In 2014, at the age of 64 years, I began teaching at a high school in Brooklyn. What did I teach? Students. English Composition. I lived in Bushwick on the top (third) floor of a row house walk-up, and looked down on Schaefer St. I titled the pieces according to the days I had been there — like journal entries. The theme is storytelling, the material is what was outside my window, and Boris was my landlord, an engaging, retired NYPD detective, who had lived there his entire life. Following are the first three entries.
(30 Days In)
Every story has a beginning, a point of departure, as in, ‘he pulled up the metal doors to the concrete steps leading down to the basement’, or ‘only when the key was forced into the rusted lock would it turn’, or ‘at last they undid the knots and shoved the boat from the wharf’. But this is a literary device. Where or what starts a tale is the continuation of it. Someone had shut the metal doors, tied the boat to the wharf, and that key once fit easily into the lock. So, a beginning is a decision to chart nanoseconds of the timeless rolling river of existence, because of a hunch that by slowing and gazing, we might make it our own.
Boris takes Fernando, at 1260 Schaefer, a half-gallon jug of Smirnoff’s every week. He tells him that his brother is a distributor for a large Brooklyn importer and that he occasionally recovers stuff that falls off the truck. When he does, he says, he thinks of his friends. This is a lie. Fernando waits for him with joyful anticipation. “Look what I have for you today, you like it? I had to travel to get it. Hey Fernando, can’t you keep that music down, why does it have to be so loud? No, goddammit, stop keeping people up at night in the neighborhood, people must work and there are babies…now take this and please, please, use your headphones, and does your window have to be so wide fucking open?” Fernando smiles and before he can ask Boris to have a drink with him the door hits the frame, and the old man is back to being alone on the couch, next to the remote and the gift inside the crumpled brown paper bag…staring, just staring.
Though this may sound like Boris is a Samaritan, diplomat, or both (after all, he’s been in the neighborhood for five decades), who is gently bribing the old man so that when he is drunk and lonely late in the night he will remember where the Smirnoff’s came from (along with the admonition), and will alter his behavior, just enough, a smidgen, and turn the volume down to half-blast and allow those who sleep with the windows open to have their rest, and if you would infer this, you would be wrong. Dead wrong. It is way beyond this.
Boris is trying to kill Fernando. His fond hope is that this Viejo will not stop drinking the fine Russian spirit until he either poisons himself or stumbles on the bottles or stacks of papers on his floor and crashes his head against the corner of the glass-topped table, and wakes (sort of) three days later in Kings County Hospital to the news he won’t be going home anytime soon. Boris is ushering in the day when this belligerent old bastard who curses his block at two in the morning with the deafening sounds of depressing and dated Puerto Rican love songs, will finally be gone, gone baby gone, somewhere else, anywhere, and preferably, will never return.
The truth is that Fernando has already died. Most everyone ignores it except Boris who is simply attempting to contain the stink.
(37 Days In)
Stories have energy, pace, and rhythm that soaks through the setting, plot, and characters. A suburban dinner party with too much wine at the home of a wealthy divorcee has a different flow than a group of teens with just enough money on a subway from Brooklyn to Times Square on a Saturday night.
Alfred Hitchcock, in describing the ‘montage’ of the famous shower scene in ‘Psycho’, said that there were seventy-eight different pieces of film assembled in forty-five seconds. Every little bit of the shower stall (water, curtain, tiles, shower head, drain), the woman (hair, hands, face, arms, legs, without full nudity), and the action of the murder, is pictured and surrounded by the sounds of flowing water, the low notes of basses and cellos ending in the invasive pitch of violas and violins and the woman’s screaming. We are seduced — wanting it to end and keep going at the same time. The scene is exhausting to watch.
It is, perhaps, because the normal experience of living is so fractured — one moment can seem totally out of step with the last or next one, and what governs what one does for a living seems out of tune with what is important beyond that — that stories have the potential to express some sort of inner cohesion, like the roots of trees below ground, which, contrary to what is seen as a grove of individual specimens on the surface, are completely and totally intertwined with each other (regardless of age or species). A story’s energy is witness to this kind of linkage below the surface.
Boris said not to worry about her, “She’s a junkie, harmless, just don’t trust her.” That was said in response to my expressed curiosity after watching this young woman having conversations with people from four buildings away in a loud voice and then discovering that there was no one there; or seeing her come up from the basement and go straight to the six large garbage bins next to her stoop, straighten them out for forty-five minutes before crisscrossing the street as if in a giant slalom competition, stopping at other containers in front of other buildings behind low-lying iron fencing, and shaking and moving each one, and taking the lid off, pulling up the green bags as if she were packing down the ingredients when in fact she is looking for stuff — stuff to use, stuff to sell. Her monologues are always fierce arguments in a mixture of English and Spanish as if she is in a constant moment of the knockout blow, repeating what she is hearing and then answering as if with the left hook and right uppercut, making it feel like one is watching Ali in the tenth, as she turns and wags her head, waves the hands, shakes the fist, dips the shoulder. If only she wouldn’t always wear those sunglasses.
Junkie. According to ‘Urban Dictionary’, the term was coined during WWI when heroin or morphine addicts collected and sold scrap metal (junk) for a higher price to buy their drugs. Now it refers to the stuff itself. Boris says it is good to have her in the neighborhood because she sees everything and scares away trouble, like the pit bull behind the chain link fence in the used car lot. More from Urban Dictionary: The Dopium Tribe? I herd dey be jus sum local ‘fiends’ who run aroun suckin’ dat junk all day. Stay away from ’em, they carry spears.
