A Letter to the Russian Language


This story was originally published in July 2013 on Ducts.org:

All old people remind me of my dead grandparents, and especially old Eastern Europeans. So when we knock on the door at 2A, and the white-haired woman who answers is in a long, badly fitting nightgown, I know that this is the first indignity—we’ve already managed to make things worse.

It’s six days after Hurricane Sandy, and I am with a group of volunteers at the door of a second-floor apartment on Mermaid Avenue and 27th street, in a water-logged and totally dark high-rise, in the Russian, Black and South American seaside neighborhood of Coney Island, Brooklyn. The grumpy men in the Red Cross truck have loaded us up with supplies not before reprimanding me for giving a blanket to a woman who says she has a baby upstairs (“There’s a lotta liars out here.”). Nonetheless, we are ready for our mission: key-chain and iPhone flashlights, cardboard boxes of microwaveable meals, chocolate pudding packs, Red Cross blankets wrapped in plastic under our arms and bottles of Poland Spring jammed in our backpacks and between our fingers.

And this is where you come in, Russian. See, there was something missing, something I hadn’t even thought of that day: an ability to string together a simple sentence in you, which, after a few rounds of classes over the years, as well as hearing you spoken throughout the whole of my childhood, you would think I might possess by now.

Let’s go over our history, shall we? Most recently, there was the rehashing of your nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental and prepositional case at those evening classes in Midtown at the Zoni language school; which followed a year of alphabet and vocabulary flashcards (over chai with moloko) at Bella’s Upper West Side studio before she moved away. There was you in the flesh: from the wet mouths of my Latvian-Jewish grandparents in angry, ranting tones at the television, or in fights about my grandfather’s drinking, or softly and sweetly telling me I am little, I am a doll, I have a big brain; or sternly that I need to eat more, I am an old maid, I’ve gained weight; or on their long-distance phone calls to Latvia, where their voices would become loud and jubilant and, dare I say, happy. There were my pilgrimages: three, four, five trips to Latvia’s capital city, Riga, and one trip to St Petersburg. Of course, I conceded the horror of the Stalin years, but stayed with you on other strategic fronts, using what I learned in college (a Russian history class and a persistent communist dalliance) to exalt your great past for all who questioned it (Ever heard of the Battle of Stalingrad? Russia’s legalization of abortion in 1920? a real Marxist revolution that was supposed to happen everywhere but there?), my intellectual commitment only deepening as the years went by (See: Checkov, Gogol, Gorky and Turgenev). And yet, after all of that, all we have been through, you dare to decline me this fateful Sandy-ravaged day (much like the disagreeable Russian noun that declines depending on its confounding, capricious declension class), right when I need you the most.

That cold afternoon, we walk single file into the dark hallway of the building, across a thin board separating us from a toxic puddle and up the stairs, the light of our teeny flash lights our only guide. It feels like no one has come to check on the occupants here and they haven’t: The New York City Housing Authority took two full weeks after Sandy to dispatch workers to knock on tenants’ doors and see if they were still alive.

The first thing out her mouth, the word for light, Svet, Svet, Svet, escapes me entirely since it is also the first syllable of my very Russian name, Svetlana; naturally, I think she is admonishing me for showing up to her front door with a bunch of strangers and her practically naked. But then she says, “Licht, licht, licht,” which in my blank-brained confusion I somehow understand to mean light. Then she says, “Kras Krist? Krasny Krist?” which I don’t understand at all and ignore, replying in English, “What do you need?” since I cannot remember the Russian word for need, let alone how in the fuck to conjugate it.

“Oh, and yes we are Krasny Krist,” I say, realizing that means Red Cross, and looking back at the other volunteers, who look back at me frustrated as they hurriedly pile pudding and water and a blanket in the crack of her doorway. But I can’t move. “When will it power?” the old woman says, suddenly finding some English, just as I remember what I think is the Russian word for eat, “Kushets? Shto te hochesh kushets? ” But her words back to me don’t mean anything, since this phrase, asked of me when I was a kid by my grandparents, I would always answer back in English (quesadillas, matzoh ball soup, pelmeni).

