The signal is red. The M 60 bus reaches the 116th & Broadway stop at 4:00 pm. It has three passengers, five more get in. Buzz-beep-slash: passengers swipe their Metro cards and find solitary seats. The driver’s belly droops over his belt. From behind his black goggles, he looks disinterestedly at those stepping in. A recorded female voice greets mechanically: “Thank you for riding the MTA.”
The bus takes a right turn off Amsterdam Avenue onto W 125 St . Outside the Harlem USA II Nails salon two black women stand smoking cigarettes. The shade of one’s jacket perfectly matches her brown highlights. The other is shorter, plump and wears a black jacket.
Are they poor?
But, poor men and women do not wear an identity badge. Poverty is a human reality that goes beyond color, race and time. The white man’s hunger is the same as the black man’s hunger.
The first sight on getting off the bus at W 125 St & Adam C Powell Blvd is a foot-long red signboard with “Pashmina” written in white all-caps. Below the sign hang red, green, black, navy blue, sky blue, rust, pink, zebra- and leopard-print shawls.
A sweet, fruity smell with the hint of strawberry and vanilla arises at the next stall. In old glass bottles that do not inspire much faith are synthetic fragrances with enchanting labels: Happy Women, Patchouli, Victoria’s Secret, Kush. Incense sticks are labeled Coco Mango, Mango Butter, Sandalwood and Tulasi.
“Nine-ninety-nine dollars,” says a man as his dark glasses fall low on his nose.
“Ten thousand. O good. She’s going for 30K," he says as he stares at the woman walking towards him. He sits on a square-iron fence that guards a barren tree outside the Diallo Cap store at 112 W, 125 St. But she sits instead of walking away, he's taken off guard. “It’s not safe to sit down, don’t you know wonderful? I am jealous of the girl. Sometimes you got to get the moves. Sometimes you got to take rest.”
He stands up leaning into his walking stick, uncomfortable with the woman’s silence and scribbling. He is wearing faded violet-blue pants, a thick jacket with a jean pocket stitched on the left arm, white gloves, gray cap, and a black bag hangs from his shoulders. He takes a short aimless walk but quickly returns to whisper, “You have to move, gorgeous.” As the woman gets up to go, he shouts a parting advice: “And don’t spend too much money!”
Walking sticks negotiate the busy footpath. Sounds of screeching tires, horns and music mix. A child stops to cough and resumes the tantrum, the sobbing. There’s a vacant lot at the corner of 125th & Lenox Ave. Near the fence, two women stand arguing.
“Fucking America. And nobody helps you in America,” says the older woman. The other is dressed in a black jacket with an intricate golden design and a black purse with similar gold work. Her hair is elaborately braided and tied back. The stud in her nose sparkles as she shouts, “Mom! You got the right papers … Listen … I will go to the church …”
A short old woman in a woolen brown cap stands outside a store. She wears a thick grey coat from which only the florescent orange hem of her dress is visible, thin skin-colored stockings and black shoes. She has a white tote bag painted with the stars and stripes of America.
A man in a Quantum A 4000 wheelchair tears open the plastic wrap and bites an orange candy stick. One leg is amputated at the knee, the other at the ankle. The ends of his cream pants are cut and tied up. An old paper tag that reads 11-10-11 is tied to the wheelchair. Near his hands he has hung a white plastic bag that contains a bottle of Coke.
Two men can be heard cursing from far away. As they come near the wheelchair, one of them shouts, “Shut the fuck up.” “I will call the police,” says the other. They walk away only to return quickly, still shouting and cursing with the same intensity.
The return journey is on foot.
The pleasant smell of cleaning detergent splashes outside the windows of the Outside Avenue store. A tall black man in a red sweatshirt diligently pushes a yellow trolley containing the cleaning liquid and mops. He walks with a slight limp in his right leg.
Near the same fence where the mother and daughter were arguing, now walks a blind man obeying his red-tipped walking stick. On the opposite side of the street, a man dressed in an ocean-blue robe and a hat that mimics the crown of the Statue of Liberty distributes pamphlets and shouts, “Taxes, taxes.”
The man with faded violet-blue jeans looks up again from the corner of his dark glasses and smiles, “O, she’s back!” The same strawberry-vanilla smell returns. The same shawls, the same people…
Are they poor?
* This is the first assignment for Michael Powell's seminar "Writing about People Along the Poverty Line." It was a very fruitful experience in that that we were not allowed to talk with anyone while working on the piece. All energy spent in observation brought out much more than what is usually got in the hurry to ask questions and note down replies.