A decade ago, I lived in a house in southern Brooklyn, in a quaint neighborhood four stops from Coney Island on what was the ‘D’ line. A trip to the city took more than an hour by subway, but trains didn’t pass by all that often, so the station wasn’t more than a little room with a couple of turnstiles under the raised tracks, serviced by a small newsstand. The smell of bird droppings permeated the air, and the droppings nearly covered the floor and beams birds would sit above. Often silent, passengers would just trickle in and out during the day, most of them simply passing by. Those were the days of the buck-fifty ride.
My parents bought a ‘semi-detached’ there back in the nineties, with a community driveway and a small patch of dirt we called a garden. There were 3 bedrooms, one for my parents, one for me and my brothers, and one for my grandparents – not too spacious, but not too cramped either. Sometimes we had two cars if we had a company car, the other car being an old silver-gray Mitsubishi Galant until it we sold it after an accident. The backyard was the old concrete of the community driveway, old enough that the rocks used as aggregate stuck out above the ground. I would learn how to ride a used bicycle here – there was more room than what our sidewalk provided – and it was where I got many of my bruises.
I slept in a blue-colored bedroom on the top bunk of a bunk bed, with a large fan when I was too warm. When it was hot enough, my parents would turn on the air conditioner – one of those old, faux-wood-paneled window units installed in the wall under a window – and I would sleep on the floor next to it, where it was nice and cool. Some hot summer days, my brothers and I would sleep on the floor or bed of my parents’ bedroom, where we had a newer window air-conditioning unit, a nice gray-plastic one from General Electric. The fuzzy blue carpet made the lack of a mattress a bit more bearable.
My wardrobe was mostly hand-me-downs from my parents’ friend, who had a son slightly older than me. I only liked a few of the worn, chemical-scented clothes, and I cherished the new clothes I called mine. We had one simple television in the living room that got a signal from a roof antenna, and on it we watched news, weather, and Saturday morning cartoons. The dining room didn’t have a television, so we ate and talked as a family. One day my dad bought an IBM Aptiva, which he installed in his bedroom and I would watch him play computer games on it late at night. It was exciting to use, with its gray keyboard and angular mouse, though I only had an on and off interest in it.
Instead, I did a lot of reading. The Homecrest branch of the Brooklyn Public Library was a short walk away, and had plenty of children’s books for me to peruse. Sometimes, my mom and I would go to the Kings Bay branch on Nostrand Avenue, which was larger and more confusing, less inviting to a young me. Either way, I borrowed a lot of books – I achieved multiple 25-book stars during my last year of elementary school, mostly through children’s chapter books. I remember reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables one afternoon on my bunk bed and telling my mom that I would be able to finish it before the end of the day. Being in the cub scouts, my favorite books quickly became the My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, which is about a boy venturing alone into the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains, away from home.
In a way, moving from the urban streets of Brooklyn to the suburban sprawl of Long Island was a step into the freedom of openness. I lived for most of middle school in a semi-moved state as construction workers remodeled the second floor, and a couple years later, the first floor and the basement. I slept in the near pitch-black darkness of the basement, which taught me to not be afraid of the dark, and in sleeping bags on the living room floor, which taught me to not be afraid of stepping on family members. Those were the times where I would wake up disoriented and spend minutes refamiliarizing myself with the constantly changing environment.
It wasn’t bad though, there were no cockroaches running about in the kitchen floor to worry about stepping on at night; there was a patch of green grass in the backyard where I could run around and fall without worrying about scraping my arms till they bled; and the cement sidewalk was flat enough to ride on with a little fixed-gear bicycle and no suspension without worrying about the large cracks from the untamed trees. I would just sit on the porch in the early summer and enjoy the smell of blossoming flours and freshly cut grass, carried by the softly blowing wind. Occasionally, I would cut the grass with a manual grass cutter, a cylindrical contraption with blades on the edges, powered by foot power.
We didn’t have cable or satellite back in Brooklyn because our block didn’t get either, so having cable was pretty exciting. I often watched the History channel for their documentaries on large civil engineering structures and battles of the past, or if noting interested me there, the Discovery channel would interest me with programming on nature survival and factory assembly lines for different products. On the internet, I took my first foray into engineering from a book called “How Things Work” by reading articles on HowStuffWorks, many of them on engines and other mechanical contraptions. I read less as I found internet games to distract my curiosity and harness my motivation. We only had one computer, so often I would leave my bed in the early hours of the morning just to mine coal for a couple hours in Runescape, which I only ended up playing for a year. Those where sneaking downstairs and clicking quietly after midnight were thrilling, now they’re just a regular occurrence. For that reason, the Parkville public library was the place to go after school for just that one hour of computer time.
I often wore the new clothes my mom bought from the nearby Old Navy store, as I found them soft, clean, and comfortable. We would take family trips to the Tanger Outlet, a long two hour drive east on the island, and there we would buy processed food in bulk and clothes on sale. Here we could get name brand shoes instead of shoes from Payless ShoeSource, where we had bought shoes before in Brooklyn. We would also buy socks, the slightly imperfect ones that they sold at the outlets – it was always a good feeling to wear new socks instead of threadbare old ones. I would eat in the car on the long ride home, often falling asleep from the fatigue of listening to my parents and a long journey.
Our vacations were coach bus tours to locations all over the East coast, which were quick, cheap, and fully scheduled. Two day trips were common: one was to the Niagara Falls and then Toronto; another was to Boston; and another to Washington D.C. The longest trip was to Orlando, with a stop in Atlanta to sleep, where we visited Disney World and Universal Studios Florida for a week. They weren’t terribly immersive trips, but I got to experience the places I went to for a bit without worrying about wasting time on an unexciting adventure. At the same time, it wasn’t all that relaxing either knowing that we had to return to a certain place at a certain time or else we would be left behind.
We never really tried the food at the places we went to, because in nearly all cases, fast food is cheaper than a famous local restaurant. During the summer in New York, some schools offered free lunches for students, and we often took advantage of that to save money. Seeing fries in middle school was amazing compared to city school food, and even though they’re gone now, the quality of food in high school is still better. Luckily I’ve never gone hungry, but at that point, any food is good food.
From Brooklyn to Long Island, I’ve made it through, through tough times and fun times while always feeling constrained. I rarely thought much of what I did not have, and instead, focused on making do with what I did have. It is not hope, but perseverance. And that is the path so far, from Joseph F. Lamb P.S. 206 to Great Neck South High School. From here, it won’t be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology, but maybe it’ll be the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, or the City College of New York, where my dad went for college.
And what will happen from now? I don’t know, but I’ll make the best of it. What’s most important is that at the end of the day, I have a smile.