Childhood

Childhood was Brandon Jones in the backyard at dusk, waiting to catch fireflies. We never saw each other outside of school, and really I only knew him as some girl or another’s crush. People said he lived in West Brattleboro in a small apartment with uncles and cousins instead of parents. He must have walked by and looked up at our big house–with its inviting picture window lit through gauzy curtains, hinting at something wonderful within—and ached to be part of it.

It was our weekly movie night and we were piled onto the couches and chairs on the top floor, getting ready to watch something family friendly, or moderately so, because Mom was a little lax with the movie choices. “Brandon is down there,” someone said. “Brandon Jones.” I doubt if I was even surprised, because kids seemed to show up on our back porch without warning quite often. There was the time Cody and Ryan Houston played basketball in our driveway, not knowing that a new family had moved into the empty house kitty-corner to theirs. They left when Dad went outside to find out who they were; this was before September 11, and I’m sure two pre-teen Vermonters had never heard an Arabic accent before. They might not have even known what Arab was. There was the time Sean Ferguson, (who, like Brandon, lived way across town in an area we only drove past when going to the local diner for Belgian waffles), called the home phone and said, without introduction, “I’m in a comfortable chair on a back porch with a golden dog.” That, of course, was our prized Adirondack chair, and our smiling golden retriever Annie, and our back porch. My girlfriends and I spilled down two flights of stairs, a wave of giggles, and there Sean was, all dimples and sparkling go-light green eyes. There was the time Tosh from next door came through the gap in the fence like a stray cat, looking lost and beat up. On his side of the fence there were junky cars littering the yard and young women with kids, and there was always a stepdad or something yelling at him. We didn’t like Tosh much, but we let him stay on our side until the swell on his cheek lessened or the bloody nose dried up.

It wasn’t so surprising to see Brandon, then, because backyards seemed permeable. We climbed fences and roamed into alleys and buildings and corners of town that didn’t belong to us, but only because nothing seemed to belong to anyone. That’s how Bridget and I found Strawberry Fields, a stretch of wild grass a few twists and turns from the house. We lounged on the grass until it became too itchy, and Bridget wove flowers into our hair. When we skipped back to my yard, where mom was grilling for friends (this was before everyone was vegan or vegetarian or pescatarian), all of the adults smiled at us like we were a pleasant sepia-toned memory they had just unearthed.

Down the road from Strawberry Fields was another discovery, the Hobo Trail, which seemed to have been built for our convenience. Me and the Houston boys lived atop the steep Estey Hill, and two of our gang, Katie and Ava, lived at the bottom. They scaled the hill in freezing New England winters, jeans wet to the knee with snow and air needling exposed skin, and in humid New England summers, the air viscous and fragrant and coated over everything, thick as marmalade. One day during what could have been a hide-and-seek game or just a walk in search of town secrets, one of the Houstons tripped and crashed through the thorny bushes that obscured the trail’s entrance. “Hey, come in here!” he shouted. We followed, and found that the trail led straight down to a white one-room church at the bottom of Estey Hill, just near Katie and Ava’s. The Hobo Trail became our preferred route, but no matter the direction we always met each other halfway and hiked the path as swiftly as Orpheus, since nobody would hear you scream from there—the trail was canopied by trees and cut above a converted factory complex. Even our concept of danger, though, was juvenile, driven by imagination rather than reality. An insane asylum bordered the town, and we imagined a patient might get loose and snatch us from the Hobo Trail. It never happened, of course, but it would have been a good story to pass down to younger siblings except for the fact that all of us were the babies of our households.

Who knows how much time Brandon and I spent catching fireflies? The grass, shaggy and overgrown, nipped at our skinny ankles as we roamed the yard. We were silent, as if our voices would disturb the chorus of chirps and flutters that filled each New England night. Catch and release. Catch and release. We tangled our fingers together and scooped the fireflies into our palms, holding the creatures only until they offered a performative twinkle. Immediately, we’d let go. If one held on too long, the magic was lost.

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Thanks, New York

Sometimes you are having a horrible day. Like, you go to your first job and work straight through, then go straight to your second job. Then you have to go shopping at Target for an all-day job interview the next day. And you hate shopping, and it’s stressful, and you try on three different outfits and variations on those outfits and ruin your done-up hair, that you paid fifty dollars for so you can look professional at the interview.

