Mr. Beller's Neighborhood http://mrbellersneighborhood.com New York City Stories Since 2000 Sun, 26 Mar 2017 15:22:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.8 The Eggs of Protest http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/03/the-eggs-of-protest http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/03/the-eggs-of-protest#respond Sun, 26 Mar 2017 15:20:10 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8657 The morning after the election I didn’t really want to leave my bed. Even though I am not an American citizen, the happenings of the night before shocked and numbed me so much that I couldn’t find the power to face the day. I wanted to stay where I was and try to forget about what was going on elsewhere in the country. I logged onto Facebook, only to be faced with my friends’ updates about the anti-Trump protest that was being organized to Union Square Park. I put down my phone and went back to bed, absolutely sure that I didn’t need any more political drama in my life.

But in the end I went to the protest. As I was smoking my cigarette that morning, something didn’t feel right with the city around me. I tried to pin down the feeling, and I realized I was mourning. Mourning in the same way I did when my grandpa died, and when one of my friends died. And when in mourning, one must find ways to ease their pain. I personally think about the protests as funerals. People do not go to funerals to resurrect the dead. They go to funerals to grieve.

That’s how I ended up forcing my way into the crowd at Union Square that night with some friends, a “Free Hugs” sign duct taped around my chest. It was raining, so the piece of paper I had used became useless rather fast—and no one seemed to be in the hugging mood anyway. By 6 pm, the original start time for the protest, the crowd had unified in chants. On my right, people shouted, “Donald Trump: go away, racist, sexist, anti-gay!” On my left, “My body, my choice!” Signs that had been hastily made after the previous night’s shocking results were raised up. Some of the slogans on them turned into more chants, and soon the crowd started marching their way uptown, shouting, “Love trumps hate,” and “We reject the President Elect.”

After the rain had stopped, we marched up Fifth Avenue to the Trump Tower, accompanied by rhythmic honking from the cars stuck on the street and by the stares of people watching us from upper-level fitness centers and stores. Some people leaned out of their cars to share high fives with as many people as they could, like they didn’t mind being stuck in traffic at all. Reporters with cameras and notepads made their way through the crowd. One of my friends wore an Anonymous mask, and the cameras loved it. I was jealous. As we passed 30th Street I heard a painful scream from behind. I turned around to see a man holding his bleeding head, the remains of a glass bottle on the ground, and a car speeding away. “Asshole!” someone cried out, this time not referring to the President Elect. I took a last glance at the bleeding man before walking away, now surrounded by more worried looks and a sense of growing rage. It was a strange, hopeless mix of emotions, but one I found fitting.

The crowd became even denser as we arrived at Trump Tower because the avenue was blocked by the police ahead. People climbed on traffic signs and moved up as far as they could to give space to the stream of newcomers. The chanting continued, louder now, as a figure appeared in one of the windows around the tenth floor. A helicopter crossed the sky above us. Middle fingers were raised up in the air as the line of police officers blocking us from the tower drew a second line of cordon.  Representatives from a socialist group shouted into a megaphone. Their agenda was different from that of the rest of the crowd but still, we repeated their chants. The speaker spoke against the results of the election and demanded alternatives. He demanded change. He gave a quick elevator pitch for the cause of socialism. Then he encouraged us to follow them on Facebook and Instagram, before finally turning off the megaphone.

A woman with dreadlocks started passing out eggs. I reached out and, in a second, one of them found its way into my palm. We all stood there in suspense, excited, waiting for the first person to throw their egg at the tower. But no one had the courage. Suddenly, the tower seemed to be farther away from me than it was five minutes ago, even though I hadn’t taken a step. The police started to seem more menacing. I realized I wasn’t really looking for trouble. My friend walked up to me, still wearing her Anonymous mask, and put her egg in my hand. “You have better aim than I do,” she said. I gave her a look that she probably couldn’t catch through the tiny eyeholes of the mask. In the end, none of the eggs were thrown. I couldn’t help but detest this off-putting manifestation of group mechanics—being the first one to step up, the first one to be brave is hard. Following others in a crowd is easy. I looked around myself and felt a bitter ambivalence at the sight of the people shouting together. It dawned on me that we were not going to make history today, that our display of rage and dissatisfaction was less against Trump and more for ourselves. We needed it like mourners need a good cry at a funeral.

The crowd marched on to the Trump Hotel at the southeast corner of Central Park. Halfway there, I accidentally dropped one of my eggs. I didn’t care. The group divided into two parts at the hotel, each standing near a different exit, each chanting on their own. A vocal Trump supporter marched between the two groups, calling us cucks and whiny liberals and other names borrowed straight from Martin Shkreli’s Twitter feed. After enough people yelled back, he walked away. The protest was over. People started dispersing, and I headed for the subway. The feeling of ambivalence that took me over seemed like the necessary act of sobering up after being intoxicated by all the chanting and marching. I knew that the protests would go on the next day, but I was done mourning. It wasn’t until I was on the train back home that I realized I was still holding the other egg in my hand. It didn’t even have a crack in it. I thought about what could have happened if I were the one to throw it at the tower and smiled.

When I arrived home, I put some oil in the frying pan, turned on the stove, and cracked the egg open. I decided to make an omelet.

 

Mate Mohos in an NYU Shanghai student from Hungary, majoring at Media. He spent the first semester of his junior year in New York and is currently studying abroad in the Czech Republic. He is an aspiring journalist and creative writer who writes mostly personal essays and speculative fiction. He is currently an editorial intern at tol.org and hopes to publish some of his short stories soon. More of his work can be found on his web page matemohos.com.

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See You in New York http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/03/see-you-in-new-york http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/03/see-you-in-new-york#comments Sun, 19 Mar 2017 15:26:16 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8837 As the wheels hit the ground and the pilot stopped the airplane at Newark airport, I felt right at home. I was landing in the city that was going to be my new home, at least for a couple of years. People had always told me that I should live in New York once, but leave before the city made me hard. But as I watched the skyscrapers and the beautiful rose-colored shimmer that lay like a blanket over Manhattan, I wondered who would ever want to leave.

My boyfriend Andy was waiting for me at the baggage claim. He had been in New York for a few days already, starting his new job, while I was back in Sweden getting my student visa. We didn’t have an apartment yet and were eager to find one. I was starting fresh with the man I loved, the man I wanted to share the good and the bad with. I just didn’t think that the bad would come so soon.

*

I had met Andy in Chicago three years before at a party I had been working as an au pair for a family with three children, and Andy was working as a diplomat, helping Swedish companies establish footholds in America. My American friends couldn’t believe that I had moved all the way to America just to find a Swedish boyfriend. It didn’t matter; we were drawn to each other like magnets. When my eighteen months as an au pair came to an end, I moved in with him and we started a life together in Chicago. Before I met Andy, I was planning to go back to Sweden and start college, but instead I enrolled in classes at Northwestern and fell in love with the field of psychology. When the day came for Andy to climb the corporate ladder and become the head of his company’s New York location, we saw a chance for me to apply to New York University. The acceptance letter came, and I found myself on a plane to Sweden to get my student visa. Shortly after, I was on the plane to New York.

*

After meeting Andy at baggage claim, we jumped into a yellow cab. I was surprised that it was just like the ones I’d seen in movies. Our driver drove how I imagined real New Yorkers would—cursing and calling the other car drivers names. He skipped from lane to lane while the other cars honked, making a melody of different tones. When we finally reached Manhattan, I no longer paid attention to his driving because I was preoccupied with looking out at the buildings, the smoke that came up from the manhole covers and the rhythm of the people moving in a coordinated pace on the sidewalks. The city was alive.

My thoughts were interrupted by the abrupt stop we made outside of what was supposed to be our Airbnb. Located above a Japanese restaurant, it looked more like a cardboard box with holes cut out as windows. My initial thought was that no one could possibly live there, but it was what we had paid $2,000 for. When we entered the apartment, we froze in our steps. It was dirty and, oddly, there were mirrors everywhere, even on the ceiling. The couch and the bed were covered in leopard-patterned sheets and everything else was red. I got the feeling that something shady was happening there. We were uneasy. Before we went to bed we covered the cracks in the windows where the cold January air slipped in using extra covers that were stashed in the apartment.

