HU­MANS OF HAR­LEM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - ESSAY -

Imoved to Har­lem in 2008. “It’s not safe,” my friends warned, en­cour­ag­ing me to re­con­sider the lease I was about to sign for a beau­ti­ful apart­ment in a brown­stone on 118th Street. “But it’s so friendly,” I said. And it was. Un­til one night. When I first ar­rived, Har­lem was still a largely black neigh­bour­hood, and I was reg­u­larly the only white face in the sub­way car once the doors shut at 96th Street and the train snaked its way north­ward along the west side of Cen­tral Park. I never felt anx­ious, or un­wel­come, or in dan­ger. I felt part of a tighter-knit com­mu­nity than the one I’d left on the Up­per West Side.

Each morn­ing on my way to work, Jay-Jay the Viet­nam vet­eran who lives by do­ing odd jobs for peo­ple along the street, and oc­ca­sion­ally ask­ing for a loan or a few dol­lars for a meal or a drink, called out a cheer­ful, “Hey honey.” It didn’t mat­ter that Jay-Jay was down and out; his shout-out al­ways made me feel up­beat.

The small-time drug dealer op­er­at­ing out of the front seat of his car had my back. One day, strug­gling with a large bag of laun­dry, one of a group of three young men smok­ing a joint on a neigh­bour’s stoop jumped up and of­fered to help me to my door. A mo­ment later, Pe­dro was out of his car, thun­der­ing across the street. “Get your mother-f..king hands off her,” he screamed be­fore grab­bing the kid by the throat and shov­ing him up against the wall. “It’s OK, Pe­dro,” I said. “He was just of­fer­ing to help.” “Like hell he was,” he said grab­bing the laun­dry bag from the kid and walk­ing me to my door, shout­ing more ex­ple­tives back over his shoul­der.

In the early days I watched tourist buses purr slowly along 125 Street past the Apollo Theatre where James Brown, Ste­vie Won­der, and Aretha Franklin per­formed, be­fore mak­ing a right into Mal­colm X Boule­vard to drive past the now Nobu-owned Lenox Lounge, once home to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. A few blocks south they took a left at 116th Street to take in a lit­tle of Span­ish Har­lem be­fore head­ing back down­town to de­posit their cargo on the safe streets of mid­town. Trav­ellers hud­dled un­der rain jack­ets in the win­ter, or bared their white skin in the sum­mer, lis­ten­ing to com­men­tary about Har­lem’s his­tory while they took pho­tos of the lo­cals like they were ex­hibits in a zoo.

Nearly seven years later, the land­scape has changed. Now the tourist buses stop and their pas­sen­gers get off to walk around. ‘‘ Who are th­ese peo­ple?’’ I ask my­self star­ing at the bearded, fe­dora and loafer-with-no-socks wear­ing crowd that has taken up res­i­dence. The irony of the ob­ser­va­tion is not lost on me. There are, of course, benefits to change — fancy new restau­rants, wine bars and cafes with linen table­cloths are lining the streets, and there is even an or­ganic sec­tion at my lo­cal su­per­mar­ket and, in what will re­ally be the death of the old neigh­bour­hood, a new Whole Foods sched­uled to open on 125th Street later this year.

But there’s a big price tag to change and the peo­ple who are most af­fected are the long-term res­i­dents who, in in­creas­ing num­bers, are be­ing forced out by ris­ing rents and costs. It’s not only white peo­ple com­ing to live north of the park that’s driv­ing Har­lem’s lower-in­come res­i­dents out; mid­dle-class African Amer­i­cans are part of the force al­ter­ing the land­scape as well. But those new­com­ers are not so ob­vi­ously “other”.

The speed at which gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is hap­pen­ing has made me part of a prob­lem. I’m no longer part of a hand­ful of in­di­vid­u­als, I am now part of a herd and, like any in­tro­duced species tak­ing over, some­times there’s fric­tion. Un­der mayor Bill de Bla­sio’s lead­er­ship home­less­ness in New York City has risen. As of Novem­ber last year there were 57,390 peo­ple living in home­less shel­ters. Nearly 25,000 were chil­dren.

Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is not the rea­son the dow­nand-out man who asked me for a dollar three nights be­fore Christ­mas sud­denly changed his mind and de­cided on a big­ger prize.