And then you get home, back hurting, train delayed, exhausted. And you realize you forgot to print out something crucial, something you need for the interview. So off you go, at ten o’clock, to Staples all-night copy shop. And of course none of the machines are working. Your debit card gets eaten up and a manager has to be called. You spend thirty dollars on copies, of which you accidentally make too many.

You leave Staples at eleven-something. You feel just about ready to give up, and you know there is reading and preparing to do for the interview. Then your best friend FaceTimes you, so you sit down on the steps of Union Square, eyes tired, copies in hand, purse weighing heavily on your shoulder.

Your best friend’s big birthday dinner was yesterday, but you missed it. So you talk about the birthday dinner with her, and you watch people amble to and from bars and dates and work. You hear a coarse male voice in the background: “Damn, she FaceTimeing.” He likes the technology; he thinks it’s cool. You turn and he is about what you expected: a middle-aged Black man, an MTA track worker who has risen from the depths of the subway tunnels to have what amounts to lunch with his coworkers. Your back hurts, but you can’t imagine running around the tunnels all night with the rats, taking a lunch break at eleven-something. And yet, he’s so jolly. He smiles widely and peers at the FaceTime.

“Say hi!” you exclaim. He laughs. Your best friend gets embarrassed, but you turn the screen so that he can address her.

“Hi gorgeous,” he says to her, waving. She giggles. “Where is she?”

“Brooklyn,” you answer. “It’s her birthday.”

Your best friend is saying something like “Why would you tell them that?” in the background, but suddenly the whole construction crew, ten or fifteen men in their neon orange vests and plaid, are peering at the rectangle where she resides. They all wave and grin and laugh. “Can she hear us?” they ask. You turn an earbud toward them and they all serenade her with ‘Happy Birthdays.’

“She can see us?” one of them inquires, incredulous but delighted.

“Yeah!” you reply. Everyone in the square is laughing, and then you place the earbud back in and they gather a few feet away to eat. It’s just one of those moments—like the other day when you stopped to stare at a new Banksy, and strangers gathered around to discuss the additional tags, and what they would do if that was their wall, whether they would tear it down and sell it or leave it there, not for profit. One of those moments you only get in a city, when the different spheres—the MTA nightcrawlers, the students, the barhoppers—intersect, briefly lift one another. It’s just strangers making strangers smile, but there’s something powerful in that.

You hang up with your best friend, telling her you have to catch the train. As you walk toward the subway entrance, another group—a group of girls that had been sitting a few feet away the whole time—call out: “Tell her happy birthday!”

New York Story

Everyone—or everyone who is anyone, according to some New Yorkers—has a New York story. It’s recounted at dinner parties like a couple’s meet-cute; the moment they, the subject and New York, fell in love. My New York story plays like a film’s dream sequence: high-key, soft lighting; Frank Sinatra’s rich, maple-syrupy baritone wafting in the background. The tropes abound: the little girl, eyes upturned and wide at the sight of this metropolis; and the friendly prophet, the Morgan Freeman God-voice, in this case the Christmastime doorman at Saks Fifth Avenue.

As I reflect on the memory, half-myth and half-reality like the city it’s set in, I imagine that the doorman, in truth, must have been incredibly  burdened. The line for the window displays wrapped around two city blocks. Saks rang out with all manner of languages, tourists beckoning one another and black-clad sales associates. The doorman must have been tired from standing on his feet all day, ushering the crowd back onto Fifth, his cheeks reddened by gusts of freezing wind.

In my memory, though, he smiles down at me like a benevolent Santa Klaus. I’m lost in this memory; perhaps Mom parked me somewhere while she sneaked off to get a gift. I am lost but not afraid. I have never seen a sight as beautiful as the snow drifting past the skyscrapers, which seem to extend upward like there is no sky, no place beyond this. The city is wet and shimmering as if it has just been born.

“I love it here,” I tell him.

“Here.” An arm extends like a sturdy tree branch bowing toward me in the wind; a wide hand swaddled in soft-looking gloves proffers a snowglobe. Within the little glass ball, the New York City scene outside is stuck in time, made permanent. The fresh snow will not melt and become grey sludge. The skyscrapers’ lights will not blink off. Frank will not stop serenading me.

It feels like the doorman has given me a fantasy, but really, he has given me the truth. The little scene in the snowglobe, like the city, is infinite. At Yankee Stadium they play Frank over and over until the last fan leaves, and it begins again the next night. “I want to be a part of it,” he opines, even when the team wins, as if there will never be a way to penetrate the glass. Gatsby, in that great New York story, thought he could capture the city—the country, really, but what was America if not this city’s pulsating streets?

