Across the Park

On Morningside

Morningside Park, New York. 1994–2014.

When I was 14, I chose a best friend who shared my name. At school they called us “the Sophies,” and when I talked about her I called her “other Sophie,” or sometimes, when we were on the outs, “bad Sophie.” People who didn’t know me well sometimes thought that I was talking about my alter ego — and also, probably, that I was insane.

The other Sophie and I were an embattled minority in the mid-’90s, when the landscape was littered with Jennifers and Jessicas. We were the Sophies of the ’80s. (Now there’s a whole generation of postmillennial Sophies, anonymous and underage.) We developed the same patterns of intonation and the same mannerisms. We sat up in bed all night, looking deep into each other’s eyes, gesturing in mirror images, talking for hours. Physically, we were opposites, or as opposite as two white girls of average height can be: she is blond and I have dark hair, she is busty and I am flat-chested, her eyes are green and mine are brown, she has a Roman nose and I have one that turns up at the end. We met at that stage of adolescence when you’re always on the brink of becoming someone else entirely, especially when you’re living in a multiracial metropolis — in our case, New York. We knew people who changed their identities — their clothes, their hair, their music, their slang, their accents — every year. Over summer vacation, a Nike-loving Jeru the Damaja fan could become a conceptual art–making Morrissey impersonator in tight jeans. In such a world it’s good to have someone who is just the same as you, a mirror image to remind you that you’re still there — a spare self. The other Sophie and I did everything together, and our Social Security numbers were only two digits apart. My mother worried that college admissions officers would think we were the same person and combine our files, that we would both be admitted but there would only be space for one physical Sophie, and the other Sophie, the one who didn’t get there fast enough, would be left with no future. At sleepover parties, I remember lying in the dark, hearing someone whisper “Sophie” and knowing it was not for me. At those moments I was the ghostly second Sophie, the one who didn’t exist.

The other Sophie was from downtown, Greenwich Village before it became an overlit tourist destination, while I was from the upper reaches of the Upper West Side, before it became a shopping mall. When I started taking the train down to Christopher Street every weekend, my mother worried — she thought it was still the ’80s. She warned me not to go to Washington Square Park; she’d read in the newspaper about how dangerous it was. The other Sophie and I loved Washington Square Park. We’d plant ourselves on a bench and stay for hours, reading fashion magazines, gossiping, and watching the people go by. It was the ’90s, and though someone would offer to sell you drugs every fifteen minutes, everyone knew those drugs were fake. For tourists.

It’s 2013 and I’m walking down Lexington one-two-five, away from the university, on my way to the needle exchange (or, to be more precise, the harm reduction center). The street is crowded with people going nowhere. Homeless addicts keep rent increases and yuppies at bay, though not for long; misery is the last defense against gentrification. Lou Reed might almost recognize the corner where he waited for his man. (That was the ’60s.)

The room fills up. Here is my relatively new friend Dimitri, the self-appointed shaman of East Harlem. I met him at a drug policy conference when I worked at a philanthropic foundation. Dimitri was a blood-on-the-ceiling type junkie for twenty years. In the shooting gallery people used to fight to sit next to him, so they could pick up the drugs he spilled. His spoon ranneth over; it was the ’80s. Once, he showed me the corner on Rivington where a dealer used to lower a bucket to the line of customers waiting below; you’d put money on one side for crack, and on the other side for heroin. The dealer hoisted it up, took the money, and lowered it back down with the drugs. Dimitri also showed me the corner where you could wait on line to buy syringes, and the spot where drug dealers left dope tucked under the bumpers of cars. That’s what Dimitri was doing while I was being born, at St. Luke–Roosevelt Hospital on West 60th Street.

Raised in a family of Greek left-wingers in a black neighborhood in Detroit, Dimitri ended up in Gabon, in francophone West Africa, painting his face and dancing with pygmies in the forest, taking massive doses of a hallucinogenic root that’s used as the sacrament in all-night ceremonies. Your life flashes before you, you float above your body, you’re possessed by ghosts. You glide through a tunnel into another world, and when you return you are transformed. Dimitri says, “If you got a demon, go to an exorcist.” What else can you do with a demon, after all? The root saved Dimitri, and now Dimitri is trying to save the people of East Harlem.

