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The Age of Agency

by Domonique Eaddy 2 months ago in humanity
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Notes on self-identification after emotional isolation

Queens was the shelter we stayed in that winter I decided not to go to school. Once again, I failed expectations and we were desperate. It wasn’t that bad. The worst of it being Jamaica Center and that guy who shot up the Q111 bus that merrily rolled itself away before I got a chance to catch it. But, other than that, it wasn’t that bad.

About a week into Spring, they moved us to East New York where the congregation was more concerned with protecting their boys in red than their neighbors in blue; where outlines of the day’s events were kept cool for the evening of your return; where jaundiced eyes substituted moist hands for yours in the corner seat of the J train; back and forth and back and forth again.

Queens was cleaner, for one, but only because West Harlem had been so dirty. I knew that as a child. My reign being on the East Side, we only ever went to the West Side to shop or visit Auntie. But even then we didn’t go further than Malcolm X Blvd. I didn’t know what the other side looked like until I was an adult. Or almost one. I remember that shelter too. It was under the one train right across from the project that was always on Law & Order. Hefty stairs and the freedom to walk to Duane Reade. That’s what I remember about the West Side before we finally moved there in 2013. Now it was back to Queens.

My junior year of high school, my white teacher was gap-faced and starry-eyed when I told her my mother and I had lived on Park Avenue, a couple of blocks down from Central Park. I was confused. I didn’t know what Park Avenue meant to people. The stores around my block being the only places I could go alone besides school; I didn’t know much of anything. It was the late 2000’s, Bloomberg and Giuliani had done all they could to wipe away most of the 80’s and 90’s, but you couldn’t tell that to my mother. New York would always be chartered territory that could only be breeched by a familiar face. The only safe bases she knew were Hale & Hearty on 23rd street, Bloomingdales on 5th ave, One Fish Two Fish on 97th and Madison, God rest its soul. Places like that. Where white faces meant clean streets and clean streets meant government funded. If they were there, then we were there and if we were there then maybe we were them too. But her Park Avenue wasn’t my Park Avenue. Not in the slightest.

Mine had AJ & Free four blocks down and the best bagel, egg and cheese you could find two blocks up. Where breakfast wasn’t held at Tiffany’s but gulfed down on the way to school. There were no skyscrapers, no glass towers, just red and brown tenement buildings with pissy elevators and brown eyes watching you wherever you went. It wasn’t the best, my park avenue, but at least it was a little bit mine.

The story goes it could’ve been fully mine, but grandma wouldn’t let us have it. Tradition says you hand over the apartment to your next of kin, not throw it away for NYCHA to up the price. But good ol’ grandma broke tradition, refusing to let my mother have the place for want of a good name. Grandma's dead now. A few weeks after my father, brother, a friend at school, she followed them to the upper rooms of the great escape where admission was being priced at an all-time low. Couldn't fault her for getting in on the deal. But there was no way to know now if that really was the reason. I guess I'll have to take her word for it.

She was like that though. Grandma. One minute you had her trust and then, the next, it skirted off to Aunt Carroll who needed it just a little bit more. That time it had skirted all the way down to the Old Country, promising shoulda-could’s and never-evers like they wouldn’t work if she didn’t say them fast enough. My mother made promises too. One of them being that she’d never do the same.

***

It was inevitable, my going to school. Freedom was a noun, not a verb, and it never had any reason to apply to me. Until Freshman Year, of course, where the roots of my loyalty crossed over to the other side of town and built itself a new tree at the end of a dirt road lined with big white houses. I was a hard sell for anything, after that; the tree being my only reprieve but even it wasn’t always receptive. It was a young tree, after all, you couldn’t expect it to know and not know and not punish itself for being so. It takes a lifetime to live and twice that to learn how to live it. Shame only comes when some godawful person convinces you to put it on a timeline. So, I grew my tree and built a house with a yellow door. When it came time to leave, I took it with me.

It was hard trying to fit my tree in with everybody else’s. You’d think there’d be space, with everybody knowing the tree will come someday, somewhere. You’d think they would plan ahead of time, make some room. But apparently no one likes making room for trees, no matter how inevitable they are. No one has the time. Their tree was too old and two full to remember what it felt like to grow branches. In fact, they didn’t want to remember at all. Besides, my tree had to be different. My tree had to stop growing in the wrong directions.

I was always on display. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. But the eyes hit different now that I had my own tree. What’s worse is it was bare and apparently it was tacky to have a bare tree at nineteen. Especially when the point wasn’t to have a tree at all. Things hadn’t changed much since I left, so it was back to the docks for a new boat. This time it was the Bronx, also known as Hell for those who aren’t familiar. New York cared about the Bronx the way Hollywood cared about Asians: they only gave a shit for the parts that were white. No one really lived in the Bronx and, if they did, what reason would they have to leave? There were cars, there were buses, there was the freeway. What more could you possibly want?

