Purple Magazine
— The New York issue #39 S/S 2023

Letter From Harlem


Normal is not coming back, my partner’s arm around me in the cold and dark says. A virus has given victory to the burkha. We will be masked. Public space is lethal not in new ways but in ways we thought were past. In histories of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the madness of the 1920s is viewed as a reaction to the slaughter of World War I, an expression of loss of faith in the idea of a rational society. As another cause for the wildness of the Roaring Twenties, the Spanish flu — the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919 — has been forgotten. We are always dancing on graves.

I had never known completely empty New York streets at seven in the morning, the senior citizens’ shopping hour at loathed but nearby Whole Foods. I’d never before hurled myself up the middle of deserted Lenox Avenue in face gear that resembled a gas mask. Never before had I worn plastic gloves to a grocer’s or washed the plastic packaging and the tin cans I brought into the house. I looked out my study window at the food distribution depot at the park’s edge run by the Army. That level of emotional lock- down could not be sustained. I put away Defoe and Pepys and Boccaccio. Camus’s novel isn’t even about the plague, not really. Bless Lorrie Moore for giving us stories to read, distant from the paranoia of medical calamity. And bless the poets who held the doors open in my head: “The sweet rain falls on the sea/Far from the land…”

The pandemic was the crowning crisis. It came after a few years of newspaper headlines that made me lunge forward on the door step and my head snap, like being in a car and the driver brakes suddenly, without warning. Everyday of Trump brought a fresh assault. There was no part of the body politic he did not molest, infect, contaminate, degrade. I put away Tom Paine and Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power and Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. There is no question that the Black Lives Matter protests were acts of resistance to the corruption in the American political system that the Trump administration amplified and exploited. The young masked demonstrators did not bring home Covid. They raised instead the question, “What’s next?”

It has been happening for a while; the United States is not like the country where I grew up and much more like the rest of the world. It was a vulgar thing to say at the time, but September 11, 2001, introduced to these shores the primitive terror of politics we associated with the distant elsewhere. 9/11 ended the unstated guarantee of US Americanism: it cannot happen here. Our political assassinations happened on the news, but not here. The violence against Americans happened in other neighborhoods, in prisons, in places we couldn’t see, but not in our here. I have never felt the exceptionalism said to escort some white Americans through life, but I did feel the exemption of being US American, even Black US American, in relation to the rest of the world. The protection of oceans on either side was a promise — from sea to shining sea — that modernity has made impossible to keep.

Meanwhile, the US midterm elections of 2022 resulted in a great sigh of relief. The political status quo withstood the fantasies of Trump and the candidates he endorsed and the Republican Party they hijacked. The US narrowly avoided political trauma. And Bolsonaro didn’t win, either. Save the Amazon, we remember from time to time, on a long list of planetary penances. O Great Barrier Reef that I will never see. O hero curator, no one will see your Palmyra now. Netanyahu hung on. I feel for the young here who have missed out on what my generation considers formative experiences. Freshman year, senior year, graduation, American pie. I stand at the front door. The street- lights blur in the winter dusk. I cannot make out faces. Shapes move by. Large historical forces are hunting down my small life.

The sound of traffic took getting used to. Even after New York City was declared safe, I still found it hard to go out. I could manage errands, quick raids into the pharmacy. My identification document was no longer asked for by security guards at Whole Foods. All ages were welcome at seven o’clock in the morning. To be among audiences in the evenings took getting used to, though proof of vaccination was demanded at the entrances. I could go to Carnegie Hall or the renovated Philharmonic Hall, sit in my mask, and then rush into a car afterward. What the heart had missed. To hear live music again. It took a long time to go to films again because proof of vaccination was not asked for. We go in the middle of the afternoon. The thin audience is scattered around the theater. The wonder of the big screen after two years on my laptop. What the heart had missed. The great moments came in seeing more and more friends. Eating together again. I took off my mask in restaurants. And yet nothing is the same.

I first came to New York to live in 1972. I was a student, and I had a big Afro, and white girls were reluctant to get into elevators with me, a Black stranger, and they were embarrassed for me to notice their apprehension. I ran around New York, indifferent to police, accustomed to scaring people, too stupid to notice racial slights and distasteful expressions. I was free. This was what New York was for. To free us from the rest of America. Fifty years later — 50 years? — and the freedom of my head, the freedom in my head, is gone. I looked into the mirror one day, and my social courage was nowhere to be seen. This is age. I now hear differently stories about random stab- bings of white girls by three Black youths in Morning side Park, a park made from the cliff of trees that separates Harlem from Columbia University on the heights above it. A guy walked into a Burger King and shot the girl behind the counter in the head. It was her last shift. A crazy guy pushed a woman into the path of a subway train. A crazy guy knocked a guy down the escalator in a subway station. Two people were shot in the doorway of a pharmacy over there; three bystanders were shot in a street fight back that way.

I have not taken the subway in New York since 2019. The Black mayor who does not have my vote has vowed to round up the homeless and the mentally ill, to make the streets untroubling to the consciences of the shoppers and the tourists and the office commuters that the city is desperate to have back. To me, it sounds like detention. See the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. No, thank you. I am not a tourist. I was gone from this city for more than 20 years. I have been back in this city for longer than I had expected to be. Now I want to leave again. The political status quo does not need me.

The center of the city, the heart of the action, has shifted. Brooklyn is jumping and so, too, lower Manhattan, and I have been around long enough to remember Dimes Square as the Fulton Fish Market. The city belongs to others now; the night is for a new generation to try and write its name on. What I seemed to have lost is the sense of exploration. I do not go out the door with an expectation of discovery. This is also because of age or my character or a new habit of isolation that I cannot get out of. The pandemic smothered the flaneur in me.



[Table of contents]

The New York issue #39 S/S 2023

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