Monday, April 25, 2011

The Hay Days of Summer in New York

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Which one is your pick?
New York! New York! What’s up with the snow and freezing temperature? Spring 2011 sprang into action with plenty interference from winter. Every so often it seems as if winter is annoyed with its term limit and ultimately tries to bully spring by prolonging its stay. Sometimes I feel like pushing any shiny knob in sight to select the type of weather I so desire. Of course this is only wishful thinking which brings to mind one rainy day in Jamaica where I had met an elderly man at a bar. He was jolly and quick to share his knowledge so I listened keenly as he recited the following verse: Whether the weather is wet or whether the weather is dry, We weather the weather whatever the weather, Whether we like it or not. I left the bar smiling, later thinking of the many meanings the verse carried yet it was the meaning about the sometimes unpredictable behavior of the weather in its seasons that stood out the most.

Having taken this into consideration, unpredictable is the word that best describes the Spring 2011 weather in New York. However, amidst the hullabaloo I am in some way saddled with the notion that Summer 2010 had occurred a few days ago. I remember vividly the experiences that I had gained and encountered. I also remember the special events that had taken place in and around New York City, particularly in Brooklyn. The summer weather was conducive to a visit to the park, bask in the outdoors and be in the company of other people. Subsequently, after many decades of living in the United States of America, I decided to emulate the summertime activities of others or to go with the trend. It was time to show people that I was in cahoots with the saying: When you go to Rome, do like the Romans do. Among the list of things that I wanted to do was to sit at the entrance of my dwelling and socialize with others. To perfect this I bought a chair, which folded and opened easily, and then placed it on the pavement at the entrance of my dwelling where I sat in the company of other male and female tenants who were enjoying strategic positions, seated with faces turned to the busy public. I felt awkward as I sat there because during my childhood, in rural Jamaica, I was told several times by the elders of the village and also my parents that it wasn’t lady-like to sit at roadside, doorways, on steps or shop piazzas. My parents, especially, would have been disappointed to see that I had not adhered to good discipline and would not hesitate to whip my behind even though I had become an adult.

It is amazing to know that over the many years I had held on to the teachings from my childhood even as I stared in the face of change along with the traits of city living. For example, in and around New York City, the people with authority constantly give orders for benches to be placed on sidewalks for leisure. Coupled with this, is the fact that there are numerous side-walk cafes where people sit, eat, laugh and chat during favorable weather. I took into consideration that the benches seen on the side-walks were at the hands of the kingpins of our society and should therefore influence me to sit happily at the entrance of my dwelling. Unfortunately this was to the contrary. I remained uneasy as I sat there. To pacify this feeling, I turned my back to passersby. My identity was now shielded as I listened excitedly to my neighbors, now turned pals, who reported on what was taking place around us. A Couple weeks had gone by when I finally decided to forget about childhood discipline because I was missing the eye witness account of summer in a big city.

he spunk of the people was amazing as the scenes unfolded on the streets and sidewalks. They played dominoes, blasted their music, and in some cases peddled their wares such as candies, cookies, water, peanuts, cashews and accessories for the girls’ hair. There were some people who appeared to be lonely. They leaned against fences, gazing blindly into the summer’s day. The neighborhood children, anxious to release their pent-up energies, played noisily on the side-walks, paved driveways and dashed onto the busy streets now and again while onlookers screamed and yelled at them, telling them to be careful. Boys aspiring to become basketball greats, shot balls into makeshift hoops which hung from light posts. People who were able to make it to a nearby park could be seen pushing their shopping carts with lots of food, water, and sometimes a barbecue grill. Quite noticeable also, the hot days of the summer seemingly provoked a hostile atmosphere. On those days people got into altercations, throwing punches at each other. It was obvious that people were moving to the beat of the summer season. They took advantage of every available space in the outdoors and did whatever pleased them.
On the other hand the birds steadily invaded our privacy during the summer. They hankered for the bread or rice placed on our laps as we ate in the outdoors. They made nests on the roofs of buildings, and happily released their droppings on the windscreens of vehicles, and on our heads which we readily took as a sign of good luck. In truth and fact, we invaded the birds’ privacy because before the city became a concrete jungle there were rolling hills and lots of green pastures which stood in place. This was where the birds found their real foods. Taking stock of the situation, the birds aren’t the only ones that have been deprived of green fields. The children around us are also deprived and would welcome that much of nature to play and gallivant.

