When you’re not cognizant of your own unique and underlying psychological particularities, to say nothing of self-destructive pitfalls, things have a way of spiraling downwards, until life’s various impasses and quandaries become so fraught as to be undeniable. I see this all more clearly now in my slightly mature years, though there was a time when I was simply unaware of my strengths and weaknesses, as it were, and, as a result, prone to blithely barrel forward as if gripped in a perpetual state of “mind-blindness.”
Things had come to a head during my late-30s: at the time, I was pursuing a modestly successful journalistic career, and fresh off my second book about the rise of South America’s rambunctious and iconoclastic populists and leftists, I received an e-mail from my publicist, ecstatically raving about how the Comedy Network wanted to interview me, and would I be willing to go on the Nightly Show with John Schneider? Stepping back from my laptop, my heart raced. I would certainly do the interview; there was little debate about that, per se, but the thought of appearing on national television, much less performing for a live audience, was profoundly disquieting to me. Not to worry, my editor wrote, she would rehearse with me prior to the engagement so I would be fully prepared for prime time.
The publishing company had pulled out all the stops by buying me a new stylish pair of Italian shoes and tweed jacket. On the day of the show, the studio sent a driver to my apartment in Brooklyn, and I was presently whizzed over to the west side of Manhattan in a black car. With hands shaking, I repeated my rehearsed lines, or script, over and over in my mind. Why was it necessary, I reasoned, that one had to become a kind of performing monkey in this day and age, as opposed to just letting the book stand for itself? Ruminating over such matters, my sense of trepidation took a further turn for the worse as we approached the studio, and I spotted throngs of spectators anxiously waiting on the curb to be let inside.
Melissa, my editor, seemed to regard me dubiously in the waiting room and urged me to button my jacket. My newbie publicist and a few editorial assistants and interns, hangers-on from the publishing house, excitedly chatted amongst themselves while examining their party favors which had been provided courtesy of the show. Presently, the door opened and Schneider himself strode in.
“Dear me,” he said, “there’s a whole horde of you!”
The host seemed quite a bit shorter than I had imagined, which somehow made me feel more relaxed, though any sense of momentary relief was quickly negated when I was called into a back room to prepare.
“Oh dear,” the makeup woman remarked, looking at me with a note of alarm. “Let me try to get rid of the sweat.” She daubed my forehead with a Kleenex, though it didn’t seem to do much good. Finally, after she had gone through five or six handkerchiefs, I calmed down and she was able to apply makeup to my face. I was then ushered into a curtain area, and from a loud speaker the announcer belted out, “October 9th, 2008! This is the Nightly Show with John Schneider!”
Walking on to the stage, I found it difficult to see with all of the bright spotlights flashing in my face. Off to the side, the studio audience was shouting and hollering in a deafening roar. I made a point of trying to ignore the spectators and colorful graphic displays which beamed from side to side on the walls.
“Please welcome our guest, journalist Alex Kamenev!” Schneider exclaimed, while displaying my book to the audience. “Tell us about President Sánchez of Venezuela if you will. A colorful bandido? Champion of the masses? Or simply a clown?”
“To be sure,” I remarked, “Sánchez, er, plays up fiery rhetoric to antagonize his enemies.” I was intentionally trying to inject some life into my usual staccato intonation, but to my own ear, my voice sounded flat. “What you have to remember is that the media in turn plays up these personal feuds between Caracas and Washington, and this…misses the wider picture.”
“Well, what is the context for Sánchez to call the U.S. president a donkey?”
The audience tittered. It seemed as if the room was swimming amidst multiple inputs coming from every direction. “I can’t speak to that particular word choice,” I replied, trying to be laconic. “But it’s not as if Venezuela lacks a reason to be paranoid. Indeed, if anyone is posing a threat…it’s the United States.”
“So, what’s Sánchez’s plan, does he want to unite South America against us?”
Schneider was completely relaxed and within his element, while I found it difficult to make eye contact, let alone get my main message across.
“Well…I just got back from a long trip to that part of the world and, I think the United States faces a much more difficult political milieu right now.” While I spoke, I self-consciously gestured with my hands in the hope of coming off as less wooden. “And Sánchez isn’t regarded as a threat to people in other South American countries.”
“And here in the U.S.,” Schneider riffed, “most people don’t know much about Sánchez, who is seen as the fringe, let alone South America as a whole. I know I for one don’t know much about the region at all.”
I was non-plussed and unsure what to say. There was an uncomfortable pause, and then I blurted out, “well, that’s why I wrote the book, and why Americans should pay more attention!”
Suddenly, to my confusion, Schneider doubled over into peals of laughter, along with his audience in tow. “That must be the best line I’ve ever heard during my time here playing the host,” he said.
Had I committed a faux pas by making Schneider feel uncomfortable, and he was subtly mocking me? The conversation was over, and I stumbled backstage. I reasoned that, at the very least, I had survived the encounter and hopefully not managed to bungle the interview. Not being sure how I had come off, I tried to gauge the reaction from my posse from the publishing house. The starry-eyed interns were just enthralled to be there, though Melissa seemed circumspect. Excusing herself, she quickly went home, leaving me on the street corner and wondering what to say to the interns clinging to their bags of party favors. Presently, the same chauffeur drove up in the black car, and I awkwardly said goodbye to my crew.
As we drove down the west side highway, I felt wound up but had no one to talk to. It would have been more fitting, I mused, to have strolled around midtown, as opposed to immediately returning to my Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook which was forlorn and desolate. Lining the coastline and unconnected to any major subway line, the only way to get there was on foot, by bus or via checkered black and yellow water taxi departing from lower Manhattan. Red Hook’s two-story storefronts, meanwhile, were perhaps more akin to something one might encounter in a bygone fishing village, rather than more typical, tree-lined Brooklyn neighborhoods. Geographical remoteness contributed to the area’s quirky personality and unique businesses, ranging from Louie’s Lobster Shack, to a bait and tackle boating supply store, to a bakery housed in a makeshift bungalow — which turned out distinctive key lime pies — to a distillery containing a series of gigantic iron stills churning out custom-made whisky, to even a warehouse-sized factory producing a line of specialized craft chocolate bars.
What really set Red Hook apart, however, was Sébastien’s, an age-old watering hole harking back to the neighborhood’s nautical past. Since I did not know anyone at the bar particularly well, I tended to avoid going there at night, when the place was bound to be jam-packed, and, as a result, I would no doubt be thrust into haphazard, off-hand or unpredictable exchanges. On the other hand, I was so wound up from my experience at the Nightly Show that I could not bear to go back to my solitary apartment. Approaching the bar, I spotted the usual motley crowd outside, including fleshy greasers who stood out with their long, disheveled beards, as well as a couple of fellows from the Irish-American club up the block. An old-style jalopy truck was parked outside the bar, and hipsters sporting hats seemingly plucked straight from the set of Mad Men were playing around in the front seat.
Entering the bar, I was immediately swallowed up by the crowd which stood elbow-to-elbow. Surrounded by a host of starry-eyed women, Sébastien sat behind the counter, presumably regaling patrons with his usual irreverent tales about Red Hook’s bad old days or saucy exploits from his time in the merchant marine. Unusually tall, with a shock of grey hair and wearing a vintage black leather jacket, the owner always stood out. Much to my surprise, he turned to me, beamed with pleasure and shouted out, “well, if it isn’t the man of the hour! We’ve already watched and replayed your interview five times!”
Whenever Sébastien spoke, he magnetically commanded the attention of all around him. There was a hush throughout the bar, and much to my consternation, I felt the crowd’s gaze fixed upon me. “Let me see if I can fast forward to some of my favorite parts,” Sébastien said, fidgeting with his TV’s remote control. With a sense of looming unease, I saw myself once again walking awkwardly on to the stage of the Nightly Show. “He looks as red as the sample platter at Louie’s Lobster shack!” one of the greasers hollered. Sébastien finally honed in on the final give-and-take with Schneider, and replayed the exchange.
“But that’s why I wrote the book!”
Sébastien doubled over in peals of laughter, and there was an uproarious roar from the crowd. “He looks so earnest!” the bar owner tittered. “I just can’t get enough of this,” he added, now transfixed and replaying the exchange over and over in an endless loop. The bar was swimming from side to side, and I wished I’d simply returned home instead of venturing into unfamiliar surroundings. But then, I was abruptly taken aback as Sébastien seemed to reverse tack by rallying to my defense. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have known what to say either. I can’t stand smart aleck talk show hosts like that, who imply they’re somehow cool because they lack any in-depth knowledge of South America.” Confused, I was startled as the crowd seemed to voice approval at Sébastien’s words. There was a great din, and the whole bar erupted in raucous cheering. “KAMENEV! KAMENEV!”
Later, after the crowd had calmed down, Sébastien patted me on the back. “Don’t worry, you did the best you could. It takes some practice getting used to the limelight, but once you get the hang of it, you can improvise and go around the host ring around the rosy-style.” At the mere mention of the word ‘improvise,’ my heart sank. “Not that I would really know,” he added, “since all I do is sit here and make drinks for knuckleheads from Bay Ridge like Joey Za-Za.” Sébastien pointed to a man with bleach-dyed blond hair sporting Ray-Ban sunglasses. “Say, what do you really make of this character Sánchez, and do you really think he would cut off the oil? Don’t get me wrong; by daring to take on the Empire, he’s a man after my true heart, but, frankly, he always looks a bit off, like he’s on something.”
“Indeed,” I noted, relieved to be given the simple opportunity to present my ideas and ironic observations, as opposed to being forced to navigate an assault on the senses, “I have no idea whether he has a drug habit, but he reportedly consumes twenty-five cups of espresso per day. There is an assistant in the presidential palace who is always on hand with a tray at the ready.”
“No way,” Sébastien said. “Does he eat anything, or just speechifies constantly?”
“He enjoys eating capybara empanadas and follows that up with a chaser of papaya juice.”
“W-w-what’s a capybara?” Joey asked, drunkenly falling on to the counter.
“It’s a large rodent which lives on the Venezuelan Plain or llano,” I continued matter-of-factly, now feeling more like myself. “Sánchez comes from that part of the country, and the diet forms part of his own, macho persona. Personally, however, I think capybaras are docile creatures and should be left alone.”
“He likes eating gigantic rats?” Sébastien asked, looking incredulous. “Er…I ate pretty much everything when I was in Venezuela, but that’s an oddly bizarre and somewhat, shall we say, freakish new one on me. Ah, brings me back to my exploits and misadventures of misspent youth.” Always the raconteur, I marveled at Sébastien’s seemingly effortless ability to command the attention of crowds. Next to Joey, a band of enthralled and spellbound twentysomething young women sat rooted to the spot. “Take, for example, my frolicsome coke-fueled benders in the dirtbag port of Maracaibo. Amidst limitless and ill-begotten petrodollars, delightful Colombian marching powder was never in short supply. About all I remember from that haze, quite frankly, is driving around in an outsize Cadillac with a bunch of wildcat drillers from Oklahoma, who shared my penchant for, let’s just say, sundry and illicit goodies.”
I was bowled over that Sébastien had actually been to Maracaibo, since I hadn’t seen many foreigners in the city during my own journalistic travels there. The crowd was thinning out, save for a few stragglers and Joey Za-Za. Now pouring himself a drink, Sébastien turned to me and remarked, “I’m glad someone like yourself is putting in the work and actually conducting research about that part of the world. To be honest, when I was your age, I deserved a really big ass-kicking. If I hadn’t wasted so much time, maybe I would have written a book about Venezuelan baseball, or perhaps delved into local folklore and music. Despite my previous over-the-top comments, Maracaibo has a lot of hidden gems that are worth exploring. See here, I’ve even retained my own personal set of souvenirs.”
With that, Sébastien reached atop a shelf full of baseball caps, and retrieved one hat displaying the emblem of an eagle. “It’s from my favorite team, Águilas del Zulia,” the bartender said. I’d only attended one baseball game in Caracas, and I was blown away that Sébastien had even heard of the local Maracaibo team. “It’s too bad that Joey and the riff-raff which frequents my high-end establishment only wants to listen to the bane of my existence, such as Bon Jovi, Journey or R.E.M. Come to think of it, maybe I should become Draconian and start imposing a ban on music I dislike, while promoting all that is good.”
Reaching under the counter, he retrieved an old, beat up record album. “Though I have been known to promote the likes of grubby punk rock in my drinking establishment, I’m also familiar with world music, such as the lilting sound of Venezuelan gaita.” There seemed to be no end to Sébastien’s esoteric and offbeat interests, and I was excited to talk to him about our common knowledge. Just then, however, Joey fell off his stool and made a gurgling noise from the floor. “Every time I see that man’s bleached blond hair, it just makes me want to kill myself,” Sébastien remarked. “You wouldn’t know it,” he added, dragging Joey out the door, “but my name actually means ‘venerable.’”
However embarrassing, my cameo on the Nightly Show made me a brief though minor celebrity in Red Hook, and local business owners insisted on providing me with discounts on everything from coffee and cappuccino to locally brewed beer and key lime pie. For some time, my formula of constantly churning out blog posts about Venezuela and the wider region seemed to work, with everyone from NPR to Pacifica Radio to even the BBC ringing me up. As long as I could gather my thoughts in advance, while calmly answering questions from my home, phone interviews seemed to go reasonably well. The frenetic pace gave me the illusion of progress, but then one day Melissa called. With a note of panic in her voice, she remarked, “I hate to be direct, but here at the publishing house we are very concerned about book sales. Do you have any new brainstorming ideas about how to raise your profile and platform?” Needless to say, I loathed the trendy buzzword “platform,” to say nothing of public relations. People should evaluate my book on the merits, I reasoned, as opposed to flashy promotion.
