The Times are Changing

It was a beautiful, sun shining day.  The heavy air was filled with the rotting smell of garbage and decaying dog shit.  Love was not in the air.  It was a New York summer.  The municipality was on strike and the garbage was piling on the street corners, over flowing into the streets.  This was New York.

The days were filled with freezing cold trains, hard nipple offices and butt sweat when one dared to venture outside for lunch.  The nights were blurred together in a string of rooftop parties, outside shows, and sweatbox house parties.  As a child, the sitcom series that made infamous summers, were dreamt about every year in a New York summer.  The potential for adventure and excitement were beckoning around each corner.  You never knew if a day was going to consist of hooky and a day trip to the beach.  The options were limitless.

For a true ‘New York’ feel, you could walk through the brownstone neighborhoods of Bedstuy, Bushwick and Brownsville.  The street would be soaked from an extinguisher the neighborhood kids popped open for a makeshift sprinkler.  The parents would sit on the stoops, sipping on one thing or another.  Talking about the day or reminiscing about the old days.   The old days were the same as the new, but the streets were a bit cleaner, safer, and more expensive.

The old days where every inch, of every brick, was covered in a restro spread.  When the crackheads ruled the corners at night and the police neglected to patrol certain areas.  The old days where children lost their innocence at a very young age.  That was New York to them.  Now, they sat on their stoops, with the very same people who were once the children they lost their innocence with, watching the innocence in their own children.  Happy, and possibly relieved, that a childhood was not lost on them.

The neighborhood was changing though.  A huge influx of East Village migration was taking over.  If they were lucky enough to own their building, they saw their property value soar.  If not, they hoped that the rent control they snagged years ago, would be honored.  For a slip in conscious, or a dirty landlord, led to the new addition of fancy, high rises stealing the beautiful view of Manhattan all around them.

He was apart of this great migration.  Although, he too complained, he was one of the ‘pioneers’ of the migration.  One of the first settlers in ‘do or die bedstuy’.  It is not something to be proud of he realized after years of settling in.  The same frustrations he experienced about the new, young generation taking over, must have been felt by the families that lived there before him.  No, he was no better than them.  If anything, he was worse.  He made it possible for them to venture into the infamous neighborhoods idealized by the rappers that they idolized.

Luckily, he was part of the first wave.  He secured affordable rent.  Made friends with his neighbors and was involved in the community activities.  He felt accepted, his face was known when his name wasn’t.  The brothers he watched grow up at the deli were now late into their high school years.  He at first attempted to encourage them to broaden their horizons, venture out of the ten block radius that they lived in.  Yet, he surrendered and realized that the bodega was to be there future.  And they were content with that.

The rice and beans spot still served him a little extra, knowing he was a bachelor who was a terrible cook.  The story behind that one was funny.  One day, he attempted to make the same, simple dish of yellow rice and black beans.  To his dismay, the yellow rice turned into black rice and the beans were harder than they were when dry.  The delivery man was the witness when he succeeded and called in an order.  The delivery man was witness of a strong burnt smell as soon as he entered the building.  When the door opened, the ventilation in the old apartment was unable to rid itself of the smoke caused by his poor skill set.  The next time he stopped in the two girls behind the counter began laughing hysterically.  In their broken Spanish, they informed that the delivery man had exploited his fail attempt for humor.  Since then, they always gave him a solid plate of food.  At times, they would spoil him with something off the menu, from their own personal meals.

He felt that it was his neighborhood as much as his.  In his free time he would attend community meetings.  Interact and won over the local leaders.  The meetings ranged from cleaning up the streets to hindering the crime that was escalating.  This summer was the topic was focused on the influx of new neighbors to the community.  It was a precarious issue.  The subject of race was brought up frequently, in the rare instance, he was part of the fringe.  Being the only white person at the meetings, he felt the frustrations targeted towards him.  It was internally subjected, the members of the group were long friends, but he couldn’t help but feel he was apart of the problem.  It was an internal struggle, that he no longer knew how to manage.

Was he to leave the neighborhood, fight the gentrification, or take a back seat and let the fight pan out without his involvement.  He confided in his closes friend.  An older black man, who lived next door.  It was at his suggestion that he first became involved in the neighborhood.  The old man, Raymond, had lived in the same brownstone since he was child.  His parents rented the basement apartment.  Raymond was the first to attend college in his family.  He got a decent job when he graduated and eventually saved enough to buyout the owner of the building.  He let his mother stay in the first floor apartment when he bought the house.  The stairs were becoming difficult to manage.  She passed away ten years later, but he never regretted it.  She was able to see her only son graduate college, buy his own home and grow into the man she wanted him to be.  His only regret was that she never met his wife and children.

