Dean and DeLuca was a monstrosity of an enterprise, unlike anything I had seen before. A sandwich costs $11 and the items on the shelves didn’t have unit prices on them because, as the hiring manager had explained, “It’s Dean and DeLuca. Who cares how much it is?” It was no regular grocery store. Walking into the store for the first time, my jaw nearly dropped to the floor. I had thought of it as a small, speciality shop, but was met with a sprawling floor of expensive selections. The floors were marble, the walls were white, and the glass over the show cases shined under the fluorescent lights. I browsed expensive coffees, expensive salads, expensive cheeses, and unreasonably expensive water and I realized that this store didn’t tolerate the average clientele.
In stark contrast to the typical clientele, usually upper-class white people, that the store drew, my co-workers were average, working class people, usually of color. Some were New York born and bred, some foreign, and some transplants, like myself. In food prep, my manager was Ghanian, and the others in the department ranged between Columbian, Gambian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, and Jamaican. Linguistics had been a casual interest of mine since high school. The idea of communication and rapid articulation among humans fascinated me and I began to appreciate dialects and other languages. I only spoke choppy Spanish and even choppier French, but I heard all kinds of languages on the Dean and DeLuca floor on a daily basis. From Spanish to Creole to Jamaican patois.
I got hired at Dean & DeLuca in SoHo because I had had grill and food service experience. The heat from the grill and oven warmed my back. With the chef jackets and hat we had to wear, the heat was enough to make the sweat begin to bubble from my pores.
“Damn, ma, you sweating bullets,” Mohammed, carrying a stack of rotisserie chickens commented as he passed.
I smirked and wiped my forehead with my rolled-up sleeve, but I already knew that the heat at my back was enough to keep my forehead shining with a constant sheen of sweat, no matter how many times I dabbed at it with my sleeve. I drank some water from the tap to cool down.
“Push the mower under the shed for me, please,” mom said.
It had been a long day of yard work. Mom was in her “spring cleaning” mode. Having my brother and I home from school for a whole week was the perfect excuse to put us to work. She used that week to deep clean our sprawling home. Everything from the closets to our bedrooms and out in the yard, everyday there was something to be done. One day, we’d tackle the closets, rearranging and organizing the clutter that accumulated throughout the past year. Another, routine keeping, dusting the furniture in every room, vacuuming and mopping the floors.
Today was yard day. Over the years, my mom had worked out a system of mowing where two people could have our entire lawn mowed in two days time. She’d just bought a new push mower from Lowes’ so that we could cover twice the ground in the same amount of time. We finished the plot of grass that mom aptly called “the field” and the strip in front of our side of the cul-de-sac.
My mother’s house sits on two acres of land. One acre was predominantly woods and didn’t warrant any maintenance on our part, but the other acre, encompassing the house, the shed, and mom’s various gardens required constant maintenance. Whether it was sweeping the porches or watering the plants or taking out the trash, there was always something to be done. The interior of my home resembles a show room. In the foyer, my mother displayed my great aunt’s china cabinet and the pristine set of crystal and porcelain that it kept for safe keeping.
When Aunt Frances passed, she left a lot of trinkets behind. I don’t know exactly how much money my aunt had when she passed, but from the things that my mother inherited, it was something substantial – of substance to sustain expensive looking paintings, crystal figures, and furs.
Above the pie safe was a picture of Barack Obama. Underneath, a commemorative inauguration display. The living room was a neat arrangement of pictures. On the walls, both my brother and I’s senior portraits. On the wall catty corner to it, a charicature of my brother and I when we were children that we had done on a family vacation to Disney World. The end tables were scattered with pictures of friends and family, depicting some of the same familiar faces but at different moments in time.
I liked working in the yard with mom. As I grew older, it became less of a chore and more of a ritual.
“There’s a lot of winter coats on sale now that its starting to warm up. They’re cheaper when they’re out of season – the really nice ones.”
“Yeah, its on my list of things that I still need to get but I still need to get some other things first.”
“Do you have a mattress cover?”
“For a twin bed? No ma’am.”
“We can probably go to TJ Maxx tomorrow and find one that’s reasonable.”
As a parent, my mother has her reservations but as a person, she was alright. I enjoyed chatting with her. But lately, as the news of my acceptance into graduate school continued to sink in, more and more, she began to find ways to work in questions about my plans as to how I could afford to get along in a place like New York City.
