The first time Curtis brought Martha to Harlem it was 1962, during one of New York City’s famous heat waves. At a whopping 96 degrees he didn’t think the temperature could get any hotter in Yankee country. He was set out to pick her up at Penn Station on 31st Street between 8th and 9th at noon. The plan was they would apply for a marriage license, settle into the apartment his pal Dougie Barnes helped them find and be married within a few days.
At the station entrance, he marveled at the vaulted ceiling adorned with steel and glass. The arches resembled an umbrella mosaic of colorful light, that streamed down from its dome like veins. Such an outstanding masterpiece of Beaux-Arts style and an architectural jewel of Manhattan. The fact Penn station would be demolished in less than two years was akin to a Greek tragedy.
Curtis held a single red rose as he watched for Martha at the busy arrivals gate. He stood over six feet with a solid torso and tough demeanor. He’d always been active working the family farm in Georgia, then a master of menial tasks aboard the SS Valley Forge.
He hadn’t seen Martha since the day he helped her retrieve her belongings and take them to Teresa’s place. A frightful thought crossed his mind. He pondered telling her gently they should forget the whole thing, as soon as she arrived. Not because his heart didn’t want her but practicality and feasibility. What the hell was he doing messing around with a white Canadian woman?
His cold feet eased up, as travelers flooded in through arrivals with luggage and parcels in hand. He was eager to see her on U.S. soil without her family drama to worry about. If it was going to work, they needed a blank slate to build a future and New York would be neutral ground, for them to start.
He tried to spot her amongst the passenger heads and hats bobbing down the gangway. Behind a woman in a wide brimmed hat scolding a pair of teenaged sons, Martha Regan popped out of the darkened passageway and into view.
The raven-haired beauty, looked a bit frazzled but was the vision of an angel nonetheless. She wore a light pink skirt and white blouse. She tugged at a heavy worn-out red plaid case on caster wheels.
She looked from left to right, up and down the grand hall until her eyes landed squarely on his. When she smiled in his direction, the doubt he’d had pre-arrival washed away. Penn station was the exact place, she was supposed to be.
“Oh Curtis look at this place. I’ve never seen such a beast. I watched the skyscrapers get bigger and bigger, until we passed into the tunnel. It’s a wonder how the trains go underneath all this,” she halted her rolling valise and jumped into his arms.
“Welcome to New Yawk baby,” he said, attempting a native accent. He couldn’t believe he was saying New York out loud. How dare he even be here? All he knew of the world so far was his stint on the Navy ship. Farming seemed like ages ago.
He took over her luggage.
“It’s like a house for gods,” she pointed to a stone angel looking down at them from above.
“Don’t say it too loud but folks are sore, this place is set for demolishment and replaced by a shiny new arena called Madison Square. I guess it’ll be a venue for Mohammed Ali,” he said.
“I can’t believe you’re right here in front of me. It’s time for our lives to begin. Free at last,” Curtis said.
He hugged her again. She was boiling. “Damn woman. You’re hotter than Savannah. You got any lighter clothes to wear in there?” he pointed to her suitcase. “This here’s a record heat wave.”
“You nearly squeezed the perspiration out of me!” she laughed. “I wore this outfit for you Curtis. Do you like it?” she looked up at him.
“I sure do,” he nodded and smiled.
“Great! Now that you’ve seen it, let me find somewhere to change,” she asked.
She emerged from the ladies room in a white tennis skirt and light blue t-shirt, sunhat and ponytail dangling. She carried her large bag with one arm with determination on her face.
He felt he’d known her all his life and was impressed by her gumption to leave her home.
“From the sounds of what you told me over the phone, we’ve got many tasks to accomplish today. I hope you won’t miss your army barracks too much,” she said.
“Naw, I’ve been counting the days to get out of there,” he said.
“I’m no princess. That’s why I changed my clothes. Let’s get a move on!” she laughed, curling her arm under his as they walked.
“We’ve got to get up to Harlem, to the flat I arranged for us. After our marriage license I’ll introduce you to Dougie and get the keys before he goes. He plays sax at the Lenox Lounge, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday have played there,” Curtis said.
Curtis tried to play cool but he could barely hide how awestruck he was, at navigating through New York. The sun and sky was challenged by skyscrapers, piercing so high into them, he strained his neck if he looked too high. The enormity of the city was a giant organism, operating all around them.
He walked proudly guiding them through the streets. His confidence, must have exuded from him as they were granted a marriage license without as much as a blink. Perhaps they looked so smitten and hopeful. Curtis felt like a proud rooster.
“My God Curtis, you mean it’s true? New York recognized our love! Who would believe it back home!” she hugged and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Yeah baby! Once you’ve made it here, you’ve made it anywhere. Come on let’s go. We’ve got to pick up a parcel and then get to Harlem, before Dougie gives our place to someone else,” he said.
Dougie was a friend of a friend of a second cousin from Atlanta, who knew the ropes in the North. He’d promised Curtis four walls, a toilet and a kitchen instead of the usual bunk at Navy headquarters at the port authority base.
After the subway to city hall near Chinatown, they zigzagged their way through scores of business men, hippies and beggars with guitars. Through the underground across City Hall Park, the busy weekday hustle was in full swing.
Curtis led them through the underground, so they could take the C train uptown. He saw the odd look of concern on commuter faces, perhaps wondering if this white girl was being held captive. Then he looked at how happy she looked, hanging off his arm and extinguished the thought.