I pulled within inches of the car parked to my right and shifted into reverse. Letting the Toyota idle back about a foot and a half, I spun the wheel a full turn and then some. When the Forerunner came to a forty-five degree angle with the curb, I cut the steering wheel all the way to the left and let the truck relax into its new parking spot.
“Not bad, kid,” my brother Jimmy yapped from the passenger seat. “Now, if we could do something about how you handle this thing in the forward gears…” Jimmy looked up and down the block. “Which one is it?”
“It’s the white one next to the storefront church,” I said. “It’s not much to look at, but the apartment upstairs is nice.”
Jimmy climbed out of the truck. He glanced at the Baptist church and the shops on the corner. He leaned his head into the car. “Paul,” he said. “Are you like the only white face in the neighborhood?”
“I might be, Jim,” I said. “But you know, I’m the only white face at half the family parties I go to.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Jimmy said.
“Come on, Jim,” I shrugged as I popped the tailgate lock. “What, did you forget to put your balls on this morning?”
The move was easy. We travelled lightly, like refugees.
Only a month before, Vidya had suggested that the mysterious blemishes on the baby’s forehead were bites from bed bugs. I made a face—the kind where you wrinkle up your lips to the side and raise one eyebrow like the Six Million Dollar Man—a face of disbelief—a face that makes you unpopular in your own home.
When my face returned to normal, we pulled the cushioned bumpers away from the rungs on Ella’s crib to find nests of bed bug nymphs. Our lives became a creepy, crawly monster movie.
We tried everything. We packed our belongings—out of season clothing, toiletries, books and baby toys—into plastic bags and set them on the roof through the frozen weeks of February. We knocked our kitchen table on its side and mopped the floor with rubbing alcohol, creating a barricaded play area for our crawling infant daughter. We hired an exterminator to spray and dust the remaining rooms of the apartment. We even considered attending the Bible study class he scribbled on the back of his business card.
In the end, anything that would not survive the high-temperature cycles in an industrial washing machine followed by two hours in a hot, tumbling dryer was put out with the trash under a tarp that read, “BED BUGS.” It was time to abandon ship.
We needed a baby-friendly, dog-friendly apartment, available immediately. Vidya searched the rental lists on the Internet and handed me sheets of paper with phone numbers, addresses and short lists of questions. I phoned the landlords and scheduled viewing appointments. We mapped out our weekends, jumped into our car and zipped around the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Returning from a scouting expedition, we drove along a street lined with industrial cinder block buildings and gaping garage doors. I sunk in my seat, ashamed of myself.
“You know,” I said. “For years now… forever really, I’ve been a cheerleader for the urban lifestyle. I’d always say, ‘Every day’s a beautiful day in Brooklyn!’ but I was talking about the three or four neighborhoods that I walk through.” I gazed out the window. “Now that we’re looking in other neighborhoods, I don’t like the city as much as I thought I had. It’s kind of a toilet.”
I had lived in Brooklyn for twenty years. For the last four or five years, it had occurred to me that I held a skewed concept of my home borough—that I did not truly live in Brooklyn, not the one that came to the minds of out-of-towners when the clumsy, beautiful word passed my lips like something I had been chewing and hadn’t meant to reveal. I lived in a sort of amusement park version of Brooklyn—the Patty Duke Brooklyn—historic landmark areas of brownstones and wrought iron gates.
I had an inkling a few years back when my friend Michele asked me to help her get her car out of a Brownsville impound lot. We chatted in the back seat of the livery car on our way, not paying attention to landmarks as they passed by the window. I knew, in broad strokes, how to get back to Cobble Hill.
Michele filled out the paper work, wrote a check and handed me the keys to the car. I drove the car through the open chain link gate and followed the surrounding one-way streets for an orbit of the lot until I reached a main road.
I don’t know how long I had been driving when it struck me that the drive home was longer than I expected. Stopping at a red light, I glanced over at Michele. She had no idea we were lost. I drove a few more blocks, hoping to pass a familiar landmark.
Nope, no landmark.
Maybe a few more blocks…
No, again. I decided to say something.
“You know,” I said. “I think I got turned around coming out of the impound lot. I don’t recognize anything that we’ve driven past. I think I’ve been driving in the wrong direction.”
“Should we stop and ask for directions?” Michele asked.
I winced, “I don’t think we can.”
“What do you mean?” She asked. “Why can’t we ask for directions?”
“What would I say?”
Michele stared out the window for a minute.
“Do you see where I’m coming from,” I asked. “I can’t walk into a shop and say, ‘Can you tell me how to get to Brooklyn?… I mean, I know that this is Brooklyn, that we are in Brooklyn right now, but I’m looking for the other Brooklyn—the one where ladies push Bugaboo strollers and talk about where to get the best muffin—it’s like a giant P.T.A. meeting.’”
It was a long drive home.
The apartment search proved difficult. Vidya and I did not see eye to eye on what made a neighborhood desirable. Before moving into my Cobble Hill apartment, Vidya took every opportunity to rail against the surrounding community.
“I can never find a place to park around here,” she protested. “I just drove around for a half hour.”
“Oh come on,” I said. “It’s like that everywhere in Brooklyn. That’s why keeping a car in the city is such a nuisance.”
“Not true, not true,” she countered. “My neighborhood’s not like that. I never have a problem parking in Fort Greene. I can drive up and find a spot within a half block of my house.”
She caught me smirking.
“What’s that for?” she asked.
“Your neighborhood is poor,” I said. “It isn’t hard to park in a poor neighborhood because no one can afford to own a car.”
“My neighborhood isn’t poor!”
