The Ditches

Sunday morning I had to visit someone in the hospital. I parked on bard ave- it being sunday morning I got a great spot- then traversed toward the hospital.

In order to do so I had to leap over a churning current of rain water pouring down the side of the road. It was a miniature river! Staten Island has been crazy rainy the past few days.

In doing so I had a flash of memory from my childhood, so vivid it left me shaken.

When we moved into our second home in new england, my beloved paternal grandmother decided there were drainage issues with our yard (no one else saw this, but she did). A steep hill behind our house sometimes sent rain water barreling toward the front yard, which in turn sent water tumbling into the street. Never mind there were exactly three houses on that street, and rain water emptied down a further steep (uninhabited) hill.

My grandmother took it upon herself to design an elaborate network of ditches that would otherwise conduct the water. That’s right: my 70+ year old grandmother, shovel in hand, dug a network of ditches around our house to redirect rainflow. It took her more than a year, with me occasionally assisting.

I was seven years old.

Hay que encontrar la manera! she would often say, panting for breath, in a jumble of english, spanish, and german. That was how she spoke.

She was ultimately successful. Those ditches redirected the water from our property into uninhabited woods. They criss-crossed  back, front, and side yards. She dug into the forest, emptying into burrows of pine needles and desolate woodland.

Last I checked, twenty years after she dug those trenches, and many years after her death, those trenches are still functional. Miniature manmade rivers redirecting rainwater around the property in neat, obedient currents.

She had an 8th grade education, forced out of school by world events. I often feel my own lavish education was an utter waste and would have been better spent on her. But it is what it is. God is weird.

I heard this song driving back home. My poor grandma is the antithesis of irish (no offense to irish) but she does ‘live on’ through me. Even the atheists out there can understand this: if a person impacts your heart, you carry their mortal legacy.

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Cats Are Useless

Earlier this year I watched a documentary about cats. At one point a scientist type is interviewed and he explains that the concept of cats as rodent control devices is inaccurate. During times of severe rat and mouse infestations, specially trained dogs- not cats- have historically been used. This then poses the question: exactly what purpose do cats serve as part of human society? The answer, apparently, is none. Cats may be cute, funny, devious, cuddly, but in utilitarian terms… they’re completely useless. They’re not even good garbage disposals as they tend to eat only carnivore-friendly scraps. Even worse, cats can be notoriously picky and will refuse even the choicest meat scraps!

Case in point regarding rats is an odd video I came across courtesy of the Staten Island Advance (or as it’s called around here “the ADD-vance”). Apparently there is a group of NYC dog owners who in true historical fashion have trained their dogs- mostly terriers from the looks of it- to hunt rats. They are summoned to infested areas of the city and the rat hunt begins. Take a look for yourself:

Looks like a fun way to spend the evening. Rats weighing more than five pounds are termed trophy rats. There’s a joke somewhere in there about trophy wives, but I can’t find it.

Wimpy Wine

The island survived my absence: turkeys still grifting, opossums still gnawing through garbage, my oldest daughter kept the feral cat colony in our yard alive. My tomato plants died but that was written in the stars.

It was difficult being up there, not in ways I anticipated. Often while driving around it felt I never left. Nine years non existent, maybe a time loop. The town looked somewhat worse- I saw a meth head handcuffed & hauled into the police station- I never saw that while living here. I never saw anyone handcuffed until I moved to nyc.

My dad was irate. Ranting about my aunt, her lack of estate planning, nitpicking her last motions, grumble grumble grumble. God lord, I wanted to tell him- the woman was dying! Cut her some fucking slack. I kept my mouth shut.

My mother dragged us to church, “us” being the little guys and myself. Alright I get it, she wants to show off the grandkids. I’ll show them off too- they’re criminally cute.

The church was so depressing. They recently signed a compact with a lutheran church merging two dying churches, and I could sense one foot in there was turf war betides. The lutherans on one side, anglicans on the other. Stink eye ensued.

My lovely children started acting rotten so I dragged them to the back where exactly one child (I later learned he was being raised by his GREAT grandmother- both parents and grandma were unfit) playing with legos and toy sharks.

Did I like sharks!? he asked, full volume. I tried to shush him. Had I ever picked up a shark? Had I ever picked up a shark but failed! What was my favorite type of shark?

He rolled up his sleeve. I’ve gotta tattoo, he said proudly, showing off a temporary skull tattoo. I gave him a silent thumbs up then shushed him again.

Day before the funeral my parents had a wine and cheese event. My mom’s cousin was first to show up; they discussed weather, traffic, grandchildren, who was at what school studying what. There was discussion of family history. The cousin marveled how adept my two year old was at navigating stupid games on my defunct android. I listened politely… and thought of the steven king story where people slowly turn into vegetables.

