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THE NEW YORK TIMES
War Comes to Guernsey Street
By TARA BAHRAMPOUR
March 30, 2003
WANDERERS in Greenpoint often stop short when they come upon the stretch of Guernsey Street between Meserole and Norman Avenues. In a landscape of warehouses and factories, this block of Brooklyn seems to appear out of nowhere, like a magical wood in a fairy tale. Graceful 19th-century apartment buildings, some with bay windows, are guarded by towering honey locust trees that in a few weeks will form a lush green canopy.
This archetypal American block, where children once played stickball and Johnny-on-the-pony, is also a microcosm of modern gentrifying New York. Factory workers live next to Ivy League graduates, the rent for a railroad apartment can range from $100 to $1,800 a month, and Puerto Ricans, Irish-Americans and Polish-Americans - the longtime residents of the area - mix with artists and writers who have moved in from Manhattan or elsewhere.
On this block, the war in Iraq plays out in neighborhood-size ways. A woman sits on her stoop and dreams of tying yellow ribbons around all the honey locusts, to honor American soldiers. A teenager groans about an essay on the war she has to write for school. Neighbors giggle at a living-room skit about Mr. Bush and Mr. Hussein - props include a kitchen knife, a meat cleaver and some talcum powder - and family members wait for an e-mail from Felix, a marine who is in Kuwait and who is married to a resident's daughter.
Given New Yorkers' fabled love of debate, this short block also offers all shades of opinion on the war. A veteran favors it, a design student rails against it, a young liberal switches from dove to hawk, a pizzeria worker blocks it out with cartoons. When it comes to people's views on Iraq, Guernsey Street is the city writ small.
Lucy Mercado has lived on Guernsey Street for 24 years, long enough to remember when the honey locusts were three-foot sap- lings. She isn't the most senior resident - Lillie, next door, has lived in the building for 58 years - but with her long, shiny black hair and her raspy voice, Ms. Mercado, 42, is the unofficial queen of her block. Her throne is her stoop, her court the coterie of neighbors who gather in the evenings to share soda and beer and stories.
That is where they were on March 17, the night President Bush delivered his televised ultimatum to Mr. Hussein, an evening whose mild breeze carried the first whiff of winter thaw. But as she spoke about Iraq and what she saw as the need for war, Ms. Mercado was in no mood to savor the air.
"We're talking about if they throw any chemicals," she said, shuddering as if an ice cube had touched the back of her neck. As she and her neighbors spoke, a man stepped out of the building to report on the president's speech, and predicted that war would begin Wednesday.
Born in Puerto Rico, Ms. Mercado talks with forceful hand gestures. She guides younger neighbors, explaining to one that Mr. Hussein and Osama bin Laden are not the same thing. She translates for her husband, Freddy, who speaks mostly Spanish and who, she explains, doesn't like war but supports the president.
Ms. Mercado recently bought $300 worth of canned food. ("Because after they do something, are you going to eat a cow? Are you going to eat pork chops? Are you going to eat chicken?") She and her husband have another worry. Their son-in-law, Felix, 26, is a square-jawed marine in Kuwait who left behind two children, ages 3 and 4, and a nervous young wife, Gaudy, who is Freddy's daughter.
A mother of four, Ms. Mercado is also still haunted by 9/11. On that day, she stepped out of the Chelsea photography studio where she worked to see thousands of dust-covered survivors streaming uptown, crying. She never returned to her job, and hasn't found another one. Instead, she and her husband plan to move soon to Puerto Rico, where life is easier.
For now, she sits on the stoop in a purple zip-up sweatshirt and gold hoop earrings, nursing a Coors Light and listening to her cockatoo, Skipper, squawk from the apartment's open door. A small, worn American flag juts from her windowsill.
A Galvanized Student
As Ms. Mercado relaxed, a neighbor, Heather Grossmann, was at the Turkey's Nest, a smoke-filled bar two blocks away that is patronized by grizzled blue-collar workers, hipster artists and young Hasidic men. During Mr. Bush's speech, grumbles from some were met with war whoops from others, including the owner.
"The proprietor was so pro-war that we didn't feel comfortable," Ms. Grossmann said. "We thought maybe we should leave."
Ms. Grossmann, a 26-year-old student at Parsons School of Design, was raised in Oakland, Calif., by parents steeped in antiwar tradition. Her own activism was mostly of the "reading and talking" variety until last month, when she joined tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators on the East Side. It was her first big protest, and she was infected by the crowd's energy and the faint hope that the gathering might help avert war.
