Can’t Shake Off Those Characters

The earliest draft of my book Covering the Sun with My Hand was called The Eviction. That initial story was about the characters that lived in a house turning co-op in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The six family building was smack in the heart of the land of the gentry who were slowly, then quickly, changing a family neighborhood. It is still a family neighborhood but of a different type. I grew up in Park Slope before we knew it was Park Slope. We either called it “Fifth” or “Lincoln”. Little girls usually have a narrow vision of what’s in front of them but please don’t quote me on that.

The Puerto Ricans lived between St. John’s Place and Union Street. To the left of St. John’s were the African Americans and to the right of Union were the Italians and the Irish. Truth be told, I didn’t know who was who. It was white, colored or Spanish (nice terms inserted here). As a nine year old, I sat at the window watching the garbage can tops go flying. I listened to the chants of the PRs taunting the police. I saw a body laid on the sidewalk- the man’s tee shirt quickly turning maroon stained after we heard the gunshots. It was the late sixties, 1969 to be exact, and the neighborhood I’d lived in all of my life began to change.

We moved out in 1972. It was an astute move by the realty people who herded us to Flatbush. We had to make way for the elite! I’m proud to say it took about forty more years before my aunt agreed to move away with a fat check in her pocket. The foul smelling Fifth Avenue Fish Market was no longer there. Neither was the classy millinery shop that had become my father’s social club. Gone. Just like us.

Years later, as I described my book to a couple of other Latina writers, they looked at me in a perplexed manner and said, but what’s the story? I became frustrated. That is the story, people! I threw my manuscript aside. Carrie and her daughter, Aracely, Mr. and Mrs. Rivera and their awful jailbird son, Anthony, Medalia and Gerry Hearn, the gentry, the ancient Mrs. Feliciano, and the Acevedo Family languished. Julia Acevedo and her twin, Rene, suffocated under some other books on my night table. Julia’s boyfriend, Victor, never got to strut his stuff and show how ‘fine he was.’ None of them were getting to tell their stories of life during gentrification, thanks to a couple of well-meaning Latinas who ruined the whole thing for me, I mean, them.

One depressing Saturday morning, I got up and opened my laptop. Julia came forward and sat on the keys. She began telling her story. I began to listen. She grabbed my attention and has become one of my best friends. It’s almost three years later. Her story is on paper. It’s ready to be born. I’m old fashioned and searching for an agent and editor- for the right publishing fit. Julia is patient as I am.

Once finished the novel, I began to miss learning about Julia’s secrets, hopes and dreams as when she guided my fingers across the keyboard. Then I began hearing another story. Medalia and Gerry have begun to tell me theirs. I realize that the smell of cigarette smoke, coming from Rene’s window into the Hearn apartment, annoys the hell out of Gerry. The two think Julia is a bore because she lived at home for so long with her family. They think that she was rude because she sent them to the dry cleaners two blocks away when there was one a block away on St. John’s. They didn’t start to get to know their neighbors, except for Carrie, until Rene set fire to the curtains. I’ve also found out that Gerry has a secret that Medalia would be loath to find out. I’m in front of my laptop again. I love my characters, sometimes they make me cry or come to a place I could never get to on my own. They trust me to tell their stories.

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