“Oh I didn’t realize you grew up in the projects!” my husband says the first time I bring him to visit my grandmother, who has lived in this same housing complex for her 40 years in this country. Apparently “Cooperative Housing” is fancy for projects, but I have always thought it was a perfectly normal place to have my rudimentary years in this country. The group of three, brown, 12-story buildings, in a prime 108th Street locale, equipped with a parking lot, a playground, and a delightful grassy area in the shape of a pentagon with a concrete path around it. I got my first two-wheeled, Huffy bike in 4th grade and learned to ride that two-wheeled ugly, brown bike on that walkway – as I wobbled straight over those little, yellow, spray-painted pictures of bikes with slashes through them.
These were projects? Who knew.
It was 1980 when we moved into the two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of Building 2 of the Projects, facing directly into my grandmother’s apartment – eight flights higher. My grandmother could raise her shades and send us secret messages. We were able to see when my grandfather came home from work by monitoring his parking spot, easily visible from our window. I didn’t realize this wasn’t what most people would envision as an ideal place to live. I hadn’t developed my white picket fence dreams yet.
Our two-bedroom apartment was a huge step up from the studio apartment I shared with my parents in Kiev and because I had an inexplicable phobia of elevators, the first-floor location was a bonus. I wasn’t bothered that I had to share a room with my sister, nor did it phase me that I didn’t have an actual bed, spending those 6 elementary school years sleeping on two leftover pieces of a beige, corduroy sectional couch that didn’t fit in our living room.
The hallways of all three buildings smelled the same as if the smells all blended in some fragrance mixer and then expelled through all of the vents. It was as if you were in a hospital cafeteria on International food day; the perfect blend of no fewer than 5 cultures with the bonus of medicine and old people’s breath.
Tina was my only friend in the building. She was an athletic blonde with blue eyes and had a sister named Amy, who was a mini version of the same girl. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, other than they liked those overly-friendly people who came to our doors with colorful brochures of the afterlife and maybe Noah’s Arc? I just remember pastoral scenery and something like Fantasy Island. Clearly my perception comes from Tina’s evangelical doctrines rather than from my actual reading of the literature. She spoke about such an idyllic heaven that I desperately wanted to believe her, but even the 9-year-old me thought it sounded ridiculous. (But that’s another story about my unwavering, passive-aggressive commitment to agnosticism.)
My parents were quick to use the “no English, thank you” excuse and forcefully close the door. About a year after they starting knocking on our doors, one of my mother’s friends jumped from the 12th floor, plummeting to her death, seeking this promised heaven. We never opened our doors again.
By the time I was in 4th grade, Tina and I were allowed to go to the playground located about 100 feet from my apartment, within the confines of the housing complex. One day, a white, 30-something-year-old man wearing only loose 70s style, running shorts and no top, came to the playground to finish his exercise after his run. He said hello and made some inconsequential chatter (potentially perversive) with Tina and me, who giggled and gave him stupid answers that are totally erased from my memory, permanently trumped by what happened next.
He hung upside down on the monkey bars, which would be innocent enough in sweat pants, but in his obscenely loose shorts, it became very clear that he was NOT WEARING ANY UNDERWEAR. This was my first look at a grown man’s penis. Hanging upside down from the monkey bars that were shaped like a rainbow, his dick was playing peek-a-boo from his shorts as he continued to do his sit-ups and then pull-ups. Tina and I stood there as if paralyzed, aware that we were seeing something we weren’t supposed to be seeing, but we didn’t leave. We stayed and then he left eventually (to potentially jerk off to his pedophile, Ménage à trois fantasy of the Russian girl and blonde Jehovah’s witness?)
When I visit my grandmother nowadays, I never consider taking my children to THAT playground. My grown up eyes and decades of reflection have made me realize how lucky I am that I wasn’t accidentally raped or molested; that the worst thing that happened was falling off my bike when I was giving Tina a ride on the handlebars. We loved going over this cracked and bubbled piece of concrete on the corner of the playground near the faded pink whale sprinkler. This was our secret roller coaster and even though my mom said not to give her rides, we loved it. I guess it was just how good girls got their adrenaline kicks in the projects.