Wellington leads me up the stairs, where in an empty room two young white men await us at a table. There’s only one table in this room where the walls are filled with old and new pictures of American soldiers. Again, no shaking of hands. The man left from me is outspokenly handsome in the way of the gentleman. Keen, well-kept black hair and sharp eyes. Steve is a professional concert pianist near depression because of just having finished his doctorate. Allen, across from me, is his counterpart. Chubby, scruffy and curly, he lashes out sarcastic remarks at any given time. Allen will soon be a priest, an episcopal one.
“So you’ll be writing a book about New York, like New York In General?”, Steve laughs.
“New York: Features of a City”, Wellington laughs.
“Or will you rather confine yourself to the subject of races?”, Allen comments dryly. It’s okay. The mockery is well-intended and happily for me, the conversation deflects to much more interesting subjects. “So the story goes like this: this guy has an apartment in Manhattan but he hasn’t been there for years. When he comes back and opens his door, he discovers there’s two refugees living there.”
“So what did he say? Can I sleep here?”, Allen asks.
“They start living together and become friends.”
“I don’t think I’m following”, it’s my first intervention in the discussion and as is often the case, my voice goes lost in the large silent room, “this happened in Harlem?”
“It’s a movie”, Steve replies.
“But it happens”, Wellington comes in, “last fall, this is like four months ago, friends of my parents bought a house in the Upper West Side. Only after they bought it, they discovered there was a Mexican family of six living in the basement.”
“They came living there in between owners?”, Allen asks.
“They had been there for years. Somehow, the previous owners had hidden them during the house visits. The Mexican father implored them to let them stay.”
“For free?”, Steve asks.
“Now sweethearts, what would like us to make fo’ ya’all?”, a sultry heavyset waitress with an African headscarf and paper apron drenched in oil shakes her hips and takes our orders while a bald old black man walks up to the corner of the room to fold an American flag.
“Sir?”, I ask while he walks back out of the room. He turns around and peers at the four of us through thick glasses. “Well how are all of ya’ doin tonight?”
Before I can ask him what this place is about, the man starts ranting. “Now you all be feelin’ welcome hea tonight and if you wanna have anythin at that ba’, go and ask for it. But don’t ya let anyone discriminate ya or talk foul language to ya for what or who ya’all are. No, this hea ma’ posse and ya’all my guests. This hea my posse, you be welcome hea tonight with me. Don’t let any of those down there or even up hea say anythin bad to you because this hea my posse of my black people. And with my black people everyone is welcome. This hea Harlem. Remember that. Now what ya’all doin in life? What’s ya jobs?”
The man nodds for a second, grasping for words. “Now alright…well I tell ya’all that they should be leavin ya’all the way you wanna be now there. Don’t let anyone discriminate ya ever in life or especially hea because this hea my posse. I tell ya’. This hea my place and I wanna make sure no one in my place is bein discriminated against. If they come up to you, tell them to come up to me cause this hea my posse.”
“Sir, what normally happens in this place?”, I ask.
“I told you. This hea my posse. You be sittin down hea havin a good talk and a good time and you come again to dance or listen to them jazz players. Alright now. Now I’ll be leaving you be cause I’m a runnin my mouth. You all be havin a good night.” And while saying these last words, he wipes his mouth and chin as though his mouth were really running. He leaves through the exit door.
So I don’t get an answer as to why the flags and pictures of black soldiers in a jazz bar. But here’s what I’d find out months later, when my days were spent behind a desk rather than on the street. Harlem, black Harlem started with a parade. Harlem’s Hellfighters or the 369th regiment were a black regiment in a segregated army fighting alongside the French in World War One. The Hellfighters were the first Americans reaching the German front. At the 1919 military parade in New York City the Hellfighters marched tightly, showcasing themselves to white New York. But when crossing 110th street on Fifth, they lost the military configuration, loosened into a lively bunch while the military band started playing jazz tunes. The soldiers had come home, now the battle could really start.
I end the night in another jazz bar, by myself, watching a black-and-white jazz trio defying the rules of musical gravity, playing for one dollar tips. Records recorded in New York City since the birth of vinyl cover the ceiling.
There’s a red dice on the sidewalk before an empty playground. I’ll keep it with me to remind myself of the chance meeting. In the middle of the road, a young black mother with an African headscarf speaks French to a taxi driver. I walk on, dive down the stairs and take the A train back to Brooklyn.