In between the scenes from my chosen point or even as I go from place to place, City living had me thinking about the rural areas of my childhood and the blessings from nature that I had taken for granted. I played on real grass compared to fake grass, paved sidewalks, and the streets that the children in my path embraced with innocence. My park or recreation center was in my backyard and when I became tired of playing, I would retreat to one of the many castor oil nut trees and hide among the leaves. On some days the oil nut tree became my passenger vehicle, a truck, to be precise. I pretended to take people to the market in it or even to places of interest such as the zoo or the beach. I also thought about some of the modern services which were meant for comfort and fun but proved otherwise. They made me regret the days when I prayed to become a grown-up so that I could live in the city where life seemed more appealing, vogue I dare say.

I remember telling myself that while living in the city I would learn to drive a real truck or car and have real people as passengers instead of the imaginary ones. There would be no more peenie-wallies or fire flies to contend with; neither would there be any other noisy nocturnal creatures. More importantly the liveliness of the city would eradicate all the duppies (ghosts) who according to stories love to haunt, frighten, and slap people across their faces, causing them to froth at the corners of their mouths. Being in the city, it would be exciting to hear sirens wailing, and see anxious people honking the horns of their vehicles. Interestingly, my days of using kerosene lamps and lanterns would end. Instead, I would be surrounded with lights powered by electricity. One such light would be the moon on stick according to a child who had seen street lights for the first time. I would also have the privilege of dancing the night away at clubs which had psychedelic lights, disco music and huge air conditioning units. This would make me chuckle at the bamboo and thatch dancehall structure on the picnic grounds of a rural village where the cool air was propelled by the wind blowing outside. I would chuckle even harder as I hear the disco hits, thinking to myself I can’t believe that I used to dance to the music of Fats Domino, Prince Buster, the Tennors’ song Ride yu donkey…, Keith and Enid’s If you didn’t need my care why didn’t you let me know… Or, Millie Small’s I love sweet William, He is my boy… and My boy lollipop, He makes my heart goes giddy up… Today as I continue to compare city and rural living, I have come to the conclusion that dimming electric lights is not as romantic as the moonlight or the light from a kerosene lamp. Also, to live in a big city is like living in a concrete jungle. It is no wonder people find joy and pleasure sitting at the entrance of their dwellings during summertime. My mother would have summed up the situation with the following sayings: A cow doesn’t know the use of its tail until it loses it. Or, We never miss the water until the well runs dry.

However, I must point out that the inadequacies of city living have caused me to experience the best summer that I have ever had in the U.S.A. Summer 2010! Sitting at the front of my dwelling place with my pals was refreshing. Looking at our places of birth it would be fair to say that we were a mini United Nations in our own rights. Community spirit from back in the days was revived. We laughed, joked, told stories, indulged in current affairs, bemoaned the hard times, talked about our cultures and showed respect towards one another. Sometimes our friendly chatter turned into delicious gossips which warranted fist bumping, high fives, you gotta be kidding or kiss mi neck (Jamaican expression). Our behavior was observed by a tenant from our dwelling which resulted in him calling us the TMZ crew. We knew we were not even close to the standards of the popular TV entertainment show but nonetheless we appreciated the compliment. A restless female passerby from the neighborhood admired my pals and me so much that she began stopping by to chat. Eventually one day she decided to share some news and in doing so she looked directly at one of my lady pals and said “Miss Dolly (not her real name), I find me a good man.” “So, where is the man?” Miss Dolly asked. “Over there,” replied the woman. She turned and pointed at a burly man standing across the street from us. “Hey boo. Come here baby,” she hollered at him. “Come meet my friends.” Yes Lord, I said to myself while I struggled to cover up a giggle. She viewed us as her friends. The man came quickly without any protest and was soon introduced but left shortly thereafter with his lady. “Look at that. Every hoe has a stick in the bush,” I said, lowering my voice. Miss Dolly laughed, looked at me and then said, “She is in that state and have a man. Where is yours?” “Girl you, right,” I replied, amidst laughter from the rest of my pals.