“How are you going to pay rent, eat, and afford school? You don’t even know if you’ll be able to find a job.”
I rolled my eyes, annoyed that she was bringing up the issue of money yet again. It wasn’t that I wasn’t considering the expense of a move to another city, in my mind, the money would find me if this New York City thing was to be. As graduation approached, my conviction in my decision to leave Mississippi grew. I was aware that my decision made no sense to my mother but I did not care really.
“Where you from?”
“Miss’sippi,” I responded, reciting the name in true southern tongue.
“Yea? I could hear it in your voice. You ain’t sound like you was from here,” Kareem said, a Bed Stuy native.
“Never go shopping down here. It’s all more expensive ‘cuz it’s Manhattan,” said Tassia.
“For cheap shit, you gotta go uptown to the ‘hood or out to Jersey.”
I was learning new city hacks from my coworkers everyday. Many of the young people in my department lived uptown. Kareem lived in Brooklyn, Stephen, the cook, lived in the Bronx, and Tassia lived in Staten Island. My knowledge of the burrows outside of Manhattan only went as far as rap lyrics, movies, and radio commentators. I knew Nas was from the Queensbridge projects in Queens. The great Afrika Bambaataa was from The Bronx. Jay Z was from Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. The mythical Wu Tang Clan hailed from Staten Island. Spike Like made Forte Greene, Brooklyn look like urban poetry in his films. While portrayed as areas of high crime and low property values, the portrayal of people that called these places home was alluring. Despite crime, there was community. Despite low income housing, there was love, and in poverty there was poetry. And that poetry echoed through the train tunnels and settled in the concrete. I can imagine that one finds a certain magic in the air, as if one was walking on hallowed ground – and cute brownstones to boot. The draw is not a mystery. The boroughs maintain a rustically urban aesthetic and before everyone catches on, they are ripe fodder for investment. But the financial gain of gentrification often overshadows the people that called those brownstones home before they were fashionable.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how much do you pay for rent?”
“$1,700” Stephen replied.
I frowned in disgust.
“And you live in the Bronx,” I asked, in disbelief.
The expense of living in New York City was going to take some getting used to.
“These white people even got Harlem lookin’ like Williamsburg,” Kareem interjected.
“Gentrification is some bullshit. I can’t afford to move out my parents crib and they been here forever.”
It was hard to believe that the city, on the verge of bankruptcy just decades ago, was now being gentrified to the point of exponentially rising property value. Though unfortunate, the strange phenomenon created a condition of intricate social experimentation. Even Harlem, the bastion of blackness, as I had imagined it, was losing its edge to the encroaching hipster presence.
“It’s nothing here for us in Manhattan. If you really wanna find the dope spots, go up to Harlem and out in Brooklyn.”
“Where you stayin’” Sean, one of the supervisors asked.
“Damn, how’d you get a spot in Chelsea?”
The speed at which he pinpointed the neighborhood astounded me.
“It’s a dorm. No way I could afford my own spot in Chelsea.”
Though most of the dormitory housed a majority of white students, my particular suite hosted several international students, Ali from Luxembourg, Ying Qi from China, and another from Lithuania. Another, Kate, was Honduran though she grew up in Jersey and spoke fluent English, but her Spanish was just as fluent. On move in day, I noticed I was one of few black people in the building and the only black person in my suite. I didn’t let the anxiety over my racial isolation paralyze me as I might have back home and introduced myself to the white girl moving in next door to my room.
“Hi, I’m Victoria.”
“Hey, I’m Winnie.” Her accent was distinctly British.
In that instant, I realized that even whiteness had nuance, here.
When my mother thought of New York City, I am sure she imagined the version depicted in New Jack City or Taxi Driver – a New York City covered in grafitti and filth, overrun with criminals and the drug-addled and drunken. The issue of gentrification was one that I was aware of, even in Mississippi, as it had become a frequent talking point on social media. The city was changing and had been for a while. As a result, the landscape was different now in large part thanks to gentrification, and by my estimation, navigable enough for me to avoid situations and areas that I was unfamiliar with.
