Saturday, January 29, 2011

Harlem Moments

No pictures.

I was walking down 125th one year headed to Sylvia’s – off this beaten path.

Randomly I stopped to gauge where I was, a little disoriented. As a photographer, I’m use to wandering aimless. Never needed to get “directions.” Just feel the flow to find the photo.

125th had gotten bigger since last time. Lenox Lounge, smaller. I still imagined Billie Holliday’s ghost sitting by the window.

In new New Harlem, Magic (Johnson) had worked magic on 125th. Bill Clinton's office lit it up and Nelson Mandela would walk its path...walking off this beaten path to where two Presidents would eat.

The Apollo was still flickering blocks away but looking down the street, up the street, and across the street, I wondered where I was. Suddenly I turned around and two rows of women sitting in a window display were looking at me, laughing. Definitely not mannequins. We were on two sides of an Ed Hopper painting.

Whoa, my eyes opened in shock. They looked like a choir but were waiting for a haircut. Reflexively, I made a paper sign and pressed it against their window: “Sylvia’s?”

In unison, they pointed to my right like gospel on 125th. Only in New York.

On this day, I met Alicia Keys in Harlem.

* * *
How, you say, does one meet Alicia Keys? I finished having my okra gumbo, collards and smothered chicken at Sylvia’s with Sylvia actually there. She was once there everyday since 1962. She won’t let you leave until you have the look of yummy.

Feeling yummy, I walked outside where a beautiful woman was stopped by some porch-sitting men who asked, “how’s the record coming along, Alicia.”

At the time, I didn’t know Alicia Keys too well or what she even looked like. This woman named Alicia looked so excited that I looked her up later and found out her last name was Keys.

Keys on the keys:

Something I posted earlier with this link:

“Often I see people in their finest moments. If I were to really describe the Empire State of Mind, it’s how she talks before this song. That humility that makes one soar and roar in a genuine way. When I go to New York, I see skyscrapers and people like this.

I’ll never forget when Alicia spoke to us randomly in Harlem about her new record. She wasn’t sure where it was going to go, but she was happy – expressing it to strangers. Grateful strangers would listen. That record was later called No One which I saw her sing at Giants Stadium (Live Earth) pre-release. It became most played US radio song in 2008. And Top 10 still in 2009. Alicia spoke to us in Harlem like this.”

Like an Empire State of Mind

...Some will sleep tonight with a hunger for more than an empty fridge

Sylvia’s food gave me soul, but when Alicia spoke, I was suddenly flying with angels. The Harlem subway mosaic has Harlem’s historical heroes flying. It reminds me of magic realism in Colombia. When you see a hero, you feel like you're flying.

When I descended into the subway, a beautiful woman asked me if the train arriving was “local or express.” The only thing that stumps me in New York - but it's how you end up in Harlem (and back).

How this day happened I don’t know. Harlem spirits, I think. Have seen it before, that divine inspiration that creates magic.

After decades of subway riding in NY, I still can’t tell if a train is local or express. I just hop on. And it’s true I’ve fallen asleep on a Brooklyn train and ended up alone on Coney Island. Or been on a Manhattan express ending up in Washington Heights. Or a Bronx train past Yankee Stadium to subway stops I’ve never been.

It gets me to places I never visit. I still remember the story of the Bronx Zoo this 16 year old told me – she said it with such verve at 2am. I was almost transported there. We dream a lot on subway rides. We are Mole People thinking of what surface dwellers are doing.

And make no mistake when trains go north in Manhattan or further north – some things never change. You start to meet more people who actually grew up in New York.

* * *
Langston Hughes once wrote:

The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you---
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me---we two---you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me---who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records---Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white---
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me---
although you're older---and white---
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.


“Langston Hughes belongs to whoever is listening. A possession in common, like the sights and sounds of a streetcorner hangout, or the barbershop debate…open your ears and your heart if you've got one, Langston will walk right in and do the rest. His thoughts come naked, conceived in the open, only at home in the public domain. Free, without charge, like water, like air--like salted peanuts at a Harlem rent party. Come in, have one on me--that's Langston's style; a great host; a perfect bartender; dishing it up, iambic pentameter, on the rocks and on the house, fresh wrote this morning. Dead now, but still alive. Ol' Langston in the corners of my mind." --Ossie Davis.
* * *
Sometimes I hear his voice in my head. Not any words…just the music. It allows me to create new words.

Here are some photos of Harlem. You can find Sylvia’s without being guided by an Angel of Harlem:

I once sang Angel of Harlem to my kid at Christmas and she would dance with a blue blanket as her wings throughout our bare apartment filling it with spirit. We had nothing but a nutcracker, a little Christmas tree lit up and blankets. We were just about to move out.

* * *

I had seen words on walls, phrases uniquely Harlem. The lines contained rhythm, each fighting the power of oppression.

Harlem anecdotes.

Harlem was originally the Dutch village New Haarlem in 1658, named after Haarlem, Netherlands. There was once a Finnish Harlem, Jewish Harlem, Irish Harlem and Italian Harlem (every street, a different Italian region). Al Pacino is from Harlem. Moby was born on 9/11 in Harlem named after his great grand uncle Herman Melville's book. Melville died a pauper in New York. F Scott Fitzgerald (Great Gatsby) lived in Harlem. So did George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Norman Rockwell, Harry Houdini, Arthur Miller, John Audobon and Scott Joplin.

Harlem became a place where Afro-Americans could own property and businesses during the Harlem Renaissance (1920s, 1930s). Afro-Americans had arrived in Harlem en masse in 1904 (rent-related), and during the Great Migration (when racism caused 2 million Afro-Americans to move). Harlem's Afro-American population peaked in 1950, later slowed down by New York's de-industrialization.

During the Harlem Renaissance residents included Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Countee Cullen (cool writer), W. E. B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Mayor La Guardia, Joe Louis, Al Pacino (born 1940), Adam Clayton Powell Sr, and Fats Waller.

After WWII, Harlem residents included: Harry Belafonte, Chevy Chase, Sammy Davis, Jr, Erik Estrada, Ben E. King, Malcolm X, Judge Thurgood Marshall, Moby, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Rollins, J. D. Salinger, Nina Simone and Dinah Washington.

More recently, Harlem residents have included Tupac Shakur, Puff Daddy, James Baldwin, Billy Dee Williams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maya Angelou, S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order), and Angela Bassett
    Alicia Keys was born in Harlem...Alicia Augello Cook in early 1981.

    At the Apollo, they gave a tribute to James Brown and here, Michael Jackson:

    Ed - In April, 2011, I met a singer who lived by the Bronx Zoo who asked me if i knew about Mole People.

    No comments: