It was already light when I woke up. More to the point it was already hot. I tried to gauge the time from a few background noises – the chugging and jolting lift in the building, trucks in the street below. Not much help there – the sounds were pretty much the same any time of day or night, apart from the occasional night-time symphony of gunfire & sirens.
I looked across at Linda. Still asleep, jet lag long gone. Why did I always get lovers who were champion sleepers? The light through the thin curtains was getting stronger. Right, I reckon it’s somewhere near ten by now. I’d be justified in waking her up then with a juice or some coffee. Finally I sat up and leant across her until I could see the little travel clock on the floor.
Five past six.
I’d been awake long enough to know I wouldn’t be sleeping again. I could get up and have a shower or poke around in the fridge. But for now I was content to lie there and see where my thoughts went. I looked again at Linda. She’d put on her green t-shirt some time during the night. So I couldn’t have been awake all the time then.
It still seemed unreal, like a bubble that could silently burst any moment and I’d find myself back home in London. A week ago I’d set off from a wet and grimy Luton Airport, bound for New York, but set on a trip down the East Coast, via some friends in Virginia, then along the Blue Ridge Trail to the southern states, final destination New Orleans. I’d immersed myself in the vibe of Southern authors like Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor since the writings of William Faulkner had rescued the last year at uni from terminal boredom. I would also seek out the local music wherever I went. Writing about this would be my entree into the world of music journalism. Exclusive hanging out with the Allman Brothers maybe, or back-porch rockin‘ with agelessly cool old bluesmen. I’d had my hair cut super-short – not from any outdated Easy Rider connotations, but to cope with the heat & humidity I’d be encountering.
I knew from my first visit three years earlier what to expect. Then I’d found New York noisy, oppressive and overcrowded. I’d made friends from the city earlier that summer when they’d been backpacking in Paris – “Oh man, you gotta stay at my place when you come over. We’ll go to the Fillmore, the Village, smoke Colombian red-tip, yeah.” The reality was that they lived with their parents in affluent suburbs on the edge of the city, and the wildest time I’d had was getting drunk at a Labor Day do at the local Country Club, to the outrage of my mate Seth’s parents. So staying in
New York wasn’t on the agenda this time. Get thru La Guardia and then cab it to the nearest Greyhound Station, and from there to my friends outside DC to acclimatise and plan my route south.
I’d survived a little local difficulty with customs at Luton, when my stay-awake pills came to light. Just as I thought the trip was over before it had even begun, the bored functionary threw them in the bin and sent me on my way, relieved & speeding. The terms of the charter flight required two stops en route – Friday night in Dublin. A bunch of us went drinking around O’Connell Street, marvelling at the slot-machine Christ figures dispensing blessings and trying to convince ourselves we weren’t acting like uncool tourists.
The next day I sat on a grass bank outside Shannon Airport, impatiently awaiting the call for the next stage of the flight. By now I was bored by talk of uni, home & parents and just wanted to get going. One of my hungover companions from the night before was trying to take charge, “You know, we should all try to sit together on the plane,” in her best teachers’ training voice. I slipped away as quietly as I could into the vast empty space of the huge customs hall, looking out at the surrounding farmland.
Finally we were in the air. I’d established that the hippyish American woman next to me was on her way home from studying in England. Suddenly she pulled the brown paper sickbag from the pocket in front of her. Just my luck, I thought, averting my gaze to the clouds outside. But the expected chunder never came. I looked round to see she’d got a biro, and was intently drawing a large, straggly flower on the bag. Then in capitals she carefully inscribed “Love is a Flower”, the capitals ornately embellished. A poem seemed to be taking shape in the space below. She must have sensed my gaze and turned round smiling, with full eye contact, “Hey, don’t tell anyone will you? I’m tripping – flying home ya know?” Oh no, acid was so 1970. It was like that Lou Reed line, “You’re still doin‘ things I gave up years ago…”
The last time I’d flown across the ocean I’d been bored to the point of near-homicide by the born-again believer next to me, now this. But suddenly she tired of the deep meanings of “Life is a Flower”, and was speaking to me again,
“Hey I know it’s a lot to ask, but could we kinda change seats for a while, those clouds are aa-mazing…”
We changed places, & soon she was happily exploring cloudland. I got talking to my new neighbour. This was Linda … her short hair & casually stylish clothes marked her out in the sea of denim and cheesecloth around us. She’d recently graduated from the London School of Economics, a favourite target of the straight media as a cesspit of revolution and depravity. Her left wing credentials were impeccable: originally from a white Jewish South African family, her journalist father had been imprisoned and tortured for criticising the apartheid system. On his release they’d been expelled, ending up in London.
