These are words to live by: no parent of a teenager really knows what her child is up to. Any parent who believes she does has either dangerously forgotten her own teenage years or is in for a big surprise one day. Maybe both.
So when my fifteen-year-old said, “Mom, we have to talk,” it chilled my blood. Did she want to attend a three-day music festival? Or go on birth control? Or drop Chemistry? Or did she merely want new and expensive boots?
It was a Sunday. No school for her. I was having a rushed lunch while she ate a leisurely breakfast. Her words could start a discussion that could go on forever, wrecking all my plans and derailing all responsibilities for the afternoon.
I took a deep breath, stopped my simultaneous gathering up of research papers and dirty dishes. I sat down, ready to listen. Ready, if not entirely enthusiastic.
“I’ve been thinking it over and I’ve decided it’s time for you to start dating again.”
“What? What are you talking about?” I had been blindsided. “When I was little you never dated. I get that. But now that
I have a boyfriend I think you need more life of your own.” “Thank you very much, but my life is too damn full as it is.
I don’t think I have energy for one more thing in it. And I do have fun, and I do date.”
She gave me that know-it-all-teen look. “Really? Your life is full? You go to work at a museum. You go to grad school. You work on your dissertation. You take care of me. Once in awhile you and Darcy do girlfriend things. That is not a life. And Mike the cop is nice enough, but I don’t see you being all that excited when he calls.”
My daughter is way too observant for a child. Or a teen. It was indeed becoming clear to me that occasional dinners with Mike, whose brother was a high school friend, was like dating a relative. We share too many memories of the old days in the old neighborhood and too little of…something.
“So I have the perfect solution.”
“Oh?” I was seriously torn between listening to her and kill- ing her.
“Date Joe. You know he likes you.” The smug delivery of her words of wisdom merited something extreme.
I laughed at her.
“Joe is a player, in case you did not know that. A new girl every few months. You met the last one, that redhead. Now there’s a different one. And I know him even better than Mike. He’s just a good friend.”
“Seriously? You think of him as a friend? Seriously? When he comes over to fix things any time you ask? And even my friends see he is pretty hot for an older guy?”
“You know what? Seriously? I am not taking romantic advice from someone who is not old enough to drive.”
“Humph. I’m only a year younger than you were when you met Dad. And you were old enough.”
She grinned—mockingly—when she saw I could not answer that. “Just think about it, okay?”
I stood up. “I have work to do today. I can’t laze around thinking about romance, like some people.”
“Laze around? If only. I have a practice college essay to write for Guidance, a chapter of Chem to read, and half of Hamlet for English. Plus an art project to plan. And Mel is coming over so we can do each other’s nails. She has these tiny decals…”
I was half listening, half looking for a book I needed, half thinking about grocery supplies. Too many halves? Well, I am a historian-to-be, not a mathematician.
“I’ll be back for dinner.”
“Uh, Mom? Party at Dani’s tonight. There will be food.” “Party on a school night?”
“No school tomorrow. It’s teacher workshops, remember? I told you.”
“Right, you did. Jared coming down for the party?”
“All the way from Riverdale. Yes.” She suddenly smiled, and I saw the little girl I remembered. It was a birthday candles, riding the carousel smile. “His dad will come get him after.”
“Okay, kiddo.” Quick kiss on the top of her head. “Gotta run. I can’t use my phone in the library, but you can leave me a message. I’ll check in later.”
In some ways, Chris is always the most important thing on my mind. I’ve been a single parent since she was three and I was twenty-four, so it’s become a habit.
Otherwise, what was on my mind that morning, more urgent than my anemic social life, was crime. I’d reached the point in my dissertation on how neighborhoods changed in Brooklyn—it seemed like a good idea at the time—where I needed to discuss crime and how it changed, or didn’t, as waves of immigration changed a neighborhood. I had a long afternoon in the library ahead of me.
I began with my least scholarly source, a book of photographs, the catalogue of a new museum exhibit. They turned out to be raw, ugly, often badly printed, but they were full of the drama of the moment. They were mid-twentieth-century tabloid newspaper photos, taken by the first famous crime scene photographer. They called him Espy for what seemed like his extra-sensory ability to find a crime scene every single time he went out.