“OK, let’s not say poor. Let’s say young. Let’s call it an up-and-coming neighborhood.”
“That means poor.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Sure it does—young professionals paying off their student loans, plenty of parking, no shortage of vegetarian restaurants,” I said. “Believe me – once you’re out of grad school a few years, you want some red meat.”
We found ample parking in our search for an affordable apartment. Occasionally, we passed vegetarian and macrobiotic restaurants, but we became more accustom to a landscape of liquor stores and corner bodegas.
“I don’t like the look of that.” I pointed to a slow moving cyclist on an old-school Ross Apollo chopper.
“Oh no,” Vidya agreed. “That’s no good.” We watched the cyclist pedal aimlessly around the intersection.
“That’s a drug corner,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
Vidya nodded, “Yup.”
I knew a drug corner when I saw one. I had just re-watched the first, third and fourth seasons of The Wire in preparation for the fifth and final season.
Narcotic surveillance became another item on Vidya’s apartment checklist—we’d look up and down the hallways for signs of recent exterminator visits, flush the toilets, run the showers, make small talk with the landlords, and stake out the corners for drug traffic.
I played decoy, buying time at each location, covering up our reconnaissance activities by acting like a moron who couldn’t unfold a baby stroller. Sometimes I played an idiot who couldn’t fathom the cat’s cradle-like simplicity of harnessing my child to my chest in a front-loading papoose baby carrier thingy.
Late one afternoon, we pulled in front of a house in Crown Heights. We were glad to see little activity in front of the two bodegas at the intersection. We rang the bell and were greeted by the first floor tenant, Melanie. Melanie showed us up the stairs to the second floor apartment, which was actually on the third floor.
The first floor was called the garden floor; the second floor was called the first floor and the third floor was called the second floor. I had had enough of third floor walk-ups from our last apartment. Constantly climbing with the baby and the stroller offered a rigorous daily routine, so, for our peace of mind, we joined in and called the third floor the second floor.
We played it the way we always did—I wandered around touching things, playing with light switches and faucets and testing any luxury items I encountered—a refrigerator door ice machine or an in-drain garbage disposal. Vidya asked the hard questions—nitty-gritty stuff—lease terms, utility transfer, who do we call when we hear mice, who do we call when things break… and don’t pretend for a second that we won’t hear mice and that things won’t break.
Melanie answered our questions and revered our child’s beauty enough to be appropriate but not overbearing. The tour and the question and answer session were going well. I liked Melanie. She was down to earth, good neighbor material. I think that’s why it struck me when she began to speak like a real estate agent. “It’s a real artsy neighborhood. The whole area is undergoing a real gentrification.”
I had heard this song before. The artsy neighborhood was one of the most misleading labels in New York real estate, and it fooled me every time.
When I hear of an artistic neighborhood, I envision works of art, famous works of art, strewn about the streets and buildings—water lilies on a brick wall, starry night on a garage door, a Pietà on the median of a busy street. When I envision Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos in the subway tunnels or beneath a highway overpass it dawns on me—Michelangelo didn’t live in the Sistine Chapel. I doubt he even lived in the neighborhood. The entire time he was there, lying on his back, painting the ceiling, the place was a mess—scaffolds and drop clothes scattered everywhere. The Holy Father was furious. And Van Gogh? Can you imagine what type of neighbor he might have been—a suicidal painter with a penchant for self-mutilation?
Living in an artistic neighborhood didn’t mean the trash was laid out on the curb in polypropylene tarps in homage to Christo’s Reichstag. Artistic meant wine bottles, beer bottles and cigarette butts—filling up the trash, smashed against the curb and used in the place of authentic building materials. It meant loud and ill-timed rituals to entreat muses and to reconcile broken romances.
An artistic neighborhood resembled less a work of art and more an artist’s work place or palette or psyche—it was raw, messy, broken, smelly, drunk and unapologetic.
To realtors and real estate developers, the arrival of artists marked the first phase of a neighborhood’s gentrification, but not a single artist in New York City ever figured that out. They thought they were an end in themselves. They admired their own resourcefulness–living in a less than convenient, less than desirable neighborhood. They loved that there was a word for it–gentrification. They thought it meant their presence exuded gentleness—a soul for neighborhood rife in urban decay. But when their reign ended and the landlords priced them out, gentrification became a dirty word. They recognized the root it shared with the gentlemen of old—the perennial land owners, the gentry.
Within the span of a renewed lease or two, the artists confused themselves with the neighborhood’s original residents. Painting signs and picketing development companies, they completely forgot how, only a few years earlier, they had displaced families who had called the neighborhood home for generations.
If the phrase “artistic neighborhood” made me think of priceless masterpieces, the term gentrification conjured visions from a science fiction movie—through a patented cloud dusting technology, spores of gentility snowed down upon targeted neighborhoods, causing everyone to stand taller, smile generously, hold doors open, and tip their hats to ladies. Of course, that’s not what it meant. It meant that rent was going up, families were moving out, and art school graduates were moving in. In short, it meant the white people were coming.
I wouldn’t miss our old apartment for its uneven drop ceilings, regurgitating plumbing or unforgiving heat, but it was well placed. Monday morning was within walking distance of Friday afternoon. In a fifteen block loop, I could walk to my office after walking Ella to day care and Vidya to work. The new apartment, the artsy one, was out of the way. It meant morning subway rides with Ella, part of the urban lifestyle I cringed at—children caught up in the rush hour commute – infants through middle schoolers, riding the subway at all hours—nodding off to sleep, doing homework, eating breakfast and dinner sitting side-by-side with their sisters, or talking to each other across crowded subway cars while their mothers stand holding the rails above them. Family time–the masses of New York City, with their varied agendas, politics, and standards of hygiene, invited into their kitchen breakfast nook twice a day—it takes a village.
