By: Ben Rose
Kenzie and I left the air conditioning of the church, exchanging it for the searing heat of Brooklyn. We walked three blocks to a subway station and caught the N train for no reason except that it was the first one arriving. The train wasn’t overly crowded, so we sat for an hour holding hands and kissing. A rail-thin Hispanic boy with long black hair, dressed in jeans, a pale-blue, button-down shirt and sandals sat at one end of the subway car playing hymns on the flute. I recognized a few of the tunes and sang along. The train suddenly stopped. An announcement crackled hollowly across the speakers.
“There has been a mechanical failure. Please depart the train and wait on the platform for the next one which will be arriving shortly. Please do not remain on this train.”
Kenzie stood up. “It’s a nice day out, even if it’s way too hot. Let’s walk for a while. I think I can use my phone map to get us to a bus and then to a subway heading to Coney Island.” We grabbed our backpacks.
Leaving the station, we walked east a while and headed north on Saint Ann’s Avenue before turning east again at 149th street. The area was yet another New York City. The buildings were similar to those in Brooklyn and the noise level only slightly less intrusive than Manhattan.
The major difference was that several of the buildings had either been through fires and abandoned, or else bombs had gone off inside of them. Furthermore, what lay ahead of us was nothing short of how I imagine Hell to look.
There were teens gathered along the sidewalks. They looked as if they had been attending an event at the school nearby. Most wore polo shirts and slacks or newer looking jeans. I wondered to myself what it would be like to attend public school. The kids appeared to be close to our age and they were uniformly clean cut. That was the Heaven to juxtapose with the nearby Hell.
I held Kenzie’s hand as we crossed the street. My guts started doing flips as we walked. I couldn’t put into words my sense of foreboding, but the area gave me the sense that death lay around every corner. The school kids across the street stood in stark contrast to the rancid landscape surrounding me.
Kenzie looked right at home. That isn’t to say she appeared relaxed or happy, just that she didn’t seem unused to the environment around us. Her brow was furrowed and her face taut. I noticed that her eyes shifted every which way as we walked straight ahead.
Beyond a chain-link fence, a slope led to an abandoned railroad bed. The summer sun reflected off something shiny and orange. As I looked closer toward the patches of weeds and dirt, I saw a large quantity of discarded syringes. There were needles scattered on the ground like random sticks and clumped under trees like piles of raked leaves. Needles were likewise floating in the pools of standing water below. The area smelled worse than a porta-potty. We trudged onward past the fence.
A disheveled lady with mottled brown skin and a matted, dirty Afro sat in front of a crudely erected shelter made of tarps and old sheets. The shelter overlooked the railroad bed and was surrounded by used needles and other detritus. I watched her take out an item that Kenzie said was for cooking drugs, and the lady mixed something together.
Kenzie noticed my wide-eyed stare. “She’s on the jazz. If you see people like that just stay clear. They’re unpredictable and sometimes homicidally dangerous.”
The lady was wearing several layers of sweatshirts, blue jeans, and unlaced construction boots, despite the blazing summer heat. When she pulled up her sleeves, I saw arms covered with puncture marks and dark red scars. She looked straight ahead, her face blank, as she stuck the syringe into her left arm and pressed the plunger.
Panic gripped me as I observed other people scattered around. Some tried to hide and others just lay there motionless. The dichotomy of the situation wasn’t lost on me. The groups of teens on one side of us looked young, fresh, even a bit innocent. The people beyond the fence looked older. Much older.
Most were black or Hispanic, but so were the teens. I wasn’t sure if it led to my fear, but that was my first experience with being around so many minorities in one setting. Not that anyone said a word to us. They ignored us completely.
“This is what I grew up around,” Kenzie spoke to me softly. “My mother wasn’t on the spike, and I don’t think anyone she brought home was, but it was all around me and my siblings. When we had to clear out so mommy dearest could be alone with her latest guy, this is what we saw happening.”
I watched tears forming in Kenzie’s eyes. She wiped her face with a sleeve. I hugged her from the side and we picked up the pace toward the bus stop.
Ahead of us, a disheveled African American man emerged from a makeshift lean-to. He had grey and black unkempt dreadlocks and skin that was lighter in spots and darker in others. He wore purple sweatpants and a dirty undershirt. The man squinted in the morning light and stomped off.
“By the way, that building across the street actually houses two schools. There’s University Prep and Lincoln Science. I met some girls from there a few weeks ago. They gave me a few bucks to get some lunch.”
“I can’t believe that people are using drugs outside of a school.” I blanched. “That’s all kinds of scary.”
“Believe it, Destiny. Welcome to the real New York City. Hell, this happens everywhere in America. You’ve been sheltered and for once, maybe that’s a good thing. But I guarantee that this exists in Florida, too.” Kenzie’s face registered matter of fact.
Retired Hobo, recovering addict, lost boy, coffee connoisseur, cat lover, Asperger’s, PTSD, Insomniac and Winner CampNaNoWrimo, 2018
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