White Chica In Spanish Harlem

I’ve just become part of a small group of rock-star women who are writing their way to internet fame…one post at a time. One of the things we’re doing is a weekly link-up, where group members each write about the same topic.  You’ll find links to my blogger friends’ posts at the bottom of this post.

This week, our topic is “The Scariest Thing I Ever Did”.

Here’s my story. It’s actually been one I’ve been wanting to tell for a long time, because I think there’s a message in it for my 40-year old self.

When I was 17, I got knocked up with my daughter Ophelia. That’s not the scary part. When you’re 17, nothing much is scary. It’s just like “WHATEVER, I CAN TOTALLY BE A MOM, I’M SO MATURE.” So, I went on with the business of being a senior in high school, going to graduations, and being sick as a dog in the bathroom next to Mr. Lipp’s Physics class. (Turns out you shouldn’t swig anti-nausea medication, because it actually makes you more nauseous.)

No…the baby wasn’t the scary part. The scariest part is what I decided to do next. At the ripe old age of 18, full of wisdom and spunk, I took my daughter and moved from my home in Jacksonville to New York City to go get the best education I could find. My son Dakota was spared some of what follows, because he wasn’t born until I was all grown up at age 20.

I’d been accepted into Barnard College – the sister college of Columbia University – and having a baby didn’t seem like a good enough excuse to let go of my dreams of going to an Ivy League college.

And, so I went. I moved there with baby daddy and found a sweet little duplex for $1224 monthly on Columbus and 107th. Holy mother, I was so naive. I thought it would be safe because it was within walking distance of the college. I was wrong – at the time it was one of the most drug-infested neighborhood in the NYC metro area.

I’ll never forget stepping outside my building with Ophelia in a stroller to a gang of men running past me with guns. One of them stopped and grabbed my arm. “Do you want you and the baby to live?” he asked me. “Yes”, I announced, smartly. “Well then turn around and go back in the building.” Which I did. With a quickness.

I broke my lease soon after, tired of seeing people shooting up in windows of the building next to ours. I was naive to the intricacies of poverty and addiction, and couldn’t comprehend how people would choose to fuck up their lives like that and shoot up. It terrified me.

We left that hell-hole and moved up to Spanish Harlem, to 151 and Broadway, where I felt much safer.  I became known as the “white chica”. I got heckled A LOT, but it was harmless. “Hey sister!” guys would smirk at me.  One in particular thought I was cute and yelled “You have a fat ass! Can I take you home?”

I kind of think he meant “phat” as in awesome, because I was poor and scrawny, and had no padding, but whatever.

After 107 and Columbus, Spanish Harlem was like a pleasant, gated community. I lived 6 blocks away from the subway station, which meant that I only had 6 blocks to walk before I got to the safety of my apartment complex, where we had a 20-year-old Russian as our guard. I kid you not.

Our rent was something like $995. I cobbled together enough to pay living expenses through student loans, Western Unions from my mother, and welfare.

We were so exquisitely poor. And not the kind of poor that’s like “Oh, we were all happy, so we didn’t even know we were poor.”

Bullshit.

While I was busy learning about music theory, 19th century women’s literature, and physics in the big halls of Columbia, my daughter and I were busy being broke-ass poor in our little hovel of an apartment.

So poor, I would run out of diapers and have to put Ophelia in the bathtub.

So poor, I would borrow money from my friend, Saint Liz, so that I wouldn’t have to walk in the snow with Ophelia from 151st to 107th street to her babysitters because I didn’t have $1.25 for a subway token.

So poor, I left my daughter with a complete stranger  while I went to school. Minerva – who would feed her “mucho Farrina” and smile and nod at me, because we had a huge language barrier. Turns out Minerva was a gem, thank God.

So poor, that I put my daughter’s sleep area (certainly didn’t have money for a crib) in the little closet. I can close my eyes and see it now. A blanket folded up on the floor , in the nook of the closet. A kind man came to exterminate one day, and saw Ophelia’s nook. “Does your baby sleep there?” he asked me. “Yes.” “Well, you shouldn’t put your baby in the closet. They’ll call DCF on you.”

I – who can’t remember huge chunks of my life – remember that interaction in excruciating detail.

One day, I was walking in the cemetery in Harlem and honest to God saw a $20 bill lying on the freaking ground like a holy grail. I caught my breath. And quickly raced over with my crappy-ass baby stroller and snatched it up so fast you would have missed it if you blinked. I bought cans of formula (they were $2.50 a piece back then for the concentrated kind), and a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. Because when you’re 18 and are poor and come into money, you decide that Coca Cola is what will cure your ails.

I was naive, young, and poor – so out of my league, I didn’t even know there was a league. I know I had  angels watching over me – the entire lot. Gabriel’s Gang.

Why did I do it, when I could have (should have?) just gone to school here in Jacksonville?  One day, Ophelia and Dakota’s father described a scene to me, that I didn’t remember.  We were living in Brooklyn at the time, and it was snowing and he looked out of our 2nd floor window to see me pushing the double-stroller with all my might through the snow so that I could make my way to Barnard for yet another class on something that had absolutely no relevance to me at the time.

That day, many years later, he asked me a simple question “Why did you keep pushing that stroller in the snow? Why didn’t you just turn around and come back inside?

The simple answer is that I was so young and driven that I didn’t even know that turning around was an option.

When I was 19, I just did the scary things without second thought. Like there was no other choice. Because my life was in front of me and I needed to do the scary things in order to create the life I wanted – even if it meant being broke-ass poor. Even if  it meant wandering around in a huge city, with my one friend Liz, and my army of angels to help.

Now, at 40, I think long and hard about the scary things I do, because I’m more mature and realize that my actions affect others- like my children, who if given a choice, would prefer not to live in poverty. But, I wouldn’t change any of my choices from when I was young. It’s a part of the fabric of each of us – me, Ophelia, Dakota. It was our journey.

Today, I try to capture the ignorance of being 19 and mix it with the wisdom of being 40 to constantly push myself to do what I’m afraid of.

11 thoughts on “White Chica In Spanish Harlem

  1. I could actually see you pushing that crappy ass baby stroller in the snow! That was definitely a scary story, for a few reasons, but a fun read!

  2. Oh my goodness… I did not know if i should laugh or cry. Pat yourself on the back !!! Cuz in my opinion and I barely know you via the internet you seem like a pretty amazing person !!!!

  3. I came here through a tweet from @Baddest_Mother. I agree that if we knew then what we know now, we might make different choices. But all those choices, good and bad, add up to who we are now, and that’s not something I ever want to change. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story! (What is this group you’re a part of? Are you open to having others join you?)

  4. I’m so glad you told this story because I have been so CURIOUS about how you managed being a mother at 17 AND going to Barnard! I assumed you came from a vastly wealthy family of ousted European royalty. Spanish Harlem? didn’t see that coming!

  5. Wow. I can’t even imagine! I often wish I could go back to my younger self with the knowledge I have now, but maybe that’s not for the best. Because then you wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what you did, if that makes sense? What a story!!

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