On how Harlem is not Moscow, or, back to my former Eastern Front

[Dear Readers, its been months since I last posted.  In efforts to “get back in the saddle” I’m fighting every urge towards prosaic perfection and offer you this humble jumble of impressions.  Consider this not so much my return to the saddle, but the firm wedging of one foot in a stirrup, and I now teeter, wondering how the hell to hoist myself up….]

Within a day of arrival back in the States, Moscow already seemed half a dream.  Not one of those ephemeral dreams wrapped in soothing, magical realistic mist and childhood memories.  More like one of those really weird dreams that you only start to remember halfway through the day, when your mind wanders and you suddenly recall the bizarre turns your subconscious took the night before.  “Wait, why do I feel like I was crossing a bridge over outerspace that was also inside?  Being chased while chasing someone?  With Slavoj Zizek? Who was a midget?”

I could feel my summer reality rapidly metamorphing into a contained and inescapably partial visual memory, accompanied with only  handful of souvenirs and linguistic advances.  Upon first arrival, I played with the geography that now existed only in my head. I could walk the path from my little dorm room to my classes in my mind, or wander psychically, in the heat, past melon vendors to the supermarket, trudging through the massive parking lot and past the indoor smoking section of the coffee shop that led to the bag check and produce bins. I always arrived to tired to think about shopping. So I wandered these old paths with a sense of strange closure, half knowing I may well never walk them again outside my mind.

I returned stateside via our quaint capitol, and took a hiatus there for a few paradisiacal days with the Mamacita, which proved to be the perfect transition between the two enormous, mad cities that have been home this recent past and oh-so-present present.  We ate like queens (Lebanese lamb, Mexican chile rellenos, Peruvian yucca filled with beef and spices! Baby carrots and hummus!)  and all the government buildings were so tiny and adorable and architecturally unambitious that I felt like petting them and then watching them be eaten or inhaled by an imperial or soviet counterpart.

[NOTE: The food euphoria continued once back in NYC, as I lavishly bought everything I’d been craving all summer and cooked in a kitchen that appeared to have grown while I was gone. A fridge!  A stove! Reliable pots and pans and all types of kitchen gadget doohickeys!  Yes! Yes! Yes!  Ai…we are such slaves to the passions…]

Then: New York.  Specifically, the mad island of Manhattan, north of the Park, midway between the waters.

New York was actually just had I’d remembered it, except now it was swathed in the sweet vision of nostalgia.  I also came home to a few houseguests—an old friend and a new one—who were delightful, adventurous Europeans.  Thanks to them I got to see New York, and really Harlem, through their eyes.  Which reminded me that Harlem, my friends, is where things get crazy. In fact, after Moscow, most of New York seems so normal—fancy eateries, parks, rich people, business people with self-satisfied faces and nice suits, the exact same brands and shops and luxury goods that communicate where you sit on the social ladder.  In Moscow, Starbucks in nice, Le Pain Quotidien is nicer.  As in NYC.  The Japanese tourists wear Marc Jacobs mini-dresses and carry Louis Vuitton satchels.  The hipsters wear jorts and flats and don’t always brush their hair and look bored and underappreciated.   Moscow-check; NYC-check. The upper classes  of the urban west and semi-west (and their offspring) blend in their shared excess income and spending habits.  But Harlem, oh Harlem, is something altogether different.

Thing is, when I moved to Harlem the first time, it didn’t seem all that different from anywhere.  It was like a bigger, slightly kookier version of the area of New Haven I’d lived in.  Or parts of St. Louis, to be honest.  Working class, African-American neighborhood dotted with mostly Chinese or soul food eateries, barbershops, and churches. People are race conscious but mostly friendly.  Groceries are abundant but overpriced thanks to food stamps.  Cops are ubiquitous. Obama ranks somewhere between Denzel Washington and God.

But then, more and more, the Harlemedness of Harlem sunk in.  The tables with Michael Jackson t-shirts and Obama silk-screens. The Mugabe truck parked everyday on 125th that sells pecan pies to raise money for—of course—Mugabe. Children left largely unattended on the streets who come play with you in the laundry mat.   The men who prowl around east of 5th avenue dressed up like wizards with terry cloth jump suits underneath their warlockian vestments and capes. The Nation of Islam broadcasts that call most of the neighborhood to asceticism and family values and offers some pretty magical Biblical interpretations, i.e. Potiphar’s wife–> a white she-devil! (they also sell pies). One gentleman simply sits with a pile of fliers about the Mayan end of the world, apparently having lost his drive to evangelize but still hollers sedentarily, shelling out fliers with details.

