Harlem Country Girl

Since his friend Rosalinda last buzzed it in Toronto, Tim’s hair had grown in fluffy as an Easter chick. It looked more William Hurt than Bruce Willis. I had found a Conair clippers in storage, and volunteered to butchify him again. How hard could it be?

But the blade was spotted with rust, and the batteries almost dead. I raked his scalp over and over, trying to even out the patches I’d mowed. At last Tim said “I think you should stop now.” We looked in the mirror together, and I was glad he couldn’t see the back.
“That’s the worst haircut I’ve ever had,” he said slowly.
“You look like you have mange,” I said. I tried to look regretful, like this wasn’t a sabotage attempt before he heads back to the cute rangerettes on Lake Superior. It was important not to laugh before he did.
“I think we should take the bikes up to Harlem and find a barber and some soul food,” he said.

I love it when a plan comes together.

We crossed the Manhattan Bridge and skimmed up the Bowery, and on up Third Avenue. Six weeks back as a bike hippie has made me practised enough not to stop at most traffic lights. I slow to peer down side streets for oncoming taxis, then shoot ahead three or four car-free blocks. It sounds reckless, but I feel safer out in front of the cars rather than squeezing alongside the unpredictable left-turners and the passenger doors that swing murderously.

My sister was down from Ottawa for a one-day stop on her way to Ireland for Easter, and I’d arranged to meet her in her boyfriend’s uptown neighborhood on the way.
“We’ll meet you outside Serafina’s after brunch,” she’d said, and as we chained our bikes to a street sign I could see why we were considered outdoor pets around here. Outer-boroughs scruffs, with a mangy homemade haircut and clanking bikes, we did not belong with the hardened Barbies milling outside Barney’s. I played a private game of Gay or Eurotrash? all the way to the only café that would seat us (after a kind but firm warning that we would have to give up the the second two-person table if a better prospect came in).

After coffee we retrieved the bikes and headed for Central Park, which swarmed on this first half-decent spring Saturday. When I moved to New York this park was my back garden. I loved it then, but I’d hardly bothered to vist since I moved away. Now it felt full of strangers. I suppose it always was.

At 110th St, we escaped the canned wilderness out into Harlem. There is no more graceful neighborhood in Manhattan. Harlem’s brownstones and wide streets are built for humans, and like the best parts of Brooklyn, the people who live here are from here. I am a foreigner myself, but I find the presence of natives comforting in both places. Neighborhoods have stores of knowledge to be passed on, and neither a rental broker or a travel guide can fill the gaps.

On 125th Street I joined a long queue for cash. At the busiest corner of the busiest shopping street in Harlem, there were only two ATM(cash points) machines to flick out twenties. On sleepy Court St. and First Place, in my old Italian neighborhood, I’ve never once stood in line for the six machines, even on a Saturday afternoon. I guess Citibank thinks Harlem can wait.

Cashed up, we continued up to Charles’s restaurant on 151st Street. Charles’s weekend soul food buffet calls for a bike ride from Brooklyn to sharpen your hunger. It costs $11.95, including unlimited lemonade or ice tea and three kinds of pie. You must pay the cashier before you take a plate. Signs warn you to check the selection in advance: there are NO REFUNDS. But who could be disappointed by pig knuckles, barbecued chicken, fried chicken, ribs, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, cornbread, rice, and blackeyed peas? In the celebrity photos, Whoopi Goldberg looks happy. I remembered my Kentucky friend Joe telling how his hometown buffet restaurant was forced to rewrite their signs as “All You Care to Eat”. “All You Can Eat” had been taken as a challenge for too long.

Tim nodded to two big guys with small mobile phones. They’d been in last time he was there in February; Saturday afternoon regulars. They were so regular they didn’t even have to pay the cashier before they stacked their plates high. It was clear from their portions that I wasn’t going to be the customer to bankrupt Charles’s. The rules require you take a clean plate for each visit to the buffet, like those conveyor-belt sushi places where they tot up your empty dishes. I cleaned two plates, then had to lean back and rest while Tim took a third helping of knuckles and followed it with banana pie.