When she passed away he rented out the separate floors for additional income.  It wasn’t that he necessarily needed it, but the house was too big to be lived by one person.  His tenants varied, he was never too picky about who lived there.  The only requirement was that they share a meal as a building once a week, every Sunday night.  The Sunday night dinners, which are still currently going, are filled with discussion.  The topics vary from week to week and everyone’s opinion is respected.  One night, he brought up the topic of the recent discussions at the neighborhood meetings.

The table consisted of Raymond, his family – a wife and three kids – and Tim.  Tim, realized that the issue was becoming more passionate at the meetings and expressed his feelings of being an outcast.

“I’m not really from the neighborhood, I feel like an invader, that we’ve been discussing.”  He threw air quotation marks when he said the word invader.  It was to express how he felt guilty for being apart of the gentrification.  He played with the mashed potatoes still on his plate, trying not to make eye contact with Raymond.

Delores, Raymond’s wife, was the first to put her thoughts in.  “That is a difficult position you’re put in Tim.  Just so you know, I think you’re a part of the neighborhood.”  Delores was kind at heart.  He always felt that Raymond was fortunate to have her apart of his life.  When he went on dates, he sought the same character in the girls he was attempting a relationship with.  They never fell to the same standard that Delores had established.

Delores was not from New York.  The two had met at university down in Washington DC.  She grew up in the West Coast where she lived in a liberal town.  The way she explains it, it was a town of blue collard working families and hippie white college students.  At first we kept apart from one another, kind of a self-imposed segregation, but eventually we came together.  It was this interaction that, Tim believed, is where she was created.  It was a diffusion of moral character her parents had and the new ideas the hippies brought to the town. Raymond and Delores kept in touch after university, but were not to get together until a decade had passed.  Raymond was focused on establishing a career and was concerned about his widowed mother.  It was by chance that she was offered a job in Manhattan.  The two met for drinks one evening and rekindled a relationship that never flourished.

“Thank you.”  His response was soft, weak even.

“Well, look Tim, I’m not going to work around the subject with you.”  Raymond had thing about being direct with Tim.  In some ways, he spoke to Tim the same way he spoke to his children.  “You shouldn’t get involved in this one.  Now before you start thinking that I don’t consider you apart of this neighborhood.” He was still working on the brisket with his knife and fork in hand.  “Realize, I do.  I love having you as a neighbor.  Over the years, I consider that we have made a great friendship.  But this one, it’s not for you.  Our community is your community.  Everyone at that meeting knows that.  You’ve been here way longer then this became an issue.  You don’t need to worry.  Yet, families are being affected by this.  Families are losing their homes.  These landlords around here, all they see are dollar signs.  I don’t know where you stand in all of this.  I just know what ever you say is going to be picked and picked apart.”

The children sat at the table listening to the conversation.  On occasion they would get involved, but this one they chose to listen. The eldest, Thomas, was about to start school.  Over the years Tim saw him grow into an adult.  He was more responsible at his age than Tim was.  His insight in discussion had been molded over the years by the Sunday night dinners.  The middle daughter, Tiffany, wasn’t far behind him in age or thoughtfulness.  The youngest, David, still in middle school was the only one still prone to speaking before thinking, but no one, except Raymond, blamed him.

“Would you like to know where I stand? I mean, I’m not sure where I stand, but I have a few different perspectives I’m working with.”  Tim felt at ease at this table.  The subject of race, politics and religion, were spoken freely, and at times he forgot how different he was from this family.

Tim grew up in the affluent suburbs of New York.  His parents, both hard working people, sacrificed their time to ensure that he received a quality education, had more than enough to eat, and was spoiled from time to time.  In contrast to his neighborhood he was on the opposite side of the spectrum.  He grew up in privilege and received most things with ease.

“If it will help.” Raymond didn’t mean anything harsh in this.  He was just wary about where Tim would fall in all this.  Tim didn’t really know where Raymond fell on the subject.  During the meetings Raymond, who is usually a leader in discussions, simply listened.