The woman is crying now, “Six days, no light? When will, when light?” I turn around to ask the group if they know when the power will be come back on but they’ve all left. I wipe away my own tears. “Are you alone? Has anyone been here to help you?” That’s when I realize that I shouldn’t be here—none of us should; in my disastrous place should be a calm, trained individual with succinct answers in a variety of languages. I easily remember the Russian phrase for I don’t know, “Ye nyes nayou,” at which she mutters to herself, listlessly drags the pudding and water inside with her socked foot, and shuts the door. Leaving me alone with that anonymous boxed dinner, and a mental onslaught of Russian words that might have described its contents. But, as we say in our plainer idiom, a day late and a dollar short, Russian. All that history and here you weren’t.

Au-chen blagadarnya,

Svetlana Kitto


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Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967): Gertrude Stein’s lover


Occupying that special invisible area historically reserved for homosexual partnerships, Gertrude Stein’s relationship with her “companion,” Alice Babette Toklas, was never entirely out in the open, but nor was it hidden from view. Between Gertrude and Alice, however, the nature of the relationship was unshakably clear. On the occasion of an early trip to Florence, Gertrude professed her love to Alice with the intention of entreating Toklas into marriage: “Pet me tenderly and save me from alarm…A wife hangs on her husband that is what Shakespeare says, a loving wife hangs on her husband that is what she does.” Toklas wept and wept, and accepted: “She came and saw and seeing cried I am your bride.”

Alice B. Toklas grew up in California to a middle class Jewish family. Her father, a former Polish army officer, came to San Francisco as a prospective miner but soon found more luck as a merchant. With the hopes of one day becoming a classical pianist, Alice attended concerts often in the scintillating San Francisco of the turn of last century. She studied music at the University of Washington before her mother died in 1897, leaving her responsible for the men of the house. With no desire to marry a man, she found herself trapped, and unlike the female characters in the books of her favorite writer Henry James, without the financial freedom to do whatever she wanted. She eventually managed to secure a loan to get herself to Paris on September 8, 1907. On that same day she met Gertrude Stein.

“I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken,” Stein writes in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Indeed, the nurturing of Stein’s brilliance was Toklas’ primary occupation for most of her life. At 27 Rue de Fleurus, the house in Paris where they lived together for forty years, hosting salons to some of the twentieth century’s most influential artists and writers, Toklas was in complete control of the household. In one famous anecdote, a photographer arrives to take pictures of Stein for a magazine spread. He asks her to engage in any everyday activity, such as unpacking her airplane bag, to which she replies, “Miss Toklas always does that.” Talking on the telephone then? “Miss Toklas always does that.” Stein drolly suggests he take pictures of her drinking some water, or taking her hat on and off.

Everyone at 27 Rue de Fleurus had an opinion on Toklas and Stein’s relationship, and Toklas, often seen as dark and self-effacing in the presence of the charismatic Stein, was under particular scrutiny. (To poet James Merrill her raspy voice was “like a viola at dusk”; Picasso’s mistress Francois Gilot likened it to a “sharpening of the scythe.”) Draping herself in dramatic robes and ghostly colors (Balenciaga was a lifelong favorite; Balmain was a friend), Toklas often found herself charged with entertaining the other “wives of geniuses.”

“I always wanted to be historical,” Stein said before she died. “From almost a baby on, I felt that way about it.” If Stein hadn’t met Toklas, she most certainly would have given up on the whole genius of modernism endeavor. Not only did Toklas provide a constant flow of encouragement and praise that Stein needed to keep going, she also typed up her notebooks and prepared them for publishers. It was Alice who helped popularize Stein’s trademark modernist phrase “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”; she came across it while typing up Geography and Plays and insisted that Stein employ it as a device. It came to be Stein’s most famous quotation.  

But not all of Toklas’ influence on Stein’s work was so generative. For years, Stein scholars puzzled over Toklas’ typed version of Stanzas in Meditation. In the manuscript, every mention of the word “may” is crossed out violently and changed to “can,” with no regard for context or sound. Eventually, Stein scholars solved the mystery: Alice had suspected that the word “may” referred to one of Gertrude’s former lovers, May Bookstaver, and demanded Stein remove its every mention.  