In many ways we really didn’t have much in common. But we couldn’t stop talking, and once I’d made her laugh a few times, I knew there was something there. I realised that we’d be landing in an hour or so. C’mon, man, reality check. You’ve got lucky sitting next to someone who’s cool, smart and sharp, but once we land it’ll be “Hey, nice to have met you. Have a great time.”
I’d been telling her about my planned Southern pilgrimage and grander writing dreams. I’m talking too much I thought, and we drifted into quietness. I looked round. The sky tripper was asleep now. Then Linda spoke, “So you haven’t actually booked anywhere to stay in New York, then?”
“I thought I’d find somewhere in here”, indicating the student guide in my bag, “and then look up one of my friends.”
“Well, I don’t want to make you change your plans or anything, but…”
She explained that some friends of her parents were away making a film about social issues in Alabama, and needed someone to house-sit their place on Upper West Side, and, well, she didn’t want to be on her own in a strange place, so if I wanted to come along….
The yellow cab tore thru the smog into the gathering darkness. In the declining light everything had a Fritz Lang look about it. It was all here – the canyons of skyscrapers, big sleek American cars, steam wafting mysteriously from gratings in the road, and signs for the subway. After a while the Latino cabbie gave up on conversation. Linda rested her head on my shoulder, then looked up quizzically. Tentatively I put an arm round her. By the time we got to the flat it was dark. I felt uncertain as we rose in the lift. She’d gone quiet, maybe she was finding the situation strange too. We made a brief tour of the flat, which ground to a halt once we’d found the cold beers thoughtfully left by the owners.
I awoke next to her in the morning. It should have been bliss, but I was uncertain. Was it going to be a one-off? I liked her a lot, but she had a way of coming close and then suddenly going distant – whether talking, hanging out or in bed – that I found unsettling. Finding the fridge empty, we went down to the street and found a diner for breakfast, finding with delight that all the movie cliches of ‘eggs over easy’ were true. By now I was feeling jet-lagged & slowed down. Suddenly Linda stood up, pushed her chair back, and in her best Hampstead voice swore,
“For fuck’s sake, I’m talking to you…”
And stormed out. Everyone looked up. There were whispers. I suddenly felt a long way from home and very tired. For a microsecond I toyed with the idea of just letting her go. Then I remembered all my stuff was at the flat and I didn’t even know the address. I ran after her. Luckily her bright green pants stood out in the sidewalk crowd. Aha, this was a walk that was meant to be caught up with. We sat down on one of the benches, next to some street drinkers with their brown paper bags. She carried on where she’d left off,
“Look, I really like you, but it’s pissing me off how you’re blanking me today. One minute you’re all there, then you just switch off on me. If you don’t want to stick around, just say so…”
I felt like saying, well, funnily enough that’s just how you come across to me. Slowly we made our peace before lapsing into time-zoned silence, and limped back to the flat.
That had been a week or so ago. There’d been other tense moments, inevitable, given that we’d gone straight from meeting to cohabiting. But after a while anything back in England seemed a lifetime away. Compared to London – let alone the little village where I’d been living – the energy level & intensity of the place were irresistible. It was like suddenly being plugged into the mains. We immersed ourselves in exploring the city by day and exploring the neighbourhood clubs and bars at night. After the frustrations of missing last buses in London, the 24hr scene was like a dream come true. You didn’t have to be rich to stay out late. Gradually we learnt the special qualities of the different places, whether ethnic, musical, or culinary – one of our favourites had a crypt-like silence to it, broken only by the occasional murmur of “check” from one off the all-nite chess players.
I was looking out of the kitchen window, across the Hudson River, where New Jersey was just visible in the morning heat haze. Linda came in and pressed herself against me, kissing my neck. As we sat down with our juice, I could see she was holding one of the maps we’d bought.
“I’ve been looking at this – I hadn’t realised we were so close to Harlem here. It’s walking distance – 20 blocks or so and we could get the expressway train back if we get too hot. What do you reckon?” she asked.