Perhaps I didn’t make it any easier for myself by trying to thread a fine needle on leftist politics. Sánchez was becoming increasingly erratic and authoritarian, and I styled myself as the idealistic minority within the minority by arguing for radical democracy and more revolutionary politics. That hardly seemed to help, however: as long as my main target was the Empire, my blogging got reposted on left wing web sites, but now that I had gone off the reservation, my readership lost interest. With a new, more conciliatory administration in Washington, the story seemed to have moved on, and Sánchez no longer had a convenient imperialistic whipping boy to rail against. Alone in my apartment at night, I began to wonder whether, just like Sánchez, my star had passed.
Melissa’s e-mails had grown desperate, and one day, she wrote me with a suggestion. “You need an ongoing and respectable platform,” she remarked, emphasizing that odious term once again. “Why not contact Bob Weinraub? He’s got a pretty regular column with Dissent magazine, and maybe he could set up a gig for you.”
A cantankerous local character in Red Hook, Weinraub lived on his own houseboat, the SS Kraken’s Claw. I knew him slightly from our occasional run-ins at Posey’s Pie Shop, a café located under my apartment which was a popular hangout amongst the laptop crowd. Weinraub’s ship, if you could call it that, was docked just off Conover Street along the pier, and a few days later I came aboard.
“Dissent?” he scoffed, with his back turned away from me while tinkering with some radio equipment. “I’ve washed my hands of them; they were once respectable, but ‘the left,’ — a-hem! —- has been infiltrated by the likes of Workers’ World Party. When dealing with one passage on my last piece, which discussed the legacy of the Zapatista rebels, an editor claimed it would be too much work to insert the correct Spanish accents when referring to the true identity of Subcomandante Marcos! The guy’s real name is Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, Ok? Why is it too much to ask to just put in the proper punctuation for crying out loud? When I got testy and insisted, the editor apparently went to the higher-ups and claimed I was too difficult to work with. At this point, I’m trying to launch a pirate radio station from my house boat, since apparently none of my blog readers are even willing to cough up a measly $50. What do you think?”
I was about to answer, when he cut me off, adding, “at this point, just keeping my web site afloat is a total financial albatross around my neck.”
Looking around the pier and gazing at the seagulls, I mused on his choice of words. “Are you hoping to become an ornithologist and attract new bird life to the area?” I asked.
Mending a couple of wires on an old tape machine, Weinraub chuckled. “Sadistic Hitchcock pigeons more likely. Hopefully the gathering flocks will meticulously peck out the eyeballs of yuppie real estate developers who’re trying to refashion the toxic Gowanus Canal, home to euphemistically termed ‘black mayonnaise’ and anomalous, parasitic forms of life.”
Stepping over some missing floorboards and garbage, I began to feel nervous about the houseboat’s overall seaworthiness. Then, just as Weinraub reached for his toolbox, a fleeting shape scampered across the deck. “Be gone, whipper snapper!” my host chuckled, as I strained to make out what was hiding in the shadows. A small black cat with a white nose, white paws and large, expressive emerald-green eyes tentatively peaked out from under a pile of rope. “That creature is the bane of my existence,” Weinraub groaned, adding “I think she’s some sort of stowaway. Sometimes she looks at me, and it’s as if she’s trying to engage me in some kind of bizarro Vulcan mind-meld.” Now getting into a stare-off with the cat, Weinraub shouted, “I don’t need your help, Ok? I’m just doing my best to stay afloat!”
As if on cue, choppy waves suddenly hit the houseboat, sending the ship wildly off balance. To my alarm, the cat was thrown to the side as water lapped dangerously close to the deck. Springing into action, I rescued the creature and gathered her in my arms. She had been spattered by the cold water, and was shivering, so I grabbed a nearby towel and dried her off. Apparently unconcerned with either me or the cat, Weinraub wiped down his radio equipment. Feeling a bit tapped out from the skipper’s sheer relentlessness, I said my farewells.
Brooding over my prospects, and wondering what I would tell Melissa, I wandered around Coffey Street. Whenever I felt in a bind, I would head to a yard in back of Fairway market and take in the sight of an abandoned steel cable car which lay on old rusty tracks. As a longtime enthusiast of Brooklyn’s vintage street cars, I always found the spot pleasing and absorbing. Somehow, just by sitting there amid the refreshing smell of the sea and bracing wind, with picturesque Liberty Island off in the distance, I could think more clearly.
Sitting on a bench right off the wharf, my attention was suddenly drawn to one of the cable car’s empty, hollowed-out windows. It was the cat again, who had apparently followed me all the way from Weinraub’s boat! “Go away! Shoo!” I called. Propping herself up on the seat, she looked at me insistently, and for whatever reason, I could intuitively grasp what she was saying.
“Don’t leave me! Don’t send me back there!” she implored, in Spanish. “Ese señor es un monstruo!” “That man is a monster!” She proceeded to explain that she had been born in Montevideo, South America, and her name was Alma. She had made her home on a freighter, but then the ship abruptly embarked for New York. “I can help you!” she exclaimed, jumping out of the window and brushing up against my leg.
“Help me with what?” I retorted, crossly. “Now see here, I can’t take you, so I’m bringing you back where you belong.” I gathered her in my arms, and started walking back towards Weinraub’s houseboat. But then, Alma seemed to panic and scratched my hand. “That’s enough!” I shouted, throwing her to the ground. A couple of tourists who had come to see the cable car peered at us curiously. Exasperated, I stormed off along the tracks, but Alma would not let up and followed me all the way to Van Brunt Street. Every time I tried chasing her away, the cat would give me a wounded look. Feeling worn down by the whole brouhaha, I finally shrugged my shoulders as she followed me to my building. When we got to Posey’s, Alma stopped to sniff the inviting and wafting pastry smells emanating from inside. Good grief, I thought, shuffling inside to purchase a slice of the café’s legendary salted caramel apple pie. Balancing the pie in one hand, and Alma in the other, I made my way up the stairs.
At the risk of digressing, perhaps I should point out that for other reasons which had nothing to do with Melissa or the publishing company, this was not exactly the most-trouble free period of my life. Specifically, I had been blocking out the recent death of my father, and for some time, I had resisted going through his affairs. But that evening, after bringing Alma back to the apartment, I suddenly decided to review files stored on his laptop. My father, who had been a curator at the Brooklyn Historical Society, had left computer folders dealing with various archival matters and ongoing exhibits. My eyes began to glaze over, until I came across one document titled “Alex.” It was a letter addressed to my uncle Morey in Chicago, and had been written just before my father’s heart attack. Expressing grave qualms and misgivings, my father seemed to brood upon my future.
“On the surface at least,” he wrote, “my son has a number of advantages, but it’s as if, for all his strengths, everything is quite polarized. Maybe he excelled for a time in school, but in a less structured environment, I fear he may flounder. To be honest, I have no idea where he picked up his peculiar traits, though to be sure, I have always been quite exacting and fixated on details. At any rate, I have encouraged him, and perhaps he may succeed for a time, but I fear that in the long-term he will not live up to his true promise, or even fade into irrelevancy. If something should ever happen to me, I trust you will do your best to look after him.”
My father’s letter, particularly the word “irrelevancy,” hit me hard, since to me, nothing could be worse than a life of obscurity. I had never understood why people pursued banal, prosaic or merely commonplace interests and goals, and nothing could have been more important to me than making my mark through writing, not in an egotistical sense, but in the hope that I could exert a meaningful impact on the world. Staring at the computer screen, I had the lurking suspicion the letter may have foretold my true destiny, and this in turn gave rise to an inchoate sense of indignation. Though I could not articulate why, I felt that I had been misunderstood by both my father and others. As I sat there, I shed a tear as Alma peered on, shaking her head.
“I have a new female roommate,” I remarked, speaking on my cell phone several days later.
“Молодец!” exclaimed my uncle Morey, who was prone to break out in Russian from time to time. “Very good! Who is she?”
“She’s a cat,” I answered, with a note of irony. “I should probably bring the creature back to her previous owner, but every time I make the attempt, she raises a disturbance in the apartment.”
Morey was one of my last remaining relatives and a member of the fast-disappearing Chicago clan of the Kamenev family. I cherished him for his spirited nature, though I couldn’t help wonder whether he had called me out of a sense of guilt or obligation towards my father.
“Hoo-hoo-hoo! I was hoping you would have settled down with a proper young woman, a tempting девушка from Brighton Beach? As for myself, I won’t trouble you with all my tribulations and assorted stumbles within the senior dating world, but I have news! I just met a Mexican widower named Esmeralda, and though she is quite needy and a handful, things seem to be going well!”
I was pleased for him and expressed my heartfelt congratulations, but the image of my uncle waxing his characteristic, long moustache before heading out on the town with a matronly Mexican woman seemed incongruous. Sitting in a basket which I had placed in the living room, Alma rolled her eyes.
“I just received your book about South America and president Sánchez,” Morey said. “Very exhaustive to say the least! It’s too bad your father did not live to see you make your mark on the Nightly Show.”
I cringed at the mention of my interview with Schneider. Briefly, I thought about going into my difficulties with book promotion, but then decided against it.
“I loved your father so much,” Morey added. “Now there was a real Kamenev!”
Was Morey trying to imply that I was somehow atypical in relation to the family? Somehow, the words stung me, but I didn’t have time to respond before my uncle added, “I’m so sorry I haven’t called much since the funeral, but I mean to tell you that if you need anything…anything, just holler! Say, even a luxurious supply of gravlax? Well, До свидания молодой человек! Goodbye, young man!”
The speakerphone had been turned on throughout the conversation, and at the mention of Russian culinary delicacies, Alma’s eyes lit up. Though the cat was certainly diverting, my thoughts presently turned back to what Morey had said. Perhaps I had suppressed or failed to sort out the fallout from my father’s passing, and now the funeral came back to me, as if on delay. For a moment, I recalled how my uncle had expressed surprise that I had not joined with the rest of the entourage, as people took one last look at my father lying in his casket. Though I had not expressed much emotion then, I was now overcome as I recalled how my father had sacrificed everything on my behalf. Though certainly a task-master and old school in many respects, he had encouraged my studies and paid for my high caliber education. And now that he was gone, I was alone, having failed to cultivate friendships in the neighborhood, let alone within professional circles. From high school to college to even graduate school, my friends had either moved away, or apparently no longer felt the need to correspond.
It was at times like these that I found solace in my old comic book collection, ranging from the Silver Surfer, a figure who had become separated from his home planet of Zen-La, and was therefore perpetually destined to roam the cosmos as an outsider; to the Fantastic Four, particularly Benjamin Grimm — also known as The Thing — to the X-Men, mutants displaying their own unique and special abilities, all of whom received direction from brainiac Doctor Xavier. Engrossed in my comic books, I must have lost track of time, until suddenly something pounced on the bed. It was Alma, and she was trying to shred my comic book collection with her claws!
“What’s gotten into you?” I shouted. “Don’t you know these comics are collector’s items?” I picked the cat up and brought her into the next room, but she would not give up and clawed the bedroom door. Putting my comics back into storage, I finally relented and opened the door. Alma stood staring at me, looking forlorn. It was as if she had read my thoughts ever since I hung up the phone with Morey, and was now trying to steer me away from my comic books…but towards what, exactly? Though I was still miffed, I instinctively grasped that Alma hadn’t lashed out randomly, but was rather trying to convey something important. Feeling exhausted by the mystery, I turned out the lights and propped my head on the pillow. As I tossed this way and that, the cat jumped up and lay on top of my head: a literal and metaphorical security blanket.
I should point out that, whatever my problems, I could still rely on a substantial inheritance from my grandfather who had been a banker. The savings allowed me to keep up my blogging, though whether my writing was productive in a long-term sense was open to debate. Perhaps the sense of security encouraged an underlying inflexibility, since I kept on dealing with the same topics, far beyond their public shelf-life. Downstairs at Posey’s, I blogged up a storm about South America, even though Sánchez was now in poor health and was acting erratically. Amongst the leftist conspiratorial crowd, many had given the populist leader the benefit of the doubt, claiming the CIA had infected him with a diabolical virus.
The café attracted an almost exclusively young, white hipster crowd, with the exception of Mrs. Eleanor, a frail Puerto Rican woman who wore a Fedora hat and walked with a cane. Every so often, she would wander over to Van Brunt Street from the housing projects overseen by NYCHA, the New York City Housing Authority. When she saw me typing away, she crossed herself ominously and remarked, “ese diablo Sánchez es mala suerte!” Faltering with some coins, she came up short when paying for the coffee.
“Here,” I said, placing a dollar bill on the counter, perhaps wondering whether my act of charity would cancel out the ominous curse of daring to write about Venezuela.
Though Posey and her crew had made a fuss over me after my cameo with Schneider, interest had waned, and now I was just another face amongst the daily laptop crowd. After downing my espresso on a rundown couch, I finished up a brand-new book proposal for Melissa dealing with Brazil, a country which was now poised to inherit the leftist mantle. From the pie shop’s window sill, Alma peered at me curiously. Perhaps, she had managed to slip out my window and gingerly managed to descend the fire escape. “No more solitary characters in comic books,” she chided me, adding, “now go up to the counter and get a pastry.”
“But I already got you some salted caramel apple pie the other day!” I protested.
“Not for me, for you.”
I wasn’t particularly hungry, and I wasn’t sure what the cat was driving at, but nevertheless I went up to the counter so as to humor my new companion. After purchasing my lemon poppyseed roll, I turned my back when suddenly Alma started to furiously patter up and down on the window sill.
