My cousin, Melon, recently assured me that Harlem is perfectly safe and not at all like it used to be, when it was dangerous. I was impressed with Melon’s knowledge about Harlem, since she lives in a Washington, D.C. suburb. But, in her defense, her daughter attends an excellent college not far from Harlem, so Melon has probably driven through the neighborhood.
Melon has not, however, stood on the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue for half an hour, looking like a lost tourist, like I did this evening. Due to a fire on the Metro North train tracks in Harlem yesterday, the train schedules are in disarray. If you are lucky enough to be on the platform when the rare train arrives, and are able to spot an opening in the aisle where you can forcefully cram your body and belongings, you’ll be rewarded by standing for an hour, shoulder to nearest body part of your neighbor, while rocking to the gentle rhythm of the train and trying not to fall into the lap of the nearest seated passenger.
This morning, my husband kindly offered to take me away from all of that by driving me from Connecticut to the Bronx, where I could catch the #6 train to Grand Central Terminal. I agreed to his plan, and my morning commute was very pleasant. He also offered to pick me up after work at the same place where he dropped me off. However, later in the day my husband had to go to Queens, so he suggested that I take the subway to Harlem and he’d swing by on his way back.
We agreed to meet at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue at 7 p.m., right outside the subway exit. I got there 15 minutes early, while he got caught in traffic, due to the mess that was created by the fire on 118th Street. Every ten minutes, he called to say he’d be there in ten minutes. I received at least three of those calls.
Intellectually, I knew that my cousin, Melon, was right. Harlem had undergone a gentrification over recent years, and people were rarely murdered there anymore. Even President Clinton rents office space there now, which could lead one to infer that he feels comfortable and safe in Harlem, or he was paid to work there to promote the neighborhood and his bodyguards are former Navy Seals.
In truth, as I waited, I really was never afraid. It was still daylight, and while the intersection I was in was not even mildly touched by gentrification, there were plenty of people around — people who would deny seeing anything even if I were clubbed over the head in front of them. But there were also lots of respectable people coming home from work, and bus drivers standing on each corner awaiting the arrival of their busses, so I tried to ignore the clots of dissolute loiterers lounging against the rails of the subway steps, jabbering senselessly on the street corners, and skulking in the shop doorways, all while sizing me up with side glances.
Each time my husband called and said he’d be there in ten minutes, I would immediately dash into a store for five minutes. But then I’d panic that he’d get there early, so I’d run back to my corner. The traffic at that intersection is non-stop and if I weren’t on the correct side of the street when he pulled up, he’d have to keep driving, without me. Therefore, being in the correct place at the exact time he arrived was crucial.
So, while, as I said, I wasn’t fearful, I also wasn’t carefree. As I waited, I instinctively started meandering side to side, and around in circles. I did it slowly, so as not to attract attention. I probably did attract some notice, but I didn’t want to check, in case I made eye contact with someone. I didn’t realize at first why I was zig-zagging. Then, it came to me: I was following Peter Falk’s instructions to Alan Arkin, in The In-Laws, regarding how to walk (“Serpentine, Shel!”) in order to avoid being shot. I didn’t really expect to be shot, but I thought a handbag-grab wasn’t out of the question.
Eventually, my husband showed up at the intersection, I got in the car with my handbag, and he said, “Now, isn’t this much better than being on a Metro North train that is delayed 60 to 90 minutes?”
“Why, yes,” I said. “It is. Thank you so much for doing this for me.” He did have good intentions, after all, and he went to a lot of trouble getting me to and from work, and I was grateful for that. Then wasn’t the time to complain. There would be plenty of time later.
Besides, I suddenly had a craving for fruit. “Would you mind pulling over near that cart?” I asked, pointing to a fruit wagon on Lexington Avenue. “I would love to get my hands on a melon.”