The motherly cashier chatted while she topped up the lemonade. Her niece wanted to go to a museum when she got off shift.
“But I got five kids, and I’d have to pay for her, too. Twenty bucks each, that’s a hundred and forty dollars, then you got all the soda and snacks. And that’s to have ’em bored in a museum! I told her, uh _uh_. We’re going bowling.”

Charles’s ribs had hardly left room for my own when we headed out in search of a barber. Barbering is a serious business in Harlem, and my patchy amateur efforts did not impress our guy. With a few smooth strokes he buzzed a clean Number Two, and then sprayed a mist of olive oil on Tim’s scalp. Olive oil, we decided, makes white men look sweaty. Otherwise the operation was a success, and the haircut had made a complete recovery.

Back on the bikes we crawled up the steepest hill in the city to Spanish Harlem, lemonade and barbecue sloshing dangerously in our bellies. At Highbridge Park we looked down into the Harlem River, where Tim had paddled a few weeks back. How odd the little red inflatable kayak must have looked from here, a bath toy threading between Harlem and the Bronx.

The old High Bridge, built in 1842, was once part of the water system that carried water in to the city from the Croton Aqueduct over forty miles north. The water was piped to two Manhattan reservoirs: one on the site of Central Park’s Great Lawn and another at 42nd Street, where the New York Public Library now stands. This marvel of engineering was more significant than the Brooklyn Bridge in the city’s history. Until it was built, dirty water, drought, fires, and cholera epidemics had girdled the city’s growth. The first regular supply of clean drinking water made it possible for New York to become itself. Magazine plates from the mid-nineteeth century show swells and servants alike promenading on the High Bridge, which joins Manhattan and the Bronx. There’s talk of opening the bridge again as a foot- and bike-path connecting the two boroughs and continuing all the way out on the trail of the old water system. I’d like to follow it some day.

At a Dominican-run bike shop in the 170s, Luis replaced my clanking, slipping gear shift while I watched the action on Broadway, where big-assed girls in tight pants walked to the music. What bliss to do your Saturday chores in another country, and then bike home as the sun sets on the Hudson.

9 thoughts on “Harlem Country Girl”

  1. I’m touched by the reference to Kentucky and our folksy gluttony. I must say that the Shoney’s in Louisville, Kentucky couldn’t be more different from a soul food hangout in Harlem.

    I’m reminded that David Sedaris, when speaking in Louisville, said that he could only find cigarettes cheaper on an Indian reservation. He stocked up whenever he visited.


  2. I was alarmingly good at that Gay or Eurotrash game. Luckily, it was impossible to ace – as the results often did not match the dual choice answers: some of the dudes turned out to be fratboys, losers or gay Algerians.

    Without that I would have had the perfect score!!


  3. The last few times I was there they had fried okra, but I didn’t see it this time around. My own passion is collard greens. My craving for them points to some kind of vitamin deficiency.

    I haven’t earned a moon pie, either. I only wish I were a regular.


  4. Having just moved from East Harlem to Carroll Gardens, I have to confirm the CitiBank bias.
    The lines for the two atms at 116th and 1st used to wind around the tiny waiting area like some
    world recond attempt (and by early Sunday morning would either only give out $50 bills or display a helpful spanner and screwdriver logo). Meanwhile, he six machines at Court and 1st sit idle, waiting for us to drop in on our to Sparkys.


  5. Yeah, but where can you get good fried chicken and waffles nowadays? We used to go to Well’s, but that’s closed for good, I hear. I just can’t do the pig knuckles. Not banana pie, neither.

    And how come there’s always a wait when _I_ go to that Citibank on Court Street?


  6. Fried chicken and waffles? Is that really a combination? Hmm.

    It sounds good, but it also sounds disconcertingly like “roast beef and cornflakes”.


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