How do I get to 250 Bedford Park
I am crying now, already an hour late for my interview
No American mobile
And the taxi nowhere in sight
And then it is in sight
An Indian watching me bashful, sidelong,
Not staring at a woman
He nods gently for me but into his lap
I slap hard the back window and he leaps out and opens the door for me
Miss I have been parked here waiting for you
I saw you at 7.00 but you turned away
I am wiping my eyes with a face cloth I pull out of my hand
luggage bag – it is still damp and warm from my shower
He drives, watches in the rearview mirror
I did not want to hoot at you – you are a lady
We are both terrified, that we will lose a job, because of an hour long delay
When my heart is still, I glance at his name tag and photo displayed on the dash
I know nothing about cars, they bore me, but I try to calm him
Mr. Mohammed this is a very nice car
And it is – absolutely spotless and smells of nothing
Yes it is a… He describes the steering and the engine in some detail
He is a Bangladeshi and has lived in the US for twenty years
He tries every trick to accelerate the drive and in the first tunnel
I begin to fear that I will be killed
Mr. Mohammed. Please slow down. This is my job if God wills it, even if I’m late
You are a believer?
I am. And yourself?
Yes Miss. He smiles
I knew you were not an American
Americans are mean, especially the ones in New York
You are just like a Bangladeshi lady
I manage my first smile of the morning just as the traffic thickens and we start to crawl.
I am where he left me, at Bedford Park Boulevard West. I am in the theater, watching a singer and actor, an old woman with her hair cut short and dyed platinum, singing slave anthems. I find this type of music morose, even when it is meant to uplift, but my friend, a Haitian is bouncing in her seat beside me, obviously lifted beyond uplifted. I think of Billie Holiday telling the audience to ‘shut that bitch up’ cause all colored women sound alike anyway. It’s my favorite moment in Maya Angelou’s writing.
After the performance, we prepare to brave the cold, a Haitian, a Dominican and a Zambian. But the performer, she could be Hispanic, African, Caribbean or all three, who knows? keeps bumping into us, trying to make us see her. We praise her, me insincerely, and she embraces each one of us and confides in my ear, maybe because I’m the darkest, ‘It’s wonderful when your own praise you. It means nothing ‘til your own praise you.’
I am taking part in a conference on gender and violence. The legends are all there, feminist prosecutors, feminist judges, feminist intellectuals and advocates. We are Israeli, Palestinian, Zambian, German, American. I have never seen so many women intellectuals together in a lecture room, and I’m surprised when I hear them hiss and boo when the names of some men, the gods of our disciplines and institutions are spoken. One of the presenters, I’ve been reading her work obsessively this semester is carrying a new baby against her chest, and nobody fusses over her. It’s a beautiful space, I’m happy in it.
I did good too, I have watched my presentation online, and I can see that I was having fun. I wasn’t the smartest on the panel, but I was made to feel as if I was. A middle aged woman, slim and rakish in a blue scarf around her throat approaches me at the podium and asks me some careful questions about my work. She is generous with her praise, and says my work is opening new spaces. When she tells me she is Rhonda Copelon, I burst out laughing at myself: ‘Look at you! Your work is…’ She shushes me, and says ruefully ‘I know but it’s all so old!’
The undisputed rockstar there is the other black woman who has been invited. She is brilliant, I keep an eye on her throughout the two days, and I don’t miss a word she says. We never address each other directly beyond the professional speak, we are not friends yet, but as the conference breaks up and the sisterhood begins to pack their hand bags, she pulls me aside without touching me, and says her adieu: ‘I’m glad you were here. It was very important to have another woman of color here with me.’
I’m with my Mexican friends. We started the night in Spanish Harlem and are now in Les Ambassades, my African Harlem. I lead the way into the bar, and some of the spectacle of Kinshasa is there. The man dancing in a crouch, the sole muzungu randy and rubbing himself against anything that moves, the blond mama killing the soukous, the man with a honey voice that should be, but is never, drowned out by the electric guitar and drums.
The singer greets me with a wave from his stage and I blow him a kiss. I feel a silly flush of pleasure – the groupie singled out by the frontman. My circle of friends and I dance together gently, pausing at times to admire the more vigorous Congolese dancers. Tonight they are feeling Tabu Ley may he rest in peace.
I point across the dance floor at a woman dancing like an easterner, like my mother’s people. Her body promises a man who watches her dance ‘Oh! Don’t get so excited daddy. I haven’t shown you everything yet.’ She is perhaps a little too heavy in the hip to be one of us, but this only makes it more pleasant to watch her dance. I realize that I know her, we are not friends yet, but we have exchanged many emails this past year. I just didn’t recognize her in the night life with her body in movement. She’s an east African. I follow her and we embrace. She didn’t recognize me for the same reasons and teases me.
‘I saw you. But I didn’t know you could dance my sister. Now I know you’re a dancer I won’t let you sleep. I’ll be bothering you!’
‘Please bother me!’ I encourage her. She pulls me to a table and introduces me to her beau, a Senegalese fellow, so smashing.
