Taipei Jeans: A Flashback

“You have it too easy,” my aunt said, said stroking my hair, “You’re not depressed. You just have difficulty.”

"When I was your age, I didn’t have the choice to either go to college or do what I liked. It wasn’t even that my parents made me. We had one road, and that was education. We had no other thought but to get out of Tainan. We needed the freedom that came with a good education.

“I remember moving into the dorms and thinking, “Wow, this is great. I’m finally on my own…” but really, it was the most crowded living situation I would ever experience.

“Nine girls in one room with three-level bunk beds. The rooms were so small we had to take turns studying at the desks. Everything was shared. The first day I arrived I was so embarrased. I unpacked all my things and the oldest girl in the room came and patted me on the back.

“It’s okay,” she said, “We share all our  clothes anyway.” I stared at my belongings: two white shirts, two pairs of socks, two pairs of threadbare underwear and a skirt that had been let out at the hem so many times there were lines at the bottom where the wash had faded the cloth. The older girl waved at her closet- it wasn’t much more, but at least she had two pairs of shoes. “Feel free to borrow what you need. But we all try to keep everything in the best condition.

“Back in high school, my friends and I dreamed of moving to the big city. You see, we grew up in Tainan, the southern part of Taiwan where people are considered…country bumpkins. We studied hard and knew that no matter what, we were going to Taiwan National University in Taipei. My mother didn’t think I could make it. She told me not to aim too high. 'Set yourself up for disappointment,' she would tell me whenever I brought it up, 'Why not just be a teacher and stay at home? Save money.'

“You’re probably thinking, teacher? Is that freedom? Well… back then, being a teacher was a respectable job to have. And if you studied to be a teacher in college, you were guaranteed a job after you graduated. But I knew in my heart I wanted to go to Taipei- I did not want to stay in Tainan and become a teacher, even if it meant my education would be paid for by the government.”

“I didn’t tell my mother when I was accepted into Taiwan National University. She kept on asking me when I was going to move into the teacher's school, but I just talked about something else. Finally, when she found out, it was too late to get angry. I was already packed (even though there wasn’t much) and ready to leave. We said our goodbyes and I left for Taipei.

She stops here, looking me in the eye. Wondering what I’m thinking. I am intrigued, but I am tired.

“Betty, I know New York is different and you regret going there, but you must think of it this way: at least you know. I think you’d be far unhappier if you’d never left your hometown.

“Taipei was a whole other world. The college girls there, the older ones anyway, looked down at first on us girls from the south. They thought we had no style, no class. Which was true, but we were fast learners. My roommates and I saved up all our money for six months just so we could each buy a pair
of jeans. I could not believe how expensive the western styles were, but I wanted to fit in so badly. We were growing up, you know? We wanted to do it right.

“The jeans…they didn’t fit. Well they did, but it was like walking around in a cast the doctor had wrapped too tightly. I remember asking for my size and then trying them on in the store. When the button couldn’t meet the hole, I asked the saleslady if she could get me a larger size. She snapped at me and said, “That’s how they’re supposed to look. They make your legs look thin and sexy.”

My aunt gets a dreamy look then shakes her head, smoothing down my hair once more.

"Those jeans," she said, "I had a love-hate relationship with those jeans.'"

Monday Musing: Diaries

Lately, I have not been feeling like myself. But then I wonder, what is "myself?"

A few nights ago at dinner, Tom said to me, "You are cheerier than usual."

I looked at him over the flame of a small votive candle. 

"Am I normally not?" though this was a dangerous question and one I did not want him to answer honestly.

This last month, perhaps longer, has been trying. I have cried more than anyone in my situation (a good relationship, making slow but certain progress in school, surrounded by friends, most of whom I met through Tom, and with kind, patient parents who came to visit and found my boyfriend charming if not the city) ought to, for reasons both big and small and sometimes, for no (apparent) reason at all. I have started fights at midnight and made both of us bleary eyed with exhaustion. 

Tom shook his head, "No, you're usually pretty cheery -" he paused - "You're always cheery. But tonight you're super cheery." 

I was indeed cheery that night - we were having a pizza date in the East Village - and the night before. For two days a certain peace had washed over me - I had, I thought, accepted things that I was either to accept or reject.

