I have lived in California (Orange County, San Diego, Carson), Wisconsin (Madison), Georgia (Atlanta), even three years in Japan (Okinawa), and now I’m in New York (Brooklyn). If there’s one thing I’ve done, it’s move and live in different communities with different people. This is the story of a walk….a simple walk that I took last week. I had no intentions of creating a blog post. I track my walks with an app so that I know if I’m walking farther weekly, I take pictures because I’m weird, and I have a pretty decent memory of events/conversations. The reason it turned into a blog post is for one simple reason: people liked hearing about it.
About 2.5 million people live in Brooklyn, making it the most populated of New York’s boroughs. It is actually the second most densely populated county (King’s Country) in the entire country (only second to the county that Manhattan sits in). With 2 million people packed into 71 square miles, it is safe to say that people often do their best to stay out of each other’s way. The stereotype of New Yorkers is that they are rude, aloof, and unapproachable; that has not been my experience.
I live in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. It is located in the eastern part of Brooklyn and it is predominately West Indian and working class. There are times when my partner is the only White person we see days at a time. Interestingly, a few blocks west of where we live, there is an intersection of people that I’m quite sure doesn’t exists anywhere else in the world. Orthadox Jewish families, West Indians, and hipster/artistic Whites all mingle near one another on Eastern Parkway (I have yet to figure out if they communicate with one another); it’s what makes this little corner of Brooklyn so unique.
When we first moved here, people routinely asked “why?!”. Why would a young professional with a newly-minted PhD move here with her White female lover. Of course, we asked “why not?” The first police officer to be shot in NYC was shot within walking distance from our apartment. We’ve often heard helicopters (aka ghetto birds) looking for people only to later hear on the news that yes, a convict had escaped in the neighborhood nearby (East New York). Graffiti blankets a lot of the buildings and honestly, I wouldn’t trust any of the nearby hotels. Long story short, if you walk around East Flatbush, one could easily feel intimidated; however, I never have. I’ve gone out to walk the dog (or walk the dog on the way to get Jamaican ice cream) at 2am, without any hesitation. We have adopted this neighborhood and this neighborhood has adopted us. This is our neighborhood.
Most of the people on our block know us by now. There is a woman who lives across the street who vigorously waves every time she sees one of us. There are times when she goes out of her way just to make sure we see her waving. This is the first neighborhood I have ever lived where the people say “good morning”, “good afternoon”, and “good evening”. It caught me off-guard at first; I had no idea what to say back! I scrambled for words. Is it like when people say “How are you?” and they actually don’t want the real answer? Do I just keep it short, say “hi” so we can keep walking? Do I say “good afternoon” back? Does that sound weird? I’m so confused! I eventually got the hang of it. There are even times when a group of young adolescent (or young adults) will be having a vulgar conversation and will stop talking as I get closer, out of respect for me passing through. It’s like I couldn’t hear them halfway down the street, but the gesture is what’s important. This is our neighborhood.
Once, I arrived at Target and realized I did not have my wallet. When I returned a couple of hours later (it was a trip to Target after all), I found it exactly where I had dropped it on the sidewalk. Of course, this could have been a fluke. Perhaps, nobody had even noticed it there. However, a couple of days ago, on our way to the grocery store, my partner and I passed what looked like a small coin purse. About 20 minutes later, we passed the spot again and someone had picked it up and placed it in the chain-linked fence, presumably so that whoever had lost it could find it easier.
Almost everything that happens in this neighborhood is the exact opposite of the New Yorker stereotype. People wave; people say hello; people are nice. Yes, it is loud; in fact, it is really loud sometimes–the ice-cream truck comes around at midnight!. Yes, sometimes people sound like they are arguing…and sometimes they actually are!..but it’s Brooklyn. Better yet, it’s our neighborhood.
Now to the walk. I like walking; it helps to clear my mind. Interestingly, walking with my music is a form of meditation for me. I think through issues that I’m going through. I consider career moves, personal decisions, and family matters all while songstresses are belting out rhymes of love and courage or while 2Pac is explaining the thug life to me. Recently, my two hour walk taught me a lot about Brooklyn, my neighborhood, and myself.
