Chris Arnade Photography

The unbearable pain of the streets

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Homeless addicts, especially women, suck dick for money.

They wake up needing drugs to keep from shaking, to keep from vomiting, to keep from shitting in their pants, to keep from getting so deep inside their own heads, so fucking dark and angry, that the only way out is to fucking kill yourself, to jump in front of a subway, to jump off a roof, to jump in front of that fucking dump truck, hell, forget that, I will just jam a dirty needle into my abscess, that will do it, that will kill me in a minute, that will end this shit.

They wake up under a bridge, next to an expressway, next to passing semi trucks. They wake up and put on makeup to hide marks, to cover bruises, to clean away the dirt. Any reflective surface is a mirror. “I may live under a fucking bridge, but I am not a dog.”

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Women suck dick because men pay to have their dicks sucked.

They crawl out from under the bridges, to get something to drink and to wash their hands in the trickle of water from the open hydrant, the hydrant next to the expressway, the one with an old paint can catching the water, the one with a dead cat and a dead pigeon laying in the mud, the cat that they kinda tried to bury last night, the cat that wandered under the bridge a few days ago, the one they named Tiger who died from eating the rat poison that sanitation puts out.

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The honks, the whistles, the yells come, from every passing man, from cars. “Catcalls, funny they call it that. Maybe they calling for Tiger, but they don’t know he a boy.”

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Some men just stare, grabbing their crotches, their eyes searching beneath clothes but not beneath makeup. “Jesus fuck, I just got up. Let me get a drink first.”

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Maybe today they won’t suck dick. I mean there is a bag stashed under the railing, the one to get them straight when they woke. Unless fucking R took it. He always sneaking the extra bag. Lazy bastard. He stays here all night while I am out working, just rests around listening to the Yankee game, and then he takes half my bags in one shot. Maybe he should get his lazy ass out there and suck dick. Fuckhead.

Maybe today they won’t suck dick. S got her ID yesterday from downtown. She got all them old checks she can finally cash, and she owes me. I helped her out so many times and we are real tight right now.

Maybe today they won’t suck dick. G got three prescriptions from her step-daughter who don’t need them anymore. She will find a buyer and she also owes me.

They don’t want to suck dick.  “It is horrible and awful. It’s a fuckin horror. I hate myself when I do it. Last fuckin resort. Then sometimes you just desperate.”

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Desperate.  S ain’t coming through, ain’t answering her phone, ain’t anywhere to be found.  No pharmacy will accept G’s ass. They seen her too many times, jacking shit from their store, grabbing and running, scamming everyone.  

Desperate. The pain ain’t just in the head. It’s everywhere. Body sore, mind going deep into shit.

Desperate. Just one fucking hit. One. Panhandling ain’t working. G and S aint ever coming through. That’s the thing about the streets. Nobody is really your friend, not when you need them. They all busy with their own shit.

What’s sucking another dick? It’s a quick $20. Every man is calling out, asking to have it done. Staring right into you, like you some piece of ass. You a dirty mother fucking dick sucker, that’s what you are. Bitch. You want money. Well act like the bitch that you are.

What’s sucking another dick? “We have been fucked all our lifes anyways, used by men, from almost when we were born. Fathers, brothers, uncles, neighbors. Everyone has fucked or fingered us. Everyone. So we find drugs to escape, and all fuckin sudden we got an addiction. An addiction we will do anything to feed.”

What’s sucking another dick?  “When did I start prostituting? I always have. I always thought you had to give up your body for food or to find a place to sleep. I never knew it had a fancy name like prostitution. I just knew it as the way a girl lived on the streets.”

G and S still aint anywhere. “P said he saw G in central booking last night. She got a warrant, Felony, so you ain’t seeing her for anytime soon.”

Time running out. Time waisting. The dealers are all around, flashing their shit. They all glassy eyed, content. Damn. That looks nice.

Desperate. “J got this regular, he got his disability check first of month an he likes to party with two girls. Gets a hotel room, pays for a bundle of dope and some crack. He usually passes out before any shit goes down, can’t get it up anyways, just likes to watch. Funny cause he is blind. It ain’t like sucking dick. Just getting naked.”

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Two hours riding three different trains to get to the hotel and the bitch J doesn’t show. Stranded. Three more subways and two more hours to get back. Jumping turnstiles. People staring in the subway, now they looking behing the makeup, seeing the bruises and the dirt, smelling the dirt. Boys staring, little boys, acting like men. Staring. Just staring.

Back to Hunts Point, still sick, still needing money, men still honking.

Another layer of makeup. Always have that. Makeup.

Back to standing on an empty street corner, waving at slowly circling cars, trying to figure out which one got a man who aint into beating women.

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“I am a whore. I stand on the street corner in fucking Hunts Point waiting for truckers to give me $20 so I can buy drugs.

More on addiction: Faces of addiction


The drudgery of addiction

You hide from the police, from the warrant squad. Sometimes you hide under a bridge with a dirt floor. Sometimes you hide in rehab, sometimes in the hospital.

Hiding in rehab means TV, food, a few days of methadone, and a shower. It means getting into a fight with some fucking asshole who thinks they own the place, who thinks you owe them money, remember, from three months ago, when you left me $40 short. Remember? Remember you little fucking queer? Maybe a cut across the face will help you remember.

Fuck rehab.

