You Are Not Langston Hughes
You tell yourself the gargoyles perched on the crumbling cement corners of
thirteen-story New York high rises are there to protect you from evil spirits. Still,
just moved to the city from Spokane and you find their wretched glares terrifying.
Stuck in a one-room apartment you’ve sublet from a dominatrix who’s
been raided one time too many, you don’t know which is worse: staring at
the stove that operates as a security system—if the oven door is open,
the front door of your apartment can’t be. Or face miles of these winged demons
overseeing everything you do—their talons clatched to the corners of century-old
buildings, their carved wings always ready to spread, showering you with pigeon
You wanted something different. In Spokane, you were tired of working as a lunch
waitress at the Bon Marche department store. You wanted more urbane city centers
than the NorthTown Mall, to surround yourself with more important bodies of water
than Lake Coeur dAlene, to know people whose dreams extended beyond nine to
You get a job as a bartender at the West End across from Columbia University,
where you put up with what you guess are the richest kids in America. After a
week, you’ve reread all five books you brought with you: Oates, D’Ambrosio,
O’Connor, Marquez, Eugenides. You may not have finished college, but
you’re not stupid. You dropped out years ago, no longer have the heart
to write themes for English B. You can’t afford a television, so after
another week of listening to the discordant mix from the airshaft of the opera
singer who lives upstairs, the reedy wheezes from the oboist straight across,
and the cello player catty corner, you get up off the couch and step out into
a starless night.
Gryphons and demonic monkeys watch everything you do.
You walk. It’s 11 p.m., and Broadway bustles like mid-afternoon. Bins of
fruits and vegetables crowd the sidewalks in front of bodegas. At the theater
across from Zabar’s, beneath the marquee for Two Weeks Notice, the punctuation
lady holds up her apostrophe stick. A woman stops in the crosswalk and, legs
You sit on a stoop to contemplate how someone’s life could come to this,
then consider she might have had a choice in the matter. A man sits beside you
and pitches a script he’s just this minute finished, sure to be the next
blockbuster, only he has no money to make copies at Kinko’s, and could
you lend him $35? You watch lovers of all shapes, sizes, and affiliations, and
others looking for same. You remind yourself that back home such pursuits are
limited to polite parties.
You take the subway and manage the two-drink minimum at a Soho bar, talk to a
guy just here from West Virginia with the best Civil War opera that’s ever
At 3 a.m., you take the train uptown. When you step out at 116th, you realize
that like all the stupid students, you’ve accidentally taken the No. 2
train into Harlem. You are not Langston Hughes.
True, Clinton’s headquarters are here. True, there’s been a renaissance.
You don’t like to think you’re prejudiced, but in Spokane the only
black people you ever saw were Crips and Bloods in movies of the week. Most of
the onyx-, hazel-, and buff-colored faces in the Lenox Avenue Station look at
you like you’re crazy. A few hostile gazes from women, like you’re
trolling their area. Your threadbare pea coat from Spokane ought to clarify you’re
not even in the running.
You should hurry, stay caught up with others climbing out of the station, but
you linger in front of walls awash with bright-colored mosaic murals which, according
to the plaque, depict Harlem history. You can’t imagine how long such a
project would take, that there are so many people in one city with this talent.
On the street, an old man on a nearby bus bench watches you consider crossing
deserted Morningside Park to return to the Upper West Side.
“Get yourself back on the train, baby,” he says. “Go home.”
The earliest wave of workers on the train are all different colors. Like the
zombies in Spokane, most stare straight ahead in clothes that blend. They overlap
those going home from the night before, a few still flitting in boas and leather
pants. You’re glad you work nights.
At 96th, you switch to the No. 1 and ride back up to your part of the world,
weak sunlight rising on paler skin tones. You alight a couple of stations early
and walk, staring into gallery windows. Some of the paintings are awful. Others
intrigue. You wonder who decides what gets taken, who has the money to buy, who
has the time to paint. You suppose, though, you’re glad that somebody does.
Following the windows down a side street, you see a boom box store already open
or still open, depending on how you look at it. Through a bullet-proof window,
the owner is doing business, but the business being done is in plastic baggies.
Another block down, an all-night movie theater runs oldies. You’ve never
seen Escape from New York and you grab a tub of popcorn to go in for
glimpse. You look around to see who gets to go to movies in the morning, though
no one seems
to wonder why you do. As you leave, a man limping by in soiled clothes shouts, “Ain’t
no ’scape from New York!”
Outside the sky is bright. Ballet dancers with feet permanently in first enter
a coffee shop, where they’ll probably buy only coffee. Options abound for
spending your leftover money—throw it in the guitar case of a guy playing
flamenco, buy a tart at the French bakery, pick up a German-language newspaper.
Instead, you go home. Over the entrance to your building, a rude cement imp sticks
his nasty tongue out at you. A pigeon coos inside his mouth, pecking materials
for her nest between the monster's two silly teeth, ignoring his scare tactics.
Unlocking the outside door and then slamming it behind you, you do the same,
having the last laugh.
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