Photo by Roey Ahram
The strip of Bay Street that runs through Stapleton is an example of conspicuous gentrification. There’s a Spanish tapas bar, and a Japanese Bistro, and a Sri Lankan clay pots restaurant, all opened in the last few years. In counterpoint, the old Paramount Theater has failed at numerous incarnations, and a White Castle sits stripped of any franchise signage, leaving the land without a monarch. Tappen Park is meticulously landscaped, though the benches are still mostly occupied by the disenfranchised: the unemployed, the homeless, aging drunks, and young junkies. Across from the park, at the corner of Bay and Canal, there’s a freestanding sign illegally in the street, a pipe supporting a tire. The hubcap is inscribed with “Flat Fixed” and an arrow directing you down the side street toward the elevated railroad tracks.
In front of a garage with no name is a stack of three worn tires, topped with a chrome Mercedes rim standing on edge, a bastardization of the roadside attractions that once lured customers into gas stations as the U.S. highway system expanded during the 1920s and ’30s. The patchwork cement out front is littered with the nuts and bolts of customers’ more recent misfortunes. There’s a single stacking chair by the entrance, where the boss sits, and a couple overturned milk crates for his flunkies. A Puerto Rican flag protrudes from the white spray-painted tire mounted on the grate covering the only window. The door is open, but standing in the daylight, you cannot see inside.
Mondays, I have lunch with my father. Keeping with the routine, he’s waiting in his car, in front of the house, when I arrive. A tap of the horn is the signal for him to pull out, wherein I park in his spot, to hold it for him. He doesn’t back up to meet me, but instead waits where he has stopped as I walk to him.
We briefly discuss lunch plans before taking off. Driving down the street, there’s a distinctive clacking sound, increasing in frequency as the car accelerates, until it becomes constant.
“Do you hear that?” I ask.
“I was just gonna ask you,” my father replies.
Pulling over to the curb, we get out and circle the car, meeting at the rear passenger side tire. A screw has attached itself to the thick rubber tread, like a metal tick. My father grabs for it, and I touch his shoulder to stop him. Realizing that his impulse almost got the better of him, he throws his hands in the air.
We head toward Stapleton, and my father recounts the story about he and my mother driving one day, when the tire warning light came on and they followed the “Flat Fixed” sign. Praising the quality work of the garage under the tracks, he explains how, for twelve bucks, they take the tire off and put on a patch, as opposed to just plugging the leak. Nissan wanted sixty dollars to fix a flat, and the wait was three hours, he declares, his outrage apparent. Getting even more worked up, he details his most recent experience, forced to pull into some out of the way gas station. They acted like they were doing him a favor, charging twenty dollars for a plug, and my father, who’s normally very courteous in dealing with strangers, told the mechanic that he wouldn’t be back.
“How many is that now?” I ask, the implication being that there’s been an inordinate number of incidents of his having to repair a tire.
“This is the fifth.”
“Five flats?” I say. “You’ve only had the car a couple years. And you don’t go anywhere. My Jeep is thirteen years old, and I’ve had one flat.”
“I wonder where I’m picking up these screws?”
Cars are double parked by the garage, and so we have to park down the block, and walk back in the street. My father enters, disappearing into the dark, while I wait outside. Across the way, on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant whose windows are concealed behind specials in Spanish, a man towers over a group of teens in a vigorous game of basketball without a hoop. I watch, trying to figure out the free for all, as a boy lobs a shot at a phantom basket and everyone scrambles for the loose ball. When my father finally comes out, he tells me there are four people ahead of us.
A man paces back and forth, arguing on his cellphone, cursing with no regard for being in public: F this, and F that, and F YOU! He kicks at something on the sidewalk, sending it flying, and my father and I exchange glances before moving away. Opposite us, keeping a safe distance, a man in an MTA uniform stands with his arms folded.
“Fred said that it could be Home Depot. Asked if I park by the contractors’ loading area,” my father says, referring to my Uncle Fred, attempting to solve the mystery of the flat tires.
“Have you been to Home Depot lately?”
A customized black on black Dodge Charger pulls up, and a guy in a white T-shirt that shows off his preternatural muscles gets out, enters the garage. He re-emerges a couple minutes later, and gets back in his car, inconspicuous behind tinted windows. Loud music, a bass line, pumps from within.
“Mary just had her roof done. Those guys left some mess. I was picking shingles off the grass for days.”
“Even if that explains this time. What about all the other times?”
The man and one of the kids from the “basketball” game — up close, the kid looks much younger, maybe twelve or thirteen — approach along the sidewalk. The kid fires the basketball off the street sign just before the garage with a thunderous crash that makes everyone turn. The man continues on, as the kid runs down the basketball. Having retrieved it, he looks around, daring anyone to say anything as he passes. He catches up to the man, who’s waiting under the bridge, and they cross the street by the lumberyard.
“I wonder if it has to do with that basketball hoop?” my father says.
“You think the kids are putting screws under your car?”
“Not the kids. The kids from down the street.”
“I don’t think kids would do that.”
My father considers this, as I walk away. Adjacent to the garage is a lot, protected by a gate spiked with fleurs-de-lis, and topped with razor wire coated with the multi-colored debris of shredded plastic bags. Inside is the body of a sedan, surrendered to a corner, to die and decompose. I lower myself against the fence, unfolding my legs across the sidewalk. Shading my eyes against the harsh sunlight and a dull headache, I feel myself becoming groggy. A horn startles me, and I look to see my father’s silver Rogue stopped in the street. Jumping up, I hurry to the car, and we pull away. As we turn the corner back into the neighborhood, my father asks, “Where do you wanna eat?”
Tom Diriwachter’s full-length play, “Great Kills,” is currently in development at Theater for the New City, and scheduled for a staged reading as part of the New City/New Blood reading series on March 24, 2014.