After Stein died, Toklas published a cookbook that would achieve cult-like status, becoming one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time, for its eccentric, anachronistic recipes (particularly notable was its recipe for Hashish Fudge, which called for figs, almonds and cannabis). But her focus continued to be tending to Stein’s literary estate and reputation. And though Stein’s will granted “her friend Alice B. Toklas” full rights to her estate and painting collection to live off for the rest of her life, the provision was not enough to save Toklas from poverty. Without official recognition of their union, Toklas was left very vulnerable. One day she came home to empty spaces where paintings that she had lived with for more than half a century (works by Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir, Manet and others) had once hung; in Toklas’ absence Stein’s niece had pillaged the apartment. Soon thereafter, Alice B. Toklas was evicted from 5 Rue Christine. She died penniless a few years later.

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We Never Liked Her

(This story was published in the fall 2013 issue of Plenitude Magazine):

It’s summer at the Baltic Sea and the day is muggy and overcast. We find a parking spot as close to the boardwalk as possible because Grandma can’t walk far. Grandpa shoves the handicapped placard plainly onto the rearview mirror.

“IN-VAL-ID,” says Grandma, tapping a nail on each syllable. “That is me.”

“I know, Grandma,” I say, “but it’s an American sign, why would they care about it in Latvia? It’s in English,”

Grandpa shrugs. “In case of ticket, it’s better than nothing.”

It’s the third day of my visit to this small Eastern-European country, where my grandparents grew up and now spend their summers. I am here for two weeks, which my grandmother keeps saying is not enough time to see everything they want me to see. On the itinerary: the Jewish ghetto where my grandfather lived with his sister before she was killed at the beginning of World War II; Rumbala and Solchrosti, the forests that hold the mass graves where his and my grandmother’s families were stripped naked and killed in the first and second Jewish massacres of the Holocaust in Latvia; the Jewish museum where his picture hangs for fighting the Nazis in the Russian resistance; and the World War II memorial and museum.

But we have not reached the Holocaust segment of my trip quite yet. That will come next week, Grandpa tells me. Today, we’ve driven to Jurmala, a beach town on the Baltic, where my mom and grandparents used to go for the summers and rent a dasha—a summer home.

Once we’re on the boardwalk, Grandma pushes her walker slowly along the cobblestones as Grandpa walks ahead, his hands in the pockets of his brown slacks. “Souvenirs,” Grandma says, looking at a store with strings of amber and woolen socks and caps in the window. “Here is where you could buy Latvian souvenirs for your friends.” The last time they came to Latvia they brought me home a pair of gray winter socks. They looked nice but the thick wool thread had no stretch, so I could only pull them on over my toes.

“Maybe later,” I say. I link my arm through hers and try to be interested in the stores and the people eating at all the sidewalk cafes. But I want to be charging ahead with Grandpa and getting this excursion over with.

Every ten steps, Grandma flips the black leather seat of her walker down and collapses into it, resting between its red poles. “You cannot get such a walker here,” she says to me, shading her watery brown eyes from the sun’s glare. “Only in United States.” She clutches the handles and pulls herself back up. My stomach growls as I fiddle with the charm on my necklace, a gift from my ex-girlfriend back in Los Angeles. It’s a gold dolphin with a small green gem for an eye, which I rub with my index finger when I’m anxious. She got it for me for two reasons: one, dolphins have gay tendencies, and two, I have taut, thick-feeling skin which, we like to joke, acts like a marine layer—I’m always the last one out of the ocean when we go to the beach.

“He is a cute one,” my grandmother says, and points her chin towards my dolphin. I wrap my fingers around it tightly and turn away from her, as if she might gauge the charm’s meaning by looking at it for too long.

Since arriving in Latvia, I have seen no outwardly gay couples or queer people. And I read that the last time they tried to have a gay pride parade here, it was mobbed by an angry crowd, armed with human feces.

Grandpa shakes me out of this thought as he storms back to us. “It’s an Armenian restaurant up here. You like shashlik?” he asks me.

“What is it?”

“What is it?” He looks at Grandma and throws his hands up. “Bella?”

“You like it, you like it,” she says squeezing my arm. “It is meat on a stick.”

“As long as I can get vegetables on a stick, I like it.”

