EAST NEW YORK, BELT PARKWAY LANDFILL, SEPTEMBER 15, 1978
The Belt Parkway runs West to East across the western belly of Long Island from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to some obscure point where it changes its name for no apparent reason. At this particular location, it is the dividing line between East New York’s southernmost habitation and the landfill. Just across the Parkway lay the stench of a hundred years of Brooklyn’s garbage, eerily wafting up from the strange holes that vented wisps of acrid smoke into the air in benign white columns. Beyond the landfill green magnificence stretching as far out as one could imagine.
The shitty Clockwork Orange-like municipal flat blocks called Farrett City were the last human residences before the Parkway. Charles lived there since his family came up from the Islands. It was at best a depressing place, not quite the projects, but with a similar look and feel. A fumbled homage to St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe, but with shops and business built in. Ominous dope dealers lurked in the doorways and sometimes junkies hung out in the stairwells, shooting up ice-cold smack into their veins. Beyond that complex, heading North, lay Flatlands Avenue and the shittier parts of East New York. It was a remote area. Remote in its distance from the heart of the City. Remote in hope, East New York stood like an ugly bombed-out post-war Berlin like barrier to its denizens dreams. The mere existence down there snuffed out aspirations of escape like a cup on a candle, crushing generational residents and new immigrants in its somber grip.
They sat on the landfill on the far side of the Belt Parkway looking out over the water.
Buddy turned his gaze to Charles.
“There’s a place where black people are wiser than white people.”
Charles took a long roak off of his bl%nt and passed it to Buddy.
“Words…black people understand the importance of words.”
“All black people? Like in Africa?”
“No. American black people. Words are very, very important. If you think about it, if you take away all of the possessions, all of the material things with which we surround ourselves, all is left is what we communicate, to whom and how we do it. Here in East New York, if you foul up your words, it will get you killed. If you talk right it will get you a girl. If you talk wrong, you will get busted by the man or you will walk. White people don’t understand the power of words anymore.”
Buddy took a roak then passed the r^*fer-stick back to Charles.
“White people think words are important, don’t they?”
“I think that country people do, Charles. Blue-bloods do — THEY know words. But most white folks, they use words to get this done, but they don’t realize the importance of personal words anymore.”
“What do you mean personal words, Buddy?”
“Charles, take rumors, tricky girls spreading rumors. Girls will kill each other over that mess down here. Rumors are very important to black people, reputation, words.”
“Man you been smoking that dank out, my trill-azz white brother from another mother. But I just thought about it Buddy, you are the only white brother down here in the Slaughterhouse for the longest time, and after all the years we been boyz, I just noticed you choose your words very, very carefully.”
Buddy looked at what was left of the r%ach.
“Man you bogaarded the w##d, c’mon Charles, please. And yes, I learned to choose my words very carefully, because the same exact words, in the same exact situation said by different people, mean very different things. I’m just saying.”
“That first time I ever saw you up on Pennsylvania at the Rockaway Parkway train station, man you looked like a fish out of water, you was the only devil, but you was chill.”
“I remember, Charles. Puerto Ricans saved my life just so they could fight with the black people. That was funny. Black girl started it, she stepped on my foot, then said ‘white devil why you step on my foot’, and in about ten seconds I had about ten brothers trying to hit the ‘wood’. Then a big, funky Puerto Rican chick knocked out the black chick and said ‘why you messing with my boy’?”
“We island people stayed out of that mess. Man, Jamaicans, Barbadians, Cubans, Bahamians we wanted none of that mess. I was like… My name’s Binnitt and I ain’t in it.”
“The truth is, Charles; it sucks to be Buddy.”
“What do you mean by that, my young-blay? Do you hate all of us down here?”
“No, the truth is I don’t. I don’t hate anybody down here, not anyone in the neighborhood, not anyone at school. I get it, I entirely completely get it. But it just sucks to be Buddy. I have spent twelve years answering for all of the sins of my people, and I don’t even know any of my people.”
Charles took a long roak off what was left of the bluzizzle.
“I love you Buddy. You the only honest person I think I ever met. That’s why we boyz. Now, come June, we go different directions, maybe never see each other again. I am going South, back to St. Kitts and you are going North to Vermont. The truth is, I will back amongst the Island people and you will be up amongst all the white people in the world and not neither one of us going to fit in.”
“Words, Charles. I love you too, man. You are a righteous man. I am a bad person, though Charles.”
