The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Living on Top of One Another in Flatbush

Thursday night, a neighbor was shot dead, this time inside the old-skool KHF bodega on Flatbush near the remarkable Risbo and not-so-remarkable Parkside pizza bistro. I mention the restaurants because by the time the sun went down on Friday, the block from Parkside to Winthrop was shoulder to shoulder with people, and the busy restaurants provided a stark backdrop for a scene of overwhelming sorrow, anger and contemplation, mixed with shots from plastic cups. "First Class" liquors was doing a mighty business. Actually, First Class liquors is always doing a mighty business, but this night the line was especially long.

Dwayne Smith. If you lived here awhile you'd probably recognize him, unless you're the sort that chooses not to look men in the eyes. It's a weird thing, right? You want to be friendly, a good neighbor, but you also don't want to start nothing. Like the code that says "don't engage the schizophrenic when they're in the middle of a meltdown," these self-protective behaviors become perpetuating, and still when I actively engage, say, black men walking alone on my block it's if I've broken some Flatbush commandment. I do it anyway, hoping I'll break through to the other side, like the Jim Morrison I once wished I were. These are dances we long-timers do without thinking, but sometimes we do think, and this is what I've been thinking.

Dwayne lived on Lenox, the first block off Flatbush. The newspapers quoted family and friends saying he was a good father to his seven kids. He was an aspiring filmmaker, having made the video you can watch below for his friend the rapper Marz Money, another Lenoxonian. The shooting happened Thursday night, and by Friday the candles came out, dozens of them, each a remembrance of a relationship deep or distant, but the sheer number of candles and mourners suggested Dwayne was a longtimer too. Someone with deep roots, friends from school and life. And clearly at least one person, the murderer, was not a friend at all, or maybe had been once. He hated Dwayne, or his crew did at least, enough to shoot him in cold blood, assassin-style. These are the sorts of killings that used to be so much more common, even around here, even just 5 to 10 years ago. And certainly through the late '80s and '90s, this area saw more than its share of the bloodshed that overwhelmed the City. It was brutal back then, and apparently for some, it still is.

Rather than pretend to know Dwayne well, perhaps it's worth sharing some of his artistry as video maker, since I really do think the track and video say a lot, and besides this is an excellent portrait of the neighborhood you and I share, and if your demographic matches mine, it's not OUR neighborhood anymore than the one you see here, which, if you weren't told was right on top of you, you probably wouldn't even recognize. Amiright?

For better or worse, the Q's set down roots here too. I have friends (and not a few enemies), some deep some shallower. I walk down the street and share hellos along the way. I smile as often as I can, recognizing that even those I don't know may know me, or may THINK they know me, and I give them no reason to reinforce their worst suspicions. I've been here 16 years and more than ever I'm aware that my presence is both threatening and annoying to many people of color, though in all fairness the vast majority of people couldn't care less. Like all of us, Dwayne had his enemies, exes, resentments, fears. He wasn't so much younger than me that we could have been friendly, had the stars aligned. Maybe I'd have seen him in one of those "church basements" I go to, trudging the happy road of destiny.

Walking through the makeshift wake on the Flatbush sidewalk outside the crime scene - a Brooklyn ritual that would blow the friggin' minds of those in the suburbs or on the backroads. I heard laughter and tears. I recognized a few faces too...from my block, some whom I haven't seen in quite some time. Either priced out, grown out, or merely moved out, these were folks that clearly knew Dwayne from his earliest days. Stories were told. Liquor flowed. A parked police car kept its lights on, and the cops told me they were keeping an "eye on things."  They weren't there to stop the open containers or force people to move along. They recognized the scene, one of way too many, of a low-rent ceremony, and seemingly even the NYPD realize how cruel it would be to stop the DIY wake. Cruel, and foolish.

At one point I heard someone say "Dwayne would've wanted it this way." Indeed.

So what to make of it? We live in a phenomenally diverse neighborhood, but we often live on top of or beside each other. Dwayne would not have described his neighborhood the same way I do. The physical markers might be the same, but the hangouts, the people, the culture would read very different. Looking at the video that he made with his friend (I'm making assumptions, since the video is mentioned in the Daily News piece and it's clearly Marz Money's "big" video, those quotes used in the News piece to transmit a certain smugness that's hard to miss) I'm struck by the artistry (it's really quite good) of the lyrics, delivery and content. In the narrative, a young man, perhaps Marz himself, has spent time locked up, and he's returned to Lenox Road to friends and family, with big plans to remake his life. This part of the American experience - the return from prison - reflects some deep shit.

Confession time. When I moved here after making the gypsy rounds of gentrifying Brooklyn, I thought that I was the ideal person to move to a mostly black neighborhood. Why? Because I don't spend a minute of my brain thinking black folks are less than, or to be feared, nor do I think my mere presence needs to signify anything other than a willingness to hop into the present day Flatbsh olio. I was going to be, and continue to try to be, though it's getting harder, myself. Treating people of color with dignity and respect, to me, meant treating them no different. It meant calling out jerks for jerks, and elevating small-town heroes and hanging out on stoops and shooting the shit. It meant neither patronizing nor ass-kissing. It meant recognizing that no two people are alike (we're all the same? what bullshit!) and that until I'd heard someone's story I had no business making assumptions.

I've always believed, and never as much as now, that it's those assumptions that are killing us. As a country, for sure. Assumptions about immigrants, blacks, whites, asians, republicans, fly-over folks, celebrities,'s a recipe for disaster. Like Sarajevo before us, the world-class city on the verge of greatness, we too can descend into hatred, chaos and who knows maybe ethnic cleansing. There is no rule that we will survive the current moment, that our nation will somehow continue some inexorable path towards a more perfect union.

And now I pose the hypothetical Emotional Experiment. Had the person killed been white, a parent you know from the playground, someone you know from the occasional party or through gossip at school...would it feel more close, scary, tragic and perhaps even "too close to home?" as I've sometimes heard these violences described?

Dwayne's death made me think this stuff. It all makes a sad sense in my mind, and I offer no solutions. The old yarn about treat your neighbor as you would yourself? Makes sense if we're all the same. But the differences are what make us Flatbush.

How do you do this, y'all?

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