I’d heard of that subway line last time. It was a favourite Urban Legend Bogeyman tale among my suburban New York friends. As the Subway made its way up
“Sure, I know. I’m not sure it’s such a good idea. The people I knew here wouldn’t go near the place – you know, lock the car doors if you have to go thru there…”
“So what are you saying actually? That we’ll be like, killed or something up there?”
“No, but it’s not a tourist place. I don’t think I feel cool anyway about going round taking pictures of the natives, you know? Probably not a great place for a woman either…”
“Oh right, I get it now… luckily I’ll have my big white man with me to fend off all the drooling black rapists…”
“Come on Linda – you know what I mean, look at the paper every day”
We’d been astonished when we’d first looked at what we thought were the small-print births, marriages and deaths columns, only to see that the neat headings were actually “Robbed / Stabbed / Assaulted / Killed” and so on,
“It’s just local knowledge, there’s places in London you wouldn’t go either…”
I’d sensed that Linda was simmering, and now she was seething,
“Fuck you, Denis – so you’re a racist. Guess I’d find out some time”
– I tried to interrupt to defend myself, but no chance –
“No. I know a fuck of a lot more about racism than you” – this was true – “Tell you what, you do what you want today and I’ll go on my own,” before stomping off to the bedroom, coming back with her camera and shades.
“Tell me you’re not going to walk up to Harlem with that bloody camera bouncing off your ass all the way, please…”
Suddenly she saw the humour of the Great White Explorer setting off into the unknown,
“Oh okay, but only if you come with me. Make sure I behave, you know?”
I was about to say that maybe her little candy-striped shorts and low-cut top weren’t the best idea either, but decided not to push my luck.
By the time we emerged on to Broadway it was late morning, oppressively hot and humid, with a dominant smell of exhaust fumes from the static traffic in the road. I looked up. It was just possible to make out the sun in the grey fug overhead. This was no majestic orb, but an almost irrelevant distant pink smudge in the sky. It didn’t even look like the sky, more like some future city gone wrong, enclosed in a grimy plastic bubble.
The theatre district was downtown from here. There were certainly no lullabies or limelight to be found here. Instead we made our way in the opposite direction, past drab office buildings, and near empty shops selling furniture and carpets. We tried to top each other with Harlem references as we walked along:
“Ben E King, Spanish Harlem, right?”
“Sure that’s not the Drifters?”
“Ok then – Dylan, “Spanish Harlem Incident”
For a moment our words were lost as a subway train went by on the raised metal trackway over the road. As a kid I’d loved Dylan’s “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry”, but had always been puzzled & intrigued by the line about the “L Train”. What could it stand for? That new drug LSD maybe? Now I knew – it was “el”, as in Elevated. Sure, there were above ground sections of the Underground at home, but they were usually raised above the streets on solid brickwork. Here the metal structures meandered along the streets as they wished, their stations usually flimsy wooden constructions that had a strangely seaside feel to them.
Although the full-force explosion of hip-hop was still nearly a decade away, the graffiti scene was literally starting to burst out overground. We’d been astonished the first few times we’d waited in the subway, and seen our train arrive garishly adorned with weird combinations of letters and numbers, surrounded by stars. Soon we found that these were just the basic model. Some trains had been given the full treatment, with complex designs elaborately composed and painted, wildly mixing Pop Art, op art, abstraction and cartoon art into a mad joyous mix that defied so much of the drabness and ugliness all around. Of course that wasn’t how the local authorities saw it, or most of the residents. We’d learnt that it wasn’t a good move to express approval or start talking about “Radical Art Statements” around the local bars either.
Soon, just like Bobby Womack, we were crossing 110th Street. This was a border that marked the beginning of Harlem proper. At first there didn’t seem to be much different to West End and 100th. Better in some ways, less traffic for sure, and not so many people on the street either. After a while though we started to notice how many of the towering brick-built houses were boarded up or burnt out, and how everything seemed coated in deep long term grime. After a while we realised that we hadn’t seen any other white folk for a while. We got the occasional quickly averted glare, but also a few passing “Hey y’all”‘s too.
All morning we’d been walking a gentle uphill gradient, now, as the sun rose, it got steeper. Suddenly we were stopped by an extraordinary sight. The massive gothic pile of the Cathedral of St John the Divine (the world’s largest, apparently), still under construction but now uncomfortably marooned on the edge of the ghetto. Other people carrying books and backpacks indicated that we were also in Columbia University territory. Hadn’t Ginsberg and Kerouac studied there? I realised Linda wasn’t listening to my rap about the Beats, instead studying our folded up map.
