By Salim Washington
*The following originally appeared as a Facebook post.*
I got in late the night before last and walked the streets of my old neighborhood, mainly in search of a meal and some snacks to bring back to the ‘tel. It wasn’t exactly surreal, but indeed the “new Harlem” is in full effect. The mix of white yuppies who can afford the multi-million dollar brownstones or the multiple thousands for monthly rent are here, and the services that cater to them are also very much a part of the landscape.
And yet the old Harlem is still vibrant despite the ongoing removal of poor people. The sights, sounds, and even the smells of Harlem are still here. The walk of hipsters, of youngsters, the array of styles and colors that is Harlem is here. I started with a decidedly bougie stop at the new Whole Foods on two-fifth, and wound up talked into eating at the Red Rooster, the restaurant with the celebrity chef from Ethiopia who was raised by a Swedish family. I played with Fred Ho and others when they first opened with their music policy. The room was LOUD. I told the maître d’ I would wait the fifteen minutes necessary to be seated, and went next door to a smoke house restaurant I had never seen before. The vibe was also celebratory and loud but different. It was a blacker vibe but it was as if I were at the Players Ball in Detroit or Chi-town rather than in Harlem. The cats had their minks and other accoutrements of a true player including blinged shoes with baubles and lights, you dig. They were dancing to R&B (next door hip hop) and it was clear that if you were not at least fifty you could not be taken seriously here. Even though I am past that age I stood for minutes without anyone inviting me in, so I went back to The Rooster and took my seat. The menu was nouveau soul and expensive. I decided to try crab cakes, which I can’t get in Durban, and thought the safest side was macaroni and greens. Little did I know they would be combined in one dish. I asked my waitress if there were traditional dishes. She gave me a knowing look and said “not here.” Well, in my condition, it’s always a good thing when I leave food on the plate. I had to navigate my way through the bar section where they were partying. The Rooster was alive with the beautiful people, the fabulously declaratively queer and the new-styled hipsters. One woman who was almost my age was dancing wildly. She danced well and with abandon but without the coolness that was a moral and cultural imperative when I was learning to dance and to party.
Well in the morning I went to “Little Africa” on 116th street to get my beard trimmed. I walked into the Muslim joint and immediately the vibe changed. I was wearing my coat, handmade from Bhutan. I always get comments on this coat, and every time I wear it, at least one woman tells me she was checking it out, wants it for herself, and so forth. When I got to the barber shop the first thing the cat said was “This is the first time in 40 years I seen somebody wearing a robe up in here. Man you got on your pajamas? you real comfortable in the block.” And with that, with his flip comment, its innuendo and sly hipness, and the timbre and cadence in his voice, I knew that I was actually in Harlem. I sat in his chair and as he expertly did his thing, understanding my intentions through my directions, which is not always the case back home in Durbs.
We discussed the trickery of Trump and the relationship between the impeachment procedures and his sudden decision to initiate a war; the transformation of his hood from African American to African immigrants; the arrogance that some have towards African Americans, but the realization that with the immigrants there was a significant drop in violence and shooting; the new generation who are culturally African American and sometimes even trying to get into the gun toting culture. As I sat back and chopped it up with the barber I relaxed and by the end I looked good and felt ready for New York.
Back on the street, I got my horn fixed by the expert care of Roberto Romeo, and ran into old friends at the sax shop, including saxophone colossus Antoine Roney. I had my first gig uptown at Assinie with a great band, including, Ronnie Burrage, Yayoi Ikawa, and Calvin Jones. The music was alive and dancing and it lifted my spirits and those in attendance. I realized my ego is not so important, and that I can tell a story as the band coaxes out my musicality, and the spirit of the place is surrounded by love. We play again tonight same place same time if you are uptown. Harlem Homecoming, baby!