We’re in New York. On the Subway.
Aussies in the Big Apple.
As we draw nearer to our destination, more and more passengers exit the train to head home, or to wherever native New Yorkers go. I imagine they stay up late haunting well-worn cafes and classy clubs. Or perhaps they stay up late watching the Late Late Late Shows. Whatever they’re doing, I think they’re going to stay up late.
It was packed on here before, but now there’s only a few people sitting or standing quietly, staring straight ahead, staring through walls, not hearing the hum and squeak of the rattling train. We look, listen and observe, conspicuous through showing too much interest.
For the first time we feel like the odd ones out. Not odd as in the last kid picked for the team, or the only folk who don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, but truly, remarkably odd. For the first time ever, we’re the ones who are different. It’s exhilarating. Who knew it would feel like this?
The anticipation is reaching fever pitch, although I know many who would do their best to avoid this. There is a tinge of fear, and I enjoy the way it lingers.
We’re exhausted and hot. We would have been ready for home if not for this.
We step off the train once we reach our stop to feel the steamy warmth of pollution and sunshine on our arms and legs. Eyes squint against the brightness of the sky.
We have barely taken a few steps when a lady, glistening with sweat gives me a huge grin and asks, ‘Would you like me to braid your hair?’
I decline, as my hair’s quite greasy and disgusting today.
We walk down a busy street filled with shops and stalls and people and I absorb everything to the point of sensory overload. Can’t help noting how the atmosphere is different from anything I’ve ever experienced. People are walking, people are gathered on street corners rapping, people are hawking stuff. People are just being, but I sense they notice something different in their air. Or am I just flattering myself?
I approach a table set up on the ‘sidewalk’ where an older, stout man is selling bootleg CD’s.
‘You’ll like that one,’ he tells me. ‘It’s our most popular.’
I hand over five bucks for the gospel CD and receive a hearty, genuine ‘God Bless You.’
I feel like buying everything he’s selling, as he seems to embody the realness of this place. I hope this cheap CD will capture some remnants of what I’m seeing, feeling, smelling. Or at least, introduce me to some new music that will make me feel all spiritual and inspired, Harlem-style.
‘There’s Popeye’s!’ Pete says, careful not to point.
I look over to see the fast food outlet that specialises in two things: chicken and biscuits – biscuits being scone-like in texture and flavour. We go out on a limb and say that they’d love Popeye’s in Harlem.
We stop at the Mecca that is the Apollo Theater, spelled t-h-e-a-t-e-r. All I can think of is Ellen Cleghorn from Saturday Night Live playing the role of ‘laugh-till-you-collapse-black-lady-in-Apollo-Theater audience’. The Apollo is an institution.
‘We have to hurry – we don’t wanna be late tonight!’
Those words ring in my ear like tinnitus.
I don’t want to leave, I feel good being here. Maybe it’s the welcoming yet wary vibe in the air. Maybe it’s the thought that I am in a place that has soul, true soul. Nothing contrived.
I look up to see a double decker tourist bus full of white people with goggling eyes and bad outfits. I feel like throwing something at them. The bus seems to speed past like a large, red nervous vessel of ignorance.
I look past it to see that I like the billboard featuring Marvin Gaye advertising some sort of liquor. Gross commercialism, but on a different axis. Here, Marvin rules.
I am a little startled to see a girl staring right at me, yelling.
I turn into Paranoid White Girl and grab Pete’s sleeve. Oh My God, why did I come here?
All my romantic musings of being at one with Harlem crumble to dust.
Until I realise she’s on the phone abusing someone who is certainly not me.
‘You get on outta here then, get on outta my life, you Boojie boo!’ she shouts, long manicured nails rested on hips, sporting figure-hugging jeans and a coke bottle body.
As we walk more, I notice that African hair braiding is a roaring trade in Harlem. It seems that every second shop in this part of town offers it.
We meander down a quieter side street lined with trees and small apartments, reminiscent of what we’ve seen in The Cosby Show and Sesame Street – you know the kind of homes I’m talking about – small, narrow, with a big door and no yard – people sit on the ‘stoop’. I love the stoop.
I feel white and tacky taking so many photos but I can’t help myself.
With regret, we head back to the Subway. It’s time to leave Harlem. I wish it were Sunday morning so we could take our time and attend a church service. I can’t help wondering what I would wear to a Harlem church service.
I wistfully and silently say goodbye to this place and step onto the train, headed back towards Radio City. This out-of-the way jewel, gritty and unbridled, is about to disappear from our view. Like a portal into another world, it was found by us, and then lost.
We leave, and I check out the songs on my CD.
There’s Beyonce, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton. Mainstream stuff. I feel like the Bootleg Man who promised God’s blessings had me pegged wrong.
I don’t have a piece of Harlem in my hand but I have it deep in my white-bread soul. I just wish I’d gotten the braids.