Making Rent in Bed-Stuy
2500 Red Bank Road
Early on the morning of July 4, 2006, I was walking south on Taaffe Place, in Brooklyn. It was just after midnight and I was wearing camp-counselor clothes—a blue polo, cheap white sneakers, and tight green shorts—on a nearly deserted block leading to my building’s front door. A phone conversation with a friend in California was ongoing, radiation-spewing Motorola Razr glued to my left ear, tucked right next to my brain.
Half a block from home, a man in a white T-shirt offered me a cigarette, his voice escaping his mouth in a low, dreadful mumble. I didn’t notice it at first, but as I passed him, shaking off the invitation to smoke, I glimpsed what appeared to be a sawed-off bike handle in his right hand. As I continued walking up the block, I gleaned that he was following me from the play of his shadow on a brick wall to my right.
I’m a high yellow Negro who weighs over two hundred pounds. I used to play offensive guard on a half-decent high school football team. But I was dressed like a buffoon, almost never got in fights, and had a man-purse with a brand-new black MacBook in it. Mark. When I realized the man was following me, I was saddened by the prospect of having to smack a motherfucker in the face with my new laptop. So I ran.
Across the street, up the block. The man pursued me to my building’s front door, but I was able to open it quickly and pivot into the building before he could strike me with his peculiar improvised weapon. He lashed the sawed-off end of the bike handle at me, but I ducked out of the way and proceeded to smash his arm, several times, as hard as I could, with the very heavy glass-and-metal door that led to 227–241 Taaffe Place.
Another man, pale and older, stood aghast near the elevator, looking on in horror as my attacker removed his now surely injured limb from the door. I slammed it shut, my assailant cursing loudly from the other side of the glass, his slender body shuddering. He was in great pain. I hadn’t hung up the phone, so my friend in California, hearing the commotion, was loudly asking me if I was “all right” as I held the phone near my chest, breathing hard, staring at this man who had meant me harm.
He was clearly much worse off than I was, for reasons no doubt of his (and our) own making, long before the possibility of stealing from me was something he had conjured in his spiteful mind. “Fuck you, fuck you, yella-ass nigga, I gonna get y’all mothafuckin shit, this is Bed-Stuy, bitch,” he said from the other side of the glass door, tears in his eyes. Then he sauntered off. I went upstairs, to the seventh-story loft I lived in, smoked a spliff, and got ready to face the phony celebration of national independence that the day to come promised to offer.
“This is Bed-Stuy, bitch.” That’s not what everyone else was saying.
In the summer of 2006 I thought, and Tony, my childhood friend, thought that we were moving to Clinton Hill, in Brooklyn. Early in our apartment search, Tony rebuffed the idea of living in Bed-Stuy. He didn’t want to do it. I blinked twice as he said this, unsure how to respond as he spun out his logic. Without saying so, it became clear that he preferred somewhere already gentrified, and if not in the ragingly hip precincts to our north (Williamsburg!) or the increasingly refined enclave to our west (Fort Greene!), then at least somewhere that wasn’t Bedford-Stuyvesant. He grimaced and shook his head when I mentioned Bed-Stuy again, further into our search. It wasn’t for him. I neglected to ask why.
We were soon to exit college, Tony and I, and as April became May and May became June, options that would suit him seemed plentiful, but options that I would find affordable, whatever my post-film-school job prospects, did not. Eventually, he suggested his parents would foot the bill for a nicer place than we would reasonably be able to afford on our own. “It’s not my money, it’s theirs,” he would say, absolving himself of the privilege he would temporarily and conditionally share with me. I’m an agreeable person, perhaps to a fault, so after some time, as it began to look like we might end up staying at our parents’ Ohio homes if we didn’t say yes to an apartment, I relented and agreed to live above my means on the seventh floor of 227–241 Taaffe Place.
It was a huge and impressively airy space, all high ceilings, and polished wood floors—four tall windows lined the western side of the building, which faced onto Taaffe Place, the elevation providing us with a panoramic view of Fort Greene and a portion of downtown Brooklyn to the west. The bedrooms were located behind the first two doors on the left side as you entered. They were too close together, the flimsy walls and strange window between the rooms providing neither of us with much in the way of privacy. When walking into the office to sign the lease agreement, which required us to pay $2,400 a month in rent collectively, neither of us could have anticipated how much of a problem our choice of dwelling would become.
It was far nicer than my first Brooklyn apartment, a two-bedroom affair that had gone for $1,200 two summers before. The Craigslist ad said that apartment was in East Williamsburg. I rode the elevated train there, miles of lonely track, through neighborhoods I didn’t know, to see it one early summer afternoon. I had been squatting at the Harlem apartment of Ray, Tony’s and my friend from Ohio, a recent transplant like us, and was halfway through the State University of New York at Purchase’s undergraduate film school. I had only recently left my dorm and had never found my own apartment before. There are better phrases than “ripe for exploitation,” but none come to mind right now.
It was the summer of 2004 and I was going to live with a club-promoting, tech-utopianist hacker from Serbia and a hard-drinking, backwoods New Hampshire rube—M&M—I knew from film school, during what we hoped in futility would be the final summer of George W. Bush’s presidential term. A Hasid, tall and skinny, stoic and prematurely aged—a Jewish Abraham Lincoln of sorts—awaited me at the door of 166 Throop Avenue, the best lead we had acquired so far. I climbed up a recently renovated wooden staircase with this strange man and came to a maroon door, also recently painted. Once we reached the flat, the air smelled of wood chips and the recent use of electric saws. Unassuming light fixtures and dull white walls in the main room, a tight bathroom down a short hallway. When one turned around, there was a kitchenette, just off the “living room,” that could hardly fit two people. A fire escape, accessible from one of the two bedrooms, allowed for rooftop access; a Catholic church that no one went to anymore stood just a few blocks away, the elevated train that had brought me to this foreign land, this “East Williamsburg,” a bit beyond it.
My mother, a cashew-colored lower midwestern Negro who owns guns, drives trucks, and used to destroy buildings for a living, agreed to be the guarantor; nearing the end of her fourth marriage but at the peak of her career as a home construction executive, she had the means and willingness my friends’ parents seemingly did not. I, nor my roommates-to-be, had no credit history to speak of. The apartment was a three-block walk to the J, M, and Z trains, the line from which the famous rapper fetched his name, and across the street from Woodhull Medical Center, a hulking modernist hospital that wouldn’t be out of place in the city skyline from Blade Runner.
The circumstances in which I lived with Tony couldn’t be more different. Whereas my mother was the most well-to-do parent in the previous housing situation, it was assumed from the jump that Tony’s family would foot the bill for our housing deposit, for the most expensive pieces of furniture; my mother provided us with a truck, and a driver named Gus, an ignorant, good-humored, diabetes-riddled cat who kept catcalling girls once we reached Brooklyn. He was a great help and a mild embarrassment. But these sorts of things were where the buck stopped.
I remember saying to my old friend, “I’m going to really have to hustle to make this rent.” My mother had made it very clear that, beyond my share of the deposit, moving expenses, and the first month of rent, she would not subsidize me. I had hardly ever made $800 a month at my various jobs—bookstore clerk, art-house movie theater popcorn sweeper, work-study equipment-room flack—let alone paid that much to live anywhere. He nodded past me, as if a passerby had said something vaguely interesting that he hadn’t quite heard.
I had met Tony at the Seven Hills School, a private K–12 at 2500 Red Bank Road that educated the children of the city’s wealthiest families, just a five-minute drive from my mother’s Kennedy Heights home, a two-story, three-bedroom brick house on a hilly street in a mostly integrated part of our segregated hometown, Cincinnati. My mother, a demolition executive trying her hand at construction in the mid-’90s for the first time, had carved a street out of a thick, undeveloped tract of forest and named it after me: Brandonburg Lane. Ours was the first of nine houses on the row, a tangible departure from the low-slung bungalows and four-family apartments that line the working-class Cincinnati suburbs of Kennedy Heights and Silverton, which surround Brandonburg. I had grown up on those streets, in a house my grandfather had built as his demolition firm began to grow in the 1960s.
The spring before sixth grade, tired of the unruliness and intellectual stultification of the elementary school I went to in Silverton, I asked my mother to send me to the Seven Hills School, which I would pass as we rode along Red Bank Road toward I-71. The gray wood buildings of 2500 Red Bank would float past as I sat shotgun in her gas-guzzling GMC Suburban, gazing at the well-manicured baseball fields, connected by walkways and ringed with neat, inviting landscaping, and the Olympic-sized track and field of rubber and grass. The one I ran and leaped on at the Silverton elementary was made of blacktop, the baseball fields pockmarked with weeds.
As you entered the I-71 on-ramp near the school, you had a dynamic view of the shrubbery lining the hillside, cut in such a way that “SEVEN HILLS SCHOOL” was spelled out in green foliage to those descending from the freeway. I recall my mother being somewhat astonished by the request. The $9,000 per year tuition was the largest educational investment our family had ever made in one of its children at that time—my mother and her sisters went to college in an era, the 1970s, when schooling cost considerably less, even if, like my mother, you began your college career in the Ivy League.
Class was a slippery thing in our family; my mother’s mother had come from a distinctly middle-class household that had sent their entire prewar brood to historically black colleges; my grandfather, a tall and charming light-skinned Negro from the hills of northern Kentucky, never finished high school. It’s a pairing that seems more imaginable then than it would be now, in our time of alleged social mobility; black women with college degrees, even amid the complaints of “not enough available black men,” no longer marry Negroes from the Bluegrass State who have only passed through elementary school.
Eventually he made enough money in the demolition business to purchase, through his white lawyer, a plot of land in Walnut Hills, an exclusive east side community that was normally protected from Negroes by restrictive covenants. With his second wife, whom I’ve always known as my grandmother, he built a handsome house, one he designed himself. By 2002 they were respected enough in society to be the subjects of a glowing Cincinnati Enquirer profile that referred to them as “generous philanthropists, willing to write a check when needed, willing to chair a gala, willing to roll up their sleeves when necessary to make something happen.”
Yet behind closed doors, they complained of the same corruption and racial graft that common Negroes did. Even in the loom of success, discontent among “our class” of Negroes seemed high. The white folks with whom my grandparents share their social calendar, be it at their country club or a benefit to induct them into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, see them as pillars of the community and probably wouldn’t recognize the deeply distrustful version of their neighbors that springs forth in the privacy of black company. Their dissatisfaction, through which I first learned that America allegedly had a race problem, was not restricted to the behavior of whites.
Skepticism about our ability to forge a commonwealth within our ranks became a form of received wisdom in this period of my life. The complaints my family members launched at the ineffectiveness of black collective action made me so. “If only we were like the Jews” was a common refrain. Jews reminded one another of their history, their oppression, while collectivizing in ways that provided their ranks protection and wealth, so went the legend. You would hear it at kitchen tables littered with Little Caesars pizza or at a barbershop in Evanston while awaiting a fade, but not out in public, among whites. These conversations were kept at bay there.
In these days, I watched elderly black fingers wag at the sagging pants and billowing white T-shirts and fat girls with expensive weaves and too many kids. To replenish the spring of self-loathing from which so many well-to-do blacks draw was to lack a vision of transcendence and, like so much of America, to remain deaf to the sounds of justice. My grandfather is a man who, like so many of his generation, did his best to assimilate and segregate at once, to upend and uphold an old order. He grew up in a Kentucky where you didn’t look at white women for fear of your Negro life.
So perhaps ours is an uneasy truce with the future; I’ve never taken my white girlfriends home to meet him and I know he prefers it that way.
At my new school, Tony and I became friendly almost immediately—we sat next to each other in sixth-grade science class—but we didn’t become very close until high school. Tony was, in his early youth, gangly and awkward, bookish and intense, a child of silver spoons that he kept mostly private. His parents had done well in the world of plasma centers and lived in an elegant three-story white frame house on the top of a hill that lined one of Cincinnati’s most exclusive east side neighborhoods, but he carried himself with an unassuming air in his flannel shirts and Chuck Taylors. Like many a young rich person I’ve known, he liked to brag about how his father was a self-made man; it’s often an easy way to signal that they haven’t been terminally spoiled, that the successful people who’ve spawned them imparted a knowledge of struggle and belief in a work ethic. Still, in the middle ’90s, it was somewhat iconoclastic of him to befriend the nerdy, overweight, Star Trek–obsessed child of black Cincinnati strivers whom he sat next to in sixth-grade science.
He had a reserve, an aloofness, that I envied and had tried, mostly with little success, to cultivate in myself. I thought the dispassionate way his class of whites went about their business was what you had to emulate to get ahead. There were two other black boys along with me in our sixth-grade class that first fall, but I was the only new one; they were already acclimated to our surroundings, where we were given “fruit breaks” and the assumption of our innocence and burgeoning intellect was never in question, so I thought. But when, in that same science class in which we sat together every day, I was accused, the only black child in the section, of stealing a hissing Madagascar cockroach, I recall no one coming to my aid. No one leaped forward to speak for my character. I was the new kid, and black. Suspicion naturally gravitated toward me.
Our teacher, Mr. Barker, had prized his cockroach, which he dubbed Seymour, ordering it all the way from the island off the southeast African coast for which this particularly rare species of cockroach is named. It mysteriously ended up in my bag, likely as a prank by a classmate who didn’t approve of my presence or what I wore. After arriving home that afternoon, I placed my bag down near the doorway and retreated to the living room so my father, who had picked me up from school, could make me a sandwich.
When I returned to the office to start my homework, my right hand instinctively went for the light switch. When I brought it back toward my body, a hissing Madagascar cockroach was staring at me from just below my knuckles. They really do hiss. I screamed and threw it across the room. My father and I trapped it and, a few days later, I took pleasure in gassing it to death in a mason jar.
Via Encarta for Windows 95 I discovered that the bug I had found was quite a rare coup, and I included it with pride in my insect classification assignment for Mr. Barker’s class. He recognized Seymour immediately and hauled my mother in for a meeting. Suspicion remained, but no proof emerged, so no punishment was meted out, just a lurking sense that the standard upon which I would be judged was always to be different than my peers. The look on my mother’s face as we left our meeting with Mr. Barker let me know she had been putting up with bullshit like this her whole life.