It did not, but as Ms. Grossmann stood on her stoop on Guernsey Street the day after the president's speech, dressed in jeans and a suede jacket, she remained unflinching in her views.
"This thing of freeing the Iraqi people is a smoke screen, disgusting," she said. "We didn't care when they were killing the Kurds." In Ms. Grossmann's eyes, the president's concern is oil. Referring to his warning to Iraq not to burn the oil wells, she rolled her eyes. "Could you be more blatant?" she asked.
As Ms. Grossmann spoke, Ms. Mercado's gravely voice rose across the way in an argument with a neighbor about whether Mr. Hussein was linked to 9/11. Another neighbor, Tom Bevan, an artist from Northern Ireland, paused on his nearby stoop long enough to profess antiwar views similar to Ms. Grossman's.
Then Ms. Grossmann caught sight of a tall man with wire-rim glasses walking toward her, and laughed.
"Here's my best friend, Ian," she said. "He's on the opposite side of the fence from me."
A Change of Heart
Ian Bassin, who lives in Ms. Grossmann's building, describes himself as a "knee-jerk liberal" who opposes Mr. Bush and whose first instinct was to rage against the war. After much research, he changed his mind. The administration's diplomacy efforts had been a dismal failure, he said, but the war was necessary to neutralize a dangerous dictator. "I came around partly because I went around saying, 'O.K., what's your alternative?' " he said. "I think a lot of people don't have one."
Mr. Bassin, 27, was the publisher of Shout, a five-year-old national magazine on arts and politics, until it closed last month because of the poor economy. As he sat in his living room with his Australian cattle dog, Goose, under a ceiling lamp made from his brother's CAT scan, he held forth on Mr. Hussein. It was clear that Mr. Bassin had had practice explaining his positions.
Those explanations have gotten him into some trouble. "I had a friend storm out of here the other day," he said. "We were having a very calm, rational debate, and suddenly she got up, grabbed her coat, told me I was stupid, slammed the door and left." Since then, the two have mended relations, but they don't discuss the war.
The Sports Fan
As Mr. Bassin and his friends gathered around his television set during a presidential news conference, Nelson Segarra hurried down the building's narrow wooden stairs and made for the front door. "Ah, every channel, it's the president, the president," he moaned.
With his close-cropped hair, muscular build and camouflage pants, Mr. Segarra, 39, looks like a marine. But when he returns from his job as a prep cook at Russ Pizza a block away, the last thing he wants to hear about is the war. "Really, I don't pay attention," he said with an easy smile. "I just live my life and that's it."
Mr. Segarra does read The Daily News, but he has a system. "I read back to front," he said. That means sports first. "When I get to the front, I don't bother, I just close it."
Reaching across the kitchen table, he held up a copy of the paper, which showed a basketball player dribbling around an opponent. "You don't see people going to war over sports," he said. On the front page, he had drawn a mustache and goatee on the president's face.
But even in the sanctuary of the apartment he shares with his mother, a pair of nesting finches and some goldfish, the war intrudes. "Sometimes I just get frustrated and I just put on a videotape and get away from it, just block it out," he said. "Sometimes I watch cartoons. Anything I got, I just watch."
The Vet in the Deli
The Juhas deli on the corner of Guernsey Street and Norman Avenue opened on Sept. 11, 2001. The owners, a Polish couple named Sukcik, spent that first day in the street, watching the flames and smoke across the river. Since then, Juhas has blended into the neighborhood, stocking Polish imports like Zywiec beer and Katarzynki chocolate gingerbread, and, like any corner store, serving as a hub for news and gossip.
On the second full day of war, in front of a case displaying 43 kinds of kielbasa and lunch meat, James Wolverton chatted with the owners' son. Mr. Wolverton, a lean man with a trim white mustache who wore an "Ireland" baseball cap and a "New York City Transit" windbreaker - he retired from the agency last year - figures that his years in the Army during the Vietnam War should be a good hint as to his views on this one.
"He's stalling for time, spending all that money on the 50 palaces or whatever he has," he said of Mr. Hussein. "I also think that he's aiding the terrorist groups."