Then my dead aunt’s buddies arrived. The greeted me uproariously- hugs, jokes, booze! My aunt’s best friend’s other best friend sat in an armchair, perched on a cane chatting brightly. Aunt’s best friend threw back a tumbler of gin. I don’t want any of that wimpy wine! — she bellowed– viking style. The other friends downed glasses of wine and nibbled on cheese. We discussed architecture, history… the house was rocking!

Then the funeral. It was at the merged church, beautiful in its day. Rich mahogany knotted the ceiling, elaborate stained glass pictographs: Ruth the Gleaner, John the Baptist, St. Michael– ready to charge.

I read from revelations, my sister read a poem. The gin drinker cried quietly.

A reception at my sister’s house. I wolfed down turkey and roast beef while my kids ate fruit. My sister’s german shephards skulked like patrolling soldiers while I clandestinely fed them pieces of meat. I watched our kids, all our kids, my kids, my sister’s kids, my sister’s friend’s kids, frolic in the gated garden. How surreal to regard such life in the shadow of death. The yard sloped down to a pond, endless acres of forest, the sky clear. I wonder as to the state of my aunt’s soul.

The funeral. We drove two hours to the grave site, my little guys surprisingly well behaved. An ancient retired pastor gave the homily while a grinning funeral home worker stood by his side. What a racket! (I later told my mom just to dump my ashes if I precede her in death.) The weather was sublime, a perfect breeze shimmering through towering oaks like god had planned it.

 

 

Escape From New York

Yesterday I left Staten Island for the first time in nine years. That’s right, I hadn’t stepped foot off the island, even for other boroughs, in nine long years. Actually that time went by rather quickly.

The drive was surprisingly non-horrific. With two and five year olds in tow I braced myself for the worst. A couple older kids came along for the ride and Mom did the driving, which was heaven sent- I dislike highway driving to the point of phobia.

We went over the Goethals, the turnpike, various parkways. We stopped for lunch at McDonald’s; I had a double quarter pounder sans ketchup and I threw out the bun (not before offering it to the rest of the family, they declined). It was awkward but doable eating the floppy hamburger patties with my fingers, the meat was terribly overcooked. It was edible, but barely, to the tune of $5. My little guys shared french fries and chicken nuggets, mom had a salad, older kids had an egg mcmuffin, more nuggets and fries. For drinks we had water (me), lemonade, mocha latte and diet coke.

I was surprised how many black people and hispanics are now north of NYC. Nine years ago non-asian minorities faded out a certain radius beyond the metro area with the exception of Springfield, MA. Most of the diners at that connecticut McDonald’s were black or hispanic, and it didn’t turn all/mostly white until Vermont.

After five hours we reached my hometown; I didn’t move here until age seven but it’s essentially my hometown. I wondered if I would start crying after all these years. But it was anticlimactic. There were the gorgeous mountains, lush green rolling in distant landscape. There was the guns-n-ammo shop. More lush greenery, an auto shop. Some kind of manufacturing plant (the sole one in the area, industry here has been decimated). The veterinarian where our sick pets were euthanized so long ago. Pretty colonials and victorians, many but not all in disrepair.

We arrived home to my very grouchy father. Grouchy is my dad’s version of happy, it only goes downhill from there. My little guy was all over the place while we unpacked- I tried to lock him in a playroom via baby gate but he howled pitifully so I let him escape.

My parents had dinner but I told them I would eat later. I went for a walk around local roads and hopped briefly into the woods, climbing a steep incline padded with pine needles and thin weeds. Pine trees towered overhead like solemn angels. I sat under one and patiently slapped mosquitoes as they landed on my skin. Later I ate some salmon and semi-raw hamburgers. My mother was horrified as she packed them out of sight into the fridge, asking wasn’t I worried about eating rare beef? Nope.

This morning I went to walmart. I needed shampoo and razors, my five year old requested pretzels. My mom warned me: the town looked worse than ever, but as I drove it looked the same. There was a new CVS. There was an abandoned something or other. There was the middle school where I was mercilessly tormented by my peers. I peeked down the street to my childhood best friend’s house- I considered driving past but that would feel stalkerish. I have no idea if her parents are even still living, and she has long since moved away.

Walmart… it looked exactly the same as nine years ago, except the shopping carts were in terrible shape (nothing irks me more than lousy shopping carts) and the walls were dinged up, in need of repainting. Two women said hello and politely asked how are you? This jarred me. They don’t do that in Staten Island, not that Staten Islanders aren’t friendly in their own way.

