Around the Fourth of July, not long after Grey and I moved to our new neighborhood, he called me over to the open window. “You’re kidding me, right?” He didn’t sound amused.
Out on the crowded sidewalk, little glistening girls shrieked in the fire hydrant’s capped spray. Men, uniformed in white tees, baggy, knee-length shorts, and open-toed pool slides with calf-high socks stood around. The one we had already christened the Leader of Outside flipped burgers on a half-barrel grill. The music, profane rap, was turned up to all.
“What?” I wondered if he thought he’d seen a drug deal go down.
“Can’t they go to the park? Why are they partying on the street?”
I looked again and thought back to home, to Trinidad. We had partied like that. Liming, we called it. And maybe we’d gone to a beach or a river or a waterfall, but I hadn’t seen any nature like that in this part of Brooklyn. I wondered where they were supposed to go.
“Christ,” he said, “they’ve got pit bulls.” And despite the fact that I had not become accustomed to the American way of treating dogs like full-blooded family members, I felt the need to stick up for the families outside, to their right to have a pet, too, a pet he might not find appropriate.
“It’s their dog,” I said, feeling some trepidation as the stocky, unleashed pit bull bounded through the water. “Look how happy he is.”
Grey and I had come to the neighborhood at the moment realtors rebranded part of it “Prospect Heights.” Previously Crown Heights, as yet, only the rental pitch had observed this artificial boundary shift, which was clearly meant to demarcate desirable from deplorable. He and I weren’t gentrifiers or prospectors, though; we didn’t invest in anything before the neighborhood boomed. We were a young, interracial couple looking for more space, affordable rent, and a decent commute.
The neighborhood, largely African American, Hispanic, and one dreadlocked Japanese guy, was wary of us, and Grey and I had profoundly different experiences of the same streets. Alone, I was nodded at, verbally greeted, aggressively courted, somehow always acknowledged. Alone, Grey was ignored or silently stared at: he could be a solo Mormon missionary or, in his preferred dark clothing, a lost Hasid. Observed together, we were a whole different species: a black woman with a white man in what was then still an inner-city neighborhood.
Young and old men either glared at us or shook their heads in sorrow, women did double-takes, small children looked up from their games. None of this is exaggeration. Where, coming from the Caribbean, I felt at home in a black Brooklyn enclave and could even understand their curiosity, Grey, introverted and originally from the South, was wary in return about his place in this community.
Inside our middle-income, rent-stabilized, three-bedroom apartment, we lived in a bubble, doing the everyday things couples did at home. But our every outing became a minefield negotiation. Especially in those early days, we didn’t ever just leave our apartment for a carefree walk up to the Greenmarket or the Botanic Garden. Always in our minds was what kind of exit we would have today, and, tabled for later, the contemplation of our return home. Would we be heckled or spat at? Did we dare hold hands?
A few short blocks in any direction brought us a world away, but not necessarily into a more welcoming orbit. On one visit to the Brooklyn Museum without Grey, I was denied entry. I’d forgotten my wallet, and the vigilant gatekeeper informed me that even though, yes, admission was by donation, I needed to donate at least a dime, and didn’t I have a dime? A nickel? A penny? Another time, a homeowner in bordering Park Slope insisted I had taken the book I held from his stoop sale without paying, until Grey wandered over and vouched that we’d bought it at another stately brownstone’s steps. (That book was The Alchemy of Race and Rights, by Patricia Williams.)