To date, Vidya and I had taken Ella on the subway only once. It was quite a drill—I arranged a system of eye contact and pantomime with the MTA officer in the box to open the gate next to the turnstile so I could push Ella’s stroller through, then lifted the stroller, with Ella inside of it, to carry it down the stairs. Obstacles I find a nuisance as an adult commuter, become down-right dangerous when I’m a pack animal in my daughter’s cavalcade—a slow waddler, a commuter stopping on an active stair case to check her cell phone, a man testing his umbrella’s quick release.
I handed Ella off to Vidya and dismantled the stroller. Tucking the seat under one arm and hanging the folded frame around my neck and shoulder like a stiff mailbag, I became the number-one lumbering danger on the platform. I wandered away, estimating a minimum safe distance from Vidya and Ella. When the train pulled into the station, we entered the car through different doors.
Ella had always been a gifted waver. I had hung a full length mirror in her bedroom. I hung it horizontally, so I guess you’d call it a full width mirror, but none of us were particularly wide, so it served as panoramic of the crib, changing table and the elephant mural I had painted on Ella’s wall. Mornings, after I changed her diaper, Ella and I would face the mirror and I would wave. At about six months, realizing she had her own hands and arms, she joined in. She started with an open-hand, close-hand kind of wave, which was fine for the mirror, but when Ella left the house, the simple wave couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. She greeted passersby with a full flapping arm.
This wasn’t a suburban street, where you measured your day with each encounter—a nod to the mailman from your front door. This was Brooklyn. Everyone walked up and down the street all day long, and Ella flapped her arm for anyone who passed. For a dog on a leash, she flapped two.
People smiled and waved back. Some would not. Some passed by annoyed—Ella’s greeting slowed them down, distracted them from their life’s work. Some were taken aback—they found Ella’s salute forward or familiar—improper, tempting me to whisper into Ella’s ear, “It’s OK my sweet, get a good look. Remember the faces and never wave to them again.” I bounce-shifted Ella higher up on my rib cage and turned my head to whisper in her ear. Ella smiled. Could I say something ugly? Could I say anything? Could I let her hear the spite in my voice and risk tainting her joy? Ella didn’t mind. She smiled and waved.
I watched from a distance in the subway car. From Vidya’s lap, Ella looked around at the other passengers. She made quick allies of a few nearby faces, making eye contact, smiling and flapping an arm. She found reassurance, looking back at Vidya.
Ella peeked at a woman sitting in the corner, next to the door that led to a connecting subway car. Ella looked at the other passengers, her new friends, as she had looked at Vidya a moment before, smiling, hoping for a smile in return—validation, reassurance, encouragement to invite the woman in the corner into what the rest of them shared.
The woman looked away, not into space, not into a book, not upon a crossword puzzle, but into the steel seem of the subway door. Ella set her sights on the woman and smiled until the woman could no longer avert her eyes. She scowled and tilted her head to look at Ella sideways.
“You’re not going to give up on me, are you?” she said.
Ella’s smile brightened. The woman smiled.
“You got me, OK… are you happy now?”
From half a subway car away, my heart broke wide open. But then, that’s what daughters do to fathers—they break us—they hobble us—they slow us down. They hand us imaginary tea cups, “Isn’t it delicious, Daddy?” They shower us with bouquets of yellow dandelion flowers and say they are beautiful. And when we look again, we see it too, the beauty—the delicious beauty liberated from the most common things, seeping into our broken places—turning us into something courageous and loving—something closer to what we were meant to be.
Jimmy and I carried the contents of the truck up to the apartment in two stages, up one flight of outdoor stairs from the street to the foyer and up a second indoor flight of stairs to the apartment. We had packed our clothing, house wares, bedding and toiletries in large, heavy duty plastic bags. As we emptied the truck, we looked more as if we had just returned from a shopping spree than a family moving house. Our comings and goings upset Ella. She cheered when I walked through the door, but was confused when Jimmy, the shorter, skinnier Daddy, followed me into the room.
Vidya looked troubled. “I just spoke with my mother,” she said. “My cousin is very sick. We should go see him tomorrow.”
“OK,” I said. “I’m going to take Jimmy home now.”
Mornings came slowly in the new apartment; Sunday mornings came slowest of all. For sixteen years I had lived three floors above Atlantic Avenue, one of Brooklyn’s arterial roadways. Garbage trucks, street sweepers and delivery trucks heralded the mornings, marking an end to the patchy sleep the ambulances, fire trucks and motorcycles afforded throughout the night. Waking in Crown Heights, I couldn’t believe the quiet, or should I say, I couldn’t believe how clearly I heard my daughter’s waking squeals.
In the old apartment, I would wake, wait and listen, wondering if I heard the squeak of a car’s brakes or the axle of a deliveryman’s hand truck. Now, a block and a half from the bustle of Eastern Parkway, I heard my daughter’s wakefulness build each morning.
It began with the gentle tumbling sounds of Ella adjusting her position in her crib, followed by a rhythmic kicking of her foot, which might lull her back to sleep. Waking became inevitable when I heard a tide of light babbles rising and falling until it reached an excited crescendo, punctuated by a soft bonk, when she threw her knitted bear into the open room beyond the bars of her crib, into what I would consider freedom, but she and the bear knew as exile.
I listened for the activity coming from the baby’s room, Roebling, our eleven year old dog, listened for mine. The trick of my morning was to get out of bed, dress in whatever was handy and lead the dog out of the apartment for a walk before Ella woke up.