But the city will move around you, and without you—always. Wind up the snowglobe. Start the song again.

“I wish I lived here,” I tell the doorman.

“It’s up to you,” he says. Or is that Frank? It’s up to you / New York, New York. “You” is not me. “You” is Fifth Avenue, the train, the scaffolding, the team, the city. It’s up to you.

Mom appears. We are on the move, out amongst the whirring mechanisms.

Wind up the globe again. Play the song again.

The doorman has disappeared from my sight, me from his. He is buried beneath the flurry of people pushing into the store, spilling onto the street. Joyfully and mercilessly, the door keeps revolving. It will never stop.

Braids

I see you standing in the back of AG1, arraignment court, right hand jumping up to smooth your braids compulsively. A man with a tic—or a boy, maybe. I wonder what your name is. You look like so many of my friends—Noel (Dominican name Leudis), Alexis (Dominican name Aramis). You have the ageless face characteristic of boys from upper Manhattan; smooth caramel skin, naturally tanned from your father’s island sun. You could be sixteen, twenty-two, twenty-nine. An athletic build fed on mondongo and ghetto P.E.: dunking basketballs into a netless hoop on Edgecombe Avenue; leaping up for signpost bars affixed to the corner and doing chin-ups; whacking baseballs over chain-link fences that line an empty lot—that counts as a home run. You were the Manny Ramirez of the block.

Prison puffs some bodies up, muscles the size of watermelons bulging from all-day weight-lifting and push-ups. I can see you’ll have the other prison body, though. Your brown eyes are too soft, too skittish, jumping around the courtroom, glancing at the judge hopefully. In prison, you’ll age ten years in five. Your body will become a collection of sharp angles, melting away until you become a skinny candlewick. The hopeful flicker in your eyes will flair out, too.

None of that has happened yet, and the only damage incarceration has done is to your braids. Their neat, uniform cornrows have turned frizzy, impossible to maintain even as you try to smooth them out every couple of minutes. More stray hairs popped out with each hour of your journey here, I imagine. A few teased out by the soupy humidity when you ventured onto the summertime streets of Washington Heights last night. Maybe some more when you were sprayed by a rogue fire hydrant. A good bit of hair came loose from your braids when you started running from the cops. Even more when they caught up to you, pushed your forehead against the pavement and cuffed your wrists. Dug their fingers into your skull as they guided you into the wagon. You slept on the braids overnight in the jail cell, waiting for your arraignment. They weren’t equipped for such action.

Judge White, the master of these proceedings, wouldn’t understand. She looks like an African queen sitting atop the judge’s bench; slim, erect neck, wide-set no-bullshit eyes, a gleaming bald head. Some judges get tired of arraignment court, the constant stream of freshly incarcerated defendants still formulating excuses, flustered defense and prosecution lawyers flying through dictionary-thick stacks of paper, trying to remember who this one is, what did he do?

Not Judge White. I’ve seen her work when my co-intern Hazel and I come into AG1 during slow stretches in our trial bureau, no copies to make or 911 calls to transcribe. We like AG1 because it moves quickly, all kinds of people filing through, like the Ellis Island of the DA’s Office. The guy two places in front of you, inexplicably, waited until his ex-girlfriend left the house, broke in and threw her DVD player and TV out the window. I wonder if they used to fight over the remote.

Next, Columbia frat guys who got a little too rowdy with the cops after getting caught jumping the turnstile. No priors. A fine. Open and shut. Judge White sits by with pursed lips and an alert expression, not handing out any free passes.

I’m worried for you.

As you tug at the braids, you look around for someone. The boys from the block aren’t here, and maybe for the better. They would mock you for those messy braids. “Looking raggedy son.” They would belly-laugh. You got them done after-hours at the barbershop, everyone bumping to merengue and half-watching the Mets game. Maybe you paid twenty bucks. Maybe less, because you are someone’s cousin. Maybe you got them done on the front stoop, children circling you like tiny hurricanes and colonies of older men in lawn chairs drinking, playing dominoes. Your aunt did them, or your girlfriend or her friend, stitching each strand into tight communion. It will take a while, over an hour, but her fingers work expertly and efficiently and do not indulge your grumbles if it hurts. In the end, she is proud. They look good.

