Is It True There is a Place For Everyone?

While visiting New York City recently, a thought crossed my mind, “Is It True That There is a Place For Everyone?”
The City for [not] Everyone

The City for [not] Everyone

Apparently, everyone who moves to New York becomes a New Yorker instantaneously! New arrivals to the city attest to that, as do former New York City residents, ask me about the latter. I moved to NYC from Boston, MA in 2005. Interestingly, I never felt a belonging to Boston, perhaps because I lived there as a student and within the Boston students “inner enclave”, shut off from the locals! No doubt, Boston is the epicenter for high intellectual learning in America, offering abundant students opportunities: to hangout with fellow students, enjoy student events and student life. Though, migrant students into Boston live largely oblivious to the presence of real “natives” or “locals” in the neighborhood, whose claim to belonging is not a two-year, four-year, or seven-year stint in pursuit of an academic hood and cap!
So, when I moved to NYC, it did not take too long before I felt a sense of belonging. I caught on so quickly like a wild fire, assumed my entitlement on the first day I stepped out to start my job in Manhattan. Every morning and evening when I took the train Brooklyn-Manhattan-Brooklyn, I felt as much a part of the subway ride, the street experience, the music and rats on the illustrious subway. NYC brought back memories of Kampala, my city of birth in Uganda. Similar hustle and bustle, and “everyone got an attitude and knows it” style.  Like NYC, Kampala has something for everyone, street fanfare – art, food or accessories vendors, bike or food service delivery, lost souls and homelessness, plus abundant space to make, break or re-make anyone. In 50c lingua, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
But there is a price to pay for that “Free society” kind of Kampala or New York mindset. Certainly true in NYC! You will meet a lover for a minute or day, an admirer of your art, an ear to listen, a dance partner, entertainment, or free exhibition, gallery or museum opening with free cocktails!  None of these ‘freebies’ promise to stay for-ever, especially when you are living it out solo in The City! In that sea of people, it is 10!% possible to feel lonely. Single life is abundant in NYC, finding love is water in the desert, tougher for women who out-ratio men in the city. Out at a bar or dance lounge, you will mingle and easily make ‘friends’ for the night. But they will quickly become strangers as you exit; don’t try to claim you know them on the streets!
My recent trip to NYC brought back all those memories, images  and mixed emotions, looking at lonely people, homeless, robotic pedestrians, wannabes, freestylers, hustlers, friends and lovers. The city looked calm; even Chinatown looked too cool and clean for my liking, sadly! Not to suggest that I did not see happy people, street performers, beautiful boutiques, trendy stores, global brands or juicy splashdown sales. Or the corporate careerists, bubbly college students, colorful fashion, minimalist eateries.
Truth is, I did not feel the Joni “Squeal’ Ernst, “The Greatest Country on Earth” vibe! I didn’t feel as much bustle and energy that tourists feel and bring crowding NYC streets, or the colorfulness that fills NYC streets on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Rockefeller Christmas Tree or the Caribbean Labor Day Carnival. It was a cloud of loneliness that typically engulfs NYC residents whose lives do not allow them a joyride on the the cities  Citi Bikes, to look up in the skies and count the clouds, a walk in Central park, a minute break to enjoy the street performers on 14th street, the gifted artists on the subway platform, or the “bright city lights” of Times Square. I saw many more lost far from the magnificence of the Big Apple, for whom sinking $4.99 into a street meal would mean a lifetime of bad investment .
Yes, NYC reminded me that there is a place for everyone! From dog walkers, street artists, natural foodies, executives, academics, fashionistas, bus drivers, tourists, smokers, little schoolers, corporate junkies and hourly workers. They wore their “I am a New Yorker” attitude, but the streets also told another side of their stories. There was a lot of emptiness! From Canal, through Chelsea to 14th street, it was not the “Brand NY” anymore, per me. Even parents walking home from school with their children along Broadway and 14th street, or mom and daughter seated in a pizza joint in The Village did not stimulate my duct bile for “My New York”.
The young woman, who spent over thirty minutes in a restroom at Dunkin Donuts, turned the clouds grab! After waiting [im]patiently to use the bathroom, for what could have been thirty minutes, she came out looking timid, reminding me of the ‘hard-knock’ living it out in The City.  She was carrying many bags in her hands, looked a little ‘freshened-up’, put on her ‘fresh jacket and scarf, and headed headed out for the day. Thankfully, DD provides the opportunity to use a restroom sink and sitting area, for those without a permanent home or waiting area.
Lest we forget, NYers come together in time of great need, to share stories of inspiration, pain, achievement, accomplishments, sacrifices and life events. Indeed, no better platform captures the sprit and convergence of the New York sprit than Humans of New York (HONY)! In true American Spirit, no better non-institutionalized non-conscious establishment can replace HONY, providing a platform for NYers to be the random strangers becoming friends, they are good at, reach out for one another in words, skill or process, and share concern, courage and encouragement with each other.
With all its variety of global cuisines, the breathtaking architecture, the ‘walking’ Zombies, the burbly or mechanical lifestyles one encounters on NYC streets, plenty are prancing up and about the streets in desperate search for “the next rent gig”, for love, security and stability. “The Place for Everyone” is also a scary place for plenty of others looking for more than a cosmopolitan affair or wild city dream. True, NY eats natural, organic and minimalist, except when worshiping at the altar of Haute Couture, splashing off Runway, or committing to remain Forever 21. Public spaces are abundantly curved out with seats in the middle of the street for a coffee, bite or to bask in the lunch-time sun at Herald Square, illustrious runways at Bryant Park and dog play park at Washington Square. New York City wants to be that artistic piece that never fades of anyone’s imagination and longing, a lover entrapping one into a lifetime relationship. Yet with all its welcome and host to feet from all walks of life, its spirit does not belong to everyone, its soul ages with time, and its culture is a mixed bag of post-realism, hullabaloo and a lot of emptiness!

