sometimes it takes years: travel journal nyc

i came of age in new york. i think places really shape us – i came here as a teenager to go to school and ended up staying for a decade.

i remember strutting around, ‘dressed’, walking the length of the city as an afternoon’s entertainment. here i learned fashion is a liberating force, and food has a hierarchy that had nothing to do with how a place looks, and i learned how to party and what to read. i grew up moving a lot, so i loved that this city felt larger than american, that i could lose myself in neighborhoods that felt like i had transcended borders.

yet by the time i left i felt like i had been worn down, that the city was always sweeping past me, pushing me aside, hurting people i loved, abundantly unjust, offering both too much and too little to sustain me.

being here during 9/11 was traumatizing in ways i didn’t understand, and i couldn’t shake the feeling when everyone else seemed to be moving on. when my life in the city felt too dark, busy and lonely i packed up what could fit in a rental minivan and drove to california and sunshine.

when i would visit these past six – nearly seven – years, from cali and then from detroit, i would spend much of the time in a crochety complaining place. ‘there’s too many people, too much energy, they closed my favorite this and moved my favorite that, and barclay what?, and new tower huh?’, and so on. i only came because people i loved were committed to being here for some reason, even though i explained over and over that california was sunny and detroit more affordable.

this time, though…this time i felt that original tingle, i felt the generative spark of nyc, and the style inspiration and the independence amongst millions.

this time i spent several days in harlem, and i thought:

oh i don’t want this blackness to end
harlem to the horizon
in four directions, in seven
til we remember
we are already whole

years ago, harlem gave me a first taste of what i have come to love in detroit: self-aware blackness.

i was staying just off 125th street and walking to the national black theater each day past the familiar smells and sounds of black space – isley brothers, michael jackson, public enemy, offers to braid my hair, opinions on my appearance, frankincense, egyptian musk.

i ate, slept and worked in harlem and was reminded of that aspect of new york, where you can live in a particular borough or neighborhood and be somewhat unaware of the rest of the city. the sub-island of harlem is invigorating.

getting to work for soffiyah elijah and the correctional association just blew me away. they are doing incredible and brave and meticulous work with currently and formerly incarcerated people, including a collaboration with an old columbia colleague, bryonn bain, of lyrics from lockdown at the national black theater. that space is living history! getting to facilitate there was inspiring, and i hope to be back.

when my work in harlem was done i went to the russian baths on 10th, for women’s day. as always, i wanted to be a skilled photographer allowed to capture this sort of stranger intimacy. there is so much beauty in watching women care for themselves and each other.

i had a special moment there, i saw a woman who had a similar shape and color to me, and literally gasped at how beautiful she looked in the steam in her nakedness. there is a fine line between ego and healing self-love, and i’m on it…but this felt so reaffirming – i wanted to applaud her hips and her belly. something about the experience made me blush, but we ended up speaking of it, of our beauty, and it was good.

i haven’t found places quite like the baths in the other u.s. cities i frequent, so remarkably unbougie. it feels more like the hammam i go to in paris, very old and singularly focused.

i saw some music in the city, including a piece by a new friend, nico muhly, which was inspiring and interesting. it was classical music played by this group ymusic ensemble which is working to take classical music into nontraditional spaces – they were lovely. nico has an opera opening in october which i am committing to return for.

my balancing of old friends and new isn’t quite perfect, but it’s getting better – i saw lots of evans and sofia, shane, adriana, tanji, idelisse, inca, jen, a quick taste of dream and nina, nico, natasha, sam, and reconnected with monifa.

each time i come to nyc the dance card is full, but this feels like a good problem now.

i made my way to brooklyn, generally my borough of choice. my friends have migrated as neighborhoods gentrify, and its hard not to experience microshocks to see my old neighborhoods of ft. green and bedstuy these days. some of my favorite places are closed…but there’s this app called seamless that unveils a plethora of new places…change, change, change.

for instance tonight there are so many options. one is to see karma mayet johnson singing songs from indigo. i got to see this show a couple years ago and it was stunning and powerful – a slave era lesbian love story with time travel and gorgeous music. her voice is honey.

there’s also an astrea foundation night of performances featuring the divine imani uzuri, whose album gypsy diaries was one of the best of the year, and firebrand poet staceyann chin.

if you are in ny you should definitely be at one of these events tonight. and maybe hit up freedom party after. after my big fall in december i needed to actually get walking shoes to be here – it would be nice to see if they are dancing shoes as well.

we’ll see – i have to pack, and see a few more people, and am already feeling quite satiated and delighted by this trip. i am realizing that when i came before i was trying to resist that this place which shaped so much of who i am had changed, was changing.

but in these past few years i have begun to learn, just begun, that change is a sacred and constant force. partially this is from my octavia butler scholarship, partially from grief and loss and heartbreak getting somewhat normalized, and partially from seeing all the opportunities and blessings flowing into my life as i loosen my resistance, lean into the changes.

i don’t think i will live here again anytime soon, detroit still suits my pace and titillates my movement dreaming self more than any other place. but i feel at peace on these streets again, and excited to visit often.

if octavia was right that change is god, i’m sure god keeps a residence in nyc.

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