“ ‘Black rage’ — it’s a new defense for the Long Island Killer, sort of like an insanity plea,” my dad says as he drives us toward Brooklyn from La Guardia Airport. I have just arrived with my daughter, Rose, from northern Idaho for our annual week-long visit and I’m anxious for news.
Black rage, he explains, means that because someone was born black in America and has had to live in a white society, that person is a candidate for a certain type of social angst and hostility. In this case, Colin Ferguson, an African American, is accused of having calmly walked down the aisle of a busy Long Island Rail Road commuter train selecting Asian and white victims to shoot. Six people died and seventeen were wounded.
Since my childhood in Chicago, when I used to ride the el train downtown, I have always thought of commuter trains as human roulette wheels: you just don’t know who is going to enter the car at any given moment, and in what mental condition. Now we are in New York, where it seems everyone is armed and crazy. My neck and back stiffen. I slip Rose a list of emergency phone numbers. “Carry these at all times,” I whisper. She stuffs them casually in her shorts and looks at the graffiti splashed on the freeway viaducts. I wonder if she’s experiencing culture shock. And I think of the great blue herons of Idaho quietly lifting their long black legs as they search for frogs. I am glad they are not here.
“I have to be at work early every day this week,” Dad continues, “because an animal-rights group is planning to dump a truckload of kitty litter at the front gate of the university to protest the use of animals in research.”
Dad assures us that scientists at his university use only rats and mice in research — no cats or monkeys. Dad is an important higher-up. When Rose and I visit him at work, we have to be “cleared” at the front gate by a security guard. Rose wants to know if they’ll be dumping used kitty litter. I give her one of my fatherly looks.
Robbie, Dad’s wife of four years, announces that I should model. “All you have to do is walk into an agency and they’ll hire you,” she says, looking me up and down. “I’ll make some calls.”
Robbie has lots of advice. It’s her job. As an advice columnist for True Story, she answers a few letters each month.
Dear Dr. Roberta,
I’m sixteen years old and planning to marry my boyfriend soon. I love him very much, even though he lies to me and humiliates me. He cheats on me and even carries another girl’s picture in his wallet. . . . Do you think we should postpone our wedding?
Please don’t marry until you both grow up. . . .
She often shows me the rejected letters. No matter what my mental state is at the time, the letters cheer me up.
The Times runs a long piece about the Russian mafia, which is operating in Brighton Beach, the next neighborhood over from Manhattan Beach, where Dad lives. The article begins: “As a Brighton Beach subway train thundered overhead, a hit man pumped one fatal bullet into the back of Oleg Korataev’s head. It took four rounds in the face and chest to finish off another suspected gangster, Yanik Magasayev. . . .”
All of the gangsters have eagle tattoos, and their ringleader is pictured wearing a warm-up suit. I don’t like his looks.
Most of the Brighton Beach business district is under the elevated platform where the Q and D trains stop. All the signs and literature — even the menus at places like the Odessa Club and Cafe Arabat — are in the Cyrillic alphabet. The smells are foreign. Stores are packed with exotic breads, eels, fruit, caviar, gorgeous scarves, sharks, flowers — all great bargains with no sales tax. Rose buys a school bag for twenty dollars, cash. No receipt. I buy ten packages of rainbow pasta for two bucks.
On Brighton Beach Avenue, two rabbis sit at a makeshift table piled high with pamphlets and books. They stop me. “Do you speak Russian?” one asks.
“Are you Jewish?”
When I again answer no, they wave me away as if I am a leper.
Every morning at eight, an hour before the banks open, Russians queue up in front of the doors, standing grimly in line, not because the banks are crowded, but because it’s a habit from waiting for bread and toilet paper back in the old Soviet Union.
At the Brighton Beach subway station, someone has crossed out the CLOSED sign and scrawled, “Nyet!”
At my dad’s university, two members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) arrive just after noon, wearing gas masks, to dump used cat litter at the front gate. They are immediately arrested. Dad has set up a room with pastries, coffee, and handouts for the press, but only one radio reporter shows up.
Later, Dad shows me some PETA literature featuring a cat with electrodes attached to its eyes. The name of Dad’s university is prominently displayed. However, the photo is from a different university, Dad says, and the researcher whose home number is given has never used cats. Every day he receives death threats.
When Rose and I return to Brooklyn, Robbie, who hates nature, frantically asks me to remove a dead cicada from the walk. Later in the day, she runs over a pigeon and says, “Good, I hit a bird.” I scold her and then feel bad. I miss our quiet life in Idaho. I miss birds.
The Times reports the beating death, by neighbors, of a drug addict who tried to steal ice-cream money from a ten-year-old girl. The TV news interviews some men who rescued a nine-year-old girl from a sex offender attempting to drag her from a playground. The sex offender was also beaten, but didn’t die.
Rose, Dad, and I board a small fishing-craft-turned-tour-boat for a Statue of Liberty cruise. I’m not convinced the boat is seaworthy, but I get on anyway, crossing a narrow gangplank to get aboard. We seem to be the only English-speaking group of the fifty or so people on the boat. The Russians lined up an hour ahead of time. The captain is drinking a beer; I doubt it’s his first of the evening.