I was cheery too, yesterday, when we, along with two friends, drove an hour to the New Jersey countryside to do east coast fall things: a brisk hike through a crisp, golden forest, a small lunch of cider hotdogs and doughnuts, and a corn maze through which we entered and hours later - chilled, exhausted but triumphant - emerged. 

Some days, when outings are planned and the weather is fine and there is nothing to do really, but move your legs and breathe the air and listen and add to the chatter, it is easy to be cheery. But by the day's end, you are tired and one misinterpreted word from your lover's mouth can push your fatigue into a darker mood.

I over think things. I know this. But by now, at the age of twenty-eight and having gone through what I think, what I hope, are similar times, I should know now how to tell the difference between my mood in a time of change and uncertainty versus my general temperament. I wonder if it's something physiological. Some chemistry I don't quite understand but which I try to temper by taking fish oils and Vitamin C and making sure I get enough sun on my face and skin and eyes... But nothing. In short, I should know the answer to, "Is this how I am?" or "Is this how I am right now?" 
-------

This morning I struggled for the answer while zoning out in lecture. I thought about the diaries I'd written when I was younger and when, I assume, I was "happier." Happier in that I didn't think so much, didn't plague myself with thoughts about the future, which won't reveal itself anyway, not it's full face and shape, until it arrives. I looked forward to things most children looked forward to: the weekends, or more specifically, the hours after Chinese school. I relished warm Thursday afternoons in early summer, when I'd finished my homework and there was nothing left to do but climb the tree outside my window, then swim, and eat dinner. Maybe, if my mother allowed, I would watch some television. I counted down the days to winter break ski holidays with my cousins, and Christmas and Thanksgiving and Halloween! I'd anticipate the end of the year at the start of fall, and allow my excitement to build backwards. 

When I was sixteen a particularly nasty mood hit me - a petulant, tyrannical dark cloud that screamed, "out with the old Betty and in with the new!" - because back then, I used diaries as an attempt to reinvent myself, to just myself - and I threw those diaries away. 

I have no written record of what life was like before that age. It makes me sad to think that I might be writing over words I'd written before, on some ream of recycled paper I bought from Staples. 

Shortly thereafter, I started my first blog. A Xanga. I wrote in it for a few years before another mood struck and I began a new Xanga. Another mood, another time. A few years after that, something changed again, and I was on Blogger, as Very Highbrow, to which I am still faithful and intend to keep. 

Some things don't change, as much as I would like them to - not because they can't, but because they shouldn't. But from time to time I want to reread my old stuff, revisit the old me, because the old me is always, still me. 

I remembered the password to my old archives for my second Xanga, but could not for the life of me remember the first. Xanga, now defunct, had archived all my old entries, but I could not access them with neither the password nor the email I had used over ten years ago. I have tried at least twice a year for the past three years to remember or retrieve that password, but the archives remained infuriatingly out of reach: just a small password box in the way. 

And then in class today, zoning out, I heard my professor say a few familiar words, among them, my old password sans the numbers I attach to the end of most password. I sat up, startled.  

I opened my computer and a few minutes later, voilà: Betty at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. Betty from a decade ago downloaded onto present Betty's computer in five seconds flat. 

Just a few pages of code but several hundred thousand words explaining, exploring. A person growing. 

Write this City: A New York Diary

On a whim, my professor changed the final assignment. 

We were reading "What I saw" by Joseph Roth and thumbing the pages during our class discussion, he revisited something valuable. 

"Why not let's do this," he said, waving his hands as though to stir up the proposal still taking shape in his head, "Yes, yes, this is much better than the original assignment I have planned." 

It's simple: keep a journal. An urban diary of life - your life - in the city. Write it longhand if you wish, and for God's sake don't agonize over it. That's what workshop is for. Try to write every day and at the end of the semester, turn in your best, your favorite 1500 words. 

A few of us groaned. More writing on top of the twenty to thirty pages we were already expected to churn out each week for our thesis workshops. Also, we haven't been asked to keep a journal since elementary school... 

"Dear Diary, 

Today at recess I kicked a girl in the stomach..." 

A girl from Egypt raised her hand. She is a journalism student with a concentration on arts reporting. What was the original assignment? 

The professor looked at her with a curious expression that said, "Does it matter?" 

