Street Life

I’ve been driving in the city a lot lately, as part of my move to central Harlem—I actually bought a place on 123rd  right off Lenox/MX!—and as part of my newfound, house-poor frugality, whereby Costco on 113th  right off the FDR looms large in my immediate future of furnishing the new apartment.  My apologies for the inadvertent alliteration, after 1994 and Maureen Dowd’s ascendance, I never mean it.

What has happened to me in driving all over Manhattan and the Bronx—can’t say that I’ve been to Brooklyn, not in the car—is pretty much what happens to people who discover that they’re watching a lot of TV.  They don’t read any less, they read differently, and they probably read more.  What has happened to me is that I walk more.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in driving the blue highways of Manhattan.  The far East Side is one long column of high-rise public housing projects: these monstrosities are everywhere you look when your head turns west, driving uptown or down.  The lower East Side is a pain in the ass because the subway over there is still under construction.  Cabbies on cross streets have somehow forgotten how to drive—on the avenues, they’re reliably dangerous, but you can’t trust them to be insane on a street that isn’t a thoroughfare.  10th Avenue is the coolest place to be at, say, midnight: if you like to dodge traffic and drive fast it’s almost better than the Henry Hudson Parkway north of 96th, where you can see the George Washington Bridge all lit up.  One night on 10th (which turns into Amsterdam Avenue) I went from 23rd to 110th, almost 80 blocks (four miles) without a red light, singing the whole way at about 35 miles an hour.  And then I got to turn east, on top of Central Park, and just ease my way into the new neighborhood, sliding uptown on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard.

Drivers in New York City are damn good—they obey the rules, they signal their turns, and they don’t treat crosswalks and stoplights as nuisances to be overruled by the sudden imperative of their destinations.  Maybe it’s because being in a street-level, motor-driven vehicle in Manhattan marks you as a tourist or a truck driver, so you try to fit into a pedestrian culture.  New Jersey, where I lived for 20 years, produces the opposite of this attitude: Tony Soprano will run you down.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in walking.  Black men in central Harlem are more willing to engage you—that would be me—on the issue of race than they were farther uptown.  Three times now a middle-aged black man has said to me, always in passing, something like, “What you doin’ here, pushin’ out the black folk?”  On two other occasions the utterance has been more aggressive, not dangerous, just more pointed.  It sounds like the strange nostalgia of the AA meetings I used to convene at a rehab center on 57th and 10th Avenue—the longing for a place that’s never been (where white people weren’t the presiding imperial power) or a time that has already passed (when white people couldn’t acknowledged the black aesthetic as the mainstream of American culture).  And walking down 125th has to be unpleasant if you’re not a member of that lost African tribe of Israel, because the CDs on offer prove that Jews were the cause and the beneficiaries of New World slavery.

I think it’s because I’m downtown—not Chelsea or the Village, but still significantly south of the old place.  Where I used to live was Sugar Hill, where Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Joe Louis, Thurgood Marshall, and yes, W.E.B. Du Bois himself owned or rented apartments.  Now I’m in the place where all those unwashed peasants from the southern tier of the Black Belt came in the 1920s, scandalizing the staid black bourgeois residents of Harlem with their loud religion and sidewalk demeanor.  They wouldn’t be patronized then, and their descendents won’t be now.  It’s class, in other words, not just race—or rather, what seems to be an obvious racial divide has other social origins, dimensions, and meanings.

But that’s just a working hypothesis.

My brand new building, by the way, is on the site of the southernmost outpost of black settlement in 1925 Harlem, according to the survey maps in James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan.  White folks still populated the blocks below 123rd, down to Central Park, and the other park in the neighborhood, over on 5th Avenue, wasn’t yet named for the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.  It was only in those next five years that the great black Exodus from the South flooded all of Harlem.

Here’s what actually happened since Sunday.  On Memorial Day morning, down in Chelsea, I walked over to 8th Avenue to buy the paper, and was hailed, as it were, by a decrepit gay man.  It was raining, I was in no mood to put up with him, but there he was, looking like my beloved Marvin would have, had he lived this long, and wanting to have a conversation with sexual consequences.

He caught up with me out the door, asked what section of the Times was my favorite, pretty obvious.  I said the op-ed pages, he said sports and entertainment, pretty funny given the better coverage of both in the Daily News and the Post.  Then he announces that he lives on 16th, and I say, yeah, my girlfriend lives there, and he says, “So you’re straight?”  What can I say?

Yeah.  “Ever done it with a man?”  It’s 7:10 AM on 16th Street.  No, can’t say that I have, and I’m an old dog.  I used to put Marvin off with this tactic, but that was forty years ago.

His name is Bob, he’s wearing a leather vest and a motorcycle cap, also those black boots that slow you down in dreams, just like it’s 1974.  I have the urge to honor Marvin’s memory by going home with the old guy and making his day—maybe even mine—but as we pass the Grey Dog I think of all the things I’m supposed to do today.  I say, nice to meet you, Bob, have a good holiday, and I open the downstairs door of my girlfriend’s building.  He’s stopped about five feet away, still hoping, but he’s smiling, he knew this was a long shot.  “Nice to meet you, too,” he says.

That was Monday.  Tuesday night I played at The Duplex on Christopher Street and 7th Ave, and it was a disaster.  I did three songs of my own—it’s that kind of event, you sing your own material and accompany yourself on guitar or piano—and I still like the songs, but I’m not the right performer.  Somebody else has to sing these tunes.  The talent on the stage with me was overwhelming, in both senses: intimidating and exhilarating all at once, these people made me feel cursed and blessed at the same time.  The good thing about the event was that a kid I’ve known almost all his life was there, and I think he can now believe that being a singer/songwriter is something you can do if you—uh oh—put your mind to it.

The next night I went to Paris Blues over on 7th Ave because a neighbor who’s taken me under her wing recommended it.  An open mic event, sort of, the house jazz band is looking for a singer, so we got to hear seven singers and listen to a bunch of saxophonists who came to sit in.  Cheap beer, free food, good music, what’s not to like about this place?  It’s better than the Lenox Lounge because the tourists are musicians looking for a chance to play rather than Europeans looking for a photo opportunity.

And then last night, against my better judgment, I accompanied my dear neighbor to Tian, a bar/restaurant/lounge/hangout on 145th way west, all the way over in Riverside Park.  The cab driver at first refused to enter the grounds, saying, quite rationally, “It’s closed.”  It was in fact blocked off from automobile traffic, but we persuaded him to go the extra quarter mile.

Every Thursday night there’s a 13-piece swing band in residence that plays Ellington, Basie, and the lesser lights of the 1930s so that ancient bodies can dance in ways that seem both familiar and exotic.  Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of young white people in attendance, too, but they only emphasize the anthropological significance of the place: it’s a museum where the diorama is in motion.

Hell yes I danced, with Cassandra and Rolanda and Vena.  I’m a museum piece, anyway.  By the time Cassandra and I got back to the neighborhood, I could barely walk (back surgery on Tuesday, baby).  That seemed quite fitting.  I was hoping, even so, that those old black guys with the fabulous suits, ties, hats, and shoes—my god they could glide—were also massaging some sore joints.



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2 responses to “Street Life

  1. Jim B.

    Well wrought piece ….. Reminds me that it would be interesting to get you and Daniel Coffeen into a dialogue.


  2. Paul W

    Inspired and informed riffs on the ‘hood, James. My grandmother was born there. 1882. Not a pawnbroker or a liquor store owner. Wife of a printer from Whitechapel.

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