There is a gloom– thick, shouting, and angry– outside my Franklin Street office window. Winter’s chill hasn’t been very effective in keeping the off balanced bodies—with heavily trampled heroin veins swollen by the burn; unattractive and alien — from forgetting their sorrows and reminding us of their existence. For the next three months, they will freeze and thaw; their already withered frames withdrawing further. They will be dead come morning. By evening, they will resurrect, celebrated as immortal tightrope walkers balancing carefully on a vast slab of pavement. This image shouldn’t affect me; I was introduced to them during my childhood. But it does.
I grew up in New York. A much softer version- Long Island-far from the television caricature of terrifying Son-of-Sam, Tommy-gun-toting 1920’s gangsters. My New York was, from my perspective, relatively pristine. There were front yards, back yards, trees, pavement, possums, raccoon, squirrels…. It was Mayberry northeast, but we, in our state of metropolitan confusion, aggressively, but not always accurately, copied the styles of the Borough Boys to camouflage, I am certain, our bouts of chronic suburbia. Fortunately, the big five (Manhattan, Brooklyn, THE Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island) were accessible whenever we wanted or needed them, and we’d frequent weekend journeys into their indescribably mysterious lair. I was exposed early to exceptional doses of a mesmerizing universe that existed a mere 45-minute drive away. It was named, Harlem.
My parents would assemble my brother and me, check our attire, hair, teeth, and ears; pile us into the backseats of the newest late model Chevy, and we’d be on our way. We would be thrown into a cinematic trance with funk-disco-soul theme music blaring from an 8-track tape repeated until it squealed (usually Al Green, Curtis Mayfield or the Isley Brothers).
Let me say that since… Since we’ve been together…
All I want is some peace-of-mind, And a little love I’m tryin’ to find, It could be such a beautiful world… Freddy’s Dead!…
Sharing our love… Between the sheets….
We’d roll, crossing familiar bridges with no name, filled with an inexplicable excitement, traveling along the Long Island Expressway until the smell of the air changed from Magnolia blossoms to a putrid river and hydrogen sulfide; a fragrance which, to this day, I absolutely love. A dozen years later, I began taking this journey alone, planted in a withered seat on the LIRR westbound passenger train that reminded me of cannolis, knishes, yellow mustard, Newports, bubble gum, and ass, to 34th Street: Pennsylvania Station / Madison Square Garden. It was on these unnerving voyages that I would be awakened– butterflies fluttering spasmodically in the pit of my belly as the locomotive motioned through this darkened cavern– and I’d feel awkwardly reborn.
ON THE PENNSYLVANIA PLATFORM
The final stop, pulsating with the redolence of locomotive’s exhaust, cigarettes, burning pretzels, hot dogs and the commingling of rodent and human piss, were indescribably welcoming. It was the flea market perfume of the girlfriend you traveled a millennium to get to. There was sweetness in that Manhattan air and, although I am slightly embarrassed to admit it, a theme song…
I felt that I had been denied something urgent, as pedestrians, even those who boarded from those sleepy Long Island towns, moved with alacrity to a place I have yet to discover. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t privy to wherever event it was that made them sprint from the car, to the platform, and to the waiting street. I stood still on that platform, watching as mothers pulled children behind them, their steps turning into uncoordinated slides, and men repeated, trance-like, with eyes focused toward the stairway, “excuse me,” as if chanting a supernatural mantra.
New York in the 1980’s was Id’s utopia, full of mischief and mayhem, a paradisaical fun-house of pop-up dolls, bloated cigar-chewing pitchmen, turbo-charged nightclubs, and secret lovers under shrouds of ignorant bliss. Forty-second street, its most famous feral son, was a raunchy strip of debauchery and perversion, promising with profound certainty, to leave one spoiled before they reached 43rd, but no one ever went to Times Square for the cotton candy, only the religious experience.
It was on 42nd Street that, without warning, I was assaulted, virtually mugged, by a massive, sweaty, bare and colorless tit. The owner of this elephantine mammary grinned with jocular triumph; her stringy, poorly dyed black hair, green eye shadow, pink (beyond the color) mascara, and ruby-red-wrinkled-lips, inviting me into her rancid catacomb. That musky colorless tit was still shoved in my face; the other raging to be unleashed. She had doused herself in cheap floral perfume and her breath was tainted by considerably cheaper hooch. The odor remained in my nasal passages for over a year. I was traumatized; not by the mammary, but by the extras that came with it. Never had I mentioned this incident to my parents. It, and many other experiences were simply Rites of Passage. I was seventeen.