Although one of the other black students became a lifelong friend, I gravitated, in my three years there, first toward a cadre of short, swarthy nerds, people who would take an interest in Star Trek cards and nascent attempts at fantasy baseball, before turning to the jocks, among whom I was a natural leader and far from the only black, and then steadily toward the kids that experimented with drugs and liked edgy movies, almost all of whom were white.
Cincinnati was the eighth most segregated city in America as Tony and I grew up. My mother managed to persevere in the midwestern demolition industry, an almost exclusively white domain, but nonetheless as an adult never acquired close friends who were white. She surely knew my path would be different, acquiescing to my conscious request to go to an almost uniformly Caucasian school full of entitled rich kids while fretting, to her friends over cocktails, about making sure I had enough exposure to “my own” culture. I saw less and less of my friends from my elementary school days and spent more time, slowly but steadily, in the parlor rooms and upstairs attics of those same east side families my mother had no real interest in getting to know. She was trying to build her own slice of modern middle-class housing for black families in generally black neighborhoods, residential projects that would increase property values for everyone in the surrounding community, she posited. This was in stark contrast to forging alliances with those who had the real money and heading for the hills, as the black professionals she would meet up with for top-of-the-weekend Happy Hour at T.G.I. Friday’s had done.
This kind of spirit informed the frustrated, defiant tone in my mother’s voice when driving through nearby Madisonville, a mostly depressed black enclave with pockets of both black and white prosperity tucked away from its fast-food-joint, hair-product-and-discount-sneaker-outlet-dominated main drag of Madison Road. “Our community doesn’t have to look like this,” she would intone, but then, even as a child, I would ask, “Well then, if that’s the case, why does it?”
They never covered this in American History at the Seven Hills School. Why are so many Negroes so broke? Why can’t they have nice things too? Of course, many of those I knew did—in Silverton, we were thought of as rich Negroes. While my grandfather and his wife fully entered a strata of east side, Hyde Park society, hosting parties where many of the city’s power brokers hunkered down for bourbon, my mother generally shunned such social climbing. But in the prosperous ’90s even she, who drives a pickup truck and is in perfect harmony with the world when she encounters a sack of chicken wings and an episode of Martin, indulged in the clubs of the city’s black elite and played bid whist with hairdressers and McDonald’s staffers.
I went to daytime house parties and Kings Island Amusement Park field trips with a chapter of the black children’s club Jack and Jill as a preteen. We didn’t seem quite as well off as most of the black professional families that made up this awkward, self-selected assortment of the talented tenth and their offspring, those who had fled to the white suburbs or the old, moneyed east side neighborhoods, but that’s not why I never completely fit in—I just liked hanging out with the working-class black kids from my extended family and the rich white kids from my school more. I was especially alienated from the girls—I was fat and didn’t take on a particularly hard, ghetto mode of speech or demeanor, something those rich black girls loved at the time, reminding them as it did of the macho cousin or uncle they knew who hadn’t made it to the other side of Clinton-era prosperity, the risk-taking hothead kids who went to Withrow or Hughes High School, the hip-hop stars they could watch every afternoon on MTV’s Total Request Live with Carson Daly. While consorting with the children of other classy Negroes was something I was never much good at doing back then, my growing intimacy with Cincinnati’s diverse and self-enclosed tribes, its posturing ascendant Negroes and its relatively poor blacks, its working-class Catholics and its wealthy east side WASPs and Jews, left me with an ability to code-switch, to find ways to speak a common language, grasp a set of common values, among people in almost every part of the city’s class hierarchy. Yet it also left me with a cognitive dissonance about the value of modern black American symbols.
Despite the kente cloth I wore to eighth-grade graduation and my penchant for accosting white girls over their inability to “confront their guilt” following my first reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I too had been conditioned by an America where black institutions and neighborhoods and vernacular were things the culture told you were inferior, regardless of the two-bit nationalism a young Negro child like myself encountered when seeing the Nation of Islam guys on the corner near Swifton Commons Mall or outside the diner they ran on the strip of Reading Road, near where my mother lives now, that has given way to open-air drug markets. Was hardly a bulwark against these sentiments.
Our collectivism manifested itself in ways I found strange sometimes. Watching the O. J. Simpson verdict with my classmates at Seven Hills, I was the only black student in the room as “Not Guilty” passed through the speakers of the TV in the central atrium. I couldn’t help but feel alienated as pale faces reddened and tears, along the edges of the room among the adults, were shed. You could sense the righteous indignation spread among some of the teachers, most of whom quickly stifled it. Not in front of the children; American innocence had to be protected for them, for now. I thought O. J. was guilty, and so did my mother, but in our home I had heard the voices of black people who would be happy to see him walk anyway, if just to get back at the white man. “What did we win?” Chris Rock joked a year later in Bring the Pain, the HBO comedy special that truly made him a star. Not a damn thing, but schadenfreude is a powerful animating force in many black minds toward many a white person for reasons that are older than all of us.
Tony didn’t know the first thing about those anxieties then, and not what they actually meant to me, but for some reason, like so many white people I’ve befriended in my life, I sort of assumed he did. He certainly seemed to have insight into blacks that extended beyond stereotype; he was immersed in black forms. As the years went by, I admired not just his thinly concealed melancholy (I had my own), but his knowledge of black literature and boxing and soul music. These cultural signals kept me thinking he probably empathized more than he did. I was still too young, too gullible myself to have gleaned that whites who loved black culture didn’t necessarily understand black people.
Eventually, toward the end of middle school and beginning of high school, Tony and I ran in a coherent circle of friends. Even though I no longer went to Seven Hills, having gone to a less expensive, less diverse, more conservative Catholic high school that had attracted me with dreams of football glory, most of my closest friends remained at the prep school for the city’s elite. Seven Hills was barely a mile down a steep hill along Daniel Drake Park from Brandonburg, where we lived both before and during my mother’s fourth marriage, this time to an arrogant and foolish preacher whom she had known most of her life.
In my early high school years, the second floor of our handsome home played host to the rampant misbehavior of our posse; dropping mushrooms and ecstasy after seeing Magnolia in the cinema or during a long night of The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn followed by a VHS of Aronofsky’s Pi, I became someone my mother wouldn’t have recognized had she the guile to climb the stairs and discover what we were up to. She caught my friends and me stealing her booze after one raid had proven too brazen for her not to notice; ever the entrepreneur, she extorted money out of each of my friends in order to replenish her stock, threatening to expose them to their parents if they didn’t come through. We stopped partying at my house.
My friends and I prided ourselves on being edgy intellectuals, dabbling in drinking and drugs, punk shows and Ralph Nader, García Márquez novels and David Fincher movies. Long evenings on the Ludlow strip, a series of hip businesses near the University of Cincinnati in the city’s Clifton district, we would drift from coffee and chess at the old underground location of Sitwell’s Café to an inevitable house party or a night logging around, smoking weed, and watching specialty movies that weren’t quite art, like, say, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, over and over and over. Eventually, as seniors, we rounded up enough people to invest in our own apartment, which we dubbed Party House. Despite earning the highest grade point average I ever did in high school, I spent most of my senior year in front of a television at Party House, playing Grand Theft Auto and watching Tom Tykwer movies. We grew weed in the closet of the sole bedroom, often smoking it out of a six-foot bong to better take years off our lives, and hung an American flag upside down with an anarchy sign written on it. It was a slice of gutter paradise.
Across many years class meant little to us—we were just boys having an adolescence together—even as its portent grew more obvious. Tony attended private and pricey Sarah Lawrence for his Westchester County college education, while I opted for the nearby film conservatory at SUNY Purchase, to which I still tithe my wages while teaching a new generation of future Purchase debtors how to dream in cinematic terms. Tony grew into the type of rich midwestern white man on the coast who, despite his station in life, would vote for liberals with some ounce of self-pride, “loyalties to his class,” as he would have it, be damned; he lionized his father—a ranching and hunting enthusiast from the South—for bucking the trend of the wealthy and southern to support Democrats as well.
This difference in relative economic and social advantage didn’t weigh on us sitting through Hype Williams’s Belly and Keenen Ivory Wayans’s Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood three times each, listening to John Coltrane or Motown albums all day while mutually slacking. These were activities Tony would participate in happily, without irony, by himself. Beneath his cool patrician vibe was a genuinely searching and tortured and open person with whom I shared a lot of laughs and from whom I learned multitudes. I miss him.
But the gaps between us, cracks of misunderstanding in which the entire relationship would become mired, began to overwhelm the thing before I ever had the life experience or self-awareness to bring language to how unnerved I was often made to feel. His parents, generous and hospitable upon every visit I’ve ever made to their home, were the type of white liberals who might bemoan the presence of young, unrefined-looking black boys walking through their tony part of Cincinnati’s east side. Tony’s brother, who took to dealing dope in high school and college like the rap stars he idolized, lived largely without fear of life-altering repercussions while doing so, despite several run-ins with the law. Tony confided his parents’ behavior to me with a look that asked, “Can you really blame them?” That these same people could visit me, a Negro child, while I was sick and potentially dying with liver illness, never failing to drive me home or feed me or make me welcome in their home as a high schooler, speaks to just how deep is this mess that we’re all in together.
I spent the better part of my time in high school perfecting how to use drugs on the third floor of their hilltop white frame house, taking shelter from the state-sponsored danger that awaits the black drug user in the streets of the city’s west and central districts. I felt perfectly at home with privilege. I realized mine was more precarious than most, but not here. There was safety in those walls, on that champagne-colored carpet of the study and game room where I watched so many championship fights over the years, blunt smoke wafting in the air.
In college, Tony and I grew closer still, seeing each other as somehow more reliable than the other people in our circle from back home, many of whom were fleeing Cincinnati for the coasts, but with what we saw as less aplomb. Our Westchester County campuses were only twenty minutes from each other by car or forty-five by public transport, so early in our sophomore year we began to hang out on weekends, swapping party invites and shoot-the-shit sessions. He was not a prankster and neither was I, but a good laugh was our backbone and we shared them frequently, while he crashed on my dorm room couch during Purchase’s music festival, Culture Shock, or during a sojourn to Madison Square Garden to watch our first title fight together. Planning trips to see a film in the city or mutually crash at Ray’s Lower Manhattan New School dorm was easy, but talking about sex, as opposed to mere attraction and desire, was not; I was far too inexperienced, having just lost my virginity the year before, not to feel threatened by him.
During Christmas break that year, he slept with a girl I had a crush on. Although the feelings of betrayal that I had toward him persisted for years, by the time we moved in together I thought I was past it. I had met Rolanda, a guest in those tony environs who would become my first serious girlfriend, during one of those Sarah Lawrence visits, and the summer before Tony and I began living together, I had a monthlong fling with his most serious ex-girlfriend, a working-class Irish girl from Cincinnati’s west side who was the child of Jehovah’s Witnesses and whom Tony’s parents had briefly considered putting through Sarah Lawrence so they could remain together. It was a comeuppance that he accepted with what I took for maturity when I told him, later that year, what had happened. We were even.
Yet for all his wonderful qualities, ones that made me love him, such as his modesty—he liked to remark how he hadn’t bought a new shirt in years—this was a person for whom entitlement was the air he breathed so naturally that he seemed to hardly notice it. He proceeded through life with the awareness that no financial calamity was likely to threaten his ability to eat and lie down somewhere comfortable, and seemed, because of this, in no great hurry to make his own way. He knew where entitlement ended, though. This lover of jazz and boxing and ’60s soul could passively assume in conversation over dinner with a mutual friend that of course black celebrity X or Y “would squander all his money, they always do.” No one seems to call this “double consciousness,” but someone should.
166 Throop Avenue
When I discovered that 166 Throop, despite what the realtors and the Caucasian people had told us, was in Bedford-Stuyvesant, 2004 was long over and I didn’t live there anymore. I remember thinking it could be worse for the three months that I did, grateful to have my first nonparental or university dwelling regardless of its location or condition. Two bedrooms for three of us—the Serbian and I would take the rooms while my classmate M&M would camp out on an airbed in the unventilated, windowless “living” room, drinking himself to sleep with PBRs in between best boy electric jobs, often while I watched blaxploitation movies on the TV next to his bed or fucked Rolanda, my girlfriend at the time, in the adjacent room. Our rent was $1,200 a month, and for the largest room in the joint, I paid $450 of it.
It was often an oppressive place, 166 Throop, but it proved liberating in ways I couldn’t have imagined at the time; the summer I lived there was the last I ever spent without Internet service. I had resolved to pass the summer reading serious black literature, watching blaxploitation movies, and being as off the grid as possible. Despite this desire to live simply and contain myself to my thoughts, it was the first summer I had a cell phone; Don DeLillo novels and inconclusive brain cancer studies had taught me they were bad news, but my mother insisted. I split time between our crib and Rolanda’s, a third-floor walk-up on South Second Street in Williamsburg. When we met the previous winter, she had been living on the waterfront in Manhattan, just off the sleepy eastern edge of the Financial District, in a gargantuan rent-controlled loft. It belonged to a university professor who was traveling on a sabbatical that, much to her chagrin, didn’t last forever. Her new crib was in a somewhat dingy Williamsburg two-bedroom for which she and her gay actor roommate, pale and fresh from Interlochen, paid $1,400; at the time, I thought that was a fortune for two people.
Multiple generations of a Puerto Rican family inhabited the various floors of Rolanda’s building. The woman to whom she paid her rent was always welcoming when we’d glimpse her in the stairwell, her husband the same, although I could see in the occasional sideways glance that she was unsure of our presence there. This woman and her family, remnants of Los Sures, the community that had begun moving into these brick walk-ups in the 1940s, had no reason to doubt that we came as friends. At least as long as she owned the building there was comfort in the fact that Southside wouldn’t be completely ceded to hipsters, although if she rented exclusively to them, a potential windfall awaited. The solemnity on her face, how it would return after sharing a wooden smile on the landing or near the gate out front, spoke of a community that wasn’t as lucky, one that would simply disperse, regardless of which home owners won and which renters were cast aside.
