Mr. Beller's Neighborhood New York City Stories Since 2000 2017-09-22T10:39:40Z https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/feed/atom WordPress lori jakiela <![CDATA[Literary Hair in New York and Pittsburgh]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8895 2017-05-04T19:11:26Z 2017-05-04T19:04:41Z
  • Literary
  • Today a writer sends me a note that says she has a benefactress and the benefactress wants the writer to get a literary haircut. The writer has written to me for advice. She wants me to recommend a salon that specializes in literary haircuts.
    These are the words the writer uses. Benefactress. Literary. Haircut.

    The benefactress will pay for the haircut. Cost is not a factor. The writer, a stranger, says the benefactress is worried about how the writer will look at upcoming literary events. The benefactress and the writer both want the writer to be taken seriously at literary events.

    I don’t know what the writer means by a literary haircut, or why she would write to me for advice. I’m not famous. I barely have any readers. My current hair makes me look like a human Q-Tip.

    I believe this woman who’s written to me has never seen my picture.

    **

    “Have the guts to cut,” Kurt Vonnegut said. But he was talking about writing.

    **

    I don’t know any benefactresses in 2017. But back in the 1990s I had some friends who gave me things. I was living in New York then, working for the airlines. I didn’t have much furniture, and some of the things I did have were more like props. Since I was gone most of the time, I figured it might be good if the apartment looked lived in just in case some luckless burglar happened upon it.

    I was living in New York then, working for the airlines. I didn’t have much furniture, and some of the things I did have were more like props. Since I was gone most of the time, I figured it might be good if the apartment looked lived in just in case some luckless burglar happened upon it.

    I had a stereo that didn’t work and a toaster that sparked and a TV that got only one channel because I couldn’t afford cable. I had a few pots and pans and a window air conditioner that my neighbor Moose snagged from his Waste Management rounds. Moose was part garbage-man, part treasure-hunter, and even though he once worked as a leg-breaker for the mob, he was big-hearted, always finding useful stuff in the trash he was paid to throw away.
    He’d bring home gifts for me and our other neighbors, whatever he found that he thought we’d need. He brought home anything metal, too, and chopped it up with a chainsaw, then sold it at the junkyard for cash.
    “Everything’s money to me,” Moose said.
    “It runs,” he said about the air conditioner. “Just watch out for the mold.”
    I propped the air conditioner in a window for show. I set up the TV and stereo in my couch-less living room. I used the pots Moose found to boil water on my tiny apartment stove which, whenever I lit it, smelled like it might explode. I had a drawer full of take-out menus. I had a refrigerator covered in magnets from take-out joints. I had a box under the sink full of wooden chopsticks, plastic forks, and spoons.
    “A couch would make this place feel homey,” my rich friend said and measured a blank wall with her eyes.
    I worked for the airlines for a reason. I didn’t want homey. Life, I figured, was simpler without a couch to lug around. I considered myself a writer first, the kind of person who didn’t care about a home and material things, the worry and weight of that.
    I didn’t consider that, without the weight of something like family and home, I didn’t write much. I didn’t consider that all the time spent alone in hotel rooms let me stay on the surface of things.
    Stay on the surface too long and you get confused. You start thinking things matter that don’t matter.
    Literary haircuts, for instance.

    **

    “Pity the reader,” Vonnegut said, which reminds me of how dangerous it is to put ego above art.
    “Say what you mean,” Vonnegut said, which means no tricks.
    “I am what I am and that’s a man from Indiana,” Vonnegut would say about writers worrying over appearances on or off the page.

    **

    When the writer looking for the literary hairdo writes to me, it’s her use of the word “benefactress” that pisses me off. It’s that word that lets me forgive myself for being a jerk when I should be kind. It’s not just about appearances. It’s about class. It’s about money, the lack of it, the elevation of it, how worry about money can make me mean.
    I write back and say I got my last haircut at Supercuts.
    I tell her it was $13 plus tip.
    I tell her my benefactress, also known as my jug of quarters, thought that was cool.
    I am thinking of taxes, the phone bill, the water bill. I am thinking of writing, how I want more time for it, how little it pays. I am thinking of the extra job I’ll need to get this summer to help my family get by and how that extra job means I’ll have less time for my family and writing, the things I love above all else.
    I congratulate the writer on having a benefactress.
    I wish her and her hair well.

