I‘ve been listening to Aretha and since the only black faces I see lately in my hood are behind the window at the bank, I decided to go up to the branch in Harlem to cash a check. It was a steamy New York Day … the kind that always feels hotter uptown… not as many trees, and something about the relentless design of 125th Street… wide streets and no skyscrapers for shade. It’s brutal in summer, and besides I wanted to check out uptown fashion trends.
There are two kinds of bodies in Harlem: the buff, sleek 12-pack kind who were already shirtless or showing their biceps in wifebeaters… and the overweight—the ones who have given in to the limited lifestyle and food choices that surround up there, the ones that tip the scales of the mean Manhattan body weight toward the national 'overage'. Huge departments in the Conways and Marshalls for plus sizes... what happens to all these hot young schoolgirls giggling on the sidewalk with the skin-tight jeans and the awesome butt curves? Do they just give it up and eat?
And there are still the Muslim markets, the incense-sellers and the pamphlet-floggers, the speechmakers and the robed young philosophers who do not eat meat and who preach love and anger in one breath. But I walk down Fifth Avenue and I see the beautiful architecture restored and unaffordable-- the white faces in the windows, with flowerpots and subzeroes in the kitchen, and I think about the Harlem of James Baldwin and wonder if these people read James Baldwin or Langston Hughes, or is this for the white intellectuals?
I am thirsty and I duck into Starbucks where the baristas are black, and a homeless woman is sleeping, head on the table… I beg a cup of ice water and I am surrounded by young Scandinavian tourists consulting their Lonely Planets; they have come to look for Harlem. It isn’t here, I want to say. You won’t find it in the new Apollo, the renovated Cotton Club, the Baptist Church services with a gallery for gaping tourists, at Mamma’s Kitchen where the soulfood is just a little too anxious to please. The same way this supersized version of 42nd Street has little to do with the old Times Square.
On the street again there are the loiterers and the characters, the guy with the free cds who wants a donation, the hairdressing ladies who assume white women are there to try out cornrows or braids. There are the hardbodied junkies who still work out, with the walkie-talkies stuck in their pants-- sweating, nodding, rubbing their skin like a lamp, talking to themselves-- arguing, pointing, their voices thick and rough. There are Hummers double-parked, bicycles, Suzukis. Cops in undercover cars--- car radios blasting, people talking shit, people flirting, people double-talking and trip-hopping, arguing, hustling, talking trash. Everywhere people are eating— ices, chicken, McDonalds, pizza, fish. Everywhere you can hear snags of T-Pain, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z.
But no lone saxophones from fire escapes, no cigarette smoke from ashtrays while typewriters clack, no Aretha. The young hiphop poets are maybe in Brooklyn, the tag-masters in the Bronx, the West Indians in Queens and the gangs are spread out. Old Navy, H-M, the banks— everywhere the banks-- upscale furniture showrooms and real estate offices.
When Bill Clinton came… for a while the sun was shining on Harlem— the new Harlem.
Now it’s like a small-town girl, with the 3 drab dresses and the one pair of shoes… some rockband comes through town and the handsome guitar player sees her, falls in love, buys her flowers… makes her beautiful… and a couple of weeks later, he no longer takes her calls… so now she sits at her window, waiting, all the color sucked out of her… that’s what Harlem feels like… all dressed up and nowhere to go, not unlike the rest of us….
I go back downtown with my lost nostalgia of Harlem realizing, like an old love affair, it’s what’s in your heart that makes it real… and the dream of Harlem, the Crystal Stair of it… it is there, in my mind-- the Harlem Nocturne accompaniment, the boys in their T-shirts and shorts on the stoops, the women with their hair rolled, babies on their hips, blacksexy and smoking in the evening heat-- the stickball, the whistling, the men with their pants rolled, the trains hissing and the dogs drinking from leaky hydrants-- the Ellington A train Harlem, the one that is part of the old lost dream of New York.
The guy on the downtown 6 is singing Otis and then Bill Withers, with his paper cup and his jokes, his cracked smile with the missing teeth… maybe he has the dream of Harlem… the perfect pitch and the rhythm, the old vaudevillian smile of it, giving it away for coins, Godblessing and Jesusloving for free, playing to the crowd, killing.