Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Essays Of Concern by Hudson Owen

Brooklyn, Migrating South

Some mornings in Marine Park, Brooklyn, seagulls settle on the park lawn in considerable numbers. It’s possibly the flattest large park in Brooklyn. I don’t know if the gulls like hanging out on the grass, or what. Seagulls are fish eaters but will ingest most anything, including French fries, perhaps even grass seed. They make an impressive sight on the expansive green, and I like to watch them.

Other birds, of course, go after the seeds. There used to be parrots in Marine Park, Quaker parrots or monk parakeets, to be correct. I call them monk parrots. When I first noticed them, I thought they had escaped from a pet shop on Quentin Road. Then I noticed the large nest they had built of twigs at Quentin Road and Marine Parkway atop a telephone pole. I watched and photographed them for some time before I had any idea of how they had arrived here.

One day in December, I noticed a flock of these medium-size green birds with orange beaks pecking at grass seed through light snow on the park, more than a hundred of them. A man with a camcorder told me that they had escaped from crates at JFK airport in the 1960s, and had made a home in Brooklyn. They had come from Central America and were the only known species of parrot that wintered in North America. I loved them for their antics and play. In the summer of 2005, they fled the park, not all of Brooklyn, but the park. For a while, they returned to the tall oak trees lining the park, then I saw them no more. Nobody knew for certain why they left.

Marine Park was heavily white working class when I moved there in1998.  On the strip on Avenue S there was an old shoe repair shop, a VFW post, the French cleaners, an Irish gift shop, two nail salons, and a grocery store, among others. The shoe repair shop closed, and the VFW post became a one man operation: one World War II vet struggled lifting the iron gate covering the front in the morning. Then he was gone.

The neighborhood kids wear their baseball caps backwards and look dumb. They hang out on the corner of East 35th Street and Avenue S. There is really no other place to go at night other than the mall on Flatbush Avenue blocks away. Some of them will grow up to be responsible cops and firefighters. A few will die as heroes.

Marine Park is where retirees walk their dogs and sit on their tiny front porches, in their undershirts, sipping a beer and watching the sun go down on their lives, on their world.

There were ample American flags on display in Marine Park before 9/11. On some blocks after the attack, you could see an American flag on every house. Firefighters hung large flags as banners across intersections along Marine Parkway. There was a walking candle light vigil around the oval track in the park, while the smoke from the burning towers could still be seen and smelled in the twilit Brooklyn sky. Several women, newly widowed perhaps, wept openly. More than a few funerals with processions were held in the neighborhood. Jars for donations for the families of the fallen appeared in local shops.

Then around ’06, about a year after the parrots left, the Mexicans arrived. One couple moved onto my block. The man was short and pudgy.  He wore a Yankees cap and carried a small backpack. He stood at the back of the line waiting for the bus in the morning and sat in the back, and never spoke to anyone. When it rained, he didn’t show, leading me to surmise that he worked in outside construction. Six months later he was gone.

The bus unloads at the Kings Highway station. There, I catch the train to Manhattan. It starts in Coney Island and most of the seats are taken by the time I board it. Most of the whites are Russian Jews. They read Russian books and newspapers, or the Talmud, nodding and reciting under their breath. The Russians live in virtual Russia, in Brighton Beach, “Little Odessa.” They have their own night clubs, restaurants, food stores. They watch satellite TV from Moscow. They are perhaps the most affluent of immigrant populations and somewhat aloof. They speak to each other in Russian. If you address them in English, they will reply in English. They will take your business, but really have no need of you.

The train also carries large numbers of Asians, Chinese mostly. They read Chinese papers and books and talk, I would guess, in Mandarin, in the sing-song voice of the stereotype. I sit with women in various head wraps: Muslim and Indian women from the Sub-Continent. And there are the Mexicans and peoples from Central America. They speak to each other in Spanish and seldom make eye contact with Anglos like myself. Almost all the young women have children with them, their valuable anchor babies. I saw a tiny, older Aztec woman on the train platform one day. She looked completely lost, as though she had awoken that morning in 16th Century Yucatan.

I have read stories about foreign immigration in early 20th Century America. When I was in school, I studied the melting pot. I have read about how it took some groups longer to assimilate than others. For example, it was once thought that the Germans, who settled mostly in the Midwest, would never assimilate. They spoke German, read German books and newspapers, and drank German beer. It would just took time, that was all.

Living in South Brooklyn, I’m not so sure that the Hispanic population will follow suit. What I see in public is the otherness of the Other. If you dial 311, the city’s non-emergency customer service line, a recorded voice says: “If you want to continue in English, press one.”  Spanish is the acknowledged second language of the city. The latest information from the Board of Elections has instructions in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. Audio instructions on the buses and trains, however, are always in English. Obviously, the Metropolitan Transit Authority doesn’t have the time or resources to rapidly disseminate information in multiple languages. For emergencies, learn English.

And so it is, that while the signs and plaques on monuments in New York City tell me that English reigns supreme, the hustle and bustle of everyday voices tells a different story. As of 2007, there were some 65 dual language programs in New York City, almost all in Spanish and Chinese. French, Russian, and Hatian-Creole will be added to a small number of schools.

Statistics indicate that Hispanics are the fastest growing immigrant group in New York City, which has an estimated population of 8.4 million. This jibes with what I see in Brooklyn, long a magnate, like Queens, for young immigrant populations. I see the Mexicans most places where I go: in the Key Food on Gerritsen and Avenue U, with its large stock of Corona beer, at the Kings Plaza Mall, in the laundromat, and on nearly every bus and train I ride in Brooklyn.

Except for the rare family picnic on the edge of Marine Park, I seldom notice them there. Everyone else, I would say, uses the park. I see Orthodox Jewish women fiercely roller blading around the oval in their long black dresses and snoods. The men in their black hats ride bikes or play catch with their kids and walk slowly with their wives. Teams from Caribbean countries play organized cricket in their whites and enjoy well-attended picnic feasts on the weekend.

Last summer I noticed that the fruit and vegetable mart on Flatbush and Avenue S had been replaced by a furniture store. There were already several furniture outlets along Flatbush, so I wondered about this. Why so many? And don’t most people who move take their furniture with them? Then it dawned on me: When you travel with little more than the clothes on your back, you need furniture.

Last summer I happened upon a procession in Lower Manhattan. School children marched past waving tiny American flags, along with a fife and drum contingent in Colonial getup. It was Flag Day. I saw one young girl with a toothy grin waving an American flag in one hand and the Mexican flag in the other. It was the only non-American flag in the procession.


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Genre – Essay

Rating – G

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