Back out on Fulton Street, in front of the building owned by Children Are Our Future, a few young women case workers were gathered, smoking and chatting – mostly venting about birth mothers and foster mothers. They both were driving them crazy.
I lived a couple of blocks away, on Washington Avenue, owned a three-family brownstone, paid in full, courtesy of my maternal grandparents, purchased in 1947 for $12,000. It was now worth nearly a million dollars. Well, not in real dollars, but it was valued at around that price. Despite the housing market having slowed, gut jobs in my neighborhood were going for $500,000. My mother had inherited the brownstone from her parents and it was passed on to me, her only surviving child, when she died of breast cancer, shortly following my father’s death, four years after him. They were together, in Long Island National Cemetery. My father was a T/4 in the Army during World War II.
I started heading in the direction of home, to pick up my car, a dark green ‘98 Camry XLE. The Japanese made this wonderful utilitarian car. Ever since America forced what the Japanese called the “unequal treaty,” at the Convention of Kanagawa in March 1854, the Japanese, quick studies, learned how to beat us at our own game. I parked my Camry in a lot, since parking in my neighborhood was impossible and becoming even more so. Before I returned to the office, I had to do a drive by.
No matter where we have been, no matter who we have become, no matter where we live now, there’s the place where we are from, where our roots are planted. My roots are in Brooklyn. I grew up in Brooklyn. Like that famous tree from literature.In the Marcy projects.From a kid playing stickball throughout the projects to a Marine on the beachhead of Grenada to a beat cop patrolling the same area I ran around as a kid when “community policing” was resurrected to a detective in the NYPD to a member of SVU to a P.I. chasing down ghosts and runaways. When I finished serving my two tours with the Marines, I attended a Marcy Day or two, always on a hot Saturday in August, would see some of the people I had grown up with. Some still lived there. Years later, when I was a beat cop, they were still there. And all of these years later they remained. And their grown children. It was depressing. The buildings looked smaller, not as tall as my child’s imagination had seen them then, and drab, the red-brick dirty, looking like some mythical, vindictive giant had walked across them with muddy boots on, trying to stomp them out of existence. People in the projects were making a big deal out of Jay-Z, the rapper and businessman, also out of Marcy, proud of him, of course, since he demonstrated that something good could come out of the projects; but he was eight or so years my junior and by the time he was busting beats I was on the beachhead in Grenada, very far from Marcy, as I had planned. I couldn’t get far enough, since the most painful memory in my life lived there, which, of course, kept pulling me back.
In the car I cruised down memory lane, slowed down on Park Avenue, the other Park Avenue, as we learned to say. I turned on to Marcy Avenue. It was here that the ghosts lived, where my older brother, Hannibal, two years my senior, was killed. Hannibal and Alexander. My father named us and called us his little generals. The name stuck. When we were kids, up until when we became teenagers, everyone in the projects called us little generals. My brother was a born leader, probably would’ve grown up to be a general if not for the accident of birth in the Marcy projects. I wouldn’t say it was the next best thing, but my brother was a Minister of Defense or some such title in the Marcy Chaplains. People from Marcy and the surrounding projects, Tompkins and Sumner, still spoke about him. He was the one expected to do good if not great things. He was tall and strong and played every sport effortlessly. And he was smart. An A student bored out of his mind in school, he would come home and read, not watch TV. My father didn’t graduate from high school, but he made it a point to educate himself. Both he and my mother stressed the importance of education, was disappointed that I didn’t go right to college after graduating from high school. In our apartment we probably had a better library than the public schools weattended. Following in my brother’s footsteps, whom I idolized, I read every title he did, right after him. I didn’t read as fast and didn’t comprehend what he did – the two-year age difference between the two of us was a big difference at that age — but when I graduated from high school I was reading at the college level. