The Promise of American Life

This is a guest post from Jack Werner, aka Jack Ryan on Facebook.  He’s the “former student” I mentioned at an earlier post.  I walked him up to the subway.  This is what he remembers.  I can’t vouch for it, but I was there.

 

_________

“That’s where Billie Holiday used to sing in the 1930s and where Malcolm X hung out in the 1960s, right there.” He points to the Lenox Lounge, a now dilapidated bar. “I wanted to make it my bar, you see, but…there was this lady, Cassandra, and…” he trails off, looking ahead at something with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face.

“This is the epicenter of, you know, Harlem,” he hesitates and looks around, “the black cultural center of the world. I used to teach about black nationalism. And I would say this is where the American promise was realized.”

“Re-realized, you mean?”

“No, realized.” He turns my body to face the street, his left hand resting on my shoulder and his right hand gesturing outward. “Imagine, you’re standing at the intersection of Lenox and 125th, it’s 1926 and you’re a young black intellectual, you look around and you can see the entire history of your people, which is the entire history of the country – peasants immigrating from the South, workers on their way to the stores and the factories, your fellow intellectuals, all of them, and they’re all just one generation removed from slavery – they’re all condensed, no, squeezed, into this moment, real time. Just imagine that.” He pauses and looks ahead. “I used to lecture about this shit, but I never came here. But then I moved here.”

We’re engulfed in a crowd as people struggle to walk around us. But we’re also embedded in imagination – his portrait of 1920s Harlem and my vision of Malcolm juxtaposed with his lectures at Rutgers. The memories keep mixing, past and present collide.

“What was it like?”

“Christ, I mean…” and his eyes wander again somewhere else, maybe history itself. He takes his hand off my shoulder. “You’ll have to cross for your subway back to Penn Station.”

“You sure you don’t want to come back to New Jersey? Drive that new car and hit the bars and all?”

We laugh and he shakes his head. “I’m sure.” He turns to start walking. “It was good to see you again.”

I turn, too, ready to walk away. But then I stop. I can’t leave yet. It can’t be over already. I turn back to where he was standing.

I see him disappearing in the brief distance that is Lenox Avenue. He’s gone, just like that.

I look downtown, at the Manhattan skyscrapers. You can see the Empire State Building from 125th and Lenox. Keep moving or die, I think.

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