“You forgot to speak with anyone behind the counter!” Alma exclaimed.
Though it might sound a bit non-sensical, or even puerile, I was never particularly good at making small talk. I faltered and wasn’t sure what to say, but then, perhaps fortuitously, my attention was distracted by a raucous scene in the rear of the café.
“Can’t you cut me a break here?” an abrasive voice called out. Turning around, I saw Weinraub gesticulating wildly at one of Posey’s bakers. “For crying out loud, why are you harassing me about the computer, when I buy more of your over-priced brew than anyone else at this smug café?” Weinraub, who wore combat boots and a ripped-up denim jacket, gestured at the patrons, who glanced up from their laptops. Oddly enough, even when Weinraub was outspoken and opinionated, his face remained expressionless. Looking terrorized on the window, Alma seemed to be debating whether to stay or flee back up the fire escape.
“It’s Ok,” I said, sidling up to the counter and offering to buy an extra slice of lemon poppyseed roll. “Can you just let him stay a little longer now?”
Posey regarded me skeptically. “He’s with you?”
“Er…not exactly,” I said, concerned about being too closely identified with Red Hook’s cantankerous oddball. Grumbling, Weinraub plugged his computer into an outlet on the wall, as customers swerved this way and that so as to avoid tripping on his extension cord.
“Thanks for the complimentary pastry,” he said. “What’s the world coming to with this wi-fi jive? It’s difficult for me to get a signal on the boat anymore, and all the businesses located just a stone’s throw away now refuse to give up their passwords, not to mention the fact that I can’t get much range while broadcasting from my pirate radio station.” I thought Weinraub might ask me to return the cat, but he had apparently forgotten all about the creature. Tapping furiously on his laptop, he groused, “I’m writing an article for Gothamist about toxic black mayonnaise in the Gowanus canal and yuppie colonizers importing their pseudo-Kumbaya, New Age yoga studios into the neighborhood.” Gesturing to Posey and her crew, he chuckled, “you know, no amount of thick-framed Kennedy-era hipster glasses and vintage dresses can conceal the fact that you’re still butt ugly.” I mused on his words, reflecting that Weinraub, who was bald himself, looked a little like the Thing from Fantastic Four.
Glancing at my inbox, I was surprised that Melissa had gotten back to my e-mail at lightning speed. “Alex, we love you, but it has simply gotten to the point of diminishing returns. The company invested considerable resources on your book, and frankly it’s just not worth it for us, and maybe even for you anymore. In any case, we have another book in the pipeline coming out about Brazil, written by New York Times reporter Larry Wrangler.” For a moment, I was gripped by indignation. Why wasn’t anyone concerned about the backward slide of South America’s leaders? And above all, why had the company opted for Wrangler, that hack throwback who was always criticizing Sánchez from a bogus and erroneous perspective?
I flung down my laptop, leaving Weinraub in the café muttering to himself about black mayonnaise. The espresso from Posey’s had made me even more jumpy than usual, to such a degree that it was difficult to extricate myself from ruminating and heaping scorn upon the reading public, which displayed little curiosity about the outside world, let alone expressing even the most basic inquisitiveness about idealistic politics. I wandered towards Sébastien’s, which for some reason was overflowing with crowds jostling this way and that. Ah yes, I recalled: it must be Red Hook’s annual oyster festival, which brought together foodies, hipsters and aging longshoremen from the waterfront. After slurping down the raw mollusks, the masses would toss them into makeshift barrels which had been arranged outside the bar.
“Where are the blue points?” Sébastien shouted frenetically at a busboy. “No, no no,” he added, glancing at one of the ice-cold trays making its way into the crowd, “those are Shigoku oysters.” Looking frazzled, he turned to me and said, “I can’t stand it when there’s even a minor mistake: honestly, it doesn’t take much to set me off. On the other hand,” he paused, gulping down a couple of oysters while smacking his lips, “bivalves sure are discrete pockets of umami flavor. Not to sound like a complete ostentatious dick, but I’m getting notes of vegetal seaweed and mushroom with hints of cucumber. Why, it’s a virtual cornucopia of scrumptiousness, I say.” Barking something about more shallots in the mignonette sauce, he added, “this is a young man’s game…I can’t keep up with the pace anymore.”
I ordered some oysters myself. Famished and scarfing down my meal, I was momentarily surprised when something pounced on the tray and made off with the last remaining mollusks. “Alma, come back here!” The cat, who had followed me all the way from Posey’s, ignored my pleas. Polishing off my food, she darted behind a barrel and scurried here and there. Ordering another tray from Sébastien, while keeping a close look out to prevent Alma from stealing more of my supper, I gazed across the wharf. Out on the water, Weinraub’s houseboat bobbed precariously, while off in the distance, some water taxis chock full of culinary pleasure-seekers rushed toward Red Hook. Though I was peeved at Alma, losing myself in the crowd exerted a tranquilizing effect. Then, as I tossed my oyster shells in a barrel, I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“They really should recycle those things, which could help to replenish oyster reefs, or alternatively use the shells as building materials and compost.”
Turning around, I was graced by an unusual sight. Sitting low in an odd-looking reclining bike sat an older looking man wearing a tweed jacket. As he pedaled through the crowd, people tittered while Joey Za-Za called out, “watch where you’re going, Daddy-O!” There wasn’t much room for the driver to maneuver, and presently the bicycle brushed up against a couple of barrels which sent oyster shells clattering on to the street’s old cobblestones. Scrambling to get out of the way and looking fearful, Alma jumped into my lap, while some of Sébastien’s staff moved to clear up the mess. Apparently unperturbed, the man drove up to me and pried himself out of his strange bike, all the while puffing on a pipe. Though far from being a DeLorean, there was something about the unusual vehicle and the overall scene which reminded me of Back to the Future. As the driver removed his helmet, I was elated to see my old high school teacher, Mr. Edgerton.
“Well, if it isn’t Kamenev,” he said, with his pipe in his mouth.
Though certainly eccentric, there had always been something fundamentally decent about Edgerton. As my mentor at Briarley School in leafy Brooklyn Heights, he had encouraged me to apply for a Young Scholars Award with AHS, the American Historical Society. Later, when my application proved successful, my teacher had overseen my research project dealing with the radical political philosophy of Thomas Paine. Though we’d touched base a couple times since graduation, I hadn’t seen him recently since I typically avoided the Heights, a picturesque but somewhat stultifying neighborhood. Now that I saw my old teacher again, however, I was overcome by a profound sense of relief. For once, I could speak more comfortably with someone who understood me, as opposed to constantly having to strain.
“How do you like my recumbent bike? I find the special ergonomic design quite suitable, since it provides back support, and —puff, puff, puff — with my body leaning back, my weight is more evenly distributed, which prevents injuries.”
“Indeed, I remember your bike from my school days, though it looks like you’ve made a number of improvements.” As I spoke about our time together at Briarley, I was suddenly hit with a pang of guilt. “I’m sorry I haven’t stayed in touch too much over the years. I know you put a lot of effort into overseeing my research on Paine.”
“To the contrary, I owe you an apology for not reaching out after the death of your father. I used to enjoy my conversations with him at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and they told me all about his passing. And as far as the student grants are concerned,” he added, while ordering a tray of oysters from the waiter, “I’ve mentored a number of students over the years, so much so that AHS even appointed me Vice President. I made some valuable publishing contacts in the organization over the years — puff — which helped me swing a contract for my recent book dealing with the emergence of modernism in mathematics and the arts.”
I was surprised, since I had never suspected that Edgerton might have benefited from the mentorship program himself. “By the way,” I asked, “how are things in the history department at Briarley?” In addition to Edgerton, a number of other instructors had taken me under their wing at school, which attracted a mixture of artsy Bohemians from Manhattan, and more well-heeled students who frequented the squash club in Brooklyn Heights. From Señora Alcázar, a Spanish teacher who imposed discipline and fear through rigorous grammar drills, to Mr. Bannerman, a charismatic history teacher, the school recruited top-notch teacher talent.
“I had to fire Bannerman after we received a sexual harassment complaint. Pity, really, since he was disqualified from receiving his pension just one week before he was set to retire. He had been abusing his position with young women for years.”
I was flabbergasted once again. Thinking back on my time in Mr. Bannerman’s early modern European history class, I recalled how I was the only male student enrolled in the course, and, come to think of it, some of the girls used to flirt with the teacher. The notion that far more could have been going on, right under my nose, was somehow unexpected.
“I hope you’re not entertaining the idea of writing anything more about Sánchez,” Edgerton said. “A rather uncouth character — puff. I don’t see anything far-reaching coming out of Venezuela or that part world of the world. As I see it, however well-intentioned, South America’s leaders are still attempting to make changes on a super-human scale, which isn’t suited to addressing complex problems that we face. What was your graduate degree again from Columbia, Latin American studies? Well, I suppose you could always get an academic job in your area of expertise, though there are so many other valuable topics to explore.”
Gesturing towards the wharf, he added, “how are we going to prevent Red Hook, for instance, from being totally submerged by rising seas? Throughout the history of science, idiosyncratic individuals have managed to break through and make an impact. Newton was aloof, jealous and sensitive to criticism. He wasn’t good at making small talk or making friends, but had an uncanny ability to conceptualize abstract concepts. Darwin was a solitary child who preferred writing letters as opposed to face-to-face conversations. Nikola Tesla — puff — exhibited a number of odd behaviors, including an aversion to lights, but he envisioned ground-breaking technologies such as wireless.”
As he spoke, Edgerton leaned close and kept his eyes riveted upon me, which made me feel somehow ill at ease.
“Despite these pathbreakers, more often than not, quirky folk are ostracized and fail to live up to their potential, which is a tremendous loss. To draw an analogy: from time to time, one comes across eccentric people, but they still live within the boundaries of the stratosphere. By contrast, if one were to travel to the farther reaches of the Solar System, one might come upon individuals who display more pronounced behaviors. But in between, say the Moon or Mars, one might find people with odd traits which are slightly more subtle. I believe we need to cultivate more awareness when it comes to these matters, so that people who think alike can thrive and make their own unique contributions; otherwise there won’t be any societal progress.”
With that, Edgerton paused but then his face lit up as the waiter approached. “Ah, delightful, my oysters!” he grinned, digging into his dinner. “Did you know that when Henry Hudson arrived in New York, there were hundreds of square miles of oyster reefs in the surrounding area, containing almost half the world’s oyster population? And as recently as the nineteenth century, New York harbor was full of the creatures, to such an extent that fishermen grew fabulously wealthy off the oyster trade and built lavish mansions.”
“That’s fascinating,” I remarked, my interest genuinely piqued. As Edgerton slurped down his food, I reflected on the research I might conduct in future. Who knew where it would lead? Caught up in thought, while topically organizing the mountain of future online articles I would write, my attention was suddenly diverted by some people who waved to Edgerton. Within the group, which was comprised mostly of men, I spotted my mentor’s own son, who also attended Briarley and had been several grades below me. Peculiar for his mannered and stilted speech, he walked with a slow gait. Another young man, who wore a UC Berkeley sweatshirt, looked perfectly normal at first glance. But then, when I peered closer, I saw that his bangs had been cut at odd angles, and when he smiled, he revealed a couple of chipped and missing teeth.
“Ah, I see my party has arrived,” Edgerton said, putting his pipe away and motioning for the bill. “Why don’t you join us? It’s just a bunch of people who informally get together once in a while to socialize and exchange views on the world.” He got up to welcome his posse, as if fulfilling the paternalistic role of Professor Xavier from my comic book collection.
As if on cue, Alma popped her head out from behind an oyster barrel. “What are you waiting for?” she asked.
“What makes you think I have even the slightest interest in that folk?” I communicated to her, rather crossly. Rolling her eyes, the cat sighed and disappeared.
I didn’t think twice about Edgerton’s strange crew, but the conversation with my old teacher had ignited my imagination. Finally letting go of my old specialty of South America, I voraciously pursued online research about New York harbor as well as Red Hook’s coastal environment. I learned that oysters acted as filters which could help to clean up pollution, but for me the most intriguing angle was that bivalves played a crucial role in coastal defense, since they provided a natural barrier to storm surges. Why hadn’t anyone thought about restoring Red Hook’s oyster reefs, I wondered? The lack of debate was utterly confounding to me, considering that the neighborhood lay in the midst of a floodplain, and probably wouldn’t stand a chance in the event of catastrophic storms. And yet, whenever I discussed my ideas with local businesspeople, from the owner of the key lime pie shop, to Louie’s Lobster Shack to the hipster distillery, people merely shrugged their shoulders.
“Stop!” Alma implored, warning me that I was starting to come off as self-righteous.
Edgerton had some contacts at Smithsonian magazine, and he suggested I submit an article there. It would be best if I included a kind of hook in my pitch, and he recommended that I attend an upcoming exhibit at the Coney Island aquarium dealing with the coastal environment. I rarely left Red Hook, and it was a relief to change the scene, even if that meant taking a circuitous trip involving the bus to the train. As I sat in the subway, I was suddenly beset by the spectacle of colorful revelers, from Spartan, toga-clad musclemen, to scantily-dressed women sporting pink wigs, to a bunch of flamboyant black transvestites wearing tight, fishnet stockings. Ah yes, I recalled, they must be headed to the Mermaid parade, a vulgarian yet enjoyable affair which took place every year in summer.
