Photo: Jamel Shabazz


An ode to the city they displaced


The old New York came in fitted New Era size 7 3/4 caps, damp sweat in them from last night’s whisky shots. It rose at the cracking of a XXL white t-shirt, or XXL magazine YN editorial letter. Risky behavior and sex shops still open at 3 a.m. for dildos and antichrists to come together and huddle over VHS’ and inflatable lovers. I still can grab a chopped cheese at any corner store with the neons, but Refinery 29 saw them and now, so did everyone else, so I am hesitant to order because look at my pinrolled pants, I am becoming one of the transplanters. I am becoming one of them. “Them” being the former us.

The old New York comes in a whisper, the swift snatch of a gold chain, tucking your insides in, letting the pride stain the FUBU. This New York lives on in marble composition notebooks for multiplication tables and such. The one we use in addition to counting on the fingers, the ones for licking the fried grease residue of Kennedy’s and Popeyes stuck on the skin. The city I remember smelled of violence and chicken wings, the stench of porn; like yellow school buses and hot dog water (check their hands for gloves, their cart for Poland Spring). Before hoods changed zip codes and names, before names of districts were lifted off of slave licenses, before the music became muse, a ruse for fashionistas, for party favors. What party did you vote for, Libertarian or Brunch Bounce?

The city I acknowledge said Rakim wrote the Bible. Stonewall was church. Darryl Strawberry was a disciple, David Cone a Jesus. You could catch a bullet or prayer within a breath take, the same inhale with a marijuana dust cloud and skyscraper coal mist, each eating a lung, beating a rhythm. My favorite New York slept with the lights on, lids open looking for the ninety-ninth percentile, could cook crack, felt dangerous. Yes, this New York was Summer of Sam, the Bronx is burning, combed sidewalks, brushed pomade waves. That New York knew what time it was, bombed train cars, abandoned train tracks, skipped particular parts of Brooklyn, knew real Decepticons, boosted Polo gear out of Bloomingdales. That New York valued dollar slices, reeked of booze and broken windows. The winter wore down radiators, rocked The Fever and The Tunnel, carried razors by the inside of the cheeks, sized you up before asking “what size you wear?” In my memory, streetlights were curfew.

The city ate people, this city that now is owned by Fairway, by Whole Foods. The sushi is for sale now. The chicken is hormone-, steroid-, GMO-free, costing arms, legs, ribs, Adam, Eve. The ghettos are chic, they shine. Harlem looks like a Clinton, Red Hook could be an Ikea, Fordham a Food Network glossary. Giuliani stole the soul out, took the color with him. The pockets of the corners are dry, bodegas swallowed by chains of Panda Express, by Pantene billboards plastered above Zale jewelry store front windows, advertising luxury in exchange for your empty Budweiser bottle, bagged in brown paper. The open bottle’s illegal now. Crime is down but death is up, because the city is too sweet, too much glycerin, glucose, gluttony. No gluten, no to anything that touches you, fills you. I point to things with my daughter, “this used to be…”, “this once was…”, “before this, this was…” Creflo Dollar took over the movie theater on Creston Ave. If you did not know, God is entertaining, too.

This New York is new, but faintly familiar. It is America post-colonization, post-Transatlantic, a silent Jim Crow. You can eat here, but can you afford the tongue it will cost? You can live here, but give me your hands, let me steal your generations. Robert Moses built an expressway through the Bronx and bombed the heart out of a borough. This is the temperature, this is the shrimp tempura by the Upper East Side, beside the projects and Chase Bank, between Bach and Chance the Rapper. The crunch of loiterers, of subway side swipers, of wrapper litter lining the sides of the streets we reside in. Homes have gun resin in it, in the language. We are replacing people with holes, machines with humans. You can turn to Mecca and hail an Uber from the same spot . Sin sits comfortably in a Park Slope brownstone.

We here though, boning the walls of the old, banging our hands on the table, waiting for the climax. We click heels, we click our mouse, we clip coupons, we cliff dive off of the avenues with ex-offenders, exes stomping out the remains of lovers in the smoke of sage. We have made AfroPunk not punk. Street art is sponsored content.

The city is an old friend, twice removed, gone corporate. I stay here, a relic. But, I have faith and I have Knicks tickets. I have family. My uncle, he makes curried chicken for birthday parties. My mother rubs my belly and asks what is this fat. I tell her stress. She laughs in Patois, my stress and my mother both. The city, this city, my city, still feeds me dreams, a steely resolve, a Steely Dan medley, a Springsteen tribute, a Ron Howard sighting on a 2 train, a Ethan Hawke seat, a Bette Midler New Year’s.

In the dead of a January slumber, my former partner and I were invited to VIP by strangers (note: Black people are never strangers around other Black people), and drank peach liqueur. Everyone drunk, wearing the funny hats you wear before you toast and kiss, blowing those free noise makers they give you to celebrate new beginnings. I stayed for that, for those things. My daughter will grow up, if the Gods permit, and she may choose to leave here. And we’ll be happy for her. But I will not go, not quietly anyway. My New York and Fran Lebowitz’s, my city and Anna Wintour’s, are not the same place. But we both pay for the same air, the same enchantment. That is a New York worth saving, worth staying for.