However, in many ways, it was a pre-gentrified New York City that drew my affections. As a child, I learned of the Harlem Renaissance and The Great Migration of the early 20th century. I was enamored with the creative spirit that those times were imbued with. Movies like “The Great Gatsby” showed the city to be a place of energy and vigor, where serendipity and romance abounded. The 40s brought the Beatniks and writers like Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Movies like Gangsters of New York and The Warriors portrayed a gruesome yet enthralling place that, though immensely tragic, captured a spirit of survival and persistence that seemed romantic to me as a teenager. New York City existed in the belly of the beast where only those with the fortitude and endurance to brave a concrete jungle could survive and if one were smart, and had a been born with any luck, one might also be able to live.
New York City brings out the overachiever in everyone. Everyone seems to be rushing somewhere. Some, to work, some, to the bank or to the grocery, but most, probably, to nowhere – in a hurry because New York City required that one be in a hurry. Passing people on the sidewalk, whose brows were also furrowed and soaked in sweat made me feel apart of the community of disparates, moving in synchronous chaos.
“Why do you have to do this?”
My “rebellious” stage didn’t hit until recently, not in high school, the way one would imagine it would. My mother couldn’t fathom my adamance about making the move to New York City for graduate school. The only answer I had for her was that it simply “felt right,” but that was not good enough for her.
I had my reasons but those reasons had nothing to do with her, but that was the way she seemed to be taking it.
I loved Mississippi but as I got older, it was beginning to feel like Mississippi couldn’t love me back. In response to legalizing gay marriage, the state legislature passed HB 1523, effectively undermining the federal ruling for the state. At a “Take Down the Flag” rally in the fall of 2018, the Ku Klux Klan marched on to campus to assure the mostly black gathering of students that they’d do everything in their power to ensure that the emphasis stars and bars would always have its spot at the top of the flag pole. But even when Ole Miss’ administration voted to remove the flag in the interest of its minority students, the gesture rang hollow. The university was only trying to maintain the appearance of progress in a place that did not wish to do so. I stayed in my shell because there were few places to come out of it back home.
I took an Uber from the airport to my building. I browsed the sidewalks as the car passed through the streets and avenues to get me from the airport to my building. I couldn’t help but smile seeing two men holding hands as they walked down the sidewalk together, a sight unseen back home. Guys and girls alike sported hair in neon greens and blues and most of the young people wore trendy outfits, but still maintained their own individuality, unlike the try-hards back home.
My first time taking the train, I wasn’t prepared for the dankness of the mezzanine. Why I expected there to be a bit of a draft, I don’t know, but I was quickly corrected as I descended the steps of the 14th street station. If the MTA maintenance workers weren’t keen on taking the trash regularly, that heat could have cooked a brew that would wreak to high heaven. On an already unbearably hot day, entering the mezzanine was like a descent into hell on earth. The heat was asphyxiating and I quickly ran back up the steps to the sidewalk, appreciating the clean, fresh heat that I’d been trying to escape moments before.
For $2.75, I could go anywhere in the city that the train would carry me, but I wasn’t going far. I was only trying to get to 5th Avenue. The first week, I figured I would do okay walking. I only lived on 8th Avenue. But the heat in this city was unlike nothing I’d ever felt. It was as if the cement just held the heat in, no grass or mud to absorb it or shade trees to hide from it, like a concrete oven. I was sweating bullets by the time I made it to 7th. By the time I did make it to 5th Avenue, my shirt was completely drenched in sweat and I could feel more sweat dripping down my back still.
Before moving to New York City, I spent the summer in D.C., crashing at my friend Reuben’s, trying to get a feel for city life. D.C. was city life, but not like New York City city life. There were parts of D.C. that were just as urgent as New York, but there were also parts that reminded me of home. New York City was nothing like home. Within a week, my legs grew sore from all the walking, an activity that was usually reserved for the mall, the track, or the treadmill. Cars were the main mode of transportation back home. Rather than mope over my unplanned unemployment, I spent my days at at my leisure, waking up around 8, eating grits and eggs for breakfast, and walking the mile and a half to Mt. Pleasant Library. I lost something close to 15 pounds over the course of the summer.
“Rats are just a part of city life,” Reuben said defensively.
It was the third rat that had nearly scurried right over my foot that week. Reuben lived in a basement apartment, one neighborhood over from Mt. Pleasant in Petworth. When it rained, water pooled at the front door threatening to flood the living room and inviting in all manor of vermin. Rats, roaches, and those thousand-legged, centipede creatures. There was a mouse that liked to play hide and seek with me in the laundry room whenever it sensed I was doing laundry and I could hear them scurry along through the walls in the night.