    **
    Later I will write about this on Facebook. I will consider tweeting. It’s a shitty thing to do, but I can’t help it. My anger at this woman, this stranger who means no harm, muddles things.
    “Keep making that face,” my mother used to say when I’d stick my lower lip out to show I was furious as a kid, “and a bird will come and shit on your lip.”
    “Keep making that face,” my mother would say, “and you’ll freeze like that.”
    That’s the danger of class-anger, maybe. It can become something solid, immovable, something that hardens inside a person and will not melt.

    **

    “I come from a working-class military family,” the singer Pink says. “We watch the news and read the papers and vote, so there’s always something to be upset about. I always have a certain amount of angst in my back pocket.”

    **

     

    2. Salon

    My poor writer friends and I post many pictures of terrible haircuts.
    “Consider the Ken Burns,” my friend Emily writes. She posts a link to a story titled ‘Where’s Your Precious God Now? 16 Intense Zooms of Ken Burns’ Hair.’”
    Ken Burns has a bowl cut. He looks like a demented Beatle. He looks like a toddler running with scissors cut his bangs.

     

    **

     

    “You have to curate your image,” one rich writer friend says. “You have to work it.”
    Having a look takes time and money, neither of which I have. I have my family, two jobs, and a bathtub that leaks. These are the things I think about.
    This particular writer friend spends a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. She’s paid an advertising firm to turn her into a brand. She’s paid a publicist to spread the news. She ran a contest where people had to send in pictures of her book in exotic places, kind of like Flat Stanley. People sent in pictures of her book at a café in the French Quarter, at a barbecue joint in Texas, at The Football Hall of Fame. I forget what people won if they sent in pictures.
    Another copy of her book, I think.
    This writer has a sunken bathtub and no kids.
    This writer has very nice hair.

    **

    “If you want to survive, you have to stand out,” my friend Debbie used to say.
    Debbie was a hairdresser at Vidal Sassoon in New York. Debbie wore all black, all the time, and had a huge tattoo of an eagle on her back. She also had her clit pierced and enjoyed talking about it over dinner with people she’d just met.
    “I can squeeze my legs together any time I want and come, just like that,” Debbie would say. She enjoyed watching people squirm as they struggled not to look under the table to see if Debbie was about to have an orgasm with her salad.
    Debbie had gotten both the clit piercing and the eagle from a tattoo artist who worked with the New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels. The tattoo guy hooked Debbie up with the Angels, who once let her do a hairstyle photo shoot in their clubhouse in the Village. She gave the Angels free haircare products in exchange for the photo shoot. The Angels, she said, liked haircare products. The Angels, Debbie said, thought a lot about their image.
    “It’s not like before,” she said. “They have a guy who does their marketing and social media. They do charity work. They’re very media-savvy.”

    **

    I do not tell the writer who writes to me for hair advice that I cut my hair so short because I felt overwhelmed and had just turned 53 and Prevention Magazine said a pixie cut was just like a facelift and guaranteed to make a person look less tired.

    “A boost for the spirits and cheekbones,” Prevention Magazine said.
    This has nothing to do with writing. It has to do with bills and work and leaky bathtubs, everything that’s not about writing.

    **
    New York is filled with awful and beautiful people, Debbie would say.
    Debbie used to do my hair for free. I’d be her hair model. We had a deal – she could do whatever she wanted and I wouldn’t complain and I wouldn’t ever have to pony up money.
    A haircut at Vidal Sassoon in New York in the 1990s was well over $100. A blow-out was nearly that much.
    I often bought groceries with my credit card and got cash advances to help cover my rent.
    “Fake it until you make it,” Debbie said as she globbed bleach on my hair.
    “Everybody needs a gimmick,” Debbie said as she took a razor to my bangs.

    Author at Work

    Author at Work

    ]]>
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    Danish Ahmed Aamir <![CDATA[When You Get Kicked by a White Guy]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8858 2017-04-23T17:54:33Z 2017-04-23T17:54:33Z A 2010 article from Newsweek made international news with the headline, “Pakistan is the World’s Most Dangerous Country.” Growing up in Pakistan, I rarely experienced moments of panic. Pakistan could be dangerous—like when a bomb went off near my school—but I felt safe in my suburban neighborhood. When I decided to move to the United States for college, I traded my relatively calm and peaceful life in a decidedly “dangerous” country for a different, perhaps more potent danger that haunted me day and night: being a target because of the color of my skin.

    *

    It was a dark, stormy autumn morning in New York, an appropriately foreboding atmosphere for what was to come. The pavement splashed and pattered as I walked over it. The air tasted moist and damp; it had rained the night before. The sweet and cloying smell of weed hung over the quiet streets, the empty sidewalks, and the various buildings—red brick to my right, gray mortar to my left.

