Sunday, June 11, 2006


Yesterday, after baseball, Adam and I went out to lunch at Eli Zabar's "The Vinegar Factory" with a boy (and his parents and younger brother) who goes to Horace Mann. Today, I took Brian to a birthday party at the apartment of one of his classmates, which apartment is a part of the New York City Housing Authority's Public Housing System. Until today, I had never set foot in a public housing project. They tend to be kind of scary places, even for the people who live there. The Projects even have their own designated police force, which is an arm of the NYPD, although at one time it was a separate entity. But the primary reason I had never been inside a public housing project is that I have never known anyone who lives in one.

So ignorant was I of the NYC housing projects and the people who inhabit them that when Brian and I got out of our cab on First Avenue and 94th Street, the intersection identified on the party invitation, I immediately hurried us into only luxury hi-rise on the block, without even looking to see if it matched the address on the invitation. The doorman asked us who were there to see, and when we said the boy's name, he shook his head and told us that no one lived there with that name. That's when I looked at the invitation again.

"1830 First Avenue," I read. "This isn't 1830 First Avenue, is it," I asked the doorman somewhat rhetorically.

Back outside on First Avenue, Brian and I looked around for 1830 First Avenue. I couldn't understand where it could be. The only other apartment buildings at the intersection of First and 94th were in the Stanley Isaacs Housing Project across from the Shell Station at the entrance to the FDR Drive. But sure enough, there it was, 1830. A NYCHA cop sat on a parkbench near the entrance. I felt confused and stupid for having assumed his friend lived at The Chesapeake, that same kind of confused and stupid feeling you get when you ask a woman when she is "due" only to have her tell you that she gave birth three months ago.

As we hurried over to the front door of 1830, we saw another one of Brian's friends and his mom. "Solange!" I called out to her, "Is this really the right place?" "I'm afraid so," she said, pointing at the poster hanging beside the elevator, asking for any information regarding the murder of a 62-year old woman that had taken place in her apartment in the building. I sighed. I had thought this was going to be a drop-off party, but there was no way that I could leave Brian here alone.

Upstairs, we walked into an apartment the likes of which I had never seen before. The four rooms were all on top of each other without any hallways, and each room other than the kitchen had at least one bed in it. The living room furniture was covered in plastic. There were piles of clothing and shoes everywhere. The entire place smelled of curry, which I actually didn’t mind. The boy’s mother, whose name I never caught, was preparing food in the kitchen. The family is from Bangladesh. The mom speaks almost no English at all. Since they are Muslim, I couldn’t even connect with her on what little I know about Hindu culture. In truth, I felt alienated, scared and terribly, terribly sad.

As the boys played in another room, Solange and I sat on the sofa and talked about J, the birthday boy. She knew him better than I did, and in fact, had taken somewhat of an interest in him since the prior year, trying to be present for him whenever possible at school events, even advocate for him when necessary, since his mother never came to the school anymore, at least not since an unfortunate episode in which she was made to feel unwelcome.

J told us about this. He translated for his mom a bit for us on this topic, and Solange and I tried to explain that it must have been a terrible misunderstanding. J told us that sometimes kids make fun of him because his mom doesn’t speak English. J is a beautiful, beautiful boy, and his openness touched me. I had no idea that anyone was suffering like this in my own son’s class. I asked him if Brian ever made fun of him. “Of course not,” J said. He told me who did. The son of a friend of mine, in fact, and a bit of a bully. I told J to just walk right up to this boy next time he made fun of him, and stare him down, shoulder to shoulder, nose to nose. I know this works on this boy, because I have seen Brian do it.

Anyway, after a while, the mom sent her 13-year old daughter to take the party (8 boys) out to the playground (within the Project). This was shocking to me but also validated my reason for having stayed. There was no WAY my 9-year old was EVER going to ANY playground without an adult present. Solange and I followed the group to the elevator bank, where two little boys of about seven were hanging around in their pajamas (it was 2:30 p.m.). They pointed at Solange and me and laughed, "Adult supervision!!"

Solange turned to me and said, "there's a reason we came here today." I nodded.

Outside, beside the policeman seated on a bench, Solange and I sat down and watched as the kids played with a ball inside an empty hockey rink. J's sister plunked down a bag containing 9 juice boxes and a bag of potato chips. It was hot out. And it was long past lunchtime. The kids were having a great time though. They organized a game of dodgeball, which left them ecstatic and dripping with sweat. I ran across the street to the Shell Station and bought more chips and more drinks. When I came back, Solange ran down the street to retrieve a pizza. While she was gone, I organized a relay race, using a stick that I found on the ground and broke in half. And then it was time to go back upstairs.

When we got back to J's apartment, we found that his mom had set out a platter of hotdogs and samosas, as well as a big bowl of saffron-colored pasta that would have resembled angel hair if it wasn't so audaciously yellow. The kids ate hungrily and watched as J ripped open his presents. J's mom insisted that I take home the leftover samosas (which were incredibly delicious). As she brought out a beautiful white birthday cake, complete with trick candles that kept relighting themselves after J blew them out, and as we all chanted, "Are ya 1, are ya 2, are ya 3....", I caught myself laughing and clapping my hands. I was no longer feeling sad or alienated.

More than three hours after we first made our way, with a great deal of trepidation, into a strange and foreign apartment in a strange and foreign part of our own neigborhood, Brian and I said our goodbyes and left the Stanley M. Isaacs Housing Project with good food in our bellies and smiles on our faces. Brian had had a great time. That's for sure. What I am not sure about is whether I was smiling out of happiness or out of relief that it was over.



Anonymous said...

dont be afraid of slumming it yc. you'll be able to go back into your upper east side yoga retired lawyer house wife "yoga teacher" bubble anytime you want.

yoga chickie said...

We all have our crosses to bear.


yoga chickie said...

P.S. I don't think I know anyone in Jackson Heights..?

Anonymous said...

i wouldnt take it as a slight. just a reminder of how lucky you are. of how lucky we all are.we all have our own bubbles that need bursting from time to time. Sounds like you had one of those moments

samasthiti said...

There is happiness everywhere.
There is sadness everywhere.
It doesn't matter how much money you have or don't.
I have been just as apprehensive in million dollar homes as I have been visiting low income housing.

yoga chickie said...

TRUE DAT!!! Next time, I am going to blogl about what it was like when we started at Park Avenue Synagogue and found that everyone else lived West of Third Avenue (that's the great divide on the Upper East Side), and learned what it meant when an address didn't have an apartment number next to it (can you say 7,000 square foot house on 71st between Fifth and Madison?)...I am quite sure that I am closer economically speaking to J and his family than to some of the people who we met that first year at PAS. And I am quite sure that I felt as clammy and palpitatious (is that word?) the first time I visited a Park Avenue mansion-flat as I did the first time I entered public housing....


samasthiti said...

I used to do a lot of photo shoots when I lived in Manhattan. We would spend days shooting in peoples home that they rent out to film crews. Places right off Central Park, where ladies live who wear suede shoes in the dead of winter and they always look brand new.
It was unbelievable the places I was able to go in.
Then at the end of the day I would shag my butt back down to the lower east side to my crappy 5th floor walk up.

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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