We dab our foreheads with red powder, and Dimitri, in his beads and face paint and civet pelt, blesses us one by one, waving a bundle of smoking sage down our arms and legs and over our foreheads. Some people are calm and composed, some are rowdy, and a few are visibly disturbed. There is muttering. Three guys start drumming on bongos and others start dancing, or pounding on the filing cabinets in the warm, dark room. One guy holds his lighter in the air and sways. Another winks at me and slips me his number on a paper napkin. A frail man with a walker and dim eyes shoots up out of his chair and starts speaking in tongues — or that’s what it sounds like. When Dimitri says bokaye, which in Gabon means “the last breath before death,” but also “hello,” the man misunderstands and starts chanting: “U-S-A! U-S-A!” No one takes the sacrament, because the sacrament is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, but we shout and chant and everyone holds hands.

“I’d like to thank God for waking me up this morning,” a man says. He doesn’t mean this in an abstract way. The center is full of death notices. Its clients die often, and quickly; as the neighborhood closes in on them, sometimes it seems that they are going extinct. Many of them no longer live in Spanish Harlem, which was really Puerto Rican Harlem, having first been German and Irish Harlem, and then Jewish Harlem, Finnish and Norwegian Harlem, and Italian Harlem, and which is today, increasingly, Mexican and poor-yuppie Harlem.

I grew up in Morningside Heights, next door to Columbia University, which was literally my playground. After living very far away, studying people and places that had nothing to do with me, I moved back to the neighborhood to become a graduate student. I considered anthropology, and then chose literature — but aren’t they the same thing, a lot of the time?

I like the unapologetic hilliness of Northern Manhattan, the way the buildings perch on unexploded boulders. I like it that no one uptown tried to make the earth flat — or that if they tried, they failed. When I was in high school I walked home from the 1/9 stop on 116th Street every afternoon, across the Columbia campus, toward the almost blank horizon, which was interrupted only by a couple of high-rises; because of the steep grade between Morningside Drive, the end of Morningside Heights, and Morningside Avenue, the beginning of Harlem, it looked as if you were approaching the end of the world. When I was growing up I was forbidden to enter Morningside Park, which separates Morningside Heights from Harlem. I still, reflexively, think of the park as a place to get murdered or raped, even though I’ve now passed through it many times, including at night, and have seen its clean new playground and its pretty pond, with birds and turtles and well-kept benches. In the same way, my family and I still call neighborhood stores by the names they lost ten years ago, and the parents of my friends on the Upper West Side are still, sometimes, afraid to park their cars on Riverside Drive, expecting to find their windows smashed and their radios gone, although no one listens to the radio anymore.

I cross the park, down the stone steps and onto broad, flat 116th Street in Harlem, a place I never went in childhood even though I lived on 116th Street — higher up and far away. I pass the beer halls and sports bars and overpriced cocktail lounges that have filled the neighborhood in the past few years, as Columbia and its army of mild-mannered white people spill across the park, which is like a dam that no longer serves its purpose, the surging river of white people flooding the plains. Moving east I pass through Little Senegal, which didn’t really exist when I was a child — not that I would have known, since I never went to Harlem, except for once in sixth grade when I visited my friend Jerise, whom I met at the neighborhood middle school. I don’t remember exactly where she lived, or the inside of her apartment, but I remember admiring the calm, well-built buildings and the wide, straight avenue. This memory lives in the same corner of my mind as the day, also in sixth grade, when I saw Park Avenue for the first time. I was there to take the entry exam for a new school, and I had the same impression of a triumph of urban planning, a space free of clutter, a flat avenue with stately buildings and very few stores or people. Now, crossing 116th Street, I pass signs in French and Wolof, restaurants offering Thiebou Djeun lunch specials, and a Meat Market that advertises lamb meat, cow meat, goat meat, with helpful pictures of each animal. I pass people in bright head wraps and wax-print cotton suits, which also come in a rain-resistant version that squeaks when you walk.

It seems to me that 116th Street is more interesting than 125th Street, which now has Starbucks and the Body Shop and Old Navy and American Apparel and Bill Clinton. Harlem is gentrifying fast: in addition to the multinational chain stores and Bill Clinton, there are cupcake shops and places with names like “Maison Harlem,” overpriced chicken and waffles, mixologists with handlebar mustaches. There’s even a hipster butcher where you can buy grass-fed meat from a white guy with muttonchops, or perhaps a cowlick. It’s that halfway stage, when you can watch a new wine bar stare down a brownstone with boarded-up windows. I remember, in the ’90s, walking on 125th Street and feeling a little intimidated, being the only white person — but now half the people on 125th Street are white. They’re tourists, and they don’t even look scared. The neighborhood teems with French people, walking around like they own the place, maybe because of all the Senegalese and Guinean and Malian natives. Just give them some pith helmets. Tourist attractions help make the Other seem interesting and fun, rather than scary and disturbing. A friend told me a story about going with some girl (she is white, as is he) to a techno club where everyone was black. After they had been there for a few minutes, the girl said she felt uncomfortable, colonial, and that she wanted to leave. When he asked her where, exactly, she felt comfortable being with large groups of black people, she said at the Studio Museum, in Harlem.

