Darryl Pinckney

Darryl Pinckney

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 24 1997 12:30 AM

Darryl Pinckney

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       I did not go to Harlem. I wanted to go when at a dinner in Tribeca someone admitted to being afraid of the 110th Street end of Central Park and once again when a taxi driver said of the governor's threat to do away with rent control, "We know what's going to happen up there." He meant either the fear or the promise of gentrification. But people have been preparing for the revival of Harlem ever since the vogue for research on the Harlem Renaissance transformed Black Studies in the late '70s and early '80s. How many have dreamt of those townhouses by Stanford White and how many have actually moved in?
       I like to go up to Harlem just to look and maybe to test myself in some way. I have been making these quick pilgrimages for years. It seems always necessary to update my impressions, no doubt because they are superficial. For instance, the small record shops with the speakers above the doors that gave to 125th Street its defiant soundtrack have been replaced by chain outlets. Now the street's soundtrack is provided by passing cars.
       I spent several days in Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture last fall. Lovely, beautifully dressed middle-aged librarians took the time to demonstrate how to use the computers. I liked the cadences of their voices so much that they ended up keeping their distance from so much neediness. Young girls chewed gum over their girl problems and were frank about which desk they considered the worst assignment. Cool young guys with Afrocentric names made change for the microfilm machines. Polite older gentlemen kept proprietary eyes on the undemanding traffic. One morning I noticed in the lobby a group of schoolchildren gathered around the bust of Ira Aldridge dressed as the Moor. An old woman was telling them about Othello, making them produce the "th" several times. She was light-skinned and wore her hair in a bun--the classic Negro librarian look, as I recall it from my grammar-school field-trip days. She clearly minded that the teacher interrupted her story, but it was over the pupils' heads. She was touching because she embodied the library's desire to impart information. The Schomburg has its public-relations face and its working face, one outsiders can spy when they take the elevator up instead of down and the door opens onto a "staff only" floor. One can hear people at lunch somewhere behind rows of big black filing cabinets and the sort of grid fences associated with police lockups. The smell of chicken up there says that the Schomburg has a staff that perhaps complains of pay and conditions like city workers at any other institution do.
       The subway stairs come just a few feet away from the library door on Lenox Avenue and 135th Street. One afternoon I stepped outside for a cigarette and saw a white cop kneeling over a black man. The scene made pedestrians slow or pause. The young cop explained that the man was having a seizure and that he was waiting for an ambulance. "Thanks," he called over his shoulder to the still-suspicious.
       Maybe they wondered, because Harlem Hospital is right across the street, a gray-blue tower that would not be out of place in Warsaw. The fast-food joints immediately around it have an undersupplied, unhygenic atmosphere. McDonald's seems to function as the hospital cafeteria. Visitors are greeted by a blast of frying potatoes and old oil. McDonald's liveliness survives to the intersection. Black nurses cross the street. Their shift is over. They are laughing and carrying plastic bags. They've been on their feet in those sheer white stockings and white flat shoes for hours. But a few blocks south it is hard to tell what is a storefront church closed for the day and what is a storefront church that has gone out of business. There is still so much power and unease in the word "Harlem." Perhaps it has something to do with the knots of black men in doorways, talking a little and mostly waiting.

Darryl Pinckney is the author of High Cotton, a novel. He lives in Oxford, England.