December 15, 2013

45 Minutes in Spanish Harlem, Just after Midnight, 1986. ~ Lee Sears

One of my favorite holiday stories took place in Manhattan.

It was the day before I was to fly home to Atlanta to celebrate with family.

I was in my early 20s and had lived in the City for two months after having moved North (as my family and friends said, but especially my grandmother) from Hilton Head Island. Before moving I had written feature stories for the Hilton Head Island Packet, worked in the lingerie section of a local store to pay rent, and often “went out.”

The first thing I noticed about The North was how cold it was. In Hilton Head, all I needed was one light-weight coat to get me through December and January. By March, I was back to cotton and bathing suits. The second thing I noticed about The North was that shoes were a whole different ballgame—I spent the better part of those first months doing a careful study of shoes. I especially noticed the ones women wore to navigate walking 20 blocks in snow, ice and freezing rain.

Shoes in New York seemed to come from a different planet. Growing up, I’d go on ski vacations in Colorado, so you’d think the concept of shoes designed for weather wouldn’t be foreign to me. You would be dead wrong because on our ski vacations we rented places where we skied out the door. To me, snow was something you did just like going to the local ice rink. It was entertainment, not life.

If you are want to stick your tongue out at me because I sound spoiled, be happy to know that by my early 20s, my dad had lost all his money and I was near penniless. Though I had grown up surrounded by some degree of luxury and even though I still had all my friends from childhood who were still surrounded by luxury, my world had changed.

I say all this to demonstrate how close to the wire I lived at this time in my life so you understand the story. For example, I briefly lived in a Village studio apartment, and slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. At night I read myself to sleep under a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Also, there were no cell phones, personal computers, and far fewer ATMs. People had to plan ahead for things, which put me at a distinct disadvantage at times.

Anyway, that night before flying to Atlanta I prepared to leave my good friend Kathy’s condo on the Lower East Side, filled with warmth, capon glazed with citrus cherry sauce (prepared by Kathy’s husband, John) and some amount of wine. Kathy had known me since college, and  she said, “You know it’s past midnight, Lee, right?” I pushed back one of my new gloves and looked at my watch. “So it is,” I said.

Kathy zoomed over to an ornate bowl filled with an assortment of coins. She had a way of running then sliding across the parquet floors in her L.L. Bean wool socks when she wanted to get from one place to the other. After reaching in the bowl, Kathy took a few running steps and slid back to me. In no way do I mean to suggest she did this as a result of the wine.

“Here,” she said, out of breath. I looked down at my gloved palm to see a subway token. I realized that I, in fact, did not have any subway tokens with me. Somewhat predictably, I had no money in my wallet, just my bank card. I laughed. How did she know? We hugged, said happy, merry stuff. Then John appeared with a dish towel in his hand (what a guy) and we hugged. He said all the stuff about holidays and then I was on the Lexington Avenue line heading uptown. That was my first mistake.

My second mistake was to pull from my satchel the book I was reading, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Happily immersed in Brookner’s world, I only looked up when in my peripheral vision I registered bright flickering lights and felt the train accelerate more than usual.

I just love the internet. I now know that what I passed through in 1986 was a flying junction. But without knowing that then, I had only my bleary eyes to help me assess the situation. What I saw was a large underground room with a cathedral-like ceiling. This passageway was lit like a stadium and tiled in iconic white subway tiles. Had the tiles not been covered in murals of graffiti and the obligatory four-letter words, I think the glare would have been blinding.

It was clear I’d missed my stop because I had never seen graffiti like this in the subway before, believe it or not. My residence then was a step up from the Village studio. I now lived in Columbia student housing. Thanks to Thomas from Switzerland (friend of Kathy), I sublet a large room in a very large apartment near West 116th Street. Parenthetically, it was Thomas who introduced me to Monsieur Hulot.

However, I’d never seen this underground room with the graffiti before. The train was going so fast now it felt as though the wheels left the rails. I clutched my book and bag and looked at the subway map. It still didn’t register that I was on the wrong train. I did know that I was heading for 125th Street. No big deal, I thought. I would simply get off and board a train going downtown. So when the train stopped, I got off.

What I hadn’t considered was the hour; all the subway tellers were gone. A policeman with a billy club stood by the stairway. I asked him how to get to the opposite side. Across the rails I saw one or two people waiting for the downtown train. He eyed me then pointed up. So, I climbed the stairs. As it turned out, up only went one place: the sidewalk.

I crossed the street, determined to make the next train. I ran down the stairs and reached the turnstile, where a police woman stood. I searched my pockets, flipped my wallet inside out but didn’t have another token. I looked over at the booth where you’d normally exchange money for tokens but the shade was drawn and the windows were barred.

