“Try 100 words at a time,” my writer-friend said. “A hundred in a sitting, no more, no less. You can do that much, even now.”
The two dollar stores are two blocks apart, one favored by those closer to the Q train and the other by those drawn to the cafe with turmeric lattes. One is big and brusque, the colored lights it sprinkles on the sidewalk out front belying the get-in-get-out hustle of the place. Its shelves extend deep into the detritus of As Seen on TV. The other dollar store is cozier, sweeter somehow, with all the holiday gewgaws right up front. They’re both closed now for the duration, handwritten red signs packaged-taped to pulled-down gates promising a return date long since past.
From my glass perch on the second floor I watch bare branches surface tiny pods. By tomorrow they will be leaves, tender and rose-green. One squirrel chasing another stops to gnaw. A bird attaches itself to a cherry tree frond and systematically nibbles off every bud within its reach. The roof cat next door watches, waiting. How do the trees know how many leaflets to send out so there’s enough to both be fed off of and survive? How does the cat know which creature will hesitate long enough to be prey? I push and push, not trusting the innate.
She piled all of the furniture up against the inside of the apartment’s front door, so they couldn’t get in. She pulled her clothes out of her double closet, out of the bureau drawers her mother had decoupaged for her, made mounds and mountains of them in the hallway. She pulled down the shower curtain and aimed the twisty head out so the water sprinkled down like a fountain onto the hexagonal tiles, through the floor to the burrito place downstairs. She fought the danger with every weapon and did not believe them when they said she was the danger.
The clock is set for 3:45 but my eyes fly open at 3:38. I wait in silence for the escalating chime, then decide I don’t have time for a shower after all. I open my office, pop in a coffee pod, plug in my Christmas lights, flip on the overhead that I hate. Then it’s showtime with lipstick and puffed out hair, bright smile, tilt head so you are facing forward even if your eyes are darting to the next thing and the next thing. So much more to do, can’t get up early enough to get ahead.
If I go crazy, will I know it? When my passing comments sound like outrageous pronouncements, what will I hear? Should my wakings and dozings read like bipolar swings, will I be the very last to know? I fear that my glance into the warped mirror will reflect back only the usual, while everyone around me confers in whispers, hiding my shoelaces, urging me to rest. But I’m FINE, I will say with focused clarity and calm. My sister will look stricken. My husband will shake his head, tight lipped. No, no you’re not, he’ll say. Not anymore. Not yet.
Today the outside world matches the one inside: gray and blustery, wind snapping at the tender leaf nubs, bird scratching tinnily at the nest in the roof gutter, neighbor’s paper lanterns bobbing unlit back and forth. No one is strolling on the streets today, no one even taking that head down charge forward that counts for progress in this crisis. Where just three weeks ago this street at day’s end would be a symphony of harried horns, a gridlock orchestral, now silence. Only the sirens – coming closer, heading out? It’s impossible to tell – and the gust-rattling windows break the gloom.
The Flatbush Food Coop is an exaggerated microcosm of the neighborhood, a snapshot magnified 100 times. In normal times, it’s open seven days a week from early morning til nearly midnight, and always packed. The old lefties shop there, as do the tattoo artist-data engineer couples with stroller kids; the Caribbean grandmothers and their weightlifter sons; the doddering Hasidic couples; the cafe owner and the barista. Now since corona, they all line up outside the door, spaced six feet apart in a queue that runs past the storefront, turns the corner and snakes down the block. Patiently waiting for quinoa.
It’s just that the birds are so damn loud. The usual alpha variety high in the treetops or wherever they hide, chirp-screeching as the sun begins to come up — somewhere between a song of exultation and a warning that soon, soon all will be visible. And then the little cheep-cheep sparrows – or starlings? – the ones you never usually see, or never notice, now congregating in noisy gray-brown clusters on deck railings and fences the same color. The cardinals strut their red stuff all over the yard, are they making that penny-whistle sound? And meanwhile the blue jays dive bombing, ack-ack-ack.
How is it that I feel so tender toward you now, stranded as we are together on this island of fearful plenty? Your random worries, your odd logic that says you should not venture to the grocery store during senior hours but you might go to your haircutter’s house for a trim, they somehow touch me without grating. I pull you close, paint-streaked hair and all, taking in the new creases between your eyebrows and the downer slump of your shoulders. Our fronts pressed together, we dance-drift in widening circles to the utter tunelessness. In this moment, everything is alright.
There are wonders on these plague-shocked streets. The scratch-scrap sound of a skateboard in the early morning, and a young man — an overgrown kid, really — sweeps past the wrong way on the one-way, holding aloft a birdcage, parakeet inside. The Lyft Prius rolling backward, smooth and silent, away from some blockage near the stoplight: the garbage truck, a fire engine, please not an ambulance. The wine store walk-up window. The neighbors stepping out at 7pm to ring bells, bang pots and pans, whistle and cheer for health care workers. A flat of purple pansies that appear anonymously on the porch.