We woke by what we thought was our alarm, but it was still dark outside. The room was freezing. I could literally see the breath coming out of my mouth when I told Andy to turn the alarm off. He went up and grabbed his phone, then realized it hadn’t been our alarm after all. My mother was calling him from Sweden. I was confused and a little upset, wondering why she woke us up at 2 am. She knew it was my first day of college. I assumed that she just wanted to wish me good luck, having forgotten the time difference.

I was dozing off again as I heard Andy repeating  “okay” several times. He laid down beside me, handed me the phone and then he put his arms around me tight. I began to sense something was wrong, and he started to cry. His crying came from a place where he had never taken me before, a very lonely and vulnerable place.

Andy handed me the phone and I heard my mother’s voice. She told me that something had happened to my father. Immediately, a million possibilities flew through my mind. I thought he had most likely fallen and was in the hospital. My mother told me that my father had been at our summer house, located in the Swedish countryside about a fifty-minute drive from my hometown Malmo. My family spent all our summers there, and the house was where my sister and I learned how to swim. He was making preparations for the weekend while my mother stayed in the city to work. She was supposed to meet him there two days later.

Now, my mother told me over the phone, our summer house was on fire. No one had heard from my father.

My mother told me to come home. I told her that I would, that I’d come home and find him. I hadn’t accepted the reality that my father was trapped in the fire. Once I hung up the phone, I put on my rain boots and walked straight out into the night. Andy quickly followed and brought me back inside. I rushed to the bathroom and threw up. We couldn’t go back to sleep, so we walked over to his office, where I called my mother again. She laid the cold truth before me: two police officers had come to our summer house, and they had found a body in my father’s bed. I stood up and paced around the conference table. I tried to rationalize the situation, wondering who would have been lying in my father’s bed. It couldn’t possibly be him. If it was, I felt like my life would be over.

Andy tried to calm me down and then his phone rang from his office. He had to answer because it was his boss wondering why he was at the office at 3 am. As he walked over, I sat down at the table, covering my face with my palms, wishing that I could wake up from what felt like a bad dream.

Andy was close with my whole family but especially with my father. They had a special connection—especially over their shared love of wine—and enjoyed each other’s company. My father was happy that he had finally gotten a man in the family, no longer stuck with three women. A life without my father would not only change me but would change Andy, too.

Later that day, once we had booked our flight to Sweden, talked to Andy’s coworkers and gotten the travel signature from NYU required for me to leave, we found ourselves at the Union Square Starbucks. My father’s favorite song, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, was playing. I took a sip of my coffee and looked out the window, where white birds were flying up and down a building to the rhythm of the song.

*

Before I left Sweden to move to New York, I hugged my dad, not knowing that it would be the last time. He had driven me to the airport, as he had done so many times before. We laughed and talked about my new life in the city that never sleeps. We picked out the restaurants we would try when he would visit: Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecôte on Lexington Avenue and all the sushi places we could find. My father was a captain for Scandinavia Airlines, and after he retired he often came to visit me in Chicago. The day I moved there, he even flew over the Atlantic Ocean with me, sitting beside me on the plane, reassuring me that everything was going to be okay. I was nervous to move away from my family, to a new country and a different life. Although I was less nervous to move to New York, I was already looking forward to my father’s visits to the city—and I was sure there would be many.

As we hugged goodbye, my father looked at me and smiled. “I’ll see you in New York,” he said. We both thought he was speaking the truth.

*

After we buried my father and Andy and I returned to New York, it seemed like everyone in the city was crying. I saw a woman sitting on the subway across from me whose tears seemed to stab her cheeks. She flicked one tear after another away. I imagined that I knew what she felt like, that I could meet her in the place she was in, trying to wipe away the pain. I began to never leave the house without my sunglasses on. It was easier to hide the tears that way.

I even wore sunglasses when Andy and I went out to dinner. He took me to one of our favorite places, Mastro’s Steak House, two weeks after I had lost my father. As soon as the steaks arrived and the lobster mac and cheese was decorating our plates, I found myself overwhelmed with grief. Andy silently comforted me as I cried at the restaurant. He let me be one with my sadness, never judging me, sunglasses or not.

I was faced with two new situations: living in New York, and living without my father. When I walked on the streets of the city I was quiet. I began seeing my father everywhere. I saw him outside of the CVS on the bottom floor of our building. I saw him on the subway platforms, in Grand Central, and I realized that I would never be alone in the magnificent city so long as I had his shadow to comfort me. I walked through the city’s endless construction, listening to the sounds a city makes while being built and rebuilt: metal clashing into metal as drills meet the ground. Cars honking and braking, voices yelling and cursing at each other, the dust from the construction stuffing my nose and filling my lungs. I found myself in the middle of it all. The chaos of the city reflected the quiet chaos inside me.

*

A month or two later my sister and mother visited New York so we could all be together. We wanted to be happy again, to feel joy again. Looking back, maybe that is not quite what we wanted. We just wanted to survive our grief.

We visited the World Trade Center memorial plaza. On our tour, we met a survivor, a retired fireman who had not worked on the day of 9/11 but had lost his son-in-law in the attack. We walked in silence, remembering that day, and honored all those affected, whose grief can never be measured nor understood.

When the tour was over, we stayed and talked to the man. He told us that it wasn’t the fire that killed people in the towers; it was the smoke that slowly poisoned them and, in a horrible way, put them to sleep. I watched my mother’s face turn grey as he explained. My sister looked away, and I wanted to shake him. I wanted him to know that we couldn’t hear those words right then because we too had lost someone. It hurt too much to think about the smoke that killed my father, that transformed him into ash in the house he loved. I wanted to tell him to stop. I wanted him to understand that I needed him to stop. Instead, I looked him in the eyes as if he knew what I was thinking. Then I looked away.

When we left the site my mother whispered, “He had no idea how well we know some of what he was talking about.”

*

Three days later, on a Friday afternoon, I put my family in a cab to JFK and went to Central Park to gather my thoughts. Being alone inside my apartment was too lonely to bear. I felt trapped in my pain, already missing my family and also missing Andy, who worked all day. As I walked along the south path in the park, a little brown bird with a black string on the top of his head appeared. We walked together. At one point he jumped in front of me and as we passed a little waterfall to the left, he stopped and looked back at me. I watched the small ways he moved.

When I was a child, my father would sit me down to read his bird encyclopedia book with him. He’d point to each picture, name each bird, and try to get me to remember them. The bird with the blue head was my favorite. My father’s favorite was the woodpecker. I remember watching him turn page after page with birds of different colors and shapes, pointing and naming, stroking my back as if that would help me remember.

The brown bird in Central Park made me remember the little girl I used to be, with long brown braids glued to her sides, sitting next to her father. But that day in the park I was alone, following a little bird I didn’t recognize.

 

Olivia Sjostedt is a sophomore at NYU SPS, majoring in Social Sciences/Psychology. Olivia is from Sweden and came to the U.S 2011. She fell in love with writing at SPS in Aril Krassner’s Foundation to Creative Process class and have since then taking multiple creative writing classes at NYU. Olivia attended the summer intensive where she worked with the poet Nick Flynn. Olivia mostly writes poetry and non-fiction and hopes to soon have her first personal essay published.

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Homeward http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/03/homeward http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/03/homeward#comments Sun, 12 Mar 2017 16:00:07 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8832 “Lemuel,” my mother cried out to me. “No puedo ver.”

I looked up. Her eyes were shut, her grip was tight around my hand, and she was telling me she couldn’t see.

We had been walking home, enjoying the lull that comes over Washington Heights at the end of the day. I was six and relished any chance to be outside our apartment, especially in the summertime. I had accompanied my mother on her errands, holding her hand as we walked back from the bank, soaking in the breeze as the sun slowly vanished behind the buildings in the distance. I had been daydreaming. My mind trailed off, as it always did, with the sounds of cars honking and Latin music blaring from open windows. I heard the sizzle of pans on a stove and envisioned women who looked like my grandmother—wearing a bata and chancletas, hair in a bun, skin reeking of Bengay—stirring together sancocho or arroz con guandules. The aroma was soothing, putting me into a trance as I stared out into the darkening sky—but I snapped awake when my mother stopped and cried out to me.