“I reckon we should take a right to Amsterdam Avenue and then cross over. It looks like there’s a park there – see if we can get a drink or something and take a break.”
Soon the park railings and gate appeared across the road. The cathedral and uni seemed a long way away as traffic swept by, the cars sporting elaborate fins, tinted windows and exuding a confident but slightly menacing air. The old iron railings and fancy brickwork looked incongruous, the ornate main gate even more so, looking like it should be leading to an upmarket cemetery. As we’d expected, there were a couple of itinerant drink and sandwich sellers by the gate. I noticed a couple of black cops leaning against the wall, laughing and smoking. An instinctive male radar told me they were checking Linda out and liked what they saw.
“Hey y’all, you alright now? You know where you’re at?”
“I think they’re talking to us,” I told Linda as she turned away from the sandwich seller. ‘New York’s Finest’ had a reputation that was every bit as scary as any of the city’s bad guys. I could sense her stiffen for a moment as she took hold of my arm. I remembered that South African cops weren’t Dixon of Dock Green either.
“It’s okay, I’ll just ask them how far it is to the Apollo”
I was really keen to see the legendary Harlem music venue on 125th Street. Linda rolled her eyes. If it wasn’t Beat Writers it was music. I wasn’t marking the right social issue boxes evidently. By now the cops had walked over towards us.
“You’re not from round here, are you? Where y’all goin‘ to?” asked the taller one.
Like anyone else I’d been brought up on US cop shows and films, but until then I hadn’t taken in the elaborate array of belts, badges, buckles and other accessories on their blue uniforms – not forgetting the trademark nightsticks and guns which hung jauntily by their sides. It was a long time since I’d thought of cops as friends or protectors, but knew we had to go with it.
“It’s alright, we’re just exploring. We’re on holiday, staying on Upper West Side you know,” I replied
Before they could answer, Linda stepped in,
“We don’t want to do the ordinary tourist stuff like the Empire State Building. It’s more like getting the feel of what the place is really like. Anyway, can you tell us if we’re in Harlem yet?”
The two cops looked at each other quizzically, & then smiled, before the smaller cop replied,
“Hey, that’s something. Don’t never see tourists up this way unless they be going to the church. Ain’t nobody told you not to come up here cos it’s so wild and dangerous and full of bad folks,”
At which point they both dissolved into giggles.
“Well, is it dangerous here?” I asked, “We hear so much bad stuff about the city back in London, but so far everyone’s really cool, you know?”
This time the bigger fed replied,
“The thing is, no-one gives us any trouble cos they know us, we from round here – and we don’t bother them neither. You see, we’d be out here on the street anyway if we wasn’t doing this job…”
His smaller colleague laughed, and carried on seamlessly-
“… so this way we’s getting paid for it and the people here know we aren’t no outsiders…”
I’ve heard a lot of crap about community policing over the years, but here it was in action…
They confirmed that our next move would be through the gates. Although more suited to a Gothic cemetery, they led the way to Morningside Park, which would take us down the hill to the centre of Harlem proper. The Apollo, however, was a good walk away in the other direction, so we decided to leave that for another day. After posing for a photo, the two cops – we never got their names – gave us some parting advice, suggesting Linda put the camera in her bag. This time there was no argument from her. And finally…
“Whatever you do, make sure you outta there by dark!”
The word “park” can mean many things. Morningside Park was made up of scant patches of grass and asphalt paths, with the occasional greenery in the form of trees and bushes. There were benches and litter bins as one would expect, but almost all of them were burnt, graffitied or otherwise trashed. Apart from some suspicious and scruffy dogs the place appeared to be deserted. Lunchtime on a sunny day, you’d expect people to be on their lunch hours or kids to be playing, but there was no-one, apart from a couple of guys who moved off the moment they saw us. The path was covered in broken glass by now, crunching under our shoes. It had been a steep descent, and any of the breeze we’d felt at the top of the hill was gone. Colourwise, everything had a bleached look. The smudgy sun was at its highest and there was a general smell of petrol and burnt things.