I approached the police woman. She looked at me the way you’d look at an approaching rabid hamster. You know, like, “She’s only five foot two. I could clearly take her down, but why does she persist in walking toward me?”

“Excuse me,” I said, “I missed my stop and need to get back on this train.” The police woman drilled holes through me with her eyes. I realized she needed more. I cleared my throat, “I only had one token and need to buy another.”

“Subway’s closed,” she said then stared straight ahead. I guessed she meant the tellers were closed. Undaunted, I continued, “How can I get back on?” She stopped staring straight ahead and looked at me again. After a moment she said, “You can’t.”

I headed back up to the street. Although not thrilled to walk 10 blocks in the cold, I resigned myself to doing exactly that. When I got to the top I looked around for the first time to get the lay of the land. What I saw did not resemble anything else I had seen in my short stay in New York City. What I saw was a long street lit in an orange glow. Most of the windows were dark. All the doors and windows were barred on the outside. These were not wrought iron ornamental things like, say, the protective window features on the Upper East Side. These were steel bars permanently embedded in cement from window-top to window-bottom. I am aware this sounds like complete fantasy or wine-talk, but I swear to you that a tumbleweed rolled by in a blast of winter air as I contemplated the mostly-deserted street.

Down the block, maybe a couple hundred yards, I saw a fan of yellow light emanating from a doorway. Outside, two men talked to each other. Beginning to be a little bit wary, I headed toward the yellow light because I knew I needed to get directions. Why I didn’t think to ask the police woman, I am not sure.

As I got nearer to the men, the smell of fried chicken surrounded me, like heaven. A fool for anything fried, I began to relax again. Also, I could hear the sound of other voices inside the doorway. When I got to the door the men had disappeared. Inside was a small and crowded room lined by booths. A line of approximately five people deep had formed in front of the woman taking orders behind the counter. The counter itself was protected by a wall of thick glass or plastic covered in steel bars. The woman poked her head out of a small opening to hear each order.

I walked inside and realized for the first time (I know, this seems a bit slow), that I was the only white person in the place. In fact, I was the only white person on the street outside and in the subway station. For the first time since getting off the train, I felt acutely self-conscious. Feeling this way, I stood in line and waited. And waited.

In a booth to my left, a pack of kids aged eight to eleven(ish) told jokes, blew paper off the ends of straws, and ate each other’s French Fries. Standing next to them for so long, I began to smile at their goofy, kid behavior. For comfort, I settled into their kid energy. If kids this age were out at this hour in this neighborhood where people seemed to feel the need to barricade themselves, I did not need to worry.

At some point, I heard one of the boys say, “Well, she’s white.” I am unsure how this fit into their conversation. After he said it I looked at him and they all looked at me. Then we all laughed.

“Why are you here?” a girl asked. “I need directions to walk home,” I said. “Where do you live?” another kid said. “Off 116th Street, by Columbia.” The kids looked at each other. The girl who’d asked me why I was there said, “That’s not near here. Can’t you take the subway?” It was then that I explained the token predicament.

The kids whispered among themselves. The boy who’d first identified me as white said, “I know how to get to 116th Street.”

“Great! Show me,” I said, and I walked, with the group of kids all around me, to the sidewalk. His breath turning to wisps of smoke in the freezing air, the boy pointed down a dark street that looked more like an alley. “You go down there,” he said. But the girl who’d piped up before said, “Are you crazy? She can’t walk that way. She’ll get killed.” The boy shook his head, “No she won’t. Just go that way for a while and then you’ll see it.” He pointed to the alley and looked back at me.

I smiled at all of them. “Thank you,” I said, and began to cross the street to get to the dark alley. Then I felt a tug on my elbow. I looked down to find the girl standing there. She looked up at me, took my gloved hand and stuck her fist in my palm. When she removed her hand, I was holding a golden token.

“I don’t want you to get killed,” she said.

Honestly, I don’t remember how I replied. I must have said thank you. In hindsight, which seems so thin now—and probably at the time, too—may be why I don’t remember. What I do remember is that the group of kids, moving like a litter of warm puppies with scarves, escorted me to the top of the stairs to the southbound train and we all waved goodbye.

Shortly thereafter, Thomas opened the door to his gigantic apartment and I went inside.

I can’t remember the girl’s facial features.

I do remember her beautiful, clear eyes and the feeling of her soft tug on my arm.


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Assistant Editor: Rheba Estante/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Ivailo Dochkov: NYC City Hall Park in Winter via Wikimedia Commons; Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons.

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