Roebling and I had blazed a few different paths for our morning walk. There was the short walk where we would go as far as the stripped Kawasaki and the litter of feral kittens in the service alley half way up the block—the path we took in foul weather and when the timing of our morning had been thrown off. The first of our longer walks took us beyond the Kawasaki to a right hand turn at the top of the block—a slow parade through a disintegrating urban background, a favorite of Roebling’s for the chicken bones scattered at irregular intervals—constant enough that every walk demanded I force an entire hand into Roebling’s mouth, but placed to make it impossible for me to predict where they would turn up. So, we began to turn left at the top of the block, opening our walk to the tree lined malls of Eastern Parkway, a path mined with just as many chicken bones, and though harder to see, hidden in the grassy margins of the walkway, their positions were easier to predict, lying near park benches, near trash cans or along a trajectory between the two.
I fell into my normal dog walking routine, waving hello to joggers and other dog walkers, asking the names of the dogs we met.
Dog owners I had known in Cobble Hill named their dogs like they were naming babies—Heidi, Gwen, Lola and Stella were dogs we’d see within a few blocks of our old apartment. Naming conventions along Eastern Parkway were different—leaning toward Visigothic—short, sharp sounding names I wouldn’t think to give a child—loan shark names, pimp names, NC-17 cage fighter names.
I smiled, said hi and asked the dog’s name. Expecting something cute, or at least friendly, I was surprised by the answer. Tempted to say, “Excuse me?” or “Could you say that again?” or “I didn’t catch that,” I held my tongue. I didn’t want to hear the name again. I don’t like to be spoken to harshly in the morning.
A notorious scrapper in the dog parks of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, unafraid to mix it up with anything from a ridgeback to a St. Bernard, Roebling carried himself demurely along Eastern Parkway. Attentive, bordering on cautious. Greeting another dog, Roebling followed and led in the opening fox trot, but broke away when the tango began in earnest. It wasn’t like him and it saddened me. His morning dance partner wasn’t a pit-bull or a mastiff; it was a Schnauzer—a tall Schnauzer, but a Schnauzer just the same.
Though Roebling’s morning behavior fell out of character, I had to give it some credence. I hadn’t wanted to admit to a few recent observations—his rigidity when climbing from the couch, dropping his front paws to the floor to drag the rest of his body from among the throw pillows—the white fur, once accenting his muzzle with sophistication now covering Roebling’s face like kabuki makeup. My scrappy puppy was now an old dog—an old dog transplanted, holding no status in the local pack. His new acquaintances would never know how high up a tree he had once left his mark. In their eyes, he was little more than a lap dog.
Our neighbor settled his dog down and continued on his morning walk. I scratched my fingers through my own thinning hair. Roebling was too old to demand respect in the new neighborhood. What about me? Was I too old to do this sort of thing again, to gentrify—to join a neighborhood as it is torn apart and built up again around me? Was I even welcomed here?
Roebling and I took a few steps in the early morning fog, watching the Schnauzer and his handler walk up the path. To my left, a man pulled his dog away from the pile of chicken bones he had found in the grass. I turned to look at the dog, then back at the Schnauzer ahead of us. Funny, I hadn’t noticed.
Without question, Roebling’s age and unfamiliarity had left him at a disadvantage, but something else had thrown the fight. The Schnauzer still had his balls on.
If you want to understand a neighborhood, look at its dogs. Iconic guard dog breeds pepper the streets of low income, high crime neighborhoods. More than a family pet, the dog earns its keep as an alarm system and threatening presence. Pure breeds, like Dobermans and Rottweilers, bolster the egos of the status conscious, but nothing offers a better return on investment than the scare-the-crap-out-of-you, junk yard dog—or, as it is known regionally, the Brooklyn Brown Dog. It is an indeterminate mix of characteristics ranging from a low-to-the-ground bitch with pronounced teats and the snout of a blunt-nosed crocodile to a shaggy, anvil-headed male with the crazed—don’t mistake me for a Labrador—look in his eye.
Beagle mixes and floppy-eared hounds—Weimaraners, Vizslas, Bassets and Dachshunds—inhabit middle income neighborhoods. In their company you find smaller dogs like Pugs and Mini-Pins, toy versions of the guard dogs that once patrolled the streets.
Finally, when a neighborhood has reached the pinnacle of gentrification, its residents, with an interest in settling down and starting a family, custom order dogs from out of state breeders—hybrids—hypoallergenic mixes—bouncy, curly-haired, family companions that don’t shed, don’t bite and never give you the sniffles.
Tough dogs live in tough neighborhoods. Beyond the breeds, however, a single ideology in dog handling reveals more about a neighborhood than any other—if you live in a neighborhood where the dogs have their balls on, you live in a bad-ass neighborhood.
Roebling and I returned to a sleeping apartment. I sunk back in bed next to Vidya. On most days, I could doze off for a few minutes, but that morning, when I closed my eyes, I found no rest. My mind seemed clear enough—no chit-chat, no worry or anxiety. No loose thoughts bounced around, vying for my attention, but something in my nervous system fired and pulsed. Was it my nervous system? I don’t know.
I sprung out of bed when Ella woke. I marched in, picked her up, changed her diaper and returned to the bedroom to feed her a bottle. My motions were caring, but automatic, like a marine performing a rifle drill. Something distracted me—something physical—psychological—something to do with blood chemistry and hormones—my balls.
I woke up to the reality that it was going to take some machismo, some balls, to get along in our new neighborhood, and since my dog didn’t have his anymore, I’d better have enough balls for the whole family.
What kind of balls does a man need to get by in life?
