Who lives in New York?
People live here. Crossing guards who conduct the blaring Mac trucks and motorcycles and antsy travelers of Flatbush Avenue with impassive grace but break into smiles and coos at the glimpse of a baby live here. Excavators and enormous cranes and dump trucks and cement trucks live here.
Dogs live here, Great Danes and daschunds and those dear zany Australian shepherds live here. Bartenders and servers live here, and chefs and sous-chefs and busboys, somehow. Hyphens live here. Actress-slash-server, singer-slash-nanny, poet-slash-bike-messenger, all dreaming of the day they can de hyphenate.
Protesters live here. Activists live here. People brave enough to stand, David-like, against their Goliath live here.
God, the last few weeks in New York have been wonderful to witness. Jumpy. Prickly. Watchful. But wonderful and exuberant as well.
Like lots of white people, I learned about Juneteenth from the TV show Atlanta. Earn and Van go to a Juneteenth party thrown by one of Van’s old friends, who’s married to a wealthy white man who quotes Malcom X and waxes on about Africa “you’ve gotta go,” he tells Earn, before asking him which part of “the motherland” he’s from. “I don’t know. This spooky thing called slavery happened and my entire ethnic identity was erased,” Earn replies, drily. (Oh, the dialogue in this show is so good.) There are signature cocktails like “Emancipation Eggnog” and “Plantation Master Poison,” and Black a cappella group singing from the stairs.
I say learned about it, but the show didn’t feel any need to explain something that any American should already know.
Two years later, Perry and I stumbled upon a Juneteenth gathering in Cuyler Gore, a little triangle of a park by our old apartment. A ragtime band was playing, and a couple in their nineties dipped and twirled. I wasn’t sure if I should be there, with my very white son in his white polo shirt — but when’s the last time you heard The Entertainer live? And the next act, a step troupe from a nearby middle school, was even better. Then the folding chairs were shunted to the side, and a drum circle was formed. The woman who led it spoke slowly, calmly about mother Africa. Perry lost interest — or, I anticipated it. I didn’t want him to make a scene, but I also didn’t know how to be part of the scene.
This year, Juneteenth was afforded much greater official prominence, at least in New York. Conde made it a company holiday. Fort Greene was chockablock with events: a music protest, a 5K. “THE WORLD’S LARGEST DRUM CIRCLE” sprouted outside Prospect Park. We extended our evening family walk to go through Fort Greene Park, which was packed with picnickers and young people crowded on the slope leading up to the tower, listening to speeches and spoken-word poems. The atmosphere was celebratory and charged and occasionally triumphant. Where we’re moving, I don’t know if Juneteenth will be honored in the same way. It had better be taught in schools — surely one of the many months I spent learning about Plymouth Rock could be reallocated for that purpose.
Perry and I are lying down on our backs, looking up at the stars. The stars are prodigious, the constellations traced in yellow across the royal blue canvas of his tee-pee. That’s Orion’s Belt, I say, though I’ve no idea.
At the new house, you’ll be able to see stars every night, I say. Real ones. Though in this, too, I may be mistaken. Because the stars I stared up at every night as a child were glow-in-the-dark stickers I’d plastered to my ceiling. Those stars didn’t fade for the sixteen years we lived in that house.
I’ve had a hard time figuring out what I want to record, these past few weeks. The pandemic has receded from my thoughts, papered over by the protests, the city coming alive despite.
And now, as outdoor dining returns and school lets out and people escape the city for more prosaic, seasonal jaunts, I have the sense that the protests’ mission has receded from the thoughts of people like me.
Because it recedes from mine. I hoist it up, I read about the afterlife of slavery, about how the Black body “is a mere surface for projection,” about the virtual impossibility of employment after incarceration … and then I go back to the same white authored-books, the same white-owned shops. It’s so easy to slip; narrow the universe to my immediate slice of it. It is easier to slip than not — and all the ‘not’ entails is questioning.
Anyway. On a brighter note, I May Destroy You is fucking great, a faberge egg with its settings undone, rubies catawumpus. Just brilliant, lots of English stiff upper lips and friendship dynamics and MDMA. And assault, of course — but as Linda Holmes noted, the character existed — very forcefully so — before the assault. “She wasn’t simply suspended in air, waiting for something narratively important to happen to her.”
it’s not a show about assault; it’s a show about a life, and the assault is something that upends it. I think again of Veronica Chamber’s Juneteenth essay. Celebrating despite. Living despite. There is so much of that going on all around me. The unhoused woman I used to see around the Hoyt Shermahorn stop, who had something like style in her cowboy shirts and baggy jeans tucked into wellies and her long wash of silver hair, was back the other day, looking same as ever, minus the boots. Can you imagine being old and homeless and surviving a pandemic? I can’t. But there she was.