    For the “city that never sleeps,” New York seemed suspiciously like it was sleeping. The only thing missing from the light and steady breath of the wind was the snoring of people. The darkness was reminiscent of the view from shuttered eyelids. I had learned this in my two years at New York University: even cities that don’t sleep, in fact do. New York closed its eyes between four and six in the morning. That’s when I woke up to study; the sleeping city provided solace for me. I could enjoy those two hours, left to my own thoughts, because Sinatra’s “concrete jungle” was, for once, silent.

    At six in the morning, I would go to the gym. A lone rat or two might scurry across Washington Square Park. The birds, however, would be resting, the weed dealers scarce, the drunk people passed out. The subways only rarely rang with the whooshing of trains as they passed under the sidewalk grates. This day, I wasn’t actively thinking about New York being asleep, but it was slumbering, true to its unspoken promise. I walked by a random person every now and then, a lone straggler trying to figure out where home was, trying to see through the drunken haze of liquor clouding his eyes. But other than that, no signs of life were visible.

    I had a Crunch Gym membership, and I wanted to visit all the locations in the city. There was one that looked like a church from the outside, one that had a view of Times Square, and another that looked like a high-profile bank. This day, I was trying out the one on Leonard Street, near Wall Street. I lived on Union Square. The walk was long, so I had my phone out to keep me company.

    I was walking on Broadway, near the Harley Davidson outlet on White Street, when I heard a pattering of feet that were not my own and the splashing of water. I looked up. A skinny, tall white man was walking past me. He seemed to be in his twenties or thirties. He tottered forward, sporting a small scruffy beard and very baggy, loose pants. He didn’t seem to be physically or mentally capable of harming anyone in his current state. Not a threat. I went back to looking at my phone.

    My not-very-impressive beard itched on my brown face.

    The steps came closer. From the corner of my eye, I saw him start to run. First, he moved away from me, and then with the extra few steps and the momentum they afforded him, rammed straight into my shoulder, all the force of his body weight coming through that point of contact. Within seconds, I was on the ground, being kicked in the stomach. I curled up in a ball.

    Kick, kick, kick.

    Thoughts flashed through my head, in and out like lightning. Why didn’t someone stop this? Was there no one else on the road? Were the homeless on the streets just numb to this? I’d seen a few, but also hadn’t been paying close attention.

    Kick, kick, kick.

    *

    My thoughts moved to the past: three years earlier, I had been preparing to fly to the United States from a country that had been named in the Newsweek article as one of the most dangerous on the planet. The nomination was understandable, given that the country was turning on itself, and the Taliban were bombing army schools and targets in civilian areas as revenge against army operations. But I, personally, had never experienced a true moment of fear in Pakistan. If the worst happened, I figured, like a bomb blast, at least it would end immediately. There was nothing I could do about it. I’d be dead in a second, and I came to accept that. In New York, I learned, I could be embarrassed, humiliated, even mutilated. I could be kicked to the ground in the early morning, in the middle of the street, on my walk to the gym. That was a more excruciating pain to bear.

    In the months following my acceptance to NYU, my family constantly warned me about the prejudice I might encounter when I moved to New York. Prior to my flight, they reiterated their concerns.

    “Be completely honest at airports. They have all your records and will be suspicious if you say something that didn’t happen,” my parents said. “Be precise and accurate.” I brushed off their advice. Did I really need them to tell me not to lie?

    “The people in New York are rude.” I thought their next piece of advice was completely off-base. I had met some of the kindest people on the streets of New York, people who gave me directions with smiles on their faces, and kindness in their voices, and were even too polite to correct my pronunciation of Houston.

    Another golden nugget from my concerned parents: “Taxi drivers won’t care if they run you over.” But I found taxi drivers to be some of the nicest and most well-tempered drivers on the road, even when they were mistreated by customers.

    “Don’t discuss politics or religion with anyone.” I was too afraid to do that with anyone anyway. I didn’t want people to know I was Muslim and had strong opinions about my religion because, liberal or otherwise, Islam could be taken out of context.

    “New York is dangerous.” That was their biggest warning.

    Kick, kick, kick.

    I had never thought about the danger until I experienced it.

    *

    Thoughts flash through your head really fast when you’re getting kicked in the gut.

    While I was curled up on the sidewalk, the most absurd thing happened. “Wake up, Danish. Wake up,” I heard a voice say, as if I were in a dream. The voice came from everywhere, and the entire world seemed to be echoing it. I shouted a loud “no” in response. My “no” echoed off the sidewalks, bounced off the puddles, jumped off the facades of the buildings. It was a loud “no.” An angry “no.”

