I looked down now at the abandoned New York street. Did Marcus know where he belonged? Did any of us? Where were the fathers, the uncles and grandfathers, who could help explain this gash in our hearts? Where were the healers who might help us rescue meaning from defeat? They were gone, vanished, swallowed up by time. Only their cloudy images remained, and their once-a-year letters full of dime store advice….
It was well past midnight by the time I crawled through a fence that led to an alleyway. I found a dry spot, propped my luggage beneath me, and fell asleep, the sound of drums softly shaping my dreams. In the morning, I woke up to find a white hen pecking at the garbage near my feet. Across the street, a homeless man was washing himself at an open hydrant and didn’t object when I joined him. There was still no one home at the apartment, but Sadik answered his phone when I called him and told me to catch a cab to his place on the Upper East Side.
He greeted me on the street, a short, well-built Pakistani who had come to New York from London two years earlier and found his caustic wit and unabashed desire to make money perfectly pitched to the city’s mood. He had overstayed his tourist visa and now made a living in New York’s high-turnover, illegal immigrant workforce, waiting on tables. As we entered the apartment I saw a woman in her underwear sitting at the kitchen table, a mirror and a razor blade pushed off to one side.
“Sophie,” Sadik started to say, “this is Barry-”
“Barack,” I corrected, dropping my bags on the floor. The woman waved vaguely, then told Sadik that she’d be gone by the time he got back. I followed Sadik back downstairs and into a Greek coffee shop across the street. I apologized again about having called so early.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sadik said. “She seemed much prettier last night.” He studied the menu, then set it aside. “So tell me, Bar-sorry. Barack. Tell me, Barack. What brings you to our fair city?”
I tried to explain. I had spent the summer brooding over a misspent youth, I said-the state of the world and the state of my soul. “I want to make amends,” I said. “Make myself of some use.”
Sadik broke open the yolk of an egg with his fork. “Well, amigo…you can talk all you want about saving the world, but this city tends to eat away at such noble sentiments. Look out there.” He gestured to the crowd along First Avenue. “Everybody looking out for number one. Survival of the fittest. Tooth and claw. Elbow the other guy out of the way. That, my friend, is New York. But…” He shrugged and mopped up some egg with his toast. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the exception. In which case I will doff my hat to you.”
Sadik tipped his coffee cup toward me in mock salute, his eyes searching for any immediate signs of change. And in the coming months he would continue to observe me as I traveled, like a large lab rat, through the byways of Manhattan. He would suppress a grin when the seat I had offered to a middle-aged woman on the subway was snatched up by a burly young man. At Bloomingdale’s, he would lead me past human mannequins who spritzed perfume into the air and watch my reaction as I checked over the eyepopping price tags on winter coats. He would offer me lodging again when I gave up the apartment on 109th for lack of heat, and accompany me to Housing Court when it turned out that the sublessors of my second apartment had failed to pay the rent and run off with my deposit.
“Tooth and claw, Barack. Stop worrying about the rest of these bums out here and figure out how you’re going to make some money out of this fancy degree you’ll be getting.”
When Sadik lost his own lease, we moved in together. And after a few months of closer scrutiny, he began to realize that the city had indeed had an effect on me, although not the one he’d expected. I stopped getting high. I ran three miles a day and fasted on Sundays. For the first time in years, I applied myself to my studies and started keeping a journal of daily reflections and very bad poetry. Whenever Sadik tried to talk me into hitting a bar, I’d beg off with some tepid excuse, too much work or not enough cash. One day, before leaving the apartment in search of better company, he turned to me and offered his most scathing indictment.
“You’re becoming a bore.”
I knew he was right, although I wasn’t sure myself what exactly had happened. In a way, I was confirming Sadik’s estimation of the city’s allure, I suppose; its consequent power to corrupt. With the Wall Street boom, Manhattan was humming, new developments cropping up everywhere; men and women barely out of their twenties already enjoying ridiculous wealth, the fashion merchants fast on their heels. The beauty, the filth, the noise, and the excess, all of it dazzled my senses; there seemed no constraints on originality of lifestyles or the manufacture of desire-a more expensive restaurant, a finer suit of clothes, a more exclusive nightspot, a more beautiful woman, a more potent high. Uncertain of my ability to steer a course of moderation, fearful of falling into old habits, I took on the temperament if not the convictions of a street corner preacher, prepared to see temptation everywhere, ready to overrun a fragile will.
My reaction was more than just an attempt to curb an excessive appetite, though, or a response to sensory overload. Beneath the hum, the motion, I was seeing the steady fracturing of the world taking place. I had seen worse poverty in Indonesia and glimpsed the violent mood of inner-city kids in L.A.; I had grown accustomed, everywhere, to suspicion between the races. But whether because of New York’s density or because of its scale, it was only now that I began to grasp the almost mathematical precision with which America’s race and class problems joined; the depth, the ferocity, of resulting tribal wars; the bile that flowed freely not just out on the streets but in the stalls of Columbia’s bathrooms as well, where, no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, the walls remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes.