We sit at a table on the restaurant’s deck. Every other wooden chair has a thick, wool blanket draped over it. The tables are too big and high, and my feet barely touch the ground when I sit down. Grandma sits at the head and sucks in her breath every time one of the waitresses passes by. “It shakes,” she says gripping the sides of the table like she’s in danger. “My chair. I vant to sit somewhere else.” But she seems to give up the idea once she’s said it.

She squints at the Christmas-sweater blankets. “They are for the wind,” she says as if responding to the heat. “It can be cold. You don’t know.”

The wasps are all over us. Grandma orders solyanka, a Hungarian soup, from the soft-spoken pouty waitress. She trots around the restaurant in her American sneakers and stretch pants like it’s an aerobics class. Grandpa eyes her suspiciously.

“A Russian girl,” Grandma says when she leaves the table. “There are too many Russians in Jurmala! They should go back to Russia. They take all the good dashas!”

Grandpa leans in, “Why is she so happy? She is too happy.”

“You guys are crazy. Three years ago we were Russian, the next day you hate Russians. One day you’re Latvian, then you are talking about how bad they are too. I can’t keep up!”

“We are always Jewish,” Grandma says. “Every day!”

“Well can’t you be Jewish and happy? Why can’t you be happy too?”

“What is there to be happy about? Everyone we know dies. Last week, Elvira died. This week it will be someone else.”

When her soup comes, she says, “Oh Lana, eat some it is delicious.” She nods at my tiny coffee spoon.

“Is there meat in it?”

“No,” she says. I scoop around the pink strips of meat, into the wells of orange oil, and sip from my miniature spoon.

“That is delicious,” I say scooping more quickly.

Grandpa studies me. “Why vegetarian?” he says, pronouncing it ve-gua-tarian. Picking up a fork of breaded meat, he aims it into my mouth.

“Yes. Why you do it?” Grandma says, furrowing her brow like she does when she thinks something is so absurd it’s hardly worth talking about.

“I don’t know. I just can’t eat it anymore.” I peer at his plate. “What is that, pork?”

He smiles at me, his eyes warming. “No. Eets veal.”

I order another coffee from the waitress. Grandpa swats at the wasps with his army fatigue cap. We watch as one wasp climbs into Grandma’s solyanka and drowns.

“He wanted suicide,” Grandma says. She lifts him out with her spoon and with the same spoon goes right on eating.

My vegetable shashlik finally arrives after everyone is almost done. A roasted peeled tomato, a strange pale green eggplant and a melted bell pepper. It all tastes like smoke. I have more of Grandma’s soup and a lot of dry lavash.

“Vat, this is Armenian bread?” Grandpa says. “Why isn’t it hot?” He shoves the basket of bread into the waitress’s hands like a football the next time she walks by, ordering her to warm it up.

“Grandpa has an Armenian cousin,” Grandma says with her mouth full. “His dad’s brother married an Armenian woman.”

“Yeah,” I say, “I remember that. What happened to him?”

“Nu, he lives there.” She shrugs chewing her pork.

“But do you talk to him?”

Grandma sets her spoon down to tell the story. “He had one girlfriend. But we never, never liked her. She was a dancer, a ballerina. But she was not a woman of the house.” Grandma laughs, embarrassed for her. “No cooking, no cleaning, she could do nothing.”

“Well?” I interrupt. “Could he?” She looks at me like I’m crazy. Grandpa laughs and swats.

“Then he married her. We never liked her. They came to see us in Los Angeles. Did he ever invite us to seeing him? No! Then she died. Maybe it was her heart, I can’t remember. Then he had a new girlfriend. Who we never met her. But he had daughters too. He wrote me asking me, ‘Can you help me find her an American husband?’” Grandma pauses, her face bewildered. “How could I do this? I didn’t have any way to do this.”

“Of course not,” I say. “You can’t even get your own granddaughter a husband right?” I look at Grandpa for a laugh but he’s scowling at the Russian waitress, trying to get her attention.

“No, Lana, not you,” Grandma says. “You are something else. You are old maid. Do you know what is old maid?”

“Yes,” I say laughing.

Grandpa slams his hand on the table. “Nu, where’s Grandma’s shashlik?” he says almost yelling.

“It’s right there! She’s eating it.”

“Oh.” He sits up straight and puts his hat back on.

