I grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an inner city borough, of New York City where sex, drugs, and crime were a part of everyday life and not just a scene out of Scarface. It wasn’t unusual for me to see used needles on the ground or to be approached by a dealer trying to build his business. The local dealers needed new clients and their business didn’t have an age restriction. Williamsburg was the ghetto; aside from run down playgrounds that were shared by the neighborhood crack heads, it didn’t provide many options for extracurricular activities.
There weren’t any after school sports programs or dance classes, the only activities for kids, included going to the playground or hanging out on the street corner. Both of which made it very easy to get caught up in things that you probably shouldn’t be doing. Danielle and I were only allowed to play in the park. Mostly because it was directly across the street from the building we lived in and mamí could keep an eye on us from our second floor window.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a hot summer day in August. The park was full of people. The usual group of old men sat in front of Fidel’s bodega playing dominoes and the sweltering sun, so unbearable, felt like it could bake the skin off of a pig. I felt like a lechon that was being roasted for Christmas dinner. Little droplets of sweat began forming on my forehead not so much from the temperature but from my nerves and feelings of fear as I searched the playground for my 10 yr old sister. This realization hit me like a broom stick on a piñata. It was not going to be a good day. My sister seemed to have vanished from one minute to the next, like liquor in the hands of an alcoholic. I was going to be in BIG trouble if I didn’t find her quick.
The park was often occupied by bums, drug addicts, drug dealers and other degenerates. I’d often see empty crack vials on the ground; yellow tops, red tops, blue tops, and each color signified a different “brand” of crack. There were always a couple of swings that didn’t swing properly. The monkey bars were always missing a few bars and the slide was often covered in dirt and wreaked of urine. There was usually a small group of drug addicts behind the handball courts getting high. I’d see them stagger lazily with eyes half shut and drool coming out of the side of their mouths. Sometimes I felt like I was smack in the middle of a scene from Night of the Living Dead. They looked like zombies.
Yet, there was no place like NYC in the summertime. The boys played wiffle ball while the girls played hopscotch. On the few occasions that the temperature hit the 100 degree mark someone would bring out the wrench and open the pump. The water would blast out of the cast iron devices like a roaring river cooling off overheated hands, heads, and hearts of the young and old alike. Bathing in it like we were home and letting the coolness of the water wash away all of the days grittiness.
There weren’t country clubs or summer trips to the shore and instead of freshly manicured lawns and picket fences there were abandoned buildings surrounded by bob wire. To keep ourselves entertained we spent much of our summer in Bedford Park. On that particular day however, I wished that I had never went outside.
“Danielle, Danielle”, I yelled, as I searched the playground. Danielle was nowhere in sight. Before going outside, mamí told me to keep a strict eye on her. But in my rush to go play with my friends, I nodded yes, half-listening and silently thinking “I’m so sick of her always tagging along. I wish she would just go away”. I was forced to take Danielle everywhere. My parents saw it as a way to strengthen my relationship with her but I saw it as an unnecessary consequence of being the older child. “Why do I always have to baby sit her? She’s always tagging along,” I thought. Secretly, I was thinking of a way to leave Danielle behind and wished that she would make her own friends and leave me alone.
Mamí, always distracted by what she was going to wear to her next party dumped Danielle on me any chance she got and I hated it. I hated both of them, my mom for giving me her responsibility and Danielle simply for existing. If she’d never been born I wouldn’t be in this predicament. As I continued looking for Danielle in the playground I began regretting those thoughts.
I saw her as being a pest, a permanent distraction in my life but Danielle viewed it as an opportunity to hang out with her big sis. I knew that Danielle loved me and while she often blackmailed me whenever I told her that she couldn’t hang out with me, I know she only did so as a last resort. All she really wanted was to be a part of my inner circle. I was starting to feel like the worst big sister on earth.
As I continued my search in the park crazy thoughts began to cross my mind. “What if someone had kidnapped Danielle?” “What if she was approached by a drug dealer or by one of those men that liked to play with kids in that funny way?” Mamí always told us not to talk to strangers so I knew better, but Danielle always found it challenging to do what she was told. At 10 years old, she thought she knew it all.
My feelings of anger towards Danielle disappeared after my first search of the playground proved unsuccessful. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I was worried, but mostly I was scared. There was a possibility that I wouldn’t see Danielle again and that thought sent chills up and down my body as if I had seen a ghost. I did the only thing I knew how. I began talking to God like they taught me in my communion class a few years ago.
“Dear God, I’m so sorry for every bad word or thought that I have ever had against my sister. Please bring her back. If you bring her back safely I promise, promise, promise to never be mean to her again.”
I threw in the 2 extra “promises” hoping God would realize how much I really needed his help right now. My Catholic upbringing taught me that if you pray hard enough and believe hard enough that He could create miracles. I believed in miracles. What I needed now was a miracle and while I hated that Danielle was like a prison guard watching and documenting my every move into her blackmail database, I would gladly give up my freedom if it meant seeing her again.
“How did I allow myself to get so caught up in clowning around with Jenn and Ebony in the playground that I lost track of my sister?” I thought.
