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A Brooklyn Story

by Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

It's September, so I must have a Brooklyn story. Last year about this time, I wrote about leaving my son Peter in his high-rise dorm there with nary a pot or pan in the scummy little kitchen. As I drove off on the BQE, the sign near the Williamsburg Bridge read: "Leaving Brooklyn – Oy vey!" How fitting. Plenty of oy and vey was what I was feeling all that fall, until I was comforted by the news that he had a ukelele. Well, partially comforted. I tried, daily, to give him over to God.

What a difference a year makes. This year Peter is living in an apartment, the third floor of a brownstone on Ryerson Street, one block off of Myrtle Ave. Like the Pratt campus, his building is in one of those in-between neighborhoods bordered by yuppie Clinton Hill on one side and crime-ridden Bed-Stuy on the other. I was anxious. I had not yet seen the apartment on the day I drove the car up there, packed with Peter’s belongings. Atop the pile of clothing, kitchen utensils and art supplies perched the ukulele. I'll admit, the sight of it atop his chosen equipment for another year in Brooklyn gave me only partial comfort.

But as we began unpacking the car, joined by Peter’s roommate, Mike, and his parents, something in my mood shifted. It was already 90 degrees and the ascent of the narrow 19th century staircase to the third floor was harrowing. But with each trip my burden seemed to lighten. It was not that the heat abated nor the weight of boxes, bags and Peter's precious planks of wood grew less on those groaning stairs. What happened?

First, Alex came out of the basement apartment next door to say hello. He had lived there for thirty years, and his son and grandson lived above him. Two doors down a group of ladies in hats waved to us from the stoop as they waited to leave for Wednesday church. A gentleman across the street called out a welcome with a Jamaican accent. A couple of skateboarding boys stopped to ask Peter about the ukulele that rested precariously atop a pile of bedding on the sidewalk. Finally Lisa, the landlord, emerged from the first floor apartment that was her home. She had grown up on this very street, and all of her life had known the woman who had owned this building before her. The old lady still keeps an eye on the place, Lisa told us; her ghost is known to blow open the heavy front door at odd hours of the night. She always locks it again behind her, she hastened to add, and I could see she meant this story for comfort. And comfort she did, they all did, as they embraced my son and his roommate with their warm welcome. "They are good-hearted boys, I see that," Lisa said to me. And I knew that, together, they would make it true. Peter was becoming a part of a community. I had given him over to God, and God would care for him, through these people on Ryerson Street.

And so it felt different as I headed home on the BQE this year, driving toward Staten Island where some of my own ancestors first settled more than three hundred years ago. A new generation of immigrants is here in this city now, and they are embracing a boy who is the long- time descendent of those first European immigrants. Together we come full circle. The newcomers are welcoming him home.

Will he play his ukulele for them? I hope so. But I am not worrying about it much. This year, as I was leaving Brooklyn, I saw a different sign. Had I missed the other one, or did someone change it during the year past? No matter. It matched my mood perfectly. No longer oy vey. This time I read: "Leaving Brooklyn: Fuggedaboutit!" I may not quite forget about it, but I am at ease giving him over to the people of God.