For all the talk of balls in the lives of men, you’d think I would know. You’d think I could consult a reference chart—something on the inner cover of a marble notebook or in a rhyming bit of folk lore—an aphorism from Poor Richard’s Almanac—“An apple a day keeps the doctor away… now, about your balls…”
By the time a man reaches the age of fifteen, he knows at least two ways to refer to his balls in a foreign language, but he never learns how to harness them, how to summon courage from them on demand. We boast of them, but never talk about them. In short, we don’t know how to be men. We’re all faking it.
The closest we come to talking about our balls is when one of us catches a glimpse of something in a public changing room—an anomaly. We will confide the sighting of a testicular oddity in the men closest to us, and I do mean closest. Information of a gonadal nature doesn’t travel well. It is handled immediately and abandoned. It is the rarest of all male exchanges. In my experience, it’s only happened once.
During college I worked summers as a recreation attendant at the village pool. I quickly worked my way through the offices of sweeping, mopping and shouting at kids to stop running on the pool deck. By the second week in July I had settled into my permanent position—yucking it up with the pool director, Doug.
As the pool opened one morning, Doug and I stood behind the turnstile at the entrance, waiting for a distraction. Watching and listening for something foolish—a moment of silly we could stretch into a full day of ridiculous. Doug nodded a greeting to an aging couple entering the front gate. He grabbed my arm.
“Get Jim and meet me in the lifeguard office,” he whispered. “Quick!”
Jim and I found Doug huddled with Chris, one of the life guards.
“The umpire is here,” Doug announced.
“Umpire?” I asked.
“You don’t know about the umpire?” Chris mocked.
Jim and I shrugged to each other, “No.”
“Ball two!!!” Chris called.
“Believe me,” Doug said through excited laughter, “They are both way outside the strike zone.”
Jim giggled nervously. “That would be below the knees,” he said.
“That’s right,” Doug assured him.
Chris jumped impatiently. “Let’s go.”
“OK,” Doug said. “You two go in through the front and make it look like you’re checking on the guys working showers and baskets. Chris and I will come in from the pool side.”
We walked through the locker room as directed. Turning the corner into the damp changing area, we saw the silhouette of a small man. Jim’s breath stopped abruptly. I knew he was holding back a laugh, something he wasn’t particularly good at. Doug and Chris sauntered in from the pool side door.
“Did you see the game last night?” Chris said.
“Could you believe the call at the plate?” Doug said. “I’ll tell you, that umpire had some set of balls.”
Jim exploded with laughter. We stumbled out of the locker room and into the sunlight.
“Did you see anything?” Jim said.
“No,” I said, relieved. “You?”
“I didn’t see a thing,” Jim said, catching his breath. “But I believe it was true.”
Ella finished her bottle and climbed on top of Vidya. The wakeful part of the day began. I made breakfast and Vidya and Ella joined me at the table.
After moving in next to a storefront Baptist church, we decided that we would teach Ella to pray. We started by saying grace before breakfast and dinner. Ella caught on to prayer as quickly as she had to waving. As soon as she saw Vidya and me fold our hands together, she did the same.
Thank you for today.
Open our eyes so we may see the gifts you offer.
Open our ears so we may hear your message.
Open our mind so we may recognize the path you have laid before us,
and open our hearts so we can accept Your gifts and guidance with willingness and gratitude.
It was a different grace than I had been taught as a child, more approachable, I thought. Ella liked pointing to her eyes, ears, head and heart, and we threw our hands up in the air and made a big deal of the “Hallelujah” at the end. It was a good morning prayer—an instant hit.
We drove around the back roads of Queens looking for Vidya’s cousin’s house. He had just begun treatment for something awful that nobody seemed to find out the name of.
“We don’t do this, you know,” I said.
“What’s that?” Vidya said.
“My family… We don’t all get together when we hear someone’s sick,” I said. “We’ll call and get in touch, but not like your family. I mean, it’s not like we get sick and just wander into the woods alone to die or anything like that, but the way your family gathers around a sick relative, all you’d need is a bounce castle and you’d have a block party.”
“Well, this is what we do,” Vidya smiled at me from the driver’s seat. “And now you do too, because you’re Guyanese now.”
As we walked up the driveway, a trio of five year old girls ran around and between us. Hearing the squeal of the girls, a woman’s voice called out of a kitchen window, “Who is that now?”
A man peeked over a hedge to find us on the driveway. “Come some family!” he called in to the woman at the window, “And come a white man!”
Imagine the enthusiasm in his voice when he mentioned me, the white man walking up the path. Do you think he sounded happy? How many white men do you think he knew that he’d be happy to see? How often in his life had a visiting white man brought him good news? Do you think he mistook me for Santa Claus?
It wasn’t the comment of someone who had never seen a white man before. I imagine a unique tone of voice announced that event. When the first dark-skinned man spoke about seeing a great boat on the water and the glowing white men coming to shore, I imagine it was with some excitement—if not for the mysteriously freakish white men, he had to have been thrilled by the boat.
It wasn’t the tone of the second encounter either, where the voice probably tore with anger or frustration about something the white man had done on his last visit—what he had broken—what he had taken.
No, the voice from the hedge strummed a chord of formality and suspicion, but what registered most with me was the timbre of resignation. Through it passed a suggested warning, not by a man who had been taken advantage of once or twice, but by a people who had been tread upon for five hundred, a thousand, maybe two thousand years.
I didn’t waste time with protestations, “What was that? What did you call me? A white man?” I couldn’t feign indignation. I knew what I was. I knew my place in history. I knew his distrust had been earned. I knew what a filthy thing it was to be a white man.
