Sep 19, 2007

Tale of a Tree-lined Block

I told my 3 year old that the neighbors probably think it's Halloween, even though it's still just the middle of September. "Silly neighbors," I said. She shook her head and put her palms face up in an exaggerated gesture of surprise. It's not Halloween. But how else do I explain the candles and roses and empty bottles of liquor decorating every step of the stoop across the way?

My 7 year old seems content with our vague responses to her questions--I heard her explain to her friend Clem yesterday--"well some man went into that house and we're not really sure what happened but Mommy heard loud noises but Laura and Isadore and I were making loud noises upstairs so I think that's what she heard, right Mommy?' Right sweetheart.

My 8 year old son is the one who knows. He was the only one who wasn't home when it happened, came walking down the street a few hours later--carrying a plastic fairway bag with his pajamas and toothbrush in it, and hugging the blue shoebox that held his baseball card collection to his chest. He'd slept over at a friend's house the night before and so his return to home was more of a tour of the reality of what had gone down than anything those of us who'd been trapped inside had experienced. Slanted police cruisers blocked both entrances to the block (even though we're a one way street), police helicopters buzzed just overhead--searching backyards and other blocks, yellow and black crime scene tape roped off a square, like a boxing ring, kind of, that included the house where the shooting occurred and the houses on either side of it, as well as OUR HOUSE and the houses on either side of us, because we're right across the street. I'd tried to get a hold of the mom whose house he'd stayed in, to warn her about the situation on our block, but she didn't have her cell phone with her. She knocked on the door and came in, announced that she'd left him on the corner with a policeman while she checked to see if I was here to receive him. Once she found me here she left to fetch him. I watched from the top of the stoop as she escorted him back down the block to me--as the crime scene tape was lifted so he could duck under it, clutching the shoebox of baseball cards. My son returned to his house, to me, smiling awkwardly at the attention he was receiving, walking bravely.

This block has almost always seemed so ideal for young children, if a city block could ever be ideal. The postman really walks by and delivers the mail, our lemonade stands do well, people hang out on their stoops and look after each other, dragging garbage cans in for neighbors, sweeping leaves off each other's sidewalks. It's a vibe I didn't get on my dead-end street in Ohio, even though it was a very friendly town and we all had magical grassy lawns. This place felt like Sesame Street to me. I don't remember crime scene tape on Sesame Street.

It was Thursday, and the public schools were closed for Rosh Hoshanna. My daughter had had two friends spend the night the night before, a belated granting of her only birthday wish. And in the morning we walked Piper to (her Catholic-affiliated non-Rosh-Hoshanna-observing) preschool. We had a great eggy breakfast at a diner and then made our way home here slowly, laughingly, up the sidewalk. The girls had learned some funny hand-gesture-style game at school the day before and were doing it, almost conga style, as they walked. Hello, hello, hellohellohello! they giggled and then twirled and pointed and found a 'new partner' and found a new way to face, wiggle, and continue. I was taking pictures, it was so cute. Such a magical morning. At 11:15 we piled in the car to pick Piper up from school, since we were also in charge of Piper's friend Fifi. At 11:30 I was herding the 5 of them to the van, and then heading home.

Our departure from the van was typical--I tossed the keys to Etta, told them to get out of the car on the sidewalk side, and then stayed behind grabbing up lunchboxes and stuff. We were a slow parade in--there was probably a moment where I was leaving the car, the two three year olds were swinging on the front gate, and the three 7 year olds were dribbling up the steps. Once in, I had everyone take their shoes off and wash their hands. The two little girls aimed for the tv-which had been promised to them. They were in the phase-in period for school and an hour had just been added to their day--this being their first week of school and all. Fifi's mom and I agreed that some tv downtime would be perfect for them, as they'd been together after school the day before and had been tired and cranky with each other. They sat in the front of the living room (little heads visible from the street through the big front windows--curtains open--only flimsy cat-screens between them and the street out front) and watched The Backyardigans. The three 7 year olds tromped upstairs to introduce their tamagotchis to each other or to play with the karaoke machine or something...I headed for the computer.