I looked up the meaning of rats as spiritual totems.
“If a rat scurries across your path path, you are being asked assert yourself in new areas that you have not yet explored… Alternatively, you are being asked to evaluate the clutter around you. Is it time to purge old baggage and feelings that no longer serve you?”
In times of crisis, I tend to look for some semblance of order in the something that is higher than me. I burned through my meager savings within weeks and was eating a steady diet of Top Ramen. My mother, in the peak of her outrage over my decision to leave, refused to put more money in my account for a time.
“Somebody feed her, Lord” said my brother, embracing me after arriving home from work, the day I arrived home from my summer of disappointment.
“It was all the walking that did it.”
“That’s interesting you say that. And you know, people at the gym just don’t get that. You could really eat anything as long as you were doing enough cardio to leverage.”
We bantered back and forth like that until bed. Looking at him as we chatted, I was proud of the person he was becoming. He was short and chubby well into high school. It wasn’t until his senior year that he sprouted six inches and started lifting weights. The man who sat in front of me was not the annoying kid I remembered.
Between my brother and I, I feel I’ve always been the less impressive of our pair. He was a smart kid, like his sister. He got good grades. Not only that, Derek was nationally ranked by the National Speech and Debate Association throughout high school and traveled the country competing and winning awards. I competed as a debater, not an “interp-er,” like my brother. I did well enough but no one ever gets recognized for that.
Derek was cut from a different cloth. He was blessed with the gift of gab and a charming personality and grin. He was always the talk of the fellowship hall, always winding up in the news paper or speaking at someone’s school. He was the stand up guy. In high school, I found myself resenting him for the ways in which he out-shined me, but that resentment was for naught. The injury was with me. Derek was so comfortably himself and he shined because of it.
I was too busy trying to be something I wasn’t and acquiesce to the sensibilities of my mother. I desperately wanted her approval until I realized I probably wouldn’t get it. So what the hell? I would do what I wanted.
Derek and I only grew closer over the years. On the morning I was to fly from Louis Armstrong to LaGuardia, I could tell he was a little sad that his sister was going so far away from home. But he knew how much I wanted this. He was my only confidant.
“OPULENCE. O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E. Everything is yours darling. You own everything. Now take it!”
It was a quote from a documentary called “Paris is Burning” that we had both watched several times over. Anytime a moment of dialogue stuck out to him, Derek could take it and make it his own. As I read the text message, it read in his voice, and I smiled, knowing at least he was always in my corner.
I was filling out job applications before I even got to the city. My mother stressed how expensive it was going to be and tried to use that fact as a reason that I shouldn’t go. Expense was a price to pay for the access I’d gain to opportunity, in my mind. I’d work fifty hours a week if I had to. If I was going to be a writer, I couldn’t do it in Mississippi. Lots of great writers came from Mississippi, but none of them made their careers there. If I could get to New York City, opportunity and I would finally meet.
My employment dry spell ended just two weeks after arriving to the city. Out of all the jobs that I applied to, Dean and DeLuca was the only place that called me back. I later learned that Dean and DeLuca would always be wanting for employees. I was hired immediately.
Being in New York City, it felt like a big place, like it couldn’t possibly only occupy a single dot on the map. In only a few hundred square miles, it seemed that New York City comprised a microcosm of class, race, and global relations. The people of the city were diverse and unique and though all of them came from different walks of life, they all converged here and lived on top of one another in a long-practiced dance of chaotic order. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Every building stretched upward toward heaven as far as the constraints of gravity would allow and when allowed no further, the people dug further into the ground underneath them to make use of the space there. New York City was the epitome of ingenuity.
I can not count how many sirens I hear on any given day. The amount of emergencies in this city confounds me because I can never find the plume of smoke to which the ambulances and fire trucks seem to be rushing. The tree tops that used to sway in the wind have been replaced by the unwavering tops of sky scrapers. Somehow I cannot bring myself to prefer one over the other.
Sitting at the Chelsea piers looking out over the Hudson, I considered those rats that had haunted me the past summer. I had to sit my mother down to tell her my revelation. This move had nothing to do with her. It was for me. It was my decision. I’m an adult. If this proved to be a mistake, I was fine with the possibility of that reality, but I would’ve hated myself if I never tried.