Running Four Seasons

Being a runner is fantabulous, but comes with all kinds of earthly challenges.Image

In Winter, I have to brave myself going out in the freezing cold, with layers covering nose, mouth, face, head and body. When it snows, I have to attach my Yaktrax to my running shoes to run on snow. The good thing, the cold pushes me to run faster and get the hell back inside. I usually come back with a frozen nose, frozen toes, sometimes, iced eyes. Yuk!

In Spring, my favorite month, the after-run allergies from the pollen are an inconvenience. Yes, the weather is mild and cool, but running through a box of Kleenex everyday, ain’t funky!

Need I talk about the heat and humidity of Summer runs! It is better when I go out very early morning, but when I wanna sleep in on Saturday and get out mid-morning, I make sure that I have plenty of water on me or carry change to buy water along the route. Good thing, I can wear my “barely-there” running clothes.

I do not have much beef against the Fall, especially soon after summer. Except for the latter part, getting close to Winter, when my body starts freaking out about the impending cold. Plus, it is kinda hard trail-running through the woods, with all the fallen leaves.

Oh! And then my Uganda runs, enduring street hecklers who “have never seen a woman run like a man”, so they say! Especially in my little shorts. And the killer hills of Kampala City are unavoidable. But at least, I can avoid the concrete along most of my running routes in the US.

Still, the post-run rewards are sans precédént. I feel so rejuvenated, smarter brain, and cleansed. Running is a perfect substitute for my lack of jacuzzi or sauna at home:)

IT is [NOT] “Know Thy Neigbor[hood]!

ImageYeah! I know this is a loaded title. I bet you are wondering whether I mean “Know Thy Neighbor” or “Know Thy Neighborhood”. Sounds strange, huh! 

Strangely that occurred to me on my run last Sunday, and again this Friday morning, in two different neighborhoods. And it took me back to the Trayvon Martin murder trial, where Zimmerman got acquitted for murder and manslaughter. I am sure it aint politically incorrect to bring up the Zimmerman case again. Everybody has and still is expressing their views loudly on this one. And we are lucky enough to know that in the 21st century -2013, America is still NOT beyond the color line. So, we are gonna suck it up and keep finding a piece of this place we call home….beyond or before the color-line. 