Grandma ignores him. “So then, Lana, do you know what he did?” She narrowed her eyes. “He—”

“Svetlana!” Grandpa interrupts her and turns to me. “Can I ask you something? You know it is in the Jewish tradition to name after a dead relative. But we have no dead relative named Svetlana. So, why your parents named you this?” He demands.

“Because they liked it.”

“And why you don’t speak Russian language?”

“Because you never taught it to me!”

“Booska! Perestan!” Grandma shrieks. He looks away and crosses his arms.

She turns back to me. “Lanka, listen to me,” she says, her voice back to its normal pitch. “So, Grandpa’s cousin, he changed his name. I heard about it. He didn’t want to have the same name as Grandpa, his father’s name; it was too Jewish for him. So he changed it to his mother’s last name. Can you believe it?”

“Huh,” I say. “I like the name Shenkman.”

“Giving man it means,” Grandpa says smiling deliriously.

“Can you believe it?” Grandma says again shaking her head with a solemn expression. “Then he wrote me asking me for help for his daughter to move to Israel.” She pulls her head back in disbelief. “I wrote back, now you want help from the Jews? Now after you changed your name? This I could not forgive,” she says wagging her wrinkled finger.

“You wrote him that?”

“Yes!” she says. “And then he never wrote us again.”

“Well, of course he didn’t Grandma. What business was it of yours to do that? He’s not even your relative. He’s Grandpa’s.”

Grandpa’s face is hunched near his plate, his eyes wide. He shakes his head. “I didn’t know she wrote that to him. This is the first time I hear it.” He puts his hand over his mouth, “Oh, Bella!”

“Grandma! You can’t go around doings things like that. Your business is only as far as your nose,” and I pinch her small nose. “You are not the judge of the whole world.” Grandpa laughs and Grandma smiles. “Mamonya,” she says.

“Really, Bella,” Grandpa says shrugging his shoulders, “with family it is something else.” But his gaze is back on the young Russian waitress. He waves her down for the bill and she nods and smiles.

“Well,” I say, continuing the Armenian theme, “I have two Armenian friends. One is named Mary. And one is named Ada—”
“Mary shmary,” Grandpa flings his hand at me, his eyes becoming urgent. “What about Joe or Jack. Only girl’s names you say, only! Something is wrong,” he put his hands back in his lap and looks into the distance again. “Something’s not right.” I look at Grandma, holding my sweaty hands under the table.

She sighs as if on cue. “They just don’t like her,” she says. “I don’t know how it is possible. Men just don’t like her.” She shakes her head and peers at me for less than a second.

“What makes you so sure? Maybe I just don’t like them. Anyway, you want me to be with just anybody?” I lick my teaspoon, making sure to only look at Grandma. “There’s more to life than marriage and kids, you know.”

Grandma squints at me again. “No, there is not more. This is the most important thing in life, Lana.” She says this calmly, as if confident she is telling me something I already know.

Grandpa laughs tossing his hat on the table.


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New York Is Oakland

(This story was published on Mr Beller’s Neighborhood on September 8, 2012).

Two days after the Occupy Oakland police raid, where an Iraq War vet was shot in the head with a police projectile and hundreds more were sprayed with tear gas while they were sleeping, I get a text from Denise as I’m wrapping up dinner with some friends at Teresa’s Diner in Brooklyn Heights: Show the police and the world that we are not afraid. March in solidarity with Occupy Oakland tonight from Zucotti Park at 9. It is your personal responsibility to be there.

I show Sydney.

“Only slightly chastising,” I say.

“Yeah, but let’s go,” she says.

“Should we?” I say as I sop up the last of my pink borscht.

Nancy starts chanting from across the table: “Occupy Wall Street! We are the 99 percent. But I have to skip this one.” She puts on her safari jacket, which Patricia from Portugal has promised makes her look like a young Katherine Hepburn.

Patricia says: “I’m renovating my green card so I can’t go. But you guys should go!”

“Should we?” I ask Sydney more directly this time, remembering my freelance editing job tomorrow starts earlier than usual.

She presses her brown bangs into her eyes and bites her lip. “It seems like a good one to go to. But I can’t believe I’ll have to carry this stupid soymilk I have in my bag.” She gets up and bends forward letting her backpack drop around her head to illustrate the load. “Maybe I should just give it away.”