“No puedo ver. No puedo ver.”

I stood transfixed as I watched my mother let go of my hand and reach out in front of her, as though probing for something. This was strange. My mother had never had trouble seeing before.

“¿Mami?” I asked. “¿Qué pasó?”

She turned towards me, eyes still closed, arms out, and didn’t answer my question. An exaggerated frown formed on her face. Her feathered black hair fell back as she pointed her chin up, looking up at the sky as though completely disoriented. She stood slightly hunched, reminding me of zombies I’d seen in comics and cartoons. When she spoke next, her voice trailed softly through the air between us, a kind of whine tinged with fear.

“¿Dónde ‘tamo’?” She asked me where we were.

I looked around. The Heights looked the way it always did. Identical brown and red brick apartment buildings lined each side of the street. Fire escapes zig-zagged down their faces like iron tears, the setting sun slicing through the thick black bars and casting shadows in the alleyways. Cars slowly buzzed by at the intersection. A bodega sat on the corner, and a few old men in faded tank tops sat on milk crates in front of it, playing dominoes on a fold-out table.

“¿Dónde ‘ta la casa?” my mother asked, just as I began to wonder about it myself.

Where was our apartment? Where was home?

I shut my eyes and tried to remember. P.S. 115, where I had gone to kindergarten, was back where we had just come from. I always noticed its red brick face on the corner whenever we passed. I pictured the route home I’d take when I got picked up by my mother or father every day after school. It was a short walk with only a few turns. We couldn’t be far. I could handle this, I told myself. I could take my mother home.

“Ven, Mami,” I said, taking her hand and tugging her forward.

I knew the way.

*

It had never been my job to know where I was or where I was going. In fact, getting lost was an old hobby of mine. Even at six, I’d already heard plenty of stories. My mother would tell me of a visit to the Dominican Republic when I was three, where I snuck out of my grandparents’ house and ran off into the countryside. She said she spent hours looking for me, wandering the dirt roads of Los Alcarrizos, peeking into the trees, shouting my name, fighting back tears and hysteria. I finally turned up more than a mile from where my grandparents lived, playing with a bunch of kids in the front yard of a house whose tenants were moving out. “Who knows,” my mother would tell me. “They could have packed you up and taken you with them.”

I got lost again at a mall in Manhattan around Christmas a year later, when I was four. I had a habit of letting go of my mother’s hand and running off, always keeping her in my line of sight while I played. That day, though, the crowds were so thick that I lost track of her after only a few seconds. By then, we had established a protocol. Hours of Sesame Street, as well as my mother’s constant reminders, had drilled into my head that if I got lost, the best thing to do was to stay put and wait to be found. That day at the mall, it was only a minute before I got a smack on the back of the head and a scolding before being taken by the hand again. The admonishing tone was familiar, but the voice was not. I looked up and noticed that the woman dragging me along wasn’t my mother. A moment later, she looked down and realized I wasn’t her son. She gasped, apologized, and ran off, leaving me behind. Again, I stayed put. I got two smacks on the head that day.

I could never help wandering, but I had begun to get better at keeping my mother in sight. I made a game of it, memorizing her outfit, learning to recognize the top of her head or how she walked. This worked great in department stores and restaurants, but the one place we didn’t kid around was when we were out on the street. The city was dangerous, my mother always told me, and it was important to stick by her. I took her warning seriously, never letting go of her hand when we walked anywhere. I held on tight as she guided us all over the neighborhood, and when I couldn’t wander, my mind did instead. I’d only ever paid attention to my surroundings by chance, and suddenly, that summer evening in our neighborhood, I had to navigate them on my own.

*

We passed our doctor’s office and I tugged on my mother’s hand as I guided her around the corner. “E’perate,” she said, pulling me back a bit, her eyes shut tight, her tone still a fearful whine. “Yo creo que e’ por acá.”

I looked at my mother quizzically, then peered in the direction she suggested we go. “No, Mami,” I corrected her, “e’ por aquí,” before yanking her back the right way.

My confidence grew with each familiar place we passed. They had become landmarks to me, burned into my brain, even though I’d never noticed: the corner store that sold ninja swords and race cars, the tiny video store with the big Spider-Man cardboard cutout, the church with the gold-trimmed dome and pastel colored diamond design on the bell tower walls. Then, off in the distance, I saw the two puke green high-rises with terraces covered in Christmas lights and drying laundry. I remembered seeing those buildings from my parents’ bedroom window. I knew we were close.

“Ya, casi ‘tamo en casa, Mami,” I assured my mother as we turned one last corner.

“Okay,” she said, sounding unsure.

I looked out and suddenly recognized our block. I didn’t know how long we had been walking, but it had gotten dark and the streets were nearly empty. My mother and I were the only ones around. Three apartment buildings, lined with black iron fencing, stood in a row in front of us. Each had steep concrete stairs leading up to a big main door made of wood and glass. Our building was the gray one in the middle. There was a single tree in a patch of dirt out front, next to a fire hydrant. Just above the building’s glass door was a big, gold-painted 88—our address. I carefully guided my mother up the stairs, hanging onto her tight so she wouldn’t fall over. When we got to the top she asked me if we were home.

“Sí, Mami,” I said confidently. I looked over and noticed the red curtains of my parents’ bedroom window, which was next to the front door and faced the street. Yes, this was definitely it. We were here. I’d taken us home.

My mother opened her eyes and smiled down at me, as though her vision had miraculously returned. I stared, still unsure as to how I should react.

“Bien hecho, mijo,” she said. I’d done well.

She leaned in and kissed my forehead, then knelt down to my level. Her eyes were the same as always, chocolate rings with widening black spots in the center. Nothing seemed wrong with her at all. She told me she had been testing me, checking to see if I knew my way home, if I could find my way back if I ever got lost—and I did. A smile lit my mother’s face and I stared back at her, proud but still a little perplexed. A grin began to creep its way across my face as well, and I asked if this meant I was now allowed to go out by myself.

“No,” my mother said. Not yet.

 

Angel Eduardo is a writer, musician, and photographer from Northern New Jersey. He has been published in The Caribbean Writer and Label Me Latino Journal. He graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing for Memoir at CUNY Hunter College in 2016 and is working on a book-length memoir project. More of his work can be found on his official website, www.angeleduardo.com.

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The King of New York http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/03/the-king-of-new-york http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/03/the-king-of-new-york#respond Sun, 05 Mar 2017 16:31:37 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8827 I.

From a distance the crown almost looks like solid gold. But as I walk farther up 30th Avenue in Astoria, I can tell there is something not quite right about it. It is glinting, sure, but I realize the crown is made of curled paper. It’s from Burger King. I am now only a few paces behind the man wearing it, who looks like he might be homeless, a permanent traveler. He is towing a roller suitcase behind him over the scratchy concrete. He is dressed in a suit, not only his best, but maybe even his only clothes. He has no teeth. For some reason there is a water gun strapped to his luggage—a bright and cheery Super Soaker. I am charmed by the way he’s wearing his crown, semi-seriously, as though he is a well-known Astorian aristocrat.

There is less available sidewalk on 30th Avenue because of all the people eating outside on sidewalk patios, tablecloths flapping lightly in the mild breeze. The man’s passage is marked by derisive laughter as he makes his way alongside the diners. He does look ridiculous, but the tone of the laughter is nasty. I sympathize with the man.

I’ve been having a hard time recently, and just returned to Queens after my first good day in a long time. I joined a memoir workshop in Manhattan and I feel a little like myself again, to be writing, to read out loud. To remember other years outside the dark blur of this one. This year I’ve been mostly isolated. My friends live far away, my roommate is always gone, I work from home. Some days I don’t even speak to anyone, so small forms of human contact mean more to me than they ever have before. I savor the times when lost tourists ask me for directions. I ask the hardware guy to explain to me exactly how it is that keys are copied. I tell a man holding a New Testament that yes, I have a minute. Some days, this mild fill of strangers is enough, a low tide of camaraderie.

