Harlem: It's A Hard-Knock Life
A thug named Mykul—all 6-foot-5-inches and 250 pounds of him—knocked me, a 5-foot-2, 120-pound “grammy” to three, down to the concrete. I was in front of St. Nick’s Pub, at 10:30 on a Monday night this past May, when he stole my handbag, a beautiful green snakeskin bag and all its contents, including more cash than I’d carried in Harlem—ever. People I knew from the pub stood and watched.
Mykul was so sure of his protected status as a thug in the ‘hood that he ambled away cradling my bag in his arm like a football. Amused that he didn’t even have to run, he grinned back at me lying on the pavement. My romance with the ghetto was over; and like every ill-conceived romance built at least partially on illusion, it was destined to end with a bang. I wasn’t expecting a head bang.
It was three summers ago that I fell simultaneously in love with Harlem and St. Nicks Pub, the legendary jazz bar on Sugar Hill—ground zero of the Harlem Renaissance. Billie Holiday sang on the tiny stage; everyone who is anyone in jazz today has played there or come by to jam after downtown gigs.
On that Saturday night when I first went with friends to hear the Africa Band, I thought the pub—Harlem!—welcomed me. And I rhapsodized about the experience to friends. Striding into St. Nicks on a balmy August night, working my embroidered denim Halle Bob skirt with the deep front slit, I felt Harlem gently kissing my thighs. Nelson, the bar manager, smiled at me and brought folding chairs up from the basement to arrange seating for us because, he said, “I want you sitting here where I can keep an eye on those pretty white legs.”
I was surrounded by the kind of crowd that I imagined assembled in small Harlem jazz bars during the Renaissance and again in the 1940s and the 1960s, time periods when the excitement in the air was inextricably linked to a sound appreciated by sophisticated people who sought out diversity. Africans and African Americans, whites, Latinos, European and Japanese tourists—a mélange of ages, races, sexual orientations and interracial couples—they were jostling against each other in this tiny crowded space without animosity. Nelson pronounced himself my “protector” and was until he became very ill a year ago. He died this past March. Two months later I discovered that Harlem is a cruel lover.
Harlem is no place for a woman without male protection.
Yes, I had noticed that the pub was deteriorating in the absence of Nelson’s management—in the year before my fall. It was always a place where cash disappears from unwatched handbags, a jacket or cashmere shawl tossed casually on the back of a bar stool may be sold to another patron and “salesmen” come through hawking everything from tube socks to portraits of the Virgin Mary. Between the casual theft and the men who asked, “Will you buy me a drink? Lend me some money? Help me buy a new car?”—Yes, a car!—I had stopped carrying more cash than I would spend on two drinks and a cab home. Drugs, of course, were available for purchase in the backyard, which usually smelled of pot smoke.
With Nelson no longer casting the watchful eye over me, the undercurrent of anger that I’d seen as an occasional flash in a black woman’s eye turned into more open hostility. The African-American girl bartenders, especially on Sunday nights, brazenly overcharged white customers and told them to leave for “being disrespectful” if they complained. Black women “regulars” made loud negative comments about white women—specifically white women who showed leg. One of the regulars, an educated, successful black man, lectured me repeatedly: “America must apologize for the original sin of slavery and offer reparations.” “The prisons are full of young black men caught with nickel and dime bags,” he declared, “Incarcerated on the three-strikes-you’re-out rule.” “Reverend Jeremiah Wright! Why is he being pilloried for saying what black ministers say every Sunday in Harlem!”
The pub didn’t feel as emotionally safe as it had. Still, I loved the music—and being able to hear it for the cost of a drink or two. Where else in New York City can you hear really good jazz any night of the week for such a small outlay of cash?
But, with Nelson gone, the violence was escalating, too. (Vincent Lempkin, the owner, is rarely on the premises.) There were stories of one musician slashing another in the backyard, of fist fights among drug buyers and sellers, of guns waved but not shot. One Friday night, I was in the pub when some thugs came in and roughed up some other thugs. Most of the African-American regulars bolted for the door; the white people stayed.
Trumpeter and bandleader Melvin Vines told me, “For you white people, it’s part of the ambience, the Harlem experience. We’re tired of it.”
In retrospect, he was right. It was part of the “experience”—and at the same time, I didn’t think the experience would ever involve me, a white woman. How did I not realize that I had become another poster person for gentrification, the evil that the ministers of Harlem were now crusading against? The concern, or so I have been told, is that Harlem will lose its “culture” as whites move in. The endangered part of the vital Harlem culture is the art, the music, the literature, the jazz at St. Nicks Pub—which is threatened by the thug culture surrounding it. The bigger part of the “culture,” thug life—celebrated in hip-hop—is intransigent like the rats and roaches and mold in gut-renovated brownstones.
I do not doubt Melvin when he says, “We’re tired of it”—but tired enough to stand up against thug culture?
Mykul, my assailant, is a thug; and I was naive to have ignored that.
