Jamaican for a Day

This is a diary entry from Sarah Noack (aka Urban Nomad) about how a divorce transformed her life--by helping her to shed possessions and rely on sharing through her networks and communities.

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This was written in September 2008, a week after my move from suburban Virginia to Jersey City:

I am free.

I don't know how anyone else defines that word, freedom. Technically, my life isn't free, for so many reasons. I am still legally married and may have to stay that way for a while due to an uncooperative ex who doesn't know how to foward his mail. I have no idea when child support for Shayna will begin, and as I emerge from the Franklin Street 2/3 station in Brooklyn holding her hand, I have only $20 in cash in my wallet—my ration for the week. My mail has been in forwarding limbo for three weeks as I wait for checks that never arrive, and I don't even have anything to buy her school uniforms or pay for afterschool program tuition. I gave up my car, my microwave, and most of my belongings when I moved to this city. Cable TV? Not an option, even if I wanted it (and I don't). My cell phone has been shut off months ago and will probably stay that way for months more, as well. I live in an apartment with no doorbell yet, so I have to wait outside tomorrow for Verizon to come install my lifeline to the world.

But I am strangely calm. I am not worried. I am as peaceful as I have ever been... and I am happy. This is freedom... all adventures begin this way. Sometimes all you have is the pack on your back when you start a new journey. I have always been a nomad, always been most peaceful when in flux. I feel as if I've been turned loose from a prison into a wide colorful dream world, where anything is possible and nostalgia floats on the breeze like the smells of smoked fish, incense and jerk chicken. I feel at home and lean over to Shayna, whispering, "This is what Africa smells like." 

This morning, we had left in a hurry. When I got on the train and saw it packed to the gills with assorted island flag garments and jewelry, I wished we had got more into the spirit, just for fun. Shayna's father is what I would call an "elective Jamaican." He owned a store that sold all West Indian jewelery, clothes and music. He wears Bob Marley's face on almost everything he owns, and conveniently enough, he looks enough like the guy that it even confuses Shayna. He pretends he's Jamaican to his customers, because it's easier than explaining that he's from a small West African country with a long name, located between five other countries that they probably haven't heard of. He got a little too into the role, though—he went from simply catering to customers' assumptions for simplicity's sake, to pretending he'd been the star in a reggae band back home in Kingston and that his aunt personally strung all the coconut-shell necklaces that were actually made by little kids in some factory in China. At first it amused me, but it got a little ridiculous. He even grew dreads; something he used to say he'd never do—that's probably the one good thing that came out of this charade, although of course he had to wait until we were divorced to embrace his faux-Ital heritage. Shayna received a lot of cute Jamaican-themed clothes and jewelry from him during this time. I could have thrown a flag in my back pocket, put Shayna's "Little Rasta" shirt and beanie on her, and been Jamaican for a day too, if I wanted, but I don't need to fake it—I'm happy being a tourist in my new town today. 

We've walked right into the parade. We make our way through the crowd, past stands selling calalou and sweet potato pudding, macaroni pie and sorrel. There are flags from every Caribbean nation imaginable. As I look at a boy's shirt with a map of Barbados on the back of it, I start thinking about all the people I know who are from Barbados. His shirt has all the cities and towns mapped out on it; I never realized Barbados was so small... it looks barely bigger than Martha's Vineyard. I think about all the other island nations represented here: some larger, like Jamaica and Puerto Rico; others tiny, like St. Kitts, Antigua, Grenada or St. Lucia. I remember once, while living in Boston, wondering how such a small country as Ireland could have such a massive diaspora. I wondered then if there were presently more Irish people outside of Ireland than within it. I wonder the same thing now about the West Indian diaspora as I see this crowd, and remember how the entire subway was packed with festival-goers. I've probably seen about 40 people from Barbados within ten minutes. I wonder if half the population of Barbados has relocated to this city, and multiplied.