You have a warrant. Maybe. The computer might say. You can’t check, anyways, so you listen to what people tell you. People saying some cops are going around flashing your picture at all the bodegas. Maybe they just fucking with you, scaring you back into the dirt under the bridge. So you hide.

You don’t hide for drugs. You walk right into the Laundromat, right up to the guy in the white wifebeater, they guy folding his underwear and his other wifebeaters. You walk up to him and give him $10 from the bunch you stole from the customer last night, the creepy guy who drives the beat up Accord, the guy who needs to be high before getting his dick sucked. You ran for him. You gave him your keys, “Hold my keys, I have to come back if you got my keys.” You didn’t come back. You got more of those keys hidden away, keys you find on the ground, or in the street.

You shoot up quick. Not that you need it that quick, you don’t have that sort of habit, not like P, she gots a real habit. Its just you can’t be out. I mean the warrant squad is flashing your picture.

You shoot up using water from a hydrant. You bleed. Mad bleeding. Runs down your arm, drips onto the ground.

Your eyes go white. You hide on the street, walking up and down looking in the gutter for butts to scavenge, ones with three pulls left in them. You walk up and down turning around every five seconds to look for the warrant squad. You are hiding after all. You smoke one and stuff the rest into a bloody napkin, stuff the napkin into your pants, next to the needle.

The other needle lays on the ground, tip broken. You ain’t disrespectful. The tip is broken silly. It can’t hurt anyone.

You forget your hiding. You start looking for the next $10, the next hit. The prescriptions in your pocket. The ones from rehab for your crazy brain. They got long names. A bottle of them can be sold, turned into a bottle of Xanax, or Oxy. People can’t understand long names.

You can’t go to any pharmacies in the neighborhood. You’re banned from all those. So you walk across the expressway, past Southern Boulevard, onto Westchester Avenue. Into another precinct. They don’t know you there. You don’t need to hide.

More on addiction here: Faces of addiction


Suicide

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Longfellow Avenue in Hunts Point is empty on Sunday mornings. The auto repair shops, the salvage companies, the warehouses holding specially made steel tools, hydraulic tubes and hoses, are closed. The drug dealers asleep. It is the only time the street isn’t filled with garbage trucks, vans, and semis.

At 9 am last Sunday Tomas Rivera parked on Longfellow Avenue. He got out of his car and wrapped a chain around his neck. He tied the other end to a utility pole. He got back into his car, and accelerated.

When the chain went taut, he died.

The car continued, crashing into a parked vehicle.

The first responders placed a sheet over his body, which had been ejected from the car, and another over his head.

Steve, Takeesha’s’ boyfriend, lives a block away in a broken down truck. “Nobody knew him. They say he was from upstate. I guess he came here because it’s a fucking perfect place to kill yourself. Fucking shithole that it is. He must have just wanted to die as close to hell as he could get.”

Whenver someone commits suicide everyone asks why. There must be a reason. Money, health, lonliness.

Maybe. Sometimes the constructs of life, of our culture, are just too much for people. Some find solace in drugs, attempting to dissapear. Others seek solace in death.

Killing oneself. It is a uniquely human choice.

Two days later, Longfellow Avenue is busy, loud with the sound of trucks downshifting and the high-pitched squawk of Semis backing up.

A crumpled police tape lay in a puddle. Attached to the utility pole is a solitary bouquet of flowers.


Death While Homeless: Jackie, 9/16/91 – 8/8/14

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Death on the streets is never certain.  An absence, even after leaving in an ambulance, even after leaving in an ambulance in a coma, even after leaving in an ambulance in a coma after shooting up a damn good bag, has other explanations.

Rehab

Gone to visit her parents, well not her birth parents, but her foster parents, the ones who treated her right and prayed. They were strict but good people.

Jail

Living upstate, married to a good man, a former trick, he had a house he wanted to take her to. He never did drugs himself.

When you die homeless, when you die on the streets, a bureaucracy that needs phones and computers and papers to deal with, swallows the reasons and rumors fill the void.

Jackie left Hunts Point late on August 8th, a Friday night, in an ambulance, after doing some heroin, or maybe it was only pills, or maybe both, or maybe none, or maybe who the fuck knows.

She died later that night.

Her body is at the city medical examiner waiting to be claimed, waiting for a toxicology report to determine exactly why she died.

In Hunts Point she died from asthma attack, died from overdose, died from the lupus she had, lupus that scarred her face with huge red patches (or was that just from a bag of bad shit?), died from everything. Or maybe she is in rehab. Maybe she is upstate with the trick.

Her body lays in a freezer, a small tag attached to her, BX #XXXX, the number a tally of all those who died before her in the Bronx in 2014. It will lie there until claimed by someone who has the right papers and knows the system.

It might be her mother, but nobody has told her because she is in a hospital. The news might kill her.  No, she never had a mother. Maybe her sister who is trying to raise $300 to bury the body. That ain’t her sister that is her stepsister from a foster home — I know that cause we shared a cell together once. It won’t be her kids, they are all scattered, names changed, living their own lives. It won’t be P, her pimp, not yet. He is holding onto her papers so he can collect her checks.

In three months, if nobody claims her, she will be shipped to Hart Island and buried in a big trench with a million other unclaimed bodies.