    Kick, kick, kick.

    The man stopped. He walked away.

    I got up fast. My shirt was twisted, my glasses weren’t on my face, and I didn’t have my phone on me. But the wound he left wasn’t physical, and it would haunt me later: the notion that even for a country as progressive as this one claimed to be, I was not safe just because of the color of my skin. Was this what had prompted his violence? I felt it was the most probable answer. It was just a few days before the 14th anniversary of 9/11.

    I watched his back as he sauntered away. Should I run after him? I wondered. I really wanted to. My hands were clenched in anger, in frustration. If I can curl 40 pounds, how hard would it be to beat him up? It wasn’t even a fair fight. He threw me to the ground. And then, a different thought: What if he has a knife? The kicking is fine, but what if he pulls out a knife, then I’d be done for, I’d be carved up like a turkey. I became angry at myself. Why was I on my phone and not paying attention to my surroundings?

    My breath slowed. I tasted hot blood on my tongue. Should I call the police? At five in the morning? I can’t even describe the guy. With my beard, I’d probably get in more trouble than he would. It would waste more time than it’s worth. My heart was pounding, not from fear, but from the anger and frustration that a skinny, white male could beat me up and I could do nothing about it.

    I looked back one more time and he was gone.

    Glaring in the direction in which he had walked, I realized I didn’t have my phone. Had it fallen out while I was being kicked? Worse yet, had it fallen in between the cracks in the sidewalk to the subway? I scrambled for God knows how long, on my knees, looking back every now and then until I found it near a small puddle of water at the edge of the sidewalk.

    My glasses had fallen from my face and landed a few feet away. One side of the frame was broken. I hung the unbroken side on my shirt, and continued walking to the gym.

     

    Danish Ahmed Aamir is 22 years old and a co-founder of and has been published by Qissa Bazaar (qissabazaar.com), a South Asian magazine and literary journal. He enjoys horseback riding, swimming, chess, reading, and working out.

    ]]>
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    Su Young Lee <![CDATA[The Turtle Pond]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8891 2017-04-16T14:24:39Z 2017-04-16T14:24:16Z Sitting in the sunset in the middle of Central Park, the unfamiliar boy and I huddled together in the growing chill of late October, using the excuse of needing bodily warmth to search for some other, more abstract warmth of feeling. We had spent the whole day exploring the Met Museum, and afterwards walked around the park trying to tell each other everything about our lives in the span of just a few hours. My hand was trapped in his, but he still felt like a stranger in a strange city. My thoughts were not with him but with the turtles swimming in the rippling pond before us.

    I had met the boy a few weeks ago during a copyediting shift at the student newspaper. It was my first month at New York University, so I was used to these rushed attempts at connection. My classmates and I introduced ourselves to each other with overbearing friendliness, most of us having left our homes, family and friends for the first time and eager to find people we could call upon to avoid long nights spent alone or sad solitary meals. The bustling city we found ourselves in amplified our loneliness. Most of the time, these failed attempts at friendship led to a string of saved numbers I would never call and names and faces I couldn’t match. Many more firsts followed these endless first introductions, and they weren’t necessary the good kind: the first time I felt homesick, what it felt like to be triggered by a song or phone call and to cry quietly under the sheets in fear of waking up a roommate, my first all-nighter, my first time blacking out from drinking.

    Moving to New York from suburban New Zealand, I was excited to try everything American, including the candy. I tried Twizzlers for the first time, excited to finally eat something I had only seen on TV back where I grew up. I spat out the bright twisted candy immediately, feeling cheated by its name and color. I had thought it would taste like sweet fireworks of flavor, but was only met with rubbery disappointment.

    This first date at Central Park was yet another first that let me down. It should have been perfect, in theory. I couldn’t dream up a more cliché attempt at romance than taking a stroll in one of the loveliest parks in the world and watching the colors of the sun melt across the sky and reflect in the water of the Turtle Pond. I was amused but perhaps not entirely surprised when the boy, who boasted about all the obscure poets he enjoyed reading, took out a notebook that he carried with him to jot down a few lines of poetry—because what else would a dream date do but write me into a poem?

