Fifth Avenue Girl

My friend, Farley, recently reminded me to “get over it” when a twenty- something at work called me by my first name and then expected me to call her “Ms.” His playful rebuke was that while I prefer to be addressed as “Dr.” that I would always be a Fifth Avenue Girl. In Brooklyn that is…not the famous Manhattan Fifth Avenue. Our family lived on Fifth from the late fifties to the early seventies. As Puerto Ricans we were strategically moved to the outskirts of America to faraway places like Flatbush and Pennsylvania. Park Slope was in its early years of making way for the gentry.

 

Exactly forty years and some marriages, children, degrees and homes later, my cousin, Mike, invited me to have lunch on Fifth with our Uncle Louie who I hadn’t seen in years.  After shedding a few tears, hugs and observations that we all look pretty much the same as we did forty years ago (ha!) we decided to pick out a restaurant on “our block.”

It suddenly occurred to me that the restaurant we were sitting in was the actual apartment my cousin grew up in. It looked different with the old plaster walls taken down to reveal exposed brick. The bedroom had long ago been turned into the chef’s area. The other customers enjoyed their seafood as we did. But they didn’t share the memory of my Uncle Louie in the room, standing in the spotlight of the Hanna-Barbera toy projector, pretending to be a cowboy with his gun stuck in his holster- ala Barney Fife.

We shared stories as we sat at the table in the backyard. My cousin reminisced about this area being the first “outside” he knew and about the rabbits that he couldn’t get too close to-you can imagine why. I took pictures of the fire escape we’d sat on eating pancakes as children during twilight summer evenings. Our parents had gone out dancing. Fireflies had danced around us. Our pancakes were sized in order. My uncle, Junior, made sure that he got the largest as he was the eldest- cooking for us as he babysat. As we sat in the glow of our memories, my phone rang and I ignored it. I didn’t want anything to break the spell.

They shared stories that I hadn’t heard of before. They spoke of my sister’s spiritual presence that they’d experienced over the years. She’d died at fourteen after a long illness. As an eleven year old I couldn’t know for sure, as they did, that she’d stuck around spiritually. I wasn’t able to feel that until years later. Mike told of getting jumped by a group of kids, of briefly inhabiting an abandoned brownstone and of almost getting his brains blown out by a drunk who made him “own” being a man. All at the age of fifteen- I shivered at those stories.  I felt warm when he told the one of falling through the ice at the Prospect Park Lake. He said that he’d felt my sister had somehow saved him. Mike updated me on our young thug friends- many of whom are sadly no longer living. We laughed when Mike told me that he’d brought his children around to Park Slope. They’d challenged him when he told them it used to be a dangerous neighborhood, “Yeah, right, Dad.”

At the end of afternoon they walked me to my car. When we hugged goodbye, I sat for a moment relishing the stories, my family and my life. I remembered that I’d missed a phone call. I listened to the message. It was an editor expressing interest in my novel. It was all so magical but true. Yes, I have changed a great deal but I will always be a Fifth Avenue Girl.

 

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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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Feeling Safe

It was about 6 am, still dark and there I was skulking on a street corner, hunched over by an auto.  A squad car snaked its way down the avenue with its siren off but its red lights flaring. It slowed down when the officer who drove it spotted me at the curb. I could feel his eyes on me for a long moment. I was wearing a dark jacket and pants. He kept going when he spotted my two fluffy dogs- they were engaged in their morning duty. I wondered whether he’d initially thought he’d finally caught the Park Slope groper. He hadn’t. It was me. For a moment, maybe it was the early hour, I thought, well, maybe I am the guilty party. As I said it was just for a moment, but I didn’t like being looked at in that manner at all.

The next morning, I was off from dog duty, and was making my way toward the park for an early run. It was again dark as night. As I walked toward the corner, I saw about eight policemen standing near a man who could easily be taken for the Park Slope groper. I made eye contact with one of the officers and quickly went on my way. It took me a moment to shake off the feeling I had. Was that the groper they surrounded or someone who fit the profile? There are a lot of men in my neighborhood that fit the profile of the groper. That got me to thinking, why was this gentleman actually stopped? Was he on his way to work? My imagination soared. Was he a cook, or was he one of those bicycle delivery guys who risk their lives getting breakfast for the rest of us who barely manage getting ourselves a cup of coffee- the rest of us who don’t look like the artist rendition of the groper.

When I first heard of the assaults in this very quiet neighborhood I was just as frightened as everyone else. I began to feel safer when I saw the added patrol cars driving up and down the blocks- making U turns at the intersections. Then suddenly, I realized that I hadn’t been aware of police presence before because, well, how do I put this diplomatically? There was none. I can argue that since it was a “safe” neighborhood, we didn’t need it. Now it is a given there will be men patrolling on their bicycles or a couple of Guardian Angels will be standing at the corner of the dog park on any given day.

I guess the groper is not going to be wearing a tee shirt that says, “Hello, it’s me!” He will look like the countless other assailants who go around under the guise of normal. He will probably look like me, wearing a dark jacket and pants and he’ll look kind of busy and no one would ever have thought that they were in danger around him. That’s the problem- most criminals don’t look the part. Maybe, like me, they get up in the morning, walk their dogs, drink a cup of coffee and go to work. The difference is that they do a little illegal activity and go about their day, no one the wiser. I do hope if the gentleman that was picked up the other morning is truly innocent that he got to go home and isn’t being held because he “looked the part.” I really can’t wait for this to be over.

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