Rolanda was tall and pretty, blue-eyed and openfaced, her hair dyed a pale pumpkin shade that summer. We’d go see Michael Haneke movies and hold hands, and there was none of the awkwardness I had come to expect with some white girls who were always looking at me and thinking of how to couch it to their daddy. The most honest of them would foreground their ignorance and/or fear of Negroes plainly, such as a blonde coworker from my hometown who’d touched my hair during our shifts selling tickets at an art-house movie theater in the Cincinnati suburbs the summer previous, marveling at the coarse texture of my hair. She only stopped when I scolded her, angrily. In front of a child who was about to see an Eddie Murphy kids’ movie with his spectacles-wearing, ruddy-faced grandmother, I asked her, “What am I, your Negro petting zoo?”
A decade later, after intermittent bad sex and a few tears, the same coworker said flatly, “My parents will never accept you,” as if reading the news, a difficult truth undergirded with nonchalance.
Back then I didn’t give two shits about Bed-Stuy, the community where I was actually living; I did not care to know that Bed-Stuy contained one of the nation’s first free Negro communities in the first half of the nineteenth century, that parts of it had been Harlem before Harlem. What I did care to know, due to concern for my physical safety heightened by exposure to a million television news segments, newspaper stories, rap songs, commonly used epithets, and, most significantly, the painful indoctrination into Negro American fear, handed down to me by my loving and forever concerned mother, was that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) projects to the west and east and south of my apartment were foreboding, overwhelmingly filled with the dangerous and needy. This is what America tells you.
The place Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter speaks of when he says “Bed-Stuy was my country, Brooklyn my planet” in the second paragraph of his autobiography, Decoded, may well have passed into history by the time I knowingly set foot in the neighborhood, but in the early aughts its specter had not completely passed through history—Myrtle Avenue was no longer Murder Avenue in 2004, but it also wasn’t a place to buy million-dollar apartments, as it has now become. The violent, crack-riddled streets and project corridors, the ones conservative journals such as The Weekly Standard foolishly claimed were full of “Super-Predators” during Carter’s youth, had become, if not universally prosperous, much less riven by shootings and robberies as crime, all over the city and the industrialized Western world, dropped.
But at 452 Marcy, on roughly thirty acres that were once the site of an old Dutch windmill, just two blocks west of where I lived at 166 Throop that summer, the projects where Carter grew up remain. Whenever I would walk by them then, unaware of their significance in the narrative of America’s most famous rapper at the time, they would serve as a reminder of the clichés that bind the national imagination when it comes to how the urban black poor get on and get over. Carter calls the twenty-seven six-story buildings that make up the majority of the property “huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives,” spaces that kept the struggles of the urban poor “invisible to the larger country.” So much of Carter’s career, and those of other rappers who came to prominence in the era of the genre’s global ascendance, has hinged upon building an audience for stories of the black urban poor in the conscience of the mainstream, which is usually another way of saying among middle-class whites.
In his own testimony, the Bed-Stuy of Carter’s preteen years consisted mostly of the inner workings of the Marcy Houses and the streets surrounding the complex. Constructed in 1949, the Marcy Houses are named after former New York governor, U.S. senator, and secretary of state William Marcy. Despite presiding over the Empire State during its first full decade of abolition in the 1830s, he was a Jacksonian Democrat, one who sympathized with southern slavery, a “doughface” in the parlance of the times. The projects bearing his name are a fitting tribute to his sentiments.
The intentional, state-mandated segregation that greeted the construction of New York’s public housing stock, enacted a century after Marcy’s time, has borne many strange fruit. Surely no system has arisen since the end of the “peculiar institution” to ensure black bondage with more effectiveness than the low-income, exclusively black urban housing project. Decoded recounts the bildungsroman of the rapper-entrepreneur who escaped those streets and what they still mean to him. Carter recalls having to dodge the glass shards that lined the “grassy patches that passed for a park” while playing touch football, and tipping a benched, unresponsive heroin addict as you would a cow sleeping in a pasture. He discovered rapping as a preteen, walking those same corridors after coming upon a circle of young ashy kids spitting rhymes in a cipher. He began writing his own verses that very night.
As the ’80s wore on, hip-hop, an invention of the Bronx, was transforming the youth culture of the country Carter lived in. Speakers and subwoofers eight feet in height would be set up in the courtyards of the Marcy Houses for epic MC battles that would “rattle” the windows of the families, new and old, desperately poor or solidly working class yet unable to get out, that lived in the projects above. Yet hip-hop wasn’t the most profound thing altering the landscape of the Marcy Houses and the surrounding area in the 1980s. When the crack epidemic reached Bed-Stuy, or at least the clutch of buildings that dominated Carter’s vision of it, “what had been was gone, and in its place was a new way of life that was suddenly everywhere and seemed like it had been there forever.”
Unlike cocaine users, crackheads would use publicly, in those very Marcy corridors and playgrounds, inside apartment hallways and on the stairs leading to the Myrtle-Willoughby G train stop perched on the southeastern end of the complex. People whom Carter had known as authority figures were suddenly part of a new zombie class, “worse than prostitutes and almost as bad as snitches.” Aunts and uncles, neighbors and older relatives, members of his parents’ generation, many of whom had come of age during the heyday of the civil rights movement, were lost to addiction. It wasn’t long until a teenage Carter began to sell crack himself.
“Fuck waiting for the city to pass out summer jobs. I wasn’t even a teenager yet and suddenly everyone I knew had pocket money,” he explains in the first of many rationalizations for the allure of being a drug-pushing hustler, a life he claims not to have given up until the eve of the release of his debut album, Reasonable Doubt (1996). “Guys my age, fed up with watching their moms struggle on a single income, were paying utility bills with money from hustling,” Carter continues, before acknowledging that, as the money from the crack game exploded with the epidemic itself, the courtyards of Marcy were soon populated by kids his age who “wore automatic weapons like they were sneakers.” Carter claims to have been on the streets hustling over half the time during his thirteenth year.
There is a political element to this recollection; Carter, a major Obama supporter, comes across as a reformed criminal who has grown into a doctrinaire Obama-era liberal, a thoughtful elder statesman of the genre’s dangerous years who has earned the right to be the hero of his own wide-ranging tale; he can inhabit the boardroom while maintaining his street cred. He can absolve Bill Clinton—who greatly expanded the carceral state and drove hundreds of Marcy residents further into poverty due to welfare reform while Carter was still slingin’ rocks—for his Sister Souljah reprimand during the ’92 campaign, largely seen as a way to assure white swing voters he would put a core Democratic constituency in its place. Acknowledging that Clinton, with whom Carter now dines in West Village restaurants the rapper owns, “knew that demonizing young black people, their politics, and their art was always a winning move in American politics,” Carter still shrugs it off. “Everyone needs a chance to evolve,” he suggests. In a country where self-invention is supposed to be a birthright, he would know better than most of us.
Having become famous well enough into adulthood to recall a time when a lifestyle that included feeding presidents in a restaurant you owned would have seemed absurd, Carter admits to frequently not believing his own good fortune. “Inside, there’s a part of me that expects to wake up tomorrow in my bedroom in apartment 5C in Marcy, slide on my gear, run down the pissy stairway, and hit the block, one eye over my shoulder.” Like many kids who grow up in dense concentrations of poverty, Carter didn’t know he had little. It wasn’t until a sixth-grade field trip to a Caucasian teacher’s Manhattan brownstone, one that provided a view of nearby Central Park, that he realized he came from humble beginnings. For this kid reared in what he describes as a modern killing field, trappings of success became doubly powerful once the realization of his own unfortunate circumstances took hold. “We talked about how rich we were going to be and made moves to get the lifestyle we aspired to by any means we could,” Carter recalls of himself and his school peers. “And as soon as we had a little money, we were eager to show it.”
I would go to parties on rooftops that summer of color-coded terror alerts, endless ones, in large expansive, forbidden places, fireworks going off on top of a gargantuan Bushwick factory at close range that sounded like the terrorist bombs I was told would cut the Manhattan Bridge in two at any minute. The men who ran the country told us this was a certainty unless we kept Dick Cheney in charge. I sensed this was as big a lie as when people would say we lived in “East” Williamsburg on those rooftops, as we looked out at “East” Williamsburg, which existed, sort of, farther west than where we were. These people on the rooftops were always Caucasians, and always new to the area. Even in this predominantly Latin and Negro part of town, I’d be the only person of color on most of these rooftops; Caucasians, who were only 1 percent of the neighborhood’s population just four years previous as the new millennium dawned, were moving here in drips and drabs in those years, and I lived among them.
They were disturbing times, and it seemed as if I wouldn’t have the privilege of living in any other way, that the world, in the few years during which I ascended to the personal and societal responsibilities of adulthood, was going through a great unwinding, one that left global order and the promise of American virtue in tatters. Not that I had ever really believed in that virtue anyway. Just look at the way we were indulging a color-coded class war of our own. For most of the Caucasians on its rooftops, Brooklyn was vast and new, a foreign geography easy to mythologize, to understand as a place to be changed, to be “settled” and “colonized.” These terms fall uneasily on the ears of liberal progress, but out there, in high-rises and on corners, black bodies were very much available to project one’s white fears and fantasies on. That wouldn’t change anytime soon, but the affordability of their apartments would.
White people on rooftops that summer told me I wouldn’t want to visit Woodhull Medical Center, which towers over the elevated train for four city blocks along Broadway’s southern side, and in whose mammoth parking lot, across the street from our apartment at 166 Throop, one of my roommates would park production trucks overnight. Bedford-Stuyvesant’s northernmost hospital had been described by The New York Times as “a rust-colored machine of steel and glass that rises out of the urban jumble of Flushing Avenue with immense self-assurance and power.” The hulking, ten-story, four-block modernist structure opened in the fall of 1982, billed as a state-of-the-art public hospital for many of the city’s poorest residents. It had been a troubled project from the start. Planned in 1968 at a cost of $85 million, when it opened fourteen years later its construction budget had ballooned to $308 million. Despite its ambitions to quickly service the needy, the space wasn’t really designed to be a community hospital. Less than a year and a half after it opened, the Times reported that “unlike any other public hospital in the city, it was built to give every patient a private room. But the hospital staff soon discovered that there was virtually no space for nurses’ stations, doctors’ conference rooms or medicine storage cabinets.”
In short order, Woodhull became something of a carnival of mismanagement and desperation. Theft was common. Carlos Loran, who ran the hospital from its inception until being forced out in the mid-’90s as the city was considering selling the decaying structure, told the Times in the same story that “microscopes, typewriters, and up to 20 percent of the hospital’s sheets had disappeared.” What one sees in the reporting about the space over time is how the can-do technocratic optimism with which it was planned in the late ’60s gave way to the malaise-ridden, anti-commons ethos of the early ’80s in which it opened and floundered. Surrounded by blight, by the mid-’90s it was a hangout for prostitutes, who would hunt for johns in its football-field-length corridors. Junkies, and the dealers that exploited them, haunted the place. Its security chief Gene D’Arpe would be forced to resign in September 1994 amid allegations that the hospital’s employees were running a drug sideline in heroin and cocaine.
By the time I arrived in these environs, a great fear of Woodhull was taken as an article of faith among the small coterie of mostly white people I knew in this historic black neighborhood that I didn’t know. Long waits for admittance, for sterilized medical instruments, for your phone call to get picked up: these were common according to legend, as were contracting infections that turned your hand gray. These were the prevailing sentiments, urban lore passed down over cheap Mexican beer as the J train rattled by outside. Someone always knew someone who knew someone. Ride a bike down Broadway, sideswiped, broken hip, botched Woodhull ER surgery, crippled for life.
And how else would it be? The unspoken logic of those conversations I would have on rooftops, a logic I, the token Negro, would solemnly accede to in my frailty and ignorance, was that it couldn’t be any other way; this is a “black” ghetto, hurry up and expect the worst. “Until they make it better,” I recall one Caucasian friend telling me, “as the neighborhood changes.” Which begs the question, for whom?
My fears were not immune to projection. Walking to the G train stop at Flushing Avenue, I kept my head down so as not to draw eye contact with any young Negroes my age, darker and poorer than I, who seemed agitated or baleful, standing alongside the Marcy Houses next to crying babies and fat women bursting out of brassieres too small for their girth, screaming profanities into the night over spilled fried chicken containers. Was I to assume, given the cumulative force of the American news media, the disillusionment in my mother’s eye and the insidiously dismissive attitudes of so many whites, that we were naturally that way, broken and shamed, bound to subjugation, unable to shake the tremors of bondage and systematic ruin? America is so strange that way. It’ll try to convince you that it’s you who’s lost your mind, not Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan.
My friends who made their way to the rooftop of 166 Throop during the first summer of my Brooklyn semi-adulthood lived all over the city; I knew no one who had grown up in my neighborhood, in the massive projects to the south and west of my third-floor walk-up. I had no reason, so I thought, to seek them out, to learn what the place meant to them. In fact, I didn’t know that we shared a neighborhood, because I didn’t know where I was. Of course, where I was was Bed-Stuy, where I didn’t live.
The proliferation of guns and gun violence in the inner cities during the ’80s, a trend Carter describes firsthand in Decoded’s most salient passages (“Kids were as well armed as a paramilitary outfit in a small country”), is no accident of history. “There are no white people in Marcy Projects,” Carter acknowledges, before pointing fingers at a government he calls “almost genocidally hostile” for the “crack explosion” and the increased presence of lethal weaponry that sullied the environment of his childhood and adolescence. But the antecedents of the great rearming of America, and the disastrous consequences this bore for black urban spaces, contain many strange bedfellows, reverberations of failed attempts at black economic sovereignty and political dignity a generation before.
Decoded is littered with photographs of prominent late-twentieth-century political and cultural figures, rappers and singers mostly, but also basketball players and statesmen, filmmakers and the occasional rock star, most, if not all, African Americans. Carter, an epitome of capitalist promise, both illicit and aboveboard, includes images of left-wing revolutionaries: Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense are all pictured. The Black Panthers, an organization made up at its inception largely of young black men, barely of legal drinking age, who had promoted the public display of weaponry as a means of liberating themselves from the threat of police intimidation and violence, are “heroes” in Carter’s eyes, even if he clearly doesn’t jive with their socialism. A dozen years after the party’s federally orchestrated demise, a new generation of black men, of which Jay-Z was once part, came of age with the misguided intention—fed at the trough of an American nightmare—to arm and kill themselves just as fast as they could, often over what scraps of a poorly paying illicit drug market they could dominate. Despite their free breakfasts and laudable ten-point program, the legacy of the Panthers could be felt in the era of Jay-Z’s adolescence in this way most of all. The political arguments of the Panthers were more effectively used by the reactionary forces of the American gun lobby than on behalf of the following generation of imperiled black men, a third of whom would wind up in prison or worse.