It was as if all middle ground had collapsed, utterly. And nowhere, it seemed, was that collapse more apparent than in the black community I had so lovingly imagined and within which I had hoped to find refuge. I might meet a black friend at his Midtown law firm, and before heading to lunch at the MoMA, I would look out across the city toward the East River from his high-rise office, imagining a satisfactory life for myself-a vocation, a family, a home. Until I noticed that the only other blacks in the office were messengers or clerks, the only other blacks in the museum the blue-jacketed security guards who counted the hours before they could catch their train home to Brooklyn or Queens.
I might wander through Harlem-to play on courts I’d once read about or to hear Jesse Jackson make a speech on 125th; or, on a rare Sunday morning, to sit in the back pews of Abyssinian Baptist Church, lifted by the gospel choir’s sweet, sorrowful song-and catch a fleeting glimpse of that thing which I sought. But I had no guide that might show me how to join this troubled world, and when I looked for an apartment there, I found Sugar Hill’s elegant brownstones occupied and out of reach, the few decent rental buildings with ten-year-long waiting lists, so that all that remained were the rows and rows of uninhabitable tenements, in front of which young men counted out their rolls of large bills, and winos slouched and stumbled and wept softly to themselves.
I took all this as a personal affront, a mockery of my tender ambitions-although, when I brought up the subject with people who had lived in New York for a while, I was told there was nothing original about my observations. The city was out of control, they said, the polarization a natural phenomenon, like monsoons or continental drift. Political discussions, the kind that at Occidental had once seemed so intense and purposeful, came to take on the flavor of the socialist conferences I sometimes attended at Cooper Union or the African cultural fairs that took place in Harlem and Brooklyn during the summers-a few of the many diversions New York had to offer, like going to a foreign film or ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. With a bit of money, I was free to live like most middle-class blacks in Manhattan, free to choose a motif around which to organize my life, free to patch together a collage of styles, friends, watering holes, political affiliations. I sensed, though, that at some stage-maybe when you had children and decided that you could stay in the city only at the cost of a private school, or when you began takings cabs at night to avoid the subways, or when you decided that you needed a doorman in your apartment building-your choice was irrevocable, the divide was now impassable, and you would find yourself on the side of the line that you’d never intended to be on.
Unwilling to make that choice, I spent a year walking from one end of Manhattan to the other. Like a tourist, I watched the range of human possibility on display, trying to trace out my future in the lives of the people I saw, looking for some opening through which I could reenter.
It was in this humorless mood that my mother and sister found me when they came to visit during my first summer in New York.
“He’s so skinny,” Maya said to my mother.
“He only has two towels!” my mother shouted as she inspected the bathroom. “And three plates!” They both began to giggle.
They stayed with Sadik and me for a few nights, then moved to a condominium on Park Avenue that a friend of my mother’s had offered them while she was away. That summer I had found a job clearing a construction site on the Upper West Side, so my mother and sister spent most of their days exploring the city on their own. When we met for dinner, they would give me a detailed report of their adventures: eating strawberries and cream at the Plaza, taking the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, visiting the Cézannes at the Met. I would eat in silence until they were finished and then begin a long discourse on the problems of the city and the politics of the dispossessed. I scolded Maya for spending one evening watching TV instead of reading the novels I’d bought for her. I instructed my mother on the various ways that foreign donors and international development organizations like the one she was working for bred dependence in the Third World. When the two of them withdrew to the kitchen, I would overhear Maya complaining to my mother.
“Barry’s okay, isn’t he? I mean, I hope he doesn’t lose his cool and become one of those freaks you see on the streets around here.”
One evening, while thumbing through The Village Voice, my mother’s eyes lit on an advertisement for a movie, Black Orpheus, that was showing downtown. My mother insisted that we go see it that night; she said that it was the first foreign film she had ever seen.
“I was only sixteen then,” she told us as we entered the elevator. “I’d just been accepted to the University of Chicago-Gramps hadn’t told me yet that he wouldn’t let me go-and I was there for the summer, working as an au pair. It was the first time that I’d ever been really on my own. Gosh, I felt like such an adult. And when I saw this film, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”
We took a cab to the revival theater where the movie was playing. The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie, I decided that I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.
I turned away, embarrassed for her, irritated with the people around me. Sitting there in the dark, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had a few years earlier with a friend of my mother’s, an Englishman who had worked for an international aid organization throughout Africa and Asia. He had told me that of all the different peoples he had met in his travels, the Dik of Sudan were the strangest.
“Usually, after a month or two, you make contact,” he had said. “Even where you don’t speak the language, there’s a smile or a joke, you know-some semblance of recognition. But at the end of a year with the Dik, they remained utterly alien to me. They laughed at the things that drove me to despair. What I thought was funny seemed to leave them stone cold.”
I had spared him the information that the Dik were Nilotes, distant cousins of mine. I had tried to imagine this pale Englishman in a parched desert somewhere, his back turned away from a circle of naked tribesmen, his eyes searching an empty sky, bitter in his solitude. And the same thought had occurred to me then that I carried with me now as I left the movie theater with my mother and sister: The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.