Home Sweet Harlem

Today, my blog has been commandeered by my majestic, and, as it turns out, completely ludicrous husband, who, while in college, found himself wandering the streets of Harlem in the middle of the night. I’m really glad he didn’t get murdered, because if he had I wouldn’t have gotten to marry him. Take it away, Eric!

“Home Sweet Harlem”

A story by Eric Bernard

I took up trombone at the ripe old age of nine. I didn’t know then my music career would take me around the world on concert tours, nor that one of these tours would land me in Harlem at 2am, playing the part of a deranged coke addict.

On my first music tour as a Junior in high school, our band director dragged our wind ensemble to nowheresville California, somewhere near Sonoma. The brilliance of his decision to take us ten minutes from some of the world’s best wine didn’t dawn on me until years later when I had my own experience teaching high school band where I realized it was a wonder there were any band directors who weren’t alcoholics. At the time, however, this group of over-eager, rambunctious, 90210 wannabes couldn’t figure out what in the world we were doing in a city whose only accolades included the prize winning heifer from the county fair and one stop light. I could see them arguing at the barber shop as to which one was actually the greater accomplishment.

On this particular tour, as would be the case on many more tours to come, we were staying with host families. A couple students would be sent off to stay with a family from the area; all an attempt to save a couple bucks under the guise of “community building” or some nonsense. My hosts had a son who was roughly the same age as me, and realistically we weren’t that different, except I’m pretty sure he was betrothed to his cousin down the street. One night we got into a rather intense conversation about driving. We were both new drivers, and he made the claim that if one could drive in his town, then they could drive anywhere in the country. Well I had seen his town, and if he had been color blind, I see how that stop light could have given him some fits, but other than that, I could not for the life of me figure where the difficulty lay. I had grown up in suburban Los Angeles; I reminded him that we have roughly eight million people which translates into at least 100 million cars on the road at any given time. I don’t know if that math is accurate but it sure seems right. I had to educate him to the fact that there was just no way that his experience driving in Placerville was comparable to driving in Los Angeles. He was not willing to concede and we parted ways with the discussion unresolved.

A few years later in college, I found myself on yet another music tour that involved traveling to strange parts of the country, and staying in the homes of volunteer hosts willing to endure at least 12 hours of the most awkward living room chats imaginable. You can imagine how excited we all were, all 150 choir and orchestra members, to know that we had a small stop planned in the middle of our three week tour in New York city. We were going to spend three days in America’s Big Apple and this was the first time in my memory that they were not sending us to host homes.

We arrived at our lodging destination late in the evening after a concert that we had just done in Brooklyn. We looked around, but couldn’t figure out where the hotel was. Confused, we followed our director into what seemed like a lobby of sorts, but one unlike any other I had been in before. I said to a friend, “I don’t think I have ever stayed in a hotel like this one.”

He replied, “This isn’t a hotel, this is a hostel.” I quickly pulled out my itinerary and scanned to find the typo. I knew I read it to say “Jazz on the Park Hotel”. I was wrong. A hostel it was.

I didn’t know anything about hostels, and honestly had never even heard of one before that day. I started to scan the building to figure out what to expect for the next few days. The first thing I noticed was that in lieu of art work on the walls, they had graffiti, with the names of popular jazz artists and album covers. It was done in a way that you really couldn’t tell if a vandal had broken in last night or if they hired a famous urban artist. Maybe it was both.  It wasn’t the ritz, but it was interesting and kitschy. I figured, “I’m a musician, this place is called Jazz on the Park. Maybe Miles Davis stayed here. Or maybe a different coke addicted jazz musician. Or maybe just coke addicts. Yeah, definitely just coke addicts.” I resolved to make the best of it, and enjoy living the bohemian life. I’d just sidestep any stray needles.

I was snapped out of my daydream about past residents when the tour manager instructed all the guys out to the busses to help unload the luggage. This was a normal, nightly occurrence. We unloaded the busses and got the luggage into the lobby and started looking around for the elevator. It seemed like it had been camouflaged by all of the graffiti because we couldn’t for the life of us find it. The clerk calls out, “Guys, this place costs $10 per night, we don’t have an elevator. We just have stairs.” Okay, no big deal. We ask the tour manager,

“What floor did you say we were on again?”

“We are on the eight floor” he says.

The guys all look at each other.

