Harlem, City of Refuge

Harlem, City of Refuge


The subway station spills you onto the sidewalk, unforgiving as it drops you into the middle of the streets’ play. Every actor moves around you in constant motion, uninterrupted by your petty entrance. In this alcove of outsiders, no one will take the time to concern themselves with your otherness. Mothers pick up ambling toddlers while vendors try to trade sage advice for money. If only they could tell you how to catch this kinetic virus. Walk down the street and allow it to embrace you. Breathe in deeply and let the sounds of its ghosts sink into you. Maybe if you’re here long enough, one will adopt you. Then you could pretend to know what the reprimands of history feel like.

Every building that you come across makes you believe in the power of a distant ruin. You take in all of their peculiarities and pretend to know their stories. An advertisement hangs in the dusty window of a flower shop. It beckons you to its gates with the allure of an extra chrysanthemum to take up space on your home’s crowded windowsill.  An H & M attempts to make itself at home, squirming in its new shoes amongst the seasoned veterans. Nearby, a living-room church with a crooked warning of apartheid tries to banish the interlopers with empty promises. Doesn’t it know that it can’t stop this inevitable metamorphosis. Immortality never suited these angels anyway.

Walk on and the rhythm of the street becomes contagious. Your steps match the shouts of haughty teenagers, the flash of tourist cameras, the wrinkling of the voyeur’s brow on the steps of his comfortable brownstone porch. This is a song with the knowledge of the world’s most intimate affairs. Is it an answer or a playground. Not even its conductors seem to know all of its mysteries. A sigh of relief escapes you. You were beginning to think that you would never be allowed to know any of this place’s clandestine landmarks or underground heroes. At last, Harlem has opened its doors to you.

The air here is filled with simmering grease and sizzling ambitions. Volunteers hang up gaudy decorations on church doors to prepare for the upcoming holidays. Sanitation workers empty the street’s trashcans and pick up the remnants of last night’s dinner. Young boys bike down streets in hordes, stuck in an everlasting race. What they don’t know is that they are the gears that keep this machine moving.The brownstones swoop you up into a bear hug, invite you to take in everything you can before you set your exodus in motion. Flowerpots sit in windows, pumpkins perch on porches, music swims into every corner of this landlocked ocean. Walk on and let this simple magic fold itself around you. Small wonders can still be miracles.

You walk down the street towards the subway station as storm clouds begin to chase you. They threaten to drop their baggage on your shoulders, causing you to rethink your decision to leave. But you know better than the infant sky. In the end, it’s the heart of this castaway tribe that will be trapped in the role of your afternoon muse. The structures are only masquerades for the show. At the next turn, bits of rain tease your back to what surely will become your imminent demise. As the drops pick up their pace, you move closer to the wall of the nearest building. Overhead, it seems to have squeezed out extra inches to cover your body. You let out a small laugh. You should have known, there’s always a place waiting to cover you here somewhere between the wide avenues and languid trees. Harlem has never wanted to be selfish, after all.

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