I am here for my aunt’s funeral. It’s all very sad. She should have lived a good twenty, thirty years further. God gives and god takes away.

Zootopia Looks Like Staten Island

After all the hype, after my mother raved about it, after my children raved about it– including my 19 year old nerd son with ice in the veins– after my daughter put the dvd on view for her psych ward– I watched Zootopia once it was on netflix. I’ll reserve my observations for a future post, but I could not help but notice that the city of Zootopia greatly resembles Staten Island.

zoo1

zoo2

staten-island

I’ll note this: if having a tiny bunny on the police force is novel, how does Zootopia police its rodent population? That doesn’t make sense.

Do You Want Something to Eat

Everyone has their own opinion on the homeless. You either walk past them, or throw a little money at them.

One of the nicer aspects of Staten Island is you are typically spared this choice… until the recent inception of the heroin epidemic. These days you see all kinds of beggars, mostly young white kids in areas they would not typically spawn. This morning I ran to the grocery store for a few things and there was a kid, about my oldest son’s age, holding a sign stating his dilemma.

I AM HOMELESS TRYING TO GET OFF THE STREETS.

I dug through my purse as I harnessed my shopping cart, handing him money as I walked past. Then I knelt down, looked him in the eye, and asked (because this has been the purpose of my life for the past 19 years): do you want something to eat?

He looked stunned.

I’m not used to junkies, but there was a nervous, exhausted, desperate look on his face.

“Yeah…” he replied.

“What would you like?” (This is the “mommy monster” inside of me. Because seriously, I’ve been doing nothing but feeding and placating whiny children for 20 years.)

He looked even more stunned here. “Uhh…” he said, confused…. “Anything?”

Now it as my turn to be stunned. My kids are all picky eaters. I mean really, really picky, as in two or three foods, for years, picky. Was this guy really willing to eat anything? This was a novel concept for me… to put it mildly.

“And maybe something to drink,” he added weakly.

“What do you want to drink?” (there’s a liquor store right by the Stop and Shop)

He stared at me incredulous… “Water?” he asked, again, so weakly.

“Just water?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay honey.”

And I walked into the grocery store. What exactly do you buy a homeless drug addict? I felt, in a surreal way, like a mom packing lunch for her kids at camp: it had to be nonperishable, palatable, and high calorie. I settled on a big bottle of Fiji water, a box of granola bars, and doritos. Along with the other items I came there to purchase.

I handed the bag to him as I embarked to my car, knowing I had accomplished no good, but no bad either. “Take care of yourself honey…” but I knew he wouldn’t.

Barbie Heaven

Yesterday we had the incongruous family outing of heading to the beach– the psychiatric facility is right by the one I take the girls to. So I dropped off my husband at the psych unit, then continued to the water with three girls in tow: the 14, 12, and 4 year olds.

“If there’s no garbage in the water,” I announced [you know you live in NYC when you have to preface statements with if there’s no garbage…] “I’m going swimming.”

The older ones took bets on how far I would go (to those unfamiliar with the beaches around here, the water can be chilly). “I bet she’ll go up to her knees,” said Dea, the 12 year old.

“Waist at the most,” quipped the overachiever.

Well there was no garbage in the water so I took off my sunhat and waded in. It was chilly but not unbearable, I dove underwater to the accolades of my girls still on the sand. I swam back and forth, dove under again, did a backstroke. It dawned on me I couldn’t remember the last time I went swimming.

“Hey mom!” shouted the overachiever. “I didn’t know you could swim!”

I wanted to tell her– I had forgotten I could too, but I dove back under, surfaced like a seal and floated in the gray waters of the Atlantic. There was the Verrazano; there was a passenger jet heading to JFK; there was the gaggle of fat russian men, lounging in lapping water (I don’t know if it’s a Staten Island thing, but it’s mainly men who go in the water at the beaches). They chatted to and fro in Russian while I dove under again. Salty water streamed down my face when I resurfaced; I wiped droplets from my eyes and pushed back my soggy hair. This was paradise!

My 14 year old got the 4 year old on her back, piggy back, and waded in to her waist. I shouted Mommy shark! went under, and grabbed at their ankles to the 4 year old’s sheer delight. Dea darted in and out of the ocean, looking like a starved, wet rat.

I don’t wear bathing suits. My reasoning is, I wouldn’t walk around in public in my underwear, so why would I walk around in public in a bathing suit that probably shows more than my underwear? No thanks! So I wore leggings, a skirt to my knees, a tank top and a long sleeved shirt for good measure. I figure if nothing else it will protect me from UV rays. I may have gotten a few curious stares but didn’t care.

