Sunday, July 17, 2016

What I do not Hear

It was a bright and crisp day at 9am when I first got to the clinic in rural Uganda.  A line was already wrapped around the single clinic room and women were resting in circles allowing their fat, naked babies to play in the middle. 

“Afoyo, hello!”

The kids laughed at the white lady speaking their language.  Today I would be looking over the record books to get a sense of how bad the most recent malaria epidemic had hit this village.

Just before greeting the nurse, a woman grabbed my arm. She was panicked and her nails dug in.

“I prayed, but nothing. Help me sistah docter.”

At first, I did not hear her.  So many people call out to me every day that I have become good at not hearing. 

She almost threw her little girl into my arms. The girl was too light and her eyes were glassy.  I was trying to explain that I am not a doctor, I am just a scientist studying malaria when, like a horror film, the little girl turned and I could see the back of her head had been eaten away by disease.  The pulpy flesh was rotting and covered in flies.  I gave the baby back to her mother, went into the bush, threw up, and then went into the clinic to count the cases of malaria.

I do not believe in god.  I pray again and again for strength of faith but I have heard no answer.  Maybe I’ve spent too many years looking down through a microscope to hear the god above me.  I’m a scientist and thus a skeptic.  We’re taught to be wary of religion as it is unfounded in evidence (the only scripture of science.)  But there is a woman in front of me, just a baby herself, praying that her little girl doesn’t die.  How can I help her if I don’t understand her? School did not teach me what sustains people beyond the antibiotics.

It’s the big questions, the ones that catch in your throat, unasked, that are all around me in Uganda.  The questions about death and faith.  I’m terrified because if I fail to save you, you will not live on in another world.  I will be here, and you will be gone.  I am afraid that if I do not figure out a way to hear some god, I may not be able to continue doing this work.

Sometimes, usually when I’m lying in bed at night, I feel a tingling at the back of my head, and I have to reach up to feel if I’m whole. 
Sunday, July 10, 2016

Red Hook, Love and Basketball

I told her I grew up in Red Hook.  Which was only kind of true.  I grew up in Gravesend and Park Slope, in Red Hook, Key West, Gainesville.  But Red Hook, those were my formative years. 

We lived in this brick house at the end of Beard Street.  It’s still the house of my dreams.  Wooden staircases, restaurant stove, tin ceilings, fireplaces, an English garden.  This house could eat my 400sq foot studio for breakfast.

My mom worked at a nonprofit on Van Brundt street.  My other mom owned an international shipping company that worked out of the warehouse down the block.  My parents were heavily involved in the community and we went to city hall meetings to make sure the garbage dump wasn’t built in Red Hook.  We went on marches protesting that “DAMN DAIRY PLANT” down the block.  We built gardens on the waterfront and worked to restore  the old trolleys.  I was extremely helpful by bringing art into Red Hook by way of an outdoor performed modern dance to Let it Be. 

Not many of my school friends would visit me so I made friends on the block.  There were 2 apartment buildings across the street and I guess they didn’t have doorbells (??) because I would shout “Elissabeeeeth, Nelllsoooon” over and over until their mom opened the window and leaned out.

“Can Elisabeth come out to play?”

Then the two of us would call for Kris.  Oh my god Kris.  I looooooved Kris.  I spent hours looking out my window into his window wondering what he was doing.  Asking my magic eight ball if he and I would get married some day. 

“Krriiiiisss, can you come out to play?”

When the heavy door to his building squealed open my heart skipped a beat.  I bet if I heard that door today I would still catch my breath.  Then I’d hear the basketball dribbling on the concrete sidewalk.  Squeal of door, bounce of ball.  Those are the sounds love is made of.

“Hey,” he’d say and pass me the ball. 

“What’s up,” I’d say, and dribble the ball between my legs like a goddamn pro.  I was all curly hair and jammed fingers.  An 11 year old lover in baby blue Air Jordans.  (I scrubbed those beauties with my toothbrush once a week.)

We’d play until the sun set and then some.  We drew a square on the warehouse next to my house.  Hit it with your ball for a point.  (We once burned out a soda crate and tied it to a fence for a hoop.  But someone stole it…) Quick 10 point games, every man for himself.  Nelson sometimes joined us before he got too old to play on the block.  When no one could come out, I would play by myself, practicing bouncing the ball against the wall and catching the rebound for an ally-oop.  If I was going to join the WNBA and if Kris and I were going to live out my Love and Basketball fantasy, I had to start getting good.

When we weren’t playing basketball we were at the corner store buying candy.  None of that chocolate crap either.  We liked the hard stuff.  Pure  sugar packed into tubes that would turn our mouths blue or maybe a pack of sour straws that we smoked like cigarettes.  We  would  shake up soda bottles and leave them in the street for cars to run over.  Because. Hilarious. 

In the winter we crammed into the hallway and played monopoly.  Yelled at  people when they had to walk over our board to get to the stairs and messed up our house placement.  The hallway was dark but warm and thick with the comforting smell of Ecuadorian food.

If it was summer, we would lay our bellies on the sun warmed bricks in the garden and roll roly polys to see whose went farthest.  Or me and Elisabeth would draw a whole house out on a piece of paper and see where our slug babies would go.

“Look, yours is going into the bathroom!”

Elisabeth taught me all the Spanish words to the Macarena. 

We rigged a skateboard with a rope.  One sat, one ran, both fell.  Most of my scars are from those days.  But the trick was never to go inside.  Not for a band aid or to use the bathroom.  Because that’s when the parents would remember you existed and make you come in for the night.

Things changed after 9/11.  My mom took pictures of the towers burning from our roof.  My other mom lost her shipping business.  My parents went to 6 funerals.  The experience gave them pause.  They were tired of the New York rat race and wanted to slow down and live the life that New York collectively realized could be gone in seconds.  Within a few months, they sold our house, enrolled me into Key West High School and my sister into Montessouri.  3 months after that, my fifth generation Brooklyn family moved to Key West.

I stopped playing basketball at school because the nearest away game was an hour away.  I lost touch with Elisabeth and Nelson.  Kris and I, despite the magic 8 ball predictions, did not get married.   It was 7 years before I visited Red Hook again.  There is an Ikea now and a Fairway.  There are man buns in Sunny’s and a candy shop selling only chocolate.  My mother’s warehouse is owned by some artisanal artist brewing beer with wood or making wood with beer.  The English garden has no light anymore because of some crab shack minigolf monstrosity blocking the sun.  I passed my house and saw a blonde boy playing with his phone on my steps.  But I could still see Kris’s name written on the sidewalk from that time he wrote it in the wet cement with a stick.

I’m  back  in New York, living  in Harlem now.  It feels good to be back here.  My world weary body is ready for it.  I’ve lived in 5 different countries, 10 different cities.  When people ask me where I’m from, I’ll say New York.  If I feel they’ll get me, I say Brooklyn.  But if I’m feeling real, I’ll say “I grew up in Red Hook.”

Red Hook: May 2001, Van Brundt Street.  Aunt is wearing Red Hook G.A.G (Groups Against Garbage) Shirt