We walked on for a block or two. The cars were older and there was more graffiti, but it certainly didn’t seem like the scary alien environment we’d been led to expect. We were getting thirsty and our water was lukewarm by now. Linda pointed out a bar on the next corner, which had a bunker-like appearance due to the narrow windows placed high up on the walls. Some kids were playing outside with a skipping rope, while their mothers hung out by the barber shop next door. Across the junction stood another bar, the Oasis, with flashier cars parked outside and Sly Stone-lookalikes on the door.
We went into the first place … busier than I expected. A group of men sat along the bar with their backs to us. The place went silent as we entered. I thought the guys at the bar were pointedly ignoring us until I realised they were checking us out in the large mirror on the back wall and exchanging puzzled looks. An older couple presided behind the bar, the man lounging on a chair in familiar landlord style. The woman wore an exuberant yellow dress which matched her peroxide hair. I hesitated, not wanting to barge thru the regulars. I asked for a couple of beers while Linda laid claim to one of the few vacant tables. As so often in the States the Limey accent worked its magic, even in these supposed Harlem badlands. Really, if you remove the race factor, it was no different to going into any unfamiliar pub and being checked out by the locals.
Soon we were drinking and exchanging stories with our new pals. Once I’d mentioned music the juke box was never off, mainly playing the ruling tune of the summer, Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa”. The drinks flowed, I bought a bag of weed from one of the guys, all the while being caressed by the sweeping strings of Superfly-style soul. Linda was in her element, rapping with a couple of the younger women. For a moment our eyes met, and I could tell from her sparkle that this was everything she’d hoped for that morning.
I was just hearing about the Oasis bar – “Now, you don’t want to go in there man, nuttin‘ but a whole lot of bad dope…”, when Linda lent over, ever so slightly slurred, and said;
“”Look at the time, it’s nearly six – do you think we should be going?”
There was indeed a faded quality to the sunlight, and a sense of being in a limbo between day’s end & nightfall. Advice on getting back ricocheted around us –
“Couple of blocks outta here, then you’re on Lenox, go right…”
“Yeah, right not left, you hear what I’m saying haha“
“And you be right by Central Park. Y’all know the way from there, right?”
We floated across the intersection and past the Oasis, ignoring the offers of Tragic Magic and China White.
Soon we were on Lenox Avenue. Crowd-wise it was like an Afro-American version of Oxford Street at sales time. Traffic fumes embalmed us as we made our way down the pavement. I soon realised that no-one was going to make way for us and this wasn’t the place to be bumping into anyone. The humidity made the walk like marinading in sweat and petrol. All the heat that the buildings around us had absorbed during the day was now being discharged back on to the street. Cars hooted and stopped to talk to people on the sidewalk. People ran thru traffic to get cabs or force their way on to already jammed buses. Others leant on parked cars, drinking and smoking, while the elders sat on the inside of the pavement in their hard-won places. Music suffused the air like the traffic fug, an insane mix generated by hundreds of car radios and tape decks, ghetto blasters all around, and the squat black speakers festooning many of the shops.
Posters for films and music were plastered on every surface, with graffiti etched in the few remaining spaces. The lamp-posts too were covered in fliers for clubs, parties and discos. After a while I noticed a striking green and purple design which seemed to predominate. I looked at it closer when we next stopped. A purple silhouette of a syringe was the dominant image, crossed out in black, while the text announced simply “Time to Deal with the Dealer – Black Panthers, Harlem”. I’d already had a couple of minor barges and shoves I couldn’t ignore, when Linda nudged my arm.
“I’m sorry Den, shouldn’t have had that last beer. I’ve got to have a wee… can you
We went into a nearby cafe and made our way thru the close-packed and unmoving tables. Linda went into her best slightly fuddled tourist mode, with an added touch of “Hey I’m on your side” as she asked the woman at the counter if it was ok to use the rest-room.
“Can’t you goddam read?” she snapped, indicating a sign on the wall. No buy, no wee evidently. I bought a couple of cokes and waited for Linda to come back, aware of mutterings around me.
“Think she can just come in here and use the john”
We gulped down our drinks and got out, to bitter laughs as someone called out
“Hey y’all come back real soon, yeah?”
