125th and 7th
125th and 7th
Martha squinted at herself in the mirror above the kitchen sink as she slowly took tiny rollers, out of her hair one by one. She had chosen the smallest rollers from the drug store in Penn Station.
Curtis had gone out to his Navy base. She dilly-dallied lazily in bed not knowing what to do. Was she supposed to go outside on her own? The one-room apartment was sweltering.
She pulled the last roller out with one hand and grabbed a towel from the refrigerator door handle, with the other. With an urgent two-handed rustle she shook her newly permed ‘afro’ free. Voila!
She tied a pink and blue paisley scarf around her head and checked herself in the front mirror. She was pleased. Very current. Age of Aquarius, circa 1960! Maybe she’d find some orange hoop earrings, to go with her yellow dress. She’d joked to Curtis that when they got to Harlem, she’d get “a godamned afro and rub brown shoe polish all over her face,” to stop people from staring, knowing full well how racist it was.
“People! Haven’t you ever seen a gorgeous mixed couple before?” Clearly they hadn’t. Strangers ogled them for their exotic mystique and perhaps they’d never witnessed, true love in the flesh before. All she knew was they didn’t stop staring!
She needed the incognito cover, to muster the courage to leave the apartment, hence the tight-curled hairstyle. She had a summer caramel glow, so hoped she looked dark. She threw on sunglasses and hummed Sinatra’s Stormy Weather back at the mirror.
Ever since she laid eyes on Curtis at Brandy’s cocktail lounge, she knew it was destiny. His elegant white uniform and consoling eyes, had been irresistible. At first, the race difference had been admittedly erotic and she could stick it to Daddy, who’d made her life a hell! If padlocked chastity belts were sold at the hardware, she would have been forced to wear one.
Mother was no help. The more Dot drank, the less inclined she was to advocate on Martha’s behalf. Mother became a jukebox of repeated anecdotes and warnings
Never trust a man in uniform!
Fantasy is the most dangerous kind of escape.
Your heart was always too soon made glad.
Martha swatted negative thoughts away and replaced them with marrying Curtis. That’s when real life could begin for them and they would find better accommodation. Curtis thought she would have been more upset, by the state of the apartment but she’d seen her share of dumps back home.
In the main room was a bed with its brown quilt, yellowed to beige by the sun, a scratched up armoire with faulty door hinges and a lamp with a naked bulb sans shade. Peeled paint and a dried rust stains on the wall, looked like a tattoo artist had inked a spiders web, all the way to rotten linoleum.
With nervous procrastination she stood, peering from the window down onto the lawn. She hoped there was a cool breeze. She saw a frail balding woman in a floral print dress sitting, in her wheelchair smoking. She sat awkward and twisted as if her limbs were misaligned. Next to her on guard was a large dark poodle, with a blasé sense of entitlement written on his face. Martha thought the dogs purple vest with its Red Cross emblem screamed, “Don’t touch me I’m working!”
Okay dog let’s do this.
She got the nerve to venture out alone.
Martha wheeled a rickety metal shopping cart, through the dank sulfur-stench of the ground floor. She opened a large steel door which must have sent sneaky rodents, scampering away by the sound of their little toe nails on the concrete. The bastards are quick here!
Her cart clanked along behind her as she walked.
She passed a woman lacking a few front teeth, minding toddlers playing marbles on the damp floor, “Girl what’s going on with you?” she said staring, “You some kind of ’spic or something? You got any money to help a gal out?” she asked.
Nodding no, Martha wondered what a ’spic was.
Outside was humid and must’ve been what tropical felt like. She adjusted her satin scarf and smoothed down her dress hem. The apartments were towering plus signs, that rose up into clear blue sky. She would send a postcard to Teresa, describing her new modern sleek Manhattan high-rise, which was impressive compared to some of the tenement dumps in Verdun.
She walked to 129th towards Lenox Avenue, passing three black boys frolicking under a garden hose, reminding her of the joyous effervescence of youth. Curtis had gone into a small grocery on their arrival, so she set it as her target destination. We must have goals.