As I typed an email to a friend I heard two loud cracks. Those loud cracks always sound like guns I thought as I typed but I didn't even look up. I'm not easily spooked and have often felt safer living in a city than I ever did in a tiny town where a dark forest filled the windows at night. Piper appeared next to me a second later and said she needed a bandaid; she held up her mosquito-bite-riddled arm and showed me the one she'd scratched open. I scooted my chair back and stood up to get a paper towel to staunch the bleeding (amazing how those scratched-off mosquito bites bleed!)--as I reached for a paper towel I heard it again--crack crack crack. This time a feeling of dread swept over me and I stepped back to look out the front of the house--all I could see was the stoop across the street--directly across the street from me. A black man in a blue tee shirt and jeans was lumbering quickly up the steps holding a gun out with his right hand, shooting crack crack crack. It was electric--sharp, urgent, desperate, sloppy. Like the moment in a movie theater when the film turns brown, crackles and burns, and melts before your eyes, and everyone in the theater is kind of jolted out of their suspended belief and back into reality. A minute ago we were swept away by a story, and now we're just a bunch of strangers sitting in the dark together. My heart-raced.

"Fifi go to the kitchen sweetheart, right now, Fifi right now, go over to Piper in the kitchen" I said, gliding past her to lock the front door.

"But I want to watch Backyardigans" she murmured looking over her shoulder at the tv as she obeyed me anyway.

"Girls!" I called upstairs--in a sing-sing voice that was sharp, but not alarmed (kind of like if there was a big colorful bug I wanted them to come see, quick, before it crawled away)--"Girls come down here right now, right away girls, Right now I need you to come down!"

Someone leaned a head over the banister, I was already in the back with the little ones holding a paper towel on Piper's bloody arm.

"But we.." someone began to protest.

"No girls, I need you down here right now, all of you right now. Just come."

They galumphed giddily down the stairs and came into the bathroom on the back of the house.

"What Mommy" Etta said--

"Umm Piper's arm is bleeding, can you help her get a bandaid?" I said, not having thought this far ahead, but still needing Piper's bloody arm to be tended to.

"But why did we..." she asked as she headed to the purple cabinet that holds the bandaids. Her friends leaned in to check out Piper's arm.

"There were loud noises sweetheart, I just need you to help with the bandaids." I shut the door to the bathroom and dialled 911. Dead silence, static, clicking. My home phone had been losing its dial tone every now and then. After a minute I realized this was the case so I called it from my cell phone.

"911 what's your emergency?"

"A man's shooting a gun on the street" I said.

"You heard it?"

" I saw it, right now, he's there with a gun, shooting into the house across the street" I said.

"Maam we'll get a car over there right now, what's the address?" She asked. I didn't know. I gave her my address, my name and phone number even though those last two bits were optional. She asked if it was #22--"I don't know" I said. She asked if the man was still in the house. "I don't know" I said. I got off the phone and put on a pot of water to boil, as if some lady on Little House on the Prairie had just gone into labor.

Within minutes the nose of a police cruiser nudged into view. The seven year olds disappeared back upstairs, never questioning the urgency of that stupid bandaid and why it required all three of them plus Fifi to help put it on. By then I was able to take little steps to the front of the house. I could see some neighbors milling about, almost everyone on phones. I thought back to the other shooting I witnessed here, from this house, nine years earlier. I was pregnant with my first, and I had some neighbor kids over for a kind of dance party--they were 3 and 4 and enjoyed coming over to paint and stuff and it suited my maternal nesting urgings just fine. A man ran up the street firing a gun crack crack crack and we all ducked, I called 911 and the lady said "wow your block is really involved-you're like the 30th call we've gotten about this in the last few minutes." Good block. Nice block. No one had been injured in that last one, it didn't make the news, and that's kind of what I assumed this time around too.

The most noteworthy part of the next hour or so is that I was alone in the house with 5 little girls--60% of whom weren't my own. They needed to eat lunch (ramen noodles that I kept messing up--if that's possible--served with ketchup, and cranberry juice that my daughter called 'cherry whatever you call it' which cracked us all up). They needed to watch television (Dora, Diego). They needed to play dress-up. They needed me to get the dominoes. What I needed was grown-ups to talk to, and a home phone that was working (my cell phone was perilously close to our minutes-limit for the month and the penalty for going over is enormous). So I made a huge pot of tea and kept looking out the window, hoping to catch the eye of someone who'd think to come tell me what was going on.