Yesterday, we went to the Rockaways. I’d never been, and in my snotty way, had expected some urban imprima: dirty sand, shoals of trash, balloon shards, a baking boardwalk. In fact it was wonderful. Clean. Quiet apart from the occasional plane flying over — so low sometimes you could almost reach out and touch the girding. The water slowly filled with surfers, who sat patiently on their boards like so many bobbing seals, waiting for the big one Children were only allowed in up to their ankles — no life guard on duty, the current sucking even at our toes — but I didn’t realize this right away, and waded in with Perry up to the break. Again and again the waves crashed across his chest and he shrieked with glee, not even a little afraid. Of course a part of me knew he should have been afraid — at least a little. He’s close to swimming on his own in a pool, but the ocean’s another story. Still, it’s good to feel the full force of something. To have a wild rumpus bounded only by your parent’s arms.
I caveat everything, to the extent that the net sum is zero. The little French Mexican restaurant with the Been Tired posters on its doors and windows has a wooden enclosure for outdoor dining around it. Things regenerate, I think. Or maybe it’s a new owner. The inside is still papered up.
I learned that the ring of wax formed in a lit candle is called a memory ring. It’s important, on first light, to let the ring pool all the way to the edge. But if it doesn’t, there’s always the second light. Wax is forgiving.
This “diary” was easier when I stuck to short, frequent updates, scrawled in a midnight haze. Now thoughts calcify before I get them down.
I swing between anger, frustration, doubt, a carpe minute serenity, joy. When I start to write, it’s in the key of anger first, and doubt on its heels.
I miss curiosity but do not seek it.
I hear words in clips and phrases. [Sorry.] A jumble of laundry left in the wash.
The jumble says: holy moly is it different reading The Long Winter as a mother.
The jumble says: Irv claps his hands now when he hears music, or when he senses he’s part of a group activity, and it’s just about the sweetest thing
He climbs the stairs, too, and the hutch and the step-ladder, if I let him. He says “da” in infinite variations of tone and length.
The jumble says: I actually see Perry’s memories forming, and where metaphor and simile come from.
The jumble says: to me, the walk to daycare is mostly ugly, but Perry loves it because of the excavators.
The jumble has disappointment in some of the voices I once respected, who’ve tossed out the occasional limp acknowledgement of the current moment, a vague promise to do better, an anti-racist reading list copied from the Times — only to immediately return to hawking the same old same old.
The jumble acknowledges that I am not a public figure making her livelihood off the clicks and eyeballs of other wealthy white women. Who knows how I’d respond if I were.
Better, the jumble insists. But the jumble is shot through with ego. A prickly thing.
The jumble says: why did the tossed slaves climb back onto the ship?
The jumble keeps returning to the word despite.
The jumble thinks that New York is starting to feel a little bit like Saigon, with all these outdoor cafes. Restaurants are putting up gardens, some scrappy, some turnkey, left and right. Germaniums and basil in giant tomato cans. Palm ferns in shiplap planters. Bamboo fences and thatched roofs. Almost every night, it downpours. The moment the downpour is over, the tables are being wiped dry; two minutes later, they are all full again.
New York is an outdoor city now, and it is quite often resplendent. People are exercising, walking, picnicking. Playing music from their stoops, drinking aperol spritzes and Pina coladas out of wine glasses with candy-cane straws. Wearing crop tops and billowy gingham skirts, peach silk nightgowns — “the only thing that fits over my chest,” slip dresses in the end of the color spectrum I have to avoid: chartreuse, key lime, vermillion.
“It’s like summer in New York, but bizarro-summer.” So says one dad at the playground to another, just returned from four months upstate.
The city the kaleidoscope that’s found its way into the stroller carriage. Pointillist, fractured. Endlessly reassembling. The playgrounds fill. I am now the mom with the extra beach toys.
We watched Palm Springs last night, and I was struck not by the time loop itself, but by the infinite permutations it could take. The day would always start out exactly the same, but the minutes between beginning and end were open, bounded in the same way anyone’s are. As such, it resembled regular time — and, especially, pandemic time — more than it did a loop.
Would you try to escape, if it were you? Or would you play within the constraints of the day, master it, revel in its microcosm?
I taught Perry the Macarena. He didn’t learn it, but I did. I don’t think I’ve ever known a dance all the way through; I’m excited to whip this one out at my Eurovision audition and Perry’s middle school dances. Perry looooves it when I do the Macarena; the jump clap at the end just kills him.
I did the Macarena inside and then went out to get ice cream and bingo Bangor, the sky above our street was lit up in pinwheels and sparklers. The air wheedled and shrieked and settled in a heavy smoke overhead. But outdoor dining went on, n’import quoi.
We watched part of a documentary on child stars and the guy who played Henry in ET said that his first time on set, all he wanted to do was go home and escape the circus. Then he went home and realized he was the circus.
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