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In the always entertaining send-up known as the Urban Dictionary, "Staten Island" is defined as "a floating dump that sits in New York Harbor. Often mistaken for a populated borough." Alternate definitions include: "Brooklyn with parking," "recepticle [sic] of New York City's garbage—paper, plastic, and human," "where the hair is high and the IQ is low," and "name given to the small pile of gristle, burnt ends, and spit-out left on the edge of your plate at the end of a meal," as in:
Have you finished your dinner?
What about that last mouthful?
Nah, that's just Staten Island.
Incensed? Insulted? Then you're probably not a native of the island. Some of Staten Island's most vocal detractors are those who grimly populate its clutter. They're the ones spewing expletives after a snowy-white Escalade or a tricked-out Camaro smushes them against the railing on the Outerbridge. They're growling because it's August and there's that certain fragrance wafting on the breeze. They're the ones who consider their entertainment options for the upcoming weekend and realize, once again, that the choices are 1) the mall; 2) the mall; or 3) hop the ferry and get the hell away from ... the mall.
Next time you're on the island, slow your stroll and take a good long look at the oft-falling faces of its citizenry. There is very little veering toward glee. Sure, you can find giggling children romping in a kid-sized anthill at the Children's Museum or picture-book couples strolling hand-in-hand through the Greenbelt. There are raucous side streets that feel like a family reunion, with neighbors conversing from their stoops and a cool clash of salsa and Sinatra blaring from open windows. Indeed, there are sometimes whole gaggles of happy people doing apparently happy things and looking damned pleased to be living in ... in ... uh, that other borough.
But in front of, behind, and on either side of these perky few plods a Greek chorus on Thorazine, shuffling in the shadows and moaning a soundtrack of regional discontent. The tragic chorale seems to be made up mostly of my writing students at the College of Staten Island. When I ask them to write anything about where they live, they sigh and roll their eyes so dramatically they can see who's behind them without turning around.
Each semester I confront a different group of eye-rollers, but when the topic is Staten Island the consensus varies only slightly:
"Nothing ever happens."
"Nothing ever happens."
"Nothing ever happens."
As a writer, I firmly believe that 1) there's nowhere where nothing ever happens; 2) something eventually happens everywhere, even nowhere; 3) everything is bound to happen somewhere; and 4) there's no such thing as nothing whenever you're somewhere.
Nothing ever happens on Staten Island?
Nothing happening on the glitzy Uggs-trodden paths of the Staten Island Mall, no steamy intrigue in Frederick's of Hollywood or in the cinnamon-dusted confines of Auntie Anne's? No memorable drama on the relentless to-and-fro of the ferry? Nothing cool about the counter guy at the neighborhood bodega who always has a great story, or that gay club that opened up for a while then disappeared? How about intrigue in the lives of the dude and dudette of Staten Island stereotype—she orange-tinged, deftly manicured, and helplessly attached to her cell; he muscled, sticky-coiffed, and primping behind the wheel of that aforementioned Camaro?
Nothing interesting at all? I ask, and, after another round of eye-rolling, they're aching to elaborate.
"This place is too damned small."
"Everybody knows everybody else's business."
"Same people you grew up with, all the time. Never anybody new."
"There's no place to go but the mall."
"Being made fun of all the time gets tired real fast. I don't even tell anybody I'm from here."
And until I finally shut them up, all they do is continue to serve up more reasons why Staten Island is an erringly perfect landscape for noir, the ideal hangout for scoundrels, swindlers, liars, thieves, murderers, adulterous vixens, and assorted hooligans. Let's review:
The place was too damned small. On all sides, water ate away at the island. Every day, the brick of the buildings inched closer to him, until Eddie could feel their soft scrape against his skin. Every street seemed to sweat, panting poisons through its many open mouths. There was no street he hadn't seen, no corner that didn't hiss his name. People walked toward him, through him, past him, all smirking on the edge of a smile. Laughing at him. But there it was, the sweet weight of the gun in his pocket. Soon he'd be able to breathe again. Eddie would blow a hole in the way the city touched him, and he'd climb through.
"Everybody knows everybody else's business," Eddie spat, "and I don't want nobody knowin' mine." He held the bartender's wiggling little head in a vise grip until it stopped wiggling. He looked down, and the little guy's scalp was glowing red. Eddie got real pissed real fast because here it was, an interruption in his day, now he had to figure out if he felt like killing this guy. One minute, he's looking forward to the zarzuela and a nice chianti at Espana, now here's this loudmouth prick with his eyes popping out.