 Homes, the ones with electricity and computers and internet and TVs and people who cook you dinner and people who don’t steal your checks and people who don’t do drugs. When you die in those homes the people who cook your dinner, the people who don’t do drugs, after crying and mourning for you, they get on their computers and they use their phones and they claim your body and they bury you. Or cremate you. They tell newspapers and funeral homes and they write about you on facebook or maybe they tattoo your name on their arm. Your friends from high school, your relatives, co-workers, gather and remember you, telling stories over drinks. They respect you in whatever way they respect the dead.

Bodies gone become memorials. Memorials that solidify memories, that add a certainty to them, that helps them survive.

When you die on the streets, the material part, whatever little there was, is held temporarily in a public place that is private. Then it is emptied onto an isolated island.  It is entirely and absolutely gone.

With nothing to ground them, the memories dissipate, growing larger and more diffuse, expanding into nothingness. Only friends hold them. The memories, everything that was you, dies when they die.

image(Jackie on the streets)

PS: When I first met Jackie, over two years ago I asked her what her dream is. “I want to get my GED, become a nurse, and get my kids back. I just want my kids.”

More on addiction here: Faces of Addiction


Winning the Shit Lottery

Charlie lives in an apartment with his wife and four cats. The apartment is just about affordable with the monthly check he gets from HOPWA: Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS. “I have had the virus for over 20 years. Guess I won the shit lottery.”

Charlie started using heroin 33 years ago, introduced to it by a girlfriend. I am from Greenpoint. I am old school, half German half Polack.”

He has spent 25 of those years in prison. “Mostly drugs and assault charges. I treat everyone else with respect, am straightforward, and expect the same in return. I don’t gossip or mess around with other people’s business. They mess around with me; go behind my back, play games with me, well then we got a problem. If that means cutting, then I will cut.”

Each day means making money for food and drugs. “First few dollars go to heroin, next to food, and anything left over to more heroin.”

“I been shot, stabbed, beat up, thrown in jail, nearly overdosed a thousand times. My oldest brother died, my eight kids—all by the same wonderful woman-are gone (taken by the state), my pops is gone, and my mom is barely hanging on. I don’t know why I am alive, but I am. I guess the man upstairs still wants me to be here.”


Some things I will miss about Brooklyn

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My first day in Brooklyn, 21 years ago, I took the subway from my Brooklyn Heights neighborhood to its terminus at the tip of Coney Island. I walked the ten miles back, slowly weaving my way through a contiguous collection of extraordinary neighborhoods, each remarkably different, some jarringly so.

Brooklyn then was a loose confederation of misfit neighborhoods, held together by subways and busses.

Now I am leaving, moving to split my time between upstate NY and the Bronx.

Brooklyn has changed during that time, statistically, for the better: It is safer. It is cleaner.

It is, however, less a collection of misfit neighborhoods. Gentrification and wealth have smoothed away and averaged many of the differences.

Yet much of the Brooklyn I saw then, and appreciated so much for so many years, is still there. Some of it barely hanging on.

Pigeon Keepers of Bushwick and East NYimage(Pigeons over Bushwick)

On most afternoons, above Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, flocks of pigeons swarm.

They are beautiful, a mass of birds flying in a tight circle, a flock that forever is morphing, but still moving forward. The wings catch the fading sunlight, glowing. Beauty in a rough neighborhood.  They are birds owned by Pigeon keepers.

Pigeon keeping was brought over by Italians in the early 1900’s. Well over a thousand guys (yes, all guys) in Brooklyn used to keep pigeons on the roofs. Now it’s only about a hundred, mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican men, primarily in Bushwick and East New York. Not raised to race (that’s another sport), they are simply collected and bred and then flown to highlight their beauty. It’s part sport, part art, and part therapy.

You find them on roofs, whatever roofs can be used. A few guys are lucky enough to own their own places. Some guys are supers in co-ops and have access to the roof, most, however, find otherwise abandoned buildings and take over the roofs.

The pigeons are kept in coops, home-built structures, where they nest. Keeping the birds happy so they return is half the sport. “You need to be a good dad, otherwise the kids will fly away.”

image(Young Pigeon Keeper, Bushwick)

The stories behind the keepers are almost always the same. Almost everyone started young. All of them come from rough neighborhoods. The birds helped to keep them out of problems. Says Whitey, “I would be dead now if not for my birds. Dead. So many of my friends are. Birds, they kept me on the roof and out of trouble.”

Kevin started at eight, a friend of Mike Tyson’s, growing up in East New York, Brooklyn. “I have had a few problems. Growing up here it’s hard not to, but that’s all behind me now. God is now shining his light on me. For the last 15 years I have stayed away from everything. Now I spend my evenings on the roof with my birds. The pigeons don’t talk back to you and my wife always knows where I am. I can put everything behind me when I am up on the roof.”

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Slice was a drug dealer when, at 17, he killed another dealer, and spent 20 years in jail. Now he is “locked down by my wife and birds. Both of them keep me out of trouble. When I am up here on the roof, I am in another world. I can leave all the past behind. All that below us, that’s gone.”

On the roofs, many with views of flights leaving JFK, or Manhattan, the breezes blow above the taut humid streets. Live is rough, the streets dangerous, the apartments crowded. On the roofs it’s easy to forget that, to escape in the view.

Artistry at the core is a search for beauty. By that measure pigeon keepers are true artists, creating beauty where few expect to find it, with whatever resources they have. They elevate life in Bushwick and East New York. They do it through their sweat and desire, without concern about money. They do it because it makes them and others happy.