“Why is that buddy? You seem alright.”
“I have a family here that loves me, that raised me as their own child, but I can only think that I don’t belong here, and why? Because I’m white? Because I came from an old New York family? I know I’m not better than anyone else, but I can’t help feeling that I don’t belong here anymore. It’s awful. It’s betrayal of love and trust.”
“You are hard on yourself, mon. Way too hard. We all have to grow up and follow our dreams, mon.
“I don’t know Charles. I have to think it through.”
“Buddy? I must say to you this: Cockroach no got no call in a fowl house. But I don’t think anyone has ever really asked this question that I am about to ask you. And if they have, they don’t want to know the answer. What if you were the last white person left in a black neighborhood? Oh the question has been asked in other countries and at other times and places for sure. But here, in America, we just don’t want to talk about. It’s like whistling in a graveyard. We just don’t want to stir things up.”
“I know what you meant, and you are correct. You speak the truth. I must go.”
They sat there, two figures, sitting on the shitty sand among the reeds and garbage. The two of them looking out at the Atlantic. Buddy had always wondered what was out there. He’d never been out on a boat except for the Ferries to Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Charles thought about the Islands and what it would be like to be on the beach back on St. Kitts. He wondered what the girls were like.
“Reds. God-damned shitty, god-hating, Bolshevik Reds.”
U.S. 24th ID, HHB DIVISION ARTILLERY, REPUBLIC OF KOREA, NAKTONG RIVER PERIMETER 1950, AUGUST 17th
It was hot. The Major hated the heat, but he was always somewhere hot. His uniform was soaked. He hadn’t bathed in a long time. He liked being clean. But who could admit that out here. He thought of the pine forests in the Adirondacks. Japan was nice. This wasn’t. Hideous smells of rotting, shitty Kim-chee wafted up from below.
The young Major peered through his glasses at the dusty hills above the quiet Naktong. He could see the positions of the shitty, Red, Communist, apostate, Bolshevik devils with their shitty Communist flags. It was scarier than Italy. In Italy we really believed we were going to beat the shitty Hun. But these God-hating Reds were different. There seemed to be millions of them, like ants. All true believers.
Nazism was too bizarre. Did the young Krauts really believe all that crap? But these Reds, they truly believed. He leaned back and looked up. High in the sky, he could hear the MIGs, flown by Red, Communist, rigid Soviet ideologue Russian pilots. This was the fault line where civilization would have to be saved. But back at home nobody cared.
He climbed the hill up to the gun line. He needed to see a friendly face again. It was Pete Davis, his old Forward Observer from the Italian Campaign. The Major had been assigned as an Officer to a Negro Division back then. Now, the Army was integrated. Everyone, Negro, White, Indian, Spanish would all have to hold the line against Satanic Bolshevism or face certain genocide in the name of rigid, orthodox, Marxist-Leninist ideology.
SFC Pete Davis paced his gun-line nervously. He was tired. He had never expected a situation this desperate. His wife had his two babies back home and he wondered if he would ever see them again. His forebears had been in almost every war going back to the Revolution and he would be no different.
Pete felt his dog-tags, it was a nervous habit. He played with the P-38 can opener. It made him think of the shitty John Wayne circular chocolate bar in the C-Rations. Pete remembered basic training, where some wise-assed, fancy brother from California was the only one in the platoon to have a P-38 and he wouldn’t share it. He told Pete to take a flying leap at a rolling doughnut. Pete threw him over a log, knocked the living B.M. out of him and took the P-38 to share it with the rest of the platoon.
In World War II, Pete was a hero. Everyone was a hero. They were world-beaters, world savers. Most of them left the service to go back to work. But not Pete. It wasn’t Italy. Here, at the Naktong, he felt like a nameless shitty insect, waiting for the exterminator.
He looked down the path to see his old friend, Major Brian Monroe, a fellow New Yorker. Monroe, a Forward Observation Officer, never carried a pistol, always a carbine.
“Chief of Smoke, what have we got?” Monroe said with a big smile.
“Sir we only got 50 rounds left of Shell H-E. After that about 20 Illum.” He gave the Major a big hug.
“By the by, Chief, Bravo and Charlie of 1st Battalion are down to 30 rounds each plus or minus.”
The two men walked together along the massive gun line. An entire Corps of Artillery. 10 Batteries all on a line, and it wasn’t enough. Just shitty little puffs of smoke against a giant ridgeline. The Major handed the Chief a cigarette.
