Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mein Harlem

Harlem, even at its worst, has always been good to me. The first friend I made in New York after leaving my home in Germany lived in Harlem. We met in 1982 at an audition at La Mama. I was excited when Dana Jackson invited me to her house. She lived with her mother in East Harlem, not far from where my favorite writer, James Baldwin, was raised. In my German guidebook Manhattan ended at 96th Street and foreign visitors were warned not to venture beyond because they might not leave Harlem or Washington Heights alive. But I wasn’t afraid of Harlem. I already knew Harlem from James Baldwin’s novels, short stories and essays that I had read in the German translation.

As soon as I emerged from the No. 2 train at the corner of 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, the air was full of danger and menace. The only white person on the street, I held my head high and walked with confidence east for a block, then turned right onto what Baldwin had called “wide, filthy, hostile Fifth Avenue.” I looked for the grocery store’s Jewish proprietor who had given the Baldwin family credit, the shoe repair store’s Negro proprietor, the Buy Black street corner meetings and the Holy Rollers Baldwin had described. I hoped to find the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly where James got his start as a youthful preacher.

Instead I found blocks of abandoned and burnt-out buildings that looked like Germany at the end of World War II. Street vendors aggressively hawked their wares and Black Israelite preachers pontificated to their street flock. One of them, looking extraterrestrial in his shiny silver headband and belt, suddenly spewed hatred in my direction. “Whites are the incarnation of evil. God will wipe out all the Christians and Muslims. Only we are his chosen people.” I hastened my pace. Shady characters lurked in doorways. Young men offered me drugs. A good number of people had collapsed on the pavement, strung out on potent liquor or drugs. I was relieved to finally arrive safely at Dana’s home.

The Jacksons’ residence was fortified like a medieval castle with window gates, burglar bars, slide bolts, deadbolts and impressive looking high-security police locks. Dana explained that they had been broken into plenty of times: from the roof, the backyard, the basement, and through the kitchen window. Once I passed the security barrier, I found three elegantly furnished floors, an entire brownstone just for Dana and her mother. There were bay windows, a graceful parlor, shiny parquet floors, fireplaces and a library with thousands of records and books. Miss Jackson could have started her own radio show with her outstanding R&B collection.

Dana’s mother felt sorry for me, all alone in New York, so far away from my own mother, and adopted me for Thanksgiving, Christmas and many Sunday dinners. On my first visit I stared in disbelief at the abundance of food, the visual and olfactory feast spread out before me. The rich burgundy tablecloth was covered with plates, bowls, terrines and glass candlesticks. There were three plates for each of us, rolled-up linen napkins and a confusing assortment of cutlery. Unsure about what to do with all those knives and forks, I waited for Miss Jackson to start. She wore a chic flower-print dress that clung to her curvaceous body. Her hair was done in the latest Jheri-curl fashion and the bright orange of her lipstick and perfectly manicured nails matched the colors of her dress. So different from my mother who always wore an apron or a housedress, never a stylish dress like Miss Jackson. My mother hated make-up. She had been indoctrinated by Hitler’s youth organization for girls. A German girl is a pure girl. A pure girl doesn’t smoke or paint her face. Only whores do.

“Child, are you hungry?” Miss Jackson asked me. Then she folded her hands neatly in front of her chest. “Dear Lord,” she said, “thank you for all the blessings you have bestowed upon us. And thank you for bringing us this nice visitor from Germany.” Overcome, I turned beet red. I was twenty-six and no one had called me Child in a very long time. At home saying grace was simply going through the motions, mumbling the words without thinking. Miss Jackson made up her own prayer. She spoke like a poet and infused each word with deep emotion. An atheist since forth grade, I was ready to join her flock.

I was taken with Miss Jackson’s grace, hospitality and her amazing culinary talents. She introduced me to new foods: black-eyed peas, mustard greens, okra and best of all sweet potato pie. Her collard greens looked and smelled similar to my mother’s Gr√ľnkohl, but tasted so much better. Her smothered pork chops were the best I ever had. I found that black people, like the Germans, devoured pig’s feet, ham hocks and tripe. What we called Saumagen, they called chitlins and maw. Our drinking habits, however, were worlds apart. The Jacksons did not drink beer or wine with dinner. They drank ginger ale with their meals and strange alcoholic concoctions before or after.