I watched the police knock on the door across the way, I watched them run sideways up the stoop with guns drawn, I watched one neighbor in a tan shirt being led down the block in handcuffs, saw another woman crying. Eventually the handcuffed guy was released (silly policemen, the shooter was wearing blue), more neighbors were crying. An ambulance pulled up quietly and EMTs went in. I called my husband to share the story with him and he offered to leave work. I told him there was no need to come home, that it would probably blow over by the time he could get here anyway. When I was on the phone with him I heard more shots down the block, and watched the police race away. It was a dramatic street-emptying, like someone had tilted our block that way and all the blue and white marbles just rolled off. Detectives still milled about, Police helicopters hovered. The EMTs brought a man out on a stretcher, a few yards away from where Piper and Fifi watched Blues Clues. I pulled the curtains closed.

"That's silly so many people outside," Piper said, peeking out the window--she and Fifi liked to hide behind the long curtains so drawing them closed really only served to attract the girls to the windows. "I gonna go tell those people what they doing out here," she said, walking purposefully to the front door and flinging it open. I nudged her back into the house, blaming all the mosquitos. "Too buggy out there, Piper. Let's just stay inside."

And stay inside we did. I was in email touch with a friend who owns a store down the block and she was able to fill me in on what she was hearing. Another friend had been in that store, saw all the commotion, and called to see if I was okay. Eventually I learned from people who weren't on the block that the guy on the stretcher had died. I was shocked, because, of course, my only other experience with a shooting on the block had been just that, shooting. And once a year my friend's neighbors on Clermont shoot guns into the air at midnight on New Year's Eve. Somewhere in all of that victimless shooting, I'd kind of lost the connection between bullets and dying. Shooting just came to mean shooting to me.

My son came home from his sleepover (the little limbo with the crime scene tape), and then another friend offered to stop by, with her three children. I was eager for the grown-up company so I encouraged her to come. Now we had nine children in the house, and 66% weren't mine, and when Fifi's mom and brother came to pick her up there were ten kids in the house, and 70% weren't mine--but the adult to kid ratio had improved dramatically, so I was feeling fine. Plus the block felt ultra-safe now, swarming as it was with police and anchormen, and undercover cops wearing Mets jerseys-which was fun for my son to see.

Eventually the kids fell apart--too much togetherness, too much being inside, too hard to continue to negotiate. The moms who were here drank up their tea and shuffled off with most of the extra children, leaving me over-caffeinated and in a house where only 25% of the kids weren’t mine. Isadore’s grandma was in the hospital being tended to by her mom, and wasn’t going to be returned until ten that night.

A friend called me from a nail salon to report she'd just recognized my minivan on the news. Our tenant called from work to see if I was okay. And googling 'shooting in Fort Greene' started to yield more than the film-related events whose version of shooting (the Hollywood kind) has come to be more common in these newly gentrified but still Pratt-influenced artsy parts. The articles that were popping up described our block as being 'tree-lined' which sent pride surging through my body. Ten years ago this block would not have been considered 'tree-lined'--you had to live in Park Slope or the Cosby's Brooklyn Heights to earn that pastoral description. Fifteen years ago you would not have walked down this block unless you had to (or so I've been told). We're tree-lined now, woo-hoo. It's official. It took a murder to make me realize that we’ve finally arrived.

By the time I headed outside to drive Isadore home, the stoop across the way blazed with candlelight in memorial of the victim. The news people had left, but the cops were still in their car, which was facing the wrong way on the street, which continued to be eternally amusing to my 3 year old. A parent emailed concern about the event on the neighborhood list-serve. I looked at the email's first sentence 'does anyone know anything about the shooting?' and didn't even consider responding. I respond to things like 'help! can anyone recommend a roofer?' and 'we're expecting a son in a month and would love to hear thoughts about circumcising.' all the time. But this one didn't interest me at all.