    In reality, I had been checking the time, wondering when I could go home without rudely declaring that I wanted to. I was tired of the forced conversation, of trying to convince myself I enjoyed his anecdotes and that this was the beginning of a successful college relationship. After seeing its name on a map earlier in the day, had suggested we sit by Turtle Pond, talking enthusiastically about his love for turtles as we made our way there. I think he mentioned a pet turtle named Hector, but maybe Hector is just the kind of boring elderly name I believed best suited a turtle because I really wasn’t listening. My enthusiasm for animals only extended to those with fur. More importantly, I was distracted by the unoriginality of the pond’s name, in light of the Belvedere Castle that sat majestically at its edge.

    “There! Did you see that?” He yelled, pointing at a ripple in the water. I shook my head. “It was a turtle!”

    I tried to smile back, but he saw me trying, I think.

    He scribbled something down, angling the notebook away from me. It didn’t take too long for him to abandon his feigned embarrassment when I asked him to tell me what he had written about me. The few lines he wrote contained a metaphor, and I like metaphors, but his compared me to a turtle.

    I remember telling myself that it was nice for him to even write about me, and to appreciate his poetic efforts, but as he talked on­—probably something else about the shelled creatures—I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that the first poem I was potentially immortalized in compared me to a snapping turtle. What did he mean?

    I avoided eye contact and looked out onto the water as we struggled to maintain our conversation. I wondered what made me a turtle and who had named the pond. I was angry about the name because it showed such little effort, and as someone who was terrible with names (I referred to people I vaguely recognized on campus as Cat Boy or That Korean Girl in conversations with my roommate), I expected better from others. Or maybe I was angry about something else. We were sitting there on a rock in the darkness long after everyone else had left. It seemed like we kept talking because we were waiting for the other person to say something we were looking for. Finally we rose to leave, my body stiff and numb from the cold.

    For the longest time I filed him in my memory as the weird boy obsessed with turtles, remembering the way his face lit up when he talked about them. I refused to see him again after our date, which must have been confusing because I hadn’t outwardly expressed any discontent that night. I ignored his texts, avoided him on campus, and still have an unread Facebook message from what is now almost two years ago. Maybe he had been accurate to call me a turtle, and he had seen my shell, which encouraged me to retract back into its depths.

    Despite my eagerness to come to New York, I was disillusioned my first few months living there. I spent more time in my room than out on the streets I had so romanticized, and which always seemed to disappoint with their dirty pavements. But I’m growing to love New York for what it is rather than for my fantasized idea of it. I tried another Twizzler recently and realized that although it still doesn’t fulfill my initial expectations, it isn’t all too bad. This is what New York is like for me: a Twizzler that doesn’t taste quite as good as it looks, but I think I can get used to.

    I finally don’t mind the Turtle Pond and its unoriginal name, which after some research I learned was first populated when people released their pet turtles they could no longer keep. The abandoned turtles found their slice of paradise in the end. I think of them with a little more fondness now, the way they can retreat, unseen, into the pond and its pretense of green space even though they, too, are surrounded by a concrete landscape.

     

    Su Young Lee is a junior at New York University, studying English literature and creative writing. Other than trying to read two books simultaneously, she spends most of her time dreaming up plots for elaborate fantasy novels but often ends up writing shorter memoir pieces instead. 

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    Royal Young <![CDATA[If Dad Was A Doll]]> http://famous-thread.flywheelsites.com/?p=3597 2017-04-09T19:01:38Z 2017-04-09T12:15:01Z My father took me to the Coney Island Freak Show every summer growing up. My artist Dad seemed unfettered from his day job as a social worker, sketching subway riders on the hour train ride from the Lower East Side, where we lived surrounded by junkies and prostitutes wandering derelict streets. On the boardwalk, he had directed my eyes to details in carefully colored Carousels and lurid posters advertising the largest rodent in the world. I used to worship the sound of light bulbs crunching in the glass eater’s teeth, the snake charmer wrapping albino Pythons around her curves. So different from his serious persona, Dad laughed loudly, treating me to cotton candy we usually couldn’t afford and tossing me screaming over the warm waves.

    My parents pinned all their hopes on me, their bright firstborn son. Though all my life, I had spent hours drawing with Dad in his studio, crammed with colorful canvasses, my parents insisted I take psychology courses in college. I didn’t want a sensible degree, I wanted to fulfill my father’s fantasies of artistic fame. Instead, I ended up a drunk university dropout, living at home. Dad burst into my room unannounced, catching me throwing a solo drink and draw party by myself.

    “This is a waste of time. No one cares about your sketches,” Dad screamed, “Get a real job. They’re hiring at Duane Reade.”

    “You’re just jealous,” I shouted back.