I discovered during chatty conversation at the pub that Mykul—pronounced Michael—was a hairdresser who initially learned his craft while in prison. Liberal white woman that I am—was?—I believed in rehabilitation, so I made an appointment with him at Big Russ’ Barber Shop on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. And I even returned a second time.
I’m sure he stole my wallet on that second hair appointment, though he blamed a gypsy cab driver for its loss. I wasn’t going to make a third appointment. Then the shakedowns for more money began. He called asking me to pay more “because you would pay it downtown.” Apparently desperate to cover the debt with his drug dealer, he’d told me he had—or maybe just to buy more drugs—he stepped up his game.
When I hit the concrete with the back of my head and the small of my back, I knew that I was forever changed. I was mugged once before, but it wasn’t personal. No one I actually knew by name had ever raised a hand to me. Born and raised in East St. Louis, Ill., I had nevertheless lived my life—until that night—in a world where men do not hit or shove women.
Suddenly I was thrust into the Harlem people had warned me against—especially the African Americans I know downtown who wouldn’t live up there if brownstones were still going for a few thousand dollars. (“Are you just crazy, honey? Even the educated blacks in Harlem are in thrall to the thugs.”)
No one outside the pub that night would loan me a cell phone to dial 911. Crying, I went inside and borrowed a phone from Melvin. Two uniformed cops responded to the call, a man and a woman, young and as unsympathetic as the patrons at the bar—who hugged me in greeting most nights—and now wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Nobody knows you,” the cops said. “Nobody saw anything,” they said.
“It’s always like that in there. Someone gets stabbed in the backyard and nobody saw nothing, nobody knows nothing. It’s a matter of time until someone is killed here, and we can shut the place down. What’s a woman like you doing in a dive like this?”
“I love the jazz,” I said.
They looked at me like I was crazy.
The next day, a friend who has written about Harlem said: “I am sorry you lost your idealism and innocence; you held on to it far longer than most people do. It’s too bad you had to learn the hard way that the only thing African Americans hate more than crime is the police.”
Maybe living in a gentrifying neighborhood (as opposed to using it for your bedroom while you work and play downtown) eventually brings out the worst fears and prejudices hiding inside each of us.
Black people have their blame story: slavery/Jim Crow/gentrification. They revert to their blame story whenever anything goes wrong. White people come to the ‘hood as either The Oblivious—who know not, care not about the glories past of Harlem culture and stomp through neighborhoods in their giant’s shoes with all the class of Ugly Americans visiting Europe. Or they are The Idealist (and I was one) who romanticize the ghetto, know more about the culture of the Harlem Renaissance than the average African American and yet aren’t smart enough to know what African Americans do know even if they won’t express it to white people and certainly not the police: a thug is always a thug. Oblivious or Idealist, we get knocked to the pavement and our reticence against speaking out about the evils in our new ‘hood disappears.
Thug culture, not “gentrification” is the real enemy.
And “gentrification” is not a simple matter of “urban removal” either. To date, few African Americans have been displaced by Harlem development that has focused on abandoned brownstones and apartment buildings, according to African-American developer Joe Holland. Some slum landlords (such as Reverend Calvin Butts) are, in fact, African Americans. On the other hand, white developers have come in primarily from Florida and California, thrown up cheap condos and left the city slightly ahead of the floor tiles popping up, roofs leaking and other disasters. Most of the “victims,” however, are young white buyers. Rising rents are forcing out the middle- and lower-income working African Americans—teachers and doormen, nurses and office workers—while the violent homeless, drug users and dealers, remain. Holland is one of the few developers committed to keeping the middle- and lower-income working people in Harlem.
I have not been back to the pub since that night. I miss the jazz and some of the musicians, especially Melvin Vines and his lovely wife Kay Mori who sings with his group and sometimes tends bar. For all its flaws and attendant problems, St. Nicks Pub has long been a place where a diverse group of people come together to hear good jazz. The people who are campaigning hardest to shut it down are its nearest neighbors, the African-American owners of brownstones, tired of the noise in the backyard from boom boxes—not the jazz inside. Do they want to see the jazz go? No, they want to see the drugs and thugs go.
It’s a thug-life issue dressed up by the bar regulars as a gentrification issue—because they would rather blame “white people.”
When Memorial Day shootings on Lenox Avenue left eight teens wounded, some residents told the New York Times that “neighborhood development” was to blame for the violence. One longtime Harlem resident was quoted as saying, “I was praying something like this would happen to keep them out.” She was referring to the new residents. How pathetic—how morally bankrupt—is that?
Often I think that African Americans give us too much power. White people aren’t the primary force keeping them down. Thug Life is. I haven’t seen Mykul since that night in May. If I did, I’d probably find a safe building and hide. The physical sense of violation I felt when Mykul attacked me was so profound that I could not understand how my neighbors could stand by and offer no help, no sympathy.
I realized they are inured to it—or like the man who once lectured me, so committed to the defense of African Americans, right or wrong, that they actually believe the jails are filled with nice boys who smoked a little pot.
Susan Crain Bakos is a sex journalist, the author of 15 books—including The Sex Bible For Women. Her last NYPress story was “A White Woman Explains Why She Prefers Black Men.”
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