From 116th Street I turn left on Lexington to visit Dimitri and his junkies, relics of the old New York. Like Harlem itself, they’ve been getting more West African, worshipping the gods that Dimitri imported from Gabon. Sometimes the guys, who are mostly in their forties or fifties, start complaining about “kids today” and their baggy pants; Dimitri laughs and tells them that they (himself included) are the worst of all generations. When the guys complain about how the rent is too damn high, and the yuppies are pricing them out, Dimitri jokes that it’s their own fault for not committing enough crimes, for not scaring the white people away. It’s true that the guys aren’t very scary. They’re sweet. And a lot of them are in jail, a lot of the time.

I get in a Zipcar with Dimitri and the guys, to talk to the trees in the park in New Jersey. Richie and Ishmael talk about how they miss Puerto Rico, where they were born. Thin, middle-aged Jesus grips the tree with both hands, names his parents and his place of birth, and says, in his old-timey New York accent, “Dear God, in this miserable world I’m in, please show me my place.” Dimitri says that Jesus has recently become a different person. As we talk and walk, I can see the phases of his personality flickering in and out of view.

Jesus tells me that when he was a kid, every Thursday his mother took him to a center where the spirits entered you and told you the truth.

“They knew where you was, where you at, and where you been. The spirits told me I was gonna be a fuckin’ delinquent,” he says, smiling grimly. “And they was right.” He pauses, then he adds, in another tone, “But I never hurt nobody.”

The other Sophie and I were never actresses, but we loved disguises. We learned to sew and made bizarre costumes that we wore to school. (We went to a public school, so we could wear what we wanted — not like the Nightingale girls across the street, in their ugly polo shirts and baby blue pleated skirts.) Sophie and I were partial to tights with bright colors and patterns; I hung mine on my bookshelves, like snake skins from one of the Native American myths that our teachers read to us in elementary school. The red vinyl and fake fur, gold lamé and silver spandex, leopard print, zebra print, and stripes seemed to allow us to be naked and not-naked at the same time. (In retrospect, we were relatively naked.) Girls at school would tell us wistfully, “I wish I could dress like that,” which I found mystifying. Did it take so much courage? It was only spandex. We wandered the Village and the Upper West Side alike in wigs and slips (“I know that’s underwear,” the biology teacher said accusingly), in secondhand fur stoles and rhinestones and shiny unitards, bumping into blind men, like incompetent spies. “Are you a clown?” a British tourist once asked the other Sophie. It was an honest question.

We shared most of our clothes, though the truth was that we were different sizes, and the other Sophie was more than half naked most of the time. After a man on the street asked her “How much?” and wasn’t joking, I started carrying a crumpled-up trench coat in my bag and making her wear it when we took the subway. We got into trouble. At parent-teacher conferences, the creative writing teacher told my parents I was “devaluing myself as a person.” The chemistry teacher, a tiny Orthodox Jewish woman who wore a wig, told us to cover ourselves because we might get burned during an experiment. We started wearing long sleeves and our own kinds of wigs to class — platinum, pastel purple, neon orange, maroon. The teacher pretended not to notice. (In retrospect, we were very insensitive.) A school administrator sent the other Sophie home from school early, on grounds of nudity. She even suspended her once, saying Sophie’s breasts were making it hard for the other students to learn. The janitors might rape her. “They could lose control,” she told the other Sophie, but she never said anything to me. I felt that this was discrimination, and wrote an angry article in the school newspaper. “You’re good at arguing,” a friend’s father told me.

One day we were walking home from school, across Central Park. I was wearing silver lattice tights and a blue gingham miniskirt with gold buttons. A Latino guy on a bike rode up behind us, shoved his hand under my skirt and grabbed my ass.

“Wanna go get high?” he asked.

I cursed him out; this was the first and last time I screamed obscenities at a stranger. Then he took out his dick and started waving it around, circling us. (He had great control of his bicycle.) By this time we were on 96th Street and Central Park West, surrounded by the good people of the Upper West Side, but no one said a word. This was the old New York, I guess, when men could still wave their members freely, before Bloomberg told them to keep it in their pants, before computer-generated voices reminded us that “a crowded subway is no defense to unlawful sexual conduct.” That man was just one of many men beating off in public in New York in the ’90s. (And what was it like in the ’80s, I wonder? And are they still beating off, at the girls of the new millennium?) Once my girlfriends and I were sitting in the park at lunchtime, at 96th and Fifth Avenue, when a man on a bench across from us started masturbating, grinning furiously. But we weren’t scared; we outnumbered him. Alana, the tallest and bravest in our group, even shouted something mean and funny. At school, girls swapped battle stories about men groping them and flashing them on the train. A rite of passage. When I was older, I learned that most flashers will flee if you yell at them.