The Mulford Act, signed by Ronald Reagan, then California governor, in 1967, disarmed the Panthers, an organization that, despite their guns and revolutionary rhetoric, was doing identifiable good within various black communities in the areas of health care, food service, and political organizing. No such gun restriction was ever imposed on disillusioned black criminals, whose actions in economically disenfranchised black urban spaces from Oakland to Bed-Stuy had organizations across the spectrum of black advocacy groups, from the NAACP to the Nation of Islam, denouncing “black-on-black crime.” Carrying guns was a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of goodwill,” Reagan said upon passage of the Mulford Act. Implicit in that comment is that the “problems” the Panthers were confronting by being publicly armed were with antagonists who were acting with goodwill. In cooperation with local police departments around the country, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program surveilled, harassed, and in some instances, such as that of the Illinois chapter president Fred Hampton, killed Black Panther members. Goodwill was clearly in short supply.
A resurgent and increasingly belligerent NRA of the late 1970s, once an organization that had spearheaded sensible gun-control efforts, was inspired in its lobbying to combat new gun-control laws by the Panthers’ argument for firearms as a means of personal, and public, self-defense in an era of increasing crime and untrustworthy law enforcement. In 1980, the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in the organization’s hundred years of existence. That candidate was Ronald Reagan. His ideas about guns since signing Don Mulford’s anti–Black Panther gun legislation had changed considerably. The Second Amendment “leaves little, if any, leeway for the gun-control advocate,” Reagan suggested after becoming president. “The right of the citizen to keep and bear arms must not be infringed if liberty in America is to survive.” Unless you agitated for the end of military service and the beginning of reparations for African-American bondage, at least.
Meanwhile, a lucrative drug market thrived in spaces where little other economic opportunity was being encouraged, not by the state, not by private individuals of means. The “nunchucks, clackers, and kitchen knives” that young men engaging in street disputes once relied on, the strife-ridden black street kids you find in the early ’60s Harlem of Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1963) or the Cabrini Green of Michael Schultz’s cult classic Cooley High (1975), were replaced by tools of the utmost lethality all over the country in the deregulation-crazed ’80s. The stakes were high and most careers ended unsuccessfully. Dee Dee, the dealer who had initially put a young Carter on as a dope pusher, was murdered, shot in the back of the head before or after having his balls cut off and stuffed in his mouth.
Such grisly violence wasn’t enough to keep Carter’s fifteen-year-old self out of “the Game.” Crack led him as far south as Virginia and as far west as Trenton, New Jersey. Even while still just a boy, untapped new markets—in front of grocery stores and nightclubs, on dead-end streets and within tattered urban parks—were there for the taking, all in pursuit of the glory that comes with a fly ride and some new Patrick Ewing sneakers.
In the first of a series of close calls, Carter was arrested for trespassing at a local high school with crack on him, but it was his first arrest and, being a minor, he was released with a record that was sealed until his eighteenth birthday. Around this time, Carter’s musical interest was simultaneously intensifying. He recalls writing rap lyrics on the backs of brown paper bags and occasionally appearing on a friend’s mixtape, but he wouldn’t see hip-hop as a potentially lucrative career until later. Carter was still too busy getting into turf wars in Trenton with other crack dealers who felt he and an associate were crowding in on their sales by undercutting their price. In his story of the criminal mainline that became a sideline and then fodder for his continuing street cred as a wildly popular rap artist and global brand, guns were often drawn but rarely fired, near misses piling upon one another.
Whenever Jigga returned to Marcy to score more dope for his Trenton exploits, he would link up with Jaz, another MC from Marcy who had first begun to push a young Carter to explore his musical proclivities. They would while away afternoons working on tracks, an activity that began to take up all of Carter’s spare time as he’d cut rhymes while subsisting on little more than sugary breakfast cereals and ice cream. Jaz got a record deal before Carter did, with EMI, and invited his protégé to London with him to record. That album tanked after a poorly chosen first single and, given how his mentor had been treated, Carter temporarily gave up his dreams of rap superstardom and rededicated himself to hustling, expanding his crack game farther south, to new territories in Maryland. But his first big break wasn’t far.
The future Jay-Z got the chance to tour with Big Daddy Kane in the early ’90s after Kane heard Carter’s rhymes on a mixtape he had completed with Jaz. A few years later, “J.Z.,” as he was then known, had become a full-blown protégé of Kane’s and appeared on the single “Show & Prove” from Kane’s 1994 album Daddy’s Home. The only ex–Marcy resident to dine with multiple presidents was, simultaneously, still dealing crack and still living in Marcy.
Crack made it a lot harder to get by in a place where all the weak and poor had to prey on were, for the most part, other weak and poor people. “No one’s going to help us,” Carter suggests his generation of black people felt, “so we went for self, for family, for block, for crew,” before suggesting that the criticism of rappers as “hyper-capitalists” conceals a “rational response” by most imperiled young men who went into hip-hop to the culture within which they were being bred. “People who looked just like us were gunning for us,” Carter writes. “Weakness and dependence made you a mark, like a dope fiend. Success could only mean self-sufficiency, being a boss, not a dependent. The competition wasn’t about greed—or not just about greed. It was about survival.”
Here you see how hip-hop’s prevailing ethos is in line with the perverse economic conservatism of the Reagan years, how the underlying dog-eat-dog mentality of the “me generation” was adopted by society’s most vulnerable citizens. The myth of intrinsic black criminality didn’t begin here, having been provided as the empty, bigoted excuse for white intransigence toward blacks since time immemorial, but it gained a television-fueled currency in the ’80s, one whose ramifications we’re all still struggling with. There is an irony to unlock here, about how imperiled inner-city black men in spaces with few job prospects, ones that capital investment was largely averse to, created their own bustling, illicit underground economy around a product (crack) that had a growing market and loyal customers at the same time that they were pilloried by pro-business conservatives as lazy, the product of a handout culture. The aspirational, materialist iconography of the good life, from Cristal to fur coats, is the currency upon which so much of Jay-Z’s catalog, and the music videos, album covers, and public personas of a million imitators, trades. Capitalism, the only faith America seems to have a fealty toward anymore, is hip-hop’s reigning shibboleth. In contemporary hip-hop, there is no such thing as selling out.
At the Barnes & Noble in Chelsea, where I worked during that first Bed-Stuy summer of dread, it was hard not to spot the glamorous and the destitute, often right on top of each other—it was people-watching heaven! Just after you might have to shoo away one of the homeless people who would consistently come in from the street to camp out in the bathroom for two hours, Tim Robbins would saunter by, towering and hard-faced, looking around morosely before asking vaguely about a Tom LeClair novel we obviously didn’t have, Susan Sarandon walking around apologetically in his wake. I once sold Spike Lee, director of the best film ever shot in the neighborhood I didn’t know I was living in at the time, a dozen copies of his wife’s first novel, Gotham Diaries. Having fielded his brusque call asking if they were in stock (“Give me fit-teen of ’em,” he said) in awe, I set them aside and awaited his arrival with breathless anticipation, cinematic idol that he was in those days. When he appeared, in a white New York Yankees polo and red, black, and green wristbands, eyes like daggers behind his round glasses, I froze for a second, before wordlessly handing him the books. “Here you are, Mr. Lee.” He didn’t say “thank you.”
The election loomed, one that was quickly developing into farce (“swiftboating” is a term that actually entered the political lexicon, “ratfucking” having grown too coarse, I suppose), and amid it I stumbled, among the fiction paperbacks one lazy July afternoon, upon Joe Klein’s Clinton campaign novel Primary Colors. It had been all the rage two presidential election cycles previous. I was an angry and spurned Howard Dean supporter, one who had watched in horror as his campaign was torpedoed by the American liberal media establishment following his rambunctious, allegedly “unpresidential” Iowa concession speech, but I tried to read Primary Colors with some distance from my anger. It helped focus it, a bit, but also left me with questions I wasn’t prepared to answer at the time.
The protagonist of Klein’s book, and the Mike Nichols movie it spawned, is Henry Burton, the scion of good civil rights Negro stock. In the book he’s mixed race, but Adrian Lester, the British actor who plays him in the movie, has Sidney Poitier’s complexion. Lester plays him as a damn near effeminate cultural mulatto who spends the whole movie trying to prove his mettle and staring with googly eyes at a southern governor no “woke” black man in his right mind would ever think could save America. He begins the narrative as a political “true believer” who wants to “change” this country for the better, although in the book and the film’s unimaginative politics it remains unclear just what he and his liberal candidate actually believe in. The movie never gives our Slick Willy the chance to Sister Souljah anyone, or its protagonist anything that resembles a youthful black consciousness circa 1992; this brother seems to be all Kenny G and no Eric B., a Seinfeld watcher who somehow never heard of Martin, someone who would feel right at home with Fran Ross’s Oreo.
But the movie doesn’t have the wisdom to let him be the tragic mulatto its author was unable to fathom. Sure, he ends up disillusioned by the superficiality and vacuous campaign horse race, and ultimately watches from afar, having rebuffed the novel/film’s Bill Clinton surrogate (“You got to be with me, Henry!” John Travolta’s Clinton unsuccessfully intones in the movie’s penultimate scene) by not following the campaign all the way to the White House. But you know, deep down, this guy ends up on K Street somewhere, shilling for some other charlatan stiff of the American empire.
Henry’s blackness is made unimportant in Klein’s book yet is the source of revealing humor in the great Elaine May’s script, which takes Klein’s cluelessness about how a black man’s public identity is often bound up in the falsehoods of white sexual anxiety and makes punch lines out of it. Billy Bob Thorton’s character, a thinly veiled James Carville, gets to be the film’s ethnic essentialist id, calling out our Negrofied George Stephanopoulos as a silent player who is really a white boy in brown drag. After claiming that Henry works that “voodoo sexual shit on white girls” that is the Negro man’s stock and trade, he alludes to Henry’s Hotchkiss education and claims, “I’m blacker than you are. I got some slave in me. I can feel it.”
One imagines that Henry, coming into his own as a late-twenty-something product of the vineyard-summering, Jack and Jill–reared Negro elite, may indeed have wanted to work that “voodoo sexual shit” on white girls and would have been bold enough to offer a word in his own defense; in the novel he sleeps with both a Clinton aide and Hillary herself. But Klein can’t burrow his way into Henry’s head. Henry, a veritable Spook Who Sat by the Door, remains a cipher, a maudlin and unimaginative rumination on the modern bourgeois Negro; his journey, as depicted here, runs from the multitudes it could contain, the insights of double consciousness a young, smart Negro man at the beginning of the ’90s must have carried, being the sole staffer of his hue on a presidential campaign in the era of Willie Horton and crack babies, a Carlton from Fresh Prince suddenly playing in the political big leagues. Klein didn’t have the confidence to explore this circumstance, however, this Negro among white elites, with the gusto that writers such as Ishmael Reed or Colson Whitehead would have, or that the subject deserved. He was afraid, or he just didn’t know what he didn’t know.
Klein fails to imagine what double consciousness sounds like in a Negro’s mind, except as a tool to castigate niggas. A political reporter who himself was wearing masks while writing this anonymously published book, Klein can offer only this when he finds his political operative waiting for a plane, observing other black people crossing an airport terminal: Henry sees
a group of large black kids—college kids, I could tell, enthusiastic, not sullen, but dressed sort of streety, cutting a wide, noisy swath through the terminal. (Even at our hopeful best, we could still seem awkward, inappropriate, too emotive for these white folks, I feared.)
The phrase “for these white folks” escapes, unexamined in the next passage or anywhere else. The specter of white supremacy at play in the mind of the protagonist remains outside the writer’s conscious grasp. The modifiers “streety,” “noisy,” and “enthusiastic” could describe a “blackness” Henry Burton would prefer to run from, seeing as he was doing just fine being Carlton. Lacking collectivism was healthy, and staying respectable to white people was a lifelong pursuit, Klein seems to be suggesting, but the novel refuses to probe this cancer in Henry’s own life—where is his black community? His black family, the great civil rights Negroes with whom the Clintons would ingratiate themselves and whose community they would silently stab in the back, remains behind the curtains; Klein didn’t feel the need to give his Hotchkiss Negro a family shibboleth to slay; he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
In my weaker moments, I felt a turn in the gut on many an ebony night that summer striding past the hopped-up Marcy boys on the northeastern end of the houses, by the Flushing Avenue G, as our youthful glances met, one not unlike Henry’s when gazing at the wild boys in the airport; the expectation that they’d pop off and try to provoke me never faded. Their rueful glances, confirming within me some latent sense that ourselves, Negroes, were the problem, those without vision or dignity, a doomed and longing people, kept me on edge as I passed stoops and park margins full of boisterous dope boys, cutting their “wide swaths,” as Klein would have it. I had, in my young life, encountered many lies; this one proved central, our inherent fallenness, but the backwardness of our national mythos was evident in other ways that summer too.
The Republican National Convention came to town and the New York City Police Department, at the behest of the feds, made a mess of suppressing the outrage sparked by a president who had needlessly entered us in two wars, one of which was being fought on false pretenses and in extremely bad faith, the other smelling mostly of mirthless resource theft. I had scheduled the day off work from Barnes & Noble weeks in advance, and the following day too, in case I got arrested. Marching north on Sixth Avenue on day one of the convention, as New York’s finest did their best to unconstitutionally silence the dissenters, took what felt like an entire afternoon. Herded as we were into bullpens of dissent, the Americans who had taken to the streets in protest of the senseless war and arrogant know-nothingism were bound with a miserable sense of hopelessness. This was a war we would not stop.
One march a few days into the convention, initially approved by the NYPD, would go from the World Trade Center to Madison Square Garden on sidewalks only. When the arrests came, as people tried to peaceably remove themselves from the “free speech” zones, they came swiftly and violently. Sometimes they even came preemptively. Members of the War Resisters League planned to stage a “die-in” upon reaching the arena, but that never happened, as two hundred of them were arbitrarily arrested after one officer claimed a banner being held aloft on the sidewalk was taking up too much space.