Edgerton was chaperoning students on an official school visit to the aquarium, and said he would meet me at the exhibit. Dodging honky-tonk crowds on their way to Nathan’s Famous and the water flume, I spotted my former teacher waiting on line. I was abruptly surprised by the sight of some familiar faces from Red Hook, including Posey, accompanied by a female contingent dressed as lobsters, and Sébastien himself, who had impersonated Poseidon and carried a gigantic trident by his side. “Glad you could make it,” Edgerton said, awkwardly filling his pipe while being prodded by lobsters.
As a child, I had always been captivated by aquatic life and sea creatures, from misunderstood and unjustly maligned sharks, to moray eels and giant crabs, but today I was particularly interested in the aquarium’s new exhibit dealing with the ecological history of south Brooklyn. “Today, very little of Coney Island’s original environment has survived,” a park ranger remarked regretfully, as people crowded into an enclosed hall, “even though salt marshes, mudflats and wetlands host a variety of fish, and play a vital role in preventing storm surges and reducing erosion. The ecosystems are also home to mussels, crabs and other invertebrates.”
On either side of a walkway, we were flanked by swampy terrain and unfamiliar-looking grasses, an echo of what the area might have looked like hundreds of years ago. A rotten, sulfurous smell emanated from the marsh, as children held their noses. In contrast to his earlier crew from the oyster festival in Red Hook, Edgerton’s students from Briarley looked blasé and jaded. “Excuse me,” I said, “Alex Kamenev of Smithsonian magazine. Do you know how much carbon is stored in South Brooklyn’s dwindling salt marshes, and how much original acreage could be restored in coming years?”
Taking off her hat, the park ranger scratched her head for a moment. “Gosh, that’s an intriguing question. I’m really not sure.” The spectators seemed bored by the discussion and eagerly pushed on to other, more colorful exhibits. My interest was suddenly piqued, however, by another group of adolescents who were chaperoned by a young woman who looked, perhaps, ten years younger than me. After overhearing the group, I immediately picked up on their accents and guessed they were from Spain. Years ago, my high school Spanish teacher Señora Alcazar had taken us to Madrid, Granada and Barcelona on a student exchange program, and I always remembered details from our trip: from the Prado Museum, to flamenco dancing to Gaudí’s architecture, I had grown fond of the country. Looking now at the woman chaperone, I noticed she had wide, round eyes which reminded me of something out of a Goya painting. For a moment I stood there, mesmerized. Had she been looking at me when I posed the question to the park ranger?
Hoping to strike up a conversation, I followed the Spanish contingent as we made our way to another hall, which contained a gigantic tank housing a coral reef and other marine life. Every time I was about to say something, however, onlookers would shriek at the site of a menacing shark. Presently, we came to an outdoor aqua-theater, displaying penguins and otters frolicking amongst some sea cliffs. Suddenly, I spotted a girl perched precariously on top of her grandfather’s shoulders. They were leaning over the pool, when one of the reveling lobsters from the mermaid parade mistakenly brushed up against the old man. To my horror, the toddler plunged into the water. I wanted to react, but before I knew what was happening, someone else had jumped over the rail and retrieved the child. It was Sébastien, and as he emerged from the pool with his Poseidon costume dripping wet, the crowd erupted in claps and cheers. Despite being middle-aged, he was toned and rakishly thin.
“You don’t fool me, Posey,” he said, addressing the lobsters, “I saw you gazing at my hunky and sought-after physique. I keep up my girlish waistline by avoiding trendy hipster pastries and sticking to my delectable oyster regime.”
To my dismay, I saw the Spanish woman looking at Sébastien admiringly, rather than turning to me. When things had settled down, Edgerton mused, “well, it’s a good thing someone around here displays risky, psychopathic traits.”
“Just like our group leader, who is always trying to discipline us?” snickered one of the young Spanish boys, referring to their chaperone.
“Be quiet!” she snapped.
Even when she had lost her temper, I was still drawn to her, though I couldn’t say why exactly. “De dónde son en España?” I finally managed to blurt out.
“They’re from Madrid,” she said. “I’m leading the group on an exchange program here in New York. I’m originally from Ciudad Vallejo in the south of Spain, but I study in France.”
I wanted to engage her further, but before I could follow up, the lobsters shoved me aside. They had hoisted Sébastien on their shoulders, as the crowd, including the old man and his granddaughter, continued to holler and belt out the barman’s name in celebration. By the time I had put some distance between the multitudes and myself, the Spanish contingent had vanished from the aquarium. Feeling guilty about leaving Edgerton in the lurch, I ran outside in search of the group. In the distance, I could see the children and their chaperone walking up the steps to the elevated Q train. Practically sprinting, with the clackety-clack sound of the subway above me, I ran down Brighton Beach Avenue, passing what looked like the mermaid queen. Fresh off her win, she was crowned by a gaudy tinsel tiara and wore a turquoise sequined suit. Then, just as I was about to catch up, I was jostled by a bunch of Russian babushkas, making the rounds on their weekend shopping and carrying bags full of dried fish and rye bread. By the time I made it to the platform, the train had already departed.
Over the next few days, when I wasn’t trying to finish my article for Smithsonian, I googled “exchange program Spain New York,” in the hope of tracking down the young woman again. Though a number of schools and outfits organized trips, they did not publicly list the names of their chaperones, and, after a while, I gave up in defeat. But then, to my great excitement, I received a friend request on Facebook while sitting downstairs at Posey’s. It was her! Jumping up, I practically knocked coffee all over Weinraub, who was sitting next to me at the table. Accepting the request, I found myself totally immersed, as I browsed through pages and pages of bio information and posts. No sooner had I clicked on her relationship status and read that she was single, I received a note on messenger.
“Dear Alex: thank you cordially for accepting my request. It wasn’t until after we left the aquarium the other day that I realized who you were. I am writing a master’s thesis on Brazil’s geo-strategic vision in South America, and I read your book about leftists in the wider region. I was hoping you could recommend a couple of further articles for my research? Yours Sincerely, Estefanía.”
Feeling flattered, since most women I met in New York dozed off whenever I expounded on my favorite topics, I sent her links to many of my online articles. Modest and ingratiating, she thanked me for my helpful insights. Feeling giddy amidst a flurry of texts, I moved the discussion to the personal realm. “How much longer will you be in New York?”
“We’re here for another twelve days. The kids are being taken care of by their host families, but I take them out on sightseeing trips.”
“I guess that doesn’t leave us much time to get to know each other,” I wrote, somewhat suggestively.
“Ha, ha, you are right. What shall we do? I want to return to Little Odessa in Brighton Beach.”
“That’s funny, my family is from the original Odessa. It is a colorful locale with its own sense of humor, not to mention ruthless gangsters.”
“That’s where your name’s from?”
“Indeed, my family used to live there. My last name means ‘stone’ in Russian. Odessa used to be part of the old Czarist Empire, but today the city forms part of Ukraine. My grandfather emigrated just before the revolution, and he took me on a trip there once.”
“I would like to learn Russian. Can we go try some food on the boardwalk?”
“I know all about those places, and it would be my honor to show you around. I should warn you, however, that my Russian is a little willy-nilly. In my youth, I used to hector my grandfather in the hope he would speak to me in our native language, and fortunately he relented. Always curious, I later followed up on my own and succeeded in teaching myself, up to a degree. To this day, I can speak it, but I don’t know whether my grammar or pronunciation is correct.”
She peppered me with thoughtful and appreciative questions, which I attempted to answer while simultaneously scrolling through her timeline photos. In one, she posed with a number of other women over dinner.
“Who are your friends in the restaurant?” I asked.
“They are my graduate colleagues in Paris, but they pester me.”
The photo perfectly captured Estefanía’s round, wide eyes and long eyelashes. For a moment I sat there, transfixed by her appealing features: flawless, as far I could make out, except for the faintest wisp of facial hair above her upper lip, and a small mole on her neck. “You are a very beautiful woman,” I wrote, rather daringly. Hitting enter, I then wondered if I’d made a crucial mistake and somehow over-reached. To my relief, she didn’t seem to mind.
“Ooof, the lighting wasn’t so flattering but thank you for the compliment.”
Suddenly, Weinraub got up from his chair. When he saw the photo of Estefanía, he stood there spellbound. “Who’s the Latin honey? Must be your lucky day,” he said, chuckling before heading out the door and back to his houseboat, perhaps to fiddle with his pirate radio equipment.
In contrast to Weinraub, Alma was indifferent. “I’m meeting Estefanía this weekend in Brighton Beach,” I remarked elatedly, tossing some leftover strudel from Posey’s into the cat’s dish. After consuming the confection, she seemed to almost roll her eyes. “Why are you mocking me?” I asked, indignantly. “Perhaps you’re simply jealous?” Alma doubled over in peals of laughter, before darting onto the window sill and scampering down the fire escape.
Uncle Morey, by contrast, seemed more inquisitive, peppering me with suggestions in an e-mail about where to go in Brighton Beach for the best bowl of borscht, while providing me with excruciating and embarrassing personal details about his sex life with Esmeralda. Sitting on the F train several days later, I found it difficult to contain my growing excitement. Walking down the steps from the elevated platform amidst the usual clackety-clack, I waited anxiously. The street was packed with gastronoms, Russian supermarkets sporting rows of buffet counters, and cheap gift stores featuring everything from knockoff Fabergé eggs to matryoshka dolls to decorative tea sets. Women with peroxide-dyed blonde hair chattered and pushed their carts from shop to shop, while an elderly man played polka on the accordion. Even though the neighborhood held a certain nostalgia for me, and I cherished memories of going to local bathhouses with my father, I always felt like something of a detached observer in the community.
Someone tapped my shoulder. “Hola,” I remarked, not remembering how to properly greet people from Spain. Estefanía pecked me twice on the cheek.
“Ah sí, ahora recuerdo,” I said. “Now I remember the custom.”
“Why do you speak Spanish with a Soviet accent?” she asked, squishing her nose. “We can just communicate in English.”
Feeling that my Spanish was a bit out of practice anyway, I agreed, adding somewhat randomly, “maybe I just get mixed up linguistically, because I speak Russian with Morey sometimes.”
“Eh?” she looked at me quizzically. “Who’s Morey?”
“An uncle from Chicago,” I said. “He suggests we eat lunch at Volga, along the boardwalk. They are well known for their vodka sampler featuring a number of unique flavors.”
“Hmm…possible. But can we first go to Brighton Bazaar? Please! I am looking for some feijoa preserves and some gifts for my host family in Cobble Hill.”
“Of course,” I remarked, matter-of-factly, “feijoa is an exotic fruit which is grown in both South America and warmer areas of the Caucasus region. I know exactly where to find that in the market.”
Surprised, Estefanía looked at me wide-eyed, and I was delighted that she apparently shared my esoteric interests. At the bazaar, she was riveted by the wide selection of products, stuffing poppyseed rolls, piroshki and jars of sour cherry into a basket. Though I was also interested in exploring the many different items, I could not help stare at Estefanía, almost hypnotized by the sight of her hips swaying from side to side. I hoped she would turn and acknowledge me, but she seemed too captivated by the sights and sounds of the bazaar to pay much notice. The aloofness continued to confound me, as we strolled along the boardwalk: though the sky was overcast, she wore sunglasses for some reason, which made it difficult for me to read her face. Grizzled Russian grandfathers played dominoes, their sunburnt bodies packed into tight speedos, while waitresses sporting false eyelashes promenaded here and there.
“Добрый день, я испанка,” “good afternoon, I’m Spanish,” she remarked to a couple of smirking waiters at Volga, as we were ushered to an outside table. Finally taking off her sunglasses, she fixated on the menu with its endless array of dishes from caviar to smoked herring to grilled sturgeon and more. The restaurant’s pace was lackadaisical, and amidst long and awkward silence, Estefanía seemed to avoid my gaze by staring upward. Dodging some musclemen and bicyclists, the waiter finally made his way to our table.
“What types of vodka do you have?” she asked, which resulted in a blank stare.
“They have dozens of flavors,” I said. “You should just ask for what you want.”
She looked a little uncertain, so I ordered an assortment of raspberry, horseradish and cherry while attempting to banter with the waiter in my best Russian.
“What were you talking about with him?” she asked.
“We’re both from Odessa, and I was talking about how much I missed the city’s dark sense of humor, no doubt inspired by the bleak nature of life there. My family’s original home is famous for its gangsters and swindlers, not to mention merrymakers seeking easy wealth, debauchery and excess.” She suddenly stopped looking out into the distance and focused on me, which I found bewildering.
“Can you give me an example of a typical joke from your town?”
“Hmm…I’m not a very good raconteur, certainly not as good as Morey.”
“Come on!” she insisted, now brightening.
“There are some long ones which wouldn’t make too much sense here in America. I remember one, however, which is shorter: ‘If Stalin hadn’t become leader of the Soviet Union, he would be STAR-VIN’.”
She enjoyed the ring of the joke, and kept on repeating the punchline until our food and drink arrived. “I’m STAR-VIN’!”
Feeling more relaxed after a few shots of flavored vodka, I remarked, “perhaps it is Odessa’s melting pot environment, consisting of Ukrainians, Russians, Moldovans, Gypsies and others which gives Odessa its own unique sub-culture, slang and ironic world view.”
Estefanía squished up her nose again. “The Gypsies have an interesting culture,” she said, “but in my town, Ciudad Vallejo, the girls were bullies and made life unendurable at school.” She paused, musing over the special metal tray they had brought us, which held separate shots of vodka. Slurping some borscht, she seemed to enjoy the taste of the soup, but then frowned, adding “I think they must have added meat broth.” Pushing the bowl away, she said, “I am vegetarian, and in my country, people are barbaric towards animals, for example at bull fights.”
“You’re approaching the borscht all wrong,” I said, randomly. “When I was younger, Morey used to say that you should slurp all the soup, and leave the dollop of sour cream in the center for last.”
