|Up: The Neighborhood||[Related] «^» «T»|
Thursday, May 27, 1999
By Paul Ford
Getting stones thrown at me in Red Hook.
I went left instead of right on my way to find lunch, and walked for two hours through Red Hook. After passing under the Gowanus expressway, I strolled the length of Court St, until it ended at the Hess oil depot. The streets were empty and silent, and to the right, a black grain elevator, massive and ribbed, rose off a pier like a mausoleum off a pier. I realized then that I'd forgotten to wear socks, and that there was a staple coming loose in the bottom of my shoe. I plunged on.
Red Hook is all concrete, tin walls, and concrete, inflamed this Sunday with jarring heat. I passed a garage half torn down, bricks scattered, car parts left on the grease-black floor. A man sat alone inside the garage eating from a plastic cup of yogurt with a plastic spoon. He nodded and smiled.
There was a large park and I sat at a table, reading Graham Greene's A Burnt Out Case once more, looking over a large black boat tethered to the pier, feeling the sun above my collar. On the next bench, a man sat beside a little girl; she ate ice cream with a tiny wooden paddle, and he drank from a large can of beer wrapped in brown paper. They didn't speak to each other. The man, who had leathery skin and curly white hair, looked out over the Red Hook inlet, and the little girl, who had braided hair and wore a pink dress, kept her attention to her ice cream, which was chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry together in same small paper cup.
I walked an asphalt path through the park and drank from the fountain, past shaved ice vendors with waist-high carts. Men were playing serious baseball in immaculate uniforms, bright reds and pinstriped pants tucked into the socks. Their audience of wives and sons was quiet, every eye focused on the diamond. A starter pistol went off and teams of children relayed around a track, passing the baton.
With the exception of a single policeman, the skin I saw in Red Hook was deep tan, brown, and black. I was ignored, walking through, like any pedestrian, but once or twice someone looked at me for longer than a dismissive glance, seeing first my chest, then moving to my eyes, then down to my shoes, then frowning, then looking away.
At the outside edge of the park a dozen station wagons and vans were parked along the sidewalk. Bright blue plastic tarps—all the same blue—were hung from the hoods of the cars to the top of the park fence, forming a long canopy over the sidewalk. The tarps snapped in the breeze; the breeze was salty. On the blue-shadowed sidewalk, at different tables, old women sold enchiladas for $1.50, young men sold plastic action figures, and middle-aged men sold papayas for unmarked amounts. Beef hissed on tall folding grills, next to greasy, brown burning onions.
Further down, past the canopy, was another pier, and a small group of men were fishing, ten feet from each other, passing along jokes in Spanish. One smiled to me and nodded as I walked past. He was in his forties, black-haired, with an unshaven face. He had a wide smile and bright white teeth.
The pier ended in a fence, so I turned around, then looked out at the inlet as I walked, trying to make sense of the mess of elements. It was a jarring pile of boats, factories, terminals, processing plants, and nameless, unfeatured tall buildings, dominated by the black grain terminal. The entire skyline was done in shades of industrial necessity: light tan, black, a bloodish red, school-wall green, a range of umbers spotted with yellow markings, and relentless, spreading gray.
I pulled North, the invincible World Trade Towers looming above some trees, and ended up, after a few blocks, one a street that goes through the Red Hook Houses. I walked past hundreds of people, children playing in T-shirts under spraying water, old men playing card games, a woman with huge breasts hanging out of a window, calling down cheerfully and unintelligibly to her son, her lover, or her friend.
Finally, I passed between a small group of boys, five of them, age 10 to 15, two on bikes. I felt their eyes, and knew from their complete silence as I passed that I would be a target.
Yo, motherfucker, yo, said one of them.
My feet moved me a few feet further, at the same walking pace, and the first stone hit my back. Another struck my neck. There are no large stones in Red Hook, just gravel.
Fat motherfucking white fat honkey motherfucker, screamed another.
Three or four more rocks hit my shoulders, buttocks, legs. It hurt, but not much. I did not turn around, and I wasn't angry or upset. As I moved out of range, I pictured the scene in my head from a window above, one or two of the kids throwing stones at the back of a man, using all the power in their arms, hoping for me to turn righteously and yell at them, but I kept ambling. The street was crowded, and dozens of people looked over at me, at the kids, but no one said anything.
Yeah motherfucking fat bastard fat white motherfucking fat fuck, came three high, jumbling voices, a panoply.
The last stone struck, stung for a moment, and the sneakered footsteps stopped behind me, the children turning back to their earlier discussion, proud, victorious. I went on, the sting fading. I turned right at the end of the block, smiled to a father with two small children as I walked past him, then went to find some lunch, having seen enough of Red Hook.