I am the shiny conquistador, the company man. I am Mr. Kurtz, middle management, here to observe, evaluate and report to the home office. I’m here to tear your home apart and break ground for a 7-11.
This is what makes gentrification work so well—deep within every white man sleeps an agent of imperialism—a functionary of the Raj. I felt it the moment we moved into Crown Heights. The dormant British West India Company within me suddenly awoke with visions of the economic cultivation—gourmet coffee here, a juice bar there—fewer claws and chicken gizzards in the super market and more rib-eye steaks.
That’s what we do. That’s who we are—discover new worlds, scope out new locations for Starbucks and the Gap.
Vidya kissed me and walked in the back door to find a place in line to visit her cousin. I found a seat on the patio picnic furniture with Ella on my lap. Within a few minutes, Vidya’s mother, Dora, appeared from the back door to say hello. She snatched Ella from me and waltzed around the backyard with her, pointing to trees, windows, clouds, the world. I sat alone on the picnic bench—me and my balls.
Balls don’t go over well at family gatherings, which came as a surprise to me. The family parties I remembered from my childhood were all about balls. They offered an intermittent boot camp on masculine behavior. Uncles slapped you on the back, “There’s a good fellow. Keep your head up and your stomach in.” If my grandfather was at the party, there would be an inspection and close order drill. He’d sit me in his lap and take hold of my hands to see that they were clean and that the nails were well groomed. Clipping here and there, he would remedy any slight. “OK,” he’d drop me from his knee and offer me his open palm. “Put it there.”
Embarrassed, I would swing my arm lazily toward him, landing my hand softly in his mitt.
“That’s not the way you shake a man’s hand,” he’d say. “You don’t swing at the waist with your arms flailing about,” he’d grab me by my upper arms and square my spine and shoulders with himself and the earth. “You stand straight and look the other man in the eye.” He’d hold his hand out again, “You place your hand firmly and deeply in the other man’s hand and give it a good shake.” After two controlled bounces, he’d release my hand. “That’s how it’s done.”
Through most of my life, the hand shake my grandfather coached me on served me well, but I never realized it was a white man’s hand shake. It was everything the white man was—expedient, aggressive, intimidating. Having shaken hands with Vidya’s cousins and uncles, even her father, I realized that in many parts of the world grandfathers gave the opposite advice—place your hand gently, softly in the hand of another—this is a greeting, not a contest of strength. Look away slightly to display trust and ease—it is challenging and never appropriate to look a man directly in the eye.
Just before the bed bugs arrived, our old neighborhood reached the final stages of gentrification. We had finally made our neighborhood so cute, so saturated with boutiques, so stroller friendly and desirable that none of us could afford the escalating rent.
Still, I had gotten used to the luxuries–gourmet food shops with wasabi peanuts and chocolate covered espresso beans, the hub of subway lines available at Brooklyn Borough Hall, and the drop-off launderette where I left my dirty laundry in the morning and picked it up clean and folded in the afternoon. I didn’t even know how to work a washer and dryer until the bed bugs came–then it was easy, stripped of its nuance, all switches on hi-temp, set to kill—a cauldron and a kiln would have sufficed.
“I saw a place down on Nostrand across Eastern Parkway that takes laundry by the pound,” I said, tying two laundry bags together and hoisting them over the back of my neck like the yoked buckets on a milk maid. “It looked OK. I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Tell them to separate the baby’s clothes and wash them on delicate,” Vidya instructed. “See if they have fabric softener—the hypoallergenic kind. And make sure they separate colors.”
I nodded and lumbered down the stairs. Vidya didn’t seem to understand how undermining her requests were. I could lug laundry bags down the block with a cord cutting into my neck and shoulders—that worked, but I couldn’t outline the proper care of delicate washables and still display my balls convincingly. When you are championing your Y chromosome, you don’t talk about fabric softener. The scratchier your neighbors perceive your clothes to be, the better.
I swaggered through the open door of the launderette. The faces of neighborhood women turned from the folding tables, open washing machines and children playing in and around the laundry basket trolleys. Each woman wore her own complexion, like her color had been custom mixed to suit her. Soon, their eyes returned to the tasks from which my entrance had distracted them. I hoped one face would linger, that someone would ask me why I was there, that someone would realize I was a big, ballsy man carrying a heavy load of possibly the scratchiest laundry they had ever encountered and that I shouldn’t be left on my own to damage the washing machines.
“Excuse me,” I said to no one in particular. “Who do I speak to if I want to drop this laundry off to be washed?”
The women lifted their heads again. “You want da Russian,” one said. “Yeah, da Russian,” the others concurred in a loose chorus. “He over dere,” the first one nudged her head to a window and a door in the middle of the room.
An older man sat behind a Plexiglas window with a square cut out so he could change dollar bills into quarters for the washing machines. I startled him when I knocked on the window. He looked up at me blankly, as his weathered eyes adjusted to the difference between the incandescent reading light in the office and the dull fluorescents of the laundry room. I nodded left and right to the bag hanging from each shoulder. “I want to drop these off,” I said.
He blinked twice then turned to look at the office door, waiting for me to walk through it. I took the hint. I walked around to the office entrance and jiggled the door knob. He opened the door, offering a quick bow as a greeting.
I bent down, letting the bags rest on the floor and bowed my head free of the cord holding them together. The old man turned to move a stack of laundry detergent boxes from a spot along the wall. Beneath them sat a bathroom scale. He kicked the scale with the inside of his foot like he was dribbling a soccer ball, finally nudging it to the center of the room. He grabbed the drawstring of the first bag and dragged it to the scale, lifting and dropping it on top. The scale’s dial rotated quickly. He reached for the other bag. Through great pains, he lifted the second bag with one hand as he continued to balance the first bag on the scale with his other hand. He stepped in to guide the dangling bag into a controlled collision with the bag already in position. He swayed back and forth as the shock of the crash dissipated. The odd sculpture of man and laundry bag twitched at me twice and then twitched a third time toward the base of his leaning tower of laundry. I bent over to read the dial on the scale as it rolled back and forth between 45 and 50.