“Why do you always talk about your uncle?”
“Well, to be honest, he’s one of my last remaining family members.” Not wanting to go into too much detail, I added, “my father passed away from an abrupt heart attack just last year, and my mother left us when I was quite young.”
At that, she looked sorrowful, peppering me with questions about my uncle and urging me to stay in closer contact with him. “My father died too. But he was a tyrant…” her voice trailed off.
Though I was now in a slight stupor from the vodka, I was able to make out that her own mother came from a poor background, and there were various sisters who I couldn’t keep track of; in any case, they hadn’t ventured far from home. Then I recalled the name of her town again, and had a momentary flashback: in high school, during my exchange program chaperoned by Señora Alcázar, we had traveled by train from Madrid to Granada. At one point, we had pulled up to a provincial and nondescript looking town, and one of the students asked the conductor, “what’s this place?” to which the man had replied, “Ciudad Vallejo.” Shrugging, he added, “no one ever gets out here.” For the rest of the trip, the town had become something of a punchline, with people endlessly repeating the man’s words in condescending ridicule.
“Is it difficult for you in Spain, as a woman I mean?”
“Ay por Dios,” she said, “my culture is very machista!”
“Perhaps it might be easier for you here in New York,” I remarked, hoping to spark a conversation, though she apparently paid little heed to my suggestion. As usual, it took some time to flag down the waiter to bring us the check. Perhaps the bill had come out to more than Estefanía had imagined and she gaped, wide-eyed. “The place is a bit of a tourist trap,” I said, urging her not to worry as I slipped my credit card on to the table. It was getting late, and a crowd of older folk suddenly made their way into an interior ballroom located within the restaurant.
“Can’t we watch them dance?” Estefanía asked. The sight of aging seniors from the old country made me cringe, but I finally gave in to her pleas. The ballroom displayed opulent marble columns, chandeliers and a disco ball. From on top of a stage, a woman singer dressed in a bright-yellow track suit belted out tunes from Duran Duran, as if we were caught in the middle of a 1980s-style time capsule. As fleshy couples sashayed this way and that, with women packed into tight spandex, the crowd seemed oblivious to the outside world.
“What’s amusing,” I noted outside, “is that there’s not even the slightest hint of irony in Brighton Beach, which is quite a contrast to Posey’s hipster café in Red Hook.”
“Eh?” Estefanía asked curiously.
“Red Hook is a unique and overlooked neighborhood,” I remarked, hoping that, perhaps, the turn in conversation would lead to a second date. “Originally named Roode Hoek by the Dutch, after the red clay soil and the point of land pointing into New York Bay, the village was later incorporated into the town of Brooklyn. I would be more than happy to give you a tour. In addition to Posey’s, the key lime pie shop and Louie’s Lobster Shack, Red Hook also sports a historic bar named Sébastien’s.”
“Is that the man dressed up as Poseidon?” she asked. To my unease, the mere mention of the charismatic local personality seemed to elicit her interest. “And who was that eccentric older character at the aquarium who was talking to you about psychopathic traits?”
“Oh that’s Mr. Edgerton, my old high school teacher. He likes to expound on his own quirky theories.”
“Speaking of which, you look a little like the singer from that old song sometimes,” she mused, biting into an ice cream cone from the boardwalk. “Psycho Killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?”
She kept on singing as we walked back towards the subway, “fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa…” I laughed along, but as I watched her, I imagined how we might return to my apartment and not go our separate ways.
“Oddly enough, Estefanía doesn’t tune me out like other women in New York,” I mentioned to Alma a couple of days later, while revising the last touches on my Smithsonian article. The cat was licking up the remaining crumbs from an apple strudel: like Estefanía, she had quite a sweet tooth. “Funnily enough, she’s also interested in South America, but, like me, she’s gotten bored with the whole topic and seems ready to move on. I wonder if there is any chance that she might relocate to Brooklyn?” With this turn in the discussion, Alma’s tail bunched up nervously. “Maybe, because she’s a foreigner, she tends to give me the benefit of the doubt, or perhaps there’s some other explanation.”
“But you don’t cultivate any awareness,” Alma said, her green eyes flashing.
“Awareness? Who are you, some kind of Zen Buddhist master?”
Alma again broke into laughter, before scampering down the fire escape. The cat had put me on edge, and I started to wonder if I would inadvertently fail with Estefanía, just as I had flopped with other women throughout the years. Though there had been some texting about getting together again, I wondered whether there was a missing piece of the puzzle which I hadn’t grasped in Brighton Beach. In any case, there wasn’t much time to spare, since Estefanía’s exchange group was set to return to Spain shortly, and she had to schedule student trips to Ellis Island, amongst other sites.
The whole situation began to rankle, but just when I had almost lost hope, she called and asked if we could visit Red Hook ballfields in order to sample the fare from a fleet of Latin American food trucks. Located some distance away from my apartment, the ball fields hosted soccer games on weekends. Though the area wasn’t as well-known as Van Brunt Street and the waterfront, the food truck scene had started to attract a steady stream of hipster enthusiasts. Around the perimeter of the field, a couple of sleek, lowrider cars rumbled past: ornately painted purple, green and yellow with intricate designs, and sporting wire-spoke wheels, the vehicles attracted the attention of bemused onlookers.
I often found it difficult to choose between the various Latin American food trucks, which hailed from Chile to Mexico to Nicaragua and more. Though I’d had my fill of arepas during my research trip to Venezuela, Estefanía seemed particularly set on trying the corn cakes. Joining me on line, she gazed wide-eyed at the crowd while taking in the various sights and smells of the trucks. “Are you going back to South America to do more research?” she asked, cutting into the arepa, while having difficulty with a long string of cheese which clung to her plastic fork.
“To be honest, I think I’ve exhausted that topic and would like to move on to other issues. I just sent in my piece about the coastal environment to Smithsonian, but my roommate Alma told me to edit the article as it was too long-winded.”
“Who is Alma?” she asked, quizzically. If she thought I had a girlfriend or felt any sense of jealousy, I couldn’t tell and there was little change in her expression.
“She’s a cat from Montevideo,” I said, before delving into the whole saga of how the creature had followed me from Weinraub’s houseboat. With the recounting of every passing detail, Estefanía’s eyes lit up.
“Alma! I want to meet her. You are lucky to have made a companion. Animals are defenseless and have no one to speak up on their behalf.”
“Why don’t you move to New York and get a job helping to protect international wildlife?” I suggested, hoping to spark a conversation. “I am sure you could make your mark by speaking out against bullfights, for example, or maybe helping to enforce important United Nations conventions on animal welfare. That is, unless you want to continue chaperoning exchange students from Spain?”
“Ay Dios Mío, I want nothing more to do with those pests,” she remarked, polishing off the last of the arepas.
I continued to press my case, arguing that she was certainly well-qualified for any high-powered position. “In any case, your English is impeccable. If not animal rights, perhaps you could work in another field like women’s or human rights. Reading your text messages, it seems like you just want to be through with your thesis. The only obstacle is the master’s degree and getting the diploma, but that is just a formality. I can certainly help to proof-read your thesis, and once you have passed the exam, I would assist you in settling here and getting to know the ropes.”
She paused, apparently considering my suggestion. “Perhaps,” she said, her voice trailing off. We took in the various sights of Red Hook, from the old distillery to the Irish-American club to the old historic wharf. Throughout the neighborhood, if you looked closely, you could spot brightly colored signs and arrows pointing towards the key lime pie shop housed in a bungalow. It was almost like being on a treasure hunt, and when we finally arrived at the bakery, Estefanía ordered two miniature chocolate-covered swirl pies on a stick. As she polished off the treats in back of Fairway market, I beckoned to the old abandoned street car.
“That rusting hulk reminds me of my trip to Odessa with my old family and Morey. I remember there were always a lot of cable cars passing here and there, with that characteristic clackety-clack sound in the background.”
“How often do you call Morey? He must be getting old and needs your support.”
I thought I detected a tinge of judgmentalism in her tone. “I call once in a while. I think Esmeralda looks after him.”
She continued to needle me, as if to imply I was a lackluster nephew. “Well,” I said, turning the tables slightly, “maybe someday we can go to Chicago and visit him.” My comment failed to elicit any answer, as she again stared off into the distance. “That reminds me,” I added, trying to lighten the mood, “Morey and I used to thumb-wrestle.” Taking her hand, I taught her how to play. “I win!” I cheered, squeezing down her finger. When she still sat there impassively, I began to feel uneasy. “Have you ever seen the movie Scent of a Woman?” I asked, randomly.
“Yes, why do you mention it?”
“There’s a scene in which the blind Al Pacino character expresses frustration to his young assistant by remarking, ‘I’m in the dark here!’” She seemed to chuckle a little at that, but still seemed restrained. “Sometimes that’s how I feel with you, as if the wool is being pulled over my eyes, and I’m not really grasping the wider picture.”
“I’m not sure what to say,” she said modestly. “It’s a shame we are getting to know each other just as I am about to leave.” There was a pause, as she suddenly perked up, “can we go visit Sébastien’s? I did some online research, and it sounds like a very worthwhile and historic place.”
I remembered how she had looked at Sébastien admiringly at the aquarium, and felt apprehensive at the suggestion. Hoping perhaps that she might visit my apartment just above Posey’s, I demurred and hinted we might spend time at the hipster women’s café. “Yes,” she said, “I want to go there too, but I still want to see old Red Hook. Please!” She coaxed, prodded and cajoled, until I relented. Nearing Conover Street, we were suddenly greeted by a grating sound emanating from the pier.
“Greetings Brooklyn-ites, and welcome to the first edition of Radio Free Red Hook!”
“What’s that?” Estefanía asked, scrunching up her nose.
Peering closer, I spotted a speaker perched precariously on the deck of Weinraub’s houseboat. “This is your host and skipper, ranting at you directly from the bowels of my own home, the SS Kraken’s Claw!” Tittering and laughing, a number of curious spectators had stopped to listen to the unusual broadcast. “Since local businesses have apparently cut off my access to their wi-fi codes — a-hem, you know who you are! — I have been forced to improvise and devise other means of reaching the public, though I sincerely hope this will not constitute another financial albatross around my neck!”
“This is ridiculous!” Estefanía rolled her eyes.
As we moved off towards Sébastien’s, Weinraub continued his rant, decrying the rise of yuppie gyms, over-priced food and waterside developers in the midst of looming environmental threats. Tuning out the tirade, we strode into the bar which felt like a step back in time. More than your average dive, the interior featured a number of decorative touches and collectibles, including a vintage model ship which balanced atop a high mantel. The hardwood floor was worn down, and the barstools slightly wobbly, adding to the place’s uncommon charm. Behind a long hall lay another room, which occasionally hosted punk rock bands from south Brooklyn. Strangest of all, however, was a row of wax sculptures behind the bar, including the faces of Groucho Marx, Fred Astaire and Sébastien himself.
I noticed that Joey Za-Za, whose hair was now dyed an even more platinum shade of peroxide, was eyeing Estefanía lasciviously. I did my best to ignore him, though I was unnerved as my companion moved off to a corner where Sébastien was holding sway and wowing a couple of women. I wanted to corral her back to the counter, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the young man from Edgerton’s posse with the odd bangs and UC Berkeley sweatshirt.
“I hear you are writing for Smithsonian about how to protect our coastline.” As he spoke, I once again noticed the gaps in his front teeth. “Are you familiar with saltwater cordgrass? It’s still found on the Atlantic coast, and its stems trap floating debris. Over time, sediments and decaying matter build up, forming nutrient-rich mud which in turn supports a complex food web along the marsh.”
“No, I hadn’t heard about that,” I replied, honestly surprised. For the past few weeks, I had conducted exhaustive research about the natural history of Brooklyn and the surrounding area, and, as far as I knew, I had read just about everything to be known on the topic. Though I was somewhat intrigued by the newcomer, I was still monitoring the corner where Estefanía was gazing wide-eyed at Sébastien, along with the usual posse of mesmerized female onlookers.
“The complex food web is mutually beneficial for many organisms. Crabs, for example, feed on decaying matter in the grass. The vegetation, meanwhile, benefits from the crab’s burrowing, which helps to aerate the soil. Unfortunately, human activity has destroyed many marshes, and the common reed, which doesn’t contribute as much to the coastal environment, has replaced cordgrass.”
I was nodding and doing my best to be polite, while feeling increasingly queasy about the scene unfolding in the corner. I was about to disengage, when suddenly I spied Edgerton pulling up to the curb with his recumbent bike. Approaching the counter with a good-humored air, he remarked, “splendid ride throughout tree-lined Clinton Street, the Brooklyn promenade and Cobble Hill. Ah, if only they would allow me to take just a few puffs on my pipe in here. At any rate,” he said, now taking in his son and a number of others filtering into a back patio of the bar, “I see the rest of my party is arriving.” Gesturing to me, he added, “as always, you are most welcome to join us.”
“Thanks for the offer,” I said. “Maybe later.”
With a sense of trepidation, I peered in on the discussion between Sébastien and the women. “Have you ever crossed over to Morocco from Spain?” the bartender asked Estefanía. Looking at him, I sensed that maybe he was interested in her, while trying to project a sense of aloofness.
“No,” she said, looking intrigued, “though I’ve always wanted to explore the country.”