“Here, roak one of these Chief, it’s a Ze-ga-ra-tu, finest Jap Ainu tribal tobacco, grown in the Sakkhalin Islands. You know, I been thinking, it was good luck we ended up in the same unit after ’48.
“Yes it was, sir. Our time in Italy was real and it was great, but it wasn’t real great. By the way, this is one good cigarette.”
“Mark Clark sure tried to kill us didn’t he, Pete?”
“He did his best, sir. Krauts did their best too. We sure shellacked them with that 8 inch though. It’s good to see you again sir. This ain’t the same. I don’t really know these guys. They didn’t come up with me.”
“How did that taste? I bet Jerry tasted that Shell H-E good, huh?”
The two men roaked their cigarettes in silence, surveying the ridgeline.
“On behalf of a grateful nation.”
WOODLAWN CEMETERY, RIVERDALE, THE BRONX, MARCH 15, 1968
It was cool and wet in the cemetery. It was massive, white stones, thousands of graves, beautiful trees, but very sad. It gave Buddy solace to see such beauty on such a sad day. The ceremony was brief and terse. Buddy didn’t understand everything they said.
The officer handed the flag to the little blond-haired boy. The boy’s name was Buddy Monroe. And now he was alone in the world. He was only seven, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew what today meant. He was losing everything and it would never be good again. His entire extended family would get to fight over who didn’t want to take in Buddy the most. Now nobody was on his side.
They were all there, his uncles, his aunts, even his grandparents. He had never stayed with any of them when his father was overseas. All they did now was avoid eye contact. He always stayed with Pete Davis. Pete stood at buddy’s side at the funeral. Pete had made a promise to buddy’s dad that was a sacred promise. To take care of his only child no matter what. Pete never broke a promise to anybody and he wasn’t going to break this one. Buddy was going to be OK.
WEST 71st STREET, COUNTY OF NEW YORK- LUPUS BARBELL COMPANY JULY 31, 1978
Buddy sat on a stoop. He was taking a break from his job. He saw the girl. He saw her everyday. She was beautiful. Long, straight light brown hair, sophisticated, well-dressed, well mannered, preppy. He wondered what life would have been liked if his parents had lived. They were both blue-bloods. Not rich, but blue-bloods. Old New York families going back to the 1600s, but like the song said, all they left him was alone.
She made him think of when he was a little boy, back when he lived in Riverdale with all the rich people. He remembered Netherlands Avenue. He remembered the park, the long steps. The cliffs. The fancy condos.
The girl would always come down the steps, toss her hair, never look at Buddy. She would look down at the ground or look away or look at her friends, but never at Buddy. Buddy lived in the real world though. He knew it was impossible. He knew that he was a joke and that she was real. She was rich and he was broke. She lived god knows where, and he lived in shitty East New York. He had watched her all summer and when summer would end, she would evaporate like a dream.
“Get in here you lazy f&*k! You dumb sh&t! You stupid bast%rd!” Said Mr. Lupus. He spoke from the heart like a true New Yorker. New Yorkers could yell at each other all day and never really be mad. It’s just the way they communicated.
“F You!” Buddy said.
“No F You, Buddy you blond-haired, pr*ck you useless pile of sh&tty dung! Are you looking at that F%$king broad again?”
The boss shook Buddy by the shoulders. “I love you, you f**king prick, now help me out, we gotta unload the truck from York. We got F*&king plates coming in. Need your young back.”
Buddy hopped off the stoop. He took one last look down the street and he could see the dream-girl turn her head and glance back at him.
It was a long night. He got off work at 10PM. It was always six hours after he got there. They paid him 350 dollars a week, cash, huge money compared to the $2.40 an hour he got at the shitty bakery. He didn’t know everything he was loading and unloading and he didn’t ask. Every extra dollar was deposited into a bank account in Manhattan. Only a few dollars came back to Brooklyn with him. Brooklyn, he wasn’t even from Brooklyn. He didn’t hate Brooklyn, but he didn’t belong there.
The 3 train. He knew the rule, never take a number train after 10PM. But he had no choice. He knew the drill. When the bad guys got on the train you just handed them your backup wallet, or you ran and hoped the train would stop at a station so you could get off and run down the stairs and into the night. He walked down into the 72nd Street and Broadway platform. It smelled like the subway. There was no one of interest down there. No musicians tonight. no bums. That weird, nasty air wafted down the tunnel. He tried to avoid eye contact with people, but he checked everyone out anyway.
