New Harlem

“Niggas got PTSD,” my best friend says to me through my earbuds in a tone that is somewhat facetious but still pretty blunt. She has just finished recounting a fight she’d witnessed at the gym earlier in the day between two personal trainers that ended with one whipping out a machete. 

“Can you believe that shit?” she asks, her voice inflecting as if she, herself, is having a hard time believing that shit. I assume her question is rhetorical, but I respond anyway, “Abso- fucking- lutely.” 

In my experience a simple difference of opinion between two members of the lesser sex almost always manifested into a dick-measuring contest where someone inevitably got hurt. That said, I am not so much surprised by the outcome of the altercation as I am intrigued by my friend’s analysis of it. 

“Niggas got PTSD.” 

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a pathology often applied to victims of some physical or psychological trauma: former military service members, survivors of violent crimes, etcetera, etcetera. Very rarely is the term used to describe the reality of being alive and aware in pre-apocalyptic America. Granted, the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency has left even the bravest of Americans scared shitless and, as we all know, fear often provokes irrational and unpredictable behavior. The natural human response to fear is to fight or to flee and, in this instance, with no escape from their inflated male egos, these men decide to fight to the death. Still, I tell myself, perhaps my friend is being a little dramatic.

Our conversation ends abruptly, an unfortunate consequence of taking calls while riding the subway in New York City. I am somewhat bothered that she hasn’t finished telling me about the fight, but I am more disappointed that we don’t get the chance to exchange the usual pleasantries that all too often mark the close of gossip between black girls. 

“Bye, girl,” one of us usually initiates, and the other follows with a prompt “Lata, boo.” 

Disappointed but not defeated, I switch on a carefully curated iTunes playlist appropriately titled “Pick-me-ups” and with Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” echoing through my earbuds, I begin what has become a routine walk through Harlem in search of some crazy “niggas” — a term, albeit politically incorrect, that has come to apply to all people, irrespective of race or gender, in my vocabulary. 

I arrive on the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue and, apart from the terribly inaccurate street signs that read “Malcolm X Boulevard,” everything seems to be in tact. I am not quite sure when but, somewhere within the last 20 years, someone took it upon themselves to rename the avenues and districts in my hometown. Eighth Avenue is now “Frederick Douglass Boulevard,” Harlem’s historic Sugar Hill section is now called “Hamilton Heights,” and I swear I have heard newcomers refer to the area below 116th Street as “So-Ha” (presumably short for South Harlem). While I often relish in the fact that I was born in the geographic Mecca of black culture in America and that I have walked the same streets as Malcolm, Langston, and Zora, I think I speak for most Harlem natives when I say: Fuck a street a sign, Lenox Avenue will always be Lenox Avenue. 

It has certainly changed over the years, though. What was once a street littered with more crack valves than cracks in cement is now a perfectly pristine snapshot of rapid gentrification in progress. Mom and pop shops like Buster Brown’s, an old children’s shoe oasis where my mother used to torture me with ruffled socks and patent leather shoes, are long gone. They have been replaced with corporate retailers peddling overpriced and poorly manufactured goods. Abandoned lots and burned out buildings are now coffee shops and casual dining restaurants whose sidewalk patios leave just enough space for pedestrians to squeeze through. Rows of carefree diners leisurely sip their cocktails behind outdoor fences adorned with succulent plants and flowers delivered fresh each morning. What beautifully decorated barriers between the haves and the have-nots.

 I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Harlem’s changing racial demographics. While attending college in Washington, DC, I’d often romanticize 125th Street, recounting the joy I felt each time I arrived at my subway stop to find the sounds of Motown’s finest blaring from a vintage boombox and a sea of black faces. Not anymore. Harlem is no longer a chocolate community. Rather, as I resume people-watching I see a rainbow of black, white, brown, and beige faces sprinkled throughout the historic intersection, all of which appear ostensibly sane. 

Then, I spot him. A middle aged homeless black man I’d seen terrorize countless naive pedestrians over the years. Even I, myself, had fallen victim to his wrath on more than one occasion. It was always the same story. He’d ask me for a dollar. I’d decline. And despite his best efforts to contain his seething anger, he’d almost always reply, “Fuck you, bitch!” For a second, I wonder what could possible lead a man to become that broke, nevermind that bitter. But, as I take another look around my old neighborhood, virtually unrecognizable from its former lure, I begin to understand how one could lose one’s sanity as a result of losing one’s home.

Today, Homeless Black Man’s target is a white tourist couple, a man and woman a world away from home judging from their perplexed stares and bulky layers in the heat of July. I watch as he approaches them, cautious and poised, like a starved alley cat just before pouncing on his prey. Holding out the palm of his hand, he bows respectfully, placing his unkempt afro at eye-level with the startled duo. Like so many fools before them, they make the fatal mistake of ignoring his assertive request for a cash donation and proceed to scurry away.  

Just when I think they have escaped unscathed, a loud shattering of glass sends the block in a frenzy. Everyone within my purview appears to be suffering from chronic whiplash. I follow the jerking motions of their heads and notice that they are all looking behind me. I turn around to find Homeless Black Man walking slowly, but purposefully, in my direction, armed with a broken glass bottle. I quickly get out his way, employing the signature step and spin I’d learned during a high school fashion show. I knew being a shallow teenager would come in handy one day. 

When I eventually make it to safety on the fringes of the sidewalk, I see Homeless Black Man pick up speed as he chases the unsuspecting couple. I take a deep breath and brace myself for bloodshed, looking around for signs that I am not going crazy and other people are witnessing this disaster unfold. I notice a growing mass of pedestrians gathering at the corner watching with hungry anticipation. Even a few of the carefree diners have taken a break between cocktails to peep out from their decorative shields. Some folks are smiling, others are scowling, but all seem intent on staying out of harm’s way and admiring from afar. By this time, the couple appears to realize they are in grave danger. Homeless Black Man is gaining serious ground and the closer he gets to them, the more angry he seems to become. 

Petrified, the woman whisks her heavy luggage into her arms and runs full speed down the block, around the corner, and out of sight. The man attempts to put on a brave face, staring stoically ahead as he power walks behind his partner. 

When the couple is finally out of sight, or at least off of Lenox Avenue, Homeless Black Man yells after them in a language I am convinced only he understands. The only word I can really seem to make out from his rant is “motherfucker.” After a few moments of unintelligible banter, he drops his weapon and stumbles drunkenly towards his previous post. The remaining mass of nosy pedestrians disperse. The casual diners return to their cocktails and I stand alone with my mouth open and my mind fucked.    

“Yeah.” I say, thinking out loud. “Niggas got PTSD.” 

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