My grandparents are from a small mountain town in the center of Puerto Rico so high up into the mountains that they used to say the only way to get closer to God in heaven was to die. The Spanish colonizers called it Aibonito, (‘Oh how beautiful’) but some say the original name of the town came from a Taino cacique named Jatibonicu. A long way from Puerto Rico they came to the united states, my grandfather to work in a silver factory and my grandmother to clean houses for the rich. With money they saved they bought a brownstone on Penn Street in Williamsburg Brooklyn. My uncle lived upstairs and my cousins and i would play on the stairs between the first and second floor or in the modest backyard or in the front. Then they sold that building and bought one on Manhattan Avenue between Montrose & Meserole.
i remember when my grandparents rented the first floor store at 139 Manhattan Avenue to a free lunch program and me and my cousins would steal pineapple juice in wide-mouthed plastic cups with foil covers that you peeled off to drink and ate white bread sandwiches that had a single slice of meat and a single slice of cheese right out of the cellophane wrappers they were in. Years later the store was converted to a ground floor apartment so my grandparents didn’t need to climb the stairs to the second floor.
Two of my aunts and uncles bought buildings on that same block and i spent my summers in Williamsburg with my cousins but i slept in my grandmothers house. i remember those hot summer nights with a fan that moved hot air around the room “porque no tienen aire” with the window open and the gentlest of breezes barely blowing open the see-thru curtains, as i lay on a 50-50 blend of cool polyester cotton sheets that covered over my grandmother’s plastic slipcovered couch to keep my sweat and my skin from sticking. Laying on an old flat lumpy pillow with a pillowcase that didn’t match the sheets and everything smelled of fabric softener from Grand Street. i remember the amber street light cascading into the window and casting odd shadows from the ornate fake antique lamps and the elephant statue figurines on the coffee table and the shelf my grandmother kept the tv on surrounded by graduation pictures and wedding portraits of her children and grandchildren in large frames.
i remember listening to the sounds of Williamsburg outside that first floor window. The hushed soft tones of gentle late night conversations murmured by junkies excited because they had just copped. Willie’s trombone and Hector’s vocals blaring from a car with the windows rolled down. The silence and the rustle of the blowing curtains. Then the rising wail of a distant fire engine and subsequent fading. Then the ambulance siren that suddenly went silent pulling into the Emergency Room at Woodhull Hospital. Then it was just the silence and knowing the fan was on its way to turn back to you from the sound of the blades against the air. Then a police car came speeding down Manhattan Avenue with no siren and it ran the light at Montrose with lights flashing cutting through shadows in my grandmother’s living room with the sound of the revving engine pushing the quiet aside as they tried to sneak up on a crime in progress, by taking the light at Meserole without slowing down.
Listening to the stillness of the quiet as the circulator on the freezer in the kitchen kicked in and then my attention shifted to a broken wine bottle that comes in a twist cap as two stumbling winos carry each other down the block grumbling in a language only they understand. Followed by another silence that has me adjusting the pillow and the sheet with the plastic on the sofa rubbing up against itself. Then from around the corner on Montrose the brothers come with a boombox blaring out a tape of the WBLS Mr.Magic rap-attack master-mix from earlier in the night. From the opposite end on Meserole the boyfriend whistling for ‘Cookie’ and Cookie’s harsh reply from down the block in front of PS 250 – ‘WHA? I WAS JUST OVER THERE!’. Then more silence that’s punctured by the sitck-up kid who ran past the window in silence but stepped hard on the sidewalk metal gates that opened to the basement.
Then the silence punctuated by the ticking clock on the wall. Then the lovers quarrel on the corner that no one can make out until it gets closer and even though the story is in the middle for me it begins with her crying ‘WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT?’ and him saying ‘CAUSE YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO ACT!’ and he walks away telling her ‘GO BACK TO THE HOUSE!’ as he feigns concern to conceal frustration ‘PLEASE JUST GO HOME! JUST GO BACK TO THE HOUSE!’ and it ends with her sobbing and her girlfriend and her sister comforting her as they pass the window. Then it gets quiet and i can clearly hear my uncle walking across the floor upstairs to get a glass of water from the kitchen followed by rummaging rats under the window knocking over a metal garbage can cover that spins three times on the concrete before it stops. Then it’s cats from Lindsey Projects bragging about runnin’ some niggas shit as they split the profits, unaware that i am lying on the couch in the dark and in order to not be a witness i roll over and pretend to sleep as they argue over who should keep the gold chain. Then the silence builds again and falls away with the distant dialogue of gunshots from Gra-han and the sporadic outburst reply that leaves you wondering when the silence will come. And then it comes suddenly that awkward silence afterwards that always seems to lasts longer than usual while you try and shake the dread of the potential outcome while the lack of a police siren to follow speaks volumes in the silence. i fill in the gaps to all these stories with a movie that plays in my head while the J train screeches over Broadway around that curve in the tracks over by Manhattan Avenue above where you caught the double G.
Williamsburg Brooklyn was a dangerous place in those days. But i felt safe in my grandfather’s house lying on my grandmother’s plastic slipcover protected couch on cool clean sheets with only a brick wall and a window to protect me from the movie that accompanied the Williamsburg Brooklyn summer night score. Watching headlights from cars creep in the window and crawl across the wall and up to the ceiling and down the other wall and then out the window again. Then the alley cat silhouette jumping up on the window sill and walking regally across the window and stretching out before lying down in vigilance. When sleep finally came the movie in my head kept playing to become a dream while the noise of the world outside my grandparents living room first floor window provided the score and i dreamed of Williamsburg Brooklyn because it was not possible to dream anything else.