Today, though, I feel flush with emotional currency, a short-lived wealth begging to be spent and shared, so I go over to the man with the crown and ask, “How’s it going?”, a brief bodyguard while he faces the worst of the mockery coming from the diners. His face shows no sign of sadness or injury—actually, he’s smiling—but I want the diners to know they shouldn’t laugh like that at him. His answer is indecipherable—I can’t make any of it out. Still, I try my best to hear. After a minute, I understand the word “change,” so I give him a dollar. It has become important to me to hear what he has to say. I think I sometimes feel like this, unheard. He babbles again and I am on the verge of giving up, when I make out a single distinct phrase. Is it just random? Or does he somehow know what I need to hear?

He looks directly at me.

“Welcome back,” he says.

 

II.

In the heart of Astoria’s Little Egypt is a big pharaoh. Over six feet tall, it stands beside the door of a cafe claiming to be the very first hookah lounge in America. I come here to write sometimes. Two fans that are branded as Wind Machines help with the heat. It is a few weeks after I saw the homeless man with the Burger King crown.

I have just about finished my Turkish coffee. The bottom is black silt. Someone told me once that a friend is supposed to study the remains in your cup to interpret your life. I glance back at my laptop and then there is movement by the door. The man with the crown is standing there, smiling. It’s shocking to see him again, that he walked into this random place where I happen to be. He starts touching the large golden pharaoh by the door. The movement develops into groping and frisking. I don’t understand what he’s doing, but it looks as though he’s investigating the pharaoh, searching for something.

All day the manager has wordlessly served me. When I arrive, he always turns the Wind Machines my way, gives me the best gust. We have never spoken but we share an understanding, I think. The place is fuller now than a few hours ago, and it is not just the manager anymore. There is a larger man sitting with his friends, staring in disbelief at the strange scene unfolding. It is he who rises.

“Get out! Get out of here!”

The man with the crown is undeterred. He’s still smiling. He tries to explain himself, but no one understands. I imagine that he’s looking for a lever. “Just a little lever,” I imagine him saying, if he could speak more clearly. One that will switch this world with any other.

“Fuck this shit,” the larger man screams. “I told you: get out of here!”

The man with the crown goes on his way, pulling his roller suitcase behind him. In the cafe, the larger man has sat back down. His friends speak in Arabic so I don’t know what they’re saying, but they’re laughing. They’re laughing like this is not a side of the large man they are used to seeing. Like this side is so unusual they can’t take it seriously—the screaming bully. But this is the only side I know.

 

III.

After both encounters with the man wearing the crown, I feel like a scribe whose job it is to note and bear someone else’s slights. The man himself, though, is more like a regent too immersed in the wonders of his realm to let others bother him. Maybe it is a common affliction of one who works remotely like I do, to observe small irregularities of place and people, to absorb their little mysteries.

I haven’t met many new people here, and maybe that’s why I keep my eye out for him, as a way of feeling like I know something about a local character. A way of telling myself that I know this neighborhood—that I do in fact belong here.

I am walking down Steinway Street over a month later when I see the man with the crown once more. He is all smiles just like the first time, just like the second, though he is no longer wearing his crown. He has dark sunglasses now and he walks with a cane. Two keys dangle from some twine around his neck. The change in appearance is so extreme I stare. Ahead of us a father has paid for his daughter to ride a mechanical yellow horse outside of a bodega. When the man who used to wear a crown sees this, he instantly breaks into a dance, the same motion as the horse, and they all laugh: the father, the daughter, and the man without his crown. For a second, it’s like I can finally see inside his invisible kingdom. I smile too.

 

Jason Schwartzman is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. Before that he lived in Queens and before that he lived in Manhattan. He edits for the adventure magazine True.Ink and the writing platform Claudius Speaks.

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Rodney Street http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/02/rodney-street http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/02/rodney-street#respond Sun, 26 Feb 2017 23:23:05 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8809 Lola is whining. I open the door to the dark hallway so she’ll stop, so she’ll know I’m here. The sunlight reveals a brown present she’s left already, its odor mixing in with the faint smell of cigarettes. It’s hardening. I’m not going to clean it up. She’s not my puppy.

The open bedroom door illuminates the Husky’s crystal- blue eyes. They meet mine with a stare of innocence and relief that makes my heart tighten. “I’m here, I’m here,” I tell her, leaving the door cracked open behind me. Her soft gray fur disappears back into the darkness then emerges again in the kitchen. My boyfriend, Josh, is still sleeping as I walk to the bathroom. Our toothbrushes lay next to each other on the sink. I see myself briefly in the mirror before I grab my face wash from the cabinet. The pimples have started to clear up, a few scars left in their wake. After I cleanse my face, I moisturize, willing the tiny indents into smoothness, blending them into my cheeks and jawline. All the toiletries will be packed tonight and taken home. I have class tomorrow and my mom’s house is closer to Bronx Community College, much closer. The toothbrush can stay though. There are plenty at Mom’s.

Lola waits for me in the kitchen. The morning sun burns us through the window. It burns the glasses and beer bottles in the sink. The plants on the windowsill soak it up: a succulent and two cacti. They were here when Josh moved in and something tells me they’ll be here when he’s gone. They look strangely beautiful inside the white kitchen, next to the futon that was once white. His snores seep through the cracked door and carry down the hall. It’s just the two of us here today. His cousin, Lola’s owner, is probably still DJing from the night before. His roommate is gone too. The apartment feels like it’s just ours.

*

When Josh first moved to Rodney Street, I saw a home. His building is only four floors. A creaky, wooden staircase with a window on the first landing, one of those chain locks on the inside of the apartment door. It’s what a building in Brooklyn should look like, not like all the new, overpriced ones being built in bright colors with central air. I remember the light from the kitchen windows hitting me when I first walked in a few months ago. It shined through the plants. I saw clean countertops with a cozy sofa tucked next to them, a makeshift living room in an apartment lacking one. I thought maybe Josh would stake out a corner where he could set up his music board and laptop. This could be our home, I thought then.

But the vision I had of his apartment is not the reality now. Instead of a cozy sofa there’s an old futon crammed into the kitchen. The plants glowing against the window, so brilliant that first day, stick out now against the unmopped floor, the crushed up weed and cocaine on the coffee table. They don’t belong. Since he’s moved in, the apartment has become an after-hours hangout. He’s addicted to the fast-paced lifestyle, but we all have addictions of some kind. Maybe I’m addicted to challenges. I went back to school when I was twenty-four so I could be challenged. And being with Josh, although I consider him the most brilliant and spiritual person I’ve ever met, has provided me a new set of challenges.

*

Josh grew up in Harlem and I’m from Inwood, the farthest neighborhoods uptown where most people are either Dominican, like him, or Puerto Rican, or black. Where storefronts are advertised first in Spanish, then in English. Where literally on every corner there is a man or woman selling empanadas for a dollar. I know every winding hill, every backstreet, as well as I know the fading blemish scars on my cheeks. I know where to get the best weed before I take the A train downtown and transfer to the L to get to Josh’s apartment in Williamsburg.

Compared to Inwood, Josh’s new neighborhood might as well be another state. The people who live in Williamsburg aren’t from the area, including us. We are outsiders drawn to it, drawn to its seemingly magical community where parties continue through the morning and into the afternoon. There is always someone who will open up their apartment and set up a temporary DJ booth. It’s like spending a day in a hippie commune. People are open, discussing ideas, accepting you, even though they’ve never met you before. I’m used to women wearing tight dresses and heels back uptown, men cat calling from the street corner. In Inwood, everyone sticks to their own crew, claiming VIP sections at clubs. Sometimes there are fights. Sometimes there are gunshots. But in Williamsburg, there are people tripping on psychedelics, seeing the deep house music portray itself in bright colors. Others, like Josh, keep themselves going with bump after bump of powdery white substances. Some give him energy and boost his confidence, he thinks. Others just make him feel good. He has to test his product before he sells it.

*

Josh’s nights usually begin around three in the morning. Since my classes started, it’s impossible for me to keep up, to make sure he’s safe. I imagine the things he must see when I’m not there, the people he meets. I met two of them a few months ago. They seemed nice, a couple around our age, mid-twenties. He met them both around five in the morning at a party on Morgan Avenue (or was it Johnson?). I met up with them after I got out of class. It was past noon and none of them had been to sleep yet. We all met in a diner. They described their morning excitedly as we sipped coffee and shared fries. The girl had glitter on her eyelids and stick-on jewels on her cheeks. Her boyfriend was a marine with cuts on his hands. They each took turns telling the story, my eyes moving across the table. Josh’s beard, always growing out in patches, needed a trim. It made it hard to locate his dimples. He waved his hands around as he told the story; I noticed the left one was stained with dried blood.