Soccer Tavern, Sunset Parkimage(Regular in front of bar)

Sunset Park used to be filled with Norwegians and other Northern Europeans who had immigrated to work the docks down the hill along the Brooklyn waterfront.  That ended after 1969:  The docks started closing and Norway found oil. Now the neighborhood, especially around Soccer taverns home on Eighth Avenue, is overwhelmingly Chinese.

The Soccer Tavern, founded in 1932, is the last bar left from that period. It is also the single business on a stretch of fifteen blocks not dominated by or directed at the Chinese population. Across the street from the bar is a market that takes up the entire block, and selling amongst other things, live bullfrogs to be cooked.

Opening the blue door of Soccer Tavern is like walking through a time warp, but one with a malfunction that blends the present with the past.

The bar seats are almost always taken by older residents who moved into Sunset Park long ago from Norway, Germany, Austria, and other parts of Europe.

They are proud to be still here, in Sunset Park, representing. “The remaining Norwegians and Danish? Look down the bar. They are all here.”

Some of them are very old and very fond of their drink, “This is my nursing home. If I get too drunk Jimmie knows how to make sure I get home.”

In another corner of the bar, clustered around a few tables, is a large group of Chinese regulars drinking bottles of Budweiser. A few are eating $1 sticks of roast meat from a vendor outside.

Some of the regulars at the bar are not entirely comfortable with the guys clustered at the back, “This neighborhood isn’t the same, since my friends started leaving and those guys started coming into our country.”

Yet any animosity, and it only comes out in the odd drunken soliloquy, disappears when it comes to the horses. The disgruntled regular is happy to place bets with the “Chinese guy who is running numbers.”

image(Jimmy)

Jimmy, the Irish owner, remembers the older days, “There used to be six bars on this stretch, all filled. Now this is the only one. I have only survived because of my Chinese customers. They are great. I run the only Chirish bar in all of New York.

The oldest regular is Vidar, 89, who had his first drink in the Soccer Tavern in ’43.

image(Vidar)

He had left Norway on a whaling ship at the age of 15 just prior to the start of WWII. Unable to return because of the war he joined the Merchant Marines, working as a gunner on cargo ships plying the North Atlantic. Four times he survived being sunk, once spending five days in a life raft.

His ships often docked in Brooklyn, and he and his friend would walk up the hill towards Eighth Avenue to drink in the bars. Including the then newish Soccer Tavern.

After the war he immigrated to Sunset Park, where he found jobs on fishing boats. A hurricane in ‘56 led to another rescue at sea. “That was enough. I moved to working on tug boats.” He retired in 1983. He recently was awarded the St. Olaf’s medal by the King for his service to Norway during the war.

Floyd Bennett Fieldimage(Children posing with RC plane)

Floyd Bennett Field was New York’s first municipal Airport, and later a naval air station. Now it’s a large park used by a collection of the oddly obsessed, each needing large swaths of empty flat concrete or space.

There are the radio-controlled car and truck guys, mostly black and Latino, who race tiny vehicles down an old runway. In one hand they twiddle a remote control and in another they hold a joint or a beer. They obsess over fine-tuning their little engines, revving them up to high pitches and clouds of smoke.

Uninterested women stand aside, trying to keep the smaller kids from getting in the way. “If this is what makes him happy. I’m just glad he isn’t racing real cars.”

Miniature planes, each lovingly crafted, use another patch of old runway, controlled by another group holding far more elaborate radio controllers. The small planes accelerate down the runway before lifting off, banking over the radio controlled cars and then over the marshes. A tiny homage to the old airfield.

A small viewing stand, dragged seemingly from a little league baseball field, sits next to the runway, filled with the families of the pilots and the curious. A Hasidic man, trying desperately to keep his kids entertained, tests them on their ability to recognize the different planes: “That’s a Folker triplane, circa 1917.”  The kids ask for ice cream.

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Another old runway is used to train sanitation workers to drive the massive trucks. NYC garbage trucks circle around and around, almost as if playing a slow motion, inertia intense, game of tag.

Another runway is used by NYC police helicopters as a storage facility and landing pad.

Jutting into Jamaica Bay the park also brings in families to fish, trying to catch strippers while dreaming of blue fins.

Further back from the water are others who look through binoculars; airplane spotters watching the planes bank overhead taking off from JFK across the bay. Do old runways feel jealous?

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Scattered across the park are old massive hangers, some repurposed as sports complexes. The others sit behind fences, ever so slowly collapsing back into the ground. 

Others use the space for personal needs. A husband teaches his wife how to parallel park. A solitary man hits golf balls into the bay. Another man tries to teach his girlfriend how to kiss. Well, that’s what it looks like at least.

Open hydrants, East NYimage(Children in East NY street surfing)

Most people in Brooklyn do not have second homes and cannot afford vacations abroad. The streets are their summer homes.

As the heat intensifies, the apartment buildings disgorge their residents and block party’s form. The street is closed at both ends with whatever can be found and looks official, maybe old scavenged police barricades or safety cones, but often it is just the residents’ own parked cars.

The women cook on makeshift grills, and the men play dominoes in whatever shade can be found.

The hydrants are opened, either illegally (on almost every block someone knows someone who owns a gigantic wrench) or legally by having a spray cap installed by the fire departments.

