I tell people that I’m from Brooklyn. Not that Brooklyn though; I’m from the real Brooklyn. My home has been divided into two warfronts: the gentrified hipster village and the homegrown roots-pride town. My Brooklyn is filled with hyper-neurotic Jews and uber-religious Italians. My Brooklyn is questionably planted with undercover cops attempting to catch the Italian mafia. My Brooklyn is built on shabby wire fences with fat, shirtless men watering their gnome-covered lawns. My Brooklyn is not new Brooklyn.
Life Milestones That Occurred In My Brooklyn:
- Walked into a sign and cracked my head open at three years-old –
I can’t say I remember this, both for the young age, and you know, the head cracking thing, yet the myths and legends surrounding its occurrence will outlive me. A cool Spring day after a heavy rain in Brooklyn on Kings Highway in Flatbush, the floral shop below my walk-up apartment was bustling with husbands buying sunflowers for their wives and children playing in pools of sidewalk water. My parents distractedly checked in on the shop, allowing me to preoccupy myself with chasing a loose thread on my grandma’s dress. As my small dirt-covered hands reached for a final grab at the string, my feet inevitably lost control of themselves. One rain boot caught behind the other, creating my own cruel self-demise. As if in a slow-motion cartoon, my small, three-year old body lurched forward, shock filling my eyes as I hurdled towards the unavoidable target: a metal street sign. Just as my parents finally turned to see their child tumbling through the air, my head took the inexorable brunt of the ordeal: a large, head-gaping gash across the forehead. Today, I am left with a red scar on my head next to my left eye, lovingly given to me by my Brooklyn.
- Attended my grandparents’ funerals at twelve years-old –
The mind of a twelve-year-old in 2005 is suffocated with crushes, locker decorations, and Lisa Frank notebooks. The mind of a twelve-year-old in 2005 is concerned about which flip phone to ask for on their birthday and how many Abercrombie and Fitch shirts are too many. The mind of twelve-year-old in 2005 is not aware of death, is not aware of pain, and is most certainly not aware of death and pain for their heroic parents. In November of 2005, both of my father’s parents died within two weeks of each other. Neither was sick. Neither was in pain. Both were simply old. My grandparents were not from Brooklyn. Their Israeli roots carried them through wars, allowing them to call the small country home until they found themselves searching for better lives, both for themselves and their children. Thus, they moved to New York when my father was a young age, showing up as immigrants with nothing but two children and a lot of determination. It was not until 2005, until their death, until I saw my father’s pain, that I realized: my home is not their home. The place that I spent days basking in sunlight in a flimsy lawn chair outside of our walk-up, the place where I knew the pizza shop owner next door because he helped me with homework every Tuesday, the place that brews into a slushy mix every winter and makes me fall brutally on my butt; this place was not their place. Today, I am left with the memory that their Brooklyn is not my Brooklyn.
- Went on my first date to Coney Island at fourteen years-old –
Coney Island was my family’s bonding spot. It was that spontaneous day trip surprise. It was that pull-me-out-of-school-for-the-day treat. It was that eat-so-many-Nathan’s-hot-dogs-that-you-make-yourself-sick reward. It was innocent and pure bliss, that was, of course, until I turned fourteen and hormones overtook my small pubescent body. Not only did it immediately become painfully embarrassing and social suicide to even be seen with my parents, let alone doing kids activities with them, but now my mind seemed focused on one thing: boys. That’s when Bobby came along (name changed on the off chance that Bobby reads this and relinquishes our young love at the hand of embarrassment).
It was a fateful day when Bobby asked me on a date, that’s right, a real date immediately causing anxiety about what we would be doing and where we would be going. My Brooklyn may seem big to outsiders, but for everyone in it, it’s a small town filled with few secrets. I couldn’t go to the pizza shop downstairs without my parents finding out. I couldn’t go to the park without the yentas in the building above it spotting me and reporting back to my parents. I couldn’t even hang out with him at lunch without someone’s mom happening to stop by, of course detailing all sightings back to my parents. Bobby and I needed to get away — flee the coop of protective parents and small communities. Where else to go but the dizzying wonderland of buzzing homeless men on a boardwalk and whirling half-broken rides at Coney Island? Suddenly, this childhood hotspot was no longer embarrassing; it was a thrilling break from the world we knew. Our fourteen-year-old bones shook with excitement; four hot dogs, two ice cream cones, countless attempts at winning rigged arcade games, and zero allowance money left, Bobby and I faced our most exciting ordeal: going on the iconic Coney Island Ferris Wheel, with secret hopes of snagging a first kiss.
