In Memory of My Buddy, Ali Dellevas

You’re always in my heart, Ali.

A Righteous Revival

Take me,” I often find myself bargaining loudly in my head every time someone dear to my heart has untimely, unfairly been taken from this world by that ugly six-letter-word: cancer. And I say “every time” because it, unfortunately, has been quite a few times and one, in my opinion, was one too many.

The bargaining swiftly turns into unequivocal anger, then some degree of shock, then back to the bargaining, “Take me this time, instead, you bastard,” anthropomorphizing the disease as if it bares ears that can hear my useless plea, a heart that can fathom compassion and the control to alter the circumstances, to take me instead of the good ones it seems to never spare.

Yesterday morning was no different.

Ali died this morning, dude,” our close, mutual friend, Amanda uttered over the telephone line from thousands of miles away.

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The Magic of Christmas

The holidays were magical in the presence of my mother and her grand Christmas tree, her abundant decorations and collection of hand painted Santas from around the world. The past five Christmases, since she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in December of 2010, have never been the same. Every ornament hung, every Christmas card addressed, every cookie baked – it no longer carries that magic. These festivities are conducted within a great void that is heavier than any Nor’easter snowfall and as certain as the Earth is round.

Her favorite holiday was Christmas and that was evident upon entering her home mid-December.   Jimmy Steward in It’s A Wonderful Life could be heard harping in the background while the scent of baked goods wafted from the kitchen. Christmas tree shopping at Vitali’s Christmas tree lot was a tradition followed by the decision of which excess of ornaments weren’t making the cut this year. My mama had so many ornaments even the fattest noble fir couldn’t yield the space for them all.

Every year, I could expect to unwrap an ornament from underneath the tree as my mother insisted her children begin their own large collection of non-traditional, bohemian or oversized ornaments. Most of these unique gifts hang in memory on my trees today amongst my own traditions of twinkling red, green and white lights – how intentionally Italian of me!  And what’s a tree without my favorite hanging from one of its sturdy needled branches?

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favorite ornament since my childhood

As a child, I could hardly understand why the tree had to come down so soon after Christmas day. As an adult, I get it and I wish I could let her know that. My mama passed so many traditions, morals and values on to me, and how to celebrate this time of year was definitely handed from mother to daughter.

I have adopted many of my own traditions over the years, many of which I’m sure she’d approve of, but the heart and soul of this particular holiday is rooted in my mother. She was my Santa Claus, my Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, my Frosty the Snowman, my George Bailey – she was the magic that ignited the 25th of December, my birthday, with magic. She was what and whom I believed in.

Merry Christmas to you, mama. I miss you with an unruly fierceness and a primal longing and I love you with all my heart and soul.

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Home

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.

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