Harlem Roof


7th Ave. between 135th and 136th on the roof.

Evening and Night.

Pacing the roof, cigarette in hand, a bottle of beer, and a friend on the phone. Time Square shimmers to the south; the George Washington Bridge northwest; Yankee Stadium northeast. These are my terrestrial constellations as the city lights blot out the stars. These are my nights.

I used to haunt the fire-escape and watch the passer-byes. Most places people are hidden by glass and steel as they traverse from one place to another in their automobiles. In New York you walk and when you bump into someone it is flesh and blood (“Excuse me, miss.”) and not a call to the insurance company. In this city you can casually watch people go about their business or spot and plunder sidewalk trash (two bookshelves!). Despite the simplicity  of opening the window and escaping my coffin of a room, I was ill at ease perched on the side of this Harlem canyon and not because of the height (a meager four stories). A boy from South Dakota, I grew up under open skies. Somewhere in my psyche I knew this was the problem. The sky was too small. I had gone from one confinement to another. And then one day as I sat outside my window a moment of imagination: wait, the roof, there must be a roof.  Odd how your apartment door (this is my home, I go no further) creates an artificial barrier to climbing higher. Wasting not a minute, I left my apartment,  and trotted up the extra two flights of stairs where I found the door. The alarm disengaged, the handle broken, I pushed it open.

Sweet Jesus.

The roof is no South Dakota prairie, but you can see big sky and breath easy up here.

I’m half done with my beer. Under that glowing nighttime canopy void of stars I walk across the roof and sit down on the short barrier between my building and the next (they are all connected) and take a drag of an American Spirit while yath00m makes some point on the other end of the line. But then the door behind me bursts open.

Usually I am alone here at night. On occasion the odd yoga practitioner appears, or a big building party like the night of the lunar eclipse (the city lights didn’t blot that out), but for the most part I traverse this space in solitude and consider it my own,  getting annoyed when I have to share it. Leave it to the South Dakota boy to claim this patch of NYC and its wide expanse of sky.

I turn towards the noise expecting anything but what I see: three cops, joking around, flashlights trained on the ground as they check for what I know not. “Oh, hello,” I say. The female flashes her light at me, “You know you’re not suppose to be up here, right?” “Oh,” I say with a grin, “I’m just having a quick cigarette.” My stays on the roof are anything but quick or infrequent. “Mmmk,” she says, distracted by her colleagues who paid me no heed. As she walks back to the stairway one of the cops grabs her from behind and mimics throwing her off the roof. They all burst out laughing as they headed down the stairs. Even the NYPD won’t bother to dislodge me and I continue talking with yath00m and swigging my beer.

Night after night. Pace after pace. Call after call. Smoke and alcohol.

And yet the roof, for all its catharsis, lacks stars or the quiet. Sirens blare, people yell and laugh, and jets pass over head on their way to La Guardia. Once I even found myself caught in the middle of a domestic dispute up here. The liberation from the streets and the fire-escape is itself an escape into another confine. There is always a horizon that we can’t quite peer over—a fly in the ointment. So I bring people up here, or call them on the phone, and the horizon recedes a little bit more.

The evenings are the best. The lights of the city irrelevant, I’ve watched many a fiery sun sink behind the Harlem heights and many a storm cross that sky with billowing, dark clouds. My aunt, who passed a little over a year ago, would say that God on occasion winks at us. I chose the apartment because the rent was cheap and then discovered months later there was a great roof thrown in. Great: the view. Not so great: the cockroaches and tarpaper. But even this is a wink with a laugh: see, here’s a gift, enjoy that sky but watch out for the cockroaches clambering around. The point may be a bit saccharine, but God’s grandeur flames out into the world regardless as we wearily climb to the roof to look—and then descend again.


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