“Forty… seven?” I said.
The old man let his laundry snowman collapse and reached for a slip of paper—a roughly torn square of scrap made from a local take-out menu. He handed it to me with a pencil.
I wrote 47 lbs. on the slip of paper and handed it back. The old man consulted a multiplication chart taped to the wall. I waited for him to scribble the price on the slip of paper and hand it back to me, but he never did. Instead, he stood with his finger on the chart. I got a little closer and squinted to see where his finger pointed.
“Forty two,” I said. “Forty two dollars.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a few bills to hand to him. He turned toward his till to make change for me. He turned back around to hand me a few singles.
I tapped the face of my wrist watch. “When do you think it will be ready?” I asked.
With his index finger extended, his hand leapt up and over in a moderate sized arch, a gesture that could have meant next week or across the street. I took it to mean sometime tomorrow.
I stepped out of the office holding the only thing I had been offered as a receipt—the slip of paper torn from the local take-out menu with my own 47 lbs. scribbled on it.
I wanted to say something—not just then, but a few times. I wanted to question the accuracy of a bathroom scale stored beneath the weight of powdered laundry detergent. I wanted to protest the balancing act weigh in. I wanted honest to goodness claim slips safety pinned to each bag with sequential numbers matching numbers on stubs placed in my hand.
I didn’t say a word. First of all, I was enchanted by the pantomime I had witnessed, like I had been invited to a private performance of Yuri Nikulin and the Moscow Circus. Second, looking back at the old Russian, I realized—this clown had survived Stalin—what sort of impression would my tantrum make? But still, I had to say something. As I reached the front door I turned and trumpeted out a command, “Keep the colors and the whites separate,” I said. Every face in the launderette turned to look at me. It was a poor choice of words. I should have asked for fabric softener.
“Can you believe the stones on that guy?” My brother Andrew has an ease and fluency I appreciate. I think it comes from being a firefighter.
Practicing a lifelong meditation on the classical elements of air, fire and water, a firefighter understands the world’s underpinnings and speaks about balls with a credibility few others approach—a clarity to his thought, an economy to his language. But rhetoric aside, I defer to the authority of his occupation—firefighting is a ballsier enterprise than managing the data flow of a non-profit organization. I’ve never turned to a colleague to say, “Good job, that database query was totally balls-out.” It just wouldn’t be appropriate.
“Stones” says it all—the lone syllable hinting at the size and composition, the only qualities worth consideration, of the balls in question. Any set of balls worth talking about, despite implication of disease or deformity, are big, huge, enormous balls, cast from metal—something hard and, perhaps more importantly, something heavy. “Big brass balls” is the preferred turn of phrase. We like the way it sounds—the alliteration. We respond to the poetry.
Ancient and enduring, the metal of cherished trinkets and family heirlooms, reflecting the primitive confidence we ask our balls to provide—the chutzpah to venture out of the cave into the perilous world—the mythos of testicles has never evolved beyond the Bronze Age.
One might expect the contemporary understanding of metallurgy and materials to influence the lingo of bravado, that we would hear of titanium alloys, carbon composites, and buckminsterfullerene or that as we’ve become more conscious of biomechanics, we concede that our balls are made of something more like McNuggets.
Ella took to her feet in early spring, pointing insistently to the sidewalk one Saturday after lunch while she, Vidya and I wandered around Park Slope. After I set her down, Ella stood slowly and moved forward in a determined, cautious shuffle. Vidya and I cheered. Until then, Ella’s record had been two tentative steps in our old kitchen six weeks earlier. Ella smiled, clapped for herself and led us on a walk of eight city blocks.
We discovered flowers one morning on a walk with Roebling. Ella had woken before I had gotten Roebling out the door. I changed her diaper, put a coat on her and took her in my arms when I let Roebling down the stairs. It is possible that she and the dog had conspired about it for weeks.
“Warty!” Ella said to the puddle of rainwater we passed crossing Nostrand Avenue.
I set Ella on her feet on the sidewalk. She took a few steps toward a wrought iron fence and reached for the buds in the flowerbox on the other side.
“That’s a crocus,” I said, crouching next to her, “and that’s a daffodil.” I glimpsed up the sidewalk at the flowering weeds peeking through cracks in the concrete. I was going to run out of flower names long before I ran out of sidewalk. I switched to colors. “Purple and yellow,” I pointed to each flower again.
“Ellow,” Ella repeated.
Ella made slow progress up the block, sometimes walking, sometimes reaching up to me to be carried. Roebling waited, rarely taking up the slack in his leash. We turned the corner and greeted a couple of joggers as we crossed the street to the mall on Eastern Parkway.
“Down!” Ella commanded. I set her on her feet to walk.
A car stopped at the traffic light at Eastern Parkway and New York Avenue, its stereo blasting. Ella stopped where she was, stuck her diapered backside out and shuffled in a tight circle with her arms out—a toddler boogie.
The subway rumbled beneath us. Ella staggered to the sewer-like grate where the sound came from, looking for a train. Cars, motorcycles, planes, trains, dogs, joggers—will she ever hear an ice cream truck from five blocks away? Will she stand at the curb with a fist full of change, waiting? What could the bustle of the city offer but to clutter intervals of anticipation and distract from dreams of ice cream?
