This woman was telling me about a neighborhood uptown in Manhattan which is really dangerous. Her friends warned her about it in big red letters, shaking their heads and saying it was the worst place she could imagine, no kidding, that she might go in but she’d never come out. Her eyes were bright with the promise of fragrant urban misery, seamy undersides, and crackling danger. Her voice quivered at the thought of Evil Lurking in the Hearts of Men. She couldn’t remember what it was called, but it started with “H.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. Morningside Heights was my theory. That was a pretty rough patch for a time. But would she really know Morningside Heights? Then her hands shot up to her lips and she said, “Oh! I know! I remember now! It’s Harlem!”
New York is funny this way: we think in paths and pockets. The City is a staff of songlines in clanging keys. If you say Harlem, my first association is Renaissance (lest we get too hifalutin and self-congratulatory here, the second one would be Globetrotters – sometimes it’s all about the cartoons you grow up with). I don’t hang out in Harlem, and sure there are nasty corners of it. But on my scope, which is admittedly often oblivious, it’s been years since the neighborhood on the whole was dangerous. The last time I got mugged, and that’s years back, it was smack in the middle of the tame and touristed West Village, somewhere off Varick Street near Houston.
Couple’a white guys with a knife, if you’re wondering.
The innocent outdated notion of Bad Harlem comes to mind because I was up on 133rd Street off Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard reading a few small parts in a play-in-progress by A., an actor and writer I met over Thanksgiving. The piece starts as a tritely treatment about a young black man under siege in a Wall Street world of white old-boys, and then sidesteps into a much more interesting magical realist exploration of tradition, family, wisdom, and mystical Southern matriarchs. I played The White People – the proper and political head of the investment house, the leering snobby bigot supervisor, and the Cool Guy From Accounting.
If I knew more about the theatre scene in Harlem, I suspect I’d be amazed by the company I kept that afternoon – there was an air of royalty. After the reading some of the actors and audience talked about the play and how it struck them, and how the themes developed or didn’t. As a newcomer to the project, I mostly listened.
It was striking to hear Wall Street described without rancor as part of “the white world,” a phrase which turned up again and again. I was reminded of Capt. Kirk in Star Trek IV telling Catherine Hicks, the Whale Doctor, “No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.”
I don’t think it’s possible to grow up in an American city in the latter 20th century and be a stranger to prejudice. It’s one of the many strands wound into our daily rope. At times I’ve been a Jew, a shrimp, a four-eyes, a pinko (I was actually called that back in my civil disobedience days). I was a longhair one afternoon at a truck stop in Mississippi, which was scary. Sometimes I’ve been White, in a bad way (subway, weapons). And like all of us I’ve done my share of snap-judging too.
But this was the first time I was ever explicitly a cog in “the white world,” part of a faceless assembly that runs from my boss and his ‘burb and country club partners, to my musician and artist and writer friends who temp or tend bar or hold day jobs like mine to keep themselves in rent and shoes and beer money. To the Cool Guy From Accounting. To my partners in our record company. We’re the lumpenburgher. Hear us moan.