As the map shows, my walks never have any clear direction. I leave my house with the intent on walking…nothing more…nothing less. As you can also see, I walk in circles at times and I walk pretty slow; taking an hour to talk 2 miles is kind of ridiculous! But, I’m not necessarily trying to get a work out. I have an autoimmune condition, if I don’t move, my joints will hate me more than they will if I move. So that’s part of the reason I walk. But I mostly, I walk for the experience of the walk.
I always have my dog, CoCo Chanel with me. She always gets a lot of attention from strangers. Even the most “gangster” looking guys will walk by and say “cute dog”. Even if a group of adolescent boy is walking by, all with their pants saggin to his knees, one of them will inevitably say “I like that dog”. Some people ask to pet her; others ask what kind of dog she is. The best interaction was recently, a man asked if my dog could ride a bicycle–he was dead serious. This is our neighborhood.
In this picture (above), she’s actually wearing a rabbit’s leash because hers was accidentally left in the car. We both ended up liking it; I don’t have to hold anything and it’s light on her back. The picture below is not from our walk that day. She is at Coney Island there (also in Brooklyn). Funny story: while we were walking, a toddler did a beeline for her and shook his stuffed toy in her face while screaming at the top of his lungs. Both my partner and I just busted out laughing. What made it so hilarious was that she just stood there confused about why a future friend of hers would do such a thing to her. She somehow got the impression that kids and cats are her naturally her friends because they’re close to her size. I digress.
I’ve always said that you get back whatever energy you put out. Brooklyn will ignore you if you ignore Brooklyn. One of the things I love about this neighborhood is that I can walk around singing out loud and nobody even looks at me. They hear me, they just don’t care. When I don’t want to slip on the snow, I jump from clear patch to clear patch and nobody looks twice; they see me, they just don’t care. I could probably walk outside and scream at the top of my lungs and nobody would come out of their apartment. One the other hand, my partner was taking the trash out one day, and a woman walking by took it from her and walked it to the cans for her. I have been driving with my windows down, and just like something out of a music video, people have smiled, waved, or put up both hands, as I drove by. I’ve made eye contact with people dancing to the beat of their own drum, smiled like “I see you gettin it”, and we shared a laugh together. The people who work in the grocery store a few blocks away know us and ask how we are doing. It’s not small a grocery store either. The woman who works at the Walgreens pharmacy tells me I have five prescriptions ready before I even get up to the counter. So, essentially, East Flatbush is an interesting paradoxical world in which you can either exist largely unnoticed or bask in a community that parallels that of Mayfield a la “Leave it to Beaver”.
This particular day, I walked and took note of my surroundings. I’m always cautious about taking pictures because the last thing I need is for people to think I am a random tourist who got lost in the wrong neighborhood with a pampered pooch. I would venture to say that most people in Eash Flatbush either wouldn’t care or would help this lost tourist to the nearest train back to the city; however, the borders of most Brooklyn communities are a bit ambiguous. East Flatbush is not the same as Brownsville or East New York, and I could easily be in one of these neighborhoods and not immediately realize it. Interestingly, the one of the indications I have that I am no longer in East Flatbush is the lack of friendly “hellos” and a general feeling that I should put my tough face on.
As I went to take a picture of this abandoned home (below), a woman walked up to me, in the middle of the street no less, and told me that I should put my phone away. She informed me that “they be running up and snatching people’s phones around here”. What made this interaction interesting was that she felt the need to help me. It speaks to the idea that we can live in a place with 2 and a half million people and one of them can care about the well-being of a complete stranger’s phone (she didn’t say anything about my physical health being in danger). It’s kind of phenomenal. I put my phone away; not because I was actually afraid, or because I cared if somebody ran up and snatched it (it’s just a phone and they wouldn’t be able to use it anyway–self-destruct mode!!) but because I thought I should show her that I valued her altruism.
