Photo credit: Scarlet Quiñonez
It was during the Clinton years when I finally left Spanish Harlem. I moved to the Upper Westside of New York City, where I drank rivers of coffee at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. I’d sit there wondering, Where does my neighborhood of El Barrio fit into this Anglo world of literature?
I was refilling my cup on a spring day with a Magritte sky and air so crisp it made you wanna cross the street to Saint John the Divine, made you wanna believe in a god who counts your birthdays, when I met a girl named E-. She was sitting outside, her legs were crossed, one shoe dangling, an open book on the table next to an ashtray of dead Camels she polished off like seconds. She was studying minor aboriginal poets at Columbia University. I didn’t know there were major ones, but she assured me that there were.
I saw E- for a while and one day she handed me a spare set of keys. "Just hide behind the door. I’ll be scared and yell, but you can rip my clothes off. Just don't tell me when you are going to do it." I knew what E- wanted and she was serious about having the whole fantasy acted out. "So this means I trust you," she said. Giving her keys back, I let her know that she lived in a doorman building. What if the neighbors heard something; the police would knock the door down and shoot me on the spot. Incredulously, as if I had missed something, she shook her head, "That's why you have to cover my mouth, dummy. I did this before with my last boyfriend and he was black." She handed the keys back to me. I handed them right back.
No matter; it was spring, my bones had plenty of calcium, death was too far away to scare me, and Clinton had just been reelected. I’d sit at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, murdering whole afternoons. I’d wave at friends, they'd wave back or join me and ask, Where’s the party tonight? Where to score some? What’s new? What’s happening?
Of course, many things were happening, because back then, when only youth understands youth, we were all loose change, spilling and falling all over each other. A bunch of buffalo nickels and liberty dimes, promiscuously sipping coffee on the corner of some Westside café. I had vitality, and friends, and coffee, and used books, and all of New York City belonged to me because I was broke.
Back then, when only youth understands youth, we were all loose change, spilling and falling all over each other.
I got a job at Barnes & Noble on 84th and Broadway. I was so bored that I began to autograph books by authors I’d admired. I’d watch to see if customers noticed, but it was just the opposite, they were overjoyed. Once, I autographed a bunch of Gabo’s Love in the Time of Cholera
, and they sold like coca-colas in the desert. So, I took this to another level. I signed books by Mother Teresa
, the Dalai Llama
, the Pope
, and even Barnes & Noble's pricey bibles: “With Love, Jehovah." So, in comes a snotty nose, privileged, black nanny-raised teenager from some prep school asking for The Diary of Anne Frank
. I say not only do we carry it, we even have an autographed copy. I show the book. Kid looks at me in horror. Tells me that’s impossible. Anne Frank is dead. Kid rats me out.
With no job, I was living off ramen noodles and coffee. I had no choice but to get back with E-. When she handed me a new set of keys, my heart jumped — all I saw was food. Her refrigerator was always full and she never ran out of ice cream. E-‘s parents paid her rent, mailed her money, and gave her an unlimited credit card with which she could only buy food and cigarettes. While E- was at Columbia, I’d drop by her apartment and cook something for myself, and then leave to hang or read at the pastry shop, where a disappointed E-- would later join me. E-- would tell me, “When? When are you going to do it? Just hide and cover my mouth.” And I'd say, "Well, I can’t tell you when, it’ll ruin it right?" And she'd nod and breathe heavily like her patience was running out. Meanwhile, her groceries began to disappear. I’d enter her apartment with my knapsack and empty her cupboards as if at Gristedes. One day, when I knew she was in class, I microwaved some lasagna and had a big glass of orange juice. So excited, having what to me was a great meal, I suddenly heard the locks clacks, the door open. E- lost it. “You are supposed to hide!” she yelled twice. With a mouth full of lasagna, I began to make excuses, "No seriously E-, I was just about to get behind the door, I swear-rah god." E- stood still, her angry nostrils flaring fire like tired horses. She stomped to the bedroom. The slamming of doors is never a good sound. I left her alone for three days. Then I got extremely hungry. I went to her place while I knew she was at Columbia. The doorman didn’t seem to mind me and let me enter. Upstairs my keys didn’t fit the door. E- had changed the lock. My heart sank. It was back to 25-cent ramen noodle cups for dinner.
But the Hungarian Pastry Shop was always there. And it was there, sitting there, reading everyone and everything, drinking cup after cup, killing all that time, when I realized Spanish Harlem was as valid material for literature as Joyce’s Dublin. New York City was not just filled with upper-class whiteness, but rather it was a swirl of colors ranging across all income brackets. I didn’t need gimmicks like zombies, vampires, or werewolves to get published, but to simply tell honest and elegant stories of who I was, where I came from, and where I was going. That the Spanish Harlem I grew up in, regardless of its literary neglect, has a right to exist in the world of letters. The café was a wonderful place to reflect, to self-examine, and write, and fail, and write again. Soon, the ’90s were no longer a puppy and Clinton was on his way out, but so was I. I had come into my own and it was time to leave the café and return to Spanish Harlem on the page.
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is a product of public education from kindergarten to his Masters at the City College of New York. He is a writer, a Moth storyteller, a Sundance Fellow, and a professor at Cornell University. His latest novel is Taína
, about an immaculate conception in the housing projects of New York City.