeling that college was one of those things people just did, like get married and have children. Nothing special whatsoever. However, most of the people I grew up with did not share this mindset.

Nor did i think moving to Japan made me special. I just thought it would be a great experience, perhaps inspire me to write. But, my friends and family, well, they haven’t handled it well, some of them…

And it was time to spend some time with the family. Tonight, first up, my little sister and her daughter.

Loco

16
Nov
08

Home Alterations pt. 2

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.

“She’s busy.”

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.

And, noticeably.

“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.”

On the way home, I was little concerned. Some of my Japanese habits are just not conducive to life in the West. In fact, they could be downright dangerous here in NY.kumkau1

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…




Copyright © 2010 Loco in Yokohama / All Rights Reserved

Please know that this blog is my original writing and may not be reproduced in any way without the expressed written permission of the author (that's me!) Thanks!

Words I love…

Everybody is a star
I can feel it when you shine on me
I love you for who you are
Not the one you feel you need to be
Ever catch a falling star
Ain't no stopping 'til it's in the ground
Everybody is a star
One big circle going round and round

Words by: Sly Stone

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