“This guy was grillin’ me as soon as I got there,” Josh said. “I think he was mad cuz people were buyin’ from me and that’s, like, his spot or something.” His thick, square-framed glasses were missing. Without them, he’s nearly blind, his huge eyes squinting. Sometimes I jokingly refer to them as serial killer eyes. He continued to describe their morning. I tried to understand, tried not to be annoyed by the dazed conversation I was listening to.

“So anyway, I don’t pay him any mind and you know, I have a good time, but I get really tired, so I sit on the couch and fall asleep. Then I feel someone touch my forehead. At first I just ignore it, but then it happens again and when I wake up, I see this guy walking away! So I know it’s him.” He didn’t sound like himself. He didn’t sound smart. He just sounded high.

I did not ask why he didn’t just come home if he was tired. Instead I silently listened, holding his bloody hand. Apparently the night had ended with Josh getting in a fight and punching a door. Incidents like this had become the norm. A part of me wanted to criticize his choices, to use my words like a splash of ice-cold water on his face. But I held my tongue. I wanted to be supportive; more than anything, I wanted to be a good girlfriend.

He wouldn’t let me wash his hand when we got back to his apartment. He went to bed and I crawled in with him, pulling at his arm. He sank into the pillow like a stone. I forced myself to go to sleep, inhaling his familiar stench of whiskey and cigarettes. The smells comfort me in a way. If there wasn’t college or work, I could have been there at the party. I’d have had the energy to keep up. His hand would not have been bloody.

*

Lola has been sitting underneath the window. She pokes her tiny chest out and looks up at me.

“Okay. Let’s go for a walk,” I say. She wags her little, gray tail in excitement and runs to the door. She feels like my dog. Sometimes I pretend she is, like I pretend that this is my apartment where I live with my boyfriend, where we share our lives together, where his hands always come home clean.

Lola and I head to the dog run, which is through a chain fence, right next to the BQE. The highway towers above, close to Josh’s bedroom windows, the cars threatening to fly off and crash into him. I think about how much Lola would love Inwood, with its proper parks. You can actually hear birds and not just pigeons underneath your air conditioner. The busiest street is down a long, twisted hill with a mountain of concrete stairs, far from my bedroom.

Lola will have to make due with the dog run here on Rodney Street. It’s a dirt lot with a few small trees scattered about the perimeter. I’ve passed by it before and thought about taking her. Josh has only walked her once before, when we went up Metropolitan Avenue to get breakfast. I remember gripping Lola’s leash like a vise as huge trucks honked through traffic, people stopping at every corner to tell me how cute she was. In the run, the dogs are free, kicking up dust clouds that rise up to the top of the fence and disappear. Lola is excited, but she’s still so small. I grip her leash tight and slip through the big gap in the fence. All the other dogs hurry over to her, their owners clapping and whistling, calling out their names. Everyone surrounds Lola, petting her and asking how long I’ve had her, how long I’ve lived here. I let her off the leash and the other dogs chase after her like a shiny new toy. She loves it. She chases them right back, still too little to keep up, cowering every now and then in a small dust cloud.

*

Lola felt like a burden at first. Josh already had a roommate and a cousin who slept on the futon in the kitchen. But it wasn’t my decision. It’s nice to have another girl around anyway, even a puppy.

Josh has asked me to move into his place on Rodney Street, to make his room ours, but I can’t. Rent money is unpredictable with his line of work. He promised me the drug dealing was only temporary, that it would not become his life. He promised he’d go back to school or start recording music again. Maybe he forgot to promise himself.

Four years ago, he took me to his recording studio in the South Bronx. We had become friends overnight after meeting at a nightclub. We stayed up until nine in the morning just talking, deeper feelings developing very soon after. I waited in the main room of the studio for him while he worked. I had never been in in one before. He emerged from the recording room and walked over to me, leaning over my chair. “You wanna watch me work?” His hands moved over a massive gray board with endless buttons and knobs. Green, orange, and red lights flashed, moved up and down with the bass. A person behind glass sang into a mic. I sat on the couch, soundproof walls around me. That was before I went back to college, before our relationship became a blur of his long, hazy nights.

*

In the dog run, I crouch beside Lola and hold her to my chest. She licks my face and I speak to the other dog owners like I’m one too. Lola and I are both covered in dust when we leave. Glancing down Rodney Street, I can see the side of Rubber Tracks Studio where Josh took me once and bought me a pair of sneakers. Up a few blocks is McCarren Park, where we went swimming. It was a sunny day, kind of like this one. One of those rare occasions when we were both awake at the same time.

The upstairs neighbor is practicing the saxophone as Lola and I enter Josh’s building. It sounds like the honking of irregular horns, but it’s part of the morning ritual here that makes it feel more like home. Josh is sitting up on the dirty futon when we walk through the door. “Where’d you go? I was calling you,” he says. I think of all of the times I’ve called him and gotten no answer.

“I didn’t bring my phone,” I say. “We went to the dog run, it was really fun.” I want him to feel excluded, as I have so many times before. I’ve never sold drugs. I’ve never stayed up for three days. I’ve never come home with a bloody hand. I’ve stood by, observing as an outsider in his world.

He’s upset because I forgot my phone and took the only set of keys. He was stuck, he says, alone, with nothing to do. I thought he’d still be sleeping. I look down the hall and expect Lola’s shit to still be on the floor, but it’s not. The hallway smells like air freshener.

“You should’ve woke me up. I wanted to go,” he says, and I feel tenderness for him again. Today is one of those rare days. We’re both awake at the same time. Lola runs over to his feet. I collapse on the futon, my elbow resting on the back of it. Behind him, the sun is breaking through the window, outlining his head and neck with light. His cheeks are shaved smooth and I see one of the dimples, press my thumb into it. Right now everything’s as it should be. I’ll probably never move in, but I’ll stay tonight.

 

Miko Jeffries is a native New Yorker whose writing has appeared in the literary journals Thesis and Dovetail. She holds a B.A. in Humanities with a concentration in Creative Writing from the School of Professional Studies at NYU. She enjoys writing about astrology on her blog, Void of Course, and about her personal experiences. 

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City Frog http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/02/city-frog http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/02/city-frog#comments Sun, 19 Feb 2017 23:05:02 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8634 It was night when we heard it, the air cold and chalky. We were returning home from a dinner party. Being around other couples had made us pleased with each other, our hands clasped inside his coat pocket.

We moved to the sound and saw a tiny frog perched on a pile of discarded palm fronds on the sidewalk outside a thrumming, fancy event.

“A frog!” I said.

“Cute,” said my husband. He kept walking.

I crouched to look at the frog. Big eyes, eager pose, parabolic mouth, like a smile.

I picked up a cup off the sidewalk that smelled faintly of mango and alcohol and tried to coax the frog into it. Peter stood at a short distance, not speaking.

“A freaking rainforest fundraiser,” I said. I railed about the irony of hacking down this living creature’s home, shipping it three thousand miles, and using it to glam up some party space for society bigwigs who’d get wasted and donate money to save tropical forests like the one decimated and wilting in vases all around them.

“I mean, a tree frog!” I said. “He’s like the poster child for biodiversity.”

I corralled the frog into the cup and began breaking off bits of greenery to furnish it.

“What are you doing?” said Peter.

“Bringing him home,” I said. “We can’t leave him here. And the kids have been gunning for a pet.”

“Honey,” said my husband.

It was an endearment that, four years into our marriage, had acquired a thousand shades of meaning. This one meant: We’ve stayed out too late, we have two small children at home, our sitter will be mad, you drank too much. It also meant, Honey, you are a mother with a full-time job, you barely have enough energy for friends, for me. Our apartment is tiny. You’re overwhelmed. Where does a frog fit into that? It meant: Stop it. You’re being stupid.

“He’s mine,” I said. “I found him.”