This didn’t surprise me much. For a black man, in the city of Giuliani, in the country of Bush, in a time of war, in the Bed-Stuy of our collective nightmares, safety seemed a silly concept, a quaint thing from the past, a myth as far reaching and hard to touch as the divinity of kings and the sacredness of our Constitution, which, before being amended, had sought to make me property. The city fathers and the men who served them, as they have always done in the New York where I came of age, resorted to the most sickening of tactics to quell the expression of unpopular truths on those Manhattan streets.
Almost a full decade went by before these tactics were found illegal in a court of law. The NYPD detained and fingerprinted people in direct violation of their constitutional rights, disregarding whether individuals were in fact providing probable cause for arrest during those desperate late-summer days. More than 1,800 people were arrested in protests during the convention’s four days, passing the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago for the most protesters ever held captive at such an affair. Yet in our time the antiwar effort was ineffective, direct action ultimately fruitless. The war continued apace as “Mission Accomplished” floated above the suited-and-booted president, freshly landed on a carrier of doom.
Before anyone called it “respectability politics,” I knew how to code-switch. I knew not to act like those boisterous black boys in Primary Colors, at least in white company. It was another type of shame entirely, but the experience of code-switching can also be exhilarating and is perhaps, in every essential way, no different than jumping from Portuguese to Gaelic. I talked to Rolanda differently than I did my mother, to whom I spoke differently than my drug buddies from high school, to whom I spoke differently than I did my film professors in college. Cynicism and self-flagellation were easy in those years. It was the season of Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech at the Urban League gala celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, after all.
Fuck code-switching, Cosby was telling us, even if he didn’t know it. The way niggas behave is unacceptable. Good Negroes shouldn’t tolerate it. It was a logic popular at the middle-class black dinner tables where I often found myself when I went home to Ohio; Cosby called on his audience to recognize the depth of the civil rights movement’s failure to secure enduring prosperity for all but a sliver of the country’s black citizens, and to see it as the fault of those who remain impoverished.
I confess, I was somewhat in thrall to self-vilifying blacks like this at the time, afraid as we had been told to be of those who wouldn’t pull their pants up, who’d shoot you down on the street for nothing; a friend from film school and I would listen to .wav files of Cosby’s speech over and over, giggling at his hysterical paternalism, unaware of the promise of grim hypocrisy. As far as Cosby was concerned, along with much of the respectable black establishment, Allen Iverson may as well have joined Al-Qaeda.
Cosby defended police officers shooting young Negro thieves from behind. “These people, the ones up here in the balcony, fought so hard. Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals,” he’d said, just weeks before I moved to Bed-Stuy, unknowingly, for the first time. “These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged. ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
In Bring the Pain, his landmark comedy special from a decade earlier that landed just as crime crested across the nation in black neighborhoods, where women of some means like my mother invested in guns and alarm systems, Chris Rock suggested that the only people who hated niggas more than Caucasians did were Negroes. He’d forgotten that Bill Cosby hated niggas more than Negroes did. Unless they were female and unconscious.
As a child, my sense of what it meant to be part of a people I would have then referred to only as “black,” despite the frequent usage within my household of the earlier, more rarified and now shamed term, was informed by the underlying logic I detected within these simple explanations for the ever-enduring sense that black America was awry, unable to right itself after being privy to so much civic ransacking. You could find those sentiments in the books I was picking off the shelves late that summer, the air-conditioning in the corporate bookseller where I was trapped eight hours a day whirring overhead, sneaking time to read the hard stuff whenever I wasn’t helping someone find a James Patterson novel. Debra Dickerson’s The End of Blackness, which had come out the previous winter, was typical, in some ways, among this set of “what went wrong?” polemics; it sought to point out that while the United States was far from a racial utopia, it had become, long after the primary legislative goals of the civil rights movement had been met, a space where racism was no longer the effective driver of Negro misery or lack of opportunity. Negroes could not be prevented from “playing the game,” wrote Dickerson, and that game was American capitalism. “No one can stop the American, black or blind, who is determined to succeed.”
Who was stopping Negroes from winning at American capitalism? Dickerson surmised, themselves, of course. Dickerson, and even more conservative black thinkers such as the economists Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury, toed this line in prose I found startlingly persuasive at the time. The linguist John McWhorter, author of Losing the Race, an equally polemical work that gained much more “mainstream” traction than Dickerson’s book, made an argument that both the nascent and long-standing Negro middle classes wanted to believe; they could look at their Caucasian friends and coworkers and say, “Naw, it’s those niggas’ fault. We ain’t like that.” Negroes weren’t victims, even if the playing field wasn’t completely fair, these books argued.
While Dickerson’s book points out the delusion inherent in the white citizenry’s general know-nothingism concerning the despoiling of black American life, past and present, in most of these works, especially those by the serious academics, the weight of the past was cherry-picked, and the policies of the present underexamined. When Losing the Race connects the black educational and economic achievement gap to black anti-intellectualism in the aftermath of the Black Power movement’s cultural ascendency and political failure, McWhorter leaves out school funding, tied to property taxes, that disproportionately keeps droves of black kids in the most ill-equipped schools. Where he upbraids the thought and speech within black cultural life that cordons off some uncomfortable truths about black accountability or deems benign words such as “niggardly” to be off-limits to a D.C. politician in a budget meeting, he also stymies other lines of salient structural critique lodged at the white power structure as empty “rabble-rousing.”
Not that any of this was of particular consequence to me that summer. I was just looking for cheap pot and a good time most nights. My upbringing had shown me how to talk like any common ghetto street kid when I had to make someone on the street respect me, but I bottled up that side of myself during most hours, and certainly on the rooftops and at the bookstore or wherever I was the only black person in the room. I had internalized, through careful instruction, that this was the way to proceed in life, learning, somewhere along the line, to be a “cultural mulatto,” as Trey Ellis would have it, to swim with niggas and Negroes and mulattos and gringos, of varied classes, at ease.
I navigate American apartheid. It isn’t without breaking a sweat.
227–241 Taaffe Place
The lineage of Brooklyn hip-hop Tony and I had grown up listening to in our Ohio bedrooms had prepared me, in some small degree, to expect a rough-and-tumble “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” New York. In fact, although I didn’t know it at the time, many of the genre’s most salient and outlandish voices came from the streets we suddenly found ourselves living among; beyond Jay-Z, Mos Def and Lil’ Kim, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Foxy Brown are all from Bed-Stuy, where we unwittingly were. Carter’s vision of the space didn’t seem, at first glance, to leave much room for ambiguity. “Cough up a lung / where I’m from / Marcy son / ain’t nothing nice.” But ambiguity was everywhere in the Bed-Stuy of my youth.
My mother had taught me to keep aware of my surroundings, to not trust strangers, to run from trouble, to speak the king’s English to police officers, to feel comfortable saying “nigger” in the company of black folks who carried and transcended the past with me, and, perhaps most important, to distinguish between a Negro who seemed a threat and one who didn’t, which is largely the same as making that distinction with everyone else on God’s green earth. This is a skill that, however commonsensical, is more difficult than it should be for most of our country’s law enforcement apparatus, as illustrated by one risible spectacle after another of black men being jailed or beaten or killed under the flimsiest of pretexts by their sworn public servants on camera, but back then streaming video hadn’t really gone viral and Twitter wouldn’t exist for a few years to come; white folks mostly just didn’t know what they didn’t know.
Certainly this was the case for my roommate, who was likely encountering his first majority-black space, a place of great mystery and dread, a place that listening to all the soul records in the world couldn’t teach him to navigate comfortably at first. In some recess of his mind, I reckon, my roommate couldn’t stomach telling his parents he lived in Bed-Stuy in the first place. He imagined his blonde, Park Slope–dwelling girlfriend, who did social work for brown people all day, not being particularly fond of walking the streets of his imagined Bed-Stuy for a late-night tryst, one I’d inevitably hear through the tiny window that linked our rooms in uncomfortable intimacy, even if it was ten feet off the ground.
Rarely venturing too far east down DeKalb Avenue from a place we didn’t live, Clinton Hill, into a place one didn’t want to go that we actually did live in, Bedford-Stuyvesant, was just as easy. This is how we both behaved, the treading lightly, the assumption of menace, the casual avoidance of corridors where one felt unwelcome at worst and uneasy at best. Is this the general know-nothingism that guilt-free cultural colonialism requires, or the savvy self-preserving instincts of a sophisticated urbanite in a “transitional” neighborhood? While no longer as dangerous as it was during Carter’s coming of age, the streets I inhabited were not without reminders of the past.
The night after I broke my assailant’s arm with the door leading into my building, I watched as armed black patriots climbed onto their Bushwick roof and started firing assault weapons in the air as the July 4 fireworks commenced. A pair of white jeans I wore that day were ruined when I dived for cover into a murky puddle one rooftop away. That wasn’t as demeaning as getting rear-ended and being called a nigger for my trouble by some drunk Caucasian lady as I drove Ray and another friend back to the subway. Getting into my car later in the summer, I watched a homeless man get savagely beaten by a group of young men in Alphabet City and, for fear of my safety, declined to help him, feeling no small amount of shame in the aftermath. I drove back around the block to see if he was still there and in need of assistance, but he had gone, or had been taken, somewhere else entirely.
We lived in a black Bed-Stuy that, while more peaceful than in the crack era and the years that followed, was still less secure than the black Bed-Stuy of the postwar era, one that oddly offered less opportunity for someone like Tony, a musical savant with a real passion for a variety of forms. Although you wouldn’t know it from Carter’s work, hip-hop wasn’t the first musical genre that had Bed-Stuy gangsters and hustlers out starting musical acts. “The Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood is an under-documented anomaly in the history of jazz music,” Vincent Ramal Gardner writes in his survey of Brooklyn’s jazz scene past and present, “We Were Surrounded by Giants.” “It comprises an area of just over 31/2 square miles, but the amount of concentrated jazz activity within its borders throughout the years is nothing short of extraordinary.” In a short time after the form’s mass popularization, bars and nightclubs that catered to gangsters and good-time girls were as likely to have jazz as the more genteel social clubs and ballrooms patronized by college-educated, well-to-do blacks occupying the gorgeous Italianate town houses north of the Fulton Street strip.
Tony, a gifted bassist with a great love of and appreciation for jazz, was suspicious of hip-hop as a form of musical artistry. “It’s really simple music, man, not that sophisticated at all,” Tony would tell me concerning the difficulty of constructing the average hip-hop track, earnest music student that he was. As I would look at him blankly, he’d add a “just saying,” an apology of sorts from the part of him that was squarely a white liberal.
Tony surely would have much preferred the Bed-Stuy of Gardner’s research to the one we were living in then. It was a time when “even the neighborhood gangs had jazz bands.” The previous order of black music had arisen out of a Bedford-Stuyvesant milieu equally as segregated, and as quick to change, as that in which Shawn Carter came of age. Bed-Stuy during the Depression, at the dawn of jazz’s ascendancy to the height of American popular culture, was a neighborhood in the midst of transformation yet again.
The Great Migration wave of southern blacks, seeking opportunity and the rule of law, fled north into its Victorian and Italianate brownstones not knowing the extent to which the forces of polite white society would go to keep them from earning their share of the American plunder. Despite this, idylls of black self-determination were carved out in cities across the North and Midwest. Bed-Stuy was, in many ways, among the most significant of them.
Bedford-Stuyvesant’s black character benefited from the overcrowding of Harlem as well as the Great Migration; as the completion of the A train subway line, which connected Harlem to Bed-Stuy, eased travel between the city’s two most significant African-American outposts, Bed-Stuy’s black population swelled. It became a welcoming place for many journeying south from Harlem or north from Dixie, a place where black lives could flourish amid the economic boundaries that fenced its prospects inward. Large row houses and brownstones were subdivided for renters, often by blockbusting landlords who exploited the fact that many of the transplants couldn’t acquire Federal Housing Administration–backed housing loans in non-redlined, whites-only neighborhoods. In Harlem, a significant amount of the housing stock during the twentieth century’s first half had passed into black ownership, but Bedford-Stuyvesant’s legacy of black home ownership dated to the 1830s.
A century ago, the Weeksville settlement first brought black home ownership and self-determination to Brooklyn. The community of Weeksville, still one of four distinct segments of Bedford-Stuyvesant, was at its height in the 1860s, home to about seven hundred families. They collectively erected enduring and sophisticated institutions, forming schools, a hospital, an orphanage, and several old folks’ homes. The Weeksville Unknowns were among the country’s earliest black baseball teams (Weeksville’s women founded their own team in the 1880s), while the community was also home to one of the country’s first black newspapers, The Freedman’s Torchlight. Several churches, such as Berean Baptist, St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal, and Bethel A.M.E., were founded during Weeksville’s heyday, places of worship that exist to this day.
The speculators who sought to create an African-American refuge there in the 1830s had the same goals as the blacks who traveled there to escape southern tyranny in the 1930s. They were, consciously and ambitiously, attempting to create a place that was safe and welcoming for people like themselves, marketing the settlement to potential black home owners all over the country. Through landownership, black men, both those born free and those who had to seize their freedom from others, hoped to gain a foothold on the engine of American prosperity. For $250, a black man could own a piece of land in a place like Weeksville and be enfranchised; for the southern black man of a century later, the hope of securing factory jobs and the ability to avoid discriminatory poll taxes or literacy tests in order to vote were equally alluring motivators. This hope, of a place where they wouldn’t have to explain themselves or look over their shoulders or act with cowed deference, united the small coterie of cosmopolitan blacks from across the African diaspora who found themselves drawn to the rural hills and valleys of central Kings County since before the Civil War. Free or slave, northern or southern, American or not, Bed-Stuy has long been a place where blacks, across lines of class and region, could aspire to the same dream of safety and opportunity.
And, even if it weren’t, housing options were limited. The FHA mandated that developers receiving its financial support must enact restrictive covenants in the deeds signed by home owners, which frequently prohibited the sale of property to Negroes. According to an Economic Policy Institute study of the three hundred largest private subdivisions built in Queens, Long Island’s Nassau County, and the suburbs of Westchester from the height of the Depression until just after the end of World War II, “83 percent had racially restrictive deeds.” Preambles like “whereas the Federal Housing Administration requires that the existing mortgages on the said premises be subject and subordinated to the said [racial] restrictions . . . [except for] domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant . . .” were common. Because of this, Bed-Stuy was, and still is, a place of remarkable class dexterity within the black community. Due to the inability of blacks, during those immediate postwar years, to self-segregate along the lines of class, the young Lena Horne, a scion of the upper middle class who grew up on Macon Street in the heart of the neighborhood, got her start in many of the same clubs as her contemporary Billie Holiday, the daughter of a prostitute who had been imprisoned for sex work by the time she turned fourteen. Being black, even as high yellow as Lena, was a class unto itself.
