Lower East Side
Martha spent the first years of marriage living in America afraid of things. There were so many unpredictable unknowns for her to navigate and she was often too reliant on her husband. It wasn’t until they moved from Harlem to the Lower East Side in the 1970’s, that she let her hair down and started to believe in her own strength.
They rented a place on Broome and Clinton Street in the melting pot of the Lower East Side, where the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn hung elevated in the air above them. It was a different world. Where Harlem had been homogenous, there were people from absolutely everywhere. Their mixed race wasn’t unique and barely garnered attention.
How could New York be so large and so intimate at the same time? It seemed as if people had no choice but to interact. There were pockets of downtown, where mixed race couples didn’t even stand out.
One morning newly invigorated, she made them coffee in the percolator, an omelet to share and accidentally burnt toast. They sat at the table and ate quietly.
“Why don’t we just stay put Curtis. If we can make it work here, imagine how solid we’ll be if we decide to move to Georgia,” Martha said, looking at him, with passion lighting her eyes.
“Do you expect me to drive those old farts around forever?” Curtis laughed, “They talk my head off nonstop!” he said.
He’d taken the driving job after leaving security. Curtis was employed as a bus driver for the Stuyvesant Home for the elderly, on East 26th near Bellevue hospital not far from their apartment. He took seniors on day trips, to Coney Island to sun themselves and spend time interacting with others, in the same lonely predicament. It was sad the poor souls were wealthy but neglected by relatives and left alone in their pissy en-suite apartments.
“Maybe because you’re handsome and such a good listener. Ha just kidding on the last part!” Martha teased.
He hugged her, “I know why I married you. You’re here to teach me things I would never have learned. What a tough black woman, you’ve turned out to be!” he said.
It was too close for comfort, after the New York 21 had been arrested for allegedly plotting bomb attacks on police stations. Curtis being a part-time security cadet had been questioned by police but with no information to provide, was released. After that he wanted out of New York, “Baby we need to get away. Have a family. Urban life is wearing us down,” he said, after hints fell on her deaf ears.
“I’ve always been the one who wanted to leave but I’m fitting in now Curtis,” Martha said. She wasn’t going to argue with him again. She decided to maintain the best frame of mind and stick to the positives. She did not yet know leaving New York, would be the end of their loving relationship.
Curtis looked into her eyes, “Mrs. Johnston, I’d like to take you back to bed, for a quick trip to paradise,” he pulled her slender arm toward him.
“Funny, I was thinking my stress levels have evened out in this apartment. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the Turner boy’s playing basketball against our wall. We really should make this place more homey. Maybe you’ll want to stay!” she said.
They crashed into a marvelous post-breakfast canoodling. Their body connection reminiscent of an earlier era, when intertwined arms and legs was the norm. They made love slowly laughing, while trying not to creak the rickety bed frame.
Afterward they lay in bed talking, “Curtis remember our love is different. It had to be. That’s why most people don’t attempt this or don’t last. The spotlight is tough. Let’s never forget the road we chose was a longer and tougher,” she kissed his pink lips. His stubble tickled her chin.
“Whether we leave or not, just let me make the nest groovy okay? Come with me to the flea market,” she said.
Martha tugged Curtis’ arm, navigating the crowded streets toward the subway feeling as if after a decade of marriage she were on her honeymoon again.
They would finally check out the famous Sunday Flea market in Chelsea, she had always wanted. They hopped a D-train heading north toward Broadway.
By the end of the day, Martha was pleased with their finds; a scholarly looking wingback chair, two comfy beanbag chairs and a colorful Grateful Dead, tie-dye wall hanging for above the sofa.
Her goal was to cheer him up and make him want to stay but she knew, he was desperately unhappy with his driving job.
Once folks got to know and trust Curtis they let down their guard and preconceived notions about him. His clients were mostly, well-off and Jewish. A certain Mr. Saunders began confiding in him.
Curtis initially thought, he was a pain in the neck. He sat in the front seat of the mini coach bus so he could monitor and hen peck Curtis’ driving. He seemed to get bored when there was nothing else to complain about, so talked Curtis’ head off instead.
Mr. Saunders ended up glued to Curtis on break stops during Coney Island excursions. Most of the ladies sunned themselves at the quiet beach area, while Mr. Saunders and Curtis took to the shade.
“Never did like those godamned Ferris wheel rides, or that stomach churning greasy food that never agrees. I’m not a kid!” Mr. Saunders said.
One outing Curtis said, “My wife is a white woman.” He didn’t know why he told Saunders. Perhaps he was being a brat and wanted to get a rise out of the cranky bugger. Or maybe he wanted an honest critique from a new perspective. He expected to get a strip torn off him.
Mr. Saunders grunted slightly, indicating he’d heard. He often asked Curtis to repeat things, even though suspected Saunders wasn’t all that deaf. The scent of sea salt and the light musk of dead birds wafted through the breeze, so Curtis figured it was a moot point.
“Well maybe it’s wrong and maybe it’s not. There are things in this life, I am opposed to like maybe polygamy but I do have a soft spot for love,” Mr. Saunders said.
“How’s that?” Curtis asked, surprised he hadn’t bitten the lure.
“When I was a young man, I had a strong feeling for Jeremy my father’s butler. I wanted to learn everything I could from him. He wasn’t much older than me. Sometimes you don’t understand your feelings and I didn’t understand mine. I woke up each morning needing to know, where he was. So I understand different kinds of love you see,” Mr. Saunders said.
“Thank you for sharing Sir,” Curtis said.
“Love only hurts if you don’t act on it,” Saunders said, sounding introspective.
Curtis didn’t take Mr. Saunders predilection for his father’s butler personally. He didn’t know if they were comparable. He got the impression Mr. Saunders was saying something more along the lines of forbidden love or that love has no boundary.
Whatever the case, the driving job wasn’t so bad. He could hang on for a while longer, while Martha enjoyed fitting in.
The year Curtis was a bus driver, Martha had developed a keen interest in city planning. The city of New York would build more apartment towers by annexing large pieces of land deemed slums, this time century buildings in lower Manhattan including Greenwich Village were affected.
Martha stepped her toes in the water taking part in general interest meetings, led by Jane Jacobs at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
It would mean more carving up of city blocks, to make way for monstrous St. Nick styled apartments, like in Harlem. The intention wasn’t necessarily socio-economic purposefully displacing low income people.
It was the city hall boys club, led by Robert Moses whose ego superseded all else. Harnessing avant garde European architects like Corbusier, with stark cube designs, would be impressive on resumes. The designs were clean and uniform in shiny glass and metal but the consequence was the stripping away of diversity and color.
Robert Moses’ opinion was the only salvation of cities was large-scale destruction of existing buildings. He catered to people living further away, in the suburbs wanting to effectively get them in and out of the city. Highways and automobiles to Coney Island or Long Island, was the way to connect nature, parks and beaches to city life.
He wanted to change the wild organic English garden into the sleek streamlined gloss of chic and clean.
At that point proposals included, a highway through midtown Manhattan. Jane Jacobs committee was up in arms and dead set against it. It was at that point, Martha started to grow tired. She thought perhaps a quieter life in a small town would be better for her and maybe a baby would take this time. She could blame city planners for proposing to Curtis they high tail it out of New York.