“I think you’ll be okay, buddy,” I lift one strap of her backpack and make like I’m dragging her out of the restaurant. “Bye guys!”

We walk down Montague Street past the brick Episcopalian church and the vegetarian Chinese and the glass doors of the TD Bank. The washed-out dusk sky blends with the murky-white stucco on the bank building.

When we come out the subway at Zucotti Park, the sky has turned dark blue and there’s no one around. It’s a warm October night and with the usually buzzing park so empty you can see the yellow leaves from the gingko trees covering the ground. We try and listen for some noise, or any indication of where the march might have headed.

A guy with sunglasses and a long gray beard and not a lot of teeth sits at a table marked Veterans for Peace. “They went north, up Broadway,” he says covering the mouthpiece of his flip-phone to help us. “Just some kids looking for the march,” he says, removing his hand from the receiver.

We come out of the City Hall station to the vibrations of chants from above. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Police brutality has got to go!” Sydney starts yelling along with them as we stomp up the stairs.

When we get aboveground, Denise is there as if we had planned it. “It’s Svetlana!” she says.

“Fancy that,” I say, and give her a hug. She smells faintly of men’s deodorant and her dog.

We move briskly up a street I’m unfamiliar with, a gated park stretching interminably to our left. “Are we walking in a circle?” I ask Sydney. I will never understand the financial district.

“No we’re heading up to SoHo.”

The chants keep changing. “Fuck the Police” keeps getting picked up then dropped. “I don’t like that. It makes me want to leave,” Sydney says.

“I know what you mean. I have mixed feelings,” I say. “It makes me think of a passage at the beginning of a Pema Chodron book where she talks about a Buddhist monk watching the news without the volume on. First there’s a neo-Nazi rally with lots of people screaming and yelling. Then there’s an anti-war protest with lots of people screaming and yelling. And the monk says something to the effect of, no matter the cause I see the same angry faces.”

“There’s a time and a place for anger but this feels like posturing.”

“But does it? A guy was almost killed. But it doesn’t sit well with me to say it either.”

We link arms tightly. Soon the crowd picks up another chant, “We are the 99 percent,” and then, in the direction of the police corralling us on our right, “and so are you!” I stare into the stony face of one cop who clearly plucks his eyebrows. His brown eyes are clear, young and expressionless.

“We are unstoppable, another world is possible!”
As we get firmly into SoHo I see my friend Sahar. We hug. Her hair is in its new straightened style—choppy. “We get to be the 99 percent together,” I say. “We didn’t have to try very hard.” She introduces me to her friend Penny who’s definitely a dyke. “I’m sure I’ve met you before,” I yell over the shouting. But she is looking up ahead. “What’s going on up there?”»

A block up, people are shining lights from their camera phones onto the police arresting a handful of people. The golden light from the streetlamps and the flashing cameras light up the crowds and the cobblestone streets, making it look as though we are on a film set. Sydney and I run and crash into the crowd as it rolls back and forth.

“The whole world is watching!” we shout. My voice breaks as I see someone I recognize from the Stop Stop and Frisk meetings being pushed into the back of a fluorescent lit van. A wiry guy in a beanie hangs from a lamppost yelling, “Shame, Shame, Shame!”

“March, march, march!” rolls over the crowd getting louder.

“They want to split us up,” a protestor in a black T-shirt says.

“New York is Oakland. Oakland is New York!”
The march is on two sides of the street now. We fear crossing to the other side with more people since neither one of us wants to get arrested.

“March, march, march!” I get drawn into another police–protestor face-off under some scaffolding. A police officer pushes a protestor’s cheek into the cobblestones at the intersection of Mercer and Spring with his boot. “Shame, shame, shame!” I yell. Sydney pulls me out of the circle.

The same protestor shouts as we turn around: “What you’ve never seen someone get arrested before? March, march, march! Union Square! Don’t let them split us up.”

“Union square. Union Square!” I shout and the same kid who was hanging from a pole earlier joins in and jumps off the pole.

“Which way do we go? Straight or right?”

“Right, right, right.” And we all turn right.

Now we walk up Broadway. A calm has descended onto the crowd like something’s been won. A red-faced guy in an Adidas tracksuit with a loud pizzeria voice yells, “Whose streets? Our streets!”