I walked back to the swings where I left Jenn and Ebony and they were still swinging like maniacs. Jenn’s brown curly bob cut hair blew ferociously against the wind as she pumped back and forth with every force of her short legs while standing on the swing. Jenn’s normally snow white skin was hot pink, clearly a sign that she was going to win this “swing battle”. We loved competing against each other to see who could swing the highest and fastest.
“Hey”, I yelled to both of them. They were both swinging so hard they’re feet almost touched the leaves of the tree on the other side of the fence.
“Has Danielle passed through here?” I said hopingly, even though I knew the likelihood of that would be like winning the lotto.
“No”, Jenn muttered through gasps of breath as she continued swinging herself. “Where could she be?” I asked not expecting an answer. “I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find her.”
“Maybe she went upstairs”, Ebony said. I knew that wasn’t possible because Danielle wasn’t allowed to cross the street by herself.
“If she happens to come this way can you tell her that I’m looking for her?” I said. Almost simultaneously, Jenn and Ebony both reply, “Sure”, without interrupting their swinging.
I begin to circle the park once more and by now I knew that I was in really big trouble. My mom told me time and time again “Stop putting your friends before your sister. No matter how close you are, in the end, friends will always disappoint you. Your family, they will always be there”, she would say. She said it so many times that I wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince more, me or her.
My mamí’s words kept replaying over and over in my head like a broken record, “Stop putting your friends before your sister”. Those words just like most of the things mamí said went in one ear and out the other. I was 14 years old and like most teenagers I felt that I knew it all. But as I thought back on mamí’s words, I wondered if what she said was true. The lesson of friends and family was one of the many lessons I would learn later on in life. As I circled around the playground for what felt like the hundredth time I thought about Jenn and Ebony. They were my closest friends and we all grew up in the same building.
Jenn, however was my best friend. She was always the cutest and shortest girl in the class. Physically, she was the complete opposite of me. Jenn was popular and confident the kind of girl every girl wanted to be like including me. I was freakishly thin, tall, and had such curly unruly hair that not even my own mother could tame it. Trying to comb my hair was like going to battle. You had to be armed with tons of conditioner, a strong bristled brush, and a big tooth comb if you had any hope of winning. I remember seeing the Mirta de Perales shampoo commercials on the Spanish channel and wanting to buy it because I truly thought using those products would make my hair soft and flowy like the women in the commercial.
I remembered how Danielle liked to say “Natalie don’t you wish you had hair like mine?”, while swaying her head side to side so that her long wavy hair flowed with every movement of her head. Danielle loved to remind me how she had the “good hair” and I was cursed with “bad hair”. Along with my bad, unruly hair, I had a crooked smile and teeth to match.
I had no problem poking fun at myself and I would often say that I could be Buckwheat’s little sister, but truthfully I hated my dark skin. I wanted to be lighter with pelo bueno like my sister. The boys would often tease me and call me daddy long legs because of my really long and skinny noodle like legs. I was often amazed at how they could even support me. I was tall for my age and awkward looking. My favorite wardrobe included long pants and long skirts, anything that covered up my legs even during the hot and humid summers in NYC.
My own father constantly reminded me of how much I reminded him of Olive Oyle. Despite my physical flaws I was still a cute girl, well, that was what I kept telling myself. The power of positive thinking is truly amazing. Even though I may have fallen short in the traditional form of physical beauty, I was always very sure of my intellectual capabilities. I was freakishly smart and I was a member of the yearbook, young astronauts, and stamp clubs. Talk about nerd. The only thing that I was missing was a pocket protector.
When it came to school I was very confident. Jenn was smart too, but not as smart I was. We were like Laurel & Hardy or Batman & Robin. Except that in our movie I was the main character and Jenn was my trusty sidekick. When I got to the park that day all I wanted was to hang out with Jenn and Ebony. I did not want to have to baby sit Danielle again. But now that I couldn’t find her I wished I had never left her side.
My nerves where getting the best of me and as I continued searching, I started to get a churning feeling in my stomach. It’s that feeling you get when nervous and you suddenly feel like going to the bathroom. I realized that I was starting to get “bubble guts” and it was because I was scared.
“Please God don’t let me lose control of my bodily functions. This is no time for me to have to go to the bathroom. I can’t go upstairs without my sister and pooping on myself in the park is not an option”, I thought.
My heart was racing and in addition to the drops of sweat on my forehead the rest of my body was now beginning to sweat. I was beginning to feel as if my body had suddenly developed a mind of its own. It was doing one thing while my brain was telling it to do something else. “Calm down,” I said to myself. “Just relax, and take a deep breath.”
Suddenly and without warning I felt my eyes begin to swell and tears started falling from my eyes at the thought that I would never see Danielle again.
“Damn Danielle, where are you? I distinctly remember leaving you by the swing”, I said talking to myself.
As I circled around the playground one last time, I walked over to the swing that Danielle loved to swing from. It wasn’t a traditional swing like the one Jenn, Ebony, and I liked to swing from. It was a contraption made from a tire held together with thick straw-like rope that hung from the branch of a tree. Danielle loved playing on that swing.
