I can almost feel my memory, the frigid cold water gushing out from the fire hydrants, cooling our sticky bodies from the heavy heat. Summer was licked with grime, heat waves, and the lack of air conditioning. But the summers were times I could freely discover and play. East New York, known as a crime-ridden area of Brooklyn, felt safe to me. I knew my neighbors, I knew the owner at the bodega, I knew every kid on Warwick Street. We were a family.
I was born and partially raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., until I was eight years old. My mom would also frequently send my sister and me to Brooklyn to visit our grandmother. My family thinks I don’t remember much. But I do. Some of my happiest memories are harbored there.
When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I was lost in time, fingering cool machines in my best-friend’s basement. Her name was Vanessa. The machines were her father’s, which may have been large special printers; I will never be too sure. We’d hide and play in that basement, until we’d run out giggling and exchanging a “SHHH!” when her parents got back home. We weren’t supposed to be in there. Every afternoon, my twin sister and I would run up the block to Vanessa’s house. I remember one afternoon, her older brother pranked us once. He cleverly tied strings throughout their house, making things knock over. The lights suddenly cut off and we were left in the dark with noises and eerie “oooo’s.” We thought we were being attacked by ghosts, until Vanessa’s brother turned on the lights and laughed at us.
I remember Vanessa’s face, she was blond, thin, with big eyes. It must had been about eight years later during a family reunion at a park, when I bumped into her — in the city that hosts several million people. She was still blond, thin, with big eyes. But we didn’t ride through mischief like we did when we were in grade school. We awkwardly said, “hi” and went our separate ways.
During one morning at P.S. 290, I remember the feeling of my face burning, after one of many fights with my twin sister in our school’s cafeteria. I never looked at my face, but I remember the administrators looked at me, wide-eyed and asked me if I wanted to go home. I shyly shook my head and went to class with a face, I am sure, looked like it was attacked by an angry cat.
I remember the chilly walks right before sunset, travelling from my grandma’s house to my aunt’s house. We’d walk down the street, take a right, walk beneath the shaky train tracks, and eventually made a left where we’d walk up and down a several hills. If we asked, my grandma would buy us 25 cents chips at the bodega before our walk. I remember every weekend, our immediate and extended family would meet at my aunt’s house. There was dominoes, bingo, arroz con gandules, loud music, dancing, liquored breaths, and childhood mischief — in the form of sneaking into cemeteries, playing knock-and-run, manhunt, and wandering about on the streets at night. My goodness, how I missed those nights so much.
Those memories and experiences helped me really think about the word “family”. We laughed, we played, we got into trouble, we gossiped, we cried, we shared stories during funerals. We kept each other accountable, and we looked after each other. This word “family” wasn’t restricted to a bloodline. The word “family” was extended to the community of people who lived on Warwick street. There was certainly a bond that I never experienced in any other city, neighborhood, or street, and that’s what I remember about New York.
Photo credit: The East New York Project, by Neil.