“Ah yes, every time I reflect on my resplendent time there, I am brought back to the vibrant bounty of cultures, foods, spice markets and more, though my memory may be slightly clouded by, let’s just say, a number of exotic substances. I was of course fascinated by the likes of majoun, a psychoactive confection comprised of fruits, nuts, honey and chocolate, and made inquiries of the locals in Tangier where to acquire said product. When not exploring the souk with my main squeeze Fatima, I would stumble out of the kasbah and grab a slice of tortilla española at the smoke-filled café: the perfect after hour greasy snack. Not that I was purely focused on debased and degenerate pursuits, mind you, as evidenced by my rare collection of sufi albums stored behind the counter, which, needless to say, aren’t appreciated by the likes of Joey Za-Za and the usual riffraff around here.”
“Alright Mr. Cultured, if Morocco was so great, then why didn’t you just stay with Fatima?” hollered Joey. “What happened, did she ditch you for the likes of Brian Jones and the Rolling Stones?”
“Not exactly,” Sébastien noted, “but something like that.” For a moment, the barman’s usual debonair affect vanished, his face cast over. A group of hipsters entered the bar, sporting some light V-neck sweaters and Sinatra hats. Changing the subject, Sébastien remarked, “if one more pretentious knucklehead orders a negroni around here, I’m gonna do severe damage to myself.”
“I’d like to hear more about Morocco,” Estefanía said, now pushing past me.
To my relief, before Sébastien could turn around, Edgerton emerged from the patio and barreled towards us along the bar’s narrow hallway. Putting the pipe away in his tweed jacket, he eagerly greeted Estefanía. “Splendid to see you again,” he remarked, corralling both her and me into a dimly-lit booth. “I hope you have decided to stay with us longer, while getting to know our own world-renowned environmental journalist who is bringing Brooklyn’s natural history to light.”
Just a few moments ago, Estefanía seemed to be focused on Sébastien, but now she nodded in agreement at my mentor while regarding me fondly, which I found perplexing.
“I don’t know if Alex mentioned it,” Edgerton said, “but I host an impromptu, mini-think-tank of sorts. I was just telling the others outside that it would make much more sense to harness people’s unique abilities to solve vexing problems, such as Red Hook’s exposure to storms, for example.”
“What did you mean at the aquarium, when you said something about psychopathic traits?” Estefanía asked softly. Her tone was modest and deferential, which was reminiscent of the way she had acted around Sébastien.
Edgerton chuckled. “Well, let’s put it this way: certain people seem well-equipped to react in a pinch, whereas others might feel more comfortable standing back and reflecting on more long-term trends. In an ideal world, unusual attributes would complement each other, but unfortunately, we haven’t cultivated or encouraged such distinctive qualities. In addition, quirky people themselves may not always be aware of their own idiosyncratic and singular abilities, which need to be nurtured in the proper context, otherwise you can go down in flames.”
As if right on cue, a racket suddenly emanated from outside. We all stepped out to see what the commotion was about, and were greeted by an unlikely spectacle. Somehow, Weinraub had gotten his hands on the jalopy parked outside the bar, and he was manically driving the vehicle over the cobblestones. In back of the truck, he had managed to pack a speaker, from which his voice boomed. “This is Radio Free Red Hook, now ranting at you from a mobile jalopy! I’m trying a new approach, since my range is severely limited whenever I broadcast from my houseboat. At any rate — a-hem! — what is it going to take, my fellow Brooklynites, to prompt a real discussion here about conniving and parasitic real estate developers and the need to promote ecotopia, or should I even ask?”
It was getting late, and the crowds had begun to dissipate. After Edgerton and his crew had departed, Sébastien started to clean up. Hoping that I might find time to be alone with Estefanía, I was dismayed to spot her once again talking to the barman.
“Maybe we can walk him home and continue the discussion about Morocco?” she asked.
“I’m a bit tired and ready to go back to my apartment,” I told her, feeling snubbed but determined not to show it.
“I live upstairs,” Sébastien said, chuckling, “so it’s not a particularly far walk.”
There was an awkward silence. Perhaps Sébastien was trying to act above the fray, out of respect towards me? We left the bar, and as we neared Van Brunt Street, I explained that it was ill-advised to walk back to her host family’s house in Cobble Hill at night, since the area was desolate and abandoned. “You can stay at my place and I’ll sleep on the couch,” I added, not really entertaining high hopes, “or I can call a car service.” She said she would go home, though the car was too expensive. Before getting on the bus, she hugged me somewhat stiffly and we said goodbye.
Chatting aimlessly with Alma the next day, I remarked, “I’m at a slight loss when it comes to Estefanía. On a certain level, she seems pretty accomplished and cosmopolitan, but I suspect that somehow this isn’t the full story.” The cat was devouring yet another sweet treat from Posey’s, which I had snagged from downstairs. As Alma munched, I noticed a strange discolored sticky substance clinging to her fur. “See here,” I added crossly, “where have you been ambling about? It looks like you happened upon the neighborhood distillery and got caught in a barrel of molasses or something?” By the look of the cat’s guilty expression, I guessed I wasn’t too far off.
I tossed her into a sink-filled bubble bath, amidst protestations and a great hullabaloo. Gradually, she relaxed and reluctantly accepted her fate. As I sudsed Alma, I continued to ramble on. “When we’re around others, Estefanía appears intent on fitting in by acting almost obsequious towards older men, but on the other hand, she never seems interested in socializing with women, or alternatively expresses mistrust towards them.” Now enjoying her bath, Alma rolled her eyes. “Well, don’t you have anything to say?” I said, admonishing the cat. Apparently, the creature regarded the whole discussion as futile, and as I was drying her off, Alma shook herself rigorously, which in turn sent droplets of water splashing all over my face.
Ignoring the cat’s flat-out dismissiveness, I went ahead and made plans to see Estefanía shortly. Time was running out before she would return to Madrid, and I had suggested we meet at an old, antiquated drawbridge in the Gowanus, just adjacent to Red Hook. In the midst of a heat wave, Estefanía chided me for not wearing more loose-fitting clothing. Something of a post-apocalyptic landscape, Gowanus was full of gritty barbed wire and old industrial structures which seemed to be literally crumbling into dust.
“No one knows precisely where the name Gowanus comes from,” I remarked, going off on an esoteric tangent. “Some believe the neighborhood was named after Gouwane, a Native American chief, while others claim the term is linked to the Dutch word gouwee, or bay.” Seemingly captivated by the discussion, Estefanía repeated the unusual-sounding word while endlessly pronouncing each separate syllable: “Go-wa-nus!”
Along the side of the bridge, we saw what looked like an old tollbooth, from which sprang cables allowing the bridge to open to river traffic. Beneath us, within the canal itself, we glanced swirling, rainbow-colored eddies floating outward towards the bay, which were fascinating to watch until you paused to consider what the pools might contain. “In the depths of the canal, lurks the famous ‘black mayonnaise,’” I exclaimed, with gusto. “It’s the result of chemical waste discharged from a hundred years of industrial activity, as well as sewage and street runoff. The combination of chemicals and sewage gives the sediment the soft texture of mayonnaise.”
“Ay por Dios,” Estefanía exclaimed, holding her nose and trying not to breathe any of the fumes wafting up from the water. “Is it dangerous?”
I paused for dramatic effect. “Indeed,” I declared, glad to elaborate on my special macabre interests. “Black mayonnaise contains innumerable chemicals which all combine to form a potent and lethal mix of oil, coal, pesticides, debris, sewage and heavy metals, including arsenic, benzene, mercury and chromium. Legend has it that the mob used to dump bodies in the canal,” I added, shuddering in mock irony, “including ‘Joe Bananas’ Bonanno.”
Estefanía squished her nose. “Who’s that?”
“He was a notorious mafia kingpin from the 1920’s,” I mused. “You can learn all about it in this offbeat guide to Brooklyn which I purchased for you.” With that, I handed a slender booklet to her. “In addition to Bonanno, you can read up on any number of other neighborhoods, ethnic restaurants, lost history and unknown sites,” I added, hoping the guide might encourage her to spend more time in Brooklyn.
Outside the canal, the neighborhood became more eclectic, ranging from chic new stores to a Latino botánica emporium to the quaintly-named Gowanus Cottage Inn. Some Italian and Puerto Rican old-timers had set up some folding chairs in front of row houses, and seemed to regard us with disapproval as we passed by. From underneath a curb-side tent, a fruit vendor gathered up what looked like gigantic stalks, before passing them through a makeshift contraption. As we marveled at the equipment, the man explained that the machine had been designed to produce sugar cane juice. For some reason Estefanía had brought a daypack which burdened her shoulders, and she seemed eager for a time-out.
Downing refreshments, we felt relieved and decided to head to the botánica. Within the vast emporium, shelves upon shelves offered everything from tarot cards to spiritual oils to medicinal herbs and roots. As I mused over quirky-sounding products, including Chango Macho custom-scented candles and African Ju-Ju Sachet Powder, I heard a familiar voice at the counter. “Two bottles of jinx-removing spray please.”
“That’s Mrs. Eleanor,” I remarked to Estefanía, pointing to the woman who was wearing her usual distinctive fedora hat. “If I can persuade you to spend more time in Red Hook, you’ll find her most days at Posey’s. Yet another reason why my borough is unique,” I continued, “and why you should let me take you on my own special walking tours.”
“Ay, enough already,” Estefanía blurted. “Stop harassing me!”
To my surprise, Mrs. Eleanor suddenly popped into our aisle, remarking “what’s the matter, young lady? He just wants to spend more time with you. What could be wrong with that?” Then, just as abruptly as she had interrupted, she vanished out the door and hurried up the block towards the NYCHA apartments.
“You see,” I declared, “everyone agrees you should stay. Perhaps there’s a way for you to just see the exchange students off at the airport and postpone your return to Spain?” There was another interminable and non-committal silence as we neared Van Brunt Street and my place. It was getting towards the end of the day, and still the unbearable heat had not abated. Not expecting much, I remarked, “why don’t you remain at my place this evening? It’s too hot to go back to Cobble Hill on the bus, and you can have the bedroom. Believe me, I don’t have any illusions at this point.”
To my shock, she then turned to me and said, rather casually I thought, “of course, I’m staying with you tonight. Why do you think I brought my daypack?”
A couple of hours later, we lay on the bed upstairs. “I was confused about what just happened,” I said. “Why did you change your mind so abruptly?”
“This all feels a bit accelerated,” she said, getting up and heading for the shower, “but I figured we didn’t have much time left.”
When she returned in a towel, I asked, “will I ever see you again after you depart?”
“Who knows,” she said, her voice trailing off again.
“While you were in the shower, I was thinking that perhaps you could stay with me for a while and finish your thesis. While you’re here, you wouldn’t have any financial expenses.”
“But even if the exchange program agreed, I would have to pay the airline a penalty…”
I had already given some thought to such contingencies, adding, “I was just looking at your Facebook page, and you’re about to celebrate your birthday, right? What would you say if I paid the penalty as a gift?” Without committing one way or the other, she seemed willing, perhaps, to consider the matter.
I decided not to press for the time being, but the next morning I was puzzled as we took a stroll towards the pier: when I attempted to hold her hand, she pushed me away. “What if one of the children from the exchange program walked by and saw us?” she asked, adding, “it would look unprofessional.” After a long walk to Brooklyn Heights, my confusion persisted when she remarked, rather assertively, “when we get back, we’re having sex again.”
A few days later, just before her flight was scheduled to leave, I prevailed upon her to e-mail the exchange program and request a delay. It was unusual, the agency remarked, though the staff agreed to let her escort the children to JFK while sending them off to Madrid. Logging on to travelocity, I noticed the new ticket was non-refundable, and after scrolling down, I came to a section requiring me to fill in return flight dates. “You’re not in a great hurry to go back to Ciudad Vallejo, right? Why not stay for the full duration of your visa? We could even go to Chicago and visit Morey.”
“Ay por Dios,” she exclaimed. “Two months?”
I did my best not to appear hurt, and we agreed to a duration of six weeks. I asked if her family knew what she would be doing in Brooklyn, or whether they were even aware of me, but she was evasive, remarking, “they’ll just think I’m still here with the children.” When I said it wasn’t proper that they would lack a precise sense of her whereabouts, she finally relented, and told me to send a friend request to her older sister.
Saying goodbye to her host family and dropping the children at the airport, Estefanía brought her suitcase to my apartment. After unpacking, she took out loose cotton pants and chided me for not wearing cooler clothing. We fell into a routine of sorts, and when my article finally came out in Smithsonian, Estefanía congratulated me. Looking up from her laptop as we were downstairs at Posey’s, she looked genuinely impressed.
“I feel more of a sense of relief than anything else,” I said. “Given the long delay, I was beginning to think they wouldn’t follow through, and even so they wouldn’t pay me since this piece was solely for their web edition.”
“Fairly typical that they’ve chosen to take everything for granted,” grumbled Weinraub from across the table, adding “it boggles the mind what passes for genuine journalism or writing these days.” Furiously typing, he looked up at Estefanía and barked, “you’re from Spain, right? What are leftists saying about the legacy of George Orwell and his writing on the Civil War? To be honest, I can’t fathom why more progressive folk aren’t harking back to the anarchist resistance from Barcelona.”
As the other patrons pretended not to notice Weinraub, Estefanía seemed to gather her composure, remarking, “it is a very interesting observation. I am from Ciudad Vallejo, where there have been many excavations uncovering victims from that terrible time.” Speaking in the same soft tone she used when addressing Sébastien and Edgerton, she declared, “we have had some recent housing protests in my town led by a group called the indignados, which has been influenced by earlier social movements.”
“Indeed?” Weinraub responded, before abruptly putting away his laptop and heading out the door.