Some­times the world shows its good and bad hand in al­most the brush of the same hand and no sooner did I start scream­ing for help than a young woman came to my res­cue. She saw the man punch his fist into my hand­bag and grab my cash, and ran out into the dark in pur­suit. My cham­pion was tiny. Maybe 160cm, 20 years old and weigh­ing less than 50kg. But a few min­utes later she came back and handed over three crum­pled bills of the 10 the home­less man had snatched just mo­ments be­fore.

I of­fered her the cash she re­cov­ered, which she wouldn’t ac­cept, say­ing only, “Thank you is enough.” I hugged her, we went our sep­a­rate ways, me wish­ing I’d asked her name.

The irony is that I was robbed on my way to cel­e­brate the sign­ing of a film op­tion with Lee Stringer, a for­mer home­less man who spent 12 years on the streets of New York dur­ing the 1980s and early 90s and doc­u­mented the ex­pe­ri­ence in his mem­oir, Grand Cen­tral Win­ter.

Living on the streets gen­er­ally comes about from sev­eral con­ver­gences. The life Lee had known col­lapsed af­ter the death of his brother and then his busi­ness part­ner. Soon af­ter, Lee found him­self with­out a roof over his head, try­ing to feed a crack-co­caine ad­dic­tion. For six months I’d been in ne­go­ti­a­tions with Lee and his mem­oir’s pub­lisher, Dan Simon, who dis­cov­ered Lee in the pages of the now de­funct Street News. We were fi­nally meet­ing to sign the con­tract, cel­e­brate and talk about tak­ing Lee’s book to the big screen.

Who might play the lead of Lee at var­i­ous stages of life and a fe­ro­cious drug ad­dic­tion? Who could do a good im­pres­sion of au­thor Kurt Von­negut, who cham­pi­oned Lee’s mem­oir and took him on his book tour when he re­leased his 2005 book A Man with No Coun­try? Who would share our vi­sion of a gritty film that not only starred an un­likely hero but also the streets of New York at the height of their down-at-heel beauty dur­ing the 80s?

I be­lieve in Lee. His story should be com­pul­sory read­ing for ev­ery politi­cian and pol­icy maker, ev­ery judge and ev­ery at­tor­ney, ev­ery ad­min­is­tra­tor work­ing in public health, home­less­ness, and un­em­ploy­ment. And ev­ery­one else be­sides. But Lee’s book is no medicine to be read be­cause it’ll make us feel bet­ter. Lee’s story is one of the most deeply hu­man, mov­ing and inspiring I’ve had the priv­i­lege to read.

So when the guy asked me for money, I was par­tic­u­larly in­clined to help af­ter be­ing im­mersed in the re­al­i­ties of life on the street through the pages of Grand Cen­tral Win­ter. “Of course, I can help you,” I said rum­mag­ing through my bag for some loose sin­gles.

The prob­lem with a theft like that is it makes you weary. Once bit­ten twice shy. Will I so read­ily reach into my purse the next time some­one needs a buck on the sub­way? Had I not just read Lee’s book, I won­der if I’d give to a home­less per­son again. But that’s what’s so im­por­tant about good lit­er­a­ture. It shifts your un­der­stand­ing, changes your po­si­tion in a way that sound rea­son­ing, facts and fig­ures of­ten can’t.

Most of us can in­tel­lec­tu­ally un­der­stand home­less­ness and be sym­pa­thetic to the plight of peo­ple on the streets, af­ter read­ing re­ports and ar­ti­cles. But sym­pa­thy isn’t enough and of­ten it’s pa­tro­n­is­ing. If all I had be­fore I was robbed was sym­pa­thy, I would have been left feel­ing an­gry and vic­timised. Worse, I would have felt sin­gled out.

I would have thought I was robbed be­cause I am white and Har­lem’s not the place for me it used to be. But that’s not why it hap­pened and I didn’t feel any of those things.

Of course, that man shouldn’t have robbed me and, of course, I was shaken and up­set af­ter be­ing set on like that by a stranger. It’s un­nerv­ing to be vi­o­lated.

But what I felt was un­der­stand­ing. Not be­cause I know the story of the guy who robbed me but be­cause I know the story of a guy like him — Lee. I know a real hu­man, living breath­ing story and that’s a whole dif­fer­ent thing to know­ing facts.

A hu­man story needs to eat, to be warm, to take a shower ev­ery now and again, and maybe even feed a bad habit. Hu­man need has many faces. Not all of them pretty.

Thanks to Lee’s book, one per­son’s bad de­ci­sion won’t stop me of­fer­ing kind­ness to a stranger in need. Af­ter all, what was I to the girl who put her­self in dan­ger to help me but a stranger in need?

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