Saturday afternoon in Harlem
I listen to The Best of Bill Withers on a rainy morning in San Francisco, which is not generally the type of atmosphere I associate with Mr. Bill Withers, legendary singer/songwriter. To me, The Best of Bill Withers is all about “Harlem” – the song of that title and the city of that name. West Harlem, in 1996, to be exact. Which is interesting, because although he wrote that infamous ballad to the capital of Black America, Bill Withers mostly lived in Los Angeles. But I don’t care. This artist is not L.A. sunshine and freeways, or, today, San Francisco mist in the morning. Bill Withers is Harlem, that legend filled with grandma’s hands, Saturday nights, lovers and players and junkies and humanity buzzing around in the sharp high hat snap that hits it every time. Harlem of my first New York summer.
The day I moved to Harlem, I took the Metro North train into the city from Yonkers, where I was crashing with friends who were in college up there. I got off at 125th Street, remembering that my new apartment was at that street and Broadway, and I soon realized I had a long walk across the entire width of Manhattan before I reached the West side from the station.
So I started walking. A 19-year-old white girl from a hippie town in California, a too-cool-for-school college dropout who’d lived in cities a bit already (SF, Boston) but had never really been in New York before. There I walked, lugging a duffel bag the size of myself down the Main Street of Harlem in 90 percent humidity on a Saturday afternoon in the first week of summer. It was bright out, and blurry. There were corner stores, streamers flapping from awnings, sidewalk sales bustling in every direction. There were the famously burned out buildings, which beneath the boards looked beautiful (or formerly so), and the famous Apollo Theater, and there were loud taxis and chugging buses and the hot exhaust breezes they blew on my hot red face as I lugged all my possessions down that hot, famous street.
And it was loud; the cars and the honks and the music crowding the stifled air around me. From every storefront speakers pointed at me, most playing HOT 97, New York’s hip-hop radio station, or blasting home-made, for-sale mix tapes of HOT 97-endorsed singles side by side with local un-signed emcees. It was May, 1996, and the soundtrack of New York City at that moment was the Fugees (“Fu La La La…”) and Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Biggie Smalls was alive and happening) and Lauryn Hill was hanging out with Nas singing about “If I Ruled the World.” This was the summer before Tupac was killed, and days before that guy from Sublime OD’ed, sending my roommate into a deep sadness I could never come around to. (I never really liked that band.) In addition to the music blaring down 125th street there was a chorus of voices, too, friendly and amused, the shouts of shopkeepers talking to one another, customers, kids, people sitting on folding chairs outside. These voices mingled with direct addresses to me from bystanders– “Hey white girl, what are you doing up here?” “Are you lost, shorty?” — in a mix that quickly became the daily background noise of my time spent living uptown.
But mostly there were people. I had never before seen people out and about in this way, when the combination of unbearable heat and East Coast in-your-face-ness combines to put everybody outside, just out, sitting or standing or talking or working or waiting for something to heat up or cool down. That summer-in-the-city feeling I grew to love, the unspoken knowledge that the rich and privileged have left town for cooler shores and all that’s left of the city is owned by whomever wants to come outside and be in it.
Living in Public
In New York, and in Harlem especially, there was a sense of public life I had not previously encountered. On these warm sticky days and nights, we all had transparent lives, whether we were standing outside or in hot apartments with all the windows opened wide to the passing city. We all listened to the same songs, heard the same neighbors’ drama, knew the same sound and vibration of the train rattling overhead every few minutes. This was and is still one of my favorite things about New York– everybody there (and especially the not-rich) lives in public. That’s why they always give you a paper bag even when you buy just a soda at the corner store, or something as small as gum, or cigarettes. Because in a city packed tight vertically and horizontally, privacy is a luxury. Most people just live our lives in view of everyone else. A paper bag with every purchase is the New York economy’s way of saying hey, here’s added luxury value to your day: no one can see what you’ve got in there. Come again soon.
Just weeks later I’d be walking down 125th street to the strains of “No Diggity,” the BLACKstreet song that samples Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” and features Dr. Dre and Queen Pen. And later that first day, after I reached the apartment, I would put my Bill Withers record on the portable record player/boombox combo my roommate imported from her previous year’s dorm room and blast “Harlem” while I unpacked. Because when you’re 19, music is that literal. So, even decades later, that summer remains “Harlem” – three girls, plus various paramours and friends, sharing a one bedroom apartment just below 125th Street. This was my first time living in public, outside, in the streets. This was 125th Street at the crest of a new wave of gentrification, and we were middle class college-age kids smoking weed and kissing friends in front of Grant’s Tomb at night, running out to the Bread Store to get short light & sweet coffees in the morning, walking down avenues in afternoons. Smoking cigarettes inside. And listening to Bill Withers.
I left Harlem after six months and two apartments; the short story was, I wanted to live downtown and in my own place. And I wanted, also, very much, though I wasn’t able to verbalize it at the time, to not be the white person who gentrified Harlem. Harlem is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world, and at the time I felt I didn’t want to be one of the people who ruined it. That’s not to say that it wasn’t already ruined by a variety of forces in many very real ways for a great many people who lived there and couldn’t just move on out whenever they wanted — Harlem was and is complicated. And of course gentrification, with all the loaded meanings that word unpacks, happened, and of course I was part of it, and I never felt quite right about that, but then of course no young white kid would say they did. But at the time I did the only thing I could think to do, and I stepped out (and into another rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, but that’s another story.)
I took my Bill Withers record with me, but the only song on it forever after that was “Harlem.”