“What would I do if my sister was gone? How was I going to tell my parents?”
All these questions were running through my mind while tears ran down my cheeks like a waterfall. I thought about the neighborhood and realized that it wasn’t the safest neighborhood in NYC. It wasn’t a farfetched idea that something terrible could have happened to Danielle. I searched the entire park 4 times before finally giving up. I decided that I would have to somehow summon up enough strength and courage to tell my mom that I lost my sister.
When you grow up in the hood you immediately become identified by the block that you live on. You somehow become a living, breathing representation of the street that you live on. I just so happened to represent South 10th street and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
My family lived at 128 Bedford Ave, apartment #15. It was a modest sized 5 story apartment building that was located right in between the local bodega owned by Fidel and a tire shop owned by our neighbor Joey.
The building was painted a dull lifeless gray and the hallways were always dark and gloomy except for the one light that flickered on and off at the end of the hallway were the staircase was located. To the right of the stairs, was a door that led into the backyard of the building. The backyard was more of a junkyard. Tenants would throw dirty diapers back there, half-eaten food, old clothes, shoes, and anything else they were too lazy to dispose of properly. Bags of garbage would be stored there waiting pick up from the sanitation trucks. It was normal for me to look out my bedroom window, which overlooked the backyard, and see huge rats digging through the garbage for food. The rats caused many nights of trauma for Danielle and me. We wouldn’t even go to the bathroom at night alone for fear that the rodent pets might attack us.
It was normal to see the older neighborhood men congregating on the block in front of Fidel’s store or see them sitting on milk crates playing dominoes yelling capicu. It didn’t matter the time of day or night people were always outside; old people, young people, children, infants, everyone.
The younger adults would often hang out in front of their building and sit on the stoop. You’d see mothers who should have been home with their children hanging out in the park with their parked baby strollers while their babies slept. For some reason people felt like they were missing something if they weren’t outside.
The older women would parade up and down the block with their tight jeans, tight blouses, and 4-inch high heels. Their faces fully made up like they were getting ready to go out dancing, but in reality they had nowhere to go. You could hear El Gran Combo singing “Un Verano en Nueva York” blasting from Blanco’s night club. It was like a block party that never ended.
On the corner was an abandoned lot. It served as the home for the neighborhood homeless dog, Blackie. Blackie was a black and brown Doberman Pinscher. Blackie was always growling and barking and had teeth that looked like they would have broken my scrawny little legs in half had he ever laid his teeth into me. As I continued my search for Danielle I couldn’t help but wonder if Danielle had been attacked by Blackie or worse, attacked by those killer rats.
In the summer it was normal to see the piragua man making his way down the street singing “Coco, Cherry, Piña” while the kids ran towards him with their fifteen cents in hand ready to buy a cup of the flavored ice. On this specific summer day it was going to take more than the piragua man to cool me off. I had just lost my sister and I knew that the trouble I was in would be unlike any trouble I had ever been in before.
There was no punishment cruel enough or no spanking bad enough to equate to the severity of what just happened. “Only God and some serious praying would get me out of this mess”, I thought.
I walked through the park on my way to my building in tears, balling and gasping for air. I was trying to figure out a way to break the news to my mom. I crossed the narrow street that led to my building and I buzzed the bell for apartment 15.
“Who is it?” asked mamí through the metal box that hung outside the building. “Mamí it’s me, Natalie, buzz me in”, I said, while trying to disguise the pain and sadness in my voice that only comes when you’ve been crying relentlessly. My eyes were crimson red and I had no strength left in me. I was tired, hot, and frustrated. All the searching and the crying had worn me out.
As I pushed in the door to get into the building I felt my body suddenly become numb. I was about to step into the death chamber. I felt like a dead man walking. Every step I took felt heavier and heavier. As I made my way up the 4 flights of stairs to our 2nd floor apartment my mom was waiting at the door. When she saw my teary-eyed face she asked, “Natalie que te pasa? Why are you crying?”
“Ma” I replied between sobs. “I have something to tell you”, I said, barely getting the words out. “I don’t know how she got lost but I can’t find Danielle in the park”.
No sooner had I completed that sentence my sister appears at the door with a wide-faced grin and that mischievous look she gets when she knows that she has gotten the best of me.
“What are you doing here? Why did you leave the park? I thought I lost you”, I said, feeling completely overjoyed at the sight of my sister.
My joy, however, quickly turned into anger once I realized that she put me through unnecessary worry.
“I couldn’t find you in the park. I saw grandma walking down the street so I had her walk me home”, Danielle replied.
I couldn’t believe my ears. All the time I spent looking and crying and worrying over what happened to my sister and she was upstairs safe and sound all the time.
“You have no idea how scared and worried I was that something bad happened to you”, I replied.
“Well next time, don’t dis me to play with your friends and you won’t have to worry about this happening”, Danielle said in that sassy disrespectful tone that made her believe that she was the older one. I wanted to kill her but instead I just thanked God that she was ok and went to my room. She was independent even at that age.