Of course, we wanted more but who would we get it from? And, as far as leaving is concerned, no one wants to hire you when you live more than an hour away and working in the Bronx only works for those who want to stay. It’s simple, really. Bronx jobs pay Bronx salary. Why pay ten an hour when the rent in the area says you can get by on seven-fifty? All I know is, once again I was pushed to the edge of the world but this time, it was my doing. I didn’t have to drop out, I didn’t have to come back. I couldn’t drive, didn’t have a car even if I could; no money, because you can’t work if you can’t drive and definitely can’t drive if you don’t have a car, and no way back to school. But I was admitted goddammit and that was supposed to make all the difference! I’d run out of time, I’d run out of chances, and, worst of all, I was stuck in Pelham Bay. What else was I to do but grow branches?

Memory isn’t always your friend. She fades often and nine times out of ten she remembers only what you remember then. It’s hard to pinpoint which came next: Fort Greene or the Old Hotel. My guess is Fort Green. The branches talk of old wounds and a beautiful boy who hardly showed up. It would explain the euphoria of leaving the Bronx for Brooklyn once again. They reek of hope from the clutter of empty nests that littered the base of the trunk, forever eager to build a new one should the others prove faulty. They weren’t but they kept getting swiped at by the other tree, it’s fractured branches and dead leaves looking to teach it a lesson. Domestic disputes took us to the Old Hotel that she said was for abused victims as we walked past a couple who was coming out. The guy at the front desk led us to our closet and the man down the hall was always nice enough to knock. This is for abused victims, she kept saying. You’ll get us kicked out if they see you with him. So, I made plans to meet a block away. That still didn’t please her. Neither did breaking the branch and handing over three-fourth’s of my check. When the social worker asked how much I’d saved towards rent, my answer was the remainder of what was left over. She made a face. I looked over to my mother, waiting for her to un-sully my good name and tell her that our savings was what I gave her. For the first two weeks I’d walk forty blocks each day with a broken heart and a green apple to satisfy an empty stomach, my only reward being the breakfast platter I ordered from McDonald’s the morning she told me how much I had to give her. She was supposed to say something. She did not.

Funny enough, we were in the safe zone. Twenty-third street between Park and Lex had been a particular favorite of ours since the fourth grade. Shelter, or no shelter, we were in the promised land. After a long haul of being placed on the outskirts of the universe, we’d somehow hit the jackpot of Manhattan real estate. Except it wasn’t safe. Not anymore. I was stupid if I went out after dark for a quick salad, accused of trying to mend old branches anytime I was more than ten minutes later, and even charged with lending him money-an easy tune she would choose to soothe herself with longer than I anticipated. I was lying, I wasn’t trying, and it was all, all my fault.

***

Summer brought a growth of new branches like I’d never seen. They were brittle and sparce, but they were there and ready to grow. I owe that to Queens. As much as I hate to admit it, had it not been for the random fieldtrips and stolen nights I’d spent there, I don’t think I’d have gained anything, let alone courage. The backdrop to a fatal escape, I couldn’t undue what I had done and, thankfully, would never come back from it. The city was strange like that. You spend your whole life thinking salvation’s going to come in the middle of 34th street and then you find yourself running for the Q85 at three in the morning, dodging straight answers and phone calls just to get a peek at normalcy, and somehow find it there instead. And that’s not to say West Harlem didn’t have anything to do with it. On the contrary, I’m sure I owe it the most. For all the branches I grew in Queens, nothing feeds the soul of a tree more than fertile soil.

I’d taken a lot of blows since twenty-third street, most of my leaves had forgotten how to grow and was almost hellbent on not trying to remember. During that time she’d won and was set on bending my tree to grow in the other direction, even if that meant chopping it down to build a new one. But freedom is hard-pressed to give up once it’s been attained and the memory of Freshman year wouldn’t die out; even when I was the one stomping on it. The truth is our trees were never going to be friends. I was never meant to have one in the first place. Maybe some shrubbery if I was good, or a beautiful bonsai with low bearing leaves to make things easy. But never a full-grown tree which had the potential to grow beyond control, to produce any number of leaves, to fall and yet never be heard.

Queens was more than just “not that bad”. It was necessary. It had been a long time since Manhattan had meant anything to me other than a quick fix of gratification. Something about the pounding of pavement coupled with the pain of rejection got the blood going, insisting the subjection to self-mutilation all for the simple satisfaction of a slow yes. Park Avenue was no longer mine. In fact, it never was. The older I get, the more I realize that it had always been hers. She just could never figure out if she wanted to share it. Well, she no longer had to. She could have the bricks, the brownstones, the five-minute walk to any train she liked. I’ll take the one-hour commute just to get home and be satisfied with the prospects of my neighborhood, no matter how small they may be. I’ll take Queens, so long as it’s there; I’ll take it so long as it’s mine.

humanity

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Domonique Eaddy

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