The Robinsons—Sara And Evan, Came To Town Ten Days Ago.
Dinner, Drinks And Hours Of Conversation Later In Harlem With Jen, We All Left.
But My Soul Remained—As It Always Does.
What is my earliest memory of this place, Harlem?
Where I grew up, and The Big Fella grew up?
No, we didn't “meet cute” young, like old friends do in the movies..
I never met The Big Fella until two-thousand-and five.
But he was a child of Harlem, just as surely as I was.
Me: West Side. Him? East Side.
A hundred hills, cobblestones, and brick-strewn yards between us.
My first memory is of a brick-strewn yard—
And an angry dog
Who chased my just-stopped-being-bow-legged ass through it.
Me stumbling and falling in that flesh-tearing expanse of nothing
But sharp and rough.
My knee gouting blood as I hoarsely screamed “Daddy! Daddy!”...
And him coming from the other side of the car—
A peach and white Rambler.
“Oh Lord. Honey! Put some iodine in a towel and throw it down!”
He yelled up to the fourth floor.
“I can't bring him all the way back up those steps now!”
“We got someplace to be!”
That's the first memory.
Next is Daddy-done haircuts with a Salem dangling
cooly from his mouth as Sam Cooke's “Live At The Copa!” blared
From the little mono record player on the table.
“Sun, moon and stars belong to everyone...
The best things in life are freeeee...”
There was the Piggly Wiggly on the corner
Which I was told never to go past...
But who wanted to—as their CreamSicles™
Were perfect on a hot summer's day.
Nights on the fire escape, beating the heat in the house,
Sprawled next to Mama on a plush blanket.
Listening to The Fifth Dimension on 77 WABC...
“Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon...”
Someone tosses play money off a rooftop across the street,
And in the wild scrum of poor folks
In the street below, one doesn't get up,
As a sickly pool of night's burgundy mercury
Expands under his still body in the middle of 115th Sreet.
It's 1968 now, and every other week as the spring smears into summer,
There and here. What's going on isn't exactly clear.
Oh Lord...Who got shot now? Plumes of desperation-fueled smoke rise
From the courtyards nearby and hang
Like dull, ugly streamers in the air—topped off with a grey haze
Just above the tenement rooftops...
For what seems like months.
One night, I can hear windows breaking and shrieks. I still don't know
What the cause of it was, but I remember looking out from the fire escape...
And a carting truck hauling garbage from in front of a store.
Panicky driver, I guess. Hit reverse instead of drive
And backed into the facade
Of the liquor store next to Deacon Jones Fish & Chips.
Caved in the front and then
Fearfully peeled away.
And the angry people in the street staring providence
In its spirits-flushed face...
As they carried off
Case after wooden, excelsiored case of “The Good Shit”.
And not the bottom shelf rotgut.
Ecstasy and agony all in one minute.
Saw my first pair of breasts on a Lenox Avenue corner.
As a woman ran east on 116th. Mocha. Beautiful. Shirtless and wild-eyed.
She looked like a crazed “Thelma” from “Good Times”
Flashing by in her bell-bottomed jeans
And little else.
And then I saw her back—bubbling like an egg cracked in a hot skillet?
A heroin dealer had thrown lye on her
For welshing on a poppy-swollen IOU.
The hot dog man tackled her before she ran into traffic on Lenox,
From his soda bucket onto her boiling back.
And then her nerves-ablaze scream.
Me thinking “What kind of pain must that be?”
Cousin “W” and his wife “J” were worse off. The heroin killed them both.
Cuz—a year out of Vietnam, and poor, desperate “J”
Escaping the agony of his death a mere year later.
Heroin Alley. West 115th Street. My block.
Watched a junkie nod out for twenty minutes straight—
Pardon the pun.
Swimming, Undulating like a twisted beam of light on an oscilloscope.
He could NOT fall. But my God, he could drool. A strand five feet long,
From a drooped mouth mouth to the ground.
Made up my mind right there, that I would not touch drugs, and I have not,
Thank you for that, rubber-bodied junkie-man.
