This is the New York I know: wrenching johnny pumps in the summer because who could afford air conditioning? (white people) We felt cool and slicked as our denim shorts and dollar-store t-shirts clung to our skin. We feasted on hot dogs and icy in Sunset Park, and swam from one side of the 16-foot pool to the other. In the pool, the boys were in the business of acquisition with their cat-calls of shorty, sexy, and dame lengue. What am I, a lizard? My tongue isn’t something I’d willingly give. New York was about flashing old bus passes when you cut class and forgot to pick up the new ones, and getting kicked off the bus because this month’s color was blue and you were still rolling with yellow. We hopped and crawled under the turnstiles because who was stupid enough to buy tokens for the subway? (white people) Come nightfall, we’d inch home and settle on the stoop while mothers braided hair, boys sipped on Colt45 out of brown paper bags and everyone was in the business of dealing. Everyone was working their after-school, after-second-job hustle. Back then, everyone had a plan. Back then, you were prosperous if you owned a color TV with a remote control. Because who could afford cable? (white people) Back then, you made friends with their girls whose mothers made the best rice. You hoped you’d be invited for dinner. You hoped you’d have to bring one of the chairs from the living room and plant it on the linoleum floor. Back then, everyone made room. Everyone ate with their elbows on the table.
The city? WHAT???!!! When you lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan was a whole other country. Uncharted territory, you’d need a compass and map to navigate it. We rode the elevated trains into the city and gawked at the people uptown (white people) and found our home downtown. Back then, you didn’t venture below Avenue A unless you rolled right (translation: didn’t roll white), and we trolled Broadway and hit Unique, Antique Boutique and pawed the spray-painted and sequined denim jackets we couldn’t afford. Boys dressed like girls, yellow cabs, hot pretzel carts and shopping bags–what an unreal city! I had not thought death had undone so many, wrote Eliot. The city glinted–someone in the neighborhood once told us that the sidewalks were paved with glass so we winced and closed our eyes so we wouldn’t be blinded by the glare. The city was clean even with the peepshows and pimps in Times Square, before Dinkins, before Giuliani, before the postage stamp of land in the 40s would transform into Disneyland for the peanut-crunching lot. The city was cleaner from where we’d come. Everyone knew whether you were from Brooklyn, the Bronx or Queens (I can’t tell you how we knew, we just did. I do remember someone asking me if I was Puerto Rican from Brooklyn because I wore red lipstick, but right now it’s been too long to remember how we knew), and we’d observe the hierarchy as our tribes wove the streets amidst the “city kids” — a mixture of LES Puerto Ricans and the rich kids who wanted to pass, who scored for tricks, and tried to roll with the poor kids for fun.
Quite frankly, the city was exhausting, and we were glad to come home although we’d never admit it.
When someone moved, we talked about it for months because no one was supposed to leave. Your whole world was reduced to a mile surrounding the block in which you lived. You had your church for those who wanted so desperately to believe; you had your Carvel, Gino’s Pizza and the Italian bakeries on 13th Avenue and in Bensonhurst; you had the boardwalk in Coney Island and the hot sun in Brighton Beach (although, if given the choice, we’d always choose Coney Island and Nathan’s Famous–a treat!); you had your C-Town supermarkets, your bodegas. You had your cemeteries, funeral parlors, parks, and drug dealers–and know that I’ve included all of these places, in this order, deliberately. Because back then what more did you need? (white people’s flights of fancy)
What I loved about growing up in New York was the smallness of it. Contrary to what the tourists and the people who’ve lived here for ten years (Who made up that rule that if you lived here for ten years you were automatically a New Yorker? Someone who didn’t grow up in New York, obviously) would have it, your whole world was in your neighborhood, and unless work or school took you somewhere else, the notion of leaving was unimaginable. I lived in Brooklyn for the first twelve years of my life and I never once set foot in Williamsburg. You had your tribe, and although I moved a great deal and attended a fancy college, everyone I knew until the age of 19 mostly hailed from New York.
Back then, no one thought of New York as a cupcake, an oft-quoted episode of Sex and the City, home to SoulCycle and drunks who brunch. Back then, no one personified New York (Oh, New York. You’re killing me!–Are you fucking kidding me with this syrupy stuff from romance novels?)–New York was the place in which we lived. We described it based on the people we knew and the places we loved, but not as a real person to whom we would speak or invite to shoulder our sorrow and grief. We were snobby, true, but not about those things. Mostly we complained about the subways, and the anger we felt when we discovered the places we loved shuttered, replaced by new places. Glinting places. Expensive places.
What I’ve grown to hate about New York is the largeness of it. What I’ve grown to hate about New York is memory. Things have moved around like pieces on a chessboard, and I’ll find myself in neighborhoods feeling lost. This used to be here. That used to be there. I suppose everyone who has come before me feels that too, although these mounting losses feel palpable. Everyone’s moved away and meeting someone who has grown up in New York is now a novelty when it used to be the norm. The rampant materialism, which I’m sure existed when I was small but wasn’t as exposed to it, is subsuming. Everything’s loud, everyone’s busy and the subway ride back to Brooklyn feels less comforting than it used to.
Maybe this is what happens when you grow older. You start complaining about everything. I acknowledge that.
Or maybe I’m just tired of living here. But this is home. This is all I’ve ever known. I went to college and graduate school here. I know most neighborhoods. I can make my way. I don’t have to drive. And although this place feels less familiar, it’s more familiar than any other place, I suppose. But do I stay because of the familiar? Do I leave because of the unheimlich? I find myself wondering why I work so hard each quarter to save up enough money to flee the country. I wonder about lots of things.
My return from Thailand this week was difficult. Returning from the glaring sun to the unwelcomed dark was almost too much to bear. I’ve only just recovered from jetlag, but I miss the the space in Thailand (ironic when there’s 12 million people in Bangkok compared to New York’s 8), the warmth, the quiet I was able to cultivate. And while you say, can’t you cultivate that same sort of quiet here, much like these pancakes you’ve recreated from your Thai holiday, I’ll say that I’ve tried and tried and the constant trying is what exhausts me.
I don’t know what this all means, which is to say that I don’t know if I’ll move away anytime soon or if I’ll be able to find my quiet and light in a place that feels like strange, unfamiliar, with the passing of each day. I miss my tribe. I miss how my home used to make me feel.
For now, I’ll have my coconut pancakes and warm home and keep writing my way out, to what’s next.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Foodie Fiasco
1/4 cup + 1 tbsp coconut flour
1 1/2 tbsp coconut sugar
1 tbsp coconut manna (purified coconut)
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
3 large eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup almond milk
1/4 cup coconut milk (I use Thai Kitchen’s Coconut Milk)–make sure you stir the milk (as the ingredients will separate in the can) before you add to the batter)
pinch of salt
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, sugar, manna, baking powder/salt until completely combined. Coconut palm sugar tends to be gritty and the manna has a thick consistency, so you want to completely pulverize them. Add the beaten eggs, vanilla extract, almond and coconut milks and beat for a good minute on medium. To activate the coconut flour, you need to beat the mixture for longer than you think (don’t worry, you’re not rolling with gluten, so you won’t get hardened discs for pancakes). The mixture should be incredibly thick.
In a large greased pan (I melted some coconut oil), add a 1/4 cup mixture (to make large-ish silver dollar pancakes), making sure you have an inch between the cakes. Cook on one side for a minute or until the top starts to bubble a bit and the edges crisp and flip (gently!) to cook on the other side.
Serve with maple syrup, fruit and nuts!