Same people you grew up with, all the time. Never anybody new. Alexis could swear she said the words out loud, but there was Eddie, still asleep, snorting, his mouth open, his mountain of belly radiating heat. Just because their families had lived next to each other in New Dorp. Just because he'd given her that stupid ring in high school. Just because he was the first one to ask, she had to say yes, had to stand up in front of God and family and sign up for this? She sighed, fingered the little blade, studied his sweating pink neck.
There's no place to go but the mall. There's no place to go but the mall, and there's no way to walk but in well-lit circles, then ride the escalator with its silver teeth, and the girls. There's no place to go but the mall, and the girls. Sheep boots and sequin skirts, low-cut tops, red-tipped nails, hair color of falling sun, skinny wrists, big perfect mouths, and the girls, swing purses, smack gum, talk the island, girls. Blindfold left pocket this time. Tape on the right. There's no place to go but the mall. There's nothing to do but wait.
I don't even tell anybody I'm from here. I can hit Brooklyn or the Boogie B, sling it like I'm a gangsta, point my ride down the middle of the street. I can flash my piece, hold it against a throat, have a man whimpering my name. I can lay a woman down, then leave her, make her unknow my name if that's what I need. Then I get on that great big boat, and I'm gone. In the Bronx, some guy with a gun is searching the back alleys for me. Some big-hipped redhead in Brooklyn is aching to stake a claim. But I get home and the island closes around me, names me all over again. There's something about water. It cleans you.
Staten Island = 0 is a popular equation outside the confines of the borough. During Bouchercon, an annual national crime fiction convention, I sat fuming as a panel on "crime fiction set in New York" went on and on and on, with panelists bellowing darkly about nefarious goings-on and iconic characters in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and ... and ...
Finally, nudged by an irritated attendee who suddenly knew why her students didn't want to write about their home town, members of the panel acknowledged their omission with what amounted to, Oh yeah, there's crime there too, and went back to a spirited discussion of the Big Four.
Yep, there's crime here too. Good crime. Mystery. Dark, scary stuff. Big crime. The noir kind, without a good guy in sight. Just scan the headlines: Skeleton in Staten Island Basement Points to Unsolved Murder; Staten Island Man Commits Murder after Victim Had Spit in Wife's Face. Then there's the haunted Kreischer mansion on Arthur Kill Road. Mob Wives, for Chrissakes, with all that squalling, hair-pulling, and Botox. A recent spate of hate crimes against blacks, Mexicans, Muslims. Mist-shrouded abandoned psychiatric hospitals. Guys named Eddie. Underground caverns. Willowbrook. The ghostly ship graveyard. The legend of Cropsey. That rolling landfill and all those secrets buried beneath it.
Even the one movie that was named after the borough got it exactly right. Here's the synopsis: A Staten Island mob boss Parmie is robbed by septic tank cleaner Sully who has a pal Jasper, a deaf deli employee moonlighting as a corpse chopper.
That's a damned sunshiny day on the island.
I'm not sure why Staten Island is the borough bringing up the rear in Akashic Books' Noir Series (okay, okay, yes I am), but here we are, the shiny coin in New York's back pocket. (You can't really buy anything with it, but throwing it away would definitely bring bad luck.) We will prove that SI is as rotten, vengeful, unforgiving, and badass as any one of its quartet of brothers.
This gang I've gathered is unrelenting. Among them is island native Bill Loehfelm, who crafts a stark and breathless character study on Snake Hill. In "A User's Guide to Keeping Your Kills Fresh," Ted Anthony chronicles the haphazard adventures of a murderous mob bungler. The blade-edged tenets of street justice rule the day, and night, in Todd Craig's "... spy verse spy ..." Michael Largo's "Paying the Tab" sits the reader on a barstool, then lifts you out of one world and into another. S.J. Rozan's "Lighthouse" moves with a chilling, elegant rhythm, and Linda Nieves-Powell arranges a jazzy introduction to the siren of the Stapleton projects. And lest you think that nefarious island hijinks are a recent development, Bruce DeSilva builds upon a true story of unbridled power and privilege, set in 1858.
That said, I'm slightly disappointed that there are no appearances by corpse choppers, which may be because it's become a perfectly respectable Staten Island job description. Nevertheless, I'd like to meet one.
Patricia Smith July 2012
Excerpted from Staten Island Noir Copyright © 2012 by Akashic Books. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 29, 2014