The apartment was too small and there were too many of us.
Six kids. Two adults.
And one frighteningly huge rat....so big he should have been a dependent.
Chewed through a wall and looked at me like I was the Goddamned visitor.
Daddy caught the beast in the kitchen one day and crime-scened the room
With a well-swung dinette chair.
And with that, we were out of Harlem in two weeks.
But we came back every week.
Daddy to do business, and to get the things
That Queens didn't have.
Things that we still loved.
Deacon Jones Fish n' Chips, Steak n' Takes
And the frosty-cold watermelon slices
From the brother's shack over on 129th and Seventh.
Barricini and Breyers ice cream from Daitch Shopwell on 116th.
Toys from Darling Toys down St. Nicholas Avenue.
Tools and conversation at Moskeyee Hardware on Lenox proper.
To see The Delfonics at The Rockland Palace or the 369th Armory
A ways up and west...
“Ready or not, here I come...you can't hiiiiiiide...”
I stayed in school in Harlem, and got the school bus there every day.
A cop bit the big one nearby and Five-O raided the school
Busting up everything—looking for the “perp”.
Snuck in to see Pam Grier flicks
At The Loews Victotria down from the Apollo.
My God. Pam Grier!
And when I would drift towards getting “out of pocket”,
Daddy would take me with him
Where he rolled.
With his friends. Grown-ass men.
And they'd debate everything, Sports. News.
Politics—national and international.
There I'd be—eight, nine, ten years old—In a circle of men in their thirties,
Forties, and Ffties, hashing through the issues of the day.
On the steps of a storefront in West Harlem.
And one day I got off a good one,
Straightening out a fella's conflating Kenya's Kwame Nkrumah
With the Congo's Patrice Lumumba.
A silence fell, and the owner of the store said to the mistaken man,
While slapping me on the back...
“You need to go get the professor a bottle of Yoo-Hoo, brother!”
And a gale of laughter rose from all.
It was a place of wide sidewalks.
Maybe the widest sidewalks in all of Manhattan.
You could play box-ball three abreast,
Two sets of three kids facing each other, easy.
Lots of space to walk,
And maybe stop to look down the wide-open avenues downtown.
Lots of space too for a man to set up a rostrum, or a step-ladder,
Or an empty plaster bucket
To stand at a corner and speak, preach, break it down, run it down,
Expose while being verbose, for all to hear.
Ellison wrote on it, I saw it happen. On 110th, 125th and 135th—
Which was the official “Speaker's Corner”.
You couldn't go to 135th and run the jackleg game. You had to have skills.
Malcolm X was the “Don” of Speaker's Corner.
I was too little to remember seeing him there,
But my Daddy and Mama did—
And they noted that no one was better, save for maybe...
Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
When he would descend from the mountains of the floor of the House...
Or the pulpit at Abyssinnian Baptist.
Harlem's streets—the ultimate open-air/open mic/open forum.
Long gone now.
I moved back as an adult.
To Columbia U's grabbing all available land west of Seventh
And north of 110th.
Morningside Heights was the name for the expanding, new neighborhood
That was a few small blocks in my youth.
I was on W. 137th, past the geological dip the West Side takes at 125th...
Uptown's bottom falling out as the subway becomes an El for a hot minute.
Took an icy spill down the steep, steep hill of 137th one winter's morn,
Spinning nearly half a block on my back like a down-clad, upended turtle—
Til' I grabbed a parking signpost twenty feet from the intersection. Whew!
Saw a rat one night on the walk home from the subway.
Saw him cornered against two garbage cans by a young, overconfident cat,
Who wailed and thrashed when Mickey suddenly pounced on his head,
Biting ears, and neck and all the shit a cat never expected a rat would attack.
That cat screeched and bumped the cans...and I couldn't watch anymore.
Hunter is hunted. Man bites dog. Rat whips cat.
Maybe kills him from the sound of things.
Moved away, and came back again.
165th opposite the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X preached his last,
And breathed his last.
Washington Heights some call it.
Still all Harlem to me before you get to the bridge.
