What My Daughter Heard On The Balcony



Avenue X and 14th St., Brooklyn, NY 11235

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Outer Boroughs

After my daughter was born, I spent part of each day on the balcony of our third-floor apartment in Sheepshead Bay, rocking her in her stroller. Even when chilly, we’d sit out. Just like her mama and papa when they were little in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sasha has spent much of her first year wrapped in blankets on the balcony.

Babies don’t see very well, especially while lying in a bassinet, but their hearing is acute. One day, during the MTA strike in December 2005, I supplemented with running commentary, in my mind and sometimes aloud addressing Sasha, what she heard. It went something like this.

Sparse rustling: That’s the branches and the few crumpled old leaves of the tree beside the balcony. The tree is one of the main reasons your papa and I decided to buy this place. When our real estate agent took us to see the apartment, we looked out the bedroom window and saw the tree, and the blue sky through its branches. We realized this was nothing like our old view into the windows of the building next door. This was life and color.

The tree’s trunk is wide. I wonder how many concentric circles it’s got? What’s its age? There are trees like this one, of impressive girth, lining the long stretch of East 14th street and that means the street has been straight like this for years and years, way before your grandparents even considered immigrating to America.

Shuffling, accompanied by rhythmic taps: That’s two women slowly pacing back and forth down on the street. An elderly Russian woman, pushing a walker, is held under the arm by her black home attendant. The home attendant made it — must have walked to work today. The elderly woman is in a predicament. Many elderly Russians in our neiborhood get home care for free as part of Medicaid/Medicare services for refugees. So she must be grateful for all the help she’s getting, free of charge. But she also must remain almost totally incommunicado, unable to express what she needs except for bare basics to her black, American attendant. Your great-grandma, who has some trouble with speech after her stroke, once called a non-Russian nurse who came for a visit, a “foreigner.” She didn’t say it pejoratively, it’s just that for the Russians in our neighborhood there’s rarely any intersection with English, native English. And it sounds foreign.

Buzzing: The drill of the construction crew up Ave. X. They are finishing up a row of three-story condo buildings like ours. It’s a hot real estate market now. The neighborhood is rising, the Russians and the Chinese are earning more and buying.

Airy thuds: That’s a woman beating dust out of a carpet, which flaps in the wind, flung over the edge of the third-floor balcony across the street. They used to do that in Russia a lot. When your mama was little she saw lots of carpets hanging on clotheslines around her playground. In her then-home people were enamored to carpets, they hung them the Asian way, on the walls, for coziness and definitely for warmth.

Quick taps: That’s a Chinese man pushing a lightweight stroller where a young boy sits. The man’s arms are burdened by red plastic shopping bags. He is coming from Ave U – the main street here for Chinese goods. Maybe he has gotten lobsters, from the aquarium. His wife is walking next to him, holding a parasol over her. Many Chinese consider it low-class, peasant-like, to have a tan.

Trilling: That’s birds singing. Can’t tell you which birds. Don’t know their names in English, nor sure of them in Russian. One day, I bet, you’ll teach me what they are.

Sharp beeps: That’s a truck pulling out from the Italian deli on the corner, around since the 1960s. The Russians and the Chinese don’t go there much, they’ve got their own stores all around the two-block area. The Italian deli and catering is for the American-born of the neighborhood. The firemen come here, the police pick up their lunch. Working the counter, you could see a few Italians from the days of the opening, but mostly, they are Mexicans. One guy used to give your mama extra portions when she was pregnant with you this past summer. He was in Mexico visiting two children for 19 days the time you were born. But he’s back now. Mama doesn’t get extra anymore.

Barking: That’s the dog that scared you the other day as we walked past it. It says guv-guv, in Russian.

And that? That’s the silence of the Q train tracks, two blocks over, above East 16th.

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