There’s a small pocket in Brooklyn east of Williamsburg, west of Bushwick, known by its residents as Flushwick. In this small pocket, mattress fires attract drum circles. Catalpa trees burst from the shattered windshields of bulldozers. Pedigrees with silk bandanas growl behind fences crowned with razor wire. It’s hard to get a fix on this neighborhood. Trust fund or trust no one? There’s a perpetual buzz that the neighborhood is on the “verge of exploding,” but I don’t know if they mean this in the good way or the bad way. I’m not even sure who “they” are. I’ve lived here for three years, and I’ve had a difficult time describing it to folks who apparently aren’t curious enough to visit me.
Late one night I was climbing out of the subway, hopping the steps two at a time. It was one in the morning, and I was getting my second wind. There was only one other man on the street that night, about a block ahead of me, and he seemed to be headed in the same direction I was: Flushing Avenue. He periodically turned around while walking forward through the snow, presumably to take inventory of the scene behind him.
I was wearing my first winter coat in seven years. It was a bulky black parka named after an Antarctic research camp, where arriving planes land on sea ice: it had six horizontal chest pockets, detachable fur trim. I looked like a hip-hop soldier whenever I wore it, but the coat was so warm that it effectively eliminated winter. I was also wearing a pair of form-fitting “Express” jeans a girlfriend had bought for me shortly after we began dating. I’ll sum up the relationship with this: we’d have nearly four minutes of sex, then she’d hop out of bed and log onto the “Express Fashion” website where, in a purring, post-coital coo, she would ask me if I preferred my jeans in boot cut or low rise. It was complete madness; it made no sense. And in those fem jeans I walked towards this strange man whom, as I got closer, appeared to have a look on his face that said, Wow, am I hungry tonight.
I’m not a bad person, I told myself as the gap closed. I’m not weird, just a bit off. What does weird mean anyway? If I just keep doing what I’m supposed to do, then everything will take care of itself.
He turned right on Flushing Avenue. Since that was my route home as well, I followed him. I did this mostly because of a New Year’s resolution I’d made to “just live my fucking life.” This meant allowing myself to sneeze on the bus if I had to, or saying goodbye to a beautiful woman on an elevator as I got off at my floor. This meant taking the route I was supposed to take to get home, and not walking blocks out of my way to avoid a possible encounter.
So! Together we walked past the benchmarks of any “neighborhood on the upswing:” a pallet jack store, an extinct laundromat, and a beauty salon that had the same hours as a speakeasy. We walked past construction sand, past Rottweilers chained to forklifts. We walked past a gigantic condom that, upon closer inspection, appeared to be filled with bourbon and cilantro. As I hunched over to examine it, I felt my breath grow heavy and short. I sounded like I was percolating gravel. I’d never seen a condom so large before. The man turned around again, locked me up, sneered, and turned onto Bogart Street.
At this point he somehow transformed in my mind from a man on the street to an attractive and pensive rodent, one who had pulled himself up by the bootstraps and out of the sewers, who’d thrown on a cheap leather jacket and decided to feign human citizenship by walking among men. “Be counted, young rodent!” I wanted to yell while pumping my fist triumphantly in the air, but I didn’t. I stood up and moved away from the condom. Plunging my boots in the footsteps he’d left in the snow, I followed him down to Bogart Street as well.
Bogart Street is a street where you can find one of the new developments that make our neighborhood an up and coming scene: a large parking lot for the Boars Head distribution center. Feral cats prance it for saddle legs and cheddar wurst when it’s not occupied by Mediterranean receiving managers throwing dice.
When I turned the corner the man was standing right there, waiting for me. He was standing underneath a flag with a snarling boar on it. The confidence of the snarling boar! The flag whipped in the wind and snow.
“I’m mugging you now,” he said.
My head grew light. “Oh, I’ve been waiting for this,” I said, throwing my hands up in the air, trying to smile and defuse the situation.
“I’m serious,” he said. “Give me the money in your pockets, chump.”
He sized me up: “You have like seven of them, dude. Pockets. “
Not only did this developing scene vaguely startle me, but also I was disappointed to see that this man to whom I’d granted “rodent status”
looked dangerously similar to me.
“Dude,” he said.
I could not read him, but I inched a little closer. He looked like one of the many men who had moved in to the neighborhood, presumably from some suburb or township that produced malcontents who fetishized ruin. He was wearing a leather jacket, jeans, canvas shoes, and he had a wispy beard. There was alcohol on his breath and his cheeks were bright red, and I wondered, Does he have broken capillaries like me?
I patted down my pockets and shrugged. “Sorry, guy, looks like you’re out of luck. I’m broke.”
“You’re lying,” he said. He stepped back, appalled. “You completely occupy a different socio-economic class than me, you rich fuck.” He sneered again.
I stuff pillows for a living.
“Looks can be deceiving,” I told him.
He inched closer to me until we were crotch to crotch.
“Well, if you don’t have any money, you should give me anything else you have of value–cell phone, iPod, anything I can sell.”
His teeth clattered like castanets. I’d remembered being that cold for quite some time, but now, in my beautiful, seam-sealed cold weather parka, all I could do was feign sympathy. It was like having a never-ending hot shower on the inside of my body.
“Is this for crack?” I asked. I’d wanted to say it seriously, but it came out in more of a fey chirp. I followed the question up with my notorious “medicine laugh,” and that’s when I started to feel very awkward.
Into the echo of my laugh, he said, “Dude, I’m going to kill you.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. I did have something.
I produced from my left pocket a physically devastated copy of The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I crouched and extended my arm far out from my body, handing him the book as if it were a gun or a briefcase filled with money.
He snatched at the book with a surprisingly swift motion and read the cover quickly. A smile beamed across his face.
“Annie Proooo!” he crooned, pressing the book to his chest, then laughed.
“That’s all I’ve got,” I said as he laughed. There was a pause, and then he said, “She’s a great fucking conservationist. My dad worked with her when we lived in Wyoming.”
He handed the book back to me, and we fell into stride.
He asked, “Have you ever read “The Accordion Crimes? That book demolished me…different generations–this accordion–these murders.” Then he said, “I’m still going to have to bludgeon you.”
“Ah, go ahead,” I said in time. “This novel is making my eyes cross and my mouth pucker. You’d be putting me out of my fucking misery.”
“That’s a good one,” he said, laughing. I laughed, too.
“It’s a good one,” he said, “because it’s true.”
We walked together toward Varet Street, the street where I live, talking about our jobs, how long we’d lived in the neighborhood, and what it was exactly we were trying to do.
We shook hands and exchanged names at my front door. It was a very firm handshake. I raced up the steps, four flights to the top of a renovated munitions factory, and after getting into my room, paced it maniacally.
I must have walked ten miles of “unfinished space, rife with potential” until I fell asleep on the floor.