I bought some iridescent maroon eye shadow and put it above my eyes and across my cheekbones, imitating a picture I’d seen in a magazine. A boy at school told me I looked like I had two black eyes; I told him he didn’t understand high fashion. I carried my lime-green Discman with me everywhere, to drown out the catcalls of the diminutive Central American men who formed a gauntlet on the stretch of upper Broadway that I passed through on my way home from school. (They started hollering the moment you went through puberty; they stopped as soon as you started looking like a grown-up.) But their catcalls were relatively friendly. Another time I was walking through Central Park on my way home from school, this time alone. (I was wearing my hot-pink leopard-print tights.) I had forgotten my Discman that day, so I heard very clearly when a black man yelled out, “I’m gonna rape you, you white bitch.” I chose to consider it an idle threat, and kept walking at the same pace, pretending, absurdly, that I hadn’t heard him. He was standing about ten feet away, and there was nobody else in sight. It was unpleasant, I’ll admit. But hating white people — I get that.

I started taking the crosstown bus instead of walking across the park. One day, just before I got out on Broadway, a youngish white man in a nice suit tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, miss.” I thought he was asking for directions, so I didn’t avoid eye contact and pretend not to hear him, like I normally would have done. I even lifted my headphones. “Are you jailbait?” he asked, expressionless. I leapt off the bus and rushed into the subway. I started listening to louder music. I cultivated a hostile, don’t fuck with me expression; before long I forgot that I was wearing it. The other Sophie experimented with a new technique: when a man catcalled at her, she’d bark like a dog. But this only provoked them.

When I was 17, I fell in love with a boy named Ganesh. This was the right name for him, because first love has a certain mythological quality, and because Ganesha is a lovable god: remover of obstacles, patron of letters and beginnings. Part Indian, part white, and even slightly Native American, as an adolescent Ganesh was insanely beautiful. (Now he is only remarkably attractive; male beauty is a star that burns out quickly.) When I saw him I lost my mind, and I followed him everywhere until he gave in. He wasn’t really interested in girls then, and spent most of his time playing basketball with his friends, who were all, like him, the ethnically ambiguous children of intelligent single mothers in straitened circumstances. Together, the boys floated freely between the many identities that the city has to offer. I met them through Chris, a blond punk rocker being raised by a single father; he was the outlier, having been friends with Ganesh and a boy named Eric since elementary school. It made sense for me to be friends with Chris, since we had matching metal belts and liked the same bands. It did not make sense for me to be in love with Ganesh, since Ganesh and his friends weren’t into white girls. They liked matching denim suits and Dominican girls. Who can blame them? Beautiful Dominican girls are the most beautiful girls in the world. I started wearing gigantic hoop earrings and spandex jeans that I bought on 125th Street, and I stopped dressing like a freak, or being so naked. I tried to cultivate a Marisa Tomei kind of thing. I made friends with Eric’s mom, who lent me Villette; I put it in my purse and continued watching BET. (Secretly, I preferred Villette.)

Ganesh and his friends turned poverty into a point of pride, a battle of the wits, as they competed to see who could spend the least money. They made spending money something to be ashamed of. I spent a lot of time at Ganesh’s apartment in Washington Heights, which had been known not so long ago as the murder capital of America, but which by then seemed pretty much OK. (Before he lived in Washington Heights he lived on West 84th Street, which was known in the ’60s as the worst block in New York.) I wasn’t allowed to sleep over, though I was allowed to stay out late, and because neither of us had any money — and even if we did, taxis were for the weak, and anyway, it wasn’t easy to catch a cab in Washington Heights — I often took the subway home very late. I remember the little rumbles of anxiety in my stomach as I rode the elevator down at 168th Street, then waited for what seemed like hours, watching the huge, self-confident rats scamper around on the platform, and the winos, who were less self-confident and never scampered, being more or less unconscious, slumped on the wooden benches. But I had my headphones on, and nothing bad ever happened. I was being brave.

Ganesh and I broke up in college; he joined the Latino frat, or maybe the black frat, or maybe both, and I threw in the towel and fell in love with an Irish guy. I was tired of trying not to be white — or, to be more precise, of trying to look like I might not be white. It was exhausting. And besides, it wasn’t working.

