Brooklyn, c. 1985

They don’t tell you in San Francisco

That East Coast nights don’t cool down in the summer

Not in Augusta

But not in Brooklyn either

I remember those sweltering nights

Thirty people crammed into my grandparents’ brownstone

Most of us related

Many of us crowded around a tiny TV

Yelling at it, mostly

Everyone was a Giants fan

Except the one Cowboys fan

Just to fuck with us

For sure

I asked him once why

And he said

As a kid

He liked the blue stars on their helmets

Same guy fifty years later

Now so radicalized by Trumpism

That I won’t even talk to him

He liked the color of the MAGA hats, too, I guess

Anyhow this kid was torn between the football game

And getting yelled at for plunking away on the old upright

That no one knew how to play

Maybe my grandmother, a little

But she was busy in the kitchen

Wearing a house apron

I guess that’s what it was called

Kind of a strange little floral vest contraption

With snaps

To protect whatever she wore beneath it

See protecting things was important

To this immigrant family

Five grown kids

With one adult uncle living in the basement

And my grandparents

And both sets of their parents

All living upstairs

Which also featured

In addition to the tiny TV and the upright

A little railway kitchen

And a long table that seated twenty

But wasn’t level

Because really it was three or four tables

All pushed together

Maybe more

In my other grandparents’ brownstone

Down the block and around the corner

They lived entirely in the basement

Which was kind of dumpy

And smelled like moth balls

But they had two stories above them

That sat unused

A bowl of fake grapes and lemons

On the fully-set table

Like Ms. Havisham

Prepared for guests that would never arrive

If ever allowed into these rooms

Which was not often

I would squeeze the dusty fake lemon

And feel the air as it hissed out

But that wasn’t the strangest thing

I mean my grandparents were living in squalor

Below ground in a musty basement

With two lavishly-decorated floors above them

That was strange

But what really stuck with me

Was the plastic wrap on the furniture

It wasn’t the thin plastic we use to wrap food

No, this was a thick, clear vinyl

That somehow was fitted exactly over

The plush couches and chairs

Maybe heat-shrunk or something

I don’t know

Because I don’t think people do this

Not anymore

And when I said that it stuck with me

I meant that it literally stuck with me

On those hot Brooklyn nights

And the days, too

A nice seal of leg sweat

On a plastic-wrapped sofa

I’d get up

And it was like peeling giant band-aids

Off the backs of my thighs

And the sound

The indescribable sound

Of sweaty legs

Trying to part ways

With a plastic-wrapped sofa

Meanwhile my grandmother

Flitting about 

Preparing food for thirty in a tiny kitchen

That was no joke

But my grandfather

A master craftsman by day

His gnarled hands kneading the pizza dough

He worked side by side with grandma

Together they would produce an enormous feast

And then a mad rush for the table

The ends filling up first

Because everyone knew

That if you got stuck in the middle

You’d spend all your time passing the lasagna

And not eating

Everyone talking at once

And nobody listening

The one aunt who always brought a different guy

Each one kinda looking the same

Brown skin

Rings, thick necklace, lots of jewelry—

Even for an Italian man

VO5-slicked back hair

And a porn mustache

Kinda half wise-guy, half pimp

And then there was another aunt’s boyfriend

Herbert, a Jew

Which was cool with us

But everyone hated him anyway

For other reasons

Mostly because he would pick fights

About stupid stuff

Like whether gasoline was more expensive than diesel

My dad worked at an oil company

Crunching numbers in a bunker

In Perth Amboy

Underneath a giant machine

That would crunch crude oil

Into many different things

If anyone knew what petroleum products cost

It was my dad

But Herbert wanted to argue with him anyway

And then of course my cousin Olive

She was maybe seven

But she insisted

After my grandparents toiled in the kitchen for hours

That she get her own special meal

Of bland American food

Usually an overcooked burger patty and fries

Or the like

She grew up to be a vegan

And now requires special treatment

Where-ever she goes

Imagine that


The Cowboys fan, now Trumper

The wiseguy pimps, all probably dead

Herbert and my dad yelling at each other

And Olive, the picky eater who became a vegan

My grandparents

And their parents

Must have felt a real loss of control

See, time doesn’t give a fuck

It just keeps going

And the older you get

The faster it goes

Like a roll of toilet paper

Maybe it gave the elders comfort to know

That as crazy as this ragtag bunch of immigrants would get

As much as time would change us all

And eventually get the best of us

All of us

At least the plastic would protect the furniture

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