Does she know you are here?

Your odds were never good, just by virtue of the caramel skin and the Spanish. You came out of the womb at risk to become a statistic, affixed a ratio heavier than a nametag and left to your own devices: two times more likely to be in prison than your white counterparts, a projected one in six chance of being incarcerated in your lifetime. On average, inmates cost the city $167,731. That’s per year. I don’t know what you’ve done yet, if anything, but the majority of incarcerated Americans receive a sentence of 5-10 years. That means you and your twenty-dollar braids, in prison, could cost over $800,000—more than half a million dollars. Maybe one of the reasons you’re here is because nobody, least of all the state that stuck you in a class with thirty-five kids and a harried Teach For America blonde who couldn’t speak Spanish, the state that gave the OK for a stop-and-frisk every few weeks, ever suggested that you could be worth that much.

***

 Across the narrow street that separates the DA’s Office from the criminal courts where you’re awaiting arraignment, my boss, Assistant District Attorney Janine Gilbert, is rifling through file cabinets. She’s on the phone at the same time, maybe fielding a call from a reporter or a defense lawyer. I know because she’s always doing two things at once, if not more. She is a chess player. Whether in or out of the courtroom, her eyes are perpetually narrowed in calculation, trying to map out how any given moment can be maximized.

Her office is the only impediment to such productivity. Loose papers coat the floor and furniture like honeymoon roses in a hotel room. Any slight movement results in the sound of rustling papers, papers massaging the air as they float from the desk to the ground, papers being punctured by a paralegal’s office-appropriate pumps. Our first assignment from Janine was to organize the chaos, one or two hours a day spent on the task. In the end, it took months.

I formulated a foolproof system. Each of Janine’s file cabinets would be labeled with a name, each name assigned its own color. As we gathered the papers, mostly photocopies of evidence from long settled cases, we would mark them with the correct color. One man was prosecuted for serial rape. We marked the photocopies of the letters he sent to his victims blue. Another man, adept at ingratiating himself to the elderly only to steal their identities, had stacks of bank statements marked in green.

One criminal, Jamal (pink), boasted three full drawers worth of files. Impressed by the breadth of paper devoted to him, I waved a sheet from his case at Janine one day as she worked on her computer. “Janine, what did this guy Jamal do?” I asked.

“Something horrible, obviously,” Hazel said, adding another stray paper to his stack.

Janine never needed to pause to recall her cases. “A-1,” she said. “He shot someone, killed her. 85-year-old woman.”

“Why would he do that?” I asked.

“He was aiming for another guy,” Janine said. Hazel and I stopped filing for a beat, the silence filled by the ceaseless clicks of Janine’s keyboard. “He won’t get out,” she said.

I wondered if that was supposed to be a comfort.

“That’s good that you put him away,” Hazel said.

For a millisecond, I saw Janine’s fingers freeze above her keyboard. She blinked. “He was seventeen.”

I looked at Jamal’s stack. I wondered if prison was like high school: bigger file, bigger badass. Or could Jamal even imagine that so many copy machines, so many ink cartridges, had been devoted to him?

“Do you ever worry about convicting someone innocent?” I asked.

Janine shook her head. “If I think someone is innocent, I won’t bring it to trial. It has to be black and white.”

***

 Hazel and I took the back entrance into the criminal court building on our way to AG1. We exited our office building on 1 Hogan Place and crossed over to the grand structure. The Chrysler Building’s homelier sister, the art deco behemoth stretches across Centre Street with imposing columns reaching skyward. In the front, boxy limestone towers are striped with windows, creating the optical illusion of massive vertical prison bars, as if to remind you this is not a good place to be. The back is not nearly as imposing, just a double door manned by a bored security guard. Above the door, a sentence is engraved in the limestone: Justice Is the Firm and Continuous Desire to Render To Every Man His Due.

 Someone calls your docket number. You pat your braids one last time, tuck your hands behind your back like a good schoolboy. You look at the prosecuting attorney uncomprehendingly, a stranger in a half-wrinkled suit. I wish I knew you. I wish I could have warned you of Janine’s words: it has to be black and white. It has to be neat, like your braids when they were fresh. You have to be careful not to get caught in the grey area.

I leave before they give you your due, too afraid that you’ll become hundreds of papers, outnumbering your pre-prison years many times over, highlighted pink and stuffed into a file box.