Archibald Motley’s “Getting Religion”
In NYC we all live on top of each other.
Crying kids, yelling neighbors, loud parties, sex, you hear it all. In my little coffin of a room I have neighbors above, below, and beside. Walking up the stairs to my apartment, I pass more neighbors than used to live in my South Dakota development composed of two acre lots. In NYC your personal space, your personal life, is separated from others by thin walls.
You run into people on staircases. Smile, nod, get out of the way. It’s polite but curt. NYCers have a reputation for being brash and unfriendly, and that’s partially true. We got places to go, things to do, and whereas the rest of the country gets from place to place hidden in their cars, we walk the streets exposed to the weather and the smells and when we bump into someone its flesh and blood and not an exchange of insurance information. Further, while you can hide from the world in your car when you’ve had a bad day, in NYC it’s all on the street. So yeah, we’re all on edge a bit more, but maybe that’s just perception because there is nowhere to hide. But we’re friendly, too, and when parties collide on the roof (the night of the lunar eclipse was special, people playing music and dancing around, and burning lists of past pains in pagan revelry) we enjoy meeting a neighbor or a stranger. Not friends, but friendly. And in a pinch we help each other out (forgotten keys, package pick up, feeding the cat).
It’s in moments of conflict, though, that neighbors begin exchanging notes and because the walls are thin, everyone knows when something is going down. In this way it’s easier to be a good neighbor in NYC. Continue reading
Marshalls. 125th and Malcolm X Blvd.
I drop by to get some athletic socks and then to browse the shirt aisle. An African man interrupts and asks the price of a shirt. I find the brand tag for him and it says $44. An irritated look crosses his face, “$44? Yeesh.” But then I remember to look at the tag inside the shirt and there we find Marshalls’ price: $14. His face brightens, “Ah, yes, much better.” He then decides to share, “Every week I buy one shirt and one pair of pants. No more than that. After several months, I will have a nice collection.” A disciplined fellow trying to make it in America. Bravo. He’s on the up and up. I wonder, though, about his ratio of pants to shirts.
Marshalls. East River Plaza. Between FDR drive and 119th and 116th.
Step up to the checkout with my purchase and pull out my Chase Freedom card. “Oh, a Chase Freedom card,” says the attendant. “Yeah,” I say, “they’re pretty nice.” “Oh,” she says, “I wanted one of those and applied for it but it was denied.” I raise an eyebrow and smile asking for an explanation (they’re not that hard to get). She laughs, “Oh I’ve maxed out all my other cards. My kids be like, ‘Mom, you can’t be doing that. They won’t give you another card.'” A bit less disciplined here. She’s on the down and down. Continue reading
January. Cold. Upper West Side. On the stoop of my penal colony, I smoke my cigarette and swig beer from a plastic bag-clad can of beer.
I got my mother on the phone (she doesn’t know yet of my exile) and we are chatting—about what I don’t recall. This is a normal night for me. Normal, that is, until two cops come sauntering down the street towards me. There’s a slight change in their direction and now they’re headed my way.
“Mom,” I say, “I’m going to have to call you back. Two cops are coming my way.” Click. I suppose that’s not the most reassuring way to tell your mother good-bye.
“Hello, sir,” goes the big burly officer with a crew cut. “Hello,” I respond pleasantly. “Is that your beer can, sir?” he asks. I pause, amused, and glance down at the plastic bag. I’m in a good mood (just enough to drink) and a bad liar. So I cop to it with an oh-shucks-you-got-me expression: “Yeah, that’s mine.” The woman with him asks me for my ID and I comply: “Sir, we just need to see if you have any outstanding warrants.” “Ok,” I say with a chuckle, knowing nothing will come up. Continue reading
January of last year I found myself living on the Upper West Side with a 40 year old Indian mother and her two year old kid. It was an odd arrangement born of tragedy and the light at the end of the tunnel was only a pinprick.
I was there because my wife had kicked me out. She was there because hurricane Sandy had destroyed her home and she had just divorced her husband. Like a pair of shipwreck survivors we clung to this driftwood of an apartment in the projects.
My room was only sort of my own as she needed the space for her son during the day. The apartment was full of the detritus of her previous home. The bathroom in particular was problematic as she used it for storage, which meant that I occasionally couldn’t take a shower because it was periodically full of stuff. One particularly memorable episode required me to crawl over boxes and then balance precariously to take a pee at the toilet.
