Maybe it’s because I’m English that you notice social attitudes and niceties and some not so very social niceties too. I reckon just by observing people in the area that the ethnic population split in Harlem is around 70% Afro-American, 20% Hispanic, 5% Oriental/Asian and 5% Caucasian. So you kind of stand out a bit being from Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire.
When we first arrived we thought that we might have a bit of a job mixing in and to be perfectly true we have found some local manners and habits a bit disconcerting. For example people talk really loudly here, to each other and especially when they are on the phone, with or without headphones. And speaking of loudness they like nothing more than parking up their flash cars alongside a particular cafe, bar, barber shop and opening the windows/doors and turning up the volume on their music to vol 11. And it’s never sweet soul music or jazz or blues but thumping hip hop stuff. Even when they’re driving the windows are often wide open and blaring out MotherF… lyrics. This music loudness is compounded by the guys who lug major speakers around on carts and play them always at vol 11 and often late at night down the street. The loudness levels are something else.
Other little habits are troubling. I’ve seen any number of people simply throw litter, like large empty coffee cups, away in the street without a moment’s hesitation. There’s no excuse really as there are litter bins on virtually every corner here. They seem obsessed about collecting litter if truth be told with rubbish collections every 2 days. So to discard it seems so socially irresponsible. Likewise gobbling. A lot of folks do it including the chap across the street from us who will open his window to gob out onto the street below without a care.
There’s lots of begging. Carol was in a local supermarket (which was rubbish) recently and I waited outside with Noah who was asleep in his buggy. A seemingly fit and healthy 30 year old looking chap was outside asking people exiting the shop if they had any change. Now I have no idea of his circumstances so don’t want to criticise irregardless. But at one point the owner of the shop came outside and started to sweep/pick up the litter which was swirling around this blustery day. The begging chap just stood and watched him sweep stuff past his feet without a word.
Now I may be old-fashioned but if that had been me I might have said to the owner, look you’re busy running this great supermarket why not let me sweep this mess up for you and if I do a good job give me $5. And move on and do the same thing to other stores etc. But here’s the thing, whilst I was there for about 20 minutes he was given two donations of cash – both notes so let’s assume they were $1 bills. So on average he was making $6 an hour. Over 6-7 hours he’d make around 40 bucks. Perhaps begging was a more lucrative earner than getting cash for small jobs. So the attitude seems to be let’s beg and to hell with what people think. Being white we seem to get targeted a lot too for donations. I do give if the folks look really needy and incapable of w0rking but what do I really know?
There’ a heady aroma in the air almost everywhere and you see the odd drug handshake happening but it’s nothing like as bad on the street as I pre-imagined. But one thing I do find difficult to accept is the attitude of some parents towards their kids. We were in there park recently and the boys were playing with a little girl about the same age who was quite lively and shouty. She wasn’t being naughty but you kind of noticed her and I think the lads were sort of attracted to her look-at-me-ness. Her mum was rather nice and welcoming but all the dad could do was sit on his bench and shout ‘What the fuh” every time the little girl would raise her voice. And she raised it numerous times and his voice was loud. You get the picture. He didn’t get up and play with his daughter once nor encourage her nor take pictures etc. He just kept shouting ‘What the fuh! Ever more loudly. This in a children’s playground. His accent was so heavy that our boys couldn’t make out his words which is just as well. And I’m the last person to lambast somebody for using strong language. Mine is chemical at the best of times but not in this setting. He just had no concern for what anybody else thought. What do you do? Nobody seemed too bothered. Just as it was getting to the had-enough stage he upped sticks and wandered off leaving his wife and child to do whatever. How are kids supposed to learn decent life lessons from an early age if their parents (or father) only communicates in expletives, chastisingly?
This sort of attitude puts you right off assimilating. But the main point of this posting is to say that thankfully whilst this sort of behaviour isn’t rare, it is nowhere near typical. We have been blown away by the welcome people have given us generally. At the same children’s park I meet a very old and attractive great grandma who looks after her kids’ kids’ kids. Her youngest is Lucas and he is a very sweet boy and becoming quite a pal of Elliott. She talks with great grace and love and we seem to get along just fine chewing the fat about kiddies. I’m very fond of her.
There was a recent Hispanic guy who got on the bus Elliott and I were on and just as he sat down he spotted Elliott and just blurted out ‘I have to tell you that your boy is one handsome fellah’. I thanked him and explained I only had him on loan and we proceeded to have a terrific conversation about parenthood all the way home. I’m also becoming quite an acquaintance of many of the old guys who sit on the stoops all along the street especially in the evening. I’m not a bro yet, and definitely not ‘blood’, but I am getting known by name or by ‘hey man’ and get lots of funny handshake action. They either like me or want me to joint the local lodge. And it may come as no surprise but I’m on very friendly terms with the guys in the local wine shop. We even joke about pretentiousness in NY wine bars. And our local deli at the end of the street may be forbidding looking on the outside (like most of the characters who lig about there) but the folks who run the place couldn’t be more welcoming and helpful.
The reality is that people here are very open and friendly if you take the trouble to say hello and stop and chat. We seem to be getting known as the nice white folks with the lovely boys. The lads break down barriers all the time. Every time we’re in local shops people come over and say how lovely they are. On the bus I’ve been let off so many short fares because of Elliott’s smile.
The loud street music stuff has also become less noticeable if truth be told. This last weekend was really warm and come 8pm the folks started gathering on the stoops, bringing their seats out front as well as the speakers. And whilst some cool Marvin Gaye was beating out, the tables and food appeared and folks started dancing and laughing and the atmosphere turned aromatic and heady. And everyone had fun. It was so Harlem. We crashed well before midnight, shattered, but the sound is becoming like wallpaper and we never noticed.
I’ve said it earlier but it’s full of crazy people, sad people, but mostly interesting full-of-life nice people and we are falling in love with the place.