Then there’s the noise.  At MGU, the most prevalent sound didn’t start till dusk, when the drag race guys fired up their engines and raced down the boulevard for hours on end, brakes screeching until the wee hours.  Here, the cars squeal just as much (lets be honest, so much more!), although it seems even less wise to race about on an urban thoroughfare with stoplights every block and pedestrians who think the island is theirs.

To this, add the feature of “street as public forum for relationship drama,” of which there are two variations:

Variation One: the payphone.  Irate, volume-gifted female sc-reams into payphone at the man she doesn’t want to have anything more to do with.  Her voice rises from the corner of 130th up the block and into my 4th floor window.  Oh, he is a lazy good for nothing who won’t give her back her phone and that’s how come she’s calling from the —–in’ payphone on —–in’ Lenox!  She was late to work—thanks to him—and how he, he, wants to tell her that…….

Variation Two: The couples who hash it out on the street.  This seemed entirely normal last year, but now that I had a taste of the absolute divide between public and private in Russia, bickering outside with windmilling arms and way-to-personal details seems just wild.  Wild.  A couple is walking along.  Looks like everything is fine.  Then someone says something, says who knows, what was that? Oh hell no, not again, that’s what I thought and fists are waving and normally.  If you want to make your point, you take the fight out into the street, so that cars have to honk at you to avoid impact, thereby rendering your complaints a little more pressing and scoring major points for style.  You accuse each other of any and everything—infidelities, illegalities, character flaws, financial miscalculations, sheer stupidity.  In the street.  By day or by night.

I think this is all happening sober.

Yet, often as it may be, it is all less common that the Summer Weekend Noise.  Starting around ten o’clock am on a Saturday (oh, but sometimes much earlier my friends) the singing starts.  I’m not talking about that woman on the 3rd floor with the mighty vocals.  I’m talking about some local church having an all day sing-a-long in front of the building, on the 10 foot expanse of sidewalk, sometimes with a time of prayer or preaching, but often just straight singing for hours and hours.  They set up a little pavilion tent, under which you can fit maybe two or three card tables and some folding chairs.  There they serve food and kool-aid, and out in the sun they lay old clothes on tarps for people, presumably, to buy.  There’s an amp and a microphone and old women, alone or in twos or threes just singing and shouting the whole day away.  Sometimes they sing real songs, sometimes they just get hooked on a verse, like my first Saturday back when there was about twelve minutes of just,

What can wash away my sins,

What can make me whole again



The passerbys tend to not join in, although the French tourists normally pause long enough to exchange delighted smiles and take some photographs.   (Best French tourist I saw: young man wearing an entire outfit of batik patterned African clothing, with some Jordans and a Kangol hat. Like he bought out 125th.)

Alas though, save the shopping-bag laden Frogs, there is normally only a lone voice in a monologic call and response, hollering down Malcolm X Boulevard,


That came streaming down


Of Jesus washed away my sins


Is it because I was just in Russia, land of not going crazy or getting all emotional in public, that this stood out so much?  Or is it really actually quite strange to have a storefront revival without the store?  To accuse your significant other of services rendered in exchange for substances illegal. In the intersection two major streets.  ?

Harlem is just on edge in a way that Russia isn’t.  And see, I had somehow thought that Harlem was laid back, because anything goes.  But really, anything goes in a frenetic, panicked, tweaked-out kind of way. In an ideological blur of verbosity.  The Mormons have a mission two blocks south of my place, and I heard a young white missionary argue with an older black man—“I don’t care what you say, God TOLD me the Book of Mormon is right!!  Just wait! You’ll see!”  Even the Mormons are losing their cool.

How can I better make my point that with a ridiculous example of the men-on-the-prowl.  Now, men-on-the-prowl are, as we all know, their own genre. In Russia, the men hit on you in this sort of generic, albeit extra smarmy, way.  There’s the feigned interest in whatever you do, the offer to “meet up and chat,” the insistence that your boyfriend is far away, or who cares, or wouldn’t it be great to practice English/Russian.  Sure.  Sounds about right.  Easy enough to deflect.  Basically like guys anywhere—throw out the line, wait a bit, go home if nothing’s biting.  Wink.  Imply you have excess income, friends with connections…  But in Harlem. Where to begin?  After the run of the mill comments—the “Damn, girls” or, “Hey snowflake/snowbunny/frosted mini-wheat” [check, check, check] there’s the unfailing shoutout from the over- 30 crowd,–“Mmmmm, God bless.”  Which, let’s just be honest, is wrong.  “God bless” should never be a catcall.  Or a pick up line.  I can’t even IMAGINE a Russian man invoking the divine in his wink and half smile.  I mean, yes, a Russian is going to insist he’s got a sensitive soul and wants to talk about something deep with you.  But a fellow in Harlem goes straight for the gold and beyong–it’s all guilt tripping and precious metals.