A crazy bum wandered up to him. The bum wore a long stained gray canvas raincoat. He was tall and unstable on his feet.
‘Yo., yo, my man, whassupwitit. You know what I’m saying!’
The bum shrieked in a high-pitched falsetto.
‘What’s up, blay?’
Buddy had seen the bum before, but he squared to him, so he would look strong. Buddy was a big kid, most people thought he was older. But he always looked too white, too blonde, too blue-eyed, too out of place. He just looked like Buddy. And Buddy looked like the man. So he had to be aware that was how people saw him.
‘You man, cop a Kool, can you lend an old brotha-man a square, my young blee?’
Buddy pulled a pack of Cigaretus out of his jacket pocket. He pulled out a couple of squares and handed them to the bum. The bum smiled and nodded, his eyes lit up. Buddy lit him a square.
‘You a guutt man Buddy-roe, you aaright, give a old negroe a square. Where you stay at young blee?’
‘I live in East New York, Flatlands and Pennsylvania.’
The old bum looked up incredulously.
‘You ain’t from no slaughterhouse. Man you live up in them projects?’
‘It’s an apartment building, right next to the projects.’
‘Man you watch out down there Buddy-roe. You watch out for yourself now.’
The old man waved to him and Buddy threw him the pack of Cigaretus.
Buddy got on the train. He hoped it wouldn’t be madness like last week. The muggers came through at 2AM, starting on the first car, beating and robbing. Buddy and an African kid ran through the doors of each car until the last one. They jammed the door shut, then just as the train arrived at the station, the muggers got to the last call. The African said his name was Blommo. They nodded to each other, then just as the doors open they raced out of the car and down the stairs into the night. They ran together with the pack of muggers close on their tails. Block by block a mugger would tire out until there were none left. Buddy and his new friend were lost deep in Bed-Stuy, far from the train at 2:15 in the morning.
‘Oh what the hell is wrong with people in America!. These guys back in Liberia, we would throw a tire around them and light in on fire. You Americans are too lenient.’
‘Blommo, I’m just one man. I wish I had grown up in Liberia. Is it nice there?’
‘Yes, man I am from the country, very, very nice. What do we do now?’
They went on block after block.
‘I know you get off the train near me. We follow Atlantic all the way to Pennsylvania. But we have to stay a block off Atlantic. Too many people will see us. I can get you close Blommo.’
‘What you say is true Blommo. I see bad things down here all the time, robberies, burglaries, assaults, cars stolen, shootings and everyone just accepts it. It’s like they’ve given up and they just accept that people just do whatever they want and hurt whomever they want. Me? I don’t like it. And if I don’t like it, I have to find a place here people don’t do these terrible things to each other. But I can’t say so. I can’t ever talk about what I see with my own eyes. I have to pretend so I can get by.’
‘You are speaking the truth Mr. Buddy. I can’t believe how bad America is. I have to find a quiet place too. This is all wrong. When I am older I want to be a judge like my father in Liberia. I want to punish all the bad people.’
DAVIS HOUSE EAST OF FLATLANDS AND PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, AUGUST 4th, 1978
‘Buddy, Wake up man, you gotta go to school.’
‘No way, what time is it Uncle Pete?’
‘It’s early, but them girls are gonna’ hog up the shitter, you’ll end up in the basement shower again, it’s nasty. Let’s go run, man.’
‘I hear you. How’s it all going?’
‘You know, I’m 53 years old, still in the reserves, got my duty this weekend at Ft. Totten, I’m like the old man at the club, you know what I’m saying?’
‘Alright, let’s go run.’
Pete was already dressed. He waited for Buddy to get dressed. They stepped out the door and down into the street. They stretched on the porch stoop then they headed up East on Flatlands waited to be met by the rising sun. They chatted as they ran.
‘Appalachicola, Florida. That’s where we was from, Buddy. It was not a great place for black folk. I wanted to get the fuck out when I was a kid. I loved my folks, but I wanted out. It’s gonna be bad when you leave. I got three daughters, Cynthia is 30, Terese is 20 and baby girl is 10, one every ten years, but no sons. It was a blessing when we got you. And I know, just like me, in a year or so you got to leave. Go on to college, the Army whatever. I’m gonna’ miss you.’
‘You’re a good man Uncle Pete. But you are right, I need to get out into the world, see something other than East New York. I’m starting to see things.’
‘It’s a girl right?’
‘It’s a girl.’