Miss Jackson taught me about Black history, about Harlem as “the capital of Black America,” the excitement of the Civil Rights Movement, the riots and the devastation caused by drugs that followed. “The middle class moved to the suburbs and left nothing but poor people behind. Harlem turned into a slum.” A supervisor at AT&T, she purchased her brownstone on East 122nd Street during that time and was very proud to have made it on her own. Smart women buy low and sell high.

A legendary beauty, Miss Jackson had enjoyed many suitors in her youth, but never married. She had banished Dana’s father, “the sperm donor,” from her life. He drank too much and “was a heap of trouble.” She had a steady boyfriend, but would not let him move in with her. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? Hank, the owner of a trucking company, was a perfect gentleman. He took her to fine restaurants, Broadway musicals and weekend trips to Atlantic City. For her birthday, he bought her serious jewelry. He let her pick out his clothes at SYMS and agreed to have the rims of his hats taken in, since he, a native of South Carolina, looked “too country” for her taste. I thought of Miss Jackson as a feminist icon and tried to follow her advice. Don’t let a man treat your ass like a comfort station. My mother, afraid to be on her own, had stayed in a loveless marriage with an irascible husband. She could have learned a thing or two from Miss Jackson’s chutzpa.

Read the rest of the essay in or ep;phany; listen to the podcast of the New York Public Library's reading series Perodically Speaking: Literary Magazine Editors Introduce Emerging Writers from May 13, 2008.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

My Super and I

In February of 1999, I moved to Harlem. Bringing down the garbage for the first time, I met our middle-aged super.

“Hi, I’m Angela. They call me the Clean Nazi. I really appreciate how you separate your garbage. You do a great job tying up your recyclable newspapers and cardboard boxes,” she said.

After my initial shock of witnessing a black woman calling herself a Nazi, I answered: “Hi, my name is Anna. Thanks for the compliment. I’m from Germany. Recycling is a religion in my homeland. You might go to jail if you don’t separate your brown from your green and white glass.”

“My kind of country. Welcome to Harlem. How do you like it so far?”

While I stuffed my laundry into the dryer, we talked. Angela, from Trinidad, didn’t mind White people moving to her Harlem. “We have too many people with poor breeding the way it is now.” Our conversation turned personal. We found out we were the same age.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you menopausal?” she said.

“I stopped menstruating a year ago.”

“A drag, isn’t it?

“I wake up at four every morning and can’t go back to sleep.”

“Do you take hormones?”

“No, I believe in really good quality dark chocolate.”

“You’re my kind of woman.”

On my next trip down to the basement I brought her some of the Novesia Goldnuss Schokolade from my mother’s care package. Angela inspected the green and gold wrapping, the see-through window revealing dark chocolate with gigantic hazelnuts. “Hmm, that looks different,” she said as she ripped the package open. She put the first piece in her mouth and closed her eyes in blissful surrender. I have never had sex with a woman, but Angela looked positively orgasmic. I felt like a voyeur watching the chocolate and hazelnut dance around in her mouth. Finally she opened her eyes.

“Good Lord, this is divine. I’ll throw my Hershey’s away for this. What makes this so good?”

“The right kind of fat. Nothing but cocoa butter. No fillers and additives,” I said.

Angela licked her lips. “How can I make it up to you?”

“No need,” I said, “I just wanted to give you something to take the edge off those menopausal mood swings.”

Then I threw the bright yellow Ikea bags with my freshly laundered clothes over my shoulders and made my way up the stairs.

“Wait a minute,” she stopped me. “Do you have any plans for Saturday night?”

“No, not really.”

“Want to come to my birthday party? We’ll have a male stripper to entertain a crowd of menopausal woman.”

Of course I wanted to go.

(First published in