Sep 12, 2007

September Born

There were so many wonderful things about having a baby in September. Amos and the new television season came kicking in at roughly the same time, and so there was ample opportunity for me to laze around in bed nursing and napping and getting hooked on all the new shows (Will and Grace, Sex and the City). Fall is a great time for beginnings, that crisp snap in the air, cooler air whipping everyone into better moods, no more mosquitoes. The shift in local characters as fresh art students hit our part of Brooklyn, bound for Pratt. The desire to hunker down and snuggle, or to wear a baby close in a sling, fully supported by those chillier months. There was all that wintry bonding, and then he was crawling on Mother's Day, taking his first steps on the sand in the summer. Very cute, all very wonderful. No complaints.

Even those first few years of birthday parties were perfect. We could count on lovely outdoor celebrations with apples and rustling leaves--a final outdoor bash before we'd all be retreating into indoor heated spaces. There seemed no better time to have a baby, to celebrate a birthday. Until he hit school and September proved to be a real puzzle.

Hmmm. Even a really early September birthday would be less crowded with complications. But a birthday firmly rooted at the end of the month means several things. A guest list comprised of LAST YEARs friends--some of whom, three weeks into the next year, might have already begun to drop off the radar (sometime after the invitations were sent out). There's the promise of all those new friendships, but of course the dust hasn't settled enough by the third week of school (or the second, when the invitations really should have been mailed), to know which friendships to invest in.

In his kindergarten year, Amos began a new school and, crippled by shyness, wanted me to make sure that in his classroom on his actual birthday--though I'd have sent in cookies or cupcakes or something lowkey--nobody would sing the birthday song to him. His was the first birthday of the year and he didn't want to do be the kid who did it first, didn't want to do it at all, really. Didn't want the attention. Didn't want any attention. I was the one who insisted on sending in some kind of treat (peanut butter and chocolate buckeyes, a delicious risk in this day and age of nut allergies, even though I was assured there weren't any in the room that year). And, determined that his birthday could be a chance to reach out to some people in this new school community, I asked him every day at pick-up if he'd met anyone he'd like to invite to his party. Lee was who he talked about after the first week, so we sought out his address, and added him to the list. Seb started to be mentioned at the beginning of week two, and Joey was added right at the last minute. All three families came. Well, really Seb and Joey's families came and were lovely additions to the festivities. Lee was dropped off (at a 5 year old's birthday party, which seemed kind of drastic since we'd never met his parents) and was a whirligig kind of nightmare--cheating in games, stealing from goody-bags. Gentle almost comical 'bad seed' stuff, but still, a nuisance and one, it turns out, we never really should have had to endure. Five years later Amos and Lee have a nodding relationship, but nothing more. In so many ways it feels weird that we'd thought Lee was Amos's first big new buddy at his new school. That's what you get for having to figure it all out when you're 3/185ths of the way into the school year.

The following year, in first grade, we repeated the process, asking Amos to make the same sort of strange determination at the start of the year. Anyone new you'd like to invite? We'd ask, hovering at pick-up to get a gander at the new faces in the room behind him (or more importantly, of the parents of those new faces--why not nudge him to befriend someone with a mom I think I'd like, right?). Aldo, his top pick, couldn't come on account of Rosh Hoshanna (the existence of which has come to make Amos curse the timing of this birthday, since that same holiday trumps his birthday every year), Cane came and was cute and then swiftly faded into the background for the rest of the year and then moved to Pakistan before the summer. We didn't kept in touch. By that spring though Amos had bonded with Ned, Luka, and Ashland and went to all of their parties. And by then it was weird that they hadn't been to his.

Then there was second grade. Amos was assigned to a table with a group of boys--two of whom he already knew and planned to invite to his party. One of whom was brand new to the school. I suggested to Amos that he invite Giannini, and he said no. He had no interest in this new kid. I let the subject drop, for a bit. Until one day in the car on the way home Amos said that the two other boys had mentioned the birthday party and Giannini turned to him and asked straight out 'am I invited?' When he told me this in the car, he beamed, proud of his truthful but still non-answering answer--"well, we haven't exactly sent the invitations out." But then I made Amos invite him. It just seemed so cruel not to. He railed against this, but I insisted. I taught him about karma-told him that this was just 'the right thing to do,' and that if he did this good deed, the universe would send something in return. He grudgingly agreed, adding that I'd better be right about the karma thing.