“I love it,” Sydney says. “Like, who is that guy and how do we end up in the same march?”

“Well, who are we?” I say.

“I’m some scrappy queer—I feel like I blend in more.”

“That’s what’s cool about it, right? Everyone’s here.”

“Well, some more than others.”

The same kid in the beanie says, “Come on, guys! We could, like, take over Broadway right now. Fuck it, I’m doing it. “And he runs into traffic like it’s an extreme sport. Many pour into the streets after him.
I ask a blond guy with glasses how he got here. “I was at the General Assembly meeting tonight when they spontaneously called the march. I was filming this particular G.A. and I had to stop filming to realize, Oh, wait, I want to march, too.

As we get closer to Union Square, everyone has moved into the streets with the traffic, long lines of people snake around the cars chanting. I make peace signs into the windows of cars as I pass by. I get the idea from a woman up ahead in a headscarf; she walks up to car after car knocks on the window and says, “Hello, 99%. How are you doing tonight? I’m doing great. We’re doing great.”

The street flickers with cameras flashing. We pass the Ibiza hair salon, where I used to get my hair cut by a young guy named Alex from Brighton Beach. I remember him telling me his mother was a Nazi resistance fighter in Georgia.

We pass the Strand Bookstore and the megaplex movie theater, finally getting to Union Square, where hundreds of people are milling around waiting for a Mic Check. I meet back up with Denise and spot Sahar a few feet over, sitting on the concrete steps writing in her journal.

“Mic Check.”

“We’ve just received word that there are 400 cops waiting for us in Washington Square! The cops went to the wrong place! Victory!” Everyone in the crowd roars.

“Fuck the police,” a man yells out.

“Fuck the police,” the crowd halfheartedly repeats, many with their fingers waving down in protest of the statement.

“Fuck police brutality,” comes a singular amendment to the last chant.

“Fuck police brutality,” the crowd agrees.

Sydney and I squeeze hands.

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Scenes and Metaphors from Can Serrat

Cami El Font

Bram, who first introduced himself to me as “practically five” and then turned five last week, was telling me about the Cami El Font, just down the road from the residency, a shrine to the Virgin Mary perched above a green filmy pool topped with leaves and buzzing mosquitoes.

I came across it by accident in what I hoped would be something like a run but was more of a jaunt, where I stopped and looked at the wild rosemary and bamboo, and a butterfly with zebra stripes. And ate some wild blackberries and these tiny blueberries that grow on dark red branches. Then I found the Cami El Font, which Bram described as “like someone’s house with a pool that you can dive into when you’re hot.”

The pool in El Bruc with Mont Serrat in the background

It’s very hot in El Bruc and the kids go with their dad Eric to the village pool most days. As soon as the day crosses into late afternoon, the Mont Serrat mountains push a cool breeze out onto the village which I feel if I keep the range in my sight. The mountains look like they were formed by someone letting clay fall through their fingers, and they change color from hour to hour.

Isla and Bram picking berries

Just last week, I got to talking with eight-year-old Isla about the nature of reality. She has long curly brown hair and reminds me of my self as a kid. She asked me if I believe in mermaids or wizards or good wizards or ocean fairies (who keep the ocean safe) and nature fairies (of which she informed me she is one). The she asked, “Do you remember being a kid and saying you believe but not knowing if you believe? Like my friend told me that I swim like a mermaid when we were playing Mermaid, but I know she’s not saying that I am mermaid just that I swim like one, which all that means is, I’m a good swimmer.”

Didi at work in the studio

Later that day, I was sitting with David and Didi and Surabhi and we were talking about how David used to work at a cheese store. He told us cheese can only be sold in the dairy section if it is more dairy than vegetable oil, which is why cheese is always in two different sections in the market. We talked about the cheese here and how delicious it is and then Didi, who works as a teaching artist for young kids, said, “Which do you think is more difficult to replicate, a smell or a taste?”