She thought of the catalyst that got her to New York and her younger brother, Russell still stuck there. Daddy’s boozing was epic but it worsened, when Mother caught up, outshining him with her cursing dementia and self-absorption. She could hear her mother’s voice, “Your father was too good to them. He let them all in the house. I always knew you’s kids were ungrateful cunts!”
Thanks for letting me know in advance Mumzie!
Her mother had sealed Martha’s decision to leave and accept, Curtis’ marriage proposal. Then the Amtrak train to Penn Station brought her to the most famous city in the world. It would be her history but right now it was her terrifying present.
She was still sickened thinking how Russell, must’ve taken a severe beating trying to protect her. Martha you don’t need to protect Russell anymore.
She’d grown up in a rough area at home but it was familiar, people staring at her wasn’t. Was it her ravishing beauty and style? Or was it her inauthentic farcical afro-styled hairdo. Did homage miss the mark and verge into blackface racism? All she ever wanted was to fit in.
Martha it’s just paranoia. Put one foot in front of the other.
As she got farther away, her senses heightened. She kept looking back to make sure the St. Nick towers were still there. Two good things about her solo trek so far were visibility of the St. Nick and the fact New York streets were a numbered grid. The sheer number of people was new to her. Five people waiting at a bus stop at home, looked like fifteen in Harlem.
At Lenox she looked south toward lower Manhattan. She thought the grocery store was down that way, so crossed onto the Malcolm X side. It was the epicenter of Harlem’s hustle and bustle. Intense heat mirages emanated, off sweaty asphalt making things ripple in slow motion.
Chaos sparked at the pedestrian crosswalk with crowds six people deep, crossing both directions all at once. She blindly followed the person in front of her, so didn’t at first see the skeletal figure slumped over the sidewalk subway grate at her feet.
Martha was awestruck but couldn’t look away from the shriveled woman’s creased forehead and sweat-sheened face. She had never before seen a person looking so close to death, perhaps kept alive by the cool air blasts coming out of the subway grate.
“Jay-sus!” Martha shrieked. She coughed and gasped all at once. Her jaw jerked away as if unseen forces, shielded her from anymore horror. She was numb all over. Her body sank as if molten lead had pulled her down. She felt as if she were on that grate.
Martha you drama queen.
She felt as if invisible King Kong had gently cupped her in his palm, lifted her out of the intersection and set her down safely, beneath the ivory spire of a red church. She felt his giant hand around her waist like cedar bushes wrapped in winter burlap. Martha burst out crying, pitying the woman Yet, she was relieved and grateful to be away from the crowd. Talk about a hell on earth.
Shell-shocked, Martha got herself up and pressed on to the Green Garden Deli at 128th. With her heart rate stabilized she pushed her cart down one aisle and up the other intrigued, by the different brands. She snuck peaks into other passing buggies, to see what women bought for groceries. She selected canned peas and corn, catsup, kidney beans, macaroni and potato chips among other ingredients. She welcomed the normalcy of women with lists in hand shopping for dinner fixings.
With the grocery mission accomplished she walked two blocks south. Martha’s attention was caught by Sylvia’s Soul Food purple signage, the large steel gray stonework stood out.
Curtis had said food there reminded him of his youth. She stopped in for a coffee and perhaps get something sweet for him.
A man in a tan safari suit, overdressed for the heat moved from table to table wearily asking for change, “I’ve been trying really hard to get into the city program. I haven’t seen my girls in two years. Please help me,” he said, his voice sincere.
Her opinion was he hadn’t always been a beggar. His motivation was hunger and desperation instead of dollars, for booze or narcotics. She watched as he was repeatedly declined. Were the clientele onto his scheme? For all she knew he made a decent living with his earnest voice and engaging story. She averted eye contact when he looked over but her fingers twitched toward her change purse.
A well-dressed woman entered in a red dress and large sun hat, the brim shading her face. Her elegant wrist dipped and dove as she pointed out items to order, in the glass display case.
