Harlem Homecoming 4 January 2020
I got in late the night before last and walked the streets of my old neighborhood, mainly in search of a meal and some snacks to bring back to the ‘tel. It wasn’t exactly surreal, but indeed the “new Harlem” is in full effect. The mix of (white) yuppies who can afford the multi million dollar brownstones or the multiple thousands for monthly rent are here and the services that cater to them are also very much a part of the landscape.
And yet the old Harlem is still vibrantly present despite the ongoing removal of poor people. The sights and sounds and even the smells of Harlem are still here. The walk of hipsters, of youngsters, the array of styes and colors that is Harlem is here. I started with a decidedly boojie stop at the new whole ‘foods on two-fifth and was talked into a bad decision (for me) to the Red Rooster restaurant. The restaurant has the celebrity chef from Ethiopia who was raised by a Swedish family. I played with Fred Ho and others when they first opened with their music policy. The room was LOUD. I told the maitre D I would wait the fifteen minutes necessary to be seated. Then I went next door to a smoke house restaurant that I had never seen before. The vibe was also celebratory and loud but different. Here was a blacker vibe but it was as if I were at the players ball in Detroit or Chi-town rather than in Harlem, in a way. The cats had their minks and other acoutrements of a true player including blinged shoes with baubles and lights, you dig. They were dancing to R&B (next door hip hop) and it was clear that if you were not at least fifty you could not be taken seriously here. Even though I am past that age I stood for minutes without anyone inviting me in. So I went back to the rooster and took my seat. the menu was nouveau soul and expensive. I decided to try crab cakes which I can’t get in Durban, and thought the safest side was macaroni and greens. Little did I know they would be combined in one dish. I asked my waitress if there were no traditional dishes. She gave me a knowing look and said “not here”. Well in my condition it’s always a good thing when I leave food on the plate. I had to navigate my way through the bar section where they were partying. The Rooster was alive with the beautiful people, the fabulously declaratively queer and the new styled hipsters. One woman who was almost my age-mate was dancing wildly. She was a good dancer and danced with abandon but without the coolness that was considered morally and culturally relevant when I was learning to dance and to party. Yes I guess I am of that age…
Well in the morning I went to “Little Africa” on 116th street to get my beard trimmed. I walked into the Muslim joint and immediately the vibe changed. I was wearing my coat, hand made from Butan. Here? I always get comments with this coat, and every day I wear it at least one woman tells me she wants the coat and was checking it out. etc. When I got to the barber shop the first thing the cat said was, “This is the first time in 40 years I seen somebody wearing a robe up in here. Man you got on your pajamas? you real comfortable in the block”. And with that last comment, with its inuendo and sly hipness in his voice timbre and cadence, I knew that I was actually in Harlem. I sat in his chair and as he dd his thing (expertly, understanding my intentions through my directions—not always the case back home in Durbs) we discussed the trickery of Trump, the relationship between the impeachment procedures with his entering a war. The transformation of his hood from African American to African immigrants. The arrogance that some have towards African Americans, but the realization that with the immigrants there was a significant drop in violence and shooting and so forth. The subsequent generation who culturally are also African American and sometimes even trying to get into the gun toting culture. I relaxed and at the end I looked good and feeling ready for New York.
Got my horn fixed by the expert care of Roberto Romeo, and ran into old friends at the sax shop. even saxophone colossus Antoine Roney. The humbling realization that I must practice harder even when there are no gigs in sight! Had my first gig uptown at Assinie with a great band, including, Ronnie Burrage, Yayoi Ikawa, and Calvin Jones. The music was alive and dancing and it lifted my spirits and those in attendance. I realized that my ego is not so important and that I can tell a story and the band coaxed out my musicality and the spirit of the place was surrounded by love. Harlem Homecoming, baby!