Monday, August 31, 2015

Being bad in Harlem

With Dr. Motes off in Indonesia and all our orchids living outside and waiting to be swept away, I became totally obsessed with Hurricane Erika, even down to buying candles for her and after all that she couldn't even be bothered to show up. So it's back to my other tale of black and white New York.

About fifteen years ago I went up to Columbia for a conference. The organizers provided a list of places to stay. Right in the middle was "Harlem Y." Not only the cheapest but the coolest! And if Columbia University put it on a list it had to be OK. OK?  Still, I would wear sturdy shoes and always Walk Purposefully as we older folk are told in our Survival Manuals.

At the end of the first conference day I took the subway to Lexington Ave. As far as the eye could see, only black people! African Americans. AA's. While I was the little old white lady, the OWL, in her tennis shoes Walking Purposefully through them, mostly children, coming home from school. In the Y elevator, an AA, ("I'm David") taking his bike up, said he liked my necklace. (Another great find from the Florida City swap meet.) A sweet Puerto Rican girl on our floor welcomed me, explaining where everything was, the iron and the microwave and the plates.
"So you live here." No that wasn't allowed, she said. After a certain number of days she would have to move on.
When I heard about the microwave I was home. It had been a long day. Down again, David again without his bike. Out into Lexington Avenue, popcorn was easy to get. And right opposite on the corner, a liquor store. Bars on the windows. I stood in line, Friday evening, between an elderly gentleman buying a small square bottle of something and a young man very generously ignoring me completely. I was the one keeping my head down. I was the shifty one about to break the law. The Harlem Y greets you graciously but under the big sign NO ALCOHOL ALLOWED. Chardonnay, even with a British accent, would count.

They had Chardonnay! The Friday night queue in the liquor store was getting longer. Not the moment to hesitate between an Australian bottle or a Californian. Especially as I had to ask, "Um, could you open it, please?" And don't call the Y! I recrossed Lexington Ave dutifully at the light with my brown grocery bag.Popped my corn and poured my wine and settled down with the New York Times. There was the Friday night sound of the girls getting together on our girls only floor, and the only complaint to management would have been about the institutional clang of metal doors along the bare corridor.

The next time I was at the Florida city swap meet, I told the elegant woman I always bought my silk  scarves and necklaces from, all about my adventure. For that wholeweekend, up in Harlem I  never  saw another white person and yet no one even looked at me!
And this elegant AA woman looked down at me, she was tall too, and that patient look said, "You people..." What she did say was: "That's the big city. They're just New Yorkers."


  1. You had me at silk scarves, hurricanes and Chardonnay.
    My gosh Mary, you are a rebel!

  2. Hi mom Sue Brych forwarded your blog to me...enjoyed the reading. Also wanted to say thank you for the suggestion about an oral history project of my town in Panama.