IT’S A TRUTH universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up. But it’s not just the junky stuff they’ll get rid of. People can be thrown away too, like last night’s trash left out on sidewalks or pushed to the edge of wherever all broken things go. What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love.
The new owners are moving into the mini-mansion across the street today. For the last few months, construction crews have been giving that abandoned house an Extreme Makeover: Bushwick Edition. They gutted and renovated the best thing on our block—that run-down, weed-infested, boarded-up house. Now it looks like something that belongs in the suburbs, with its wide double doors, sparkling windows, and tiny manicured lawn.
I pull back the curtains to greet my little corner of Bushwick and Jefferson Avenues, my very own way of stretching out my arms and yawning at the morning sun. This is where I see words swim in and around my neighborhood like dust from overhead train tracks. It’s all poetry. So I pull those words together and try to make sense of it all: my hood, my Brooklyn, my life, my world, and me in it.
Everything is how it’s supposed to be—except for that mini-mansion that’s like a newly polished pair of Jordans thrown in with a bunch of well-worn knockoffs.
Still, I remind myself that today is special, and I won’t let those new neighbors moving in mess that up. My big sister, Janae, is coming home from her first year of college, after finishing up a school internship, and she’ll be spending the rest of her summer break with me. Mama’s got a Welcome Back dinner all planned out. I fluff up my thick, kinky fro and throw on an old pair of jean shorts. They’re hand-me-downs from Janae, and they’re even tighter than they were last summer. Mama has joked that my curves have finally kicked in at seventeen—not that I was waiting for them. The Haitian-Dominican Benitez sisters already get enough attention on the street and at school as it is.
I slept late, but I can hear my younger sisters, Marisol, Layla, and Kayla, joking and laughing in the kitchen as they help Mama with the Welcome Back dinner—peeling batatas, seasoning the chicken, boiling the habichuelas, and soaking the dry salted fish for bacalao. Papi must be sleeping in because he worked overtime last night, and I know he wants to avoid all that noise. I get it, though.
Sometimes I would rather hear the sound of roaring buses, zooming cars, and blaring music over my sisters’ constant cackling—and Mama’s too. She’s the loudest of them all, and she can be the most embarrassing. Me, Papi, and Janae are the quiet ones in my family. All three of us would rather fold into each other on the couch, reading a book or watching a documentary, than gossip with Mama.
I’m about to head into the kitchen when I see it. Across the street, a blacked-out SUV pulls up in front of the new mini-mansion. They’re here! We all took bets on what these fools were going to look like—black and rich, or white and rich. One thing’s for sure: they had to be rich to move into that house. The passenger side door opens and—never one to lose a bet—I yell out at the top of my lungs, “The rich people are here!”
In no time, Marisol, who’s two years younger, is standing right beside me. Not because she’s the fastest, but because she has the most to lose with this bet. Me and my money-hungry sister, aka Money Love Mari, bet a whole twenty dollars that it’s a young white family moving in, because that’s what’s been happening all over Bushwick.
“Come on, white boy, come on,” Marisol says while clapping and pushing up her thick glasses. “Let’s make this money!”
But a black woman gets out from the passenger side, just as Layla walks in and shouts, “Yes! We won! Give us our money!” She and her twin, Kayla, bet that it would be a rapper or a basketball player and his supermodel wife, and we’d all be famous by association just ’cause we live on the same block.
But then the driver hops out, along with two passengers, and we can’t believe our eyes. Stepping out of the back of the car are two of the finest boys we’ve ever seen. Fine, black teenage boys. Marisol and I have definitely lost the bet, but no one cares.
The entire family gathers on the sidewalk and looks as if they’ve stepped into a different country. And as I watch them, I realize there’s a difference between expensive-looking clothes and actually being expensive. The woman is wearing all white, as if she’s going to a fancy boat party, and uses her sunglasses to push back her long, shiny hair. The man has on a sky-blue button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and he keeps his sunglasses on. And then there are those two boys.
“Oh. My. God!” Layla is the first to say anything, as usual. “Who are they?”
“Rappers and ballers! Give us our money, Marisol,” Kayla says.
“No they’re not! Those boys look like they’re from One Direction or something,” Layla says. “Look at how they’re dressed. I know a baller when I see one. And no rapper will be wearing them kinda shoes.”
“They’re more like Wrong Direction. They don’t look like they belong here,” I say.
“But they’re cute. Are they our age? Let’s go say hi.” Kayla grabs her twin’s hand and rushes out of the bedroom. The twins just graduated from middle school, and ever since they turned thirteen, it’s been all about teen everything—clothes, music, and teenage boys. They have way more swag than me, Marisol, and Janae put together, with their matching outfits and hairstyles.
I rush to follow my sisters, but Mama steps out of the kitchen and stops me in my tracks by holding a wooden spoon out in front of me.
“Ey, no you don’t,” she says with a hand on her hip. Then she turns toward the door. “Kayla and Layla! Get back in here!”
The twins stomp back into the living room.
“But Mama,” Marisol says. “The new neighbors are here! And they’re black!”
Mama brings down the wooden spoon and raises her eyebrows. Her hair is tucked beneath a colorful satin scarf, and her wide gold hoop earrings almost touch her shoulders. She’s rocking her signature Brooklyn loves Haiti T-shirt and pink velour sweatpants, even though it’ll be hot as hell in that kitchen. A smidgen of bright red lipstick only covers her bottom lip, and the blush on her deep-brown cheeks shows she’s making an effort for Papi. I know exactly what she’s about to say, so I count down in my head. Five, four, three . . .
“Zuri, you should’ve been at the Laundromat by now. All the dryers’ll be full. Marisol, you sorted the darks already? Layla and Kayla, strip your beds and strip ours too, if your father is up. Zuri, sweep the front stoop and the staircase when you get back. I want it all perfect for Janae,” Mama says, in almost one breath. Then she walks right past us and into our bedroom to look out the window.
When Mama kept having baby girls back-to-back, our parents decided to turn the big living room into a bedroom for all five of us. Mama and Papi sleep in the bedroom in the back, near the kitchen and bathroom, and what was supposed to be a dining room is where we all gather on the couch to eat and watch TV.
In less than a minute, Mama returns from our bedroom wearing a big, bright smile. “On second thought, I think y’all should go say hi to our new neighbors! And sweep the front stoop while you’re at it.”
I let my sisters rush out ahead of me just as Papi shuffles out of the back bedroom.
“Janae’s home?” he asks while scratching his pot belly. His thick, curly fro is smashed on one side and one eye is bloodshot. He didn’t get enough sleep. He’s been working nights at the hospital cafeteria again.
Mama shakes her head. “No, but you can go introduce yourself to those nice folks across the street.”
He waves his hand. “I already did. They came to check out the house last week.”
“Papi! Why didn’t you tell us?” I say.
“What’s to tell?” He plops down in his usual spot on the recliner chair and grabs an old Howard Zinn book that he’s read a hundred times. Papi reads as if the world is running out of books. Sometimes he’s more interested in stories and history than people.