He is a curious man with wild salt and pepper hair and a chin that protrudes slightly more than the rest of his face. He is well-dressed in a New York not-quite-young but not-quite-old professorial way: fitted, faded jeans, blazer, worn but probably expensive polo shirt in dark blues and greys. Sometimes he wears a narrow, striped scarf, the kind that makes me wonder: "Yes but...does it keep the neck warm?" It certainly does nothing to tamper the scratchiness of his voice. 

On his narrow nose rests narrow black framed glasses and always at his ankles sits a single, slim briefcase, probably hand-stitched, the leather on the handles worn as well as the bottom, from being placed then picked up on classroom and subway floors. He wears no wedding ring, though he is reasonably handsome and reasonably successful, and it is only after our third or fourth class that I go home and Google him - he's written two memoirs, one about his daughter's mental illness and another about his struggles as a writer. 

I once saw him reading on the subway, sitting between a fat black woman and a student not unlike myself, a young Asian woman with hair pulled back into a pony tail, wearing a light sweater and jeans, flats. She was reading a printout, dense with text. My professor, the briefcase now between his ankles, read a slim volume I couldn't see the title of but was certain it wasn't something he'd assigned for our class. 

I stood half a car away and wondered if I should walk over to say hello - there was space in front of him - but decided to stay put because I felt it would be awkward to tower over him, my belly in his face trying to make small talk. I guessed he would get off the train at 96th and transfer to an express train - the 2 or 3 to Brooklyn where I swore he lived. I wanted to know where he lived so I could pat myself on the back and say my assumptions were right. 

But he remained seated and I, disappointed, got off. I remembered what he'd said in class. 

"When you write this diary, see if you can put your assumptions away." 

I pushed through the turnstile, momentarily jostled by a group of young musicians and their sleek instruments made unwieldy by nylon cases and hard shells, and wondered if for me, that was possible.  

Sundays: General Malaise

Before I moved to New York I drank very little and had a naive if entirely incorrect understanding of what it meant to be hungover.

I remember asking one of my friends after a rowdy night out what it felt like. I had not had as much to drink and had driven us back to my house from LA. In the morning she woke up groaning.

"I have a headache," she said, "A huge huge huge headache."

And then she went to throw up.

The headache seemed to be common to everybody's hangovers and because I, even when I drank more than usual, never got the headache, assumed I was never hungover.

In New York, I started going out more, started drinking more. Some nights, I stayed out until three or four and was sober by the time I was showered and in bed. I would sleep fitfully, then wake not much later than usual the next morning, feeling slightly worn but never with a headache.

"I've never been hungover," I would say, proud that my body was so resilient.

But I'd walk around in a haze, be slow to speak and move, and by the mid-afternoon or early evening, depending on how much activity I did during the day, a colossal fatigue would wash over me and I would want to crawl into bed at seven or eight pm. Like a monk, but not.

One Sunday afternoon, Charlene traveled all the way from Jersey to hang out with me. We were supposed to take a walk and have dinner together. But I had gone out the night before, drank too much, slept too little. By the time she arrived I was in bed, no different from an ailing hospital patient.

"What the heck," Charlene said, "I came all the way over here and you're hungover!"

"No no, no no," I said, "I'm not hungover. I don't have a headache. I just slept really late last night."

She shook her head, "A hangover isn't a headache, Betty. It's..." she waved her hand at my pitiful, incapacitated figure, "It's this. This general malaise."

Since then, I have shared Charlene's phrase with other friends and Tom, who used it this afternoon to describe how we were both feeling. It's a hangover catchall phrase, one that aptly describes me and you and him and her, after a long night with many drinks.

Anyway. I've stayed up much later than I thought I would sharing this little revelation with you, but before I go: 12 Hangover Cures From Famous Heavy Drinkers ... most of which involve more alcohol.

Neighbors

A few summers ago in Taiwan, when my aunt had gently shook me awake. It was 9AM and she was about to leave for the office.

"When you and Karen go out today, if you turn left, cross the street."

"Hmm?" I blinked at her in the haze of sleep.

"Someone from the building next door killed themselves last night. She jumped from the roof."

I had opened my eyes completely and stared at my aunt's soft round face. She seemed not sad, but thoughtful. My cousin Karen slept next to me, unaware. My aunt smoothed some hair back from the top of my forehead.

"So when you go out, don't walk on our side of the street. Cross the street."

"Is she still there?"