    By 20, my parents had kicked me out of their house.
    Angry and alone, I escaped to the old Astroland, where I had always been happiest with my father. I finagled an invite to the Mermaid Parade and a special VIP after party, to meet my best friend’s godfather for the first time, Sylvain Sylvain, bassist for famous vintage punk band The New York Dolls. Sipping whiskey from a Snapple bottle on the rumbling D train, the Cyclone shining in the distance, I felt like my real freak family would be waiting to take me in. Sylvain was in his 60s, the same age as my father and they were both artists. Yet, Syl had made it big on the stage, while Dad’s old paintings still hung dusty in his studio. I was ecstatic, imagining Syl would see right away that I was a hurt kid in need of a surrogate rock star father figure.

    My best friend Meier and I spiked giant cups of lemonade with vodka and marched into an indoor club, velvet ropes strung up past fried clam counters, but Syl was nowhere in sight.

    “He’s probably getting stoned with my mom in the manager’s room,” Meier explained.

    Growing up, my parents only drank cheap Manischewitz on Hebrew holidays. Meier had been born in the Chelsea Hotel, where his mom had flings with famous rock ‘n’ rollers, a past that at the time I wished was my own. My mother and father had insisted on analyzing my childhood problems on the couch. We had strictly structured family dinners at 6 o’clock each night, a suffocating ritual recommended by all the eminent psychoanalysts. Yet, I kept a handle of Jim Beam behind my pillow. Without a diploma Dad approved of, I was drinking away the wide-eyed Jewish bookworm version of myself who had made muddy castles with him by the ocean’s edge. I secretly planned to search among the sequined, sandy crowds, hoping to find the spot where I’d been so close to my father as a child.

    “Meier! My man!” A stocky guy in leather pants with long dyed black hair in a ponytail rushed over, hugging my friend. Sylvain had on dark leather pants and a matching vest. Syl’s skin was olive toned like my father’s, except Dad remained natural, letting his silver grey hair show.

    “Who’s your buddy? You guys make music together?” Sylvain shook my hand. His raspy smoker’s voice reminded me of the lost world my dad had raised me in, old Spanish men flicking ash off their cigarillos as hydrants blasted jets of water into summer streets.

    “No, we just drink together,” Meier laughed.

    “I’m an artist too,” I blushed, lamely looking at my would-be mentor.

    “Any drinking buddy of Meier’s is a drinking buddy of mine,” Syl grinned at me. “You guys want to get out of here? I hate these stuffy parties, I can give you a lift back to Manhattan.”

    “That would be awesome,” I nodded before Meier could respond.

    Meier sat in front and I piled into the back of Syl’s car. Syl drove fast with all the windows down under the elevated train tracks, subway cars squealing above us as he blasted old rock ‘n’ roll. I sucked up huge sips of my vodka lemonade, completely abandoning myself to fantasy. If I could only switch lives, I imagined I’d go on the road with the Dolls partying backstage with beautiful girls, living like a legend. I pretended I didn’t know Dad and instead moved in celebrity circles too lofty to extend to a painter’s co-op on the Lower East Side. I hadn’t been brought up in understaffed schools where hood classmates abused me, never lost my virginity too young or dropped out of college after getting in trouble with the police for alcohol, a legacy of failure that tugged at me, foreshadowing a future for myself I was desperate to escape. I was the son of a New York Doll.

    “Do you guys need drugs? I can get you anything,” Syl offered.

    “We want Shrooms,” Meier said.

    “Anything but that,” Syl laughed.

    We ended up getting pizza. Over pepperoni slices, Sylvain talked about music, a new clothing line he wanted to start, old drinking stories. I noticed Syl’s face in the fading light was a little fleshy, laugh lines zigzagging away from his lips. Like Coney Island, he was a creature of the past, fame slowly fading with the tide of fresh New York fables. I realized I had been living off salty ocean air and hollow hallucinations, sitting down for dinner at the wrong table. I had been staring at a distorted image of myself, as if in a funhouse mirror. My father had always worked steadily in his studio, raising a family, while continuing to follow his own creative passions. He had never been blinded by limelight, preferring to parent me with love. It could be fraught with anger, our shared unfulfilled dreams driving us to destroy, but underneath was an intense devotion to each other.
    My artist/social worker dad and I ended up working things out in therapy. He could fix his client’s problems, and paint away his own, but the damage to our relationship was beyond diagnosis. We needed outside analysis. In a cramped office cluttered with art, my father admitted he had been jealous of my ambition.

    “Don’t you think I have the same underlying grandiosity you do? Where do you think you got it?” Dad asked.