The first evening in June, a city truck paused in front of the firehouse on Cortelyou. Orange vested workers jumped down from the flatbed, gathered up the public trash cans from all four corners, moved to the next intersection, all the way to Ocean Avenue. By the last evening in June, news of the protests had dwindled, and the wire trash bins were back. Now they shared the sidewalk with cafe tables, patrons with chin masks nibbling prosciutto in front of the dentist’s office and barber shop. “Black Lives Matter” says the poster on the reopened storefront. “Fro-se, $5.99.”
In the dark start to every morning, I plug in the cluster of Christmas twinkle lights inside my office door, the six feet of intertwining green line a fat spiky snake hung as a trophy or perhaps just stilled before striking. Purchased at the dollar store last December and once echoed around the room, these lights no longer twinkle. Half of them are dead, their cheap glass smudged black. Each day, a few more expire. But nonetheless I leave them on all day, from my first pre-dawn call into evening. When the last one flickers out, maybe so will I.
The New Year’s Eve rain is relentless, eddying over my glass roof, waterfalling down the windows. It wipes away the prints of last fall’s leaves, erases the leavings of finches come and gone. It anoints the bare tree limbs, glistens them into intricate filigree black against the pale gray morning sky. The fairy lights I’ve left up all this plague year are reflected out to the left and right like ghosts of this room, and above like its spirit ascending. Will this rain bathe 2020 like soothing a feverish child, or will it reveal the full ravage of our malady?
Rattled yet by red hats and smashed glass, I wander out onto to our high street. The spray-scrawled Vote or Die is fading now above Shop Local for the Holidays. A young dad with mask and stroller holds tight a bouquet of gerbera daisies. A ball-capped, backpacked couple glides past on skateboards, jumping one sidewalk crack after another. A woman in a rose gold parka and silver sequined Uggs races for the subway. The hollow-faced sentinel just past the station recoils when I try to hand him George Washington. Get away from me! he says. And I can’t blame him.
The naked trees wear their latest white lacing with dignity, stoic through the fourth and then fifth storm of the month. The snowpack slides down my slanted glass roof, curling over at the edge and pointing its dripping icicle fingers at me, daring me to guess when they’ll fall to the ground with the muted crash of snow upon snow, slush upon slush. Three nor’easters in a row, someone has stealthily shoveled our front walk while we procrastinated, waiting out the last flurries in the warm indoors. I suddenly realize our neighbors think we’re old. I’m infuriated and grateful, both.
It’s not the flame tulips that suddenly appear amid the tangle of castoff fliers and dead weeds in the curb-cut. It’s not the sunlit arc of pigeons from some rooftop coop that’s survived worse days than these. No, it’s the disappearance at last of the poster for a late 2019 John Cena movie that stayed up in the bus shelter around the corner, ever fading and wrinkling, through month after month of pandemic. That shiny new realtor ad convinces me finally that we may be approaching the end of this plague and its power to suspend my city’s cacophonous hustle.
She rushes in late to claim the middle seat, mask slipping down off her nose amid a tangle of bottle blonde locks. She jams elbows across both arm-rests, pops her tray table down just after takeoff, and turns the seatback TV right into Fox News. On the first pass of the beverage cart, she orders a bottle of red and a coffee, then pings the call button twice more for wine. The bottles line up in front of the blaring Fox chiron: Afghanistan, booster shots, CRT. White leather sneakers jiggle and tap, bracelets rattle. Will she blow? Watch for video.
Pent-up Halloween fever spikes by 2pm on the day: A Sunday, clear and cool, and no candy-chutes, no sad signs saying come back next year. The first doorbell ring is a pack of princesses, out early to beat the rush. By 4 I have put on my witch hat with black mask to match and set up a table on the porch, candy arrayed around the glitter globe on the black-web tablecloth, massive pumpkins and rubber rats my familiars. “Come closer, my little pretty, will it be Snickers or Twix for you?” By 7:30, all 900 pieces are gone.
NOVEMBER – DECEMBER 2021
My seven epic porch pumpkins nestle
Among gourds and cones and souvenir leaves
Marking the urban harvest of November
On the Thanksgiving table.
And then it’s December
With each day colder
The pumpkins grow more forlorn
Left behind by the seasons
Settling inward, stems drooping
Demanding silently: Send us home.
One by one, they enter the kitchen
Offering themselves up
For drawing and quartering
Roasting and grinding
Tail to snout.
From each porch pumpkin comes
Jam and bread
Snacking seeds and soup
Cookies and puppy puree
Flying out from Brooklyn
To all four corners of love.