The parade music is loud, too loud to talk through. I can't get to the front of the barrier, so I lift Shayna on my shoulders so she can see it. Immediately, a dancer in a giant wheeled dragon float undulates through the street, its many yellow-green spangles flashing in the sun. I look up at Shayna i and see that she's hypnotized, and I'm happy. I wanted this to be larger than life, more than she'd ever expected when I said the word "parade" this morning as we boarded the bus from Jersey—and it is. A truck with a soca band follows, adorned with half-naked sparkly dancers. The band is so loud it shakes the pavement. I worry that the noise will frighten Shayna; I remember as a child, my mother had to put headphones on me during parades so I wouldn't cry. Shayna is not like me at all. She wiggles back and forth on my shoulders, waving her hands in the air like the dancers and shouting along with the chorus. Everything moves by quickly, with the informality of any ultra-long parade. Dancers take breaks sometimes to drink fruit punch or simply rest, pant, laugh with the security guards. Some dancers go by on stilts; I know this is the first time Shayna has ever seen people on stilts, and I knew this would fascinate her. I wondered how many times they must have fallen and hurt themselves until they learned to dance while walking on them. 

I notice how comfortable the dancers are with their bodies. They are all sizes: thin, curvy, and just plain fat. They are all beautiful to me as they walk by, but I realize as I watch them, that the heavier dancers are the most beautiful of all to me. The way they dance is the most sensual and inspiring to watch. As I watch them shimmy and swirl by, I think how wonderful it is that all these different body sizes, ages and shapes seem so exultantly happy to be alive, to be able to move and live and dance. There are more possibilities of movement and play in flesh that ripples and shakes on its own, independent of bone and muscle. The dancers know this. They don't waste their time being ashamed because of a love handle here, a paunch or some cellulite there. And in truth, they are all extravagantly, ridiculously sexy. Their curves are as rich and indulgent as a creamy, syrup-dripping flan dessert. It's not their bodies that makes them sexy, though—it's their joy. 

There are cops everywhere, and they all seem relaxed. If I were a cop I'd be happy to be working here today. They don't seem to care about all the blunts being lit up, and when a drunk white-glittered dancer veers off course, dragging a white flag behind her, she actually stops to cordially chat with some boys in blue. 

Later, after a snack, we walk around... for several hours. We cut through Prospect Park, stopping to watch kite flyers and babies crawling on the grass, and come out the other side. We stop in a cafe and buy day-old pastries, 2 for $1. We sit on a bench outside and watch people go by; the armrest of the bench resembles a clutched hand, which holds Shayna's cup snugly while she eats cake. The sun is hot and the sky is clear. I am feeling so much at home, remembering the days I used to live in NYC, back in the early '90's when I went to Pratt. Sometimes I used to take long walks and end up around here; things haven't changed that much, really. I remember walking around in Jackson Heights where I lived when I graduated: going to the Jackson Diner near the Roosevelt Ave stop for a cheap Indian buffet lunch; meandering into the Chinese stores in Elmhurst, and taking the trains up to my Thai boxing classes in Flushing. I remember getting lost (on purpose) in Manhattan so many times; knowing every corner and bump of the city like it was my own body. How can you reach that level of intimacy with a place when you experience it through a car? 

It's strange how people think that life in NYC is expensive and impersonal. I just never understood that. Sure, maybe if you live in one of those sterile exclusive communities you see advertised everywhere on the subway, but for me, the urban hunter-gatherer, life in the city was as rich and abundant—a private Amazon full of secrets, smiles and connections. Money is everywhere to be earned if you're smart enough to figure things out; studies are everywhere to be learned, and everywhere there are things to see without burning all your cash. Museums have voluntary donation days. Parks are free. Cheap local farmer's markets abound. Stores are exciting enough to just browse at without buying anything. I used to belong to the Carmine Street recreation center/pool in the Village, which cost $25 a year (back then) to join. And... transportation. How could I ever have complained about the costs of public transportation, or commute times? There were days a 45-minute ride from DC to my town in VA took as long as 3 hours one way, and burned around $20 worth of gas. How can anything top that? I could ride the subway from Washington Heights to Far Rockaway, and it would take only about 2 hours and cost only $2.25. If I'm going to be traveling and it's going to take the same distance either way, I'd much rather walk or take the train. I don't like to be stuck inside an air-conditioned exoskeleton. I like to feel the pavement under my feet, the sun or rain on my face, exchange a glance with someone passing by—even run into the occasional drama or quarrel. When I walk, I feel in control. I feel like I own the city, because I am free. I am not controlled by the laws that govern vehicles or the paths that subways and buses take. Of all modes of transportation, walking is the best in the world. And it costs nothing at all. 