I scooped Ella up as we reached the corner and turned for home. Ella shifted in my arms.
“Way!” she yelled, pointing at the mall extending beyond Nostrand Avenue.
“Oh, honey…” I said. “C’mon… let’s go home to mama and have breakfast.”
“Way!” she insisted.
“OK, OK,” I said. “I guess a few minutes won’t make a big difference.” We crossed the street. I set Ella down and we continued on our walk.
Ella reached for Roebling’s leash, “Hand… Hand!” she said.
I held Roebling steady for a second, allowing Ella to get a grip on the leash. After a few steps, Ella threw the looped end of the leash at Roebling’s backside. “Dahg!” she shouted, setting him free.
Roebling trotted ahead of us. I whistled for him to come back. I tried to coax Ella into moving a little quicker. I turned to sweep her up in my arms. I whistled again.
I’m not much of a whistler. I’ve tried a loud, fingers-in-the-mouth whistle, but I’ve never figured out how to place my fingers or how to whistle around them. The disappointing volume I reach with a traditional pursed-lip whistle is hardly loud enough to interrupt a conversation.
For every day use, I developed a kind of stiff-lipped, through my teeth whistle—the kind a ventriloquist might try. It sounds like a teapot reaching temperature—not one at a rolling boil. It is the whistle I trained Roebling with, a decidedly indoor whistle. Outdoors, I depend on the dog’s legendary superior hearing.
Roebling’s ear twitched. I knew he had heard me. I twisted up my face to whistle sternly, so he would know I meant business.
Roebling cruised along in the diagonal, sideways canter that dogs do. He found something, a scent on the morning air more interesting than my whistle. I feared he was closing in on a pile of chicken bones, but as he passed the usual landmarks, the trash can and the pitch of open ground between it and the park bench, I knew his nose led him somewhere worse, to a pile of person fetally curled on the far end of the bench.
Vidya and I had run our standard drug stakeout on a Sunday evening in February when we first saw the apartment. We missed late nights and early mornings. We missed spring, summer and autumn entirely.
Like a three-season suit, the mall on Eastern Parkway fit well in all but the most extreme winter weather. Though the drug trade conducted its commerce elsewhere and derelict needles were never in sight, the mall offered a long runway for crash landings. As the stippled sunlight of morning broke through the thin leafed shade trees, drug-squandered physiques clung to the park benches—torsos thin enough to fit through the armrest’s opening.
The body hardly moved while Roebling sniffed at his feet and legs, but there was something geological about it—a tremor, a force of nature—something you shouldn’t turn your back to. I stepped on Roebling’s leash to stop him. Quick, frightened, desperate, feeling the animal closeness, the man moved frantically, like something splashing to lift its head out of water.
I might have looked upon him as something familiar, like the groggy lump of uncle found on the family room couch when I was four or five. I might have looked upon him as something fraternal—a comrade who had lost another night to the bottle. I knew that well enough. I had lost my share and taken a snooze or two on the public furniture. I might have seen him as myself, a cousin or a friend. “Sorry to wake you, brother,” I would say. “Go back to sleep.” But looking at his kinked hair and dark skin, dusty like distressed chocolate, I saw him as something other, unknown and threatening.
I held Ella in my left arm. I reached for Roebling’s leash with my right. If I had a free hand, I would have checked to see that my balls were on.
I thought I would know what to do. I thought when the situation arose I would know how to explode in a moment of spontaneous justified violence. I would know how to curl my hand into a serviceable fist. I would know how to throw a punch and land it on a cheek or a jaw or a nose or an eye.
I knew what it was supposed to look like—a punch, a spin, a high elbow and a kick, a collection of moves I had strung together and practiced since I was twelve, inspired in equal parts by Chuck Norris movies and TV commercials for A Chorus Line. Unfortunately, I hadn’t rehearsed my fight choreography in over twenty-five years. I’d have to improvise.
I took stock of my footing and stance. I wore my limbs clumsily—right shoulder to my opponent, right foot slightly forward—not a good defensive position.
I recalled my limited martial arts training—the free introductory karate class I had taken one Saturday when I was twelve and an aikido demonstration I sat in on years later. In both disciplines, my stance was unforgiveable. But then I remembered the fencing unit I had taken in high school gym class. For sword play my stance was nearly perfect. If Roebling’s leash had been a rapier I could have challenged the man to a duel.
Still, if I struck before the man got to his feet, one, less than ideal punch, might be enough.
How do you hit a man to knock him out? How do you strike a blow to flatten him to the ground? Not for good. Not forever, but down for the count, so I can get away safely, to home, to base, like a game of hide and seek. Where should I aim? Should I hit him on the side of the head, next to his eye? Do I aim for the chin and hope the additional wobbling and concussing of the jaw puts him down?
I stood quietly as the sludgy, unfocused eyes settled in my general direction. I felt a rumble, like the subway beneath my feet.
“Ello!” Ella said. “Ello!” she flapped her arm.
The man’s gaze passed over my right shoulder and face to find Ella in my left arm. I pulled her close to me and held her tightly.
“Well hello beautiful,” he grumbled. “How are you this morning?”
I had held her close in fear that we might be harmed. I held her now in awe that we might be healed.
“Viva la revolución, my darling,” my whispers kissed her brow. “Viva la revolución, my sweet.”
Ella and I observe a ritual—our morning routine. We walk the dog, wave to the neighbors and say our hallelujahs at breakfast. When I find a moment during the day, I recite my own petitions. I offer a father’s prayer:
Open my heart.
Help me to love more.
Help me to love better.
And if it serves Thy will oh God,
Please keep me from tripping over my own balls.