Many mornings, Fulton Street feels like the ultimate border crossing station. You move without a physical passport, but always with permission of those around you who also share and add character to the space. This permission is your visa. At once, you are part of the story and the transition.
Every morning, on my way to my favorite coffee spot, I pass by a mosque with a healthy community coming in and out of its doors. On evenings when the wind blows in the right direction, we can hear the call to prayer from our living room, faintly through the now bare trees. There is also always a group of people talking and sometimes shouting outside Bergen Bagels on Waverly and Fulton. There’s a mental healthcare facility on the same corner, where a number of disable veterans gather before and after their appointments. Some are haunting by the ghosts of their time at war, and their glances take in much more than their immediate environment. It’s hard not to feel something squeezing sharply around your heart.
Sometimes these different groups interact, sometimes they pass by each other with little more than a nod. But they are all there, witnessing the same scenes I do every day.
And there are definitely moments where it is easier, and others when it is harder. In the context of the recent student protests, I like so many others have been included in some very challenging conversations about race and access to basic rights. We hosted a salon yesterday that was open, allowing us to examine so many of the specific issues and questions our friends had about race, their own immigrant backgrounds, and what our role was in shaping society. We considered how we, in each of our bodies and the histories tagged on us by those bodies, could move through our neighborhoods and work places. We stumbled through our questions, those points where experience limited our understanding of perspective, and crept forward, learning and asking questions and offering feedback.
I was reminded of a scene that happens somewhat often on Fulton Street in the mornings. There is a disable veteran, confined to a wheelchair, who arrives and departs from Fulton on the bus. Near the corner where his bus leaves, there is a deli with a cashier who “looks Middle Eastern*.” Some days, this man moves his wheelchair as close as he can to the step outside the Deli and yells with the strangled breathe of someone who has lost so much. The sound is quiet, but the words are like knives when you can hear them properly. The stair prevents this man from reaching the cashier, but each time he knocks the stair with his wheelchair, you can hear the determination in his voice to one day reach this “enemy” he has identified for himself. [*This is an oversimplification, but this seems to be how the veteran identified him, based on the things he yells through the door at the cashier.]
It is frightening. I feel for the cashier as much as I feel for the veteran. Both of their pain is visible on their faces and the strained voice of the veteran. And I asked our group, what is our role in this? How does one act? Or do we keep to ourselves, outside these spaces and stay in our own small corners of the city?
It reminded me of the structure my friend, now an Army Ranger, has described within his first year of basic training. So many of our troops come from families where there realistically weren’t many other options. And often, returning from war did not mean better opportunities or support.
We talked, briefly, about underserved veterans and mental health… and the experience of going abroad to war, to a defined “enemy,” and then returning home to see people who had fled violence and had come to resettle into a new country… who looked like the communities these troops were fighting in another context. And here was a perfect scene describing Brooklyn, this city at the borders of the world… and the challenges that come with that.
I didn’t leave with answers, but, as always, I intend to keep exploring.