The rickety wheel turned slowly to the top, shaking vigorously with each movement. Each notch shook our bodies more and more, until we reached the peak. Mine and Bobby’s prolonged eye contact and glossy eyes told me one thing: it was time to go in for the big kiss. My brain became muffled with reminders to lean in slowly and not use too much tongue, so much so that Bobby’s strange lurch backwards was insignificant in my boy-crazed eyes. Just as I thought he was leaning back into our potential steamy make-out session, an alarming coughing and gagging noise escaped between our open mouths. Why was I suddenly wet and smell like hotdogs? Today, I am left with the scarring time someone threw up on me, pre-college days, in my Brooklyn.
- Illegally learned to parallel park at fifteen years-old –
I hate driving. I feel small on the road. I’m not aggressive enough. I can’t pay attention to all of the cars and mirrors without getting distracted. Driving in Brooklyn is, without a doubt, hell reincarnated on earth. Speeding cars, distracted drivers, ambiguous traffic patterns, subway crossways, jaywalking pedestrians, occasional police chases; taking a car out on the road in Brooklyn is the equivalent of swimming the opposite way through a school of fish. Of course, the other draw back of driving in Brooklyn is the inevitable dilemma of parallel parking. At fifteen years old, I was blissfully unaware of the actual difficulty level of driving. Being license-less, I only rode passenger seat, paying more attention to the song on the radio than the cars on the road. My mom was a first-hand witness to my ignorance about driving, and, probably rightfully so, took it as a sign of impending doom towards my future driving capabilities.
It was a Saturday afternoon when my mom and I were on our way to visit my grandmother over in Sheepshead Bay. My main concern was whether to play Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay” or Maroon 5’s “This Love.” My mom’s main concern was whether I would one day get in an accident because I have no idea what I’m doing, or because I’m distracted. As much as she tried, my mom could not fix my distraction. She could, however, fix my knowledge. Before I could even settle on a song, my mom pulled over on Bay Parkway, left the driver’s seat, and opened the passenger door fully expecting me to know what to do. I could either keep the car stalled on the busy parkway, or take the wheel, say a prayer, and attempt to pull into an impossibly tiny spot in between two seemingly monster trucks — all of this, of course, unlicensed. In my memory, I closed my eyes and went into the spot blindly, but in reality, I blacked out from such genuine fear. Today, I probably have an outstanding ticket and unpaid dent repair damage, in my Brooklyn.
- Got stuck on the NQR train at seventeen years-old –
I was never scared taking the subway anywhere in New York, especially in Brooklyn. My walk-up apartment on King’s Highway was conveniently located right below a subway stop, creating both easy access as well as many opportunities to overhear drunken sloppiness at three in the morning. The NQR train runs all through Manhattan and Brooklyn, it’s last stop being Coney Island. At seventeen, with too much eye makeup and my cousins fake ID in hand, a failed attempt to go out in Manhattan only left me back on the NQR train, heading home at one in the morning.
They say to never get into an empty subway car, so I went out of my way to search each car for compatible companions. Who would make conversation with me? Who looks interesting? Who could be my potential husband one day? I chose a car filled with a cast of characters I was prepared to acclimate myself with, and settled down into my blue plastic seat. The ride as a whole was fairly uneventful; I dozed off at one point. The woman in the corner ranted to herself. A baby slept in a stroller. It wasn’t until my body automatically alerted me awake, knowing the perfect fourty-five-minute nap time before reaching my stop. I stumbled up from my seat with my heels half on my feet, expecting the usual lurch of the subway’s shaky stop, yet, there was nothing; no jump on the tracks, no stop announcement, no doors jittering open; only darkness. The train has stopped.
Suddenly, this car of characters that I had so carefully chosen had actually become important; I would be stuck with them for who-knows-how-long. After a quick look out the window to check out the location of the luckily above-ground subway car, the street lights illuminated none other than my very own apartment right on King’s Highway. Here I was, stuck on a subway at one in the morning, after a failed attempt to be cooler than I actually am, in a car with strangers, right above my home. People spent the next few hours shifting around, making jokes about what they wish they had in their bags, falling asleep, making phone calls, demanding answers; I spent the next few hours staring out the window, looking down like a stranger at a place I called home. Today, I remember a bird’s eye view of my home as I sat imprisoned only feet away in my Brooklyn.
- Looked for my first apartment at twenty-two years-old –
After twenty-two years, I look back on Brooklyn. I want to see my home. I want to see my family. I want to see the pizza guy who helped me with my homework every Tuesday, but it’s changed. It is naïve of me to believe that, while I changed, my home would not. The floral shop next to the head-cracking street sign is now a Dunkin Donuts. The pizza shop next to my grandparents’ home is now a trendy name-brand consignment shop. Bobby is now a specialty barista living in Williamsburg. Bay Parkway is now lined with farm-to-table restaurants. The view from my stop on the NQR train is now congested with advertisements to work at a start-up in Brooklyn Heights. Today, I’m looking for my first apartment to start my new home. The Brooklyn that Brooklyn is today is no longer my Brooklyn, but could the new Brooklyn be my new Brooklyn?
This piece was written for The New York Times travel section as the target publication.