Mr. Wolverton, who lives across the street from the deli, comes in every day for coffee "au lait" and chats with the Sukciks. In a gentle voice flecked with Brooklynese, he teases them about the traditional Polish hats and figurines that decorate the store. But a few days ago he bought their entire supply of painted wooden eggs from Poland, as gifts for the children of his five sisters.
Mr. Wolverton, who was born in Greenpoint 57 years ago, delivered papers as a teenager. He also remembers that many of Greenpoint's working-class sons went to Vietnam; some did not return.
As the city geared up for another antiwar demonstration, Mr. Wolverton recalled how Vietnam veterans who did come home were called warmongers and baby-killers by antiwar protestors. "It gave me a very bad opinion of college students," he said.
Ewa Sukcik, the daughter of the owners of the deli and a senior at Columbia University, walked by in her blue polka-dot apron and flashed a smile. Unlike the students Mr. Wolverton remembers, Ms. Sukcik, who moved here from Krakow in 1992, generally favors the war, although she has reservations about the president's attitude toward the United Nations.
A biology major, Ms. Sukcik especially worries about biological and chemical attacks. "I'm writing my senior thesis on anthrax," she said. "Looking at it from a biological perspective, it's very, very, very dangerous."
Every day, Polish customers come in and want to hear the latest war news. But on the fifth day of the war, the three local Polish papers on the counter had split their front-page coverage between the war and the three Oscars awarded to "The Pianist," a film set in Warsaw and directed by a famous, if scandal-scarred, Pole. "I couldn't believe Roman Polanski got it," said a beaming Ms. Sukcik. "People are now saying they might let him back into America."
The Speakers' Corner
Outside, as evening fell, the sound of singing floated among the trees of Guernsey Street. Ms. Mercado and her neighbors were gathered around the stoop, singing "En Mi Viejo San Juan," a nostalgic Puerto Rican song. They broke into giggles as a reporter approached.
"Ah, you missed it," Ms. Mercado said. "We sang 'Oh, Say Can You See,' and we said the Pledge of Allegiance." Her neighbor and goddaughter, Daisy Pacheco, added, "We're celebrating the war."
Ms. Mercado's window was freshly adorned with four new American flags, a poster of an eagle and a large, elaborate yellow bow made by a local florist. She had wanted to go door to door up and down the block, taking up a collection to buy yellow ribbons for every tree on the street. "But we know if we do it, people are going to just close the door in our faces," she said. "There's a lot of Polish people who don't like Spanish people, you know."
She sighed, imagining the effect a corridor of decorated trees would create. "Someone would go by and say, 'Damn, these people really care for our soldiers.' "
On this weekday evening, Ms. Mercado's younger children, Crystal and Nesito, ran up and down the sidewalk with neighbors, playing hide-and-seek and ghost in the graveyard. Crystal, 16, a junior at Queens Vocational High School, grimaced, remembering she was supposed to write a report on the war. She planned to ask her father for help. Nesito, 13, said watching the war on television makes him worry that a bomb will be dropped here.
A few nights earlier, the family had staged their own war. Ms. Mercado's husband, wearing thick-framed glasses and a scarf wrapped around his head like a turban, played Mr. Hussein (he already had the mustache). Hamming for a video camera as merengue music played, he brandished a kitchen knife, threatening in mock Arabic laced with Spanish to "kill all the Americans." Nesito dusted his black hair with talcum powder to look like Mr. Bush and, drowning in his father's suit, held up a meat cleaver and replied in a Texan accent, "That knife don't mean nothing to me." Crystal, wearing knee-high boots, played a reporter named Cha Cha Chu who analyzed each side's weaponry.
The family was in hysterics then. But this night, sitting beside her new flags and her ribbon, Ms. Mercado was serious. Some marines, names still unkown, had been killed that day. Just before the war, Felix had sent an e-mail saying he was fine, but the family had heard nothing since. She went into to her apartment and gazed at a photograph of Felix, a broad-shouldered man, grinning at the camera with his arm draped around his wife.
On the seventh day of the war, Ms. Mercado left a phone message for a reporter.
"I'm just calling to let you know that I had word on Felix Rosa, my son-in-law, from his commanding officer, and everything is O.K.," she said. Then, with the folksy friendliness that has made her stoop the Speakers' Corner of Guernsey Street, she continued: "I also wanted to give you a conclusion of my little area and my story. You know, I feel that all this is going to go down in history and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to open their history books and read about the 2003 war. O.K.? You have any questions, just give me a call tomorrow."