Giannini arrived--another unexpected drop-off kid. Turns out his family had as much interest in bonding with us as Amos did in bonding with their son. He was such a nuisance. He ate every single petite-quiche--the spinach and cheese ones, that is--his being a vegetarian and all, and then hounded me to heat up more (hanging out in the kitchen heating petite-quiches had not been my party plan--144 quiches should have been sufficiently ignored by the hordes of children, leaving plenty for the adults--I never intended to have to break out the other box). He kind of niggled his way around the edges of the party, mostly just annoying grownups. And then his parents got lost on their way to pick him up (new to the nabe and all) and we had to entertain him for an extra 90 minutes once the last cherished party guest had left. A week later he was pulled out of school to be homeschooled--his mother deeming our colorful little progressive place unable to meet his high academic needs. (I have to point out here that, after months of whining when remembering about Giannini and the karma that never happened...Amos finally spent the $10 comic-book-shop gift certificate Giannini had given him on a pack of Yu-gi-oh cards that ended up containing a much-sought-after rare-ish card--score one for Mommy and the karma...even if it did come a little late). But every birthday since, when I'm making my gentle suggestions about how to spice up his last year friends with a few from the new class he gives me a certain look and mouths the word 'Giannini' and I back down.

As if the trauma of the early in the year party isn't enough, the rest of the school year then shakes things up even more. He ends up being invited to a slew of birthday parties hosted by other kids who've moved into his life at some point that year. While I'm sure no one's measuring this stuff, it does seem perverse by the end of the school year to see which of Amos's best friends he hadn't invited to his too-early-to-tell September party. To think that last year's Mets game hadn't included Chandler and Roy is strange, given the intense baseball bond that grew between them by springtime, when they were having birthday parties that would never have NOT included their new pal.

This may not be high-stakes stuff, but it is bizarre-o land timing in a terrain that, even in the best of circumstances, can be really awkward. Who's invited, who isn't. Last September six-year old Etta was given a last minute invitation to an old pal's party--talk about tense. Understandably, Norene had NOT BEEN INTERESTED in inviting Etta to her early-September party, when she and her mom made the guest list in the summer. Great. No problem. Big deal. But then Norene verbally invited her (tell your mom to call my mom so you can come) the day before her party, when they reconnected at recess in the first week of school. It was a clear last minute addition, that no one seemed to mind, once the two moms got over the awkwardness of the 'my daughter claims to be invited to your daughter's party that we've otherwise heard nothing about, is that true?'/'my daughter didn't want to invite your daughter when we made the list, but must have changed her mind yesterday' conversation. But the whole thing could have been avoided had Norene been born a month earlier. Parenting is like high school all over again, but the conversations have to be had, not ignored...since the social lives of helpless little powerless hostage-like children are at stake.

So now it's Etta's no-strings summer birthday that seems really wonderful (and makes the morning sickness at Christmas and the ready-to-pop-in-the-hundred-degree-playground pregnancy worth it). Any kind of party can happen, any kind of grouping, any amount of including, any crass's all fair game. Time isn't measured in 5-day non-party days and two party-possible afternoons, like it is in the school year. It's just a big blob of time that no one else has to know anything about. Even my toddler's otherwise formidable (born in a negative windchill week) winter birthday falls nicely within the school year's bookends. It can just be about who she's friends with now, and doesn't have to reach too far into the past, or make ridiculous predictions about the future. And it lacks the pressure of the 'should we have it outside?' question.

But it's September now, and the party's planning is well underway. I have an idea of what the invitation will look like, and my husband's working out some activities. We know where we'll be and what we'll be doing, we just don't know who will be invited, even at this point, 16 days away. He's lucky to have friends, we're lucky to be able to create these lovely little celebrations for him to share with them. And everything's fine. But September birthday's still can make me feel this way.

Sep 6, 2007

Empty Next

Probably, nothing will change.

A year from now I might look the same as I do now, I might be forced to wear the same soft clothes, my brain might be wired the same way as it is today.

But maybe, jusssssssst maybe, I'll have completely transformed.

Maybe people will ask me what my 'aha' moment was and I'll look back on the time the regular sized towel the masseusse laid out for me (on my first real massage in over a year) didn't quite cover my whole body. Or the time the pants bought in haste at a Wal-mart (yes, a Wal-mart) that were meant to be a bit on the big side (so I didn't even try them
on--too big? who cares!) turned out to not even be able to creep up past my thighs.