“Did he just say the eight floor? As in, eight flights of stairs.” We let the weight of the task ahead sink in. We had 100 girls in our group, so, you know, roughly 800 pieces of luggage that had to go up eight flights of stairs at 10PM after a full day of travel and a concert. All I could think was “I’m sure Miles Davis didn’t have to deal with this shit when he stayed here”.

Me and a few buddies finally get the luggage squared away and we arrive at our room, all 16 of us. The lobby clerk gave us the run down:

“The bathroom is down the hall, don’t waste time in there it is the only one for the floor. This is your room, under each bunk there is a locker built under the mattress, use the lock you brought and lock your stuff up every time you leave the room.” I speak up for the group and say,

“Sir, we didn’t really know to bring a lock, but we’re all from the same group so we will probably be okay, right?”

He shoots me a look like I must be crazy. He pines back a response straight out of the movies, “Where do you guys think you are? This is Harlem. Lock your shit up.”

I think to myself “Harlem? Did he just say Harlem?” 

The next day, a small handful of us had planned to go catch a baseball game at the famed Yankee stadium in the Bronx. The Yankees were playing the Seattle Mariners that day, both of which were league rivals to my Anaheim Angels, so I had a decision to make as to who I hated more. I went back through recent memory and remembered far more bad beats at the hands of the mighty Yankees, so today I was going to be Seattle Washington’s favorite son. Normally when I attend a sporting event, I keep to myself, because I get too wrapped up in the game to spend much time heckling or cat calling. But I didn’t have as much invested in these two teams, so I took full opportunity to let all the Bronx natives in section 450 know just what I thought of their beloved Yankees. I started my chant:

“Jeter sucks A-Rod!!” followed by “They must make you wear those pinstripes to remind you of the zoo where they found you.” My support for the Mariners did not go over well. It could have been my words or it could have been my all around look: a mix of 90‘s boy band clothing, shorts, flip flops, wire rimmed beatnik glasses and so much gel in my hair I am pretty sure I created my own hole in the ozone layer. While most of those around us gave me dirty looks and the occasional finger gesture, one fellow decided he had a quip for me.

“Go back to Seattle and drink some coffee!!!” Really? That is the best they have? “Go drink some coffee?” All I could do was laugh at the hilarity, but if I had been wiser I would have realized this fellow clearly did not believe “the pen is mightier than the sword”. He would have been far more comfortable typing out his thoughts on my skull.

The game that day was a tight one, and the crowd grew quite upset when the Mariners pulled out a win with a homer in the top of the 11th inning. Our celebration was short lived as the eyes of everyone in the stadium seemed to be fixed on us. We quickly gathered our stuff and headed for the subway. Since our schedule had some flexibility, our group started to split off to head to our different evening plans. My brother and I hopped on a subway down to Times Square where we were meeting up with his girlfriend and her sister. My brother’s girlfriend was also in our music group, but her sister happened to live in New York, so arrangements had been made for them to stay with her sister in Brooklyn rather than our Harlem Hilton. The girls met us in Time Square and we were all going to take in a show.

It was a fine evening at the theater. We chose to see something “affordable”, so I can’t say it was the best thing I had ever watched, but it was probably for the better considering I had not brought a change of clothes. I was lucky they even let me in looking like I did. The night was getting late and we figured it was time to part ways and call it a night. I was going to need to figure out how to get myself back to our hostel on my own. Our New York native tried to convince me to take a taxi seeing as it was around 1am, but that was not in my budget and the summer night seemed so nice that I wanted to go on my own. She gave me very specific instructions, “It is 1am and this is New York, so follow my instructions exactly. Take the D train to 109th street. Then walk two blocks east to the hostel.” I memorized her instructions, said my “good nights” and took off to the subway.

I had only been waiting for a couple minutes when the first train arrived. I look at the front to confirm that it is my train and see that it is actually the A train. No big deal, I’m sure the D train will be along shortly. 15 minutes pass and I grow anxious. Why isn’t the train coming? When the train does finally arrive I casually step aboard, but when I glance up and read “A Train,” I barely had enough time to jump off before the doors locked me in. What the heck? Where is the D Train? Now I have the task of identifying the person in my vicinity who is least likely a murderer, so I can ask what’s going on. The man informs me that the D train only runs during the week and this is a Saturday.

I stay calm. I can handle this. No big deal.  The man gives me new directions.

“Take the A train to 112th street, walk four blocks west and three blocks south and you will arrive at your destination.” With my new directions fresh on my mind, I get to achieve my lifelong dream of following Duke Ellington’s instructions: I “Take the A Train.”