Ten dollars buys a three-hour trip to the Statue of Liberty and back to Sheepshead Bay. All announcements are in Russian. Everyone smokes, drinks Budweiser, and laughs. Exercise is apparently unheard of among these Russians, yet I’m sure they will outlive us, with our low-fat, high-fiber diets. The men are robust, wearing lots of gold and madras. The women are striking. Couples kiss passionately. I’m beginning to feel self-conscious about being American. I feel plain, unpassionate. I think I see the Russian gangster boss standing on the upper deck looking at me and Rose. I stare at him and try to see if there is an eagle tattoo on his arm. He glares back until I turn away.
Without warning, the loudspeaker blares Russian rock-and-roll, perhaps the worst music invented since Wagner. We cruise past Coney Island and the Verrazano Straits into New York Harbor and up the East River, turning at the Brooklyn Bridge, then heading back into the harbor. The trip seems to take forever.
The grand finale is the Statue of Liberty, where the captain kills the motor just offshore. We bob and drift in the currents, Ellis Island dark and mysterious on our right. The statue, remodeled and cleaned up in 1988, is magnificent. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is playing in my mind. Then the loudspeakers crackle, and the Beach Boys burst out singing “Barbara Ann.”
In the pitch-black calm, families line up for pictures. Flashbulbs spark and for a second I see the happiness on the faces of these new immigrants. The lights of Manhattan are reflected in all our faces, those who have just arrived and those who were born here. It makes no difference where we are from. America is still the coolest place to be.
From the second floor of my father’s house in Brooklyn, I hear the sounds of Coney Island: laughter and music; the lilt of a beautiful tenor voice singing in Russian; children squealing; dogs barking. Foreign voices permeate the humid summer air. The Black Sea Handball Courts are full of serious players (including, I later learn, on-duty ambulance drivers and policemen).
The Times reports six homicides in five hours last night. One body was found at 11:40 P.M. under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which we passed under on the tour boat around 10:30. I read of a gang rape under the boardwalk; the five rapists wore condoms so that they could not be traced through their semen or contract AIDS from their victim. I have begun hiding the Times from Rose, but now I notice a stack of True Story magazines by her bed. I am losing control here.
Every five minutes a plane flies over Coney Island trailing a banner: “Cabaret. Tops in Topless. 7 Days.” Police helicopters hover just a short distance off the ground. There are no birds anywhere in sight.
I read that New York City averages five thousand shootings and more than two thousand murders a year: sixteen and a half shootings and seven murders a day. I’m obsessed with these averages as Rose and I venture out around the city. I picture bullets flying everywhere, searching out warm targets. Rose wants to go to the Gap to buy paisley boxer shorts. I want to stay home and not use up any more chances on the subway. My dad, who rides the subway every day wearing an impeccable suit and carrying a briefcase and a Wall Street Journal, says it’s just drug dealers shooting other drug dealers.
On the subway I read this month’s installment of Poetry in Motion, an effort by the city to put art in the everyday lives of New Yorkers. In this case it’s “Summer,” by Walter Dean Myers: “I like hot days / sweat is what you get days.” Rose reads her book while I assess the mental stability of each new arrival to our car. Each stop nearer to Manhattan feels like a victory. I’m convinced that everyone on the train has a gun or suffers from black rage. I warn Rose not to make eye contact. She rolls her eyes.
At MacDougal and Bleeker, in the heart of Greenwich Village, we come upon yellow tape isolating a murder scene. A jeweler has been stabbed to death. The murderer was caught by two unemployed construction workers from Queens, who tackled him as he ran through the streets brandishing a bloody knife. All of this happened just minutes before Rose and I emerged from the subway.
A crowd has gathered outside the jeweler’s store, including a man wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m from New York. I take no shit,” which reminds me of a shirt I saw in Sheepshead Bay yesterday: “Don’t ask me for shit.”
On our last day in Brooklyn, Rose and I go to the freak show at Coney Island, where we see the Tattooed Man, who hammers a nail through his tongue, and the Human Octopus, who wraps albino pythons around her neck and then bends her body into an impossible box. I am asked to tighten a straitjacket around a surly man, who quickly extracts himself. I feel as if I’m involved in something pornographic. The same man then lies down on a bed of nails while another audience volunteer stands on top of him. For an extra two dollars we can watch the pythons feed on live, twelve-pound rabbits for dinner. I think of PETA and decline.
That night, the dining room at Caroline’s Restaurant in Coney Island is like a scene from a Fellini movie. An organist pounds out schmaltz while the diners snap their fingers and sway on each note. Robbie asks the waiter to turn the volume down, but it never happens. All the men wear pinky rings with diamonds. The women are all bleached blondes with black eyebrows, and their purses have gold-plated chain straps. Mirrored walls surround us, magnifying the vastness and surreal atmosphere of the place.
Rose orders spaghetti. I consider fish but then remember yesterday’s advice in the Times: “Due to continued contamination of local waters by PCBs, mercury, and other industrial byproducts, the State Health Department suggests that people limit their consumption to one meal (about half a pound) of city-caught fish a week.” I had red snapper two days ago.
When the organist plays the first familiar notes of “Happy Birthday,” the black-haired Sicilian waiters gather at the table of a large party and sing with more feeling than the small room can hold. Their voices are passionate with a lot of vibrato. When they finish, we turn in their direction to applaud, and I catch a glimpse of us in the mirrors. We look like deer caught in headlights.