All year I've been doing the countdown. This is my last October 18th home with my last November 11th, March 31st, you get the point. In a matter of weeks (don't even get me started on the two weeks of phasing in: two hours today, two tomorrow, two hours and oop! fifteen minutes today, three hours tomorrow...)I'll be an empty nester. And not a pregnant one like the last time. A true, omigod, what am I going to do with myself empty nester.

Amos will be in 4th grade, Etta in second--both in the bigtime (and maybe even on the schoolbus to boot), and Piper, dear Piper, will be in a special long day--5 hours a day/five days a week--reserved for older threes at our local little preschool--the handful of January and February children who missed the cutoff by mere weeks, and who have to wait until the next year to join the masses in real school.

Like the Monday morning diet, the preparation for which involves all sorts of binge-eating on Saturday and Sunday, I have been completely indulgent in all ways but the healthy ones all summer long--hell, all YEAR long. Why start an exercise program now, when I'm home with the little one? Why start trying to eat healthy with all these carb-swilling kids swirling about? Why even get any momentum going? Why not just eat another brownie from the bakery on the corner and muse about how toned I'll be a year from now? When everything just snaps into place.

When I might find out I have reserves of energy I never knew I had.

When I might find out I'm really good at long-distance running?

When I might discover how good it feels to NOT have a heavy full feeling in my tummy after every meal?

When I might discover that days are lovely and endless when NOT measured out in television increments of hours and half hours.

When I might unleash the joys of routinely walking over the Brooklyn Bridge to a yoga class five miles away, or maybe I'll be the lady who bikes everywhere! They'll interview me on NPR. "When did you make the commitment to begin biking all over Brooklyn and Manhattan?" "When did you discover you really liked biking?" "When did the seat stop hurting?"

When I might build a little art studio in a corner of the kitchen and churn out amazing artwork?

So much might happen!

Maybe, just maybe, Regis and Kelly won't have any interesting people on their show; Whoopi Goldberg might suck on the View and my interest in the Hot Topics portion will disappear. Maybe I won't peek in at Days of our Lives just for a minute one afternoon and recognize enough of the characters or their names at least, to get hooked on it all over again. Maybe Oprah will bum me out because all I'll do when I look at her is remind myself that 'she' has a personal trainer AND a personal chef and wouldn't we all be fit and healthy if we had those things.

Maybe I'll do all of the grocery shopping and odds-and-ends-errands and our weekends will be totally free...

Maybe I'll discover how satisfying it is to have a really clean kitchen sink, to fold laundry and lay it lovingly in my children's roll back all the rugs and mop, to throw away piles of mildly interesting completely unfile-away-able things.

Maybe I'll read all those novels I ordered on Amazon just to tack on enough money to qualify for super saver shipping!

Or maybe I'll turn back into who I was before any of this domestic/kid stuff happened...

The fun thing is no one knows.

No one can tell me I won't drop four sizes in clothing, and get a jazzy new haircut to show off my newly uncovered cheekbones. If such a thing *could* be, then surely it would be?

Of course I might have to celebrate my first few days of empty-nest-hood by actually lolling lazily about the empty-nest. We
wouldn't want me to NOT come face to face with its true emptiness, would we? Probably I should be forced to wander from room to room, talking on the phone about my feelings, thumbing through magazines, trying out different beds like Goldilocks. Just to get a sense of it all. Like viewing the body at the funeral--we wouldn't want me to be in denial, out there in a downward-facing dog in Chelsea--would we?

And then it might be silly to get all ambitious before the holidays.

I've always heard it's easier to lose the first twenty or thirty pounds than the last five. Why not give myself a few more of those delicious gravy-smothered easy-to-lose pounds?

Why not see what little murmurs happen in my head in the emptiness of my house, on those soft pillows, near those
glossy magazines. Maybe there's a little bit of genius there I wouldn't get to hear if I'm out biking all over the borough.

Maybe I should just take it easy a bit longer.

I wouldn't want to set the bar too high, come out of the starting gates too fast.

Come to think of it, January might be a better time to start.