The open hydrants become the focal point. Mothers wash their smaller children in buckets filled from the hydrants. Other mothers march their children out in bathing suits with soap and shampoo. Passing drivers slow down, and steer their car slowly through the spray, turning around to clean both sides.

image(Washing hair)

Elaborate techniques are worked out. A broken table turned upside down and bent, placed inches from the spray, shoots the water in an arc that reaches across the street and into a basketball court. Or a thick plastic tarp is laid across the street, slicked with water and dishwashing liquid, and turned into a giant slip and slide.

image(George)

On one block, where kids have set up an old police barricade to surf on, George, 85, comes out of the broken motor home he lives in, windows clouded over with piles of junk. He sits in his chair and watches the children. Originally from Honduras, he worked all his life on freighters in the Caribbean, before retiring in Brooklyn.

"I do miss being young, but I don’t mind being old, because when you get to be my age, whatever regrets you may have are hard to remember."

As midnight approaches, police cars break up the crowds, and ask the children to go home. The water continues, running down the street into the corner gutters that collect the afternoon’s detritus; beer cans, vodka bottles, ice cream wrappers, potato chip bags, and a few stray condoms.

Sunset at Sunset Park in Sunset Park

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Sunset Park, the neighborhood, is named after Sunset Park, a park that is named because it is a wonderful place to watch a sunset. Roughly the size of four square city blocks, the park is centered on a ridge that faces west towards the water of New York harbor. The view is stunning.

Sunset Park the neighborhood is divided roughly into two. From the water to Fifth Avenue are mostly Mexican and Central Americans. From Sixth to Twelfth Avenues are mostly Chinese. On summer afternoons, especially weekends, it feels as if the entire neighborhood unites in the park.

The park is pitched downwards, sloped in its lower half at an angle that matches that of a movie theater. People, couples, families, sit arrayed across that half, looking west at the sun set, apparently going to rest for the evening somewhere in New Jersey.

At the top of the park, where it flattens, is a huge municipal pool, and sprinklers, and volleyball courts, and playgrounds, and basketball courts, and soccer pitches.

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Here the clashes of noises can be jarring. From solitary boom boxes blasting high pitched music not meant for blasting for groups of Chinese women who dance ever so slowly, to the Tejano music of Mexican families picnicking, to the jingles from tiny bells of women selling mangos on sticks, to the yelps of children playing soccer, or tag, or volleyball, or flying kites, or skateboarding.

The park is a public seam connecting two very different cultures that live together because of a shared need for cheap rent. Yet everyone, no matter the culture, enjoys a cool western breeze. Everyone enjoys the soft extended light of summer evenings. Everyone, given enough time in Brooklyn, also wonders, “What the hell is the sun going to do in New Jersey for the night?”

Oneg Heimishe Bakery, Williamsburgimage(Baker at Oneg Heimishe)

The Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg is certainly insular and seemingly uninviting, with little obvious to offer visitors. There are wig stores for the ladies, with strict rules about any man entering. There are Shtreimel (the fur hats) stores for the men, and bodegas that sell Mayim Chaim Cola rather than coke.

Buying a Shtreimal, or a wig, is restricted only to the Satmars. Buying a Mayim Chaim Cola is only for those daring few without taste.

On the busiest street, at 188 Lee Avenue, is a small bakery, Oneg Heimishe Bakery. It isn’t open during the summers because the family that runs it moves upstate to Sullivan County, like many Satmars do. It very much isn’t open on Saturdays. It isn’t open on Jewish holidays high or low or in between, of which there are many.

image(Baker)

When it is open, it has the best chocolate bread, made fresh each morning, and almost always sold out by afternoon. Early in the morning is when most buy it, when it is still hot and the chocolate inside is still all melty. Its warmth is held in, wrapped tightly in wax paper and a brown paper bag.

There are other bakeries in the neighborhood that don’t close during the summers, that have longer hours, but as their owners admit, “Oneg Heimishe has the been doing it the longest.”

The bakery sits at the far end of Lee Avenue, the commercial part. The other end of Lee Avenue, towards the water where it runs into Division Avenue is residential. Huge towers of low-income housing mostly Satmar families surround small parks. Sitting in the middle is Roberto Clemente ball field. Kids fill the park, running around playing tag.  Asked by an outsider, “Who is Roberto Clemente?” they shrug.

The outsider smiles, “He was a famous baseball player.”

 They children ask back, in unison, without irony, “What is baseball?”

Bait and Tackle bar, Red Hookimage(Looking out from Bait and Tackle at Red Hook)

 Red Hook, severed from the rest of Brooklyn by the BQE and without subways, has always struggled to keep pace.

The difficulties of Brooklyn during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, hit Red Hook as hard as any neighborhood. The recent upswing in Brooklyn, now shifting into euphoria, has been slower to make its way to Red Hook. Some of the better changes have, include a drop in crime and an uptick in jobs.

The euphoric part hasn’t, and that is a good thing. Red Hook is still just barely affordable enough for a few working artists. Co-ops haven’t entirely replaced working industry, and the few destination restaurants, serving whatever the fuck is in vogue, still have much of the neighborhood in them.

The few visitors to Red Hook, attracted by the views and to the newer restaurants, or brought in by a perverse desire to make a day of IKEA, generally make their way to Sonny’s Bar, drawn by its impressive history, and by the guidebooks.

