Ghetto is an adjective, not a noun. When people say “I live in the ghetto,” I think of enclosed places where they kept Jews before WWII. But when they say “them kids in that ghetto day care up the block are already cursing and they six,” I totally understand.
I like to watch my friends when they drive me home for the first time: tensing shoulders, eyes scanning the road uncomfortably, hands tightening on the steering wheel.
“You live here?” they ask.
“Yep,” I reply, and smile. There’s secret pleasure in living where some grown men are scared to walk around.
I live in Flatbush (which is the name of the neighborhood and of the main street, Flatbush Avenue), where they often call me snowflake, which I think is the nicest racial comment you can get. A snowflake is pretty, unique, petite – but, most importantly, white.
And there isn’t much snow much in my part of town. People are from the islands mostly: Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti, St. Kitts, Barbados, plus Guyana. Sometimes it’s good, like a little milk in coffee, but sometimes not so much, like vanilla ice cream on a black shirt.
I remember the first time I realized what weed smelled like I was walking with my friend Maya, who lived in wannabe-yuppie-but-not-quite-there-yet Ditmas Park, only ten blocks away. As we turned onto Dorchester Road I sensed the sweet, smoky smell and said to her, “You smell that right there? That’s pot.” She looked at me with awe and I felt proud of my wide knowledge; this was before the days of high school when marijuana would cease to be a rumor and when the fifth floor bathroom would smell like weed every day.
Many memories of my hood deal with dollar cabs. They’re a shady, local system of vans that drive up and down Flatbush Ave. You hail them, climb in, and pay two dollars a ride. Each carries 13 passengers max. The drivers don’t care for driving regulations in the least, the results of which are speed, danger, and a heck of a lot of stories to tell at dinnertime.
It was a dollar van driver that taught me how to treat other people on the road. I was heading south and the ride had been uneventful until a different dollar van cut us off sharp from the left lane to pick up a potential passenger on the sidewalk to the right.
“Ay, ay!” our driver yelped. The next red light brought us directly next to the other guy. To my surprise, our driver leaned across the passenger seat and stuck his head out of the right window to talk. “Ey, mahn, let me talk to you, ok?” His voice was earnest but steady.
The other man laughed at him. I drew in a breath. Here we go with the cursing, I thought.
Our driver lifted the rim of his tweed golf cap a little and continued in his soft Jamaican accent. “That’s not right, my friend, that’s not right. I got passengers in my van. Okay you wan’ another passenger, but two dollars don’t save a passenger’s life, okay? Passenger’s life worth more than two dollars, my friend,” he said.
“Yah mahn, sure,” said the other driver, still grinning.
“You don’t do that no mo’, alrai?”
He nodded, and the light turned green. After a block the other van dashed behind us across the opposite lanes and through a gas station to beat us to the next light. I sat in the front row of seats, beaming incredulously at my driver. He noticed my face and shook his head.
“We all mess around and try to get the passenger first, you know, but when it come to a passenger’s life, I don’t play,” he said. I wanted to tell him that my church friends were not as nice on the road as he was, but soon, it was time for me to get off.
Last fall I was taking a dollar van to Avenue U. Reggae played softly on the radio and inside it was decked out with Rastafarian stickers and pictures of Bob Marley with the Jamaican flag behind him. I needed to get a little past Kings Plaza Mall, the last stop.
“Driver, can you drop me off just at the end of the block?”
“No Kings Plaza?” he asked. He was a chubby kinda guy, fifty maybe, with dreads dangling from where his head was tied with a blue kerchief. He leaned forward and bobbed to the music while he drove.
“Nah,” I replied.
“Not spending yoh Thanksgivin’ money?” He grinned wide and swerved the van left.
“What Thanksgiving money?” We laughed together until I got off at the end of the block.
Sometimes it’s the rhythm of the place that gets to you. There’s a beat on the streets, especially in the summer. Caribbean smells float out of apartments and restaurants, music plays on every block, people bustle about, talking, laughing, buying groceries. Kids ride on their beat-up bicycles and shout at each other. Shopkeepers like to stand at the doors of their stores and hoot at passersby to buy their merchandise. I especially like the guys around the corner from me that have a booming mattress business. They call after people, “Mattress! Mattress! Fifty percen’ off!” But who walks by a mattress shop and just decides to buy a mattress?
Other favorite hangout spots are porches and delis. One such spot is on Dorchester, a little before the place where we smelled the weed with Maya. There’s this crazy man who is there 24/7. I leave for school and pass him early every morning (since 7th grade) and pass him again every afternoon, by which point there are about ten other loiterers. My sister, who’s four, likes to say hi, to which he always replies, “Hi baby,” because she’s been saying it ever since she started to talk. She also likes one of the mattress guys because he has long dreadlocks that he always keeps back with a rubber band. Speaking of dreadlocks, one of the families on Dorchester has this black dog whose fur is completely in dreads. It’s the craziest thing to see when the lady walks it in the mornings and you can’t see anything except the hair and a pink semicircle of the tongue.
Some things are scary, like walking at night. I remember how Brianna and I went to get ice cream one evening and ran into some teenage girls that screamed, “Look, white girls, white girls!” after us.
Some things are annoying. I remember when our neighbor Leon got a ticket for riding his bike on the sidewalk and came to visit us to let off some steam. “People get shot here! They sell crack by Newkirk! The cops couldn’t find anything better to do than fine a person riding up to their house on their bike?” You see cops a lot in Flatbush, but they usually aren’t doing much besides standing and staring.
Other things are uplifting, like that time the dollar cab driver was being a jerk to this passenger that wanted to get off and one woman told the driver to stop ruining the morning. “Doan be like dat, sir. Tank da Lor’ Jesus yoh livin’ ahnother dey!” she cried from the back row.
Or the man with the nice, broad face who plays guitar by the subway and gets probably two quarters a day. I was walking and reading at the same time from the subway, and he called out, “I wish I could do that!” I smiled at him and called back, “I wish I could play guitar.”
Or my neighbor Ally, who waters the flowers on our block every day and thanks me lavishly whenever I help, even if I haven’t shown up for a week.
I’m pretty sure people around here know me by now, since my routine has been constant for a few years already. What would they say if they read this? I wonder if I posted these stories up on the walls, or on deli doors, would they think I was a presumptuous idiot? Or just another whitewashed, ignorant kid? I’m not sure. I like to think they’d nod and laugh with their wide smiles and bright white teeth and say “Ya, mahn, ya, that’s just how it is ovah heyah, just how it is.”
Arina Bykadorova, Age 16, Grade 11, Stuyvesant High School, Gold Key