The girls either followed suit or were too lazy to find their own bathing suits. So there the four of us were, fully clothed, horsing around in the water.

Later we went to the playground where the 4 year old misplaced her Barbie. Back in the car, noting Barbie’s absence, Dea gibed She went to Barbie heaven. This satisfied the 4 year old who spared us a torrent of tears, and she fell sound, sound asleep on the way home, her cheeks flushed bright red from sun.

 

The Pelican People

After her first psychiatric stint my daughter stabilized somewhat on a cocktail of anti-psychotics. She continued to pace, talk to herself, but was far less paranoid and accusatory. She stopped picking out her gorgeous hair and it grew back in short, pretty tufts.

A few months ago I noticed a decline. As did her grouchy psychiatrist, who prescribed an array of new anti-psychotics to no avail. My daughter reverted to constant pacing, constant chattering, and picking out the new version of her hair. The grouchy shrink eventually gave up. Perhaps she should go back to the psych unit.

So off we ventured one bright saturday morning. By this point I was accustomed to the double locking doors (the second locked door doesn’t unlock, until the first door slams shut) and even remembered the names of most of the nurses and doctors. My daughter was bright eyed and chipper throughout. I’ve gradually learned she has two modes: happy crazy, and paranoid crazy. Today she was happy crazy.

“I am not a goose to swim in murky waters!” she announced gaily to the empty waiting room. “I fly with seagulls in salty skies, I sing with the pelican people!” She pronounced those last words, pelican people, with great flourish. We sat together in the waiting room, endless episodes of Sponge Bob on television, her eyes darting to and fro like a cat watching bugs. She laughed, frowned, cocked her head to the side with serious expression as though listening to god’s secrets. She nodded her head, smiled warmly, and relaxed into her plastic seat.

They brought her in. They brought me in. I went through the whole spiel yet again. She was normal and happy until age 14. She grew withdrawn. She started pacing incessantly. She stopped sleeping. She began talking to invisible people. She picked out her gorgeous hair until nearly bald. She accused us of conspiring against her, accused us of poisoning her food. Whatever hair grew back she refused to wash or comb, and she hadn’t showered in months. Her hair was tangled in thick mats. Like you see on homeless people.

She looks like a homeless person,” I said flatly. Because this was it: defeat. Game over. Your turn.

They admitted her to the psych unit which housed just one other patient, a surly african american kid who kept sticking his hands in his pants, even in front of me. She was oblivious, cheerily playing Uno and watching movies with him until his discharge. Then it was down to just her on the unit, the lone adolescent patient.

She chattered incoherently to the nurses at their station. She read aloud classified ads in case they might need a new job (waitressing! that might be fun!). She explained to me, during visiting hours, that we are the construct of a mathematician in a simulated reality. She penned rambling letters to her psychiatrist and social worker. In one she ended succinctly: Finding myself here I realize I am easily confused and have great difficulty with basic functioning. I hold no ill will against you.

She decorated it with hearts and curlicues.

The unit psychiatrist, an almost handsome man with glittering eyes, likewise surrendered. She was on an elephant’s dose of seroquel with no effect. They lacked the resources to help her, he said, and perhaps she should transfer to the long term facility.

And that’s precisely where she went, carried by two young EMTs glued to their cell phones. My daughter smiled and chattered as the ambulance tumbled. She would meet turkeys! (The wild turkeys of Staten Island originated at this psychiatric facility.) She would receive turkey hugs! Nothing like genuine turkey hugs! And we saw them- the wild turkeys- as the ambulance barreled over locked grounds. Males with feathers outstretched, brown mothers, fluffy chicks scampering.

“Turkeys!” she cried in elation, “They waited for me!”

Yet another intake interview. Yet again the same spiel. Though this time I recalled a few details. “She says she has Jesus powers,” I explained matter of factly, as though the notion weren’t ridiculous.

The psychiatrist and social worked nodded, scribbling in notebooks.

“When Jesus died on the cross, he granted a select few special powers, she is one of the select few.”

They continued to scribble.

The unit coordinator took me on a tour of the facility; in the distance I could hear my daughter chattering happily with her fellow inmates. Then they ushered me out; the facility is located near the beach and the salty breeze washed over me, bright perennials nodding in the wind. Crows soared overhead like watchmen; I was reminded of the Norse mythology I learned from Vikings (an excellent series, highly recommended) where ravens operate as the envoys of Odin.