As great as Sonny’s is, and it can be great, it suffers for the attention.

Bait and Tackle bar doesn’t get the attention, partly because it doesn’t have the history (only ten years old, not like a hundred). For that it is better.

It has everything a great bar needs: Cheap drinks, interesting regulars who are slightly irregular, forgiving bartenders, an Irish owner, great music, enough quiet to have a real conversation, and long hours.

image(Bait and Tackle during storm)

It is also, along with Sunny’s Bar, very much part of the Red Hook community. After Hurricane Sandy flooded Red Hook, sending water well over the top of Bait and Tackle’s bar, the regulars together with one of the owners, Barry O’Meara, worked to rebuild, within days.

Barry stayed in the bar that night, as the water edged higher, trying to rescue as much as possible. “I really didn’t have a choice.”


For the next few months, as crews worked on restoring power to Red Hook, Bait and Tackle with the help of generators, became a community center, with beer.

 One of the only bright spots in otherwise dim neighborhood.

Yemeni restaurants, Cobble Hillimage(Waiter, Yemen Cuisine)

Atlantic Avenue, especially near the intersection with Court Street, has long been a center of Middle Eastern culture in New York City. Once primarily Syrian and Lebanese, it is now equally Yemeni, following an influx over the last thirty years.

“Influx into Brooklyn” is usually is a sign of bad things back home, and for the Yemeni it is no different. The poorest of the Middle Eastern countries, they have had, even by Middle Eastern standards, a rough recent history.

They come to Atlantic Avenue as it is being changed in a different direction, with the arrival of Trader Joe’s solidifying brownstone Brooklyn’s “You can work in Manhattan, raise you kids in Brooklyn, and be as happy as in the suburbs” claim on the street.

Three Yemeni restaurants cluster close together, sharing the same block as Trader Joe’s: Hadramout Restaurant at 172 Atlantic, Yemen Café at 176, and Yemen Cuisine around the corner at 145 Court Street.

Yemen Café, up a flight of stairs, the oldest, is also the most comfortable for the Trader Joe’s crowd. It is well lit, well acquainted with US tastes, and fluent in English.

Hadramout, down a flight of stairs, is less so. It serves almost exclusively Yemeni, and at times open till 6 am, for the late night workers.  Sometimes, depending on various issues, it closes for long stretches.

It is harshly lit, with schoolroom-like tables littered with newspapers in Arabic. A TV in the corner, above the self-serve tea table, runs continual loops of Middle Eastern news.

image(Gathering at friends house)

Over the last twenty years Yemenites have started buying many of the bodegas in Brooklyn, especially in the remaining ungentrified neighborhoods. Many owners don’t close their stores until midnight and then come to Hadramout for a meal before going home.  Or they gather on Sunday nights at friends house, to share a communal meal.

“We come to talk politics, business, to gossip. Many of us are related, we all try to help each other. Running stores. It is not very easy. It requires the whole family to work. I take my kids to Yemen every other summer. But I don’t want them to be Yemeni. I want them to be American. To be Yemeni only in spirit. To be faithful to the religion, the food, but not the craziness.”

image(Atlantic avenue Mosque)

They talk and eat, scooping up stews and large metal platters of meat, mostly lamb, with hot fresh flat bread. They sip sweet milky tea.

When they leave, often after midnight, they pass two huge dumpsters on the sidewalk in front of Trader Joe’s, recently filled with bags and bags of food beyond its expiration date.

Sometimes young Brooklynites climb out of the dumpsters, holding the bags. The Freegans have also found Atlantic Avenue.

Tatiana Restaurant, Brighton Beachimage(Host, Tatiana Restaurant)

 The Russian speakers who first settled in Brighton Beach, mostly Jewish refugees  in the ‘70s, couldn’t believe their luck. “Such a beautiful location, and nobody but us and the poor seemed to want to live here. The beach is better than the Black Sea, and the weather warmer than Kiev.”

The pattern of immigration, first wave moves into neighborhood, gets wealthier, moves out, hasn’t fully played out in Brighton Beach.

“I am not moving. I am happy here. I have everything I could want.”

Brighton Beach is fully formed. Newer immigrants still come, but they are often from Russia and Ukraine or places close to it, like Azerbaijan or Tajikistan. Everyone speaks Russian.

It is a beach town in more than just name. So much of its life is played out along the wooden boardwalk. Of the restaurants lining the boardwalk, Tatiana’s is the largest and best.

The summer brings in the rest of New York, or at least those without access to cars and second homes. The boardwalk changes its identity, with other languages mixed in with Russian, but only until the sun sets. Then families come down from the apartments that hover over the boardwalk, to celebrate whatever at one of the outdoor tables.


It is also still a beach town in the fall and winter, when the visitors leave. On those afternoons and nights, families still gather to celebrate underneath Tatiana’s large green tent on the boardwalk. Platters of food come in waves, smoked fish, soups, and seafood, all huge portions.

image(Tatianas)

Playing to type, vodka and water are drunk in almost equal measure.

If the night starts to turn cold, the waiters and waitresses offer guests blankets, wrapping them around their shoulders.

Between courses, smokers lean against the boardwalk railing, across from the restaurant, looking off to the ocean.