He was a man obsessed with the city and the night, Espy was. Dark streets, street lamp reflections off the dark pavement, dark deeds. I found myself humming a song from Guys and Dolls, courtesy of my mom’s old records, the one about his time of night, when the street belongs to the cop and the janitor with a mop. And it belonged to Espy. But he looked at the real thing, not the Broadway version.
I saw victims, both the quick and the dead, and criminals, both the weeping and the grinning, and bystanders from appalled to curious to indifferent. There was no makeup, no Photoshop, no flattering lighting. They all looked like scenes from a noir film, captured in real time.
And, aha. Here is where he would be most useful to me. His earliest beat was Brownsville, where he grew up and the very area I was studying. I recognized the name on a candy shop sign; it was the headquarters of a notorious Brownsville gang. Here was a photo of Pitkin Avenue, the main shopping street, bustling with shoppers and pushcarts, and here was a portrait of three nattily dressed men in playful poses. I knew their names. Back in the day, the Brooklyn DA, the local cops, and the tabloid editors knew them too.
These were his first published photos. He was only fifteen when he began documenting the rough life around him. Looking at his photos, I was seeing his world, through his eyes.
Then I began the slog through my library work. The book of photos was so much more interesting, so much more immediate, than the dry reports I was analyzing. My dissertation had come to feel like a dark tunnel with no light in sight at the moment. Perhaps the prospect of a Sunday night alone while my daughter was out partying contributed to my mood. I thought I was used to it. I was certainly used to it. At least I usually was.
Maybe what Chris said had gotten to me after all.
At home I dozed off on the couch watching a bad movie and dreamed about streetlamps on wet pavement, with the flashing lights of cop cars and a voice-over by Edward G. Robinson. It wasn’t restful. Not at all.
The next day I was going to explore Brownsville in the here and now. My guidebook was a memoir by a once-famous literary critic, Maurice Cohen, who had also grown up there in the 1920s and ’30s, when it was Jewish, crime-ridden, and poor. Now it was African-American, crime-ridden, and poor.
It was the first book I read when I started this part of my work, and the best. Espy showed me how it looked; Cohen told me how it felt. They would be my guides to the time and place, walking there with me even if only in my mind.
And how horrified my adviser would be, to hear something so frivolous.
I wanted to duplicate Cohen’s walk around his old neighborhood if I could, see what it looked like now, compare some then-and-now photos. If the result was not academic enough for dissertation use, there might be an article in it. I had to think about those things now.
I figured I could handle Brownsville, a high-crime neighborhood though it was. Sure I could. I grew up in blue-collar Brooklyn and though it wasn’t quite as tough, there certainly were rough types out and around. I learned plenty of street smarts.
Attitude was key. Put on my game face. Walk fast, with purpose. Stay alert to everything around me, but don’t look nervous. Don’t wear diamonds and pearls. Not that I had any. Wear jeans and my old jacket. That part was easy; I didn’t have too much else in my closet. No purse; carry my wallet and phone in my jacket. My ancient Civic would certainly not attract any attention.
Anyone who noticed me, a small white woman in her thirties, would assume I was a social worker or a teacher and not worth bothering.
I could use my phone for photos and not carry a camera. I knew what I was doing. I was prepared. However, I had carefully not told my father anything about this excursion. He’d have a lot to say and I was not going to listen.
As I drove I tried to keep the old photos in my head but it was not easy because the streets looked so different. Then, they were lined with ramshackle tenements, individual houses, and duplexes. Now, projects, low-income public housing, rose everywhere. Cohen wrote about it. They were just being built at the end of his book—clean, new apartments with modern kitchens and shiny bathrooms.
Any urban historian knows they turned out to be an experiment that failed, high-rise slums. And Brownsville was the most “projected” neighborhood in New York, maybe the country.
Pitkin Avenue, once a low-end but bustling main street, was still low end but not bustling. Not many people were out on this blustery April morning. A few women in office clothes, walking quickly and deep in conversation. Probably they really were teachers or social workers. A team of sanitation workers with a noisy truck. Scattered young men, hanging around, looking furtive. Were they up to no good, or watching out for potential problems? Or just killing time, waiting for some excitement? A man in a doorway. Urinating. Eww. A white man slouching along looking like a derelict. Only his whiteness made him noticeable. But what was this? The famous local movie palace, the Loews Pitkin, had been a crumbling, deserted wreck for decades—I’d seen the photos—but now was under renovation for a new school
and retail strip. I wondered if this was a sign of hope.
