Ghettos and Slums
Culture shock had Martha’s mouth jaw tense up from maintaining a pleasant smile on her face. Looking happy required extra muscle effort; perhaps akin to the model who sat for Mona Lisa.
Despite the wicked heat she kept her grip on his hand. They came to the north end of Morningside Park, where walls of brownstones could be seen just above the trees. The further they walked the more she noticed the park deteriorate before her eyes. She could gauge by how the children’s playground amenities had got worse and worse.
She knew Harlem was infamous for destitution, burned out cars, condemned buildings and graffiti. She wished she could go back home and hang out with Teresa.
On the streets above the park they walked along sidewalks marred by cigarette-butts, chewing gum, litter and burnt weeds growing, through broken cement cracks. They passed brownstones and walk-ups with chunky stoops and staircases. Harlem was a shock.
She tried to be okay with the devastation, juxtaposed against the glorious summer weather but her survival instinct told her, this would be kill or be killed. Panic had her scanning for a way out; an escape hatch, a teleportation device or a telephone booth, where she could turn into a flying superhero.
What if Curtis can’t protect you?
He was the only one she knew. What if he became annoyed with her ignorance or racist fears?
The simmering poverty accumulated the farther they went. She’d seen her share of dumps in Montreal but this was over the top. She saw boys having fun under a sprinkler hose, beside piled up stinking trash in the hot sun.
At 121st and 8th Avenue people sat around looking down, from windows and balconies.
How could they stand being inside, given the sweltering heat? After the park she only saw the deepest darkest skin color. She saw young, old, thin and destitute all unkempt with dark faces.
Oh my god, I’m the only white person!
Optics plagued her mind so it was all she focused on. What exactly was she afraid of? Skin color? She’d never been afraid of differences before. Hasidic Jewish men with ringlets; busy Asians in Chinatown, Middle Eastern, Indians or other visible minorities, living harmoniously in Montreal.
Her coping mechanism was to avoid eye contact, for fear they’d speak to her but she also couldn’t help but gawk. It was natural for humans to be amazed by each other.
Too many thoughts took the air out of her lungs and made her heartbeat vibrate in her ears.
They were surrounding her. How could everyone be black?
Martha felt vulnerable and physically weak. If anyone messed with her she would cave in. She was done.
The most horrifying thing was she couldn’t reveal anything to Curtis, so she was alone.
I’m terrified because your people are black and I am white.
Why was she so stupid? Her father might say after a couple of Canadian Club whiskeys, ‘Go to your jungle zoo!’
One false move and Curtis would be gone, leaving her eaten alive. Her need for him became survival.
She shivered in the heat and wished she could snap back to reality. Wisen up Martha!
The spell was broken by Curtis’ familiar voice, “Martha the apartment is coming up at 129th, just eight more blocks. You’re looking a bit peaked,” he said.
She gave him a weak smile and burst into tears. No one could hurt her with this man on her side. “I’m so sorry Curtis. It’s just so different here,” she sobbed uncontrollably.
He pulled her into his arms, choking back his own tears. “Baby, baby. I’m scared too. This ain’t home. We’re in this together and I got you,” he whispered.
They remained locked together until she began to laugh softly. She would never in her lifetime, feel more connected to a person.
“It’s what they call culture shock. If it’s any help, I have plenty culture shock myself! I’ve never seen such poverty, trash and druggies in my life. It seems we’ve passed the worst ghetto blocks. Do you feel better Martha?” he asked.
“Yes. Better thank you,” she inhaled and realized, she was breathless from heat stroke.
They reached a busy intersection at 125th and 7th. It bustled with street vendors, musicians, and fruit stands. It looked normal like Montreal. She breathed relief.
The lively street buskers and aroma of roasted chestnuts and other delicacies calmed her. She saw smiles and heard laughter, of people enjoying themselves.
Women and girls with colorful Caribbean style kaftans, braids, pigtails, Afros, ruby red lips, large and small. Men and boys in summer shorts: sandals, bald headed, some conked smooth or dyed red.
Throngs of people but her panic was gone. Harlem wasn’t so scary. She burst into fresh tears of relief and started to laugh at how madcap it was.
People on 125th Street looked at her out of curiosity. First at her then at Curtis and then her again. It’s fine. She would have stared too.
“Let’s get something to wet our whistle. Maybe a popsicle,” he pointed at a small supermarket across the street. Darling why don’t you wait in the shade. I’ll get us something cold,” Curtis said.
Leave me on the street?
“Of course, there’s a bench in the shade,” she pointed to a lady selling pineapples. He jay walked across and entered the shop.
She sat down.
Their love had to be strong. Society would tempt them to go ‘back to their own kind.’ Being biracial meant bucking up and fighting for their love. Nobody told her it would be this tough.
Curtis would need to be on guard. One false move might give ignorant folk cause to see him as a criminal. Upsetting a neighbor or making a shopkeeper suspicious of him could mean trouble. He could get held up in that very store and no one would know she was sitting on a bench waiting for him.
“Chile, those are pretty earrings, where did you get them?” a lady asked. She wore a bright yellow kaftan and purple headscarf piled high. She motioned Martha closer to her merchandise where other ladies browsed jewelry.
“Thank you, I…”
One girl poked at her sun hat with curiosity. Another woman honed in too close. Martha felt smothered until a deep voice cut through the ruckus. “Now what are you girls doing to this poor gal minding her own business,” a jovial gentleman said, seemed protective.
After the women left, Mr. Jovial changed his tune. His kindness was replaced with looking her up and down.
She crossed her arms over her breasts. What had she been thinking wearing a tight blue T-shirt. Where the hell was Curtis?
Another man stopped, “Hey Mackie who’s your friend?” he asked.
“Now you fellows run along, unless you are interested in these fine earrings for your momma,” the purple lady said.
Martha had seen this kind of smooth operator in Verdun, hanging around the hot dog place. Wait a second. It dawned on her that back home, she would have sassed this jerk right back. Why wasn’t she protecting herself? Men were pigs everywhere.
“Well Doug this little lady is clearly lost. I was just helping her out,” the man smiled at Martha, as he licked his lips.
“Don’t you worry about me. It’s broad daylight and I know exactly where I am. My man will be along soon,” Martha said, hoping her quivering voice wasn’t noticeable.
The men looked at each other, then at her.
It’s good to see a gal who knows where she’s at,” Dougie said, putting his spindly arm on her shoulder. He smelled of Irish Spring.
“Martha!” she heard Curtis calling, “That’s Dougie! Up to your old tricks, you son of a gun!” Curtis said, trotting toward them, from across the street.
“Hehe Curtis dawg, how long’s it been?” Dougie said.
So this was Dougie Barnes.
“You caught me. How’s I supposed to know your lady was so fine and light on the eyes,” Dougie said.
Martha was disappointed Curtis’ friend, was a shady character. She knew Harlem was going to change her. What was she going to do, if not follow her instincts?
God only gives you what you can handle!