    “I need to learn from you, not feel like we’re in a competition. Me being ambitious doesn’t mean I’m abandoning you,” I said.

    “I know that now,” he admitted.

    Over months of group sessions, I found out my love for Dad had been under construction, it was never completely crushed. Like the broken down boardwalk, we rebuilt our bond, slowly, piece by piece.

    Royal Young just completed his debut memoir “Fame Shark.” Follow him at Twitter.com/RoyalYoung.

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    Cat DeLaura <![CDATA[How to Break into Your Own Apartment]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8877 2017-04-09T18:57:39Z 2017-04-03T01:07:58Z It was well after midnight. My father and I sat on the stoop outside my new apartment on Thompson Street eating burgers in the late August heat, unable to get in. A cockroach scuttled beneath my feet and up the small half-wall to where my fries lay.

    “Ugh! Why?!” I jumped to the opposite side of the stoop. We had arrived in the city around 9 earlier that evening. It was a later arrival than we had planned on, but we had still thought by eleven everything would be moved into my room and we would be drinking Manhattans and enjoying the view over the Hudson on the rooftop of my father’s Manhattan hotel—a perfect New York City evening. But instead, at midnight we still hadn’t gotten the apartment door unlocked.

    Earlier in the summer, while studying abroad in Russia, I had agreed to move into my friend, Shelby’s, two-bedroom apartment in Soho when I returned to NYC that fall. I had never seen the place, but I was sick of the NYU dorms. Not that they were cramped or uncomfortable—they were probably nicer than most affordable apartments in Manhattan. I just had dreams of independence, or being a real New Yorker, or something else equally delusional that I thought came with living in a real NYC apartment. Shelby had assured me the apartment was tiny, but livable.  I assumed that meant there would be some sort of living space, even if it were only small enough to hold a loveseat or a kitchen table, not both. I love to cook and I imagined having friends over for elaborate homemade dinners or desert tastings on Saturdays. I agreed to take the smaller bedroom, and smaller rent. In photos, the room appeared no larger than my mother’s walk-in closet. I would only be getting back to America a week before fall classes at NYU began, and I didn’t want to worry about where I was going to live. I now blame my impulsive decision to move into an apartment unseen on both youth and desperation.

    The night my father and I arrived in Manhattan, Shelby was visiting family out of state. A friend of hers, Chelsea, was staying in the apartment. It was a Saturday and she had plans for the evening, so she had left the keys at my father’s hotel for me to pick up. Miraculously finding a parking spot in front of the apartment, we nervously entered the building. The stairwell was far nicer than any I had seen in other doorman-less New York City apartment buildings. A beautiful heavy wooden door opened onto gray-blue tile flooring. Black, decorative metal railings lined the stairs at the end of the hallway.

    “This is nice,” my father said.

    We lugged the first load of suitcases and Ikea furniture pieces up to the third floor, Apartment 17. I slipped the key into its lock and turned left.

    No result.

    I turned it right. Equally disappointing results.

    I turned towards my father, my face twisted, “I did say I was renting apartment 17, right?” My father, already annoyed from driving, nodded, but looked ready to release a deluge of profanities.

    “It’s okay,” I said, fending off his hand attempting to take the key from me. “I’m just doing it wrong.” It’s my apartment, I thought, I need to be able to open it myself. He held back the deluge, instead, muttering.

    But the next seven tries did not work, nor did the following nine. My hands sweated profusely from the stuffy warmth of the building. I imagined future hours of listening to my father’s rants over this and years of him never letting me live this moment down. I turned the key for the seventeenth time with no effect.

    I yielded my place to my father. He had no better luck. We began taking turns at the door, each unsuccessful attempt resulting in further frustration. At one point the lock slipped a little. I started a happy dance, but the door still did not yield.

    Consternated, I sent a text to Shelby.

    She responded, Oh yeah. I always have problems with the lock. Sometimes it takes me a few minutes to get it open, but you just have to shove the key in there and jiggle it.

    “Um, just keep jiggling it, she says,” I told my dad, who was currently trying his hand again at the stubborn bolt. Twenty minutes later, hands cramping, we still had made no progress. I decided to text Chelsea for help, feeling bad about potentially ruining her night. She assured me she was headed home and would let me in.

    “Confession,” Chelsea said as she took my place at door, “I don’t even use the key. I just use a credit card to get into the apartment.”