"No," my aunt said, "but it's not clean."

Superstitious, she meant that there was now an air of death. She didn't want it lingering on us.

On the local news that evening, we learned the girl was an ABC (American Born Chinese), who had come to Taipei to live with her parents after graduation. She was twenty-three, just a few years older than Karen and I. She had been a successful everything, had seemed to everyone cheery and peppy. Had a good relationship with her parents and siblings. The authorities had found an iPod and a chair on the spot from where she jumped, nothing else.

We watched, paying closer attention than usual not because we knew the girl, but only because she had been our neighbor. In another building, but a neighbor nonetheless. She had fallen on the driveway leading to the underground parking lot where we and the neighboring residents parked their cars. The next morning, there would be a large light-colored spot upon the cement, where the driveway had been hosed off and bleached.

The news anchor moved on to the next story and my aunt sighed and shook her head.

"Young and foolish. What must her parents be going through right now?"

------

One morning a few weeks ago, I was alone in Tom's apartment when the buzzer rang. I went to the little wall panel by the front door that showed, via a tiny fish-eye camera, who wanted in and recognized neither the gruff-looking, middle-aged Caucasian man nor the two slender, tired looking Hispanic women standing behind him. They were dressed like social workers, he in an ill fitting collared shirt and they in faded blouses and frumpy light jackets. One of the women held a clipboard. All three had lanyards with badges of some sort hanging from their necks.

The panel has more than a few buttons with enigmatic icons and I wasn't sure which was for sound. The man turned and said something to the women, who nodded somberly. I wanted to know about what, but I didn't want to press the wrong button and accidentally let them in. I didn't want to be responsible for letting in an interesting combination of people who might or might not rob the entire building blind.

I hoped they would go away if no one answered, and so went back to the small round white kitchen table, where my computer sat. My fingers had resettled upon the keyboard when the buzzer rang again.

Suspicion had already kicked in but, as likely to racially profile as the next person, I reasoned that a middle aged Caucasian man with two rather benign looking Hispanic women (or perhaps Latina) made an unlikely criminal trio. And plus there was the clipboard. My finger hovered over the button with the Key icon, deliberating. The man was relentless. He pressed the buzzer a third time.

The clipboard, I decided, was some sign of safety. I pressed the button just as the man looked directly into the camera, as though purposefully giving the lens a clear view of his face.

I wondered why he was so persistent on pressing the buzzer for this unit, then realized Tom's was the first apartment on the first floor, usually where the superintendent or building manager lived. There was another door once they got through the front gate, opened by the same button. I decided to meet them in the lobby, unsure if this was a wise move, but at least I could ask questions.

I grabbed the spare set of keys and my phone, and stepped into flats rather than flip-flops, in case I had to run. They were standing behind the second set of glass doors, preparing to press the buzzer again, when they saw me.

The man lifted up his laminated badge as I opened the door. None of them smiled or said hello.

"I'm the medical examiner," he said, taking the clipboard from one of the young women. He looked at me expectantly.

I blinked. I had no need to be medically examined.

"I'm here about the guy who jumped this morning..."

He eyed my shorts, my general lounging-around-at-home-disheveledness.

"You're not the super or building manager, are you."

I shook my head.

He sighed, "A guy jumped this morning. Apartment 1D." He looked at the door from which I had emerged, and then across the hall, to 1D. "He lived right there. Do you know anything about it? Did you know him? Were you friends at all?"

"Oh..." was all I could say, and then very slowly, "...no."

He peered down at the clipboard. I could see an official looking document on top, and saw briefly part of the man's name (the rest covered by the examiner's hand), his ethnicity, (Korean) and his age (twenty-five).

"I don't live here," I said, "It's my boyfriend's apartment."

The man nodded, glancing down at the clipboard, "You know where the building manager would be?"

"No," I said, then motioning outside, "Is he...is the body still there?"

"No, they've taken him away, but we need to get into his apartment."

I nodded, unsure of what else to say.

"Well, sorry to bother you," the man said, "And thanks for letting us in. We'll go and find the building manager then."

"Okay," I said. I went back to the apartment and before closing the door, looked across the lobby at 1D. I had never seen anyone walk out of or into the unit, but now knew there had been a young Korean man a few years younger than I.

