Brooklyn Girls

(originally appeared in Huffington Post)First, it was me and my mom. We were the original Brooklyn girls. From my earliest days, my mom was my partner when it came to navigating Brooklyn and its eccentricities. She had a no-nonsense and straightforward disposition that taught me that if you didn’t speak-up for yourself, then you risked living your life on someone else’s terms. She had no problem telling people around her what she wanted–whether she was at a restaurant ordering dinner, dealing with family, or talking to a friend. To me, my mom will always be the quintessential Brooklyn girl—tough, but empathetic; stylish and wild, but down to earth; and, she had a great sense of humor, too. She was sensitive at her core, and as much as she expressed herself, she internalized a lot, too. Only those closest to her understood that. Regardless of her outspoken ways in public, she seemed most comfortable when she was in our house in Mill Basin, sitting at the kitchen table, reading The New York Post or a novel. Her complexity will always be reminiscent to me of the dichotomy of Brooklyn—the boisterous public personas we often wore outside, and the thoughtful and softer versions of ourselves that were reserved for those nearest and dearest to us. There was an unspoken code in Brooklyn that required you to define your values and virtues, and stand your ground under all circumstances to defend them. There was a vigor unique to Brooklyn, an enduring spirit, a need and desire to survive and thrive that unfolded for me as I progressed from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.

I didn’t fully comprehend the impact of growing up in Brooklyn as a young girl until I was amid non-Brooklynites on family vacations across the Caribbean and later at sleepaway camp, during the pre-adolescent to teenage summers that I lived in a bunk in upstate New York with girls from Long Island, New Jersey, and New City. It wasn’t that I looked different—although us Brooklyn girls probably used more hair spray than most—but that I experienced the world differently. It was during that stage of my development that it loomed both a curse and a blessing to live in a Brooklyn. I loved the heterogeneous flavor, the hardnosed tone, the frenetic pace. I learned early on about ruthlessness and what people were capable of doing to one another, and the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Although I was barely a teenager when I started sleepaway camp, it seemed to me that those who grew up beyond Brooklyn lived a more carefree existence. Their lives revolved around sports, and going to parties in each other’s homes. They didn’t hang out on street corners and go to clubs using fake ID’s the way we did in Brooklyn; they didn’t have friends whose fathers were in the mafia. Their lives seemed more governed, whereas mine and my friends were a bit reckless. They tended to live amongst people who were all like them, whereas my friends were of different ages, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It was clear to me early on that I was living in the fast lane, and it didn’t seem like I would be moving out of it any time soon.

The Brooklyn of my youth was a mixed bag of young and old; a jumble of races, places, sights, and sounds; a blend of struggle and privilege. Across Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, there were immigrants and first-generation families from all over the globe: Italy, Poland, Russia, Ireland, Germany, Africa, the Caribbean. Jews and Catholics lived side by side throughout most communities. I encountered racism, ignorance, honesty, beauty, pride, and determination. In my immediate world, which consisted of Mill Basin, Bergan Beach, and Canarsie, rivalry was rich between the “Bergan Beach Bean Shooters” and the “Canarsian Martians.” It was a feud which was more imagined than not—something along the lines of the haves versus the have-nots, but truth be told, everyone often hung out together.

My friends and I congregated in malls, bars, beaches, boats, jet skis, clubs, avenues, and restaurants. There was an edginess to Brooklyn that always kept me aware and attentive: anything was possible at any time. Back in the 1980’s, fights in dance clubs could escalate to someone getting shot or beaten nearly to death with a baseball bat. And yet, there was a carefree and joyous togetherness that pervaded most of my days. Beach parties with my friends out in Belle Harbor, Rockaway, could progress to midnight drives to upstate New York just because we wanted to take a ride, shoot some cool pictures amid new scenery, and hang out. My day-to-day life back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s was anything but traditional—we were always on a mission to have fun, laugh, and ready to bust out into a screaming at the top of our lungs rendition of Eric B.’s “Paid in Full.” We did things our own way in Brooklyn, often devoid of rhyme or reason, but fun.

As freshmen in high school, we hung out at nights on the far end of Bergan Avenue in Bergan Beach, or in parking lots in Canarsie—the Brook Sun and Swim Club was a favorite—chatting and joking until it was time for us to return home for a few hours until we all met back up at school the next morning. Friends cut classes and hung out in Burger King, situated across the street from our high school, until the paddy wagon arrived and took them away. We studied for AP calculus exams in our cars, blasting music, and continually getting side-tracked with gossip. Where one friend went, the rest of the group always showed up. We were comfortable in one another’s houses with each other’s parents. My girlfriends and I were hang-out queens—all we needed was a space where we could all be together, whether it was someone’s car, house, a diner, or a street corner, and we were content and immersed in our stories and shenanigans. It took so little to amuse us. Many of us worked throughout high school and we loved to visit one another at work. Fear of missing out was real, so most of us were out every night of high school.

When I got my driver’s permit at 16-years old, my dad gave me my first car: a beaten-up rust colored Cadillac that had once been my mother’s brand-new ride, but had long since become my dad’s runaround jalopy for work errands.  My friends all piled in nightly, bringing a boom box to supplement the car radio that didn’t work, and since the battery often died, I had a few sets of jumper cables in the trunk. My dad had the key ignition dismantled, so that the car started up by pressing a button and thus no car keys were necessary. The back fender stuck out, so once, along with my crew, I had the brilliant idea to rear end it into a wall by our high school to push it back into place—obviously, this caused the back headlights to smash. But it didn’t stop my friends and I from heading off on escapades, whether it was a road trip at midnight to eat at Roll-N-Roaster in Sheepshead Bay, or a venture into Manhattan’s Little Italy for pasta. My shabby automobile was all part of the fun. For my 17th birthday, I bid farewell to my beloved rust-colored Caddy for the hot white Mazda turbo my dad bought me, and I became “Jodi turbo,” speeding tickets, and all.

There is a recklessness to being young and free and living in Brooklyn: Mai Tais by the dozen from the Chinese Restaurant in Canarsie, hanging out in South Shore’s rotunda, and football victory parties. Excursions to eat at Brennan and Carr, L& B Spumoni Gardens, and road trips to Coney Island just because. Our days and nights were full of action and laughter; thought and reason were not always part of the equation. I’m grateful for the years of my life in which logic took a back seat to joy and good times. There was an aura of enchantment in our camaraderie which I have yet to replicate in my life. It was back in the days when there were no cell phones and no social media. Being together meant togetherness; there were no distractions. We ate our food versus taking pictures of it. We laughed at one another’s jokes and shenanigans wholeheartedly, versus mindlessly typing lol. Without realizing it, we formed a team, rich in collaboration, problem solving, communication, empathy, and leadership; all of the skills we each needed to thrive in our lives beyond our time together in Brooklyn.

A few of us stayed in Brooklyn or returned after college and graduate school, but most of us left. For a while—decades—Brooklyn defined us, and then with adulthood, we struggled and stretched trying to figure out who we were beyond our addresses. It’s been decades since I lived in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, but always, it will be my home, with so much of who I am wrapped up in who I was those years of growing up among my Brooklyn girls. It’s clear now in retrospect that it wasn’t always easy to live in such an irrepressible corner of the world. The dark alleys abounded, but somehow, we found roads rich with laughter and love amid them. At a young age, Brooklyn taught us about resilience and perseverance; it taught us about friendship, happiness, and togetherness. It filled us Brooklyn girls with a desire to dare, defy, dream, and most importantly, to embrace each adventure as it unfolded, and to hold on for the ride.

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