Despite all this discrimination, despite the routine experience of having had the rights of citizenry tarnished and the most humble decencies denied being near universal, a pervasive nihilistic hopelessness of the type that colors the accounts of urban Negro life in Carter’s generation of mass incarceration and deindustrialization did not take hold. The people who were moving to Bed-Stuy were hopeful, bent on improving their lot. The inevitable consequences of widespread disenfranchisement, nonexistent employment opportunities, cheap drugs, and a surplus of guns were in an unimaginable near future. Deadly street violence would seem as foreign to the members of the more than 115 social clubs that existed in Bed-Stuy from the 1930s to the 1960s as to freckled girls born to Exeter Academy and the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. Competing over who could put together the most impressive big band for a dance until the wee hours, in one of the neighborhood’s many ornate theaters or ballrooms, wasn’t routinely lethal.
Bed-Stuy’s youth culture in this era was, as in Carter’s time, centered on music. Dance-oriented big bands were crucial to the fabric of the community, performing for “social clubs,” organizations of young blacks that existed primarily, despite the roots many of the groups had in the influential black churches, to throw raucous dance parties. Venues such as Fulton Street’s Brooklyn Palace and Atlantic Avenue’s Bedford Ballroom held more than 2,500 people for dances, while others such as the Sonia Ballroom, which once took up the entire block of Bedford Avenue between Madison and Putnam, housed 1,500 revelers at a time and was thought of as intimate. Black fraternal orders, such as the police union the Centurions, would meet there, while the Order of the Elks had their own local lodge, the Elks Ballroom. When the Elks first began renting it out for public use in 1932, it was the largest public hall owned by Brooklyn Negroes.
Legends of the big band and swing format, from Count Basie to Duke Ellington, performed regularly at social-club-sponsored dances. Charlie Parker, the great pioneer of bebop, had early bands made up largely of central Brooklynites, either recent transplants like Miles Davis or natives such as Max Roach. Before becoming acknowledged masters of the form, key figures such as Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, and Charles Mingus cut their teeth at those Bed-Stuy ballroom dances in the years before bebop pushed aside swing and ushered in a revolution in the development of American music.
This pervasive scene, one that supported at least sixty-five jazz venues in the neighborhood roughly from 1930 to 1970, grew as Bed-Stuy became a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Bars like Farmer John, at Fulton Street and Bedford Avenue, or dedicated jazz clubs such as the Putnam Central at Putnam and Classon Avenues, employed schools of session musicians and sidemen, promoters and barkeeps, creating a dynamic economy around the performance and recording of jazz music in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The latter club was the headquarters of Debut Records, an independent label started by Mingus and Roach in 1952 that was among many that shot up in the neighborhood during the era. Most crucially, perhaps, the Bed-Stuy clubs allowed some of the great jazz musicians, from Davis to Monk to Blakey, a place to work in an era when a musician’s cabaret card, a license to work in a New York City establishment that served alcohol, from Prohibition until 1967, could be taken at the slightest pretense by the police, as was the case with each of them.
Jazz created a community of venues and performers in Bed-Stuy, and an economy all its own; live hip-hop performance and studio recording, on a granular level, hasn’t had nearly as much significance in the infrastructural life of the place, on the topography or the economy of Bed-Stuy, in the form’s thirty-five-year history. By the time hip-hop began to cross over into the pop-cultural mainstream in the 1980s, much of urban black America had become a place with much larger concentrations of intense poverty, where senseless spasms of violence carried on the winds of desperation were commonplace. Regardless of how many rappers came from those streets, aboveboard venues to showcase the emerging form they helped innovate didn’t employ nearly the amount of people as jazz clubs once had—large or moderate-sized bands of instrumentalists are unnecessary in hip-hop.
Tony, a well-schooled, out-of-work Bed-Stuy transplant with dreams of playing in professional bands, had picked the wrong era to be alive. In our era, my jazz-loving roommate was out of luck. Bed-Stuy was no longer a neighborhood where you could make a living as a sideman with a few weekly residencies. Unless, of course, you didn’t have to earn money to survive.
It was a litany of misfortune from the start. Early in the summer Tony and I moved in together, in 2006, my car was struck by a Hasidic school bus as it approached the Williamsburg Bridge on Delancey Street. As I was illegally talking to my Serbian club promoter ex-roommate on my cell phone, my car was sideswiped by the bus, knocking the driver’s side mirror. Flushed with fear and rage, I followed the bus as it fled the scene, the remnants of the side mirror dangling in the scalding summer wind, all the way across the bridge. Tailgating the bus aggressively and honking my horn as if my life depended on it, I convinced the driver to pull over in Jewish Williamsburg. It was as I was boarding the bus that I first noticed the Yiddish characters on its side; the curly-haired driver, his brown eyes betraying no emotion as a vast sea of children sat eerily silent in their uniforms of faith and watched on, claimed he hadn’t hit me. Berating him wasn’t making me feel any better; he seemed impervious to anything I might say, such as “Wait here, I’m calling the cops.” As soon as I stepped off the bus, he drove away. I tried to scribble down the license plate, but couldn’t find a pen in time. Then the rain started and the cops, predictably, never came.
“You were middle class in college,” my godmother said to me after I graduated, “but now you enter the world a poor Negro for the first time in your life.” Maybe so; my income and zip code certainly indicated such, even if the amount of West Elm furniture in my apartment suggested my proximity to affluence and ease. In such a place it was easy to look out at “Clinton Hill” from our seventh-floor window and dream. I smelled opportunities in those Brooklyn nights and wanted to believe that they would open themselves effortlessly, that I wouldn’t have to struggle too much, that grinding class and status anxieties, ones I could hardly fathom at the time, would not have to define my way of encountering the world. We seemed to be living through a hinge point in human history, and all I had to prepare myself for it was a loosely evangelical upbringing, a bachelor’s degree in film and film history, and a desire to make movies, but I believed in my own pluck. Unfortunately, facts kept coming to my attention that complicated this sanguine vision of the future.
I had never watched it while in film school, but shortly after I graduated, some friends from Ohio introduced me to HBO’s Entourage, an infantilizing wet dream of film industry life if there ever was one. Consuming episodes from the show’s first few seasons in the weeks before Tony and I moved to Bed-Stuy, I could pretend that that’s what making a little indie movie in Queens, or whatever outer borough I lived in, would lead to: easy girls and drugs, opportunities that proved immune to my own ineptitude. Reality ensued after landing in “Clinton Hill,” however. Being too broke to make a little indie movie in Queens, I taught film history and the rudiments of production to preteens at an arts summer camp on Long Island instead.
This involved driving an ailing mid-’90s Ford sedan from my “Clinton Hill” loft—a seventy-two-mile round trip on the Long Island Expressway in rush-hour traffic—to teach suburban kids about movies. It paid $6,000 for six weeks of work, enough to pay my $800-a-month share of our $2,400-a-month rent for the time being. It was fun showing the children movies they had no business viewing; we watched parts of Antonioni’s The Passenger and Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and all of Kevin Smith’s Clerks II. In a way, even while staying up at night wondering which of these rich grade schoolers would one day use their parents’ dime to make a mediocre but celebrated first indie feature in Queens, it was worth it. But the fact was that none of it, the indie film world I wanted to enter, the apartment in which I was living, the relationships with roommates and lovers, was sustainable. What would I do after the arts camp ended? The dread it embedded within my daily existence began to get tied up in my visions of Tony that “first” summer, lying about on the white leather love seat my mother had given us upon moving in, drinking Sapporos and watching my DVDs ad infinitum.
My great-aunt and good friend Catherine Daniels passed away that July, a few weeks after I was attacked. Having received the news from my father while on the Long Island Expressway, I had to pull over to sob. The following week I journeyed to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, to see her buried at a country cemetery on an unbearably hot day in mid-July. She was my maternal grandmother’s best friend and had raised me every bit as much as my mother and father had. I remember crying much of the day, listening to Animal Collective’s “The Softest Voice” for hours straight as the jet pushed me, if not through my unshakable grief and shame, the 630 miles southwest and back again in one day and evening. I had not seen her, due to a family dispute involving my mother, in many years and now I never would again.
When I returned late that night, Tony was fucking his girlfriend, a blonde from another variant of Cincinnati privilege, on the Danish teak couch that he treated like an actual antique instead of a simulacrum of one. Tony knew not of Catherine’s death because of our increasingly uneasy communication. I hadn’t told him that I was leaving town and returning home to go to her funeral, and he hadn’t asked what was wrong as I sulked around in the days before; we saw and spoke so little to each other, only two months into our new living arrangement, that it hadn’t occurred to him I’d left when I returned that night. Even though she cooked steaks and pork chops and apple pie for him on many an afternoon of our youth, even though she concealed our mutual drug use in my mother’s house, nefarious activity that would have earned him great censure, I wasn’t surprised that, when I finally unveiled her passing, he couldn’t muster anything resembling common sorrow.
I began to notice in our new home together, for the first time, the sinews of assumed privilege that he would never be able to let go, and that I’d never, regardless of my proximity, be able to make my own. The way he didn’t remove his stringy hair from the shower drain or clean his dishes after he dirtied them, leaving them in the sink, were signs of someone who had always had someone to clean up after him. Something about having to work every day while watching him comfortably lounge around our place smashed the solidarity we had cultivated over many years and despite several setbacks. There was no way to talk about it comfortably without bringing up his inherited advantages, something neither of us wanted to dwell on. So we didn’t.
Despite our discord, as the summer wore on, I took to Taaffe Place, whether it was in Clinton Hill or Bed-Stuy. One could step into Sputnik, the Leninist-themed hip-hop bar across the street from my building, which occasionally hosted some of the late greats from a previous era of central Brooklyn rap culture (DJ Premier, M-1, et cetera), and think that some multiracial, class-diverse utopia had found its way to this tucked-away part of the borough. Those were months, which soon turned into years, of magical thinking.
All I wanted to do was make features. History had taught me, already, at a tender age, to expect less because of my color. Our careers, according to the black cinema texts, the essay collections and memoirs I discovered, were shorter, more fragile, less likely to speak to the thoughtfully lived experiences of our people—that’s just how the industry worked. Its power centers, like most other centers of authority and wealth in this country, were in white hands who saw little money in supporting the work of a Haile Gerima or a Julie Dash, a Jamaa Fanaka or Kathleen Collins, a William Greaves or a Charles Burnett. When these filmmakers were in their prime, the most significant institutions of American cinema weren’t much interested in helping their work get made. Why would I, a neophyte who had done nothing to suggest I could enter such hallowed company, be any different?
Sure, from Oscar Micheaux to Spike Lee, many a Negro had made multiple features, but Lee was the only one ever to make them in the studio system, on his own terms, in a personal way that reached significant audiences. African-American cinema has never fostered careers with the wide-ranging and prolific nature of African-American literature. Show me black film directors who have had the opportunity to consistently make feature films of the reach and scope one can find in the myriad novels of Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler, James Baldwin and Alice Walker, Colson Whitehead and John Edgar Wideman. Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust was the first movie by a black woman ever released in theaters, years after Butler, Walker, and Morrison had delivered multiple books, including their masterpieces, to big audiences and great acclaim. This was simply, then and now, no country for black filmmakers.
Movies cost, generally, a lot more than I had stowed away. In my spare time, I finished a short film that I had shot in Manhattan the previous winter as my BFA thesis. I spent many a night at the Sandbox, a long-defunct, Gramercy-based, hip-hop-centered streaming video company. In the days before YouTube was sold to Google and the dreams of the Sandbox’s venture-capital financiers were no more, I loitered around the postproduction rooms editing a vampire film called Evangeleo into the wee hours, clandestinely using Final Cut Pro stations that were normally reserved for rap videos. It was a postproduction space vastly superior to the first-generation MacBook in my bedroom, and I used the Sandbox’s facilities for all they were worth, especially since all I seemingly had to do in order to work there was smoke out the right person every once in a while. Short films never pay any money, and no one acquires them generally; for most upstarts fresh out of film school these works only aspired to calling-card status, an attention getter that hopefully would screen at a significant film festival, one that would help make your name in the industry if it was seen by the right gatekeepers, at the right time.
I needed a new job at summer’s end if I was going to afford the $800 a month, and sniffing around on the Internet in the waning days of August, just as my summer camp teaching checks were petering out, I found a job as an assistant at the office of a well-respected independent film production company. They had produced movies I revered, and, hungry for the opportunity to be in the proximity of people reputed to have made actually artful movies, I tracked down their phone number when the website only provided e-mail addresses. I called and was granted an in-person interview. When I visited, climbing a long, dim stairwell to the second story on Worth Street in Tribeca, the once-dilapidated Lower Manhattan neighborhood that had grown chic with development, I found a disheveled office and slender black woman with tight braids who wore a red dress and specs. This was KiKi, the current assistant to the couple who owned the company. KiKi seemed cheerfully disgruntled from the moment I met her. She quit within weeks of hiring me; and like that I was the office manager.
The Triangle Below Canal (Street) had been a run-down Manhattan backwater in the Ed Koch years when Ghostbusters was filmed there, but by the time I began working there it was a hub for the city’s financial and artistic elite, its industrial space long demolished or converted into handsome modern housing, its streets lined with restaurants that attracted celebrities and bankers. Many of the most significant production companies and distributors were based in the area, from Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax and Mark Cuban’s HDNet Films to Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Institute; De Niro had long been a major investor in and ambassador for the neighborhood, starting the Tribeca Film Festival in the wake of 9/11.
