It was raining in Harlem. I was standing on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 162nd Street, my coat wet, my old umbrella only just holding out against sudden blasts of wind. It was not quite four in the afternoon and already it was getting dark. I didn’t know Harlem. I didn’t know which way to walk. I didn’t know which way to go for Edgecombe Avenue, in Washington Heights. I stood peering into the road ahead, as if to make something out through the rain and the wind and the swift December dusk. I huddled under the umbrella and managed with difficulty to light a sodden, rain-specked cigarette.
Marjorie’s, I’m guessing. She startled me there, all stoic. She seemed not to mind the rain. Or she seemed not to notice it was raining. Headed for Marjorie’s, I suppose, as she took a pair of fine black woollen gloves out of her bag. But you’re not sure of the way, as she took a long black woollen scarf out of her bag. I could tell a mile off. Her English was lightly accented. Maybe Caribbean. Maybe African. The skin on her face was deep black and flawless and probably still silky to the touch. The whites of her eyes gleamed in the half-light. Only a smattering of grey in her hair – an afro, shaved short – gave her age away. That obvious? I asked, and she buttoned up her black raincoat and crossed her arms and said that because of the day of the week, because of the time of day, because of the station on Amsterdam with 162nd, because of the expression on my face, because she was always coming across someone there, on that corner. From her bag she took out a black felt cloche hat, bell-shaped, 1920s style. Do you come across someone lost in the depths of Harlem?, I asked. Or do you come across someone specifically and desperately trying to find his way to Marjorie’s? And I smiled with a mixture of embarrassment and relief. Something like that, she said. Let’s go, she said. It’s this way, child. And she set off walking. I bucked up and took a last drag on my cigarette and, stubbing it out on the floor, I noticed with a kind of nervous relish that underneath the heavy folds of her black gabardine coat, splish-splashing through the puddles, was a pair of blood red cowboy boots.
Your first time, I take it?
I was surprised by how she walked, so slow and graceful. As if rhythmically. As if she were a catwalk model: elegant, exotic, knowingly observed. As if she were in no hurry at all to get there or out of the rain. I offered her my umbrella – flimsy and feeble against the wind – but she didn’t notice, or she didn’t care, or perhaps she didn’t want to get so close to a stranger. Raindrops dripped from the rim of her cloche hat. I was still mesmerised by her blood red boots. Maybe because of the blood red colour. Maybe because I’d never owned a pair of cowboy boots myself. Too much of a coward. Yes, my first time, I said. A friend sent me a postcard, I said, and on it was a photo of Marjorie in a turquoise or mint green dress, I said, and ebony hands, I said, and the address of the apartment on Edgecombe Avenue, I said, but he didn’t say much else. I thought about pulling out the postcard to show her. As evidence. So you don’t know who Marjorie is? I told her that more or less, that I knew a little. We stopped on the corner of Amsterdam and 161st Street. Look, they’re headed there, she said pointing to a pair with a map folded in their hands. And them too, motioning at another group of pedestrians. And him too, pointing to an elderly man, suited and booted and holding a black case. How do you know? She smiled, or perhaps she smiled in the darkness. Many a Sunday, child. The light changed to red and we started crossing the street. Marjorie Eliot, she’s called, she told me. For years now she opens the doors to her apartment on Sundays. Every Sunday, no break or holiday since a Sunday in 1992, when her son died. She was silent. A sharp gust of wind hit us face on. A jazz concert every Sunday, she continued. Parlour jazz. At four in the afternoon. In the living room of her apartment. The musicians change. The musicians come and go. Novice musicians, famous musicians, musician friends. And it’s always free. Anyone is welcome who wants to visit her and listen to a couple of hours of jazz, and there are now many who do. She paused, took a deep breath, and with a hushed, almost illicit voice, she whispered: And all this as a way to honour the memory of her son, through music. We took a left turn. She asked me my name and well, nice to meet you, Eduardo, she said. My name is Shasta. There are names that vibrate, I thought then, or am thinking now. There are names that long to be cried out. She asked where I was from and I told her from Guatemala, that I was in New York just a couple of days, just passing through. I thought about telling her I was there to receive a Guggenheim fellowship – God love it, wrote Vonnegut, or his narrator – with which, one day, if I ever overcame my demons and fears, I would travel to Poland, to Lodz, my grandfather’s hometown. But I said no more. And she asked no more, accustomed, I’m sure, like most New Yorkers, to the fact that everyone there is just passing through, that everyone there is on their own absurd pilgrimage, that the world is made up of no more than paltry fistfuls of salt. We crossed St. Nicholas Avenue. Right over there, she said, signalling with her head, is St. Nick’s Pub, the legendary Harlem jazz club. Ah, the old Poospatuk, I said and, with a sidelong, almost conspiratorial glance, she threw me a smile. I knew a little bit about the history of St Nick’s. I knew that when it first opened, in the Thirties, it was called The Poospatuk Club, after a Native American tribe from New York. Later, in the Forties, it was named Luckey’s Rendezvous, after the new owner, Charles Luckey Roberts, or Luckey Roberts, the great stride pianist whose reach was so wide, it’s been said, because he had the connecting skin between his fingers surgically clipped. Later, in the Fifties, the new owners added some opera to the repertoire and renamed it The Pink Angel – because, it’s been said, it was a popular haunt for gay men. And finally, in the Sixties, it became St. Nick’s Pub. We reached Edgecombe Avenue. On the other side there was a small strip of trees. On the other side of the trees there was a highway. On the other side of the highway, far off, perhaps one could hear the steady flow of the Harlem River. We turned right. I remained quiet, waiting for her to tell me more, eager to get there and at the same time willing us never to get there. She stopped in front of the black gate of a great classical building. She turned and gave me a look. A look full of something. Perhaps kindness. Perhaps weariness. Perhaps legend. Because it was so humid, or because of the particular light coming from the old streetlamp, the skin on her face seemed to burn in the night. She said: Marjorie Eliot says she started giving jazz concerts in her apartment, after the death of her son, as a way of surviving Sundays.