Ganesh and Eric and their friends went into finance, and now they’re the richest people I know. But Ganesh still listens to Hot 97 every morning.

Not long ago, I did an informal poll of my friends: What’s the best movie about New York in the ’80s? The consensus was Ghostbusters, which I’d seen a thousand times but filed away as a children’s movie. When I watched it again, I realized that part of the reason it must have been so popular was its element of wish fulfillment, particular to its place and moment. The city is haunted, full of poltergeists. Phantom cities are lurking in the refrigerators of Central Park West — even your groceries aren’t safe! Sumerian hell-dogs are assaulting Rick Moranis, right outside Tavern on the Green! All those crazy people running around on the street are actually possessed! Suddenly, New York circa 1983 makes a lot more sense. Ghostbusters is about the exorcism of New York, about capturing and containing the city’s frightening past, about a near-apocalypse at the hands (or rather, the feet) of an advertising icon, a specter of childhood: the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

I remember standing on the subway platform with my father, on my way to elementary school at 8 AM, watching boys tagging the walls and pillars. I remember how the trains looked like Chinese dragons, or serpents from a creation myth, though I don’t remember the insides being covered in scribbling, like you see in movies. Maybe this is because I was small then, and only rode the train occasionally, at rush hour, when it was so packed you couldn’t see the walls; I remember my father yelling at people who knocked and jostled me because I was below their line of vision. I do remember, when I had just learned to read, spelling out the signs on the bus that said NO RADIO PLAYING and studying (this must have been a few years later) the COST and REVS stickers that were plastered on every traffic signal post in the city. At 9 or 10 I wondered, with many others: who are COST and REVS, and did COST really fuck Madonna?

I found out who Cost was just a few years later, when my friend Ilya got into graffiti and started hanging out with him. (By then Cost had been arrested, having cost the city an estimated $100 million in damages.) I started to see the names written all over the city and know who they belonged to, and even though I wasn’t friends with those guys, only with Ilya, it was a thrill, initiation into a secret society, making the city a smaller, more familiar place, like a notebook full of pictures by you and your friends, like the ones that Sophie and I would doodle in together, writing our name with silver markers and glitter pens. (We also liked to write on our arms and legs and stomachs; Sophie ruined one of our best dresses that way. But we didn’t write our names on our bodies — that would have been redundant. On our bodies we wrote poems, and notes to self.) Once Ilya even wrote my name on a piece, for my birthday, and brought me a photo.

Now the subways are clean and well lit, plastered with advertisements begging to be defaced. Graffiti has become a tourist attraction, but the trains are still full of homeless people, drug addicts, and crazy people saying crazy things. Was Giuliani our recession exorcist, way less fun and cool than Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd or Harold Ramis (may he rest in peace)? Giuliani, man of the ’90s, presiding over the sodomizing of a Haitian immigrant, forty-one shots into a Guinean man standing in his own lobby, the crackdown on panhandlers, squeegee men, turnstile jumpers, graffiti writers, sidewalk spitters, public drinkers, pot smokers, and black and Latino boys and men in general. The criminalization of misery. What a sorry excuse for an exorcism.

The Other Sophie left New York years ago; I’m not even sure where she’s living now.

In 2014 I wake up to a six-alarm fire in the Citibank across the street. It burns for more than a day and requires hundreds of firefighters to put it out. How did this fire start, at approximately 5:20 AM? How can a fire burn so long? Was it arson, an act of malice, or greed? In New York in the ’80s, and probably at many other times and in many other places, landlords set fire to their own buildings to get the insurance. But that’s not Citibank’s style. Did someone want revenge on the banks that are burning away our neighborhoods, our sense of place? The fire came from inside, starting in the basement and creeping through the walls. The next day, in the cold sleet, the bank is a gray husk, still smoking. My grandmother’s jewelry was in a safety deposit box in the basement; it will survive unharmed.

In the news I read that it was just an electrical fire. The city is safe now. I know that this is a good thing, yet still I feel a twinge of pleasure every time I walk past the blackened bank.

It’s hard to have a clear historical perspective on the place you’re from, where you were a child and then an adult. Did you get bigger, or did the world get smaller? Did you get braver, or did the world become less dangerous? Are you still yourself, or have you become someone else? The park isn’t frightening the way it used to be; you can even walk there alone at night. It isn’t so dark or dense anymore; now it’s a place where you can have a picnic, or commune with your ancestors, or make friends with people who would have scared you when you were 12. Your charred carapace breaks open and you emerge: young, beautiful, and well exorcised, like Sigourney Weaver, circa 1984.

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