I was told to make myself quietly indispensable at my sub-minimum-wage “office manager” job that fall, which mostly required that I field pushy phone calls from unpaid vendors, manage the ego of a former Wall Street character from Great Neck who was paying the company’s overhead in exchange for developing his rock-and-roll movie that no one thought was good, and reading scripts for other pictures that, a decade later, mostly still haven’t been made, regardless of their quality. The financier of a Harvey Keitel movie the company worked on had skipped town owing $125,000 to various individuals and businesses that had all been contracted through us—European co-productions such as this were part of the production company’s lifeblood—and the hard-to-reach Frenchman with a yacht who was responsible for cutting the checks was conspicuously absent when my bosses, through his amiable but clueless line producer, came calling for him. We were always “waiting on the tax credit to roll in,” the percentage of the movie the city and state were willing to pay for in exchange for the shoot being in New York, to make the rest of the vendors whole. No one seemed to have any idea how long that would take.
Amid the torrent of angry dog trainers and caterers, best boys and script supervisors who wanted their wages, I watched videos on YouTube (then in its first year of popularity) and scanned the office for paraphernalia from the Golden Age of Indie Film—Harmony Korine’s underwear, so the legend went among the junior staff, was an item of particular interest, resting as it allegedly did in a cardboard box amid detritus from the set of one of his earliest films—while submitting my own Evangeleo to film festivals. I used my office manager job to my own ends, having meetings for productions I was doing on the side, faxing copies of my own script to other producers, ordering padded envelopes for DVD screeners of my thesis film. Evangeleo got accepted to a student festival in Los Angeles, where I squandered my world premiere status back before I knew that was a big no-no, and then the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Founded in the shadow of Sundance, which ultimately produced the likes of Christopher Nolan, Slamdance was a big deal for me. My bosses were impressed enough to help me get the legendary rock band Sonic Youth, with whom they’d worked on a foreign film soundtrack, to let me use their music in the film for free. For the first time I felt, however small and powerless, a part of the world of independent film I’d read and thought so much about as a young man.
But disillusionment soon set in. After I took over from KiKi, the company agreed to pay me only $800 a month, well below minimum wage. It was, in theory, enough to pay for my apartment, assuming I didn’t eat and walked four miles each way to work. Although it felt like my life could quickly become like the ones sold to me in the film school brochures, even if I was working for less than minimum wage at the office of a production company I revered, “independent film” seemed to operate almost solely on graft and exploitation. I had passed up the chance for a much-better-paid job at an agency that specialized in representing theatrical performers because I wanted to be close to the action of making movies of the type I had spent my late adolescence and young adulthood idolizing. Tribeca was still nicknamed “Indiewood,” given the number of production companies and distributors based in the neighborhood back then. To work on the periphery of the scene for what amounted to $26 a day plus lunch, which I paid for with petty cash, was the first, and in my infinite insecurity, perhaps only way to get a foothold.
Independent film producers are notoriously fickle, ego driven, and occasionally, in the case of Scott Rudin, prone to throwing phones, but my bosses never treated me that way. The two principals would be temperamental occasionally, in vastly different ways from each other, but in the short time I worked for them as their office manager, they taught me a lot without trying at all. But they were too busy surviving the end of the golden years of independent film to worry about my development, and unlike my peers working as barely paid quasi-interns at similarly sized indie outfits, I didn’t get to work on any movies that actually got made.
In a climate in which hedge fund investors and venture capitalists were by and large pulling out of indie film, I marveled at how they stayed in business despite lacking trust funds. Part of it was partnering with a well-known music supervisor and once-prominent movie star to share office space. (His perpetually stoned lackey came in once a week to gather the mail and stare at the wall.) But another way was to limit their labor costs to unpaid interns. During the first week of 2007 I was told that they would no longer pay me $800 to run the office.
I had been spending too much of my time on my own film, on the verge of its major festival premiere in Park City, I was told. I was welcome to hang out at 1 Worth Street anyway, given the affection they had built up for me, but they had decided to hand over the reins of office management to my intern Frank White, a skinny, wild-eyed actor/musician/whatever I knew from making movies in college. I had hired him after seeing him at a photo exhibit upstate, while at the Woodstock Film Festival with one of the company’s films, which had played at Sundance and was directed by someone scarcely older than me. “You’ll be a better employer than employee,” one of my bosses said with odd affection, claiming I wasn’t meant to “clean the brushes” but was supposed to go and be an artist myself. She allowed me to keep the keys and use their office for casting or taking a meeting. I had no idea I’d be doing just that, and a lot more, at 1 Worth Street for another half decade.
My mother paid for my ticket to Park City, beaming with pride. I found lodging on Craigslist, traveling with my cinematographer, David, and another ex-roommate, but I quickly learned that as a young man traveling from party to party on those snowy mountain streets, one may end up sleeping in all sorts of places, from hilltop mansions to the hotel rooms of ginger-haired Canadian journalists. While in bed at the latter locale, I discovered it was an inopportune time to be wearing the swag underwear I received from a Slamdance filmmaker as a keepsake to remember his film by, especially when the garment in question was tighty-whiteys branded with the film’s inelegant logo. I was suddenly flirting with young starlets and sharing bathroom line conversations with television actors, competing for girls with Jeff Dowd, the inspiration for the legendary Jeff Bridges character in The Big Lebowski. “Lay off my lady friend,” he told me, with the utmost seriousness, in the refrigerated-drinks aisle of a 7-Eleven well after midnight, before we shared a cab with the Canadian redhead. If only he had taken my advice to let me be dropped off first!
It felt glamorous, that initial Park City, even if I was playing the minor league festival with the rest of the Sundance rejects, such as a pudgy college girl from Oberlin named Lena Dunham, whom I had met on the plane to Salt Lake and later shared a van with to Park City. When I got home, even though I was still broke, I had some more swagger in my step and was sure it was just the beginning of a swift ascent into directorhood. I supposed, after Slamdance, that I was about to take off on a long and prosperous festival run; but following its acceptance in Park City, Evangeleo was rejected from twenty straight festivals. I was humbled, to say the least.
I had to keep making a living, especially without the production company money covering my rent at Taaffe Place every month. Although I wasn’t a technician, I took jobs on sets in my spare time, driving trucks for $100 a day on bad indie movies that would sell at Sundance for millions, or assistant directing disastrous short films for first-timers dipping into their trust funds for a taste of the indie film life. I still did work from time to time at a production company, driving around the art director of a Manoel de Oliveira movie as he scouted Staten Island locations, or serving as a production assistant on a CNN commercial, but money was getting increasingly short and my mother was, at the time, increasingly unwilling to help. Another executive at the production company was also a journalist who ran one of the more respected magazines covering the world of independent film. He offered to let me write for his publication and I accepted, but I wasn’t aware at the time that this wasn’t actually a job, it was simply a means of acquiring free travel and lodging in exotic places by writing for the house organ of a nonprofit. It was just a more glamorous means of scraping by.
It was a barrel-chested bouncer and social worker named Bo, a fellow resident of 227–241 Taaffe, who became the second person after my Independence Day assailant to tell me we didn’t live in Clinton Hill. “This is Bed-Stuy,” Bo said, a cynical smile crossing his lips as I pondered this. It was probably sometime in late 2006. He had told others, mostly whites who had recently moved into the building, this same thing many times, explaining that calling this block of Taaffe Place “Clinton Hill” was just a branding effort. In those dreary middle aughts, Bed-Stuy was propelled endlessly back into itself by Craigslist housing ads. Every year, before Bed-Stuy was hip among the developer set and the people they shepherded into gussied-up brownstones and recently converted lofts, another street on Bedford-Stuyvesant’s western or northern fronts would be digitally rechristened as part of a different neighborhood entirely. Bed-Stuy was a place that many Caucasians, aware of its reputation and history only from rap songs and television news crime reports, didn’t want to live.
Bo and I never really became close the entire time I lived there, never stepped into each other’s home; he nodded even when he was in a hurry and generally was happy to share an elongated anecdote in front of the building or outside the elevator, but wasn’t interested in playing host or coming over to watch the game. He was an excellent talker, loquacious and descriptive, but he carried a sadness with him, a sense that he was witnessing a transformation he wasn’t comfortable with. Bo was the first person I met who was actually from Bed-Stuy, who had grown up just a stone’s throw away, and who was one of only a couple of black men I got to know on the block of “newly renovated lofts,” the other being Mike Rolston, a filmmaker and electrician who lived down the hallway from Tony and me on the seventh floor and eventually moved into a houseboat on the Hudson River. He doesn’t have to worry about being a gentrifier there.
Back then, the idea that an amorphous, systematic conspiracy concerning the geography of central Brooklyn was afoot seemed implausible. I wasn’t deluded enough to think that lofts inhabited by kids with mysteriously inexhaustible checking accounts and spliff-smoking wannabe filmmakers had always existed on Taaffe Place, across the street from the Lafayette Houses and catercorner to the police station where Spike Lee shot exteriors for the underrated Brooklyn hood/cop/drug/redemption Harvey Keitel drama Clockers (that cop station rests on the Clinton Hill side of Classon Avenue, BTW), but what was wrong with them being here now? I didn’t much think about it, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it.
My roommate spent increasingly more time inside our home with his bass, trying to attain perfect pitch by playing incredibly slow chord progressions over and over and over, to the great, unending annoyance of his roommate, who was trying to figure out how the hell to make a living. He suggested, in low mumbles over his cereal, that he was looking for a job, but the vulnerability that we had shared with each other in shards throughout our late boyhood, despite the tough, taciturn personae we also sometimes wore, began to disappear, replaced by an unrelenting sense that our selves lacked worth without vocation. There was never any specificity to his desire in those years, and for someone as driven as myself, I judged him, seeing it as a waste of his advantages. I tried to help in whatever small ways my underemployed self could, attempting to have him meet one person or another who worked at cool culture industry company X or Y.
Underneath our civility, however, I began to feel a slow, creeping desire to avoid him, to keep away the great silences that suddenly began to mar our time together. His subtle dominance of our living space, engendered by the two-thirds of our rent his parents were paying, floated just under the surface of our domestic unease, casting a terrible pall over our conversations. Everything that had once been easy between us became stilted, loaded, a dizzying vertigo that caused me to choose my words carefully and feel easily embarrassed—was I ashamed of the entry-level labor I was doing, work that Tony had the luxury to avoid? Not necessarily, but I began to feel that the world was not designed for us to have anything resembling equality of opportunity in our pursuits. I don’t doubt that Tony knew this. He was, then and now, too wise not to, even if he doesn’t see anything particularly wrong with that. One night, he came home drunk and, after a conversation about a Thomas Mann novel of outsized fortunes and destinies born into instead of made, he said, savagely, “Do you think it’s any other way now?”
It shook me, that assertion, but of course he was right—regardless of the possibilities the wealthiest country in the history of the world provided for transcendence, his fortunes would be tied to, in no small part, his family wealth, just as mine would be tied to my own family’s fortunes, ones that would not prove immune to the tumult the housing market was just beginning to undergo at that time. America was, we were discovering—regardless of the increasingly porous cultural divisions between high-, middle-, and lowbrow—no longer so good at class mobility. According to a study by Pablo Mitnik and David Grusky at Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, “the amount of money one makes can be roughly predicted by how much money one’s parents made, and that only gets truer as one moves along the earnings spectrum,” claimed The Atlantic in 2015. This seemed obvious to me a decade earlier. Tony’s assertion that “It’s their money” wasn’t quite true in the America we lived in—when the rubber hit the road, the real advantages of familial wealth were ones that he was just beginning to experience, his debt-free $50,000-a-year college education being just the tip of the iceberg.
At first it really didn’t seem possible that he would never get a job in the two years I lived there, or even so much as appear to be looking for one, eventually allowing the sheer fact of his effortless affluence to overwhelm our shared space and, in the end, our friendship. For one thing, I didn’t think his parents would allow it. I saw the same looks of exasperation on their faces that Christmas holiday when they asked me about his job prospects as they had shown during the previous fall, when his mother came to New York for Tony’s birthday and treated us to steak at Peter Luger. I would suggest, disingenuously but with unfailing faux sincerity whenever she would pull me aside, that he was working really hard to find a job. Making some reference to what a terrible job market it was for millennials would usually cinch it; Tony could leave in good stead yet again, free to play his bass or listen to soul records or sip Sapporos while reading Thomas Mann novels with a friend to vouch for his tough luck.
When I would see posts about internships at The Village Voice I would print them and give them to him or leave them on our kitchen table. They would sit there for days, unfussed at. Where was the good ol’ boys’ club when you needed it? Surely this intelligent young man, who read real literature and thought about things with seriousness, would find his way in the world. Regardless, such proximity to the advantages of time undisturbed by the pressure to earn, a luxury he had and I didn’t, began to weigh heavily on me.
I continued to try to help him find work but I spent more time wishing I simply had the support to attempt to make meaningful art of my own. I had produced a short—poorly—late that winter, by the friend whom I was speaking to when I was mugged the summer before, but it hadn’t gone well and I was increasingly relying on cheap anesthetization to put up with all the newfound stresses of adulthood in the unforgiving city. I found affordable weed (my drug of choice since a dangerous bout with acute liver failure in high school made alcohol anathema) wherever I could—in fact, I couldn’t sleep without it. I’m not quite sure when I became so dependent; it more or less coincided with the onset of adulthood.
While collecting the mail from the lobby of my building, I noticed some very young brown children across the street. The boys wore white T-shirts and carried themselves in a way that suggested they were harder than they had any business being at their age. When I saw them conduct a transaction from the opposite sidewalk one afternoon later that summer, I had an inkling they carried. One day I worked up the gumption to approach one of them. “You got herb?” I asked gently as he sat on a nearby stoop. He eyed me hard, his irises green like mine, his skin a delicate caramel. He nodded and told me to call him Little G.
The boy couldn’t have been more than thirteen. He was probably no younger than ten. I could never really tell and I was certainly too afraid to ask. He didn’t say much, this young yellow child. I couldn’t stop looking at him, probably in a way that made him slightly uncomfortable; he looked so much like me. It was as if I were scooping buds from a skinny younger brother of mine, one that as an only child I had never had. He was too young and inexperienced to know the danger he was constantly putting himself in, dealing nickels to loft-dwelling gentrifiers and bangers and desperate folks like me less than a hundred yards from a police precinct. Yet he took on the air of an experienced hustler, projecting an edgy confidence you knew was not hard-won but a mere pose, out of a desperate need to reject the fears that a childhood in the projects brings, let alone those known to affect the willful, abject criminal, servicing the desires of the emergent leisure class just to get over.
