Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Monday, November 28, 1977

Psalm 32
Day 11

Got up medium. It snowed a little last night, because the derelict building across the way had a white roof. Ate breakfast. Then all four of us went to the Salvation Army thrift shop. Pops + Mom got their winter wardrobe. Pops got me "That Darn Cat" and T. got "Old Yeller" (a dog story) and crochet thread. Came back. Cooked after me+mom shopped. Ate. Put on pj's. Pops out. He came back. Went to bag. Thank you, Mr. O

I ate:
  • Breakfast: 1 bowl Maltex+honey
  • Lunch: 4 Gem donuts
  • Dinner: chicken wing + kale+carrot+pink beans+elbows+celery+potatoes soup, pnuts, 1 tangelo, 3 dates, 2 figs.
I'm starting to remember what it felt like, living like this. I can distance myself very easily from unpleasant things, but since I've been writing this every day, it's becoming more real. Despite the cold and the dark, we were all still together, and we spent a lot of time together, the four of us. But it was cold, and dark. And cold.

I remember clearly The Salvation Army. As a matter of fact, that branch store is STILL THERE... 30 years later. It still looks EXACTLY THE SAME. It's still set up EXACTLY THE SAME. And I hate it now... I can't go in there.

The one time I've been in there since I stopped *needing* to shop there was about last March; close to Bigbear's birthday. I was walking to the old apartment to see her and pick up the Sun, and in the window was an Arabia of Finland teapot in the Anemone pattern. This pattern was my mom's wedding china, and 45 years later her entire set sits in my kitchen cabinets, minus exactly one cup. She never had the teapot, though. Bigbear likes tea, and the pot was in mint condition, even having the ceramic strainer. So I went in and bought it for her. But being in that store was painful... it even smelled the same. (By the way, I still use the set almost every day... it has never cracked or chipped... even in my porcelain sink. Even in the dishwasher. The stuff is indestructible.)

Anyway. There's a distinct smell to old, cold, empty buildings, and the apartment had it back then. And remember... no electricity, so about now when it gets dark at 4:30, it got to be pretty dank. That time between about 5P--when it got really dark--and about 6:30 when we started getting ready for "bag", became known as "The Brown Coat Hour." Bigbear would sit on the board/sofa, huddled under this brown coat she'd picked up at the Salvation Army, and just retreat. The Professor and I would pretty much leave her alone. But it was pretty depressing.

A big side effect of all this was not being able to take baths that often. We washed up every day-- nobody smelled bad, but after awhile I was appalled to realize I had a layer of grime on my neck. At some point, when we finally got the light and gas on, we could boil water if the heat wasn't on, and eventually, when we got a new (black, but still slum-) landlord, we had more regular heat. But it's those little things about living in poverty like that, like not being able to have regular baths... those are the things that get you.

I was talking to the Sun's music teacher this past evening, when I went to pick him up from percussion practice. We discovered, over the past few years, that we are about the same age, and that we didn't grow up that far from each other. And that her mother ran a kufi stand around the corner from the Tree of Life. I didn't reveal to her that we considered our kufi's far superior to her mom's, though. Competition could be fierce in the kufi trade.

But today we talked about how hard it was back then in Harlem. And how people always talk about how "the kids of today are spoiled". But these days, they really ARE spoiled. They have no idea what it was like to live rough. The only place more destitute was probably the South Bronx. There were--have always been--pockets of Black people who have lived comfortably in Harlem. But there was a bunch of really poor people living there then. Even though the Divide between the Poor and the Rich has widened so much that it has completely destroyed the middle class in NYC, the Poor are not as poor as they were in 1977. Despite Welfare reform and people not being able to stay on Welfare for long without being harassed, the benefits are better. Foodstamps are better. And there aren't blocks and blocks of derelict and abandoned buildings. Many of the buildings were owned by people who didn't live in Harlem. Some, the City took over. But nobody ever fixed them, and they sat empty and cold for YEARS.

People hustle better now... the badboys sell drugs, but more often than not, people hustle any number of minimum wage jobs and manage to hold on to subsidized housing... although this is getting to be harder to do in NY these days--damn near impossible in Harlem, and people tend to just leave and move elsewhere. But back then, there WAS no elsewhere. This was IT. When I finally got to I.S. 201 (affectionately nicknamed "The Armpit of the Board of Education") the following year, the kids who lived in the Projects were well-to-do compared to the kids who lived in the tenements, cuz most likely the kids in the Projects had parents who worked for Transit or Civil Service or something like that.

The drug trade consisted mainly of heroin or pot, (Dust didn't come along for a few years... and then of course later there was crack) and the heroin trade was pretty much run by either the mob, Nicky Barnes or a small number of well-connected brothers. Pot ( "reefa", back then) was mainly sold by the Hardest Hard crew. At least on our block.

NOBODY came uptown. There were no tourist buses, no trendy people walking around. A Yellow Cab was unheard of. It wasn't "SpaHa" or "NoHa" or "Central Park North". It was El Barrio. 110th Street. Harlem. Liquor stores and Kentucky Fried Chicken all had bulletproof plastic between them and the general public. Even the pharmacy had bulletproof glass. Your generic candy store on the corner had bullet proof glass. There were at least two pizza parlors on my block alone, and it took me YEARS to figure out why there were always so many junkies sitting around in them, eating donuts and hot chocolate. I didn't figure it out until the pizza parlours were all busted for selling heroin. We were there because it was warm.

From a New York Times article: "In addition to Cafe Aiello, Mr. Aiello operated four pizzerias in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, which Federal agents said were used for drug sales. According to the charges, heroin purchases were made by undercover agents at Tony's Pizza Parlor, 164 West 125th Street, which is across the street from the state office building in Harlem, at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue."

I remember Tony's well. We had made friends with a guy known as "Pop" who mostly worked at the pizzeria on our block this side of Lenox, but sometimes he worked at Tony's too and we'd walk up to see him, especially later when I was old enough to walk 'Two-Five without the parents. "Pop" introduced me to cheese-fries.

A few years after we'd lived on 'Two Five for a while, the City shut it down completely while it repaved the entire length. Hardly any cars drove across because they had narrowed it down to one lane at a time. Even after they re-opened the strip, if you saw a Caucasian walking along it was cause for a double-take. And a comment.

Nowadays, they let anybody up in here...

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