I covered the cup with my scarf, and we set off towards home in silence.

The next morning, I took the boys to the nearest pet store. The place was filthy and claustrophobic, bags of kibble slouching in piles next to murky, bubbling fish tanks; glo-lamp geckos; rubber pet toys with manic faces. And it stunk: dog food, birds, rodent piss, dried shrimp. I called out, “Hello?” A clerk lumbered into view. Pale and shapeless in his pilled yellow polyester uniform, he looked as if his flesh had been squeezed from a caulking gun.

“Yeah?”

I asked him what he knew about tree frogs.

“How much time you got?”

I glanced at the boys, mesmerized by the fish tanks.

The clerk explained frogs’ habits and preferences, their diets, behaviors, moods. As he talked, he gathered up several hundred dollars’ worth of supplies: tank, gravel, cedar mulch, bags of plastic greenery—

“We’d like real plants, please.”

“What for?” He cocked his head. Little gray teeth showed when he smirked. “They only use it to hide.”

I clutched the fake ferns as the clerk shuffled off through a dented door. He emerged several minutes later with a puffed-up plastic bag scrambling with crickets. “I think I got you two dozen in here,” he said. “Hard to count the jumpers.”

On the way home, I decided the frog’s name was Froggyfroggyfrog. Parenthood is a form of brain damage.

It took several hours to set up the aquarium, sterilizing its surfaces according to the clerk’s directions. I put Froggyfroggyfrog’s glass house on a bookshelf in the boys’ room. We looked. He didn’t move. It was like a photograph.

Every few days, I had to stop by the pet store for more crickets. I knew Froggyfroggyfrog—F—was eating them because one day there’d be a cloud of them in the tank, and then a day or two later, stillness. I knew he must have been exploring his plastic rainforest, defecating as he went, because I began to notice little frog poops, which look like elongated mouse poops, stuck all over his sheer glass walls. But neither the kids nor I ever saw him hop or climb or flick out his tongue to catch a cricket. We never heard him chirrup or peep. Indeed, I was the only one who saw him at all, and then only on those afternoons, increasingly rare, when I’d clean out his tank or spritz his world with water. Within a week of his arrival in our apartment, he had ceased to provoke even the blandest curiosity from the boys. Their pet frog, for all intents and purposes, was a glass tank of fake greenery.

For nearly eight months, I continued to take care of F. Rescuing the frog signified something important. It meant I was observant, compassionate, conscientious. That I cared about actual living things, and not just the abstract causes they got hijacked to represent. I also wanted it to mean that becoming a mother had not made me incapable of eccentric, spontaneous gestures, like the charming, slightly reckless hero of an indie film. After all, I was risking alienating my husband to bring an adorable pet frog—a honest-to-goodness rescue animal!—into my children’s life.

I loathed the crickets, though. The clerk suggested I substitute bags of mealworms from time to time—“like, say, twenty mealworms for every hundred crickets”—and I did. They were small, brown maggots. At the clerk’s prompting, I also did a little research on tree frogs and discovered they are not exclusive to Ecuador and Costa Rica; certain species are actually native to the northeastern US, including New York State. I heard a rumor that they breed like vermin in Manhattan’s flower district, though I’ve yet to have it confirmed.

I moved F’s aquarium to the bottom bookshelf. “I’m sure he’ll still get enough sunlight down there,” I announced to no one.

Sometimes, I tried to recall the night I saw F sitting big-eyed and hopeful atop his discarded greenery; tried to imagine walking away, leaving him to the garbage trucks, and my heart would soften. I’d spritz his greenery, run out for crickets, wipe the poops from his walls.

Once, during a phone call with my sister, a dog trainer in Austin, we got to talking about the weird relationships people have with their pets. She told me she’d come to believe that people don’t choose their pets. “They choose us,” she said.

In July, Peter, the kids, and I went on a two-week vacation, and I didn’t bother trying to find a frog-sitter. Who would take on such a job? Shortly after we returned home, I bought a new batch of crickets, and when, three days later, the aquarium was still buzzing with them, I realized F was dead.

Had it been a terrible death? Worse than being crushed in a garbage truck? I hoped not. I released the crickets onto the fire escape, dumped the contents of the aquarium into the garbage, wiped down the glass, and donated it to the boys’ school. I avoided turning F’s demise into a “teachable moment” about death.

I went out of my way to avoid the block with the pet store after that. What if the clerk happened to glance up as I was passing? How many customers had he seen walk through that door hopped up on flimsy enthusiasm for some new pet? I winced at the memory of his smirk. Because what would I say? I found a frog, brought him home, and built him a mausoleum.

 

Celia Barbour is a writer, editor, and professor who lives with her family in Garrison, NY.

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Call for Submissions http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/02/call-for-submissions-2 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/02/call-for-submissions-2#comments Sun, 12 Feb 2017 13:03:06 +0000 http://famous-thread.flywheelsites.com/?p=7186 We want to read your true New York City stories.

 

We are interested in a wide variety of topics, including those involving deli meatbaby powder, and graffiti. We’re looking for essays that go beyond a quirky anecdote or a beautiful vignette. Tell us why this story—and this city—matters to you.

 

Past truth-tellers have included Michael CunninghamTom BellerBryan CharlesSaid Sayrafiezadeh, and Phillip Lopate.

We’ve been publishing the very best writers of NYC since 2000, and you can check out our two anthologies here and here.

 

Questions? Email us at

Submit here.

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Rollo http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/02/rollo http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2017/02/rollo#respond Sun, 05 Feb 2017 16:43:40 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8694 Rollo lived at the corner of Madison Street and Broadway. He was taller and stronger than my father. Rollo would lie down on a bench in his front yard and lift dumbbells every morning. His breathing was heavy, his forehead glistened with sweat. He had large arm muscles and a big chest. His hair was trimmed close on the sides, but the top was left longer and fuller and shaped into a kind of round, thick, plush carpet on top, sort of curly, like lazily coiled springs or “curly willow”, his grandma would say.

I woke up early every morning to watch Rollo leave for school. When he walked out the front door, I’d run down the stairs and outside so fast, grape jelly would drip onto my hands from the Wonder bread toast I hadn’t yet eaten. I’d race to the swinging gate and yell, “Hi Rollo!”

Rollo, in tattered dungarees and black T-shirt, would smile, take a drag of his Newport and show me a cigarette trick. The cigarette would vanish. I would blush, a dopey smile on my face. At school, I would think of Rollo, his clear green eyes clouded by smoke coming out of his mouth and out of his nose, and I would get chills.

Rollo smoked Newports stolen from his brother Elroy’s shirt pocket. Elroy slept during the day after arriving home from his night job. Their dad was a corrections officer. He forced Rollo to smoke the butt of a Camel to teach him not to smoke. Rollo gagged and coughed, but every day after school he paraded triumphantly along with his ‘Brothers’ down Broadway with a Newport hanging from his lower lip.

Priscilla and I watched Rollo and his friends play Flickers and C-low dice. The girls on Madison Street would play Potsie. Bored, I would recruit other girls on the block who had no one to play with. Kayla would sit alone on her stoop or grip a pink chalk in her hand and draw a hopscotch board hoping someone would notice and join her. Mia sat on her stoop and read Wonder Woman comics. I would ask them to walk down Madison Street to Broadway. When we reached the corner I would line us up shoulder to shoulder. We’d fling arms over each other’s shoulders until we became a row of one. Swaying side by side, singing “In The Still Of The Nite” we made our way down the street, just like Rollo.

Rollo would play bongos to the rhythms of Latin jazz in the summer evenings when the streets grew quiet and the shadows moved in. When conversations slowed down and the sounds of banging pots, pans and dinner plates were no longer heard cascading from open windows, when the sweet smell of ham bones, okra, and mustard greens faded, foods that would never travel the distance to my dinner table, Rollo settled into his legless sofa chair in the row house basement at 926 Madison Street. First the bongo, then the loud, energetic melodies of Charlie Parker’s sax and Sonny Rollin’s tenor would circle Rollo’s house. I could hear the music half way down the street. Some nights, I would crouch near a window to watch Rollo play, eyes closed, head swaying side-to-side, up and down to the heavy beat.