I was so relieved to meet someone who would sell me nickels; Little G remained my primary pot dealer for much of that year. I occasionally saw another guy named Clay, a Jewish teenager in a Yankees hat who spoke a thick, almost throwback New Yorkese. In a year in which I swooned in and out of poverty despite my lush, subsidized-for-one-tenant-only pad, I was rarely able to justify the twenty dollars for his product. I’d known him for years, always walking his fluffy dog while he dealt; he lived with his mom in the Fifties, amid a row of elaborate old town houses and gleaming apartment buildings with red-coated doormen, just north of the United Nations headquarters on the far east side of Manhattan. I’d have to go there to score his product, which reserved it for outings that demanded Manhattan-quality headies.
Clay would meet me on the street, walking his dog the whole time as he spoke a mile a minute, slipping the pot into my jacket pocket while I retrieved a twenty-dollar bill. One time, while waiting for Clay on the sidewalk in the middle of a winter snowstorm, I ran into Gordon Parks, the revered African-American photographer and the first black man to direct a studio film, walking toward his home. I stopped him—we shared a birthday, after all—and quickly told him of my great admiration. “Thank you, young man,” he said, but before he could ask me about myself or I could tell him about how we shared a birthday, Clay came barreling across the street and I had to end the conversation to settle my fix.
I worried about Little G, sure, and knew not how to process the marked immorality of buying drugs from a child this young, regardless of my poverty. The Ryan Gosling character from Half Nelson, a dope-addicted youth basketball coach and junior high school teacher, was a sorry one to identify with, but identify I did. He’s genial, handsome, and reckless in all the same ways I aspired to be at the time. When he gets caught freebasing in a school bathroom by one of his players after a game, a twinge of guilt always touches my features. The movie, which won Gosling an Oscar nomination, climaxes with him in a seedy motel room buying drugs off that same youngster, played by the remarkable Shareeka Epps, who has been needled into the underworld by Anthony Mackie’s pusher-with-a-conscience. I always thought a less charming but more honest actor would have made that character more ambiguous and potentially unlikable; regardless, I had the pervading sense we were in the same class of douche bag.
Little G, like most children his age, wasn’t reliable, and caution didn’t come easy to him. At first he refused to come up into the building to sell, afraid as he was of leaving a well-traversed street in broad daylight to be caught on camera in the confines of an empty hallway. I eventually convinced him the latter was a safer bet than his normal spots. He was frequently late and his weeks-long disappearances caused me to occasionally call one of the Mexican delivery services that ran through much of the city, the ones I swore off because of their less-than-stellar quality. Getting high on marijuana in Brooklyn in this era meant, without the capital to consistently afford the high end, indoor-grown delivery weed produced and sold by middle-class, mostly white New Yorkers in Manhattan and the nicer precincts of Brooklyn, that I was forced to choose between black juvenile delinquency or murderous Mexican cartels. Bad faith everywhere you looked.
Eventually I started going to an illegal speakeasy I was introduced to by some tatted-up girl I met outside of Sputnik, where a surer bet was to be found on a nightcap spliff. That night she took me to 729 Myrtle, where, behind a black security screen door and below a bank of discreet video cameras, was the door to Percy’s, an unlicensed bar where one could watch the NBA playoffs and buy cocaine, bud, and spirits. It was the underground Cheers of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Most nights the crowd was relatively sparse, though on certain weekend late nights one could find a hundred cokeheads and sundry onlookers in that illegal bar, the smell of crack wafting out of the bathrooms, trannies and johns and gangbangers all operating in harmony. Although I became something of a regular, I was always a bit terrified when I entered on the busier nights, assuming in my infinite bad luck that I would be there when the place finally got raided.
Although upon entering one encountered a three-hundred-pound, thirty-something, hard-eyed black man standing by a bank of security monitors, Percy’s was run by elderly Negroes who qualified for social security and seemed like odd, gentle survivors from the blaxploitation movies I had endlessly pontificated about to unsuspecting classmates in college. I bought weed from them regularly, especially a woman who would sit in the corner and squint until I leaned over and asked her for a twenty. Frank White, who had taken my job at the production company, went even more often than I did, the rare white regular in that mostly brown milieu.
I thought often of Little G when I would see him hustling out on the street. I gradually stopped buying from him once I found Percy’s, but would still see him wandering around the neighborhood from time to time, and witness his transactions with others in gloom, ruminating upon what few opportunities the child had. Was school a place where, as it was for me, the opportunity to learn and grow was made to seem commonplace for him? Did he have parents who went to PTA meetings and who read to him at night while he drifted off into Gulf War nightmares fueled by the CNN-fed triumphalism of the first Bush era? Did he see white people as his peers or his oppressors? Were there other plausible options for him, from his point of view, besides dealing dope before he could legally drive? Who took care of him in that ramshackle building across the street from my loft, near where he spent his days ducking in and out of the gentrifiers’ lobbies, slinging bags in stairwells?
Little G faded away before I had the chance to figure it out. I stopped seeing him effortlessly roam the project courtyards, the ones my roommate always declined to cross, regardless of whether it was the quickest way to our apartment from the G train and despite the fact that the police station was always in view. A rumor of juvie caught wind among Little G’s friends from the block. A brief sighting as I walked along the projects, north on Classon, cops across the street at the Eighty-eighth Precinct joking on the sidewalk behind me, made me think not. His eyes, green as mine, flashed toward me for a second, a wetness in them I’d never seen. I forced a smile, but G didn’t return it. And then he was gone.
I had by far a nicer apartment than any of my friends and I was miserable whenever I was there. It felt like it was hardly mine at all even if half the furniture had come with me from home in a giant haul from one of my hoarder mother’s troves of model-home-ready furnishings. The nicest items had been ordered from catalogs by Tony’s mother; the sinewy South Asian rug, the coffee table Tony insisted we use coasters on, the elegant black bookshelves and dinner table, the green Danish couch that was ultimately broken at a party I held, while Tony was out of town, by a drunk woman, also from Cincinnati, whose body had come between us several New Year’s Eves before.
Still, while underemployed and paying my own rent and eating the cheapest food I could muster, I too had something of a safety net. In an emergency, my mother could, and would, and did, in those less strident years, send me money, her staunch desire to see me grow independent of her out in the world giving way to a form of financial sympathy engendered by unconditional love. She sent me several thousand dollars that year, enough for me to make my rent many times when the till ran nearly dry. A shame in my heart, engendered by the help from home, lingered still. Depression would reign during these seasons, even as I thought, with a measure of unchecked optimism, that surely one day soon I would be able to make a living in the movies. It must have been even worse for Tony, who completely relied on such assistance from our earliest time together as postgraduates. But when I would glimpse an errant ATM receipt he’d leave on the countertop that separated our kitchen from the living room and see that he had $10,000 in his account following a $200 withdrawal, the difference in what constituted “assistance from home” for both of us became overwhelmingly apparent and my sympathy for him dried up.
As the year wore on, most of the free time I did have I passed smoking weed in my stairwell or Fort Greene Park, all in order to avoid the increasingly melancholic vibe of our apartment. For the bulk of that summer, I walked from Bed-Stuy to Manhattan’s Chinatown, an hour away, in order to eat lunch. I couldn’t afford subway fare, refused to ask my mother for (more) money that she wouldn’t give me anyway, and Eldridge Street’s Dumpling House was the only place I knew where I could eat a fully satisfying lunch for $1.75. I’d pass Pratt Institute and the increasingly gentrifying precincts of Fort Greene, where Spike Lee’s old office, a converted firehouse, sits on the corner of the neighborhood’s grand park. Sauntering past the Carol’s Daughter outlet not far from it, I imagined I’d buy my mother, or a wife I’d have someday, body-care products when scurrying for a last-minute gift from the parkside residence I’d have one day. Turning toward the bridge once I reached Flatbush, sailing near Junior’s and in the process encountering the smell of cheesecake wafting from the doors, the first pangs of exhaustion would set in—I was terribly out of shape back then; the poverty was always forcing me to settle for Kennedy Fried Chicken for dinner. I’d enter the colossus of Manhattan from its southeastern flank, seeing the towering city in front of me for the twenty minutes I’d spend walking over the Manhattan Bridge, B and D trains fluttering by. Once I descended into Chinatown I’d go north on the Bowery, past the shop where I used to buy Chinese-region DVDs, soaking in Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 long before they were released stateside, and then I’d dart over to Eldridge Street on Grand, passing the pickup soccer games that take place on the pitches within the skinny park that separates Chrystie and Forsyth Streets between Houston and Canal. I ate at Dumpling House on many a summer weekday afternoon, at the lunch counter or on a nearby stoop, trying to figure out how to make a buck or two with a camera and always plotting another film, despite the obviously dire financial straits I was in.
Over time, signaled by the ways in which my roommate and I began to wear kid gloves around each other, neglecting to broach subjects that would summon his thinly veiled shame at being unequipped to find a job that he didn’t feel was beneath him, we stopped hanging out at all. I would go weeks without talking to him, preferring solitude when I could find it in a loft in which you heard everything the other was doing regardless of the drywall. The reality of our disconnection became an altogether undeniable force in our lives, as we grew too far apart to spend nearly any comfortable time together. I would often stay in Harlem at our childhood friend Ray’s roach-infested home or with a film school buddy, a tall, rail-thin, and devastatingly intelligent gay Jew named Jimmy who lived in the spare room of an elderly couple on the Upper West Side. He turned tricks on Craigslist for kicks and spare dollars when we weren’t kvetching about some film or album we found unworthy, two kids who had hardly made a thing. Whatever I could do to absent myself from my “Clinton Hill” apartment, I would.
Tony and I never once admitted to each other that we lived in an overpriced Bedford-Stuyvesant loft, one that was slowly choking away my solvency and our friendship. And I never once admitted, to him or to myself at the time, that despite all this, I loved my roommate, so much. I’d never had a brother, and over a decade he had become one to me. I didn’t want to move out. So I kept borrowing money on credit cards and deferring my student loans. “But now you enter the world a poor Negro for the first time in your life” wasn’t quite true, but lifelines from home were not, unlike Tony’s, seemingly unlimited.
Neither was my shame. In the ’90s, just as my interest in indie film was emerging right along with my mother’s career in real estate development, she would ask me how much I’d need to make a first film. Even in high school, I was savvy enough to say $200,000. She said she’d get it for me; my mother’s prescience didn’t extend to the lean times that would emerge in the housing market in which she planned on making a fortune, times that would permanently shelve that promise. I’m sure she thought, given how everything was growing in those halcyon days of centrist liberalism and cheap debt, that by the time I came of age and transformed my teenage dreams into the legitimate ambitions of a grown man, helping me raise such a sum wouldn’t be difficult.
Acknowledging several realities, not just about geography and history but relative privilege and shared values, was impossible for me to avoid in the long run, but in my unwillingness to confront the obvious at the time, my inability to work up enough gumption to say to my friend, “Look, I’m drowning. Either we find a cheaper place to live, or help me with my rent. I know you can,” I inadvertently doomed any chance of mutual recognition on our part, of the love I had for him growing into the type of friendship I had always imagined for us, gruff old cats like Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, one of our favorite movies, telling ghost-laden stories about the past for a laugh and a sigh.
At the nadir of my postproduction-company-job scouring during the final months with Tony, I had been an overnight production assistant on the first season of I Want to Work for Diddy. My whole job was to stay up all night, in the control room of an unfinished set that was being constructed on the fourth story of a large, ex-industrial building on Duane Street, of which the production had reserved three floors just to stage lights and crafty, wardrobe, and production. The sheer amount of money that went in service of this flimsy and tasteless premise could have funded dozens of indie films, I was sure. It paid me $100 a day to stay up all night and eat snacks. Situated in Tribeca, only a few blocks from where the production company office still was, I’d sneak off to the offices of my former employer and nap on the couch not far from what used to be my desk until dawn came and the possibility of being discovered posed a threat. The one time Sean Combs did visit the set during my stint there, a gleeful panic rose through the entire six-story Tribeca edifice in such a profoundly silly way as to suggest the Christian rapture had dawned on a sect of Satanists.
In the fall of 2007, I temporarily moved out of 227–241 Taaffe Place. Tony and I had a lease, so we moved someone in to sublet while I traveled, but at the time I had no real intention of coming back. I spent a couple of months in Ohio, writing cold pitches to indie film production companies about a movie I wanted to make in Cincinnati, before heading to Martha’s Vineyard, where my aunt had a home and I thought I’d write a Manchurian Candidate–esque thriller set in a future America where war with Iran is imminent and climate change is out of control. When I arrived back in New York just after Thanksgiving, it was to live in Ocean Hill, east of Bed-Stuy, with a film school classmate, his boyfriend, and their leggy, somewhat unhinged performance artist roommate from Florida. Eventually I moved back to 227–241 Taaffe in early 2008, shortly after Obama won the Iowa caucuses.
Tony and I tried again, but the same baggage was there and I couldn’t keep paying $800 a month; it had been over a year since I had stopped getting paid by the production company, and although I was taking on more writing jobs, writing online dispatches from film festivals for Filmmaker magazine and Variety and applying for grants feverishly, I had yet to consistently replace the income. Still, as soon as I moved back in, I spent about $1,200, mostly on credit, making a new short film, an adaptation of a couple of Jonathan Lethem short stories that he was encouraging people to option for free. It was about a couple who speak in metaphors to each other about biospheres being interjected with new elements instead of having the more frank conversation about infidelity that they are avoiding. It wasn’t very good, that film, but it was a strange monument to where I had lived and what had happened to me there. I fled shortly after making it, telling him of my plans only days before, as our communication had grown nonexistent. He didn’t help me move out—sitting in his room petulantly and listening to the sounds of furniture being pushed or hauled—as our place in each other’s life came to an end.
Would it have mattered if we’d known we were in Bed-Stuy? I don’t know. It might not have meant much to me then. But “Clinton Hill” was bullshit, so I thought, and Bed-Stuy was a place of black history. Somewhere in that painful time I was beginning to understand that where I lived had an importance beyond what I had previously grasped, one that my relationship with Tony, and our very presence in the space, potentially threatened. When I see Tony on the street now, coming out of a soul food joint on Nostrand or on the opposite side of an F train car, I avoid him. It’s too much to bear, the burden of what Bedford-Stuyvesant revealed about us that we dare not speak of.