Monday, March 19, 2007

Live and Die in Bed-Stuy

On Saturday night, Wren threw a birthday party for her girlfriend Bianca at their digs in the formerly-notorious-now-on-the-rise-hip-gentrifying neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. The theme of the birthday party was Flashy Clothing. Guests were encouraged to dress in their best. Prizes would be bestowed on the most impressive outfits.

Simona belongs to Wren’s Park Slope book group. She was invited to the party. And Simona invited Alissa because Alissa was always thrilled to meet new people.

Simona wore a tailored suit and wide-collared disco blouse that made her look like the Chief Executive Officer of Funk. Alissa wore a Betsy Johnson dress made of snowflake lace with matching, white fingerless gloves. They both brought a dessert.

They followed the Mapquest directions to get them from Simona’s place in Park Slope to Wren’s place in Bed-Stuy. They arrived at 5551 Willoughby Street at around 8 pm. It didn’t take long to find parking, but it was a little challenging to parallel park the Camry on a dirty snow embankment that must have been about a foot high.

“Do you think we’ll be able to get out?” Simona said.

“I guess we’ll find out after dessert and a glass of wine.” Alissa shrugged.

They left the party at one am. The temperature had dropped a degree or two. After spinning the wheels in vain, Simona was unable to get the car out from the parking spot. Both women got out of the car. They tried to break snow away from the front and back tires with a window scraper. Alissa eventually found a snow shovel abandoned on top of a pile of garbage. But this snow shovel proved of little use for breaking up the snow under the car. They kept busy with the ineffective tools. They’d be here all night.

Then a man with wild eyes and missing teeth approached them. “I got a shovel!” He cheered. He held up a classic iron farm shovel that looked like it had experience digging mass graves in the Iraqi countryside. He was wearing a beat-up, red leather top coat that had Yusef Komunyakaa verses embroidered all over its long tails. The rugged man promised, “I’ll get you out of here!” He scooped up a monster’s mass of snow, put all his strength into his work, and tossed the mass over his shoulder so that it might have flown all the way to Park Slope, or even Manhattan for all the women knew.

While the man worked, Alissa slipped into the car to warm her frost-bitten toes. She was wearing her Italian ankle boots. While the boots may have had mini firearms for heels, they were certainly not ideal barriers to the freezing wind blow. Simona remained outside with the helpful man. His name was Louis. His mom died three weeks ago; he had only recently cleaned up and gotten himself off the streets. Now he was shoveling snow to make some money. He prayed God for more snowfall.

Alissa sat in the passenger seat of the car, the heat blasting on her feet. She got crisp bills out of her wallet to give to Louis. While she watched Simona chat with the shoveling man, Alissa remembered meeting another man who lived in this neighborhood all his life, a man who sat down next to her on a bench in the park at Borough Hall three Springs ago. He had just started talking to Alissa for no other reason than she looked lovely, queer, and alone. This stranger told Alissa that his family was from Barbados. Once, he went to visit Barbados; he described the beach like so: “I could see the hand of God holding all the water back. It’s the grace of God,” he said, “that is keeping that water from drowning us all.” He added, “I had to make that pilgrimage to Barbados because I don’t want to live and die in Bed-Stuy. No, I don’t want to live and die in Bed-Stuy.” He said it with a jazzed attitude, and the words sounded, to Alissa, like a song.

When the car was finally out of the snow embankment, they paid Louis who said, “God bless you beautiful ladies. Now I’m gonna put all the snow back! Ha ha!”

Simona was driving Alissa back to the L train that would bring her back into Manhattan. She told Simona the story of the man who didn’t want to live and die in Bed-Stuy and went elsewhere to seek God’s grace.

“But didn’t that guy with the shovel remind you of God?” Alissa asked Simona.

This question surprised Simona because she knew Alissa was not religious or pious. Alissa prided herself on not prescribing to any dogmas, doctrines, or religions. Hell, Alissa was so secular that she thought a crucifix was a backscratcher. Alissa was well-known for her civil disobedience; she liked to boast that she did not “support our troops.” No, she supported people who enlisted and then had the balls to desert the U.S. armed forces. Alissa spent half her days calling up the Fort Knox Desertion Center to check in with the latest stats on service men and women who she thought were choosing real freedom by deserting. Yes. Alissa had some odd political leanings, but Simona didn’t know she cultivated any kind of relationship with God. Simona considered herself a feminist, anti-war activist, and agnostic. Now Simona was worrying that Alissa’s newly-revealed, quaint spirituality might put a wedge between their relationship. Either that, or else Simona was feeling annoyed because their Flashy Clothes did not win any door prizes.

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