Count Down in Red Hook

by

05/22/2004

135 Richards St, Brooklyn, NY 11231

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Red Hook

On a day of contradiction last February, my wife Kim and I test drove a mini-SUV through a few of the less heralded ‘hoods. The sun was brilliant, cutting through the brutal cold and lighting up the harbor with an intense glare off the snow and the ice floes, a simultaneously bone-chilling and body-warming type of day. It was one those winter New York afternoons, with empty streets offering the chance to get out and tool around the quieter edges of the city, to take in the upscale rehabbing of the down-and-out waterfront made famous by the dearly departed Hubert Selby Jr. in Last Exit to Brooklyn.

It was the kind of lazy day where wandering around leads to an old trolley under a tarp with a sign noting Ebbets Field as the final destination, a collection of black-and-white photos of the shells of long-departed industries, a backseat mash session, a drive through heretofore unseen places like Ozone Park and Ridgewood, a best-in-show pastrami sandwich at Abraham’s deli, and even a visit from two of New York’s Finest wondering why anyone would park in an empty Red Hook lot and watch the sun fade away into the freezing winter air.

It was the kind of day where we hoped to see things in our hometown that we had never seen before.

redhook
PHOTO: Kimberly Kurowski

We were slowly traversing Red Hook blocks, going so far as to placing an impromptu call to a realtor with fleeting thoughts of getting more space, when we passed this sign, posted in front of a nondescript house on a deserted block. At first glance, the sign struck me as goof, a working class version of the old midtown "national deficit" or "death by handgun" billboards with their continually updated electronic display of data. I was never able to look up at the handgun ticker without wondering where in the United States the poor soul lived who just bought it whenever the tally added another unlucky statistic, but those billboards wanted you to pause for the cause, to take a quick second to realize how much money we are wasting or how violent our society is. They were guilt inducing public service announcements, but they weren’t connected to anything other than some organizations desire to sell you a message.

This sign is different. To somebody, this sign means something. Quite possibly, this sign means everything.

2 YEARS 134 DAYS SINCE 9-11-01 WHERE IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?

Upon first seeing it, Kim and I stared at the sign in silence, rereading it our heads and then aloud. We quickly tried to calculate the days passed, but without the benefit of a calculator, calendar or pencil and paper, we decided to take the author’s word for it. We knew for sure it was damn close, but there were more important issues than the exact number of days…Why would somebody mark the lost time on a flimsy piece of cardboard? Who owns this vigil? Has it really been that long already? What do they want to say? Is the sign for them? Is it for us? Who updates if they go on vacation? When was this thing erected? Why not hang it somewhere people might see it? Where the fuck is Osama Bin Laden?

My journalistic instincts told me to get this person’s story. Start off by finding out if they literally rise each morning, no matter how cold, humid, rainy or snowy, walk out the front door of their house, and change the number of days, and once every September, the number of years. I stared at the sign, mesmerized by its frighteningly power, contemplating whether I should knock and extract the truth behind the sign. I toyed with the idea, but I decided against asking questions, because they might be answered. I don’t want to know the person behind the sign and I suspect they don’t want us to know them either because there is nothing but the question. There are no flags, no memorials, no political fliers, no pictures of the dead, no military insignias, no peace signs, nothing. There is only a cold, hard fact and its questionable aftermath. The sign is the message, the message is the sign.

It could easily have been left over from an anti-war protest as it could from a pro-war rally. It could be the ironic prodding of a yippee prankster, or it could be the mournful longing of a bereaved family member. The sign could be a call to action, a cry for help, a plea to recognize futility, an admonishment to stay focused or maybe, or maybe it’s just a clear-eyed query that needs a response.

Whomever keeps the sign might be a fascist, a communist, a socialist, an anarchist, an exhibitionist, an activist, a pacifist, a gun owner, a drop-out, a Democrat, a Republican, cop, a fireman, a trader, a schoolteacher, a drug dealer, a flower child, a warmonger, a minister, a criminal, an immigrant, a citizen, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, an atheist, an agnostic, a detective, a victim, or a plain old regular concerned citizen who has no idea what to do but wants to do something so that the people who pass by their modest Red Hook home don’t forget…but I don’t want to know.

For a couple of months I thought about making a return trip, but I decided not to go back and see if it is indeed updated daily. I never returned to speak to the creators of the sign. For reasons I can’t grasp, I find it comforting to believe that every morning someone in Red Hook wakes up and updates the sign hanging in their yard behind their own private motives, and I don’t need to know why. I’m afraid the rest of the story will change what I saw. What I saw was the sign of the times.

And as of tomorrow morning, it will read:

2 YEARS 242 DAYS SINCE 9-11-01 WHERE IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?

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