“I think it’s unstoppable.  I don’t think we can really save the neighborhood.  There’s not many options at least.  I feel guilty that I was apart of this.  The very aspects of the neighborhood that lured me here seven years ago, are disappearing.  And I’m partly the cause of it.  I moved into a predominantly black and hispanic neighborhood.  Sure, other white people were here, but we were few and far between.  I didn’t love the neighborhood because it was not white, but the since of community, the community that’s be strafed apart, was the best part of it.  I remember living in other neighborhoods before this one in New York.  It was impersonal.  I didn’t know my neighbors.  Sure, we’d smile and nod in the hallway or on the street, but nothing like here.  I never was invited, or invited, a neighbor over for dinner.  I never had this.”  Tim opened his arms as if he was trying to embrace the Sunday night dinner in a single motion.

“We don’t need to hear any of that.”  Raymond was quick to respond.  Delores gave a curt look across the table.  She was nervous what was going to be said next.  “We know you don’t want the neighborhood destroyed.  Hell.  No one does.” He looked at Delores and forced a weak smile.

“The problem is not about race, as much as everyone would like to make it.  It’s about money.  The prices are soaring in this neighborhood.  If we didn’t own our home, I’m sure we would be up in arms too.  You’re lucky you bought your place Tim early on.  Had you not, your choice would be easier.  I’m sure.”  The kids at the table became fidgety.  They didn’t really understand the magnitude of the conversation.  They realized that the neighborhood was changing.  That things were going to be different from now.  Yet, they didn’t realize that race, was going to play a part in it all.

“She’s right, you know.  It is a money issue.  The families around here don’t have extra pocket money.  Before this new wave came in, most were just scraping by as it was.  Now they’re struggling even more.  All I’m saying is, I think you should sit this one out Tim.”  Raymond rested his fork and knife on his table.  He had lost his appetite when he concluded his thoughts.

“I was afraid that’s what you thought.  I think I will.”  The table went silent.  Everyone played with their food.  Delores decided first to clean up her plate and grab a few of the serving trays off the table.  It was the final action to acknowledge that the dinner was over.

“You’re still going to come to my game on Friday, right?”  David had blurted it out, breaking the uncomfortable silence.  Raymond, Delores and Tim all looked at one another began laughing.  Thomas and Tiffany followed the three in laughter.  “What’s so funny?” David was bewildered by everyone’s laughter.

“Of course, I’ll be going to your game.  Although, you’re going to win this week, right?  I’m tired of showing up watching you lose!”  The mood had transitioned to normal.  David’s team had been on a hot streak winning four games in a row.

“We’ve won our last four! I don’t know what game you’re watching.  It could be the Knicks.”

Everyone help clean up and Tim and Raymond had a drink on the back porch.  Around eleven the two finished their drinks and said they would talk later that week.  The air had cooled down from the absent sun.  The breeze still had a soft touch of warmth and Raymond decided to take a walk around the neighborhood.

His home was next door, but he decided to take a long way home.  He chose the opposite direction and walked towards the train.  He kept his head down for most of the walk, only lifting it to make sure he didn’t walk into on coming traffic.

A pair of couples walked by him.  They were young, sharply dressed and drunk.  They had walked up the stairs telling a long joke hitting the trump line just as they entered the street.  Tim looked at them and gave an empty smile.  The couples didn’t notice his presence.  He turned to watch them walk about to their newly acquired apartments without a care in the world.  He turned left to make a circle.

The bar that opened up to cater to the new crowd was playing music that could be heard over their bustling air conditioner.  Tim strolled in and decided to get a drink.  The bartender, threw down a napkin and asked what he would like.

“I’ll a double of woodford neat, please.”  He thumped his fingers on the wooden bar top, scanning the room.

“Sure, thing.”  The young bartender walked across the room continuing her conversation with two guys at the end of the bar while pouring the drink.  The place was dimly lit, candles created intimacy at the tables spaced around the open room.   The music was low and melodic, it was a nice bar.

“Here you go, let me know if you would like anything else.”  She had a pleasant smile, which he tried to match.  She returned back to her conversation while he took his first sip of the drink.

A new group walked into the bar.  It was yet again, twenty something’s, new to the neighborhood.  The took a few the tables spaced out and brought them together.  A boy and girl came to the bar.  “Can we get five of the five dollar beer and shots?”

“Sure thing, tecante or pbr?”

The girl scrunched her face and looked back at the three sitting down. “Tecante or pbr?”  After getting the tally, “Three Tecantes and two pbr.  Thanks!”  As the bartender went to work the two lingered at the bar.  Tim slid slightly away from them to block their conversation, but it did very little to prevent the sound waves from reaching him.