Harlem on My Mind

by

01/30/2004

W 114th St & Manhattan Ave, New York, NY 10026

Neighborhood: Harlem

Melting orange popsicles, dripping ice cream cones, slushy cherry ices and candy all day long–all reminders of lazy summer days spent growing up in Harlem. A day that began for me not long after dawn. Peering out of my living room window, I see that the Harlem world is just beginning to stir, but I am wide awake and bursting with anticipation. In the early morning hours, before the tenements are emptied of people leaving for work, gray brick buildings with black iron fire escapes affixed onto them are flooded in yellow sunlight. In the glare of Harlem sunlit mornings, unswept trash, debris, and broken glass take on a bright hue. It is 1968, and looking down onto the street and at boarded up buildings and garbage strewn lots, I do not yet know I am poor and that the neighborhood that brings me so much joy is called a ghetto.

Every summer, at both ends of our block, a police horse was placed along with a metal sign on a pole welded to a block of cement that read, “Play Street Do Not Enter.” This barricade was erected each morning and remained until dusk. The absence of parked cars and threatening traffic made playing in the street an unimaginable thrill, if only because at other times it was off limits. I remember how fear about the dangers of the street was instilled in us. I recall a few times that I pushed through a crowd to peer upon some kid who had been hit by a car. The consequences for stepping off of the curb without approval or supervision was immediate and severe. “Look both ways before crossing. And make sure the light is green,” was the stern warning issued by mother to me and my sister before we headed out to school or to the store. One day I did not heed that warning and when I was nearly run over I was more afraid of my mother finding out than about any injuries I might have sustained. But during the summer, the perilous and hazardous street was transformed into a spacious play area with ample room for riding scooters, roller skating, playing hopscotch, shooting skully, throwing balls, and jumping rope. This was the world my mother entrusted me and my sister to when she went off to work each morning.

Browning all day in the summer sun, my friends and I would enter the dim cavern of our four-story walk-up only to use the bathroom. When done, we would stop long enough to put our mouths under the kitchen sink faucet for a cool drink. Taking time to fill the metallic blue, purple, green or yellow tumblers left out just for our use would keep us indoors longer than we could bear. “The last one down is a monkey’s uncle,” someone would yell, and we would race down the stairs laughing and pushing each other as we tumbled back out into the sunlight. Hot and muggy Harlem apartments could not contain our energy. Ours was a four-room railroad flat. Even with all of the windows open, and two giant floor fans, the air, floors, walls and ceiling, pressed down on us. It was only outside under the blue cottony sky that we felt free.

We never ventured far from in front of our building and rarely if ever off of the block. To the candy store on the corner was about as far as we would go. We congregated on or in front of our stoop, where we were always under the watchful eyes of Old Lady Reed. Hers was a permanent figure in the second floor window above us. Old Lady Reed with her eagle eyes and telling lips could cause us a heap of problems. It was she who told our mother how often we were in and out of our apartment and with whom. She would also inform our mother if we had been jumping rope or playing ball in the apartment, both of which were strictly prohibited. Old Lady Reed’s omnipresence presence gave us a sense of security though. Whenever we needed bandaging, protection, or scolding, she was there. And she was also good for a nickel or dime every now and then when we went to the store for her. Our mother always told us not to accept money for running errands for our elderly neighbors, but we took it anyway and crossed our fingers that we would not be found out.

Mrs. Johnson who lived on the first floor of our building was the total opposite of Old Lady Reed. Mrs. Johnson would not be seen or heard for days on end. The neighbors would start wondering if perhaps she had died in her apartment. Mrs. Johnson kept her blinds drawn tight and rarely left her apartment. As a pastime the kids on our block took pleasure in knocking on her door and scurrying away when we heard her call out in a cackling voice, “You chil’ren better get away from my door.” The chances of our getting in trouble was close to null because Mrs. Johnson did not talk to anyone and never opened her door for anyone.

Old Lady Reed, on the other hand, could tell from the sound of footsteps who was coming into or leaving the building. If she doubted her accuracy, she would not hesitate to crack open her door and peep her head out. It was Old Lady Reed’s telling on us that mostly caused me and my sister to be in hot water. As soon as she heard the click clack of our mothers heels, Old Lady Reed came out into the hallway and blocked our mother’s passing until she told her all the mischief we had gotten into that day. “Good evening, Miss Howard,” she’d start off. “Those girls of yours were keepin’ up such a wracked upstairs today.” And she did not stop there. “And you know they disappeared from in front of the building for almost a whole hour. I have no idea where they went off to.”

If our mother entered our apartment with tightly drawn lips, we knew Old Lady Reed had intercepted her in the hallway. We were prepared for this betrayal. In the hour before our mother’s regular arrival time home, we washed all the dishes, swept the entire apartment, placed out soiled clothes in the hamper, and put away all of our playthings. There was nothing more pleasing to our mother than a clean apartment and nothing more disconcerting than an unkempt one. “Hi, Mommy!” we would yell in unison when we heard her key turn in the lock. We would hold our breath until her mouth relaxed into a smile. Without saying a word, she would reach into the brown paper grocery bag she had just placed on the kitchen table and pull out a pack of Hostess Cupcakes for me and a pack of Hostess Twinkies for my sister. “Now, don’t open those until after dinner,” she says. My sister and I dance and spin around the kitchen pressing our unopened treats to our cheeks. How wonderful life is, we are both thinking.

Later that night after our baths and when Annette Funicello finishes singing M-I-C (See you real soon.) K-E-Y (Why? Because we love you.) M-O-U-S-E on television, we know it’s time for bed, even though it’s still light outside. Our mother stops putting plastic pink andbrown curlers in her hair long enough to receive a hug from each of us. In the dark, my sister and I go over all theevents of the day. “You girls better go to sleep,” our mother yells out from the living room, where she sits in her cotton flowered housecoat watching Perry Mason. We lower our voices to a whisper and continue talking. We never fall asleep until we have carefully plotted out our adventures for the following day.

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