Manhattan, for a 17-year-old Long Island boy, was the devil’s playground, the fashion universe, and unquestionably, as it is today, the greatest show on the planet. I recall the late-night walks along Broadway and treks through the village where I was lured away from my original destination by the unmistakable scented plumbs of piney-sweet marijuana smoke emitted from a bohemian couple, a few steps ahead of me. I remember I moved closer to them, quickly, I inhaled deeply, absorbing, as much as possible, their second-hand intoxicant; never having to thank them for the buzz light. In this wondrous nomadic stupor, I nursed tall cans of cheap beer, watched as small bands of people reenacted scenes from Broadway musicals, and lusted after the Latina wearing leg warmers and an incredibly beautiful free-flowing miniskirt. I fell hard. Not for the girl but for the city. No other place could match the magnificence I felt there. New York welcomed me, in a way that my high school classmates who bragged about her passion, could only fantasize. She embraced me. To this day, I know that no other city loved me as much as she did. The unexpected sights, the beauty that appeared from nowhere and the unusual and inexplicable events made memories that nothing nor any place could ever match. This was my New York.
THE EARLY DAZE…
Those early Harlem journeys with my parents — “A different New York,” my father, Superman, would say to my brother and me — were magnificent. This was hallowed ground. The ground that Baldwin walked and Langston played, and Malcolm preached, and fables were made. The sweet fragrance of garlic, and soul food commingled with the hypnotic grooves of Grover Washington, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, (… Freddy’s Dead…), and the O’Jays; terrific gray noise and the constant, but expected odor of plastic fed fires.
Harlem, to my immature eye, was a beautifully dreary universe with a propensity for yelling, and drunkenness, dirty rag window washers, huge black rats and croaking Blattaria. It was streets covered with discarded hooch bottles, soda cans, and barbecue-stained Styrofoam containers. Harlem was colorfully dark, brilliantly lit, and inescapably in your face; the stuff of my early childhood nightmares, and it frightened me to my underdeveloped core, with its shadows and moaning and symphonic sirens. Harlem was the main ingredient in my pot of New York Experience Stew.
We went there once a month, to have communion with family who settled into that unsettling place. It seemed, after so many drives to Harlem, that the car was able to navigate itself. Mahalia was playing low from the rear speakers; how I got over, a start-stop rhythm that perfectly match the sound of the car’s tires rolling over gaps in the pavement. My brother and I looked forward to the adventurous cousin-guided excursions, especially the climbing of ‘Trash Mountain’ across from their three bedroom apartment. At the apex of this rocky structure, our time would be occupied avoiding the razor blades and syringes, broken bottles, used condoms, soiled panties, and gun shell casings, that hid in tall weeds and behind graffiti covered boulders, like a thousand invisible rattle snakes.
Don’t step on those needles. They will kill you.
Don’t put those coo-coo juice panties near your face. They will make your skin peel off and then kill you.
It was the first week of July, 1972, when I saw them for the first time. I was very young, not cognizant enough to understand who or what they were. I could not avert my eyes, for they were like Disney characters out of costume, with pallid death-ridden complexions. “Don’t stare at them,” my mother warned my brother and me, her face flush with a mortifying concern. Every red stoplight brought from her a sigh and scrunched frown. “God, there are so many,” she whispered to my father. “Taster’s Choice,” he said, referring, I later found out, to the name the shooters gave the most recently released packets of what they called ‘horse.’
The shooters stood like statues, immobile, then slowly, lethargically, leaned forward, not to reach for anything, just leaned, frozen in awkward positions; sleep-standing. Their movements were poetic, choreographed to a music sans sound. For several blocks they occupied crowded sidewalks, masters, for a forgettable moment, of an urban form of tai chi, and wandered into streets, standing like human boulders in front of explosive Pintos and shiny sedans with white-walled tires.
“Move, you funky ass junkie,” shouted a man standing outside his fifteen foot white Cadillac Fleetwood. A woman in the passenger seat laughed as she applied more makeup to an already plastic looking facade. The statue stood stoically, moving with the wind, then opened its mouth and whispered…air. We continued to move. I turned to watch the Fleetwood man adjust his furry-brimmed hat and fan his matching full-length fur coat.
The car was silent as we drove forward. We wanted to ask, but could not think of what we could say. Finally….
“Mom, what was wrong with them?”
“They are sick.” She replied
“What kind of sick?” I asked. “Can I catch it?” The tremble in my voice sounding desperate and painful.
“They are dope addicts,” my mother finally revealed. I didn’t know what a dope addict was, but in my little boy imagination, I thought them to be people who lived in the upper part of someone’s home. In years to come, I would not only understand but I would get to know them, personally. The images remained, but I moved on, and for nineteen years, they were no longer seen.
The Eye of Baltimore’s Needle
The phantasmagorical 80’s came to an end. I didn’t say good-bye. New York had changed dramatically. I had just returned from Africa and Europe to find that my beloved metropolis has been slipped a Micky and her once melodious song was now mumbles of venom. Heartbroken, I left her. At 25 years old I followed LOVE to Baltimore. Love fled to pursue dreams I never had, and I was alone in a place I didn’t understand or want to know. Baltimore was a new face. Her’s was a face of gloom, outside my Franklin Street office window.
PART TWO: The Conclusion, COMING SOON.