New York’s always been an electrifying experience; yet when I look back, I like to think of the time I lived in the Bronx. I was shacking up with my then boyfriend, who worked as resident doctor in a Children’s hospital near Van Cortland Park. We lived in a colorful neighborhood populated largely by immigrants from Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic. Those four months possibly color coded my world view and changed everything thereafter.
There I was at the centre of the universe, next to Manhattan, devouring each day like a hungry horse. Every day I’d walk on Gun Hill Road past boys, girls, uncles, aunts, grandmas and grandpas who’d inevitably nod their heads, talk to me in Espanol and generally greet me with tremendous fervor and affection. To them I was probably viewed as Latino, one of their kind and I never attempted to correct and explain where I’m coming from. In turn I learnt a few words of Espanol and threw back the occasional warm hello.
There were times I’d take the D train to Manhattan; spend an entire day devouring the sights and sounds of the megalopolis, hang out at Barnes and Nobles, take photographs in Central park and be back in the evening to the Bronx. Right outside the subway there was a Caribbean restaurant that my boyfriend and me frequented once in a while, a little down the street were a few Chinese takeaways and of course the regular Bodega selling cigarettes and sandwiches. At times I felt I’d entered another world and it did feel like being somewhere in mid- Central America with all the ambient street noises. Groups of boys and girls would stand outside with their guitars and cigarettes, women huddled around corners discussing the latest Mexican soap and generally participating in the evening mayhem reeking of stories from Deep America.
The Bronx named after Jonas Bronck is one of the oldest boroughs of New York City and received many immigrant groups in the early 18th and 19th century, first from European countries particularly Ireland, Germany and Italy and later from the Caribbean region namely Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic as well as many African American immigrants from the American South. This cultural mix made the Bronx a wellspring of both Latin Music and Pop; Rap being the central attraction.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Manhattan I strangely felt at home in the Bronx. For one thing I was never bored. I’d made a few friends and among them was a cleaning lady from Puerto Rico who’d come and take the garbage every morning. She was super animated, talking about the fashion in New York and how she enjoyed all the ramp shows on TV. When we first met, she expressed her liking for my ‘Ithaca is Gorges’ T shirt and asked me if she could ‘have’ it. I was bit taken aback but then she laughed aloud and I figured she was kidding. She’d then compliment me on my skinny jeans and top which I wore everyday like a uniform and asked me to try the color Olive green as it would really suit my ‘olive skin’ tone. The banter was all good and when I left New York I left a few goodies behind for her.
‘I love the Bronx!’ I would proclaim wildly to all my friends from Gotham City. Some of them were petrified and expressed ignorance besides claiming never to have ventured to that part of town except for a Baseball match to Yankee stadium. In all, they were curious but mostly wary and strongly advised me to take care of myself and my belongings when I walked around the neighborhood. I took their advice and kept that in the back of my mind but never once did I feel unsafe or insecure. Infact it was more like traipsing through the narrow gullies of an Indian town where life was on display on the streets.
The parks were abundantly filled with teenage mothers, children playing on the slides and swings, grandpas watching life go by and boys and girls doing the eternal dance of seduction. At times these people would remind me of characters from aGabriel Garcia Marquez novel, their animated style of talking, the robust Latin passion that was so different from the regular jaded New Yorker. There were families playing loud Spanish music on their beat boxes, dancing unabashed to the familiar sounds and inviting everyone in the vicinity. I noticed little details of the regular denizens; that young uncle who secretly crushed on his seventeen year old niece, the teenage mother who appeared upset every time the phone rang, the glass eyed boy who’d smile at me and the homeless guy ranting about his silly, wretched life.
The Bronx was not short of tourist attractions either; from the famous Bronx Zoo to the pretty Botanical Garden to Woodlawn Cemetery and the massive Van Cortland Park with its sprawling golf course; there was plenty to choose from.
The Bronx Zoo was well spread out and you’d had to take a little train on wheels to get by. We’d gone inside once and I realized how massive it was and even though we spent more than half a day we couldn’t manage to see the entire place. Botanical Gardens truly lived up to its name and sometimes I’d venture on my own barely looking at the trees and shrubs as they stood tall and large with their botanical names written on tiny wooden placards placed on the ground.
The Van Cortland Park was probably not as majestic as Central park but it had its own charm and even a spectacular golf course to boot. Occasionally, we’d walk across and venture to a quiet Japanese restaurant located on the other side of the park.
But my favorite attraction in the Bronx was the Woodlawn Cemetery close by to Montefiore Children’s Hospital. It was well spread on a sloping grassy terrace and had some spectacular artwork splattered around. I’d graze by sometimes in the afternoon and watch the sun light change colors over the stone memorials. That place was wondrous and serene and I always took my evening walks around the picturesque tombstones.
When it was time to go back to India, I was obviously not too happy. For many reasons, I was extremely comfortable in my newly adopted home; I loved my daily routine, immediate surroundings and the time I spent in Manhattan. This was a different phase in my life and I was learning and growing every day. It was what I wanted at the time and I wanted to prolong the fantasy for just a bit longer. As the days got numbered I went to every place I loved in the Bronx, secretly whispering goodbye knowing that I might not return to this neighborhood again.
Couple of days later, it was time to depart. The weather had just turned mellow and autumn was about to begin. We’d just finished watching Serena Williams play at the U.S Open in Flushing Meadows. I was supposed to leave that night. Later, we drove quietly listening to Jack Jones playing in the background as the car quietly left our little Caribbean neighborhood. I looked back at the street where we lived and told myself, I would come and visit again, say Hi to my Caribbean friends maybe break into an impromptu dance, maybe learn the steps all over again.
After all these years, the images are still fresh and though I haven’t gone back to that particular neighborhood it comes alive in a near jaded memory card somewhere at the back of my head and guess, there’s no better address than memory. I’m just glad to have lived that experience.