The title of Joseph Conrad’s novel has always intrigued me, though I’ve never cracked a page. I understand the scenes to be strange and frightful; you never know what’s coming next. New York City is a jungle, too, of cultures and races, living at each other’s edges, and so it is at Bedford and Nostrand, down at the southern end of Flatbush, where the 2 and 5 trains end their runs, disgorging their loads of hoi polloi. Just to the east lies Brooklyn College, a melange if ever there was one, every people that Brooklyn holds. The stew pot simmers: in three directions the lilt of Island accents fills the air, some gentle, others rough. Jamaicans predominate for vast dozens of blocks north, as well as east and west, even a bit south, having replaced the white folks, many Jewish, who fled in the early 60s during the epidemic of racist block busting that spread like cholera, just as immigration policies loosened in the States. South on Bedford, perhaps ten blocks, the next generation of bourgeois Jewish culture flourishes, its population of all-rightniks morphed into one of the many Orthodox communities that cover Midwood and many other non-Hasidic Brooklyn enclaves.
Over the years, drugs have overwhelmed countless Flatbush blocks, Rasta devils careening though the streets in SUVs with tints, making U turns and doing doughnuts in the middle of Flatbush Avenue as pedestrians scatter. Where Yiddish was once heard day-in day-out, from the subway junction all the way north to Martense Street and beyond, pistol shots now ring out in the middle of the day when deals go bad. Even the $1.00 van drivers who swoop up and down Flatbush, stealing fares from the MTA, know to beware. Their CB radio aerials suddenly stand still as the gang vans screech by. Stand and watch anywhere at the junction: white kids from Brooklyn college who traipse to the subway from the west on their way home stand out like so many sore thumbs.
Several weeks ago on my way to the beach, I emerged from the subway in the middle of the bubbling stew, my bike in hand to complete my journey to Rockapulco after the train ride out. Out of the corner of my eye, though, I spotted a mermaid, her bright form beckoning to me, calling my name. In the sea of Black faces, the figure of a short, elderly white woman with a shopping cart caught my attention. She was troubling herself, assessing how to the safely cross the street. It was hot and humid and she was obviously disoriented. I came up to her and asked her if I could help.
Batya, indeed, might as well have sported a fish-tail, her presence in the intersection so strange that hot summer day. Dressed in matching bright red-accented clothing, her color scheme matched her little metal cart, packed to the gills with her earthly possessions. She was looking for an address on Bedford Avenue. After we safely crossed the Red Sea and she could talk safely, it turned out that Batya, though clean and presentable, was homeless. She’d walked all the way from Crown Heights, a sizable hike, seeking shelter at a government office that might provide subsidized apartment to replace the one from which she claimed she’d been driven by her neighbors, due to her past career as a “private eye.” Hmm, I thought, perhaps even one percent of this is true….
All this came out as we tottered down Bedford, after I managed to help her cross the street, gripping my bike frame in one hand and taking her arm with the other. Mermaids are notorious for their powers of persuasion. But it wasn’t Batya’s ample breasts that summoned me thither. A more powerful tool was at her command: I detected an accent once commonly heard on the corner where we met. Yiddish is gone from Bedford and Nostrand, dead as the white buffalo, its melodies extinct. I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. Batya’s Yiddish was more than serviceable. I was tempted to call the Natural History Museum with my sighting. Rara avis flew in my face.
Her story poured out as we moved down the sidewalk. Once a cherished Roumanian Jewish daughter, her parents had fled east with her during the Holocaust, ending up in a transit camp in Siberia. Along the way, shrapnel from a Wehrmacht shell injured her right hand. The scars were proudly displayed as she told me her childhood name in Italian: Beatrice, how her parents loved her so. Then the War came. All that tender youth is long gone, murdered by Hitler, then Stalin, then life. Who knows how she came to the shores of America? Close relatives live here, but her homelessness is not a bit their concern.
What does one do when confronted with misery, a human soul wandering in the dark, obviously nuts? How to put one’s arms around the situation (or them), what to do, what is ethical, beyond the knee-jerk reaction to not get involved. I was genuinely concerned, despite her obvious mental illness, that Batya come to no harm in the middle of the day. She formed an obvious target for those up to no good. I turned instead to selfish concerns, though, wanting a photo to save of this moment, that of juxtaposition and language, so strange. “No,” came her answer when I asked her permission. $1000 was her price to capture her face. Crazy she might be, but Batya had seykhl, the street smarts to handl with what was in play. I came up to $20 but that was my limit. We parted, my mermaid and I come to nothing. The odor of fishy intentions lingered about. Still it was special: Yiddish at the Junction. I’ll turn to learning Jamaican patios now, and get up to date.