If the pavements had seemed crowded before, now it was like being stuck in a lift full of people. Suddenly though I noticed an out-of-place splash of green ahead. There it was. Central Park looked like the Promised Land awaiting us a couple of blocks away. We kept going, Linda smarting and fuming from a few comments and salacious nudges on the sidewalk. Finally we made it to the last intersection before the Park. The road ahead looked as wide as the Mississippi, and where the traffic on Lenox Avenue had been chaotic and slow moving, here cars, trucks and buses tore past, mocking the ever-present Walk / Don’t Walk signs. By now Linda was holding my arm anxiously. I was thinking, don’t relax yet, we’ve still got a way to go. I’d noticed a couple of red-eyed guys leaning on the railings by the traffic lights, clearly drunk and leery – no need for discreet brown bags here – and sensed possible trouble.
Golden rule for the inner city – always look like you know where you’re at and where you’re going next. I gripped Linda’s arm, and said “Right, be ready to get over that road the moment the light changes…”
From then on, things got strange, distant but intense, fast and slow at the same time … I heard slurred voices,
“Fuck off outta here …”
“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill your ass…”
Then I felt a hard blow in my back, knocking me away from Linda. I guessed someone had hit me. I turned and caught a glimpse of metal in someone’s hand.
“This is it,” I thought, “My life’s going to end here”
I’d never really believed in the thing about a drowning man seeing his whole life flash before him. It seemed like a poetic conceit, and anyway, if they’d really drowned they wouldn’t be able to tell anyone. But now my mind was flooded with an overload of thoughts, but each one remained distinct. There was no panic or confusion. I thought of friends and family back home eventually finding out what had happened. What was going to happen to Linda? Immediately another thought popped up – well done for not just thinking of yourself. All the time a passive, spaced out feeling grew stronger,and at the same time I could imagine a camera gradually pulling away into the sky, away from the little corner of the anthill where my drama was going down.
I thought of the Borges story, “The South”, where an urban sophisticate dies in a knife fight with a pampas gaucho, but feels unable to resist the cosmic rightness of his destiny. It was no more personal than a bird eating a worm, but I had been unwary and strayed too far into danger, and now the process had to play out…
Then I felt someone grab me round the shoulders and push me towards the road. I wasn’t aware of seeing Linda, but I found I’d got hold of her again. For once she had no words. I couldn’t see the guy with the knife. Maybe this was someone even more dangerous than a mouthy street-corner drunk. At a glance I could see he was younger, fitter, stronger…
“You gotta get outa here. Some people really wanna mess wid ya“, he snapped, barging thru the crowd and pushing us towards the road. I snapped out of my cosmic reverie and soon we were on the other side of the road, by the imposing gateway to Central Park.
I looked at our rescuer as we stood here – he was about our age, short hair, jeans and short-sleeved black casual shirt, and even blacker skin. We tried to thank him, at the same time as explaining and introducing ourselves, but everything came out in an accelerated jumble. Suddenly our rescuer interrupted us,
“You from Englan‘? Where da Bea-tles from? Man that’s crazy – watchoo doin‘ here?”
I was about to reply that, no, actually we’re from London, where the Rolling Stones come from, but Linda was taking control, making introductions as we made our way into the darkening park. Our new mate was called Billy. He was surprisingly deadpan about the incident.
“I just don’t like that kinda shit y’know?”
Gradually we heard more of his story. He’d been born and grown up in a mixed part
“Maybe I can come to England, check that out…”
“That’d be great,” said Linda, “Look I was thinking – we’re really grateful for what you did. Why don’t you come and have dinner with us somewhere round here? Maybe you know somewhere good?”
I noticed that we were nearly back to the West Side of the Park.
Billy wrinkled his nose, “No, not round here I don’t. Look I’ll see you back to your place, make sure you safe, y’know?”
Suddenly Linda pulled out the long-concealed camera
“Well we’d better get a photo of you before it’s dark then”
A huge grin spread across Billy’s face, “You took a camera round Harlem? You tripping man?! No wonder those cats give you shit…“, he laughed, dumbfounded at our ignorant naive bravery.
We found a suitable place for the photo. At the last moment, Billy said to hold on, could he have his picture taken with Linda? It would have been rude to say no, though it was a nightmare trying to set up the shot as I squinted through the viewfinder, trying to balance the difference in their heights, Billy towering a foot or so over Linda, standing proud, with his head tilted at a cool angle and a suddenly serious expression on his face.