I hear a faint announcement over a speaker. Surely, one last desperate wire in this speaker is the only thing keeping oblivious tourists from ending up in New Jersey.  I hear him say “Next cop gets all the wealth.” I figure that Ed Koch has not created a new program to distribute the cities funds so I decipher that he must have said “Next stop, one hundred and twelfth.”

I start up the stairs, ready for a nice 2am stroll through Harlem. When I pop out to what is supposed to be a warm clear summer evening, I realize that during my hour underground, a massive summer storm has arrived out of nowhere. It is pouring, but I have no option but to head out into the rain. Of course I don’t have an umbrella, a rain jacket or any other appropriate clothing. I was dressed for an afternoon at the ball park with my shorts and flip flops, but I figure, what’s a little rain going to do?

Bumbling down the street, things were not going smoothly. I was told to head four blocks west, but I have absolutely no idea which way is east and which way is west. I try to analyze the road signs but the gel in my hair is now quickly looking for an exit off my head and the easiest way is right over my glasses. I try to wipe my glasses clean but everything I have on is now wet, so it is a losing proposition. I smear hair gel all over my glasses. I might as well be looking through a couple coke bottles. When I don’t wear my glasses I can’t even see the alarm clock on my night stand, so with the coke bottles and the rain, I might as well walk with my eyes closed. I make the wise decision to just take them off, pray for the best, and head in the direction I think I should be going. Foolproof.  On the bright side, now I couldn’t really make out all the boarded up storefronts, graffiti, and broken windows, so I felt safer already.

A few soggy blocks later, I develop a new problem. Back in drought-stricken California, leather flip-flops are the way to go, but here in the rain my feet go sliding from side to side as if I’m on ice skates. I realize I’d rather risk stepping on broken glass than break an ankle, so off go the sandals. I am now in Harlem at 2am, soaking wet, meandering in an unknown direction with no glasses, no shoes, and praying I don’t run into anyone who was at the game earlier who will certainly recognize me and show the Seattle boy where he can put his coffee.

I figured the only way to keep from being a target was to look crazier than the people who were also out there with me. I slumped over and put on my best drug addict act. The people of Harlem were certainly used to seeing freaks on the street this late so I would just blend in. I started to regret having seen Thoroughly Modern Millie earlier that night. I had “How the Other Half Lives” running through my head and it is incredibly difficult to look deranged while humming show tunes. Why couldn’t we have seen West Side Story? At least then I’d be prepared for an impeccably-choreographed gang fight.

After four blocks, I turn down. Or up. I have no idea, really. Then I traipse the instructed three blocks north. Or was it south? I arrive at what I think should be the hostel, but the rap music and yelling coming from within tell me I should NOT try the door knob.

People often use these moments to give some romantic line; “I thought I was lost in Harlem, but really, I was found.” That was dreamed up by some halfwit who has never been in Harlem at 2am. I could feel I was minutes away from being a morning news story. I see a blurry form of yellow traveling in my direction and I figure it’s either a school bus or a taxi, and either way, I want it to take me far away from here, back to happy Harlem with its Jazz albums and fewer stray needles per square foot.

I flag it down and tell the driver, “Please take me to 109th central park.”

He says “Is that east or west?”

“Oh so you don’t know your directions, either, huh?” I mumble to myself. I can’t figure out what he is trying to ask so I say “What does that even mean?” He is losing patience with me.

“109th street goes on both sides of the park, which side are you on?” Since I don’t even know the answer to that, I just say “I am staying at the Jazz on the Park Hostel.”

He had been looking ahead, but now he slowly turns around and looks me up and down like a girl in a club dress. He shakes his head and we speed off.

I see a broken neon sign that boasts “Jaz  On  he  ark Ho tel”, and have to resist clicking my heels together, I’m so glad to be home. I carry my soaking wet skinny ass up exactly eight flights of stairs. Somehow, I still have to wait around for the floor’s one shower. Clean and exhausted, I climb into my bunk trying not to wake the other 15 guys in this room that looks like an all-male version of Annie. The events of the day start to play like a movie in my head and I smile: the baseball game, the heckling, Taking the A train, the lunatic walk through Harlem. Then, unexpectedly, my mind drifts to that conversation I had in high school back in California wine country. I suddenly realized that kid and I were both wrong: the hardest place to drive is actually walking in New York.”


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