I shrugged, remarking “that’s just the way he is.” Now feeling in a better frame of mind after reviewing my article for Smithsonian, I went to the counter with Estefanía to buy some of the café’s signature poppyseed cake. Ever since Alma encouraged me to be more patient, I had taken great pains to be outgoing. “Where did you come up with the poppyseed recipe?” I asked Posey, trying my best to add inflection to my voice. “As I remember from childhood, it’s a traditional pastry from Ukraine.”
“Oh?” she asked. “Did your family make it for you?”
Loud music blared from the speaker, which made it difficult to concentrate.
“Indeed,” I said, straining to hear. “My grandmother was an impressive baker. In the old country, poppyseeds are seen as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.” I sensed perhaps I was going off on an esoteric tangent. “For thousands of years, a whole host of civilizations have harvested the dried seed pods.” Posey nodded, handing me the change.
Returning to the table, Estefanía raised her voice and remarked, “why didn’t you say thank you?”
“I thought I did?” I answered defensively.
“No, you didn’t,” she pressed. She chided me repeatedly, until suddenly we were interrupted by a voice from behind us. Turning around, we spotted Mrs. Eleanor carrying her daily mug of coffee. “Now see here young lady, why can’t you just let go of the matter?”
Several minutes later, I was still feeling on edge. “How are you progressing on your thesis about South America?” I asked, trying to forget the earlier incident.
“I think I’m going to have to delay my submission date,” Estefanía said. “I don’t see how I can finish inserting all the footnotes.”
“That shouldn’t take too much time,” I said, trying to allay her concerns.
“And I have to find some detailed maps to complement some of my points,” she added. “Not to mention that I might have to go to Brazil and conduct interviews.”
“That shouldn’t be necessary for a master’s thesis,” I said. “How can they expect you to fund your own travel? In any case, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to clear up such misunderstandings simply by asking.” We went along like this for some time. Whenever I would make a suggestion, she would counter that it was difficult to grasp the academic rules, her thesis advisor was opaque, it was difficult to communicate with her Paris university in French, and so forth. “Why don’t you just let me read your proofread your thesis and see for myself,” I remarked.
“Ay por Dios, it’s terrible. I wouldn’t want to burden you.”
“Now see here young lady,” Mrs. Eleanor said, butting in again, “he just wants to help. Give him your research already!”
Estefanía relented, on the condition that I wouldn’t read her thesis while sitting close by. She handed me a sheaf of papers and I went upstairs. Several hours later, I returned with her manuscript, which I had meticulously marked up with comments and suggestions. “Gosh, this paper is mediocre beyond belief,” I noted, my voice tinged with irony. “This would never pass muster with your supervisor. You’re all washed up and destined to fail. I’m kidding of course: it’s a fine piece of research, and I see no reason why you wouldn’t pass your defense with flying colors.”
Despite my encouragement, Estefanía delayed when it came to undertaking revisions. Occasionally I would spot her busy on her phone, perhaps writing to her relatives on Facebook messenger. Exploring my apartment, she turned up her nose at my comic book collection but expressed curiosity about some vintage posters on the wall depicting rare and endangered animal species. “Do you have Animal Planet channel?” she asked, later binge-watching a show called Unlikely Animal Friends. Separate episodes featured the unusual bond between the likes of a dog and horse, a duck and cat, a rhino and sheep, and even the rapport between a woman and bat.
As for my own pet, Alma was conspicuously absent, choosing only to make cameo appearances when Estefanía was out of the apartment. “I have difficulty deciphering her behavior,” I remarked one day as the cat sat on the window ledge. “I am constantly singing her praises, though she has convinced herself that it will be difficult to get a job. Even if she submits her thesis and moves on with her life, I’m never sure where things will stand.”
“Maybe she’s camouflaging,” Alma remarked. As if to demonstrate her point, she brushed up against my dark trousers with her black coat to blend in. Gingerly stopping to take a sip of water, she added, “it takes a toll.”
I wasn’t sure if I grasped what Alma was trying to say, and gradually forgot about the matter. In between putting on revealing shows in the bedroom by disrobing with a towel, and remarking at one point — albeit in a rather off-hand and oblique manner — that she felt more intensely about me than other men, I began to think I was on solid ground. At the insistence of Morey, we returned to Volga to celebrate her birthday by ordering another vodka sampler.
And yet, I could not shake a lingering feeling of malaise: though I acquiesced to her constant insistence on visiting Sébastien’s to hear the bartender hold forth on everything from Morocco, to his stint in the merchant marine, to his run-ins with shifty characters during the old rough and tumble days of Red Hook, I grew uneasy whenever I saw her gazing at him in typical wide-eyed fashion.
One day, Estefanía went off to Atlantic Avenue to explore some shops as I stayed in the apartment. I had just finished up another article about the importance of the coastal environment, and specifically the conservation of sea grass, which I hoped to send to Smithsonian. Heading out to meet her on the Brooklyn promenade, I spotted none other than Edgerton riding off in the distance on his recumbent bike. I figured Estefanía would be upbeat, since she had made a couple of new purchases at the African store including a bag full of shea butter, black seed lotion and frankincense incense, but I sensed that perhaps something was off.
“Did you see Edgerton?” I asked.
“Yes, we spoke for a while,” she answered curtly. “Your former teacher is oppressive!”
“Odd you would say that? I thought you enjoyed his company.”
“Harumph,” she replied, and refused to elaborate. Sitting on a bench, we peered out on the South Street seaport as river traffic passed this way and that under the Brooklyn bridge. Putting down her phone, Estefanía mentioned something about her sisters taking care of their mother in Ciudad Vallejo. It all sounded rather vague and opaque, and I wasn’t sure what to say. Expressing my sympathies and hopes that it wasn’t anything serious, I gestured at some water taxis shuttling towards Red Hook, while discussing my article about coastal ecology.
“I don’t want to talk about that now,” she said. “Why did you change the subject?”
“But what am I supposed to say? If you don’t elaborate, how can I read your mind? It’s peculiar that you would criticize me for not following up about your family, since most of your relatives aren’t aware of my existence, let alone who you’re staying with in Brooklyn.”
Despite my best efforts to read the situation and reason with her, I was confounded. I touched her cheek, but she seemed to grow even more agitated and brushed my hand back. In the midst of insufferable heat, all my uncertainties and incomprehension boiled over. “Why are you pushing me away? What am I to make of this dynamic in the short-term, let alone the more long-range future?” My tone had gotten louder and sterner. Some onlookers looked at me apprehensively, and a mother pushing her baby in a stroller cart veered away towards the promenade exit. I thought perhaps I should stop, but I could not help myself. “What do you want to do with your life?” I barked.
“How can you be so cruel?” she asked.
“Cruel? It seems like a perfectly reasonable question.”
Tears came to Estefanía’s eyes. “You need someone better than me,” she exclaimed. “I’m not sure if I can get a regular job, I’m trying my best…,” her voice trailed off. Realizing I had over-stepped, I tried to calm and encourage her again. We walked to Red Hook in silence, and I thought perhaps everything might blow over, but once we reached the apartment, I realized I was mistaken.
“I need to go back to Madrid immediately,” she said firmly. “Can the air ticket be changed?”
“I’m sorry for the way I came off before,” I said, apologetically.
She was incorrigible, and insisted I go online to see if travelocity would change the return date, since the purchase was in my name. Frustrated by bureaucratic snags, I finally scrolled down to a disclaimer on the website stipulating the dates could not be altered. “Are you absolutely sure?” she asked.
I was beginning to loathe her. “There’s some time before your departure,” I said. “You can either stay here as my guest, or find another place to stay.” The next several days were distinctly unpleasant, with the two of us avoiding each other to the greatest extent possible within the confines of the small apartment. “What are your plans?” I asked at one point. “Perhaps you can get a room at the Gowanus Cottage Inn.”
“That is too expensive. I think I might be able to stay with someone on couchsurfing.com,” she said. “It’s a web site for travelers on a budget.”
I didn’t say anything and the frostiness continued, until one day I came back to find her gone, along with all her belongings and the suitcase. Going into a kind of frenzy, I unfriended Estefanía on Facebook, and collapsed on the bed. Waking up several hours later, I was surprised to find Alma curled up on my feet. “Where have you been all this time?” I said, exasperated.
“What have you done?” she remarked, looking at me sorrowfully.
I went cold, realizing that I had committed a serious error. How could I have let Estefanía fend for herself in New York, without knowing anyone and lacking any money? She was my guest, and, for better or worse, I was responsible. Frantically, I sent a note to her sister in Ciudad Vallejo, asking if she knew of Estefanía’s whereabouts. Finally, after trying to contact her again on Facebook, Estefanía accepted my friend request, writing that she had found someone to stay with through couchsurfing named Omar in Bay Ridge, and not to worry. Somehow, I wasn’t particularly concerned she would fall into any romantic entanglements in south Brooklyn, but for whatever reason I was petrified at the notion she might try to see Sébastien. Once, while out on a walk on Conover Street, I spotted someone who looked like Estefanía exiting from the rear entrance of the bar, though I could not be sure.
Months later, I sat meditatively in back of Fairway market facing the old cable car when Edgerton pulled up on his bike. “Blustery day for a ride,” he remarked, as the wind nearly blew over his vehicle, “though invigorating!” Pulling out a pouch from his tweed jacket, the breeze blew away some of his tobacco as he attempted to fill his pipe. Puffing away, he mused, “say, whatever happened to that lovely young Spanish woman?”
“She went back to Spain,” I replied. “We had a slight falling out after that day on the promenade, though we seemed to patch things up for a time.” I explained how I was ultimately able to persuade Estefanía to come back to my apartment after her brief foray into couchsurfing. “I had the impression we were on more solid ground, and when I saw her off at JFK, she even ran back and forth waving at me from behind the security gate. After returning to Ciudad Vallejo, I pushed her to submit her thesis, and she successfully defended her paper over Skype. I thought maybe after that, she might come back to New York and look for a job, but her family’s home has a peculiar hold over her, and she is now trying to get employment with the Ministry of Interior, which is like the equivalent of the F.B.I. over there. I don’t understand it much, though from what I gather, some of her relatives have worked in government and it’s a bit of a paternalistic system. At one point, I even said I would fly to Spain so we could spend more time together, but she was evasive, remarking that she could only come up on weekends to visit me in Madrid. The more I pressed, the more she would withdraw, and things have been pretty silent these days.”
“Ministry of Interior?” Edgerton said, adding, “sounds like she’s not living up to her true potential. At any rate, maybe there was an age difference between the two of you, or she was somehow more provincial than she let on. But I suspect — puff-puff-puff — larger issues might have been at stake, and on some level, she was kind of an imposter, for lack of another way of putting it. Think of it this way: if you’re constantly trying to fit in from the sidelines or discern the social rules, that is going to lead to exhaustion, loss of concentration or perhaps even encourage the notion of being a fraud. In any case, if you hear anything more, please keep me informed. Did Smithsonian respond to the most recent piece you submitted?”
“They passed,” I sighed. “Maybe it was just a one-off earlier. I’ve been tweeting out links to my own website and articles, though that feels like a bit of a waste. In the long-run, I’d like to build up a repertoire of environmental pieces, though getting another book contract seems like a pretty far-off hope.
“I have a few more contacts we can try,” Edgerton said. “Why don’t you also stop by and participate in my little think tank, as well? It’s not a silver bullet as far as professional matters and writing are concerned, but we discuss topics sometimes that you might find worthwhile.”
With that, he pedaled off amidst a trail of pipe smoke. Following our encounter, I pitched some of Edgerton’s colleagues at National Geographic and Discover magazine, all to no avail. The complacency was bothersome to be sure, but the blasé attitude towards natural threats within Red Hook itself was even more confounding. The point was driven home to me some time later, amidst reports of a hurricane which had ravaged the Caribbean and was ominously making its way up the eastern seaboard. Sounding the alarm bell, cable news reported the storm could reach category three strength or even higher. Red Hook and parts of the Gowanus lay in a floodplain, and, as such, the mayor had called upon residents to evacuate to nearby shelters and higher ground. With a note of bravado, however, some had failed to heed warnings and declared they would wait out the storm, from Louie’s Lobster Shack to the bait and tackle store to even Sébastien himself.
A day before the storm was set to hit, I stopped by the bar where I spotted the owner boarding up the outside of the premises. In one last act of defiance, a couple of stragglers from the Irish-American Club downed shots of whiskey. “Do you really think it’s wise to ignore the evacuation order?” I asked Sébastien, who was tinkering with his toolbox. Gazing out at the pier from the bar window, Weinraub’s houseboat was nowhere to be seen, and small waves were beginning to lick at the shore.
“Look, I’ve already survived everything from hazardous forays into exotic and illicit substances, to ill-conceived misadventures in the Golden Triangle, to conveying contraband to and from insalubrious ports of call ranging from Maracaibo to Barranquilla to Tangier, to negotiating shakedowns from the Cosa Nostra dating back to my earliest days managing this place, so I’m not particularly thrown by some random rain and floods, however inconvenient and discombobulating they might be. Hey, would you mind helping me out downstairs?”
He led me to the basement to clear out musical equipment left by performing rock bands. Sébastien instructed Joey and I to bring the equipment back upstairs to a shed and place everything high up on a ledge so as to avoid flooding. Frenetically walking back and forth, while hauling everything from drums to electric guitars to heavy speakers, I began to feel winded and leaned up against a wall. From inside the shed, I heard Sébastien and Joey rustling around with some amplifiers. “There’s something about Alex,” Joey remarked, adding “he’s kind of…I’m looking for the word…”
“Robotic?” Sébastien volunteered.
Flustered that I had become the topic of discussion, I considered wandering off and tuning out the conversation altogether.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Joey said, while clambering up on a shelf.