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. Continue reading
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (7th Ave.) between 135th and 136th
7th Ave. between 135th and 136th
Boys playing catch with a tennis ball on the street. I slip into the corner bodega, grab a beer, and emerge to find one of the boys up on the fire escape. He’s retrieving his ball while his friend yells at him to hurry. Kid has some jumps. The end of the ladder is eight feet off the ground in front of my apartment door. The kid begins to descend the ladder and then I see the father (only he could have lifted him that high) waiting for his son to descend, blocking my way. Stuck, I watch, amused. “I’m going to jump!” declares the kid. The father, dismissive and annoyed, “No you’re not,” as he reaches up to help his kid down.
I have taught AP English Language and Composition for three years now. I always run a comparison between Malcolm X’s “Ballot and the Bullet” and MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They are both remarkable pieces and highlight the assimilationist v. separatist approaches to America’s cultural and racial problems.
Malcolm X’s piece is a treat to read. It is full of invective (those damn “crackers!”) and defiance. The anger is palpable. Rhetorically he pulls no punches. The black man has gotten a raw deal for too long. The whites have given him window dressing rights. Fuck the police. The relationship is irreconcilable—probably. The choice (bullets or the ballot?) haunts the speech. There is much that resonates with the current atmosphere especially in light of events in Dallas.
Looking South from 125th and 7th
6:55am 136th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Five minutes till my carpool picks me up. Bordello isn’t open yet but the bulletproof, rotating window is being serviced. I order a cheap cup of coffee. “Son, how old are you?” an old, wizened reed of a woman sitting on a bucket asks me. “How old do you think I am?” I ask. Bearded, people usually guess 30. “24” she says. I had turned 25 a couple days earlier, but I shrug, “Yeah, you got me.” “Alright now, son,” she says, “for guessing correctly how about you buy me a bottle of water.” You’re not panhandling if you can do a good trick. I buy her a bottle of water.
Some night, dark, at Papaya King on 3rd and 86th. Order my hotdog. An ill smelling man in a grungy green army coat and knotted beard appears with his hand outstretched to me holding a quarter: “Fifty cents for a quarter?” You’re not panhandling if you can make me laugh. I give him fifty cents and accept the quarter.
I live in Harlem, but I’m an outsider. Race is the obvious reason for this: I can walk a half mile in Harlem and only see a couple white faces. But race is not the only reason. Many of families in Harlem have lived here for generations. In this way, my status of outsider would be similar in backwoods West Virginia.
A fellow white resident told me he felt like an occupier living in Harlem. This struck me as an overwrought and guilt-ridden way of looking at the situation, but he accurately identified a level of unease. But the unease is diminishing to an extent: young white professionals who want to live in NYC have begun moving into Harlem because the rent is cheaper. Over the past year, I’ve noticed an uptick in white faces. This white migration in turn has begun to contribute to the gentrification of the area and the slow but steady rise of rent costs that will ultimately drive out multi-generational black families. This in turn has led to guilt-ridden condemnation of gentrification—numerous white neighbors argue this line. It’s quite nauseating especially when coupled (as it always is) with cliché anti-cop rhetoric. It’s straight up hypocrisy: if they really cared about preserving black Harlem, they wouldn’t move there. So why do they? Continue reading
Good times in Harlem
The other night I was drinking a beer. I hadn’t enough sense to finish what was left in my tall boy. So I poured it out my window. An impolite act, but I’m four stories up and there was barely a finger of liquid left in the can. Plus it was raining.
Five minutes later I climbed out my window for a smoke while I spoke with a friend on the phone. I got yelled at. “White boy, pouring beer on us! Quit it! Fucking cracker!” I was confused. The beer I poured out wasn’t enough to even reach street level. But apparently it had. So I got hollered at. No matter, I sat there silent till the howling crowd below settled down. Moments later missiles began to explode around my head. It took me a second or two to understand what was going on. But as egg dripped off my hand I knew. Glancing down I saw fellows winding up and letting fly. The white specks growing larger as they approached my head. I quietly slipped back inside my window. Nothing came of it after that night, although I must admit worrying a bit about a confrontation the next couple of days (my plan: buy them a case of beer and apologize). Street justice. Don’t pour beer out your window in Harlem. It’s a reasonable rule. Eggs are a good enforcement mechanism. Continue reading