    I balked. Chelsea was breaking into the apartment every night like a burglar. Even Shelby needed several minutes to open her own door. The tolerance of New Yorkers to put up with ridiculous living conditions never failed to impress me. This is New York City, the pinnacle city of dreams in America. Questioning whether you will actually be able to get your apartment door open every night is not a standard of living one is supposed to just accept here, or anywhere, really. But neither of the girls had felt the need to do anything about it.

    When I tell people, especially New Yorkers, that I studied abroad in St. Petersburg for 9 months, they laugh and suggest life (namely surviving the winter) must be difficult over there. It isn’t. In fact, in most respects it’s easier than life in NYC. The longest you have to wait for the metro is three minutes. The streets are large, the sidewalks broad and clean. Strangers recite poetry or sing songs together in parks. And the vodka is good and always shared liberally.

    And yet despite the ease of life in Russia, I found myself missing the difficulties of life in New York when I’m not there. I get nostalgic for the summer stench of garbage on street corners and the curses the homeless hurl at you if you don’t give them your pocket change. I miss the fact that the only friendly exchange I’ll have with strangers for days on end is the barista asking if I want cream with my coffee or brief eye contact with fellow subway passengers. When I’m gone, I realize that I actually love how even the seemingly simplest tasks often become so damn difficult in NYC, like navigating late night weekend subway schedules—or moving into a new apartment. These absurdities, annoying as they often are, endear the city to me. When I rode the pristine subways of St. Petersburg, I found myself bemoaning the fact that I would never be able to use the subway as my excuse for being late and the lack of Chinatown with its stink of dried fish that burrows into the pores of your skin. So being unable to get into my apartment seemed an ironically fitting re-entry into the city.

    Chelsea couldn’t get the door open either. It seemed her breaking and entering tactic finally failed her, as it had inevitably been bound to do. She left, informing us that she was only really keeping her stuff at the apartment, while actually sleeping at a friend’s. So at midnight, my father and I sat on the front stoop eating hamburgers with the cockroaches, waiting on a locksmith.

    My father was all bluster, venting his feelings about the evening and the state of the apartment’s lock. But I just laughed at the absurdity of the moment. It reminded me of a story I read shortly after I first moved to New York City, about a girl who had always dreamed of visiting the Big Apple. When she finally got the chance, she rented a room on the Upper East Side, close to Central Park. That was what she was most excited to see—the park. So when she arrived in the late afternoon, she immediately dropped her bags in the hotel and set off to walk through the famous green space before dinner. But within minutes of entering this calm, green reservoir in the bustling city, a tree branch fell, striking her head and killing her.

    The story is rather harsh but memorable because it was such the opposite of New York’s usual “city of dreams” narrative. The dreamer in this story doesn’t make it in the big city like she’s supposed to. Instead, she just dies. My experience is incomparable to hers. But the New York City that welcomed her and the New York City that was welcoming me were both irreverently unconcerned with expectations. If anything they were intent upon upsetting them, which was, depending on one’s view of life, either sardonically amusing or tragically annoying.

    Once the locksmith arrived, it took him almost thirty minutes to remove and replace the lock. Finally, the door opened upon a cramped, though lengthy hallway. And that was when I realized my egregious mistake in the process of agreeing to live in the apartment, sight unseen. I had forgotten to ask Shelby about the communal space of the apartment. At the end of the long, cramped hallway stood a kitchen, too small for even a table, let alone a love seat or a fourth or fifth person. Three doors lead to the bedrooms and bathroom. That was all.

    “All that effort for this place,” my dad said.

    I laughed. At least now I was a real New Yorker.

    Cat DeLaura spent the last four years studying the Russian language in hopes of finding an oligarch from Moscow who will pay for her ticket on the first commercial flight to the moon. In the mean time she’s serving coffee to residents of the Upper West Side and scribbling down her thoughts and experiences in hopes that someone might find them interesting.

    Photographer: Davidson Clinton Murphy

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    Máté Mohos <![CDATA[The Eggs of Protest]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8657 2017-04-09T18:58:59Z 2017-03-26T15:20:10Z 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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    Olivia Sjostedt <![CDATA[See You in New York]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8837 2017-04-09T18:59:14Z 2017-03-19T15:26:16Z 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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    Angel Eduardo http://www.angeleduardo.com <![CDATA[Homeward]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8832 2017-04-09T18:59:26Z 2017-03-12T16:00:07Z “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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    Jason Schwartzman <![CDATA[The King of New York]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8827 2017-04-09T18:59:33Z 2017-03-05T16:31:37Z 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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    Miko Jeffries <![CDATA[Rodney Street]]> http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=8809 2017-04-09T18:59:41Z 2017-02-26T23:23:05Z 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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