A Real New York Story: One of the 99% (text version)

Greenpoint, BW

Dedicated to my grandmother, Anita Sargent, who grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Her parents, Charles and Josephine, immigrated to the US from Naples, Italy.

Is this the New York, New York once sang about? My family extends back three generations here—roads paved not with the entirely hyperbolic and promised metaphorical gold, but with an endless workday; with hands and body and mind never quite clean from the morning extending into night, work still undone, an impossible quantity to stay afloat, in perpetuity.

Brooklyn, you’ve made a prisoner out of me. A bit. You promised me a job, and instead I wound up behind the bars of a psychiatric ward, slammed with an individual insurance plan costing over $16,000 a year: a punishment for being ill—and trying to save yourself.

Because in New York, it is cheaper to die. Sorry, but it is.

Well, it wasn’t like that—so smooth a transition—that felt like an endless day and night; and I don’t even know. And when I was allegedly free again, I went up on my roof and I stared at the sky, and there were no stars. In New York, the skyline are the stars. And I don’t think I can ever accept electric trying to be the real thing. Far away, burning bright, red, blue, against the real sky, not this electric light.

Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bed Stuy—rows of brownstones with residents sitting on their stoops in the evening, knowing each other, community—that is what most people think of when they think of Brooklyn. They don’t think of modern, cheaply made structures with brushed steel balconies and neon lights, towering over what once was a three- or four-story, residential neighborhood, fading from beautiful, from unique,—into glass and metal, into condos with their own massive parks overlooking the East River; the view and feeling that came with it obliterated for all but the wealthy, or the semblance of it. And make no mistake: I loved New York, but this is how a city dies. This is how, piece-by-piece, history is replaced; how, yes, a significant fraction of the world is annihilated.

And this is not what people picture when they think of Greenpoint, of Williamsburg, where my family built and lost a lowly empire, a business replaced by imported, faceless goods; knocked down, and now there’s a highway there. That Brooklyn; the Lower East Side; that Village, now nearly gone. When people think of Brooklyn, of its history that we love, they don’t think of affluence, but of something truly priceless. They think of sweat. I think of how, my grandmother, at age nine, lost her mother to cancer, and lived in a tenement apartment with her four siblings and her father, above the shoe store they owned; and at night, they would all make the shoes, my grandmother, a child then, proud to be trusted with the task of shoveling coal into the stove to keep her family warm.

And that history, I realize, is also mine.

I complain that I can’t find a good, sustainable job, and demand $30 an hour, and feel diminished by the offering of $25 with no benefits. No days off, for illness or for leisure; and the need but lack of affordable medical insurance and care. And I should be mad. I should complain. I am afraid to become ill again, yet have several co-morbid behavioral health conditions. I do. I am afraid to sneeze, or to cough. I don’t want to live my life like this—scared, simply wanting but needing more. Because this is Brooklyn, now. This is depression-era—not recession-era, but depression-era—New York City, 2012.

My grandmother was perhaps one of the first women to go to college. She studied poetry, for the love of it, at NYU. Not in order to graduate, and to receive a piece of paper marking four years of service, for an exorbitant rate that grows exponentially with each passing year; but to truly learn; to value education in the most profound sense of the word. And that history is all but disappeared. And I am going to make sure it isn’t. Because that’s the real New York, New York.

That’s not the Freedom Tower, slowly rising to 1776 feet. That’s not a plethora of American flags, faded from 11 years of sun, still affixed to car windows to symbolize something no one even understands. That’s not the Verizon building, now ruining a once striking view of the Brooklyn Bridge; or a skyline with just as many brand names as you would see at a mall. Back then, when she lived here, it wasn’t Citi Field Area or MetLife Stadium: it was Charles’s shoe repair; Bill’s locksmith; Eleanor’s tailoring. It was about people then. Not about the kind of “people” corporations legally are, but real individuals—with hopes, with ethics, with families, and with dreams.

And we know what people are. What a genuine New York story is. We know what hands, working leather, at night, feeling a sad pride in the moment, as my grandmother did, all those years ago, but knowing that she’d remember for the rest of her life, what it meant to truly work. Not seemingly aimlessly and sometimes quite painfully, but with love.