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.)
And once, after I’d seen Martha Stewart magically wield a spatula I just had to have, we took a longer walk, to a cozy Brooklyn Heights cooking store. We browsed unnecessary kitchen tools, sometimes adjacent to each other, sometimes out of each other’s sight.
After a third watchful employee offered me terse, unsmiling assistance, I was done. “Can we go?” I said to Grey, upset because I’d really wanted to smooth a cake like Martha.
Outside, Grey sensed my annoyance and pointed out that I was the one who’d wanted to leave the shop.
“Didn’t you see that?” I asked him.
“How many people asked if you needed help?”
He was puzzled. “No one asked me if I needed help.”
“And how many asked me?”
“Three,” I said. “One after the other. And don’t tell me they were doing their job. No one asks a guy in a kitchen shop if he needs help, and three workers ask me? Come on.”
“You think?” he said, coming around to my point.
“Yeah. I think.”
We kept a grievance tally, measuring who received more guff. I complained about being policed in institutions meant to serve the public. His exclusions, I felt, were benign. He was a white man with a black girlfriend who had exercised an economic decision to live in a predominantly black area. People were gonna stare. What else could he say? Caribbean restaurants underestimated his palate and made his roti mild when he’d specifically asked for spicy?
Back and forth we went, who was more wronged, until the assault. One day, coming home from work, Grey walked past a group of teenage boys making sport by dumping water on random strangers. He — never one to back down — confronted them, and the whole scene devolved into a shouting match. A man, older than the marauding teens, who perhaps thought Grey should have taken his wetting more graciously, broke through the crowd, swung a metal pot into his elbow, and disappeared. Grey thought his arm was broken. The teens dispersed. He was soaked, injured, and angry, but no one came to his aid.
I had been in Poughkeepsie, but two days later, my gut seized when I saw the purple bruises on Grey’s arm. Outraged, we talked about moving but knew we had nowhere to go. Strangely enough, this resilience, or resignation, seemed to garner a measure of respect from the Leader of Outside. Grey told me that he’d been there during the assault. Unlike the assailant and the others who had thronged, he had stood apart from the fray. After, he still didn’t say hello, but for a while he gave Grey meaningful nods, as if he’d somehow earned his stripes by being assaulted on the street.
The acknowledgment meant nothing to Grey, who did not nod back. “You know what would have been nice?” he said, when I told him the gesture was something. “If he’d stepped in when I was being attacked.”
The assault marked a dual turning point: our tallying who was more aggrieved was pointless, and if we were more united, unmistakable change had permeated the neighborhood. There were additional newcomers for the tough teens to make sport of. Prospect Heights had finally pulled even with the realtors’ imagination. Grey and I became less of a curiosity, and then the new normal, and finally, we were outnumbered by hipsters and the real gentrifying horde, who bought up all the houses and factory buildings and brought in their seven-dollar lattes and Sriracha tacos and artisanal ice cream ironically named after crack. Old outside, which had been the entire neighborhood, was slowly squeezed into the two apartment buildings on the corner of Grand and St. Marks.
But for our longevity, we could finally claim anonymity, walk holding hands, be pregnant together. After our daughter was born, we proudly carried her through the changed neighborhood. We walked past the Leader of Outside, still and forever working his corner. “What,” he said as we passed, “y’all ain’t gone even let me see the baby?”
It had been almost a decade, and that was the first either of us recalled hearing his voice. Grey turned so he could see our sleeping child.
“Boy or girl?”
“A girl,” I said, “Helen.”
He spoke to Grey. “Congratulations, man.” And then the Leader of Outside reached into his striped polo pocket, pulled out a slim cigar (which I immediately knew had been destined to become a blunt), and passed it to Grey.
One night, not long before Grey and I finally left Brooklyn for Orlando, we rounded the corner from the newest Thai restaurant to see a massive, mostly African-American crowd, dressed in white. The mood was festive, but not raucous. I asked a woman leaning against a car what was going on. She pointed to a street memorial, the requisite bodega candles, small teddy bears clutching red hearts, and poster boards with scrawled messages and Xeroxed pictures. Her voice was both scratchy and husky. “Chucky died, baby. You know who that is?”
For years, we’d called him the Leader of Outside, and his name was Charles.
By then, it wasn’t a stretch to consider our part of Crown Heights Prospect Heights; the unofficial line had moved much farther east, and Crown Heights had its own bagel bars and raw-milk cheese shops and speakeasies staffed by mustachioed bartenders. Every empty lot was now an amenity-filled, multistoried condo or an active construction site. Hipsters walked pit bulls. The Brooklyn Museum actively courted minority visitors. Interracial couples were the norm (same-sex couples; same-sex couples of color!). Our daughter had been born in a Mecca for diversity, a place that, now that we were on our way out, was unrecognizable from where we had arrived.
Chuck’s passing seemed a fitting elegy to that past. His death didn’t involve his business associates or the products he’d peddled. Chuck’s heart couldn’t take anymore. From the super, we later learned he’d had a massive coronary event and died before an ambulance arrived. Unnoticed at his alfresco wake on his corner, Grey and I held hands and paid our respects from the edge of the crowd before going upstairs to relieve our sitter.
Victoria Brown left Brooklyn after 26 years and now teaches at Rollins College in Orlando.