Rollo disappeared one day in late July. There were no fresh cigarette butts on the ground by his fence. No rhythms in the night.

Rollo’s grandma, in her dress with flowers down to her knees and black slippers, sweeps the stoop every morning. She carries the broom to the ground inside the iron gate and outside onto the cement pavement. From my stoop next door, I see no cigarette butts, no chewing gum wrappers, no garbage or dirt. I watch Grandma. She sometimes mumbles and I hear her say, “This earthly house.” I can’t hear anything else. She watches me and one morning she looks at me and says, “Run the race that is set before us.” I listen and want to tell her that Dr. Sileo says that I have asthma and can’t run. Grandma scares me. Does she want me to find Rollo and bring him home? I don’t know where he is. He should be outside playing C-low dice with Moises. But I see Moises by himself hanging out at the Broadway corner store smoking cigarettes. He never walks down Madison Street without Rollo.

Last winter, I saw Moises knock on Rollo’s door. Rollo was not home. A bunch of boys surrounded Moises and kneed him in the chest. Moises coughed and fell on the snow. I never again saw Moises on Madison Street alone.

One morning lots of ladies come to the house. They carry paper bags that look like the ones I get at Scaturros when my Mom sends me to buy a loaf of Italian bread. I smell food cooking and hear babies crying and see the one boy who stands by the iron fence. He doesn’t talk to me when I talk to him and he won’t come over to sit on my stoop with me. He tells me, “My mom says I can’t go outside the gate.” I stand by the iron fence and tell him, “I go to school at Our Lady of Good Counsel. Next year I will be in the fifth grade. Where do you go to school?” He looks at me, turns his head and runs into the house. I see Rollo’s dad peeking through the window curtains.

Days later, I heard Mia’s grandma talking to her neighbor about a kid sitting on somebody’s stoop. He was having a smoke, drumming on a trash can cover, when a gang of boys jumped over the wrought iron fence, and hit him once, twice or three times with a lead pipe then ran the other way toward Madison Street.

Morning after morning, I sat patiently on my stoop waiting for Rollo to come home. Late at night I was there too, listening for the rhythms.

 

Flo Gelo was born in Brooklyn, where she lived until her early teens. She’s published numerous articles in professional literature about illness, death and dying. This story is one in a series about her life on Madison Street.

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“I Got You” http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2016/08/i-got-you http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2016/08/i-got-you#respond Sun, 07 Aug 2016 20:44:50 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=7897 There’s a corner store in Chelsea that sells the best deli meat I’ve ever eaten. I found it when I moved to New York from Israel six years ago. My apartment was a block away, but even after I moved to the Upper West Side, I kept taking the 1 train to the store. Every time I ordered the same: turkey pastrami, thin and layered.

Maybe it wasn’t the meat as much as the people in the store. Behind the deli counter were Sugar and Armagan. Sugar was a six-foot-two black, gay man in his forties who wore his long hair in a bun underneath a net. He had me call the deli half an hour before I came so that he could cut my meat beforehand and save me the waiting time. Armagan was from Turkey and knew some Hebrew. Every time he saw me he greeted me with mah nishmah habibi (how are you, friend) and gave me seven slices of turkey on the side to eat as I waited. Then there was Saanvi, a cashier in her fifties. Years ago she commented on my deli meat as she rang it up and asked if I had ever cooked Indian food. She left her register to take me through the store and put the ingredients I needed for chicken masala. She wrote down the recipe for me. After I failed to cook it, she made it for me and brought it to the store in tupperware. I bought her macaroons in return. We exchanged Christmas gifts every year. Despite never having spoken outside the register, we were friends.

Then César started working at the deli. He was a young guy, maybe in his mid twenties, and was heavily tattooed (including one across the neck). He always smiled.

We became friendly and would talk as he sliced. Many times the conversation shifted to basketball; he was a Knicks fan. My dad sometimes received Knicks tickets from work and I told César I’d get him a couple of tickets some time. He responded by giving me an extra slice of pastrami and a fist bump.

The next day I received a friend request from César on Facebook. He had only known my first name, though it wasn’t a common one in New York. I accepted the request and went on his page. The pictures were mostly selfies in front of mirrors.

The following week as he sliced the pastrami, César told me it was a shame I was paying so much for deli meat and going out of my way to buy it. (At this point he knew where I lived.) He said his girlfriend lived near me and he could just bring me the deli meat without me coming to the store. Sounding like a real time saver, I said, “Great.” We exchanged numbers.

The next time I came to the store I asked for a pound of turkey pastrami. César sliced the pastrami — thin and layered — and put it on the scale. Naturally and with confidence, without looking to his left or right, he lifted one corner of the paper on which the turkey lay, until the scale read 0.3 pounds. He printed the price sticker and wrapped the pastrami. I paid $2.30 for $11 worth of meat.

Later that night I sent him a text that said thank you. His reply: “I got you.”

César caught me off guard the following Monday when he texted me at nine in the evening: “was sup bro, how was your day?” I felt that just saying “okay” was too short and impersonal; I felt I owed him more than that. So I told him my day was good, that I had class and later worked out. I asked him how his day was. He said it was relaxed and that he was washing clothes now. I tried, but couldn’t imagine César doing laundry. I put my phone down, thinking the conversation was over, but then my phone dinged again.

“You coming by the store tomorrow?” his text read. Then another message: “If you are, how much meat you want?”

I wasn’t sure if he was asking me the way Sugar had told me to call the deli in order to save time, or if something else was going on. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I answered, “a pound of turkey pastrami.”

“I got you.” But, he said, “don’t pay at the register.” He told me he’d hand it to me outside once I was done with my shopping.

Then: “still got those Knicks tickets, bro?”

Deep down I knew. I knew why I couldn’t pay at the register. But the following day I still showed up. I took a small basket. I passed the deli and César jutted his chin at me and motioned for me to keep walking. He brought his hand to his cheek as if to scratch it, but made the shape of a phone with his thumb and pinky. “Call me,” those two fingers said.

I walked around the store. I had come only for deli meat but now I had to buy something. I put some hummus in the basket. I looked around. It felt like everyone knew. I glanced at the deli. Sugar and Armagan glared at me, shaking their heads. I did a double take and realized they were serving customers, unaware I was even there. I put another hummus in my basket.

Ten minutes later, Saanvi rang me up at her register. We smiled and told each other about our week while she scanned my hummus and Skinny Cow ice cream. She bagged everything up and frowned, then glanced around her register as if she had misplaced her keys. She looked up at me and asked, “No deli meat today?”

The moment I lied to Saanvi I knew I wouldn’t take part in this scheme again. I told her I still had deli meat left over and that’s why I wasn’t buying any. She smiled and handed me my bag. “See you next week,” she said. I smiled back and hugged her goodbye. I made eye contact with César as I left the store, and as I stepped outside I received a message: “turn left and meet me on the corner.”

I waited on the corner, constantly looking at my phone. Seven minutes later César emerged from the store holding a bag. He walked over and handed it to me. It was heavy. Off my surprised look he said, “There’s four and a half pounds in there.”

“Wow,” I said. We stood there for a second before I snapped out of my daze and handed him two Knicks tickets. He smiled, shook my hand, and pulled me into a hug. We thanked each other. We broke the embrace but continued standing there.

“Cool,” I said. “Thanks again.”

“I got you.”

He didn’t move. “So…” I said, “do I owe you anything for the meat?”

“The meat is on the house,” he said. “But if you feel like giving me something, that’s up to you.”

“Right,” I said. “I mean,” I looked at the tickets he was holding, “these are the Knicks tickets.”

“Thanks for those,” he said. He pointed at the bag I was holding. “Four and a half pounds of Pastrami in there, man. Four and a half pounds.”

I took a twenty-dollar bill out of my wallet. I looked at the bill, then at him, and extended my hand. He smiled and grabbed the money. He hugged me again, then walked towards the store. He turned his head towards me and yelled, “Bro, next time I’ll hook you up with a full slab!” He flashed his smile and disappeared into the store.