The vantage point that my neighbors and I had taken at the front of our residence during the summer provided us with information that we had least expected. Almost every week we saw a man that came to our building to deliver eviction notices to tenants, reminding us that it’s a real world. We would snoop to see which button on the intercom system he was pressing because the notices whether or not they had resulted from negligence, mistake or brute force could have included us or anyone for that matter. We also observed progress among some of the children from the neighborhood. They were either college-bound, graduates from various institutions, had great jobs or fancy vehicles. The unfortunate ones also made themselves visible and often received words of encouragement from us. Police Officers patrolling the neighborhood said hello to us as they walked by. We saw local and international visitors who came to spend quality time with family and friends. A few women walked around with noticeable baby bumps. Stray cats paraded the streets. Some dogs, although in the care of their masters, seemed as if they had a vendetta against fire hydrants. They raised their hind legs and showered the hydrants with pee as they walked by.

The summer, believe it or not, also came with some accomplishment for my pals and me. Through conversations we found out the proper names of the people whom we called fats, big bottom, slim, beg-beg, and slow motion, just to mention a few. More importantly I recall our many rowdy laughs which grabbed the attention of passersby who laughed and smiled as if they too were involved in our fun. Our daily silly behavior had clearly revived the youth in us. At the end of each day, when we were finished with the outdoors, we joyfully took up our chairs and headed upstairs to the apartment of one of our pals where we indulged in hefty servings of various cheeses, crackers, peanuts, cashews, wine, beer and rum. More rowdy laughs and chatting reminiscent of our youthful days took place and when we had our fill of foods, beverages and memories we took up our chairs once more, said goodbye to each other and then shuffled off to our respective apartments.

Each day of the summer came with a new lesson for me but nothing as new and dear as the joy I felt being in the presence of my neighbors, my pals. I became addicted to their company and yearned for them when they were not around. Other tenants also expressed their feelings in the same manner. They had gotten used to seeing happy faces greeting them each evening as they went to and fro from the building. Also, they were pleased to hear someone say to them, your child just went to the store or your child wasn’t dressed in a respectful manner today. They even noticed our no-nonsense approach to keeping the building safe and clean and would not hesitate to tell us of a leaking pipe or clogged toilet in their apartments which weren’t getting any attention from the powers that be. There was no doubt that we had gained a certain level of respect from the tenants of our building as well as passersby.

Weighing the situation a little further, did the tenants from our abode classify my pals and me as Village Lawyers? I remember one night as I left a pal’s apartment and settled in mine, the word Village Lawyer came to mind. A Village Lawyer in my childhood community was the name given to anyone who took it upon himself or herself to attend to the welfare of the community and its people. At first others, including me, had classified a Village Lawyer as a “Nosy Parker” but as time went by I found out the importance of having such a person in our community. The dwellers would be alerted when a stranger or an unwanted person such as a cow thief entered the village. Family connections would be traced and made known. For example, we would hear reports such as: Ms. Mary was related to Uncle Tom’s father who came from Scotland and got married to Mass Sammy’s daughter whose grandfather came from somewhere in Africa and so on and so forth. Besides keeping the family roots alive, it was repeated many times that marrying a close relative could result in the birth of a mentally or physically challenged person. “The blood too close” is the way it would be told. We now speak about DNA but today’s DNA execution is no comparison to the way the “Village Lawyers” calculated the blood line…three-quarters Indian, Chinese, black, maroon, mulatto, full white, half Syrian, little bit of white, one side was Spanish. They even brought to light some prominent features in families: round face, flat nose, pointed nose, long legs, high hips, straight face, sunken eyes, thin lips, big lips, meager, and stout. Village Lawyers also dug deep to find out traits such as thief, liar, murderer, hide from school, walk about, God fearing, educated, kind, stingy, drunkard, loving, bad breed, sexy, and others too many to mention.

After all is said and done my pals and I had remained diligent in our behavior throughout the Summer of 2010 and as Autumn made its debut I said to myself that those of us who will remain in New York will gradually surface in warm clothing. Birds in their goodbyes as they migrate to warmer climates would again defecate on many peoples’ heads, not for good luck, but in revenge for the damage done to their once treasured sanctuary…rolling hills and green fields now converted into a city of bright lights with huge concrete buildings crammed in every nook and cranny. There would be photographers, painters or artists setting to capture the scenes of the season. By the time winter arrives we would be piled high in warm clothing which would distort our physical appearances and have us guessing each other’s identity but certainly not the quality time and fun shared during the summer.

Tah-tah! You never know where you may find joy.

Grace Dunkley-Asphall, Copyright © 2011

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