As my walk continued, I found myself near Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center. I stopped to take a picture of this “Curb Your Dog” sign. I noticed these when we first moved to the neighborhood and I had absolutely no idea what they meant. They do not have such signs anywhere else I’ve lived. Eventually, through the magic of the internet we learned that it means: keep your dog under control and/or pick up your dog’s poop. I was planning to show the sign to my friends in other states. Here you go!
While I was hanging out taking pictures of curb your dog signs, like any sane person would be doing, I noticed a rally getting started at the hospital. I walked over with my headphones around my neck and little dog skipping by my side (yeah, she skips) to see what was going on. They were all wearing purple shirts and before I could ask what they were rallying for, they started shouting “DO WHAT’S FAIR FOR THOSE WHO CARE” and the marching began. I did what was natural; I joined in. We walked around the perimeter of the hospital. I smiled big! They smiled at the dog who seemed to think she was in a parade of some sort. Of course, I am fine walking in circles for no reason; however, I got bored and quit the rally (sad face). I started on my way, opposite the way they were walking. A man in an electric wheelchair and the rally purple shirt asked me which direction they’d all gone in….um…the circle? I said, “just keep going man, you’ll catch them or they’ll catch you”. He laughed.
As I continued to walk, I came across a fruit stand. There are tons of these all over Brooklyn, but I never seem to have cash on me. Today, I did. I walked over and took CoCo’s leash off of my wrist; she just stood there because she’s a good dog like that. I took my backpack off and fished some money out. I stood there waiting among a few people; there was no line to speak of. A man chopping sugarcane noticed me and signaled to the man selling the fruit. He turned to me and said “Hi mami, whatchu want?” It cost $5 (I paid $6) and it was amazing!
My walk took me back toward my apartment after this. On this street (below) I waved at a woman who was sitting out on her porch talking on the phone as I passed by. I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me, but she waved back delightedly. I exchanged words with a woman whose toddler was way too excited about my dog to keep walking. We talked about how little he was and already walking. I think it’s a New York or Brooklyn thing; they get them started early but they always hold their hand (even pre-teens are seen holding their parent’s hand)
Then I turned down a street to check in on a cupcake shop. It opened a while ago, I’m not exactly sure when, but it was still cold outside when I first walked pass and noticed it there. The last time I was walking in the general area, they were closed. I remember being a little sad about it because they were such a new business and being closed in the middle of a weekday was never a good sign. So, when I turned the corner and noticed they were open, I got really excited. I took CoCo off of my wrist again and walked into the tiny shop. She patiently waited outside the door. I asked how business was going and stated that I had been worried about them. The owner said they were closed on Sundays and Mondays, much to my relief. He asked if I lived in the area and we talked about other local business. I took a business flyer and said I would promote his business on Twitter. Then I used my last $5 in cash to buy two cupcakes.
Recently, my partner and I were in Park Slope, another part of Brooklyn. It is an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn with multi-million dollar brownstones. It’s trendy with co-ops, “organic” written in store names, gay bars, fancy restaurants, green spaces, Starbucks, even the Mayor of NYC lives there! About 6 months ago, we drove through Park Slope and wanted to live there. As we walked down Union Street, the only interactions we had were people smiling at the dog. Not a single person looked at us; nobody smiled at us; nobody said hi. It’s not our neighborhood.
I’m not sure how long we’re going to be living in this neighborhood. I am not sure sure if we will be able to achieve upward mobility in Brooklyn. People are trying to avoid Manhattan prices and get some “culture” by moving to Brooklyn (the average 1 bedroom is $2,600 in Brooklyn). Landlords are, in turn, raising the cost of rent because…well…they can. However, we have fallen for this neighborhood. We have fallen for their smiles. We have fallen for their waving. We have fallen for their friendly ways. Now, I walk by and I’m sometimes the first to say ‘Hi, howyadoin”. I wave at strangers. Of course, I didn’t learn this here, I’ve always done it, it was just welcomed here…here in Brooklyn.