 

Port Richmond, Staten Island

Port Richmond, derisively coined Puerto Richmond by some Staten Islanders due to its massive influx of hispanic immigration, is a neighborhood spanning roughly from Forest Avenue to the south, Richmond Terrace to the north, Clove Road to the east, and Morningstar Road to the west. Originally an Irish neighborhood (at least I think so) it eventually turned predominantly African American, and over the last decade has transformed into a Hispanic neighborhood with a dominant dose of Mexico.

The commercial areas host restaurants, storefront churches, fly by night shops, and natural healers (known to Spanish speakers as curanderos or botanicas). You don’t see much else beyond that. Here and there are a few holdouts from the anglo era, including Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices and Ice Cream.

ralphs

In fact when we moved to Staten Island, the first thing the realtor advised after we sealed the deal was to visit Ralph’s. This ice cream shop is a Staten Island landmark and has withstood the environs’ decay. Denino’s, a pizzeria consistently ranked as some of the best in the country, is right across the street (if you click the above picture you can see it in the background).

As you head north things get dicey but my end goal was a live poultry butcher on Richmond Terrace. North of Castleton is especially decayed, so I gave myself the option of abandoning the endeavor if things felt unsafe.

There were few people out on this early, chilly Sunday morning. And those who were: all men. It was weird. There was not a single woman (other than me) to be seen. Most of the men traveled in pairs and were carrying coffee. In retrospect that should have been a warning sign but I soldiered on, taking pictures of anything that caught my eye. And a lot caught my eye.

guadalupe
eat, pray, comprar

virginmaryla virgen gets ready to mop

pushbutton
do these things serve any purpose?

postoffice
Port Richmond post office

postalparkingonly
lock without a cause

iglesia2
one of many, many storefront churches

iglesia
another storefront church. the power of tax free income!

abogado
abogados (lawyers) for when Trump takes over

lawyersteps
the lawyers’ front steps. business must be bad.

coconutjuice
a discarded can of coconut juice in the lawyer’s front lawn

twitter
twitter and facebook meet graffiti

restaurantauction
a restaurant that bit the dust

restaurant
another restaurant: “The Western Cowboy.”

lostdog
lost dog… sniff. But $1000??

automotive
an abandoned auto shop

caseyspublichouse
a holdout from days of anglo

inca market
…that is now next to Nando’s Inca Market

compramosoro
one of many signs offering to buy gold

It Only Takes One Microbe

I’ve officially entered the realm of crazy pregnant woman mode, where I’m in a constant and acute state of anxiety, superstition, and worry. I’ve been reading meaning into everyday occurrences. My daughter saw a mouse in the kitchen this morning. A good sign! There’s a dead cricket on the basement floor. Bad sign! And it would be even worse luck to touch that dead cricket, so it’s been there for weeks.

This morning I had to go to Willowbrook for yet another blood draw. My phlebotomist was an older Russian lady who suited up in a face mask before sticking me, ranting the whole time about Ebola and how neither the government nor the lab manager were taking adequate precautions to protect healthcare workers. “If it becomes an epidemic…” she said morosely, and put her hands in the air in a hopeless gesture. Then she jabbed me way too hard, and I still can’t fully extend my arm which is swollen and bruised opposite my elbow.

By that point I’d fasted for 14 hours, so I sat in the car and wolfed down a sandwich with juice. I was supposed to eat a high carb meal before returning two hours later for the second draw. I haven’t eaten bread in months, and while it was yummy it didn’t seem to re-awaken my bread addiction, especially since I knew it would make my levels shoot up (it did, I tested later at home out of curiosity).

During the second draw I overheard a group of phlebotomists in the hallway discussing Ebola. One intoned ominously there are a lot of Liberians on Staten Island. Yeah, but they live in West Brighton said another. No, they live in Park Hill said yet another. Well as long as they don’t come here, said a fourth. Errr… don’t they realize Staten Island is a mere 60 square miles? And microbes don’t care about neighborhood demarcations. As my aunt the pathologist always said when I left the cap off the toothpaste: It only takes one microbe.

I don’t know why but I’m just not worried abut Ebola, even in my crazy pregnant woman state of mind. I guess it could become as airborne as the common cold, then we’d all be in trouble. I’m a lot more worried about nasty flu viruses, or the enterovirus circulating the country, as two of my children have life threatening asthma and a third has moderately bad asthma. Even with suitcases of medication in the house they’ve been hospitalized for it, one in the ICU for a week (the overachiever). Anyway, if there were a clear and present Ebola threat I’m sure my aunt, who works for the CDC, would have contacted me. But so far she’s only sent me scary information about DV-68.

Here is the current state of the bump. It continues to look much smaller in pictures for some reason. It looks, and certainly feels, at least three times bigger in real life.

bump