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September 18, 2023

Darkness at the Break of Day

By Sarah Ito

(Ode To The Gowanus Houses)

There is no gentle dawn in New York City, no soft awakening. The unorchestrated chaos of 8.55 million human beings emerging from the netherworld of restless slumber unleashes a daily tidal wave of motion, noise, and coffee. A hot August night precedes an earlier than usual awakening, and futile attempts to wash off the sweat and stench of Sunday night's whiskey-fueled descent into Monday morning are just that: futile.

The elevator struggles to reach my floor, the fourteenth. I struggle with patience. The clashing aromas of bacon, beer, cat urine and dimestore aftershave reduce the dead air of the hallway to a toxic hell. I am alone; no one here goes out to work, at least, not in the "get dressed and go to the office" sense. The stairwell offers immediate escape, as well as a gym-free workout. My exit down the dim stairwell is uneventful. This morning there are no discarded syringes to sidestep, no sticky condoms tossed at the conclusion of a passionless lust. Shouldering open the metal door on the ground level, the grimy avenue beckons, revealing a legion of pedestrians sporting backpacks. Here in the Gowanus, backpacks are the new briefcase. Carry a briefcase, you're getting jumped, no question. Most of the scurrying backpackers clutch steaming containers of coffee, sipping their way into wakefulness as they stream towards the entrance to the N train. I do not go with the perspiring flow. I have an alternate route, on the opposite side of the street.

The corner bodega offers café con leche and sweet Peruvian coffee. When I request herbal tea, decaffeinated, por favor, the dark-complected man behind the register stares at me, as he does every day, confused and, I suspect, slightly hostile. What am I doing in this neighborhood, his neighborhood ... the question, unspoken, is almost audible, taunting. It screams in my brain, and I have no answer. I didn't start out here. My journey to the Gowanus was accidental, mapless. I have no answers for the how and why of it. All's I know is, this is the last stop on my bumpy route to nowhere. I stare back, at the sweat-stained NY Yankees cap perched on his head, admiring the tilt. I imagine the effort it takes to achieve that perfect swaggery angle. I wish I had that kind of focus. Pushing a couple of dollars at him, I emerge from the encounter unscathed, mint tea in hand, and, oblivious to the traffic signal, I dart back across the avenue, into the rabbit warren of the projects.

There are benches scattered around the grounds here, once painted a lively welcoming green. Most are now rusted, missing slats. I have my choice of uncomfortable seating. No one is here yet, and very few will be here later. Too risky. The pensioners seek out the air-conditioning of the senior center for their games of dominos and bingo. Teenage mothers in colorful flowing garments, newly arrived from Guatemala and Nigeria, chatter happily as they caravan their babies to Prospect Park, a few blocks away. Gunfire and stabbings are rare there. The park is safer, more congenial. I don't like the park. Unlike most of Brooklyn, it is generic, vanilla, with its carefully laid out lawns and gardens and predictable pathways shaded by leafy elms. I prefer the solitude of my bench in the projects, the familiarity. There is no danger here because it is too dangerous an area in which to be. And that makes it my home.

The shadows cast by the projects' scarred brick buildings are strangely thin and narrow. A hesitant morning light begins to leak through, devoid of brightness and warmth, as if even the sun has forgotten her way here. It is a murky light that is selective in its illumination of the graffiti-splashed tenements, tagged by generations of the lost and those not wanting to be found. I am not offended by graffiti. I view graffiti as pure art, a uniquely urban mode of messaging via a can of spray paint; hieroglyphics to be interpreted by the puzzled denizens of a future time. I like graffiti ... Better to express yourself with a spray of neon paint than with the business end of a shank. Or a nine millimeter. Nines abound in the Gowanus.

Gulping down the dregs of the herbal tea, I approach the side of the nearest building, where the dogs go to pee. I have no nines, and no can of spray paint, but I do have a marker in my hoodie pocket, a black sharpie. The building's mottled wall presents itself as a pristine canvas, an opportunity for immortality. Wielding my sharpie with jittery purpose, I scrawl my name across as if I were signing an autograph, bold letters that loop and curl. My handwriting screams parochial school ... penmanship ... Palmer method; a career teaching in that stale classroom with the wooden crucifix nailed to the wall behind the desk. But those days are long gone, dead like the elderly nuns in their unforgiving black habits.

The skies are now fast brightening. The neighborhood dealers, their backpacks chock full of tiny glassine packets, are zipping into the courtyard, perched atop diminutive bikes with banana seats meant for children. Death on wheels, inner city style. The stark courtyard morphs into a down low open air market of heroin and crack and pills of every size and color. Fentanyl patches smuggled from China sell out fast, faster than the kid on the bike can pedal around the concrete perimeters, handing out baggies to the skells now materializing, wraithlike, in the shifting mist. I gawk at them openly, a penniless outcast at the bazaar, watching everyone else eat. When the first pop-pop-pop of gunfire resonates in the distance, a few blocks away, I leave, along with a few others who hang out in this place with me. It is like shift change at the factory. The sameness, the unchanging routine ... It's good, in a way. There are no more surprises now in this life. Everything that happens is expected.

There is a certain security in routine, a certain peace. The elevator makes a wheezing ascent to the fourteenth floor. The doors open to the reek of recent vomit and frying fish. Down the hall where the Dominican family lives, a baby wails, probably hungry. I need to sleep now, if sleep will come to me on this hot August morning. I hope the crying baby doesn't keep me awake. Tomorrow, I think I'll buy a red magic marker. Maybe something the color of lipstick. I have plans. I just don't know yet what they are.

Image by MMZach. CC BY-SA 3.0 Cropped, Photoshopped by Sand Pilarski.

Article © Sarah Ito. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-08-13
2 Reader Comments
bert cisneros
05:26:47 PM
Sorry, sent you a msg b4 but this bot thing wouldn't let me through.
Loved your descriptions, I'm learning something from you. Thanks.
Bernie Pilarski
08:47:35 PM
Wow. Excellent descriptions, very visceral, gritty. I love the pacing.
The narrator is weighed down by the brokenness of her surroundings, but she has the strength to carve out and claim a tiny piece of turf as her own. I can't say it is a hopeful piece, but it does for me evoke wonder at the tenacity of the human spirit. It was like watching a National Geographic show about insects adapted to living in the harshest environments.
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