The safari suited man saw her too. Martha was relieved he hadn’t gotten to her change purse. He made his move on the woman, “Would you be so kind as to get me some macaroni?” he asked, in a whisper. His eyes trained on the delights behind the display glass.
Martha anticipated a negative reaction from patrons lined up behind the woman but without fanfare or a pause in her order, she said, “Sure sweetie,” as if this happens every day.
“Thank you kindly,” he humbly bowed to her.
The lady paid for both orders and sashayed out the door like a fashion model. Martha admired her poise.
The din of conversation and clinking silverware made for a peaceful soundtrack. Her world was starting to make sense. In a big overwhelming city there were angels, taking care of things.
She headed to 7th along 126th, toward home toting the wheelie cart with the newly purchased peach cobbler teetering on top. Feeling changed by the solo outing she wept joyous tears behind her sunglasses.
She had fallen for the same fearful exaggerations of ’poor inner city black folk, the she despised hearing from others back home. This wasn’t any different.
In Montreal she was in the majority, while in Harlem she wasn’t. The more of them there were, the more dangerous it was for us! Her mind was foggy with the concept but she knew there was something important in there. Yes, but Martha girl, you could have raped and left for dead! Martha giggled thinking how judgmental her parents were, except with drinks in their bellies. Her mind was elsewhere until noticing the sound of shoe treads beside her.
“Hey pretty lady,” a man said. His voice was amiable as if they’d been old classmates, “let me help you out with that cart...” he was well-spoken and gallant.
Straight home now, Martha. How many times do I gotta tell you, No dilly-dallying!
She stopped and turned to face him. He was tall and slender in pajama bottoms and a white tank top, so overstretched it looped low revealing far too much of his bare concaved chest, armpits and spindle-arms. She was more horrified by his outfit than her safety.
His eyes willfully locked onto hers. She recognized the power was in his abrupt ability, to catch her off guard.
Alright listen buddy, I’m a naïve Canadian gal conducting an undercover experiment, to see if I can pass for black in Harlem without getting robbed! Go ahead, rob me now! Honesty felt so good in her mind but instead she wondered what the fancy lady would have done. “Thanks darlin,’ I might’ve taken you up on that offer but I’ve got just the right balance here!” Martha said, nodding at her cart.
Her heart skipped a beat sensing this the moment control would be taken from her, “I’m perfectly fine. You’d be amazed how much I can tote in this thing. These rubber wheels are a godsend and I’m convinced this cart has paid for itself several times over!” She wasn’t sure if her fast talking came across as fear but as she spoke she felt more connected to him and more in control of herself.
Time stood still while stood assessing her. His moldy odor caught her nostrils. Greying dreadlocks and a long goatee were too close to her face. How much more could her senses take? Her hand closed into a fist with fingernails stabbing her palm, to absorb the hysteria inside.
“Okay pretty lady,” he said.
“You go ahead and have a good day now! I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around town,” she said, with a casual hand wave. She started walking. Her muscled calves energized to propel her forward, with the stride of a gazelle.
“Alrightee then... I look forward to it ma’am...”
Within minutes she was out of urban mischief, looking onto a manicured park near the St. Nick. Heart-palpitations were replaced by calm. It was funny how adrenalin felt so good almost like a drug.
What if he’d just wanted company? What if we were all starving for connection? She replayed the scene. A simple and firm “no thank you,” would have sufficed, instead of all this fear.
At the St. Nick Martha entered through the ground level entranceway. She paused at the stoop where the woman still sat. She gave her the brown paper bag of peach cobbler.
“Oh chicca, you are angel, the boys will be over the moon!” she said.
Martha was back safely tucked into the apartment, which didn’t look so bad after all. She unpacked the cart and smiled wondering, how the women whose grocery ideas she’d copied, would prepare their meals tonight.
She sautéed cabbage, onion and kidney beans together in a saucepan. Then opened a can of beef stew and poured it over top, adding collard greens and chili paste from a jar. The cornucopia of color and aroma smelled just like Harlem. Curtis was bound to love it.