Walking on 124th between Lenox (6th Ave/Malcom X) and Lexington, where I get the subway downtown on the East Side, is always difficult. I have to prepare myself. And I tell people who are visiting to avoid this street, especially after dark.
It’s probably because I walk to that subway for one reason—to see the shrink on 82nd and Lexington. On the way to that appointment, everything looks different because I’m preoccupied with my own story. Everything feels like an intrusion, an invasion of the private state that I will soon make public. My insides want to get outside, so every local phantom, ghost, or demon falls in with me. They won’t leave me behind; on this street, they point the way.
But maybe it’s because the 124 is a weird stretch for those five long blocks. Between Madison and Park, for example, the New York College of Podiatric Medicine faces the Ralph Lauren Cancer Center, both buildings adjacent to enormous parking lots that are mostly empty no matter what time of day (last night I walked through at midnight). Keep walking east toward Lexington and you’re under the Metro North Line at Park, sheltered by the sound of trains you’ll never ride to Westchester. Then it’s more empty lots, a Con Ed office, and a self-storage building.
Marcus Garvey (Mount Morris) Park, which stops 5th Ave at 124th, is comforting, because the kids playing on the jungle gyms are always so excited, and the guys playing dominoes on folding tables are always so engaged. The bike shop at that middle corner is open regardless of the weather, and there’s a lovely branch of the New York Public Library on the same block. Still, I always feel haunted, even here, no more so than yesterday, when I saw a blond woman on a bike coming toward me on the sidewalk and wondered what she was doing in my neighborhood.
But the ghosts come alive at Madison. By the time I turn onto Lexington, we’re in conversation, they’re my entourage, I’m ready for anything, and that’s what I see. There are several rehab facilities on 125th between Park and Lex, so if the clientele isn’t congregating outside its cure of choice, it’s hanging out on this block, on the subway grates for warmth in winter, on the sculptured benches outside the Pathmark in summer, on the sidewalk year round, as if this storefront concrete is someone’s floor. Here I abandon hope.
On this short but crowded stretch before I get to the subway station, I’ve seen lots of toothless men in wheelchairs smoking crack, one dead body, a dozen ambulances, and hundreds of cops, not to mention the rest of the normal population, which seems to exist as—notice, I do not say in—a constant state of negotiation, the point being to postpone the day of reckoning. Everything is in play, on offer, for sale.
This is hell.