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On a cool fall Sunday night, next to Tatiana’s, a group of students hang a white blanket on a wall. Plastic chairs are dragged out, and a Russian art movie is played onto the blanket. Each blast of wind distorts the movie just a bit.

An older man, taking a smoking break from dinner, stops to watch the film. One of the students offers him a hit from a joint. He waves his hand no. He disappears, later to return with a bottle of Vodka. He hands it to the students, smiles, and goes back to join his family for dinner.

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridgeimage(Michael, coming home)

Before Brooklyn became a brand, the Brooklyn Bridge, to most, was Brooklyn.

Tourists would walk the pedestrian walkway, along a bouncy wooden track riding between two gently arced cables, up to the apogee, stop and take pictures that have been taken a million times before, and then walk back to Manhattan, determined to get back in time to shower and dress before their Broadway show began.

The few who walked the entire length were almost always from Brooklyn: People coming and going to work very early in the morning or late in the evening. People who understood that crossing over the Brooklyn side of the East River didn’t mean certain mugging.

Those commuting where a small group that rarely changed, many who knew each other from the walks. Another reminder that Brooklyn is just a big small town. There was a Chinese woman, always dressed in the same sky blue sweat suit, regardless of the weather, who walked to Brooklyn and back. She waved to everyone she passed.  There was a Jamaican man who rode his modified moped, cheap radio duck-taped to dashboard, who almost hit and angered everyone he passed. There was Michael, who would walk back to his Cobble Hill home from his night of collecting cans and bottles from the just closed bars of Manhattan. His tower of cans always seemed close to collapsing, but never did.

image(Walker)

As Brooklyn became popular tourists no longer stopped at the top. They started coming to Brooklyn. For Brooklyn, not just for the view.  The increase in tourists attracted merchants. Some selling sodas. Others selling sad NYC art. They cluster near the top, the middle of the walk, turning it into a Brooklynland spin-off of Disneyworld.

Still now, if you walk the bridge early or late enough, the tourists and merchants are gone. A few commuters are still there, walking from their homes in Brooklyn to work in Manhattan.

At the top, during those empty hours, you can be close to alone and find a quiet.  Below you is a tableau of so many tiny scurrying people using so many forms of transportation. The distance and perceptive turns them beautiful, masquerading their intense determination to get somewhere fast.

 An edited version of this appeared in the Awl


Some Things I Will Miss About Brooklyn

I am leaving Brooklyn after 212 years, moving to upstate and Bronx.


The Lady in the Window

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Sonia never judged. Everyone in Hunts Point, the families going to church, the men running from something, the guys across the street selling car parts and whatever else, the addicts, the broken, the homeless, the cops, were treated the same. With a smile, with a “hello sweetie” or “hello darling” or, “my love.”

In a neighborhood where many carry burdens she understood.

Born in Puerto Rico in 37, in the town of Mayaguez, she moved to Hunts Point in 57. She worked the next 35 years at the Hunts Point Community center.

When she retired, she spent the next 40 years leaning out her first floor window, arms crossed on a pillow, salsa music behind her (unless the Yankees game was on), talking to everyone. She became “The lady in the window.”

That is what others called her. She called herself “the black widow.” “I buried six husbands.”

Pepsi, Shelley, all those who live on the streets, who are dealing with addiction: Sonia treated them no different than anyone else. She would do them favors, the same as if they were her own children. She understood. She didn’t deny what she saw. “When I moved here, Hunts Point was a slum. Then they built a market. Maybe it is a slum still, I just call it my home.”

On July 10th she died. Four children and twenty grandchildren now have only her memory.

The window is still open. The pillow still there.

Sonia Socorro Silva: December 15, 1937 – July 10, 2014


One hour to comfort

An hour of looking. One hour of running from corner to corner. Well the corner that allows you, a corner you haven’t stolen from when in a tight spot, a corner you haven’t copped for an undercover from before (but really, that was an accident, how could you know?), a corner that you haven’t borrowed money from then got behind, a corner that has something.

Clean water. A hydrant is always open. A hydrant someplace quiet, not filled with kids, that’s disrespectful.

A Dr Pepper cap to mix a lighter to heat.

The strip of shirt, the one wrapped around your waist as a belt, is wrapped around your arm. Veins bulge.

The first vein is dry. Just blood.

The second works. Blow as the needle goes in. It’s an old habit.

Eyes blank.

Quiet.

Sleep.


Prison is often a punishment for the entire family

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In upstate NY in a tiny town, 20 miles from Canadian border, to visit a Prison.

A bus from Bronx arrived in the morning, filled with women. It left midnight the day before, from a location only available by word of mouth. Or internet chat rooms. Visiting day is either Saturday or Sunday, depending on week and Prisoners ID number.

Many of the women (wives, girlfriends, daughters, mothers) do it every three weeks. Total coat is close to $200: $60 round trip, plus $60 for hotel. Another $20 for cab to and from Prison (there are no public buses).

The state moved many of the longer term facilities upstate to provide the area jobs.

It has resulted in a Prison sentence becoming a punishment for the entire family.


Compromise and comfort

Cynthia was out on the streets “selling her pussy.” For drugs.  She told me that. She was dressed for that. Tight clothes that barely concealed, her “pussy pushed out” behind see-through shorts.

She was tweaking, yet controlled. Intense and tight. She didn’t have time to talk, beyond being polite.