I closed the door, went back to my computer. I ate lunch, did the dishes. A half hour later, I changed and went to get groceries, the only thought to the dead being that I was glad to turn left once out the building because the body had been somewhere to the right.
 -----

A day later I sat on the floor of Tom's living room, watching the US Open with his two roommates and a few friends. 

A comedic commercial came on with a police officer and I was reminded suddenly of the suicide. I had thought, after the medical examiner left, to text Tom and his roommates to tell them what had happened, but it seemed gossipy and pointless. There was nothing to be done, so I kept it to myself. But now, hearing them laugh at the commercial (I don't remember what was being advertised), I thought they should know. 

"Oh yeah," I said, "I forgot to tell you guys. Someone in your building killed himself. He jumped off the roof." 

"Oh is that what happened?" Tom and his roommate had seen cops and police cars clustered around the side of the building that morning as they left for work, but they couldn't see much and had walked on. 

"He was a Korean kid in 1D." 

"That's right across from us," Tom said. 

"He was twenty-five," I said. 

"Jesus."

"Again?" said one of Tom's roommates, "Someone jumped from the roof of my first New York apartment." 

We surmised about a young stranger's death for a few minutes during the rest of the commercials. What was he depressed about? What did he do for work? Did his roommates know? And his parents? We shook our heads. Who knows what anyone thinks before jumping off a roof. 

"What an idiot," Tom said, shaking his head, "Twenty-five." 

I sat on the carpet, nodding. Someone might have told the kid, "It gets better," but felt that someone might have been wrong. If it doesn't get better, one gets better at managing it. But. All easier said than done. The match came back on and we turned our attention back to Federer. 
----

That weekend, we went out for drinks with friends. We laughed over dinner, laughed at the bar, laughed, though a bit more tired, in the cab home. Tom and I smiled at each other walking up the steps to his apartment. 

"What a fun night," Tom said, the same thing he says every time we go out.

I nodded as we crossed the lobby, brightly lit and cool. Tom, a few steps ahead, was opening the door when I heard a woman's plaintive wail, followed by heavy, heaving sobs. I looked at the door of apartment 1D, indistinguishable from Tom's door. Her tone told me she was older. Someone's mother. 

I stepped inside, closed the door, and could still hear her crying, but faintly. 

"Did you hear?" I asked Tom, when our faces were washed and teeth brushed, ready to greet another day. 

"What." 

"The woman crying. I think it was his mother." 

Tom rolled over in bed, already half asleep, "What a fucking idiot." 

A Preview of Coming Attractions

By this time next week, my parents will have been in New York for one day. They are coming to visit me en route to Canada, where they'll rendezvous with their retired friends to take in Canada's fall foliage.

"It's a good time of year," I said, when they first proposed the dates, "It won't be too cold, and there might be a hint of fall colors. And it's about time you guys met Tom."

My father grunted, "I don't need to meet him. I've seen his picture."

"Betty's right," my mother said. I could picture her smiling into the receiver. "It's about time we visited her in New York and met Mr. Tom."
----
The last time my mom came to New York was ten years ago, to help me move into NYU. I was eighteen and in New York for the second time ever. My brother and cousin Karen came with and the week before school started, we rented an old but clean two bedroom apartment near Greenwich Village. We bought breakfast foods from the nearby Morton Williams, made toast and fried eggs in the mornings and walked around the city, doing the requisite touristy things - we went to the top of the Empire State Building, saw the Statue of Liberty, took a photo or two in Times Square.

They accompanied me on multiple trips to the first two (or was it three) story Bed Bath and Beyond I'd ever been to, and made sure I had all the necessary dorm room items - scratchy sheets, a too-warm duvet, laundry basket, plastic storage bins, a desk lamp. There was also a shitty, three-cup rice cooker that always produced something closer to congee regardless of how much water I put in. For dinners, because there was no such thing as Yelp! and as I was coming from suburbia and emerging from an age where The Cheesecake Factory was a good restaurant, we ate at restaurants that have surely since been shuttered. There was however one Chinese restaurant we wandered into one evening, and which I continued to frequent after my mom, brother and Karen left. It was called Wok n' Roll. A quick Yelp! search tells me there are many Chinese restaurants in and around New York with the same name, but the one I, and my roommate too, after I'd taken her there one evening, returned to time and again in Greenwich Village no longer exists. It helped me through some hard times, but the abundance of grease, sugar and MSG in the delicious orange chicken - no doubt it made the hard times harder.