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as The Art of War. That’s how diverse my father’s library was. I turned left on to NostrandAvenue. I still hadn’t figured out why my brother had joined a gang. Well, gangs were different then. Gang members were really protecting their turf, protecting the old people and the kids. You never heard of innocent bystanders being casualties of these strange wars. No. Never. I could remember being shooed inside by a gang member when war was in the air, even if there was a hint of war in the air. And now, another ghost from my past had resurfaced, I was certain. I’d check when I got back to the office. I turned left on to Myrtle Avenue, slowed down and looked across the avenue toward what looked like a concrete wasteland. When I was a kid, there were these impossibly competitive basketball games going on every day during the summer and on into fall. People in NYC talked about the Rucker basketball tournament. They needed to come downtown to Marcy projects on any given summer day when I was growing up. I could still hear the basketball pounding on the concrete, the “swish” of the chain-linked net when a long-range jumper was made. “Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball.”The refrain, from my brother, who wanted the ball in his hands at a decisive point in any game. When he got the ball, it was sheer magic. I’ve heard how the great ones, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and of course Magic and Michael, and I can’t leave out the legends from the New York Knickerbockers, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe and Clyde “the Glide” Frazier, and the indomitable Willis Reed, played at a level that others, no matter how good, couldn’t even imagine. Come on! Wilt the Stilt scored 100 points in a regulation game! Mike never got close to that. In one game my brother scored about 70 points. He approached that level of focused intensity. He could shoot from long distance or take it to the hoop. He had this head fake, his eyes looking to the heavens for approval before he defied gravity, that got defenders off their feet and into the air while his feet, in white canvas low-cut Chuck Taylors, were firmly planted on the concrete. As the defender elevated he would go around him, heading to the hoop with so much speed it was frightening. One time, I swear, when he got air bound, he jumped right over this six footer. Okay, maybe the six footer ducked slightly, but in my memory my brother took flight and jumped clean over the “defender” and slammed the winning basket home. Coming back to the present, I saw a solitary kid pounding a basketball on the concrete court, making a move toward the hoop. I smiled. Maybe the next Michael Jordan. I speeded up, turned on to Marcy Avenue. I had circled the projects countless times, now and then, lost in the past lane. I accelerated, turned left onto Park Avenue and headed back toward downtown Brooklyn. Before I knew it, I was under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This neighborhood was going through a metamorphosis. Converted warehouses into condos, new condo developments going up, big plans for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, one block north from Park Avenue on Flushing Avenue.
Park Avenue turned into Tillary Street. I caught all the lights to Cadman Plaza West which, when you turn left, going southbound, turns into Court Street. I turned right on to Joralemon and then right on to Clinton and saw a car pulling out. Just a block and a half from my office. I fed the hungry meter and made my way up to my office.
Once inside I didn’t even take off my jacket. I sat and booted up the computer. A fly buzzed by my nose. While waiting for the computer to boot up, I took the pad out of the dark drawer and placed it on the desk and wrote the name Ernest Williamson on it, boxed it and placed a question mark over the box. After a second or two I drew a big hammer near the box. I thought about adding a question mark near it.
After the computer was booted, a few keystrokes later I had the answer to one of my questions. Time to call it a day. I closed my eyes and slowed down my breath. The fly landed on my nose. I slowly opened my eyes and it took off. I watched it. It landed on the wall to my left, where my framed undergraduate degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice was displayed, along with other honors I had received in the military and the NYPD. I was most proud of my degree in criminal justice, having obtained it by going to school at nights. Of course the fly landed on it. I stood slowly and silently moved toward the wall. In real time I swiped my had near the framed degree and caught the fly. I shook my hand. This would make it dizzy. I exited the office, closed the door behind me and opened my hand. The fly remained in my palm for a second, perhaps pondering this second chance. It buzzed off. “Strike two.”
Outside in the car, I speed-dialed Khandi’s mobile. It went right to voice mail. I was going to offer to take her to an early dinner, maybe meet her downtown, go to the South Street Seaport. She worked nearby, on William Street. I had to admit I was lonely. Miko was out of town, at a residency at Blue Mountain Center, in the North Country, which was in the middle of the Adirondacks. It had taken me nearly six hours to drive Miko there. Blue Mountain Center was located in such a remote area there were no cell phone towers, and of course there was opposition from the residents to have such among the natural pristine beauty of the place. Additionally, the Center wanted artists to focus on their craft. They were encouraged not to bring their cell phones. Didn’t matter if they did. There was no cell phone coverage. Perhaps the Blue Mountain Center administrators thought that if residents could commit to not bringing their cell phones, which were practically useless anyway, then they could fully commit to their craft. Residents though brought calling cards and used one of the two pay phones to make calls. (There was also limited e-mail access.) Miko called every night. We talked about 30 minutes. Miko is a published, award-winning poet. She teaches at the New School. She was on a sabbatical of sorts, spending thirty days at Blue Mountain.