There’s the initiation: “Yo.  Hey.  Hey, beautiful, what?  You’re too good for a smile?”  This is always what they say.  They invoke some sort of snob-anxiety (or, dare I say, race anxiety) and get a smile.  Then its time for the kill: “You got a boyfriend?  You do?  So what.  Does he buy you platinum?   That’s right, I’ma buy you allllll platinum, baby.  So much platinum.”  No flowers folks, not even diamonds.  Just platinum.  Always, always platinum. How come you’re out strolling 125th street midmorning every day if you got the fliff for platinum?


But more than the snowbunnies and offers for platinum, Dominican fried chicken, or snuggling (approximately), the moment that made me feel I HAD to resume writing, that the world was just too whacky and colorful to keep to myself, was a more outlandish version of the classic 125th pickup.  It’s a weekday, mid-morning.  I’m coming back from teaching, which means I’m a little zoned out but cheerful.  A gentleman in his 20’s or so starts to wave at me from half a block away.  It’s not that cold out yet and he’s just wearing jeans and a wife-beater. He’s desperately trying to make eye contact but I fight it. Eye contact is uncalled for with men waving at you or (fingers crossed?) someone behind you.  He’s waving both his arms now.  We approach each other and there are vendors on either side of the sidewalk—one man selling aromas and oils to my left, a lady selling pineapple out of a shopping cart on my right.  The waving stops and the man yells to me, and as he opens his mouth, I see that he has to teeny tiny sparkling stubs where his two top front teeth should be.  We’re only a few feet away from each other and I can’t side step him, wedged between carryout containers of fruit and scents such  “Summer Lovin’” “Chocolate Heat” and “Island Dreams”.  He’s hollering at me that I have to stop, that he has to talk to me. He must tell me something, he insists.  He looks too young to be crazy, but then again, you’re never too young to be crazy.

At about a foot away, he pounds his chest, tweaks his nipple and says, “YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS?” His eyes shown with an unnatural glaze (ahem, glow).  Before I can dart away or come up with a PG rated answer (how, dear reader, would you answer such an entreaty?) he yells, “IT MEANS I’M GOING TO MARRY YOU!!!!”  Then he begins to spin, spin, spin, like Julie Andrews atop an Alpine plateau, arms extended, exclaiming, “I’m gonna marry that girl!” He nearly crashes into the door of a pawnshop and I sidle past him, listening to his chorus behind me. So that’s what it means when a man smiles, pounds his chest and tweaks his nipple at someone.  A primal proposal. The mystery of the male body language unlocked.  Thank you Harlem. I don’t think Moscow could have taught me that.

But then again, I might just not be Moscow’s type…



Filed under Moscow

8 responses to “On how Harlem is not Moscow, or, back to my former Eastern Front

  1. Mom

    So good to have you back on your blog. As always, loved it.

  2. trendyand2kids

    Holy shit that just made my day, Britt…
    Thank you , Thank you, Thank you , Thank you!

  3. kathy weinstein

    Loved, loved, loved the proposal. Must be hard to have one foot in one world and the other foot in another! Great blogging!!

  4. Aiden

    You must be on crack to be giving this stuff freely away. One of the most entertaining things I’ve read in a while. If I were you I’d start compiling these blogs into a book and find a publisher. Truly impressive–I’m seriously in awe of how clearly you have articulated your experiences, and with such a sharpened wit to boot. You write with the precision of a surgeon.

    • trendyand2kids

      Nicely put, Aiden… Can I add that YOU, dear cousin, write the most eloquent blog comments any girl could wish for

      • I second the Trendster on this one. (Can I call you that???) Nothing like having the fam reading your musings AND reminding you that your behavior may bring to mind serious substance abuse. PS Aiden, did you know mom used to think I should be a surgeon? (that one’s a dreamer! something about manual dexterity..) Now i can be like–hey! I’m officially a surgeon with words–which means I’ll never make money, but I also can’t accidentally kill anyone either….

  5. JLB

    ‘But then again, I might just not be Moscow’s type…’

    Now THAT is a punchline.

    Very good post. I second Aiden. (Not the part about crack, though.)

  6. oh. my. i just laughed. repeatedly. i live in texas and work on the culturally-interesting side of town (where “minority” has a different definition), and apparently it’s not that far from harlem… bless your heart. i’m looking forward to reading more.

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