A full slab. Ten pounds. What was I supposed to do with a full slab of uncut pastrami in my fridge? I knew the situation had gotten out of hand. It escalated from tipping the scale, to four pounds on a street corner, to a full slab of pastrami. It wasn’t worth it. Definitely not financially — I could have kept my $20, sold the Knicks tickets, and bought pastrami for a month. Even though it wasn’t about the money, it was about the hookup. It was about feeling special. But still, I felt horrible about lying to Saanvi and the bottom line was, I had stolen. I felt ashamed.

César had given me about $60 worth of deli meat and I wanted to give it back. I bought Saanvi a $60 AMC gift card because I knew she liked to go to the movies with her son. I donated $60 to charity.

For a month I went to the store on César’s day off. He texted me once to ask “was sup.” I answered all good. He said he was relaxing, I said that was important to do. That was the last time we communicated. He stopped working there a few weeks afterwards and I never asked him or anyone at the store why. All I wanted was to go back to buying my pastrami the way I always had: thin, layered, and guilt-free.

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Escort Surgery http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2016/06/escort-surgery http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2016/06/escort-surgery#comments Sat, 18 Jun 2016 02:33:44 +0000 http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=7843 I hated the cold walking west on 58th street, 1am on January 20th. The freezing currents had a way of trapezing down from steel cut condos, making the walls of my nostrils suddenly raw. My arms crossed themselves as I braced my way toward 10th Avenue. I had been in New York for several months, and I was still negotiating the fact that an avenue was much longer than a block. I’m from Alaska, and studies have shown that people from the north develop thicker blood over time. Maybe this is true, but personally I don’t buy it.

I cursed myself for not wearing a thicker coat. I did have a puffy red one that made me look like a tomato, but I knew most clients would prefer slimming outerwear. So I wore a drab olive, form-fitting, trench-like-coat that looked great and provided no warmth.

Most of my clients stayed in hotels in Midtown East, SoHo, or Times Square–locations that required small walking. But today, I was to meet a surgeon named Tim on the 21st floor of his apartment building.

I didn’t know much about Tim. I didn’t know what he looked like or sounded like, just that his emails were laconic and he was willing to pay $300 at the conclusion of our session. With that kind of money, I didn’t want to offend him by asking what our session might entail. “No pain and I’m game” my profile on Rentboy.com said. I hoped he had read that.

Riding up an elevator with a glass door, I experienced the usual thrill of nerves. It was always risky meeting new clients, especially the ones like Tim who, in the name of discretion, were completely silent. But at this point, I had been a gay escort for four months. So far, I hadn’t run into any kind of trouble, and as an optimistic 22 year old, I couldn’t imagine any of my encounters ever going wrong.

I sent three firm but polite knocks into his door. Some facial muscles contracted, ready to spring into a smile as the hinge gave way.

He opened the door wide open; my smile turned on full blast.

“Hi there,” I said.

He was gaunt with thin black hair combed to the right of his forehead. His voice was library-low.

“Hello,” he said. His finely trimmed mustache made him look like John Waters.

I entered the amber glow of his apartment. He shut the door behind me. I stood in his kitchen.

“Mind if I place my things here?” I said, pointing to an island counter.

“Please do.”

Ella Fitzgerald sung from a record player near an empty vase. I set my body to dancer mode: straight spine, all movements refined and seamless. A huge part of the job was figuring out in the first 10 seconds just what a client wanted. Tim, or whoever he was, wanted an elegant call boy. So that’s what I became.

He led me toward a sofa. It had an austere Bauhaus design and its leather was bleached white. It could double as a sarcophagus.

“Please, have a seat,” Tim said. “I have some merlot and sauvignon blanc.”

Pouring myself some white wine, I asked how his day was. He inched closer to me. He regarded me, and took a dainty sip of his merlot; his black eyes were wide and unremitting. I felt a dint in my smile. I looked around his apartment. He had a lot of abstract art whose maker I couldn’t place. He didn’t seem to have a bookshelf.

“You have a great view,” I told him, taking a sip.

He let out a “Mmmmm.”

Then his right hand reached out. His wan fingertips brushed my cheek. They rested there. They pulsated along my jaw. I imagined him reciting the anatomical names: index on the mandible, thumb on the submandibular fossa, pinkie on the mental foramen.

His hand withdrew. Then moved in toward my ear. His fingers ran up and past my cartilage; I thought of a girl brushing her hair back.

“So what do you want to do,” I blurted out.

He grinned.

“Drink your wine,” he said.

I smiled, and took another sip.

His hand planted itself on my stomach. It crept to my hip bone and around to the back of my pelvis. Then, like he was zipping me up, his fingers shot up the side of my torso.

“You can remove your clothes now,” he said. “All of your clothes. Then please meet me in the bedroom. Lie face up.”

I watched him, trying to figure out what came next. He saw my hesitation, and repeated himself that I should get undressed now. I started to remove my shirt.

“Don’t mind me,” he said. “I’ll be preparing dinner. It’s a time-consuming dish.”

“Of course,” I said.

I undressed looking at a dark Hudson river through his window. I folded the clothes on top of his white leather sofa. He removed some green peppers from his fridge, ignoring me.

I walked down the hall. An accordion door covered what I assumed to be a closet. I passed a bathroom with a deep blue tile floor. The room Tim had sent me to was surprisingly slender. I wondered if the main bedroom was behind the closed door; this room belonged to a fresh out of college type in Bushwick, not a surgeon in his 50s near Columbus Circle.

There was no comforter on the bed, just a thin white cotton sheet. I wondered if I should lie above or below it. I supposed he had a thing for walking into his room to find a young naked boy waiting for an examination. So I laid myself out above the sheet, naked.

I heard chopping noises from the kitchen. I thought of Dexter, and all the other stories of hookers getting killed in the line of duty. But what was the probability of that happening to me, I wondered.

I looked around the room for sharp objects. A non-descript red pen lay near a journal. If he did try to maim me, I imagined slamming it into his jugular. “That would buy me some time,” I thought.

I waited.

I tried to think of a sexy way to just lie there face up. But sexiness didn’t seem to be the point with Tim. He probably wanted me how he met most of his unconscious patients before surgery. So I just lay there, supine, focusing on my breathing, ignoring the chilled wind permeating past his window.

He walked in wearing a pair of black, wispy briefs. He grinned at me. My face made some sign of mutual recognition. His cutlery had stayed in the kitchen.

He sat on the side of the bed, his eyes scanning my body. I waited, staring at the ceiling. I gathered that I wasn’t supposed to move as his eyes dissected me. He roved through the bones of my feet, the vellus hairs on each toe. He saw from my thin shins that I was into tennis and running. He scanned all the way up to my neck, and stopped.

Then his two hands reached for my stomach. I tried not to flinch. One hand coasted toward my pubes, the other to my chest. His palms brushed the interior of my arms. They smoothed past my thighs. He nudged them apart, and I spread my legs wider. He gripped one of my testicles and ran it between his thumb and middle finger. His other hand pinched my semi-erect penis and massaged it up and down with the same excitement a maid would have bringing up a pail of water. A hand examined my nipple; it pinched the tip.

“Please turn around,” he said.

I quickly turned over: acting before thinking was key to success as an escort.

His inspection of my person repeated itself. The back of his fingernails traced down my spine. He squeezed my calves. He scratched the arch of my heel.

“I will return,” he said. He left the room. I heard the bathroom door shut.

I flipped over. If he was going to kill me, I was going to see it coming.

Again, I waited.

A few minutes later, I heard the toilet flush. He returned to the room in a white robe, the previous reserve on his face finally released.

“Thank you, Matt,” he said. “You may leave now.”

I gave him, what I hoped to be, a calm and gracious smile.

I gathered my clothes from the couch. He went back to the kitchen and continued to cook. I replaced my clothes rapidly, then stepped into my shoes. His eyes caught mine. He inclined his head toward a white envelope on the table. I smiled and picked it up. The weight felt right.

“Thank you, Tim,” I said. “Have a great night.”

“Wait wait,” he said. I paused at the doorstep. “Let me look at you one more time.”

I smiled as his slim pointer fingers moved toward my eyes. I imagined him gouging them out, but they coursed below my eyes to the bay of my bags, then around and up to my eyebrows. They drew a line down my forehead, through my pinched nose, past the puddle above my lips, through my lips, terminating at my round chin.

He smiled for the first time that evening. “Stay warm,” he said.

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