A girl cries ‘My sister!’ as she grabs me around the neck. ‘I hear you’re also from Senegal!’ I shake her off and point to the beau. ‘Your brother is from Senegal. I’m a Zambian.’ She looks at her brother with no warmth and no recognition. She forgives me for fooling her. ‘That’s ok. So many of my sisters are from Zambia.’ She pulls me away from the east African and introduces me to a Malawian. A very decent looking girl, she looks like an executive secretary or an air hostess, amidst the eyelash extensions and blond ambition of the Stars of this night. We embrace and she humors me as I pretend to speak chi Chewa.
I return to my Hispanic camp. Our man insists on buying beers but then returns empty handed, short of $2. I had generously and foolishly put my last $5 into the artists’ collection hat and I search my bra, bag and pockets but can’t even dig up a quarter. I have $60 on my bus pass but this is useless here. We have all been living on a student’s budget for so long, it never crosses anyone’s mind to be embarrassed by the sad state of our booze kitty. I’m the oldest so I pay for the three beers with my credit card telling myself not to think about how close I am to defaulting on my mortgage payment. Borrow from Chiseche to pay for Salome’s dancing shoes. I tell myself it’s worth it too, emerging from the monastic world from time to time. I start to laugh remembering my Calabrese gang in Italy, how the beer, the cigarettes, the marijuana, the food, the love, everything was shared, except for the six pack of mocha drink – that was only for Chiz. I had to drink it every hour like medicine, it was the only way they could keep me awake through the night. It’s no wonder we don’t really want to give up the financial lives of graduate students. On her way out, the Malawian hugs me and promises to find me at the next Congo party.
There he is, New York Crazy. A twisty bodied man jumping and shuffling at the entrance to the elevators, singing badly to himself. Maybe he needs the bathroom, maybe he is jumping to keep warm, or to an inner melody. Crazy black men seek out their sisters so I make a huge loop around him and hide behind the Latinos.
He catches me down on the platform. Sneaks up on me although his body, tightly clenched and as stiff as a Frankenstein suit, shouldn’t allow him to be stealthy. He stands a distance away from me, but addresses my back as if I’m listening. He knows I’m family, I have no choice but to turn my body towards him.
‘I fell on the tracks twice. Look at my neck.’ He gives me his back, removes his cap, and bares the back of his dented head and neck to me. He continues his narration with his back to me, until he hears me grunt politely, a mix of astonishment and disbelief. ‘I tell people move back, they don’t listen. I was drunk. First time I was drunk. Fell cause I was drunk. See how far I stand from the track now?’ He pauses until I move further away from the tracks. ‘Second time I was pushed. By a 25 year old. He said it was a joke.’ He catches me laughing but continues. ‘I’m a miracle. Second time I was in hospital for a month.’ He describes a complicated map of each of the stations he was injured in, the speed of the trains, the rescue.
He motions for me to move away from the metal grid I am standing over. ‘Water bugs will climb up you.’ He runs his hands up and down his pant legs. ‘Into your bag too. You take them home with you.’
‘Waterbugs? What is a waterbug?’ I ask him.
‘Roaches. Roa-chez. Habla español? Coo-kara-chas.’
‘I speak English.’ I say this stiffly, the way Hispanic people say ‘I speak English’ when muzungus try to speak to them in bad Spanish.
I can’t lose him on the train either. He is too proper to sit beside me without my express invitation, but he sits opposite me and shouts across the aisle. I try to be unfriendly, but I forgive him when he starts to talk about his wife may she rest in peace. ‘I’m 59.’ I’m incredulous, he is carrying the body of a 70 year old man. ‘Wife died four days before my birthday. She’d been planning my party too. So I did it anyway. Ordered lobster and a plate for her too. When I finish my plate I take hers.’ This time he laughs while I wear a funeral face and offer my condolences. He tells me how rich he ought to be because of his deformities from all that falling onto the tracks. But he lives with his old mother and she’s poor too. He gives me a lecture about my finances. ‘You know why I’m telling you this? So government don’t take your money.’
We are approaching 207th station and he begins to make his farewells. ‘I’ll see you again. My name is Ted.’ He waits expectantly.
‘Chiseche.’ He can’t hear it, it’s too hard. ‘Salome.’ He can’t hear it. ‘Sally!’ I have to shout.
‘Sally, you African. You from…’ He digs around in his head, ‘Somalia?
‘No. I’m from Zambia.’
‘Zambia?’ Something has reminded him.
The train has stopped and the doors are open, waiting for him to disembark. He startles me and the others on the carriage by suddenly crying out, ‘Nelson Mandela!’
I know what the other passengers see as he retreats from the train. New York Crazy. He appears to make an obscene gesture with his tongue, and then the whooping, like an Indian in a bad western. ‘Nelson Mandela oowoolloolo!’ But I recognize the spastic motion of his tongue and the queer whooping: He wants to cry like an African woman. I’m moved, deeply, by my old man, trying to mimic the ululation of his sisters mourning a statesman, a resting elder.