the harlem shake
Day 88 - Lower Harlem, Upper Harlem, Columbia University
On the subway to Harlem, a large mountain of a man walks up and down the subway cars, promising the "greatest show" if
someone would give him some quarters or even pennies. "I take pennies!" he hollers. He's studiously ignored. I play Temple Run 2 on my phone. He starts to bless Bill de Blasio, the current mayor of New York at the top of his lungs. "GOD BLESS BILL DE BLASIO. SO LONG AS BILL DE BLASIO'S THE MAYOR, IMMA DO ALRIGHT. GOD BLESS HIM AND HIS BLACK WIFE AND ALL HIS LITTLE CHILDREN."
An older man gives him a dollar bill. He's so surprised by this that he trips on someone's feet in an attempt to hug the guy. "It's fine, it's fine," says the guy who gave the dollar, looking nervous and quickly backing away. He gets out at the station and our Bill de Blasio fan sits down. Essentially, his performance consists of someone paying him to shut up.
The night before while waiting for rush tickets to Fuerza Bruta, I asked my aunt and uncle where the most dangerous parts of New York are. There was a vague reference to the upper parts of Harlem. The next morning, I consult Four Square for the best chicken and waffles in town. Harlem, it is. My stomach wins over sensible advice for hapless tourists.
Past Malcolm X Boulevard and into Aunty Ruth's. Wonderfully non-descript with brown walls, PM Dawn on the stereo, and Jeopardy episodes on tv. Rob learns the difference between white or dark meat. The waffles are fluffy and fresh. There's unlimited syrup. We're drinking Kool Aid of the day (grape) and sweet tea. I eat collard greens and mac and cheese sides and demolish the soft-as-air free cornbread. I want to hug our waitress, the food is so good.
We walk through sidestreets lined with grand brownstones and intersections guarded by majestic but rundown churches.
is the heart of
. Along the way, there's an American Apparel, H&M and a Banana Republic, sure signs of a growing middle class. However, it's the sidewalk vendors that make the place, selling cut-price apparel, food, cell phone covers, and rows of fragrance oils called "Kim Kardashian" or "Winter Nikki Minaj".
. The only stalls that can operate without a license are book and art vendors because of First Amendment and freedom of speech protections. This explains why sometimes, when we come out on Union Square, there'll be people on the sidewalk selling a handful of books, trying to make enough money for food or essentials.
Like the major Middle Eastern countries we've visited, 125th is a stoop culture. In other words, people like to stand or sit outside their shop doors and people watch. Old men survey the block, people meet and greet, you come to be seen and just chill.
From 125th street to Strivers Row, we hit a sketchy part of town. There's intimidating men lingering on the sidewalks, eyeing you up as you walk along. Across the road, a woman screams at someone up ahead. There's not much traffic or strolling pedestrians. Striver's Row is quiet and sedate. There's "Walk Your Horses" sign, signifying a time when you jumped into your horse and carriage instead of your car. A couple brownstones are still run down with boarded-up windows but
. It's in this part of town that you can imagine why Neil Patrick Harris paid around $4 million dollars for
We curve back down from Harlem, heading for Broadway, walking along the road next to St Nicholas Park. There's moving vans on a couple of corners. As we walk past a guy loitering along the street, he hisses, "I've got baking soda. Baking soda." We debate what drug baking soda is code for and find out later that baking soda is an essential ingredient for crack cocaine.
We cut across the Amsterdam projects to get to Broadway. It's a tower of brown brick against the sky.
Columbia University is nearby. Five minutes ago, we were in the projects. Now, it's a fairy-lit trees, open squares, and Italianate architecture on the Columbia campus. I see bleary-eyed students in track pants padding towards the library and laugh. At exam time, my friends and I used to go to the library in our pajamas. I'm glad an ivy league school's no different. No matter how flash your campus, chances are you'll still be dressed like a hobo when you head into the library to study.