The deafening, tresillo-rhythmed reggaeton blaring from the video store in my mother’s ear through the telephone was her immediate indication that I was “home.” Home, in this case, was not of the warm and fuzzy variety so much as it was basic shelter – a place to cook my modest meals and rest my head at night. It wasn’t a place synonymous with solitude or sanctuary and it certainly wasn’t quiet. Between excessively noisy downstairs neighbors and the video store, home was simply some overpriced thin walls, a few large windows and a door.
The vibrant, bustling neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn was a far cry from the palm tree-lined avenues of West Hollywood that I’d arrived from and the winter season was in stark contrast to the mild sixties and perpetual sunshine I had become accustomed to on the west coast. For the first time in years, I was obligated to invest in snow boots. Slipping on the ice and falling hard a few times made me miss living in flip-flops, a southern California mainstay even in the midst of January. How was I ever going to make it to spring, my bruised ass silently questioned whilst meeting the concrete.
My daily walks to and from the subway were rarely uneventful and usually included some sort of harassment. An evening hike home from the Jefferson stop off the L train was regarded unusual if it didn’t include at least one, “Hola mami, cómo estás” because my Italian heritage was often mistaken for one of Spanish descent. My Spanish language knowledge is decent but their meager advances were often met with no response.
I was once cat called by a boy of no more than ten years of age while his father stood by chuckling at the audacity of which he probably considered to be a revered product of his exceptional child rearing. All I could think was, “Where is your mother,” though the words didn’t escape my mouth and the simultaneous, “I want my mommy” thought followed. If my move to Los Angeles at the age of eighteen from the Midwest provided me with a dollar of culture shock, then this was priceless.
Coworkers of mine, who were natives of Bushwick, that is to say, they had grown up in a much tougher Bushwick than I had resided in, would warn me of its rough edges, validating that perhaps it wasn’t so much culture shock as it was just the harsh realities of an inner city Brooklyn.
One week night, upon walking home after a long, stress inducing day at work, I was met at the corner of Knickerbocker and Troutman with yellow tape, forbade to cross the line and walk the short twenty feet to the steps of my apartment. I found myself sleepily sipping craft beers at a hipster hot spot until the wee hours of the morning when authority officials had wrapped up their investigation into an illegal gun sales operation. A twenty-something year old man had been killed in self defense, on my street, right next door to where I rested my weary head every night.
Eastward gentrification, however, was becoming evident in the costly Japanese grocery store whose prices could rival Whole Foods and the numerous gastro pubs and bistros setting up shop on otherwise empty corners that once resembled industrial lots. The corner of Troutman and Wyckoff became the seen and be-seen hub of the neighborhood with the new age beatniks of Williamsburg spilling out onto the sidewalk awaiting a coveted table to sample the “New American” cuisine of Northeast Kingdom. The neighborhood was visibly transforming, much to many long time residents’ dismay.
Even the name of the neighborhood, Bushwick, could be seen in places conjunct with Williamsburg, creating Bushburg. At every noticed sighting of this, I would reflexively roll my eyes because you can put up your fancy cocktail crafting bars with obscure alleyway entrances and your organic farm to table restaurants that significantly raise the rent for poor, working class families but there’s so much in a name. Hipster transplants living in Bushwick could be overheard confidently calling their “hood” East Williamsburg. It made it personal, somehow, and even though I wasn’t a Bushwick native, or a Brooklyn native for that matter, I felt protective of it.
Come Spring, I was consciously aware that the family of six downstairs would only be forced to move further east or into neighboring Bed-Stuy until the cons of redevelopment inevitably changed the face of their new home – until the characteristics that define each Brooklyn neighborhood become history, pictures in a photo album or a book and memories in our minds.
Alongside some of the things that made me despise my first year living in Brooklyn were some other things that gave it its charm and made it stand out. Bushwick was the sore thumb of American neighborhoods – maybe it didn’t feel great all the time nor was it very easy on the eyes but it certainly demanded one’s attention. It undoubtedly dragged me out of my comfort zone, giving me a swift, much needed, unexpected jab to the gut from time to time.
Beguiling were the wrinkled Puerto Rican grandpas at their folding tables and lawn chairs, in the humidity of summer, battling each other in multiple games of chess on the sidewalk. Involuntarily, I found myself recognizing beauty in the weathered faces at the checkout line of the Associated grocery store on Knickerbocker Avenue. The coffeehouse on the corner of St. Nicholas and Stockholm motivated me to walk the extra half-mile, in the coldest, early mornings of winter simply to savor one of their delicious mint mochas on my thirty-minute subway ride into Manhattan.
Sitting in my third story apartment window facing west over Knickerbocker delivered some of the most fascinating people watching one could imagine, not to mention, a lovely New York City sunset every now and then. From the Asian run Laundromat across the street that destroyed a load of my clothing once to the adjacent liquor store with its bright, blinking neon sign to Kennedy Fried Chicken and Pizza, an after hours savior for those drunken nights, there was never a dull moment in my introduction to Brooklyn living. People of every size, shape, age and color walked parallel down the litter-ridden sidewalks; to-go Fortunata’s pizza boxes in tow and their metal pushcarts full of groceries adding to the symphonic sounds of consistent one-way traffic.
To this day, I can still recall my now deceased mother’s knowing inquisition after hearing the approaching bass thumping, musical staple of Puerto Rican culture, “You’re home, huh?” And I was – Home, that is.