Then at the exact moment I pressed the button, he made a gauche adolescent lunge at Linda, throwing a clumsy arm round her shoulders, and kissing her on the neck as he yanked her towards him. She tried to laugh it off and lighten the situation, but pulled away him from quickly and stayed close to me for the last couple of blocks of the walk.
Suddenly the fear returned. I wasn’t sure I wanted him knowing exactly where we lived or to be at close-quarters behind closed doors. But it would be churlish to turn him away now, so soon the three of us were stepping out of the lift & into the flat.
We broke out some beers, and then I remembered the bag of weed I’d bought a few lifetimes ago in the bar. I put on the new Sly Stone and War albums I’d bought. By then Billy had spotted our bottle of Jack Daniels and was gulping greedily. Linda looked uncomfortably over at me – where was this going? Just as she was suggesting we all go down to the bar on the corner, he moved over to the stereo, switching the tuner on.
He found his station and suddenly the room was flooded with an edgy thudding soul beat that made my records sound like the Bay City Rollers. Next he was demonstrating the elaborate dance moves that went with each particular song, and explaining which clubs or areas favoured one style over another.
“When you’re wit’ me, you can get in any place. Special places. Places you wouldn’t get in by yourselves, you hear?”
It sounded promising. There might be an article there. He swayed over to our settee, extending his hand to Linda,
“Hey come on, bet you like to dance, yeah? But you gotta know the moves where we gonna go…”
They started dancing while I rolled another joint and listened as Manu Dibango came on the radio again.
Suddenly Linda pulled back, raising her voice,
“Come on, Billy, cut it out! You’re a big boy, you should know where a woman’s sensitive…”
He looked chastened for a moment, and managed to behave for about thirty seconds before trying to feel her bum while pushing his leg between hers. This time she pushed him away.
“Right, I think you’d better go, Billy”
I’m not sure who was more surprised – me or Billy – at the hard edge in her voice.
For a moment there was a tense atmosphere. I contemplated the irony of escaping one situation only to find an even worse situation with our savior. After a couple of minutes silence, Billy shrugged his shoulders, muttered briefly, and then he was gone.
“Sorry about that,” she said, “But that was how things always used to start with my brother, dancing…”
We smoked the rest of the weed in bed. Once Linda was asleep I lay back, listening to the familiar sounds of the night, the sirens, guns, and helicopters, feeling the bruise on my back and thinking of the corner where time had stopped.
I wondered if we’d see Billy again, but soon realized that the random collision of our worlds defied repetition. For a couple of days we stayed home, minutely picking over the Harlem trip, but soon we were out and about again. This time though there was a tacit agreement to stick to our block and places we knew. Before long word came that the flat owner was returning and it would be time for us to move on. Linda moved in seamlessly with some ritzy friends of her parents – they even had a couple of servants – while I went to stay with some people I’d met in Brooklyn. I was unable to see her at the new place on ethnic and religious grounds, but she’d come down to the brownstone in Brooklyn a couple of times a week. Meanwhile, despite some success in meeting people and going to the right places, paid writing work was as distant as ever. By now I was running out of money.
I tried to avert my eyes from the return part of my ticket when I was going through my case. After Labor Day there seemed to be a general change of mood and intent. It was like everyone was getting back to work after summer fun or preparing to fight their way through another winter. And so, for no particular reason, I decided to go back. In true early 70’s style, Linda and I had thrown the I Ching for advice. The opaque wording of the hexagram allowed for many things, but “carry on as you are” wasn’t one of them. I’d been waiting for her to say, Stay, we’ll work things out, but knew that our time was ebbing away and she was looking through me to the next phase.
I stepped out on to the top of the slippery metal stairs of the plane. Drizzle hit my eyes as I tried to look round. Luton Airport was oppressive and dismal. Looking beyond to the squat, huddled town I felt like I’d gone back a hundred years when I’d crossed that ocean. I thought of Linda and wished I was back there with her, but knew I wouldn’t see her again.
I made my way through customs. Outside, everything was so slow after New York, and a dank 1950’s grimy mediocrity permeated all around. Sitting on the coach back to London, I began to suspect that I’d made a terrible mistake coming back for no reason beyond my absurd obedience to the return ticket.
The next few years were to show just how bad a mistake it was.
You can listen to a podcast read by the author Denis Browne complete with audio soundtrack via http://radiojoy.co.uk/blog/across-110th-street/