Yes, this is a city of heightened alertness. At times that can wear on me. But in all the six years I lived here (knock on wood...) nothing bad ever happened to me. I witnessed a few petty crimes here and there, but I've seen them in other cities too. I loved Boston when I lived there, but it was the familiar love of a place I grew up in. In a way I feel like the whole East Coast is my home. I grew up in Boston, and that will always be my first home. But I have a lot of family in Long Island too and I lived here for many years, so this is also home to me. And I lived in the DC area for four years, so that too has become a kind of home, although less so. Richmond, farther south, is a city I felt an immediate affinity with, and so that too is home to me. I am sure that I would feel at home, really, all the way down to Atlanta and maybe even farther south. I like to be a resident of no-"where." "I hope you don't keep moving around every few years," my ex warned me over the phone as I was packing. "It's not good for Shayna." Well, my own family stayed in the same house in a small town in northern Massachusetts during my entire childhood, and I became so restless I started blowing things up in parking lots. I wanted to move around, not stay still. I was okay with goodbyes and transitions. I wanted to explore the world, and I don't want to deny Shayna this. I want her to know that she owns as much of the world as she wants—not just one small town, one corner of it. 

But for now, as the sun grows heavy in the sky, I am home. I have arrived. I am happy. Why do I need to move when I can have everything I need within a subway and bus ride away? I can visit microcosms of any nation, go to parks and beaches and museums, hear free concerts and see art on the streets and subways for the price of a ride. I can go to entirely different worlds in a matter of minutes, and if I feel like going on a real vacation, I can go on a ferry and pretend it's a cruise. And what's more, my soul has roots here. I am quite positive (based on recurrent dreams followed up by research) that I have had past lives here lived here as far back as ancient times, long before the white man ever set foot in the New World. This is a power center for me. I always get charged when I go here, and changes happen quickly. I also tend to, in an almost uncanny way, run into old "soul friends" around here as well. I always feel like I belong here, because I feel I've been here long before this was even a city. I feel a natural ease and poetry in myself here; the city's noise silences the critical part of me and coaxes my lyrics awake. This is the place where, in this life, I first sought freedom from my parents when I was 18. And it's where I turn whenever I need to get back in touch with my power and possibilities. 

I always thought of this city as very much ruled by the ocean, although sometimes it's easy to forget. The ocean surrounds everything here. Two of the boros are actually islands. There are tiny residential islands as well, off the map of most tourists: Roosevelt Island, City Island... and dedicated islands like Ellis, Governer's, Riker's. There are places here like Coney Island that are obviously Neptune-centric, and there are also forgotten places like Broad Channel, which is like some land-that-time-forgot Cape Cod fishing village in the middle of nowhere—except it's in Queens. There are so many little secrets like this here. 

I wonder to myself as we walk down to the train, seeing more Barbados flags in back pockets, how so many people in one place could possibly have migrated from such a tiny island. I think about how all the diasporas have, like seeds, expanded here and flowered into something else, something beyond what they left behind. I think about how there is no culture in New York City, and yet there is—there's a culture of multitudes, of possibility, of secrecy amid chaos. There are no seats on the train, and Shayna starts to cry. She hasn't learned to deal with standing and holding on yet. A woman in an African boubou gets up and talks to the older woman next to her in Shayna's father's language—and I understand what she's saying: "Let's leave the seats for the kids." I wonder if she would have guessed in a million years that I understood her. Then I wonder what other secrets people around me keep, what they might deduce about me by looking at me, what things we share in common. Shayna thanks the lady as she sits down, and the lady smiles back. 

As Shayna falls asleep against my shoulder, I think about the harbor we'll come home to, and feel happy. I am free. I don't know what freedom means to you or the next person, but to me, I am free. Even without money, a phone, or cable TV. I am free because anything is possible here, and I am going home to a house that is mine, that was only ever mine since the last tenant left it 20 years ago... to a house I will soon share with a roommate I met online. I am going home to a place that has never heard me fighting with my ex, never felt my despair and frustration, never leaked and decayed in front of my eyes as my property value plummeted. I think I deliberately chose this apartment because it is new and old at the same time. It has a history, but nothing which still has any potency anymore. When I opened my refrigerator for the first time, the warranty papers were still in the crisper drawer—but my bathtub had claw feet. I liked this.

I am supported here, like the waves that hold up the boats that pass invisibly over our heads as we cross under the water. I am not worried about how the bills will be paid anymore, because there is more to life now than bills. I am not worried about anything, because I feel myself adrift in a river of possibilities. As long as I have a roof over my head, I will make it. I trust in freedom. 

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