A few weeks ago, I was teaching in Bushwick High School (specifically, at Academy for Urban Planning & Bushwick School for Social Justice), just around the corner from the building that I grew up in on Palmetto Street. In fact, my sister and numerous people I grew up with went to that very school. I shared with the students that the Bushwick I grew up in is very different from the Bushwick of today. This was the late 70s and 80s, just after the historic 1977 black out, the consequent riots, and “The Fire War” from whence the phrase “Bushwick is burning” comes from.
The South Bronx is most infamously known for the fires that plagued the city from 1965 to 1980, but Bushwick was also hit hard by the phenomena. Its deteriorated housing stock of connected wooden frame homes, many of which shared attics, was particularly vulnerable; a fire would erupt in one building (usually by way of arson by owners looking to collect on insurance; gangs who profited off the valuable fixtures and copper wiring that were exposed when firemen knocked down walls and floors; and the tenants who looked to cash in on the city’s generous relocation allotments) and swiftly spread, sometimes consuming half a block. The result was piles of rubble and burnt-out, abandoned buildings for blocks that made Bushwick look much like the images of war-torn Beirut that flashed across our TV screens, except it wasn’t; it was a poverty and crime-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn that only worsened in the crack era of the 1980s. This is where I spent my childhood.
After class, the teacher that was assisting me told me to check out the exhibit, “Here I am: Bushwick in the 1980s” by Meryl Meisler. I jotted down the link, and went to the office of one of my teaching residencies with Sing for Hope to prep for my next gig that afternoon. As expected, my heart seized when I saw the images of abandoned buildings and lots full of rubble and trash, but what I didn’t expect was to encounter an image of me, at age 7, in front of the graffiti scrawled building I grew up in. I’m wearing one of my favorite outfits, a blue crop top and matching shorts, my mother is sitting on the trash cans looking at the camera, my second mom’s mother, Doña Carmen, is standing, her daughter, Haydee, is sitting on the steps, my cousin Brenda is playing with a jump rope, adults from the neighborhood are standing around, and hanging out the window is Millie’s uncle Valentin, the antagonist of the memoir story “White Straw Climbs,” whereby I re-lived my sixth year when my innocence was yanked from my grip. I was jolted, devastated and, at the same time, I rejoiced.
I understood that the universe was leaning in, telling me that it is time for me to finish this memoir, to continue to re-live these moments that led to my leaving my mother’s home, to pen these stories and release them to the world. I immediately contacted the photographer, Meryl Meisler, and met with her soon thereafter. I printed out a screen shot of the image and put it in my red memoir folder, the one I carry with me just about everywhere I go, despite the fact that it’s bulging with layers of print outs and stories scrawled on napkins and newspaper borders, and weighs down my shoulders.
But what struck me the most was the fact that seeing that picture didn’t send me reeling into days of depression as it likely would have just three years ago, before writing the story of being molested. I hadn’t seen his face since I was 15. Yes, I was shaken. Yes, that night I sat on my bed and stared at the picture for a while. I wrote about what that picture didn’t capture. I wrote about how safe it looked but how safe it wasn’t. I wrote about the sense of loss I’ve often felt when I’ve walked that street as an adult. I wrote about how I learned that no one would protect me, that I had to protect myself. I wrote about playing in those dangerous lots as a child, how I would imagine it was a jungle and I was an explorer in search of lost civilizations. I wrote about the devastation that was normal to us– the candy color topped crack vials that littered the sidewalks and gutters, the rusted car frames stacked onto one another, the filthy mattresses, their foam and springs oozing out of gashes, the abandoned buildings, their insides exposed by collapsed walls, so you could see that they were once beautiful though now the walls were scarred by fire, ornate moldings hung in splintered shards.
Three new memoir stories emerged from those pictures. I received some much needed reassurance from the universe that I am indeed on the right road. I realized that I am healing in ways that I can most clearly identify by my reaction when I am confronted by my past pains. And I now have images to accompany these stories. I am full, and I am grateful.