An American Weekend: South Slope

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Nilda said she might spend the holiday with her sons and her three grandchildren down the block. Or she might not.

Nilda Serrano sits on her son's stoop

Nilda sits on her son’s stoop behind books she snagged from her neighbor’s trash

Nilda describes her Fourth of July plans with a peaceful apathy as she sits on the stoop of her son’s brownstone. She is perched over a book held in her lap; the other hand grasps a walking stick while several other books are piled in front of her.

I learn that she may spend the holiday with her sons and her three grandchildren, which would require venturing down the block to grill steaks at her other son’s home. “That’s what they do, right?” she asks.

They used to, at least. “Now we eat chicken. We used to eat steak.” “Chicken is cheap” she says with a soft cackle. “Chicken chicken chicken.”

Or, she may not. “Eh” she says with a smile. “I could go down the block. …Or, I could stay here.”

She eats rice and beans, a Puerto Rican specialty, on most days. But this is a holiday of mashed potatoes and American food, she informs me. She wouldn’t be the one doing the grilling—her two sons, both in their 50’s, would. Their meal would be accompanied by beer, of course, she says.  She tells me that the boys love to drink beer and that they’ll watch “the game.”

Nilda is of Puerto Rican descent and she has lived in South Slope for 48 years, currently with one son, on whose stoop she reads on this summer afternoon. There used to be more Puerto Ricans like her in the neighborhood, but they have slowly left over the years, she tells me.

She describes her days of getting excited about crowds and fireworks—trekking to go watch the Macy’s fireworks show or going to Coney Island. “Young people get excited about that stuff” she says. Her hands tighten around her walking stick and there is a slight gleam in her eyes. “It’s good to be young, isn’t it?” she asks?

“I’m very old” she says with a peaceful smile.

Nilda doesn’t seem perturbed that I have interrupted her afternoon reading. A question about the upcoming all-American holiday soon morphed into a winding conversation about her family, history and her views on everything from careers to contraceptive choices. I learn that the books piled in front of her are ones that her neighbor had thrown out.

I can see now that she was pored over a copy of the Bible, which she reads every day. “Here, take this” she says. And she hands me the Bible she was reading to take home with me.

by Gunjan Sewhani

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