She is used to being looked at. She pushed her middle into the camera, laughed, held a pose, grabbed $6 from my hands, and walked up the hill, towards a dealer, and away from the approaching rain.

This is the picture I took.

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I had wanted a tighter shot, but the sun, my recently injured leg, fast moving semi trucks, kept me from getting it.

When I got home I changed the picture, cropping it. Why? Because I didn’t feel it captured Cynthia’s intensity, the focus on her body and her craving. I felt she was lost in the space.

Here is what I chose. I titled it “Look at my pussy, buy me drugs.”

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I wanted the viewer to feel what I felt, that “she was selling her pussy.”  I wanted the viewer to be forced to look at her middle, not her face. To feel, like I felt, uncomfortable doing so. To feel, despite the space, her body was the focus.

After looking at it for so long, I did become uncomfortable, for the viewers sake, for my sake. It became too much. So I compromised, and chose this edit, titled “Cynthia again”

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Yet I did it because, honestly, I was worried about upsetting people, worried that Facebook, twitter, Flickr, wouldn’t get it. That I would lose viewers.

That is/was a mistake. The picture I ended up posting doesn’t reflect the awkwardness, and confusion, I felt.

More importantly, I don’t think it reflects how Cynthia felt.

Yet I can never really know that. Nobody, except Cynthia can.

Which is a reminder: Art is often more about the artist (their limitations, faults, and prejudices)  than it is about the subject.


A calm chaos

Pepsi is always there, standing back, quietly waiting and watching, beyond the action.

Others rush to tell you their needs, their problems, their issues, their hopes, their desires.

Pepsi waits until a space is cleared, and until you ask.

You ask because she wears the drama of addiction on her: A black eye, a broken lip. Make-up running from tears. Or curled up tightly, lying under blankets and boxes, immobile.

You ask and you listen because what she says is clear, makes so much sense, yet makes no sense at all.

Someone so smart, so clear-minded, so generous, so filled with hope, so talented, describing indescribable pain.

A child’s birthday brings a week of hope, a week of trying to pull herself together, to make her child proud.

Later, it brings a week of self-loathing and of deep depression. “I am still out here, failing my children.”

Addiction brings immense pain. It can also bring self-awareness; an understanding of ones limits, boundaries, and weaknesses.

Pepsi has both, quietly struggling, yet with a dignity that is stronger than most any I have seen.


One of the most insidious things that comes from criminalizing sex work? Sex workers fear reporting abuse or rape

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Takeesha was upset.

After thirty years of living on the streets she hides pain well.

Yet this moment she wasn’t.

Her smart wit, her constant needling of everyone and everything was gone.

Takeesha was angry.

Anger covers tears.

“Someone did something to me last night that I can’t explain. They abused me in a way I have never been. Someone I thought I trusted. Someone my husband knows. Nobody deserves what they did to me.”

“Police? No way. They won’t believe me. My husband will deal with it.”


More on addiction here: Faces of Addiction


"911 is a joke"


Beauty likes K2, the “fake weed” that is sold in most NY bodegas. It is mixture of herbs and spices, often sprayed with whatever the fuck, to well, fuck you up.

One addict, who will never use it again, said, “After smoking that shit I could only go left. Really. I had to walk, for like hours, towards my left.”

It is the only drug Beauty uses. Not crack. Her mom used that and she hates the smell and she hates what it did to her mom. Not Hair-on, like her friends. Hair-on is nasty.

K2.

It gave her a seizure once before, like a few months ago, but she was alone and nobody noticed.

Saturday she was sleeping with her boyfriend when the last seizure hit. Shaking, biting of her tongue, foaming at the mouth. He called 911. Forty-five minutes later they took her to the ER. FORTY FIVE MINUTES GIRL.

She doesn’t remember any of it, just waking up in the hospital with her boyfriend holding her hand.

She cried for like the next day.

K2. It is still her thing. Maybe a little less of it. Ok, maybe none.

Her boyfriend. Well, he was there for her. Not like the last guy. That says a lot. Right?


The shitty details of addiction

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  1. The first call comes early Friday morning, “I am in the hospital, come bring me a bag. I desperately need a bag.” 
  2. Next call. “Well if you won’t, bring X with you. They can buy stuff. Come on. I am fucking desperate.”
  3. Next call. “Broken collar bone, cracked wrist, and something to do with my vertebrate. I am dope sick as hell. They only giving me a little methadone and morphine.”
  4. Five more calls that you ignore, knowing that visiting means being unable to bring anything, because the only things wanted are illegal.
  5. You agree to visit, but make it clear that no drugs are coming. None.
  6. Visiting means lying about having your car parked near the hospital. “They can’t keep me here.  Just take me to get one bag. Just one bag.”
  7. Visiting means giving the $18 dollars for three days of TV directly to the TV person, not to the addict.
  8. Visiting means listening to the nurses get yelled at because the pain meds aren’t coming for another twenty minutes.
  9. Visiting means eating their meal because they haven’t been able to eat for four days.
  10. Visiting means seeing them vomit ten seconds after getting an IV of meds.
  11. Visiting means yelling and yelling and yelling. Telling them to stop trying to leave the hospital when they cannot walk more than ten yards, when what they call their home is a box in an empty lot.
  12. Visiting means realizing how shitty addicts can be and how shitty addiction is.

More on addiction here: Faces of Addiction