Here was the corner of Livonia and Saratoga, where the Moonlight Min candy store once stood. Its back room was the home office of the mob’s killers-for-hire squad. The irony of using a candy store was not lost on me, though I suspected it was on the actual mobsters involved. They weren’t exactly subtle thinkers. I pulled over and snapped a few photos from the safety of the car. Now it was a shabby corner grocery/newsstand/deli/ smoke shop just like the others all over New York, most of the windows covered with security gates. I wondered what they used the back room for now.
Looking for more landmarks, I was startled to pass one that still stood unchanged. I double-parked again and leafed through my books. Yes, it was the former Brownsville Children’s Library, unique in the city. This used to be Stone Avenue; now the street signs said Mother Gaston Boulevard. No wonder I was surprised. There it was in its entire, original splendor, a solid brick building with a tower-like entrance and elaborately carved, ornamental limestone trimmed around the windows. It looked like a small bank, and like the old banks, was intended to say, “Something that matters takes place in here.”
Maybe it mattered even more than money, I thought. Then again, maybe it didn’t in this impoverished piece of New York. In those days, children stood in long lines here, waiting to get in. Were they the ones who grew up to become Maurice Cohen, Aaron Copland, Al Capp, Henry Roth, Joseph Papp? And the ones who liked money more than books became the local gangsters, Lepke Buchalter, Gurrah Shapiro, and their associates, squeezing their already impoverished neighbors for protection payoffs. Some children of Brownsville went to Hollywood; some went to the mob.
Neatly put, I thought to myself, but maybe too neat. And who used this library now? A parking space opened up right around the corner. I could go in and ask.
I was so busy thinking, I forgot to be alert to what was happening around me, my own rule number three. There is not appearing nervous, and then there is relaxing into stupidity.
As I turned to lock the car door, suddenly four teenage boys surrounded me.
“What this?” one said. “White lady in the hood? We waiting around for our girl Savanna to come out and look what we find.”
“What you want here, little lady?”
They were smiling but not in a friendly way. Unless you would call sharks friendly.
I put on my own fierce face and suppressed any shakiness in my voice. “I need to leave. Please let me pass.”
“That your car? I’d be ’shamed to drive that piece a shit car.
White lady got no pride. You agree, bros?”
The responses were obscene variants of “Hell, yeah.”
“So we could mess it up, just for fun? Do the little lady a favor, get her some insurance cash?”
I thought they were teenagers, but they were big. At that moment they all seemed very big. And I didn’t have insurance on my old piece-of-crap car.
“Okay, enough fun.” I snapped it out, sounding authoritative.
I hoped. “Now let’s all go on about our business.”
“Bossy little lady.” He smiled a little more. “You think you know our business? Naah. Maybe it’s you is our business. We see you don’t have no purse, but maybe you got something good in that bag you carrying. Maybe money? Maybe one of them little computers? Worth something on the street?”
“A nice phone? Maybe she got money hidden somewhere else. They all got money. Maybe we got to take her somewhere and search her.”
He put out his hand and rubbed my arm. Now I was really scared.
“Naah, she too old to be fun for that.”
What? Who was he calling old? That puff of anger blew away the fear, but just for a moment.
Then the fear came back. There were four of them. A kick might disable the nearest, but what then? If I ran, I could not get past all four. If I screamed, who was there to hear me on this empty street on this cold spring day?
Up the street, at the corner, a side door opened at the library and someone came out. I could see the blue of a uniform and the flare of a cigarette lighter. This was the moment to make some noise.
“Get out of my way.” I said it as loud as I could. Louder, actually, than I thought I could.
They were laughing at me. My shouting amused them in their cat-and-mouse game, but it kept them from noticing the man running toward them, yelling at them obscenely to move along and that a patrol car was on the way.
They were way too cool to run, or panic, or even act concerned, but they were suddenly drifting off down the street. The leader turned back just for a second and waved a mocking farewell.