Caught Robin Givens in the Wendy's on the corner,
Ragging the counterpeople
As she walked out with her Mama
And two huge bags of conditioning-killing grub
For Iron Mike, laid up a block away at Columbia Pres Hospital
After wrecking his whip 'cross the river in Jersey.
Caught a cop beating the shit out of a dealer
At the dark end of the 168th St. Station Mezzanine.
Ducked behind a thick, riveted pillar.
Witnesses get billy-clubs In the mouth too, you know.
Cop grabbed a wad of bills thick enough to choke Godzilla off the dude,
And told him to walk away.
Then for good measure as homeboy did,
He cracked him with the side of his piece—back of the head,
Behind the ear, as dude tried to tough it out, but lost his equilibrium
And fell in sections it seemed.
“Please don't come back this way...” my heart beat out in morse code.
Five-O didn't, unlocking an iron gate at that darkened end
And disappearing Into the night. Like a thief. Man!
Came out of the subway one night at 155th to stop at Wilson's for take-out...
Straight-up stumbled into a prime-time drug bust to end 'em all.
Helicopter hovering, shining lights into fourth floor apartments
In the middle of Amsterdam Avenue.
Po-po buses lined up on the street with news trucks, and behind that?
About a hundred dudes lined up against the building fronts themselves.
Arm to arm like sneakered, track-suited paper dolls.
Headed downtown on a Friday night for a weekend
Of rotten bologna sandwiches,
And holding pens
That smelled of piss in the big hoosegow “downtown”.
Had to play it cool, and not run back in the subway...
Didn't wanna be pegged as a man runnin' away from somethin'.
I hate rotten bologna sandwiches, and pissy-smelling jail cells.
So, I chilled and walked all calm and shit, into the cuchifrito store,
Bought a bag
To give myself purpose to be in the vicinity,
Got my change and went back into the subway all natural-like.
“Enjoy!” I said to the homeless guy near the gate,
As I tossed him the greasy bag.
That was my cover. “Wow!” he said. “Thanks, brother!”
“Might wanna eat those down here, man.” I said
As he shuffled towards the steps.
“Five-O's vampin' hard upstairs.”
Moved away and came back one last time.
Lived with a Diva. A real, live one. Sang opera for a living.
Lived in a building full of Black opera singers. Men and women.
Comin' up Madison Avenue, cross 125th to the sounds of operatic
Vocal warm-ups echoing
Off the buildings at night.
Then a piano note to set the next octave and again—higher this time...
Two Baritones, a Tenor and a Mezzo.
But in Harlem. Living. Loving. Singing 'round the corner,
And down a block from Sylvia's.
And in between the two? Mt, Moriah Baptist Church
Where the choir's band could break it down
Like the Stax studio rippers.
Not just Sunday—but even on Thursday night rehearsal
When you walked on by.
Oh, the old Renaissance ghosts must've smiled every time they heard it.
In our Harlem.
Where Daddy sang at the Apollo...
As did James, and Marvin, and Dinah, and Ella
And every first-name-only needed star
To light the indigo firmament.
It's where Castro booked rooms
At the Theresa Hotel instead of The Waldorf
When he came to town.
“The Lindy” was born here, and this was where Chick Webb's band
Vamped the swingin' shit
Out of Benny Goodman's crew in a play-off.
Made Gene Krupa sweat through shirts
Hangin' in his closet downtown, it was so damn bad.
The seat of power of the GREATEST politician
African Americans have ever known,
And who did more for poor folk in general than anybody then or since...
The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr,
High-art central for Black folks in the whole wide world in the twenties.
Dancers, poets, writers, musicians, painters and historians.
Langston on E. 127th—middle of the block.
The blowin' and box-bustin' hepcats
In the high ceiling-ed palaces up on Sugar Hill.
Tito Puente and crew on the Spanish East end.
Near La Marqueta again—stretching for blocks
Under the old ConRail tracks.
Guayabera shirts and lacy communion dresses hanging by the dozens
In front of a hundred teeny, tiny stores.
Saltfish, Cod. Bacalao. The aroma wafting from the open stalls.