Lisa is scrawny. Tight. Bony. When she is not speeding, she stays in the corner of the basement stoop under 1273 Schaefer. She has Luis with her though one rarely sees him. He may be only a rumor, but one that she needs. When the Hasid pulls up in the dented minivan without hubcaps on the first day of the month to collect the rents, and his wife goes to the lobbies of their buildings to sweep and wipe the windows, Lisa bolts. He must know she is camping underneath the stoop stairs, and he must be allowing it because he could surely lock the steps with metal doors (like everyone else does), but he doesn’t. She bolts not because he will kick her out but because she will rage, and not because he is dressed in a long black coat, has ringlets, or because of his wife’s wig, or anything else having to do with his religion, no, but because he is a fucking landlord, and she is homeless.She will not stay at the local shelter because there is an 8:00 PM curfew and because they eat there and then are bused to sleep in another place, where there are thieves and it is too much like prison, and she craves the freedom of the street. She takes her chances with Mr. Teitelbaum which has worked out well so far — but he is still the guy who comes around to collect the money every month, money that she will never have because whatever she is able to get, from the bins and wherever else, is spent on the habit.
Boris says two things will happen soon. Either she will OD or she will get locked up. He doesn’t express an opinion. “And what do you care, anyway?” he says to me.
(44 Days In)
In every story there is a safe place. In Spanish, a word for this is la querencia. It allows the reader to get onboard, to move past the ‘toe-dipping’ and to trust the writer. In Thomas Green’s novel, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, a love story between two young people living with terminal cancer, one trusts their relationship. It carries us through their caducous world because it is so alive. I also trust the preacher in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. I wait for him to come back into the story because of his humanity. In Woody Allen’s films, the neurotic characters in their frenzied lives are acceptable because of the aesthetic pleasure of the images of New York City. Being in the boat with Santiago in the ‘Old Man and the Sea’ is anything but secure; it’s his dream that prevents me from bailing.
At 1259 Schaefer there is a stoop where a group of women and their daughters like to congregate. Instead of hanging out the windows (looking down and mean), exiting the building and going separate ways, or coming out at different times and not showing their faces, they occupy a little space on the landing and steps, lean against the railing, put faces to the sun, and stroke each other’s hair. Just being there. A place that is usually an aged and eroded trail becomes a little campground. La querencia.
The steps take five or six good-sized ladies while the kids turn the sidewalk into an imaginary place until someone feels at a disadvantage, whines or howls, and is summoned to chill with the mamas for a bit. Black, White, Hispanic, they speak English, Spanish, Spanglish, Ghetto, whatever, and they aren’t worrying about each other’s man or doing a number on the cops, or the weather; and the sound of their voices is low ‘cause they are not playing to the neighborhood — or to the guy across the street who is peeking — no, they’re just talking as if no one is within forty yards, which of course is a lie because this is the city where people and cars and fire trucks and buses and hawkers crowd in all the time. It is the family around the kitchen table, the calm of a Quaker Meeting, a desert watering hole.
John Jeremiah Sullivan (Wikipedia) defines querencia as an untranslatable Spanish word meaning something like the place where you are your most authentic self and points to an example from bullfighting, when the bullfighter prepares for the kill that will end it, the bull stakes out turf — querencia — the place and time in the ring where he claims his strength and safety, stilling the crowd.
As I am trying to figure out how to chart the flight from bullfighting back to the sunny afternoon on the stoop of 1259 (wondering if it were even possible, not wanting to give up the reference to la corrida de toros’), suddenly trumpets, drums, and police appear, and poof, the stillness (and dilemma) becomes an amazing procession of Mexican Catholics moving solemnly down the street.
The soldiers in their scrubs are first, then six boy acolytes (the middle one holding up the wooden cross of the crucified Christ), followed by the choir reciting the Ave Maria, Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores…then the faithful — mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children in strollers — next a small brass band: men with black hair combed back on the head, long-sleeved white shirts, pants that fall over new leather shoes, playing meditative folk songs with a beat, leading a short, melancholic robed Mexican-American priest surrounded by generals whose collective demeanor professes light in a dark world (how terribly unfortunate it is that so many are so blind to its comfort and truth), followed by six somber gentlemen shouldering a wooden bier on which stands a life-size homemade paper and fabric statue of Madonna and Child. Radiant golden plastic crowns on these two holy heads are the beating heart, the kadosh kadosha, of the parade.
The last line of marchers includes a person with the tinny loudspeaker, calling on us onlookers to pray to the Holy Mother and Child for peace and blessings.
Despite the almost impenetrable thickness of the cultural and ecclesiastical overlay, I am stunned into stillness by the connection between this pious procession and primitive statuary and the mothers and children on the stoop and street who, by this time, are dancing around and enjoying the wondrous confusion of the parade.
I think the word is belonging. La querencia names this. If you want to state (as Boris does) that you are beyond belonging, outside the home, disconnected, alien, alone on a small boat in a great sea, always trying to catch up or always one step ahead, unable to sleep without a gun under your pillow, then, perhaps, that is your stoop, your querencia.
I, for now, am with the Madonnas and their children, and this pen and paper.
Image: photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash , licensed under CC 2.0.
- View from The Third Floor - March 29, 2023