“He’s so earnest,” Sébastien remarked, “and yet there’s something about him that I just can’t relate to.”
The barman’s words stung me: despite my best efforts, it seemed I had been unsuccessful at making myself understood to others. I didn’t have much time to dwell on such matters, however, before Joey’s words suddenly made me freeze.
“And what about that Spanish woman, did you get down with her? She was so hot, man, maybe too hot even for you, Don Casanova.”
I thought I heard Sébastien say something, but then Joey must have let slip a set of drums and there was a great clanging on to the floor. For a couple of minutes, Sébastien got bent out of shape about the cleanup, and then emerged from the shed, apparently not seeing me off to the side. Back at the bar, he shouted at the stragglers that it was time to leave, and promptly installed the last remaining storm windows. Still reeling from the conversation, I considered confronting Sébastien. Was it possible that something had happened between the barman and Estefanía? Though he had teased me over the years, he never outright disrespected me. And yet…would he have succumbed to temptation?
Standing on the street along with the last remaining hard-drinkers from the Irish-American Club, I was about to say something, but Sébastien abruptly shut the door and vanished inside. The wind had started to pick up, and the sky had turned an ominous shade of green. With many Red Hook residents now evacuating, there was no time to get worked up by the whole exchange with Joey and Sébastien, and I quickly sauntered back to the apartment. As I passed Van Brunt Street, I noticed that many businesses had lined their exterior doors with sandbags. It was now only a matter of making the short walk over to Gowanus Cottage Inn, where I had made a reservation.
I figured that perhaps I could slip Alma past the reception desk inside my backpack, provided she avoided making a ruckus. But then, back in the apartment, an uneasy feeling gripped me as I realized she was nowhere to be found. A nervous bead of sweat broke out on my face as I scrambled and searched. Frantically checking all her favorite spots, including the basket, laundry bin and closet, I saw no trace of the cat. For several minutes I called her name, but the place remained deathly quiet. All the other neighbors had departed, and Posey’s was completely boarded up. Now desperate, I crawled out the window and on to the rickety fire escape, hoping I might catch a glimpse of her. It was no avail, however, and with little time to spare, I reluctantly gathered my belongings into a suitcase and made my way through Red Hook’s desolate streets.
In the Gowanus, old Puerto Rican and Italian residents were nowhere to be seen, and the fruit vendor selling sugar cane juice on the corner had packed up. In an effort to prompt people to evacuate, authorities had warned NYCHA residents that hot water, heat and electricity would be cut off, though many still refused to leave. In my new room, the first bands of the storm hit the window like a sheet, making me wonder how well the hotel would hold up. Gazing out below, I noticed the waters of the toxic Gowanus Canal inching up ominously. There wasn’t a bird in the sky, as a cloud of debris from a nearby industrial junkyard circled over the area. With wind lashing at the hotel, I did my best to sleep though I was still overcome by distress over Alma. Where could she have gotten to? Consumed with guilt, I reflected how the creature had always looked out for me, and yet, when it counted most, I had lingered and dallied at Sébastien’s. Hopefully, she had made it indoors somewhere, and would not be left to fend for herself…
“Greetings fellow ranters, this is me, Bob Weinraub, beaming at you in the early morning hours from my jalopy!”
I must have hit the switch on my portable radio, and fumbled out of bed.
“This is Radio Free Red Hook, or should I say Radio Free Gowanus in exile, since I had to park my houseboat in the port of Newark, the veritable ass end of New Jersey. Though broadcasting to you from Sébastien’s jalopy has provided me with greater mobility, let’s just say — a-hem— it’s a bit unwieldy, to put it mildly, since I have to juggle my driving, on the one hand, and radio equipment, on the other.”
With that, there was a loud thud, which made it sound as if Weinraub might have skidded over a pothole. “All joking aside, however, I speak to you at a bleak and somber moment, as I am reduced to witnessing my own home being engulfed beneath the waves.”
So, the naysayers had been proven wrong and the storm had turned out to be far worse than many had imagined. From my window, I could not get a good look at my neighborhood. However, to my shock and horror, much of the street below had been completely flooded by the Gowanus canal, with raw sewage and toxic waste mixing with fuel oil from industrial lots. The flooding had overturned cars, some of which floated towards the old botánica shop selling odd curios and religious souvenirs.
“For the time being, I’m safe driving around, but I have to keep to the fringes of the Gowanus and neighboring Park Slope, which is built on an incline. While I don’t want to sound harsh, in this case I believe Red Hook residents should have obeyed the mayor’s evacuation order. That being said, my heart goes out to all the souls still left in the NYCHA apartments.”
Turning down the radio, I saw some reports on TV about the dire situation in Coney Island and the boardwalk, before my attention turned to gripping images of Red Hook: from Sébastien’s to Van Brunt Street to the projects, the entire neighborhood was flooded under several feet of water. My thoughts then turned back to Alma, as I panicked and wondered how the cat would be able to survive. Texting with Posey on Facebook messenger, I learned that Sébastien himself had taken to supplying poor residents at NYCHA, including Mrs. Eleanor, with key necessities. Remarkably, the barman had managed to carry out his trips by requisitioning a boat from the bait and tackle store, which was equipped with an outboard motor.
It wasn’t until a day later that the waters began to recede. Still feeling on edge about Alma, I grabbed my galoshes and headed out of the hotel. Sloshing through the Gowanus, I was overcome by the stench of the flooded canal, though nothing could have prepared me for what lay in store. Arriving on Van Brunt Street, my heart sank as I took in the spectacle of gushing sewers and devastated businesses, from the old distillery to Louie’s Lobster Shack to the craft chocolate shop. All around me, I was surrounded by the sound of whirring sump pumps, while precarious water taxis bobbled this way and that from the battered pier. Then, sidling up to my apartment, I saw someone outlandishly dressed in a hazmat suit.
“Posey, is that you?”
As she lowered the vizier on her gear, I realized that indeed it was the pie shop owner. “I’m ruined,” she remarked, looking overwhelmed. Gazing into the café, I saw that the whole room was covered in fetid, murky water, including the armchairs and couches which had been so popular amongst the laptop crowd. After heading to my apartment, which had fortunately been spared since it lay on the second floor, I did my best to console Posey. Neighbors had set up a makeshift table out on the curb, supplying spare generators, food, bottled water and other important equipment. Scrubbing down the pie shop counter with bleach, and splashing around up to my ankles, I suddenly felt a sharp pain on my lower leg. Stooping to investigate, I noticed that some sort of metal shard had slipped into my galoshes.
“Dear me,” Posey exclaimed, eyeing a bloody gash which had opened up on my shin. “Perhaps it was a piece of debris which floated over from the wharf.” Handing me a bandage, she added, “that looks serious enough to warrant some stitches. I wouldn’t mess around anymore in the water, either, since the cut might get infected.”
Feeling faint, I found a stool and propped up my legs. Between evacuating to the hotel, and then returning to Red Hook in the midst of the neighborhood’s reckoning with the storm, I found it difficult to pull myself together. Crouching with hands shaking, I abruptly heard a familiar voice behind me. Turning around, I spotted Sébastien lugging a backpack and carrying a gigantic pump. For a moment, I thought back on the earlier conversation between he and Joey, and I was gripped by an uncontrollable rage. Before I knew what I was doing, I blurted out, “did you pursue something with my girlf—-”
Paying me no heed, Sébastien cut me off. “I don’t have time to banter right now,” he said, apparently not hearing what I had said. “We’re scrambling to save the bar right now. I believe this belongs to you?” Unzipping his backpack, he reached down and grabbed something furry.
“Alma!” I exclaimed. Overcome, I embraced the creature and held her tightly in my arms.
“I was delivering some supplies to the NYCHA apartments, and I spotted her perched on some driftwood.”
Feeling a bit shame-faced that I would have ever doubted Sébastien, I limped upstairs with the cat. “What got into you before the storm? You had me worried sick,” I remarked. Ignoring me, Alma plopped down in her basket. Though the cat looked a bit disoriented, she otherwise appeared perfectly fine and quickly fell asleep.
Over time, things gradually returned to normality in Red Hook. Heading back to New Jersey, Weinraub retrieved his houseboat and parked the Kraken’s Claw on Red Hook pier once more. The whole community, meanwhile, had come together to save Sébastien’s, and a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter managed to raise thousands of dollars for the bar’s restoration. Even more notable, the barman himself became quite a celebrity after the New York Times no less published an account of Sébastien’s heroic efforts to help people in the NYCHA apartments. Overnight, it seemed, more and more people came over from Manhattan on water taxis to check out the bar, and to see what all the hullabaloo was about.
After receiving stitches at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, my leg began to heal, though I had difficulty walking for a while. Throughout the entire storm and aftermath, I kept a diary recounting my own dark and macabre observations of daily life. Together with some original environmental reportage, which I managed to publish on my website, I hoped to write a kind of noir-like memoir of crisis. Flying out to Chicago to visit Morey, I was touched how my uncle picked me up at the airport, despite his increasingly frail appearance. After encouraging my writing and inquiring about my former Spanish girlfriend, he took me to a local Mexican restaurant where I finally met the vivacious Esmeralda.
To be perfectly honest, though I missed her exceptionally, I did not let on too much about the twists and turns with Estefanía. After I had pressed her about the future, she had stopped answering my correspondence and Facebook had gone silent. Growing more and more dejected, I even tried writing her dozens of times over couchsurfing.com, where I pressed for news while gently trying to cajole a response. When that failed to elicit any answer either, I even went back to e-mail, until finally, one day, I saw a message waiting in my inbox. “Dear Alex: I heard about the terrible calamity in Red Hook. How is your uncle? Do you still go to Sébastien’s and did the bar survive? I moved to Barcelona and got a job with the Ministry of Interior. It’s very stressful at work, but for the first time in my life, I have my own apartment.”
The fact that she had expressed curiosity about Sébastien, while failing to pose any questions about me, didn’t sit well though I was so pleased to receive a response that I chose to hold my tongue. Shooting off a number of long-winded e-mails, I asked about her new living and work situation while inquiring if we could meet again. Once more, however, the channel went dark. Feeling practically senseless, I appealed and implored, until finally another e-mail arrived, this time written in Spanish.
“Dear Alex: to be honest, I was glad when we lost contact over Facebook, since I grew fatigued by your questions, such as what am I going to do with my life, as well as many other conversations. It must be quite nice to go about life and address any number of issues through your writing, with all that money and spare time at your disposal. My mother died in Ciudad Vallejo, though I don’t expect you to understand much about suffering. All in all, when I look back on our time in Red Hook, I think I must have been with you simply because I was going through a difficult time in my life.”
Wincing, my heart raced as I considered firing off an indignant response. There was a certain sense of finality to the exchange, however, and I suppose I must have just distanced myself from the entire matter. In the days and weeks that followed, I burrowed into more research about the coastal environment, specifically seeking to understand how to prevent future disasters. Ingeniously, recycled oyster shells could be used to make concrete tiles. Restoring wetlands, meanwhile, would help to create natural sponges absorbing storm surges. There was no end to my blog posts, though Red Hook and indeed wider Brooklyn seemed impervious to my underlying message, as I explained to Edgerton one day in back of Fairway market.
“There seems to be a fair amount of denialism,” I remarked, “in light of the ongoing risk of sea level rise. What few people realize is that Red Hook is mostly composed of landfill. Not only is the area low-lying, but also shallow and porous. That’s why some of the flooding came up from under the ground, sort of like an overfilled swimming pool.”
Sitting on a bench in front of the cable car, my old mentor remarked, “Indeed, I couldn’t agree more, and I’m going to bring that up with my group which meets presently.” Sitting next to me, Alma also nodded in agreement. “By the way, did you ever hear anything further from Estefanía?”
Perhaps, by concentrating on my writing, I had successfully managed to keep the whole issue at arm’s length. But when Edgerton mentioned her name again, a wave of hurt overcame me. After going into some detail about Estefanía’s last e-mail, and explaining how everything had come to a head, Edgerton shook his head, musing, “sounds like she’s stubborn and has dug in her heels. Pity, really.”
As we strolled toward Sébastien’s with Alma following behind, we were struck by an unusual sight: outside the bar, a great throng of people had gathered. Approaching further, I noticed an improvised shrine set up on the street adorned with flowers. Suddenly I noticed Posey in the crowd, her face looking pale and ashen.
“What’s all the fuss about?” I asked.
She pointed to a sign which read, “RIP Sébastien.” Underneath lay a wreath, accompanied by a photo exhibiting the barman’s portrait.
“Dear me,” Edgerton exclaimed, putting away his pipe. “How did it happen?”
“He jumped off the roof of one of the NYCHA apartment blocks last night,” she said, tears rolling down her face. Filing past the shrine, people solemnly took in Sébastien’s photo. In the crowd, I noticed Weinraub, Joey, and a number of old neighborhood fellows from the Irish-American Club, in addition to Mrs. Eleanor, who stood there motionless as she crossed herself.
“But why…?” I asked incredulously, wondering why Sébastien had chosen to end it, given that the bar had recovered and the owner had even become a slight sensation. Sitting at my side, Alma looked shaken.
With his brow furrowed, Edgerton pondered for a while. “Maybe, despite projecting a certain image, he was concealing certain things,” he said. “But honestly, I’m not quite sure.”
The crowd began to dwindle, and then suddenly I spotted Edgerton’s peculiar posse approaching from the other side of Conover Street.
“Ah, my entourage has arrived,” he said. “Would you like to join us?”
Alma looked at me, her green eyes gleaming.
“Indeed, why not.”