On Tuesday, I took the #2 train to central Brooklyn to read and to do arts and crafts with some children living in a homeless shelter. I got there early and walked around the neighborhood a bit. What do you know, there were no cafes where someone could drink a latté while typing important things on a laptop or listen to an ipod while periodically checking messages on a Blackberry. Instead, there were liquor stores, bodegas and lots of hair and nail salons. The buildings were extremely run-down, and it seemed like maybe the City doesn’t pick up garbage on a regular basis around there. Some of my former students might have called it “the ‘hood.”
It’s summer so the streets were full of people lounging on steps, listening to radios and fixing cars. There were a lot of kids playing in the street. I did not see another white person until I got to the shelter where I met some of the other volunteers. This is not what white folks like to call a “transitional” neighborhood; It is not waiting to be “discovered” by the hipster hordes. This neighborhood does not have its own section on brownstoner.com. And it never will. Which is just as well, in some ways, considering the discourse of emptiness (like no one was ever on that block before you) and discovery (like the neighborhood was just waiting for you to find it) that informs many of the discussions on hipster/yuppie real estate sites.
I’m sure some people reading this might say, “Oh you’re just some white person going into a black neighborhood and complaining about what a shit hole it is. Some people actually live there and they like it. So fuck off!” I know people actually live there. Residential segregation is a huge deal. Check out what Orlando Patterson has to say about it in The Nation magazine from July 19/26. “The nation is as segregated today as it ever was with hypersegregated and growing metropolitan areas–where blacks are concentrated in vast inner cities. . . . [S]egregation and its attendant separations from white schools, relationships and institutions–results from economic inequality and racism.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Anyway, I got to the shelter. It was a big, multi-story complex, and it was actually better looking than a lot of the other buildings around. Outside, there were some stray kids wandering around sucking on icy soda cans. And one mother was yelling at her kid pretty loudly. “Do NOT sit on the ground! Didn’t I tell you not to sit on the ground?”
The room we were supposed to meet in was small, and it was jammed with 15 or so children between the ages of 7-12, I would guess. It was pretty chaotic. I sat down next to three kids, and we started reading Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic. I’m partial to Where the Sidewalk Ends myself, but it was pretty great to read with them. These kids’ families are currently homeless, of course, so they’re all in a transitional state. But they’re still kids. The three of them–two girls and a boy– were telling me about a day camp they had just attended. They were pretty excited about it. They asked me questions too like how old I am and when my birthday is.
I answered that my birthday is March 11. The boy, Maurice, kind of blinked hard and smiled. “My birthday is March 11th too!” he said. At first I didn’t believe him. “No way,” I said. But he insisted. “I was born on March 11, 1998! What year were you born?” When I told him, he said I am the same age as his mom.
Yeah I know. I’m in my thirties, and I don’t have any kids, which surprised Maurice. “Don’t you want them?” he asked. When adults ask me this, I get pissy about it and am tempted to say “fuck off, wouldja?” But when a kid asks you this question, there’s no weird-o “don’t you feel bad about your eggs?” hidden message. He’s just a kid who really wants to know.
Before the end of the session, we did arts and crafts with the kids in small groups. They were big into drawing walruses for some reason. I guess the volunteer that read with them last week taught them how to draw them, so they kept wanting to show me they could. I doubt they have ever seen a walrus. I know I haven’t.
When I left, I wished Maurice a happy birthday on March 11. I said I would remember that my birthday was his birthday too. He kind of waved goodbye half-heartedly, like I was just another one of those adults who come every week to read with him that he would never see again.