Marcel looking for ingredients for tonight’s dinner

I went inside and talked to Marcel who likes to tease me for not eating fish and brought out a pile of long sheath-like creatures, which he said are called “cuchillos,” or knives, and I said, “Oh, wait, scissor—I mean, razor, clams!” And he touched their white thick insides and they moved. And then he told me about cooking: “What would it be like for you if every day you had to write a book and it had to make everybody happy. And then the next day you had to write a different book that made everybody happy? That is cooking.” And I told him how I like writing about food because it always leads to memory. And he said, “Yes, but very few can describe a smell. They can only say something is like something else. Then he said that the housekeeper Coco uses cleaning stuff and it then makes the whole house smell like something different. Then I told him that I had noticed the smell of her cleaning stuff and that it was familiar to me and smelled like herbs but mainly like basil. And he said, ”Like!” And pointed at me.

I was going to throw in the towel as far as writing was concerned today but then I picked up  The Waves by Virginia Woolf, and read about kids playing games outside, which gave me a lot of comfort and made me want to write:

“I see a globe,” said Neville, “hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.”

“I see a crimson tassel,” Said Jinny, “twisted with gold threads.”

“The leaves are gathered round the window like pointed ears,” said Susan.

“A shadow falls on the path,” said Louis, “like an elbow bent.”

“Islands of light are swimming on the grass,” said Rhoda. “They have fallen through the trees.”

“The stalks are covered with harsh, short hairs,” said Jinny, “and drops of water have stuck to them.”

“A caterpillar is curled in a green ring,” said Susan, “notched with blunt feet.”

In the dry green hills of this landscape I feel at home because it looks just like Southern California where I grew up—minus the bougainvillea, which I love to miss.

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Two Stadiums

Photo by Hedia Maron

The printed version of this story is in the new issue of Kiosk Paper, available to pick up for free at Kiosk, 95 Spring Street at Broadway in SoHo.

About a ten-minute walk from my apartment in Crown Heights, past Ebenezer Haitian Church and the Bedford-Union Armory, just across the street from Medgar Evers College, is Ebbets Field Apartments, a seven-tower housing development so much taller than everything around it that it can be seen for miles in every direction. It is named for the historic Ebbets Field baseball stadium that once stood here, home to the much-beloved Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 to 1957, where Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player signed to the major leagues, hit the home run that helped win the team the 1955 World Series.

When the Dodgers’ lovesick fanbase outgrew Ebbets Field in the mid-’50s, Walter O’Malley, the team’s owner, hoped to move the stadium to Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush, where the controversial Barclays Center is currently going up. But his plans were thwarted by all-powerful city planner Robert Moses, leading O’Malley to sell the Dodgers to Los Angeles where they remain to this day. So tragic was this turn of events in Brooklyn history that it is said that when the wrecking ball came to the site, a crowd gathered to mourn as a brass band played “Auld Lang Syne.”

But the man I meet in in front of the rundown tower at 1700 Bedford Avenue on this sunny day hasn’t heard that story, and he has lived here for 33 years. “And I’m 36, wait, no, I’m 38,” he says laughing. “But people were sad, sure. They’re saying now with the Barclays Center, ‘Oh, we finally got our Ebbets Field back.’” He wears all black, including a black baseball cap. We are sitting on a bench in the building’s bereft concrete courtyard, amid faded signs that prohibit bicycle riding, dogs and, ironically, ball playing, next to some high green bushes. Kids play in front of a door scrawled with RIPs.

“Home plate used to be right there,” he points to the corner. “But they got all the history down at the McDonald’s—pictures of Jackie Robinson and the teams and the crowds.” He takes a drag of his cigarette. “What are you doing, sightseeing?”

“I walked by this place a few weeks ago and it sort of took my breath away. It’s got an eerie quality.”

“Yup, it’s windier up here. Do you feel that?”

I nod.

“Where do you live?”

“Down by the Brooklyn Museum.”

“There’s been a lot of change over there. All down Franklin Ave and Vanderbilt, they’ve got lounges on every corner now.” He pauses. “That’s nice for y’all.”

I say goodbye and walk over to the McDonald’s on McKeever Place, named for former Brooklyn Dodgers president Steve McKeever, but I can’t find any photos of the old ballpark. It’s 3 o’clock and the restaurant is full of teenagers eating and hanging out, and the manager doesn’t have time to go down memory lane with me. Or help me understand how the destruction of Ebbets Field in 1957, and the construction of the Barclays Center 50 years later, could both signify the end of an era.

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