That first week in New York, I ignored the lineup of orientation and welcome activities NYU held for incoming freshman, telling myself my family was in town and my time would be better spent hanging with them. I could, and would make new friends later. This is only partially true.

What happened when they, my familiar cocoon left, is that I cried on the corner of Washington Square Park for a good ten minutes as their taxi drove off. I could see my cousin Karen turning around to look at me from the rearview mirror until my tears blurred her face. They turned left and out of sight. I was alone in New York City.

A few months later, after a tear-ridden telephone conversation with my parents about feeling depressed and directionless, my mother bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room. She would come to New York, she said, and take me home. Unbeknownst to me, my brother told my mother to calm down. He'd come to New York alone and bring me home. He called me one chilly December evening, as I was trudging home from another mind-numbing astronomy class, and asked what I wanted for dinner. He was at JFK, and would be in Manhattan within an hour.

I screamed, then said I could eat whatever. I was very fat then.

"Steak," he said, because he always wants steak, "Let's get a good steak."

I forget where we ate that night, but I remember smiling across the table from my brother, feeling less anxious and happier than I'd been in a long while. I called my mother that night and told her I was coming home, that I was done with New York. For a while.

"Good," she said, so was she. For a while.
------

A few days ago my mother called to ask if I needed anything from home.

I was sitting with Tom in his room, deliberating what to read before bed.

"Nope," I said, thinking about all the unread books I had at home, "I've got everything I need right here."

"Good," she said.

"I've been thinking about your visit though," I said, "Is there anything in particular you and dad want to see?"

"No, not really."

"No like...scenic spot you guys really want to see?"

"No museums. And I doubt your dad will want to sit through any shows."

I smiled. My father's last trip to New York was some fifteen, twenty years ago, when he'd come with a friend cum business partner, Uncle Xia, and Uncle Xia's sister. They had had a few steak dinners and attended a concert at Lincoln Center, where both my father and Uncle Xia fell asleep, snoring. Some minutes later an usher tapped my father on the shoulder, politely asking them to leave.

My father was sitting next to my mother, who had me on speakerphone. "I want to see Columbia," he called out, "And that one park in the middle."

"Bah. Central Park. It's called Central Park."

"I just want to see you and your little apartment," my mother said, "And I want to meet Mr. Tom!"

"I know," I cast a sideways glance at Tom, knowing he was anxious about meeting them.

"I'm going to get my hair cut tomorrow," my mother said brightly, "I don't want Tom to think, 'My goodness Betty's mom is a slob!'"

I laughed, "He wouldn't think that. And besides, at least you have hair to cut."

Tom heard my mother's loud laugh and gave me a look. He hears his name enough amidst flurries of Mandarin to know he is often the topic of conversation.

"Don't poke fun at him," my mother said.

"He can handle it."

We discussed the weather ("I don't know. It might be cold. It might be really cold. It might not be cold at all. It might rain every day. It might be sunny.") then said good night and hung up. I turned to Tom.

"Did you hear my mom laugh?"

"I did," he said, putting down his Kindle.

"She said she was going to get her hair cut for you, because she didn't want you to think she was a slob."

He chuckled.

"I told her at least she has hair to cut."

He rolled his eyes, "Har har."

"They're very excited to meet you."

He groaned, suddenly looking very tired. "It's going to be awful."

I shook my head, patted his arm. There, there. I knew my parents and I knew Tom. I knew it would be anything but. 

Nostrand Avenue

You are here.  
This semester, I'm taking a seminar called "Writing the City." Before class started the professor gave us an assignment: to take the C or A trains to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and walk "with maximum openness and attention, building a narrative out of what you see, overhear, actual encounters, your insights, responses... The chronicle of a writer's walk, however you choose to craft it." 

It's the sort of assignment that would make my father scratch his head, much like when I accidentally shipped home books I'd ordered for my Spy Novel class and my father learned that these books, many of which were made into blockbusters, were my "textbooks." 

