I took my eight year old with me to a meeting at the Bushwick High School Campus, just around the corner from where I grew up. As we exited the building, she asked if we could go into the library across the street, and thus became our stroll down mommy’s memory lane.
I told her that I used to go to that library when I was a child. “By yourself, mommy?” “Sometimes.” Her eyes widened.
It was in that library that I first learned to bury myself, escape, in the world of books—Judy Blume and the Fudge series. The Sweet Valley High books, with the blonde twins that I so wanted to be like because they made white suburban life seem like paradise. Perfection. So different from what life was like in Apt. 1L of 383 Palmetto Street.
It was in that library that I did my research for that paper on teen pregnancy for my eighth grade social studies class. I thought of that paper when my sister called me at boarding school to tell me she was pregnant. She was 16. I thought of that same paper when the nurse at the clinic in Columbia’s John Jay Hall gave me the results of the test she’d insisted on taking. I’d insisted it wasn’t necessary. I was 18.
I took Vasia down Palmetto Street. Explained that the two family houses that line the block, with their brick facades and wrought iron fences, festive Halloween garb, the mini pumpkins on each step, the black webs stretched carefully over the awnings, none of that was there when I was growing up. That block was mostly lots of rubble, trash, tires, stained mattresses, their stuffing and coils oozing out, and burnt buildings turned crack houses. Where Hope Gardens now lies on Gates and Grove and Linden were also lots and abandoned buildings. It was in one of those lots, cleaned the night before, all the rubble hoisted into a huge pile in one corner of the field, that the traveling carnival sprouted up every summer, leaving a thick fog of cotton candy, turron, grease and cigarette smoke in their wake when they moved on.
Hope Baseball Field was where my first love played baseball. I saw myself cheering him on. Staring down the girls who walked by, with their colorful Reebok classic high tops and chiclet jeans to match. They walked by slow, staring at him and his teammates. I rolled my eyes. I was already reliving the warped cycle of love I’d learned at home. This one was just the first manifestation.
I showed Vasia where we shopped on Knickerbocker Ave. The MiniMax and S&M clothing stores, 80s incarnations of present day Pretty Girl. It was all mom could afford.
We walked by my middle school, IS 383, and I told her the schoolyard didn’t have the red benches lining the gate like it does now. There was no handball court and no oval track like there is now. I laughed when I remembered the fight in 7th grade in front of the schoolyard gate. The fight that changed my life, because it made Mr. Roth notice me, my aggression, my pain. He became my mentor and helped save me by introducing me to the ABC Program. He gave me my escape.
Then I saw the building that brought it all reeling back. I’m the quarterback, pigskin clenched in both hands. I see them coming. The entire line of refrigerator size football players. The memories. I’m tackled full force. Grappled to the ground. They demand: “You must remember!”
In “Writing Autobiography” bell hooks writes:
To me, telling the story of my growing up years was intimately connected with the longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill that self in writing. Once that self was gone—out of my life forever—I could more easily become the me of me. It was clearly the Gloria Jean of my tormented and anguished childhood that I wanted to be rid of, the girl who was always wrong, always punished, always subjected to some humiliation or other, always crying, the girl who was to end up in a mental institution because she could not be anything but crazy, or so they told her…By writing autobiography, it was not just this Gloria I would be rid of, but the past that had a hold on me, that kept me from the present. I wanted not to forget the past but to break its hold. This death in writing was to be liberatory.
It was in 1999 that I first said out loud that I wanted to write a memoir. (It didn’t take long before the “I want” became “I will.”) But I can remember first thinking about it to myself on those long walks from the main school building on 50 Rice Street in Wellesley, MA to my dorm at the top of the hill at 12 Norfolk Terrace.
I started writing about my life in my journals when I was learning solitude in that white, wealthy, suburban New England town. Where I could not fit in no matter what I did. Not with the white students. Not with the black students. Not with anyone. So eventually I stopped trying. Eventually I othered myself. It made the rejection easier to cope with. To swallow.
Isolation is easier to accept when you isolate yourself.
At that point, in my teen years, I already knew I’d had a unique enough life that I had to write about it, though I thought the focus would be “hood girl” meets white America. I was still carrying shame of where I was from, the rubble that was Bushwick, Brooklyn, and being raised by lesbian women. I wasn’t ready to talk, much less write, about that then.
When I was in college the thought crossed my mind more than once, “Who goes to an Ivy League and dates a drug dealer from the Heights?” I did. I wanted so badly for someone to love me. I know that now. (I’ve relived that mother-daughter “love me, please, love me” relationship so many times.)
And, now, on this decade plus long venture that has been this memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, I go back to when I first read those words by bell hooks in college and understand, on a whole different level, why my insides clenched and shattered at once. Because the part of me that wanted to stop suffering, to stop the relentless throb, had to kill it at its roots, where it started, in the Vanessa I was all those years ago, in Bushwick, among the rubble. I was still blaming myself, still thinking about my relationship with my mother in terms of: “What is wrong with me that you can’t love me?” It’s on the journey of motherhood, in the writing, that I shifted the question to: “What’s wrong with you that you can’t love me?” And so now, through the work, I’m redeeming her. Reclaiming her. Rescuing that little girl I was. Standing in the rubble.
In the end I did not feel as though I had killed the Gloria of my childhood. Instead I had rescued her. She was no longer the enemy within, the girl who had to be annihilated for the woman to come into being. In writing about her, I reclaimed that part of myself I had long ago rejected, left uncared for, just as she had often felt alone and uncared for as a child. Remembering was part of a cycle of reunion, a joining of fragments, “the bits and pieces of my heart” that the narrative made whole again. ~bell hooks, “Writing Autobiography”
As I walked through my old neighborhood, pointing out to Vasia where I went to school, remembering where I’d first been kissed, where I’d first had my heart broken, an incredible sadness sunk into me. I’ve been searching for home since I left that hood in the fall of 89.
I’ve heard many iterations of the kumbayah philosophy: the home you’ve been searching for is inside you. I want to believe that, after all, it’s been said that all good storytellers are on a search for home.
Bushwick does not look like it used to. There are now condos and lofts and construction sites all over the neighborhood. Young, white transplants now walk through the streets, enter buildings, apartments, theirs. Artsy, bohemian types with long facial hair and paint stains on their jeans. The rubble and trash strewn lots are gone. There are garbage cans on every corner. And there are penthouses, yes, penthouses, in Bushwick!
But every so often, when you walk around aimlessly, showing your kid where you grew up, when you get off the main avenues, walk away from the development that just went up, you’ll come across a block, or, better said, a piece of a block, that reminds you of home.
It’s a weird sort of nostalgia.
One of the buildings is boarded up. Its front is charred where the flames licked its burn. Garbage is piled out front. A Tito Nieves salsa floats to your heart from an open window, the window bars red from rust, bringing back the scent of Budweiser and Old Spice cologne. The crunch of the latitas underfoot and the slam of dominoes on wooden tables. There’s a clothesline hanging from the third floor down to the first. Three banderas, la Borinqueña, flap in the wind, and you remember love, games of Kick-the-can into the night, tamarindo piraguas, and the beads of sweat that dotted Millie’s upper lip. You remember home.
It’s a weird nostalgia. The neighborhood is cleaner. No crack vials in the gutter. There are playgrounds now. But the electricity of the neighborhood is gone. The rhythm she once had is no longer. Gone like the bread factory that once embraced your barrio with the smell of warm bread and melted butter.
And when the girl in the community center tells you, “I don’t even know how to get to Manhattan,” you remember why you left.