Mummy and I landed in New York in late January of 1991. It was winter and extremely cold, not just because I never knew such temperatures but because even by those seasoned in the seasons, it was said to be cold.
I remember crying as I spoke to a family friend living in New Jersey, calling from a phone booth in Bed Stuy. It was the day after we landed. Bed Stuy then was not what it is today. It bore none of the glamour of a neighborhood being developed through its changing upwardly mobile tenants. It was old black families that owned homes not of the same repute as the brownstones of downtown Brooklyn and Harlem but of similar architecture.
The Mc Donalds on the corner of Fulton and Halsey, the Crown Fried Chicken place a couple blocks down and the odd Chinese fast food joint summed up opportunities for dining, or at least eating.
It wasn’t until the Super Path Mark came to Atlantic and Flatbush, many years later would there be any semblance of a more than basic shopping experience. Wide aisles, greater selection, fresher produce, a deli section and even a bakery if I remember correctly spoke to what I would learn to be gentrification. Out-priced by the rents in Manhattan, others were now willing to live in Brooklyn, well at least those who were willing to live in Brooklyn.
Until then when you stopped a taxi in Manhattan and said you were going to Brooklyn they would many times drive off without even an explanation. The talk was that many would take the drivers across the bridge into the borough and then run off without paying. They would sometimes say they couldn’t get a trip back so it wasn’t worth their while to travel out of the City. The same was true for Yellow Cabs and Gypsy Cabs.
The Saturday after landing I found myself in search of the Village. In search of that bastion of bohemia I had heard so much about. I first found myself on Broadway at around West Fourth right next to where the Tower Records Store used to be, MP3 buried that long standing landmark and floors of musical joy. My first purchase was at one of the many weekend markets that can be found around the city, a yin and yang pendant.
I would learn to dress for the cold while becoming as much a part on New York’s narrative as any other: lessons in acclimatization, assimilation and acculturation.
For me, personally, migrating was not about financial gains. It was about more and not that, I never thought of making it rich. I wasn’t able to have the career options open to everyone else as a below the radar immigrant. Living in New York though allowed me a space to be comfortable in other ways.
Many of my generation locally had migrated or were planning to. For some it was through football scholarships and others nursing scholarships.
I’m not sure any of us can say that the prospect of being somewhere else is not appealing. There doesn’t have to be a story. There usually is a motivator be it education, opportunity or a chance at a new start but the promise of the unknown and the mystique of the foreign have value, to me.
I’m trying not to get into the reasons I left not that they can be summed up in any priority. There is something about life that keeps me seeking understanding, rather to be understood. That too can have many reasons.
I could get into a justification based on the stifling nature of life in Trinidad and Tobago. Myth has it that it’s the curse of life in a small place, it is told through stories of small villages most times, limited opportunity, limited space so limited freedom of movement, protecting privacy is paramount and bigger is better. We accept these views and they have become our truths.
After my purchase and some browsing I made my way down past Washington Square Park and on to that strip where the fetish shops were. As fate would have it, hanging out at the door of the Pink Pussy Cat, the jewel in the sex shop crown, was a Trini from Belmont. I’m not sure how we started talking but we did and he was able to point me around. It was the beginning of the beginning. We went on to become good friends and part of a circle of young West Indians that would move as a unit for some time.
A lot would happen in the ensuing years I lived in New York. We went from Bed Stuy to Crown Heights, East Flatbush, back to Bed Stuy and eventually Clinton Hill.
I’d work primarily in the hospitality sector. To me it was invaluable experience. The tricky part is that an undeniable part of my experience in New York is a host of things I think many would wish I denounce. In coming home again my baggage includes contraband some may wish it didn’t. If they were to understand, though, that I can’t escape it and would prefer to rationalize it in a way that can bring peace to some and even love for others.
My Alien Registration Card is set to expire and the only way to save it is to just pack up and move back and go through the process of naturalization. My recently started degree represents both sabotage and salvation?
Migration is not without its problems. It can lead to a schism more so than as caused by a heavy diet of foreign media. I have heard the comment “I doh understand Trinis who does leave here and go Brooklyn and live with a set a Trinis. Why yuh go go somewhere else and not try to have a broader experience?” All I’ll say is that through the media we have assumed perhaps American values as a standard of sorts even on these shores.
I was one of those who immersed themselves in the wider society. Working as I did in restaurants and night clubs for years I was exposed to many and all types. My friends in New York are in great part of global origin, including Chinese.
As I forge forward at home, there is a struggle to establish a personal sense of a national identity, as one who has repatriated with hardly resolved views on my years away, in huge part affected negatively by what I believe to be Trinidad and Tobago values as espoused repeatedly. Part of me feels albeit slightly resented and mildly punished for having left. Too I think those around me would have had collective experiences that bond them.
Conversely I have a world of friends in another place with which I shared things that unite us, that keep me warm and are part of my joy. It’s not as win-win as it seems if it does at all. On one level my nationality saves me and the other my personality which is in part due to my nationality. At the end of it I might suggest that there are parts of me that I am valued for in New York that I believe are best left alone in Trinidad while my responsibility as a citizen, as I choose it to be, distances me from a considerable and meaningful time in my life, that spent in New York.