I took the walk alone, as directed, on a hot September afternoon. I probably should have used my eyes more, taken in sights and smells, stopped to study little details here and there. That was the whole point. But I was tired and already sweating from walking up the subway steps. I was also wary - the crowd where Nostrand intersects with Fulton is very different from the Upper West Side, where people are mostly white and there's only a sprinkling of bums, most of whom retreat back to shelters when the sun sets. Also, in the Upper West Side there aren't usually long lines of police cars parked next to crumbling sidewalks just for the sake of deterring criminal activity. 

The essay I wrote was probably too honest. 

I'm from a small town in Orange County, California where bums, though I've yet to see one, get picked up by cops and are dropped off in other cities.

The professor is a kind, curious man who defines himself as being remarkably open - open faced, and open-minded. Open to all the bits - ugly, beautiful, strange - that make up the human condition because he asks questions and writes down the answers. 

A white, female classmate put considerably more effort into the assignment than I did. She wandered up and down Nostrand for a good three hours with a notebook and pen. A police officer noticed her wandering and after a time, asked her if she was lost. 

"A fair question," I thought.

I had walked down the street just once and elicited enough stares and catcalls to feel more than slightly out of place. I saw exactly one other Asian woman, older and more world weary, but even she walked much faster than I. I assumed she was hurrying to a place she felt more at "home." 

"Why would he ask if you were lost?" the professor asked my classmate, "What do you think he meant by that?" 

"I told him I wasn't lost," my classmate said, "I said I was here for an assignment and asked him why he would think that I was lost. Then he got really nervous and just...ran off." 

"See," the professor said, "Isn't that interesting. That the officer would approach you, a young white woman, and ask if you were lost. I think he ran off because he didn't want to get in trouble for assuming...you know." 

Several of my classmates nodded in agreement. I rolled my eyes.

Assuming what? That a young white woman wandering the streets of a mostly black neighborhood might be lost? If my professor thought the cop was being racist, I'd have to disagree. It seemed to me the cop was just showing concern. If I was in Monterey Park, CA and saw a well-dressed white guy driving around the same three blocks for hours on end, I'd probably ask if he was lost too. Had the officer approached me, I would have thanked him for his kindness, acknowledging that to any bystander, I was probably out of place. I certainly felt it. You, depending on where you grew up and what you're used to, might have felt it too.

Aside from the girl who grew up in the Bronx, most of them were like me, from safe suburban neighborhoods they now look back upon and see as boring. No diversity! No struggle! So sterile! Gentrification is the devil! Oh definitely. They come to class holding three dollar coffees, lunch on fifteen dollar kale salads and delight in little exercises like this, assigned by a man who probably lives in a Brooklyn brownstone in a mostly white Brooklyn neighborhood, who shops at the farmer's market and whose brown leather briefcase and shoes are weathered just so, as though he paid extra to have them look that way. Never mind they chose to come to a writing program at an Ivy League school where tuition causes nosebleeds. 

Of course it was a perfectly safe neighborhood! Of course the cop had no business assuming what he assumed. And that obscenely long line of cop cars and the nervous looking officers walking around? Hallmarks of every safe neighborhood. 

I did not feel unsafe, but I did not feel safe, especially, ironically, when I saw the cop cars. But mostly, it was unfamiliar. I'm sure it showed on my face. I was not familiar with the bums on the corners nor the idle, old men sitting in wheelchairs in front of pawnshops and barbershops. I was not familiar with the young shirtless black men who seemed just as idle as the old men, if a bit more anxious. They flexed and asked if I wanted photos of them, with them. I did not. I took my photos and hurried along. 

But here's the thing about photos. I took these ones below. Stared at them and played around with filters and colors. Revisited the original image and the actual place in my head. Revisited this post as it was a draft too, and now these little rectangles of Nostrand Avenue are familiar.
The only familiar faces in the neighborhood. 
Another wall. 
And detergent. 
Not so secret garden. 
Nails my parents would not approve of. 
A wall of memories. Note the man also known as "Chincky" in the bottom middle. 
Brooklyn recycles. And provides nuclear fallout shelters.  
Van Gogh would have appreciated this building. 
The kid almost ran over my foot. But he apologized and called me "lady." 
Dusk. And a Range Rover. 
Where I ate dinner sitting at the same table as a cop. 
If for whatever reason you're there and end up hungry, try these places: 
1267 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11216
b/t Arlington Pl & Nostrand Ave in Bedford Stuyvesant
(718) 783-0316

1184 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11216
Bedford Stuyvesant
(718) 230-1115
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