The building at 555 Edgecombe Avenue has various names. Some call it the Paul Robeson Residence. Some, the Roger Morris Building. Others, the Triple Nickel. And others, Count Basie Place. Built in 1916, during its first twenty-five years it was a restricted residence: Whites Only. But around 1939, when the social characteristics of Harlem began to change, so too did the rules and regulations of 555 Edgecombe Avenue, and it became home to the most distinguished and famed members of the African-American community of Harlem. Like the musician Count Basie. Like the composer and pianist Duke Ellington. Like the saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Like the writer Langston Hughes. Like the judge (and first African-American on the Supreme Court) Thurgood Marshall. Like the baseball player (and first African-American to play in the major leagues) Jackie Robinson. Like the boxer (and first African-American on the professional golf circuit) Joe Louis. Like the singer Lena Horne. Like the writer Zora Neale Hurston. Like the actor and politician Paul Robeson. Like the pianist Marjorie Eliot.
Go on in, child. She had already taken out a bunch of keys and opened the heavy black iron gate. I closed my umbrella and went in quickly, while she held the gate open for a group of tourists, motioned the way to the elevator, and told them to go up to the third floor. I stayed put, looking around the lobby: large, ostentatious, refurbished entirely in green and grey and beige marble, with skirting carved out of plaster and meticulously gilded in gold leaf. The walls were also adorned with bas-reliefs, worn down now, of chubby kids fooling around, and chubby kids playing the flute, and chubby kids gallivanting about on goats. There was a colossal stained glass window on the ceiling, also in bad shape. When I was a little girl, she began, looking up and at the same time shaking the rain from her coat, they decided to paint it black and cover it with planks of wood. She removed her gloves. She removed her cloche hat. She ran a hand over her short, salt-and-pepper afro, and poked out the tip of her pink tongue, running it across her top lip, then across her bottom lip, perhaps licking away the rainwater. She said: To protect the stained glass. She said: From an alleged atomic attack. We walked together to the elevator. While waiting, I tried to imagine her as a little girl, growing up there, playing and running about in the lobby and in the corridors and among the chubby gilt cherubs and all the famous tenants of the building, and always in her blood red boots. Have you known Marjorie for a long time? Yes, she said, for a long time. She was friendly with my parents. I thought about asking her who her parents were, whether they still lived there in the building. But it seemed inappropriate. Sundays I help her with what I can, she said. Sometimes I put out the seats. Sometimes I arrange the blue lamps. Sometimes, during the break, I hand out the orange juice and oat cookies to the visitors. Sometimes, she said, I help out the odd lost soul, trying to find their way. She gave a small grin. It’s my way, my humble, feeble way, she said, of honouring the memory of her dead son. She was silent, and it occurred to me that she’d spoken these last words with a different voice. A little shaky, perhaps, or more hoarse, or a little choked. Perhaps spoken with the strained, false voice of a ventriloquist. And I knew then, but knew absolutely, knew with total conviction that she too had lost a son. The elevator doors opened and we got in and she pressed the button and we went up in silence. Both of us looking ahead. Both of us looking upwards. Both of us looking down at her blood red boots. Both of us perhaps feeling or imagining that we were feeling, in that space that’s not a space, in that small waiting room, the heroic and devastating strength of a mother for her dead son. The elevator bell rang. The doors opened. This is you, she said, I’m on the last floor. I was a little confused. I’d assumed that she too was headed to Marjorie’s, that she was accompanying me to Marjorie’s, and I told her as much. She shook her head. Not today, she said. Today, she said, I’ll survive alone. I walked out onto the corridor. I heard, somewhere far off, as if whispered, as if submerged, the sweet and dissonant sound of a piano. I turned back towards the elevator, towards Shasta. I thanked her. On the right, she said, apartment 3F, she said, and hurry, child, you’re late. The piano stopped, then silence, then a gentle applause. She smiled at me with just her eyes. I extended her my hand, a little hurried and brash, perhaps hoping to delay the inevitable for a moment more. At first she didn’t understand but then she also offered me her hand. And we remained like that for a couple of seconds, perhaps not even that, each of us on our own side of the doors.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Sophie Hughes is the English translator of Rodrigo Hasbún’s novel Affections (Pushkin Press, June 2016; Simon & Schuster, September 2017).