I sat down to blog about this strange conversation I just had, and realized it could make a good article. It just so happens that it also fulfills a class assignment, due Friday. Two birds!
Returning from dropping off my laundry this morning, I was harangued, for the first time, as an agent of the gentrification of historically-black Brooklyn.
It just so happened that at that very moment I was thinking about my childhood nanny, an immigrant from Barbados named Rosemary. I had seen her a week earlier, the day of the West Indian parade, which was also the day I moved into my Crown Heights apartment. I've always struggled with the fact of my privilege, most notably through my relationship with Rosemary. That I spent time with her the very first day of my new life—for years, while I wrote about police interactions with the mentally ill for a public policy research firm, I lived on a quiet street in Park Slope; it was perhaps the single-least diverse block in Brooklyn—had a symbolism and poignance which did not escape me.
"Now why you want to live in a black neighborhood?" asked a man, around 40, who was leaning against the brownstone wall in front of the house next door to where I rent a room from an elderly Jamaican family. The man wore a green guerilla cap, slightly askance. His face was matted in short silver stubble, and his eyes, bloodshot, had a manic look. He was drunk. Based on the time of day and where he stood, I guessed he had just been turned out of the shelter in the Atlantic Armory two blocks away.
I paused. I wanted to be thoughtful. But the man didn't wait. "Because if I was me in a white neighborhood, you know I wouldn't be there like that."
I had a response formed, but regrettably I took his bait.
"Now why do you say that?" I asked.
Immediately I felt foolish. I thought about what I was wearing: gray running shorts from my alma mater, Wesleyan University, and a green Teach For America t-shirt. (A friend of mine likes to drunkenly award "Liberal Arts Student of the Year" awards when someone goes on about "institutional racism" or Evo Morales or Talk of the Town pieces. I no doubt would have won an honorable mention for best-dressed.)
"Come on now, you know why." Realizing my mistake, I eagerly nodded ascent. He continued: "You know now, if I was in Bay Ridge or something like that..."
I thought, 'Thank God he didn't mention Park Slope,' but decided to go another direciton.
"I live here because the people here are friendly, and because it's a nice place to live."
If he was caught off-guard, he didn't show it. "Well thank you for saying that," he said. "Now not everyone…" he started, then trailed off. He then mumbled some thoughts about the police, which I didn't understand, and the shelter, which indeed had kicked him out.
Perhaps sensing that he was losing me, he abruptly cut himself off, straightened up, and looked me in the eyes. "Well, you have a nice day," he said, and staggered away.
I turned the other way, smirked, and hurried up stairs to write about it.