Where I used to live, there was no coast. Where I live now, there are seagulls and a ship-studded grayness called the Long Island Sound. In my neighborhood, there are crosswalks that don’t make sense, and a hospital supply store, and a Missing Kid poster that shows a dingy security-camera photo of a little boy with Asperger’s. He’s marching down the street with a briefcase. Where I live now, things happened in sixteen-something. Persecuted lawmakers hid in caves. They found safe haven. People say New Haven isn’t quite safe but It’s Better Than It Used To Be. French troops once camped in our park on their way to defend Yorktown. Buildings on my block have little plaques saying they are historically significant and any fool can see they are beautiful. One is salmon pink with blue trim and jewel-toned windows. Mostly they are brick, with archways and strange circular portals and hidden balconies. My own building has a Mansard roof and I never knew that word before but I love how they look anyway, like attic steeples, or dark square hats on the deep red bodies of our brownstones.
David and I live here. It isn’t our first time living in a here, but it is our first time living in this one, and we are learning the ropes. Our closest grocery store is called Ferraro’s but the big gold plaque on the wall isn’t dedicated to Ferraro, it’s dedicated to somebody-or-other Consiglio Jr., who will be missed. Two signs at the entrance, one just above the other, say Hot Dog and Hamburger Buns ON YOUR RIGHT. You can also buy fat wheels of almond paste, fried balls of macaroni-and-cheese, milk-white sheaths of honeycomb tripe, chicken feet with long pinkish nails so pristine they look manicured. There are shelves stacked with nothing but lard. There are three aisles of meat and you can smell them from the produce section. There are peanut butter drinks from Jamaica and root vegetables I’ve never seen anywhere else, hairy and rust-colored in their bins. You can buy tiny baby octopi frozen into a block of ice; ten for $3.84, or a single large octopus, also frozen into an ice cube, for under $30.
Behind the meat counter, a big Italian guy in a cast peddles veal chops and short ribs. He lords over a young woman who acts very much like an intern. A manager comes over to tell him, “You need to let her take a break.” He says she’s already on one. He laughs loudly. She laughs less loudly. It’s unclear whether her break will come or not. A verse from the Psalms is printed huge on the wall beside them: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” By the shopping carts, next to Customer Service, there’s a painted mural: the ten commandments carved onto painted tablets, rising like painted gravestones from painted grass. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. A woman beside me has a cart full of Georgia Hots, plastic squeeze jars of ketchup and mustard, liters of generic cola from the discount bins. She looks ready to rest.
In front of the liquor shop next door, a man on a motorized wheelchair tells us his name is Deko and he made it rich over there. He points at a cluster of plain brick buildings across the street. Those projects are called the G, he says—which stands for Ghetto, which stands for you won’t ever go there. The G can make your dreams come true, he says, or it can break you. He has a $23,000 chair and a flat-screen television at home. “I’m the only guy on six wheels in New Haven,” he says, spinning to show what his wheels can do. He shows us a chip that says he’s Clean and Serene. Ninety days, he says, but he still hustles to make a living. He says, What do you want? He says again, What do you want?
And what does he want? He wants money for a beer.
These are noisy streets. You walk pretty much anywhere and get an earful. The guys in the park: Hey momma where you headed. You’re a fine thing. Look at you! Won’t you say hello? Won’t you say hello. A simple request. I say nothing.
Everyone knows my neighborhood for its famous restaurants, a pair of pizza joints locked in a dead-heat for Best In Town. Pepe’s is older; Sally’s is sweatier. They both make a mean clam pizza. If you order it with mozz, they’ll frown. If you order it red, they might refuse to serve you. They’re not messing around. This is One Of The Things To Say About Wooster Square: Have you had the pizza? And the Farmer’s Market, this is also something to talk about—the Soup Lady with her cucumber dill and curried apple, the almond soaps and endless goat cheese; the little boy selling chocolate milk with his mother all morning when you can tell he’d rather be anywhere else.
This is my neighborhood: people I don’t know, characters I’ve made. There’s a man with an aloof dog. She’s notorious, this gorgeous beast. She won’t take love from anyone but him. There’s another man who never walks. He’s some kind of personal tutor. Every time you see him, he’s running. He’s running with a backpack on his back, flapping up and down, and his curly hair is bouncing. One day he sprains his ankle. No one says, I told you so, because we’re all, after all, strangers. I see him in the coffee shop with an ice pack. The coffee shop is very much itself. It’s full of young parents with tattoos. I see them in glimpses, stars on mothers’ backs when they bend to tie shoelaces, bits of poetry on fathers’ arms when they lift their babies high. I see young women dressed like me and think I know something about them. I see a guy taking care of a toddler with Downs Syndrome and think I don’t know anything about him. Which is probably wrong. Both thoughts are probably wrong.
The former tenants tell us that our brownstone had a squirrel problem last year. Autumn came and they moved into the roof. The Mansard Roof! They were scratching like fiends and chewing through the walls. They were driving the dog crazy. They were burying nuts in the beams. They came back for them in the spring.
So we’ve got a home with Mansard Roofs, and also we’ve got trouble with the gas company, and we have trouble fixing the stereo and trouble figuring out where to put the second pair of scissors—we’re going to get it right, this version of our lives—and in the shower we are covered with sunshine filtered through a dirty skylight. I wonder if I hear squirrels in the walls; I wonder what will happen to my heart while I live in this place.
I live in a place where everyone has a past I can’t see and I am one of the everyone; I carry so much and my so much is no more than anyone else’s, and utterly invisible when I do those things we all do: order a coffee, run a red, cut diagonal through the park. We are all of us holding multitudes, and we do the most ordinary things.
I make a home and in that home, I make a smaller home, a corner where I will write about my home—these words, this essay—and where I’ll write about the space I’ve made: tucked between a wall of books and a wall of bricks. Above my desk, I’ve set a photograph of my father holding me as a little girl. It’s 1985 and we’re both in shiny Adidas jackets—his midnight blue, mine tiny and red-striped. Across from my father is my mother, in another frame, holding a candle at a rally, and next to my mother is my stepfather; his sign says Honk for Peace, and they are both radiant, and my father, holding me, is radiant, but his face is obscured. Every photograph is a record of some loss. Every pair of them, ditto.
In one corner of my desk, I’ve got a blue lamp a friend made for me. She cut paper into flowers and framed them in a wooden box and fitted a blue light bulb behind them. She gave her light box to me during a long Iowa winter, when I was very depressed and believed that full-spectrum almost-sunlight could perhaps make me less so.
I don’t get much light in my corner but I’m okay with that, because it’s quiet here, and dense. Clean and serene. Sometimes I smell a rodent smell. It’s only in my head but maybe one day it won’t be. Out of sight beyond my walls, beyond my block, the man who runs everywhere is running somewhere on a sprained ankle, because what else can he do? I am scared to walk alone at night, but when I talk about my town I talk about pizza, because what else can I do?
On the other side of Highway 91, the G is breaking some men and granting six-wheeler’s to others. A man is showing off his sobriety chips to make enough money for a beer. Benefits. Forget not all His. Thou shalt not whatever, to whomever, but fuck it anyway, because you’re already fucked. I think about people I saw on streets and never spoke to. I think about people who asked me questions I couldn’t answer. Where you headed, momma? What do you want? I want something to eat, and I want to be alone. Wherever we go, we talk about the restaurants. Wherever we go, we’re never alone.