The “piragua” man at the corner of 116th & Park...
Shaving ice into a cup and pouring cold, cold sweet syrup
Over a blazing summer day.
Maybe twenty different hills that crest
With a hidden world below on the other side.
St. Nick Park near Convent Avenue
Where a craggy baby mountain busts the neighborhood in two.
Go to go down and around it to get to the other side, baby.
Manhattan Valley, and Coogan's Bluff where Willie Mays
Was an orange and black clad undertaker in center field...
Where sure extra base hits went to die as mere fly balls.
The Polo Grounds is gone now. Along with Small's Paradise.
The old Rockand and The Audubon—where I climbed a dumpster
And filched an “A” off the marquee
When I feared it's total destruction.
Piggly Wiggly's but a memory and Deacon Jones
Is maybe someone at a church
These days, but the fish n' chips are gone.
My building on W. 115th is history too.
New projects or some such complex sits there.
Steak n' Take, The Salaam and most of La Marqueta too.
The shell of Peter's Hardware, next to Daddy's old restaurant,
There for forty years.
Now becoming something else.
All the old “Bucket o' Bloods” are gone, just about.
Nikki's. The Seaman's Net.
At least they landmarked The Lenox Lounge.
And the infamous “Zebra Room” in back
Where the real Players hung tough.
There's a Starbucks on the corner of 125 and Lenox.
Magic Johnson owns it.
Big Wilt's (Of 20,000 conquest's fame) Small's Paradise it ain't.
But you can sit and nibble.
There's an H&M on the main drag.
A Movieplex nabs the crowds that walk past
The now-shuttered, Pam Grier-less Loews.
The Apollo marquee is computer controlled, now. Big-ass LCD.
I stood atop that marquee one Sunday night
With folks as the ladder-man changed
The coming attractions by hanging huge enameled letters.
Too many “M's” in the copy and you'd see a “W” turned upside down
And you had to laugh.
Now, somebody on a computer taps in words,
Hammers “Enter”, and poof!
Folks on the street can see it. “Blink!” “Swoosh!” “Blink!”
The “American Gangsters”
Have been replaced by the “American Hipsters”.
Scruffy Abercrombie and Fitchies dragging themselves
Through the Lenox and 125th
African American streets
Looking for the perfect...Macaroni and Cheese these days.
But it's still Harlem. My Harlem. Steve's Harlem.
Jen and Sara and Evan and me rode up last weekend.
Grubbed hard at Sylvia's.
Cornbread and Beef Ribs and Chicken Livers.
Banana Pudding and Red Velvet Cake.
Then, down the block to The Lenox Lounge for drinks.
Still an Art Deco wonder. Tall half-obliqued sconces
And plush booths.
The long bar and buffed walnut and steel bathroom doors.
A Jr. Walker lookalike toting his sax in the back
To blow the stripes off the walls in the Zebra Room.
Place still looks like Bumpy Johnson
Could walk in any minute
In ankle-length camel hair —
And a coterie of gabardined and spats-di-fed button-men
But instead, a large group of Japanese tourists file in.
Agog at this bit of Old Harlem tucked into the rapidly expanding “new”.
And we see Sylvia herself—of the restaurant's fame.
Near the parking lot / cutaway
She bought between the restaurant proper and its annex fifty feet away.
“Hey Ms. Woods” I say,
As she seems a little bit befuddled while looking around.
“You looking for your ride?”
“Oh...yes.” she sighs.
“But I don't know where my daughter is with the car.”
The night air has the lightest breeze on it, and yellow cabs abound.(!) (!)
We bid Sylvia adieu and walk down Lenox a little ways.
I look back and see her again.
A smallish woman In the middle of the impossibly wide sidewalks
I can never forget.
My Harlem. The big fella's Harlem.
Everybody's Harlem now, it seems.
Cabs are hopped. Jen's to points east. The rest of us back downtown.
I roll the window down and let its air hit me. Harlem's.
I smile for a second.
And know I'll be back sooner than I even think.
Because you know what?
I'm never really ever gone.