Ok, back to my central topic on “My Neighborhood and me”. Last Sunday, I went out jogging from Camp Creek in West Atlanta to Union City in South Fulton. It was not an easy run, with steep climbs under the scorching sun, with a few areas of concrete, but mostly no footpaths or running trails. I had to brave it, and compete with incoming traffic. Luckily in America, at least for the most past, most motorists will respect a runner or pedestrian and share space, unlike in Kampala where you would most likely get run over by stray drivers as happened to me back in 2011. Story for another day. So, it was very daring and rewarding. I ended up doing 13 miles, touch down! Been a while since I was able to go that far due to change of geographical location. 

Same story this past Friday, while running in Norcross, GA, North of Metro-Atlanta. I got into places without footpaths or running trails.  At some point I lost track of where I was, made a u-turn in some places, while in others I needed human help with directions. I could have done better, like in the first case on Sunday, with running off-roads through the woods, but that was not feasible.

It struck me that, while in most of America we do not “Know Thy Neighbor”, we better be smart enough to “Know Thy Neighborhood”! See, Trayvon got accosted, shot at and killed because he did not “Know Thy Neighborhood”, by a stranger -Zimmerman who did not care to “Know Thy Neighbor”. See, for a teenage black male living in America, society puts a VERY high responsibility on them to “Know Thy Neighborhood”. I guess I will have to tell this to my Black African American son (recently turned 5-years), when he becomes a teenager. I hate to think that I might have to do this too early, for instance, which one of his K-class friends he can go to play with, living in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood uhm!

In my case, I am a Uganda American [yes I claim that] and mother of a child with an African American man. The many years of living in America have allowed me to learn and appreciate the history and historical struggles of African Americans to belong to this space: “currency of race”, the writings, the education and miseducation of African Americans”, and their journey to self-liberation. In many ways, this experience have provided me a deeper insight and understanding of the “Miseducation of the Negro Race” worldwide, including those who escaped, survived or were unfortunate to miss the slaveship (trust me, some continental Africa confess to that feel), and remained back in Africa. And I use the “Negro Race” in honor and respect of those who came before me, and conquered the word “Negro”, in the pre-1960s, and appropriated it to build intellectual histographies about us in art, music, poetry, civil rights struggles, spiritual healing, sports, education and economic empowerment. Notably I acknowledge Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Bob Marley, and many more. It is also true that the word “Negro” is still used in contemporary America in reference to the United Negro College Fund and the Negro league in sports, which have their historical significance. As well, while its usage is falling out of favor around the world, it is still a neutral word in the Scandinavians, for instance, and in Russia. I should CATEGORICALLY state that I neither endorse nor condone its usage NOR in any way suggest or find any semblance with the use of the word “NIGGER”, which I detest.

In many ways the use of the word “Negro” is as fluid as “Know Thy Neighborhood”. In my experience, it depends both on who you are, and where you are. As a black person jogging around a seemingly predominantly black neighborhood of Camp Creek and Union City in Atlanta, I still could not dare jog out in the woods in the backyards. I feared that I could be shot at for “trespassing”, including by a black person. Yes! it is the nature of America, the “fear of thy neighbor” is colorless in many places. Black can negatively profile black as much as white profiles black. Although, black may not profile white the same. 

The ABC video of a white male, black teenage male and white female, all trying to “steal a bike” seems to qualify this statement. When the white male got asked by passerby if the bike was his, and said, no, but it would become his when he took the chain off, nobody offered him a hand but nor did they confront him harshly or call the police. When the black male teen tried the same thing, several white folks were seen confronting him harshly, and some went ahead to call the police on him. For the white female, same story, confessed theft –but one male went ahead to offer her a hand to break the bike free so she could take it. Interesting, two female black women, when asked why they went past the white male breaking a bike chain, the responded that they did not think he would take property that was not his. 

What does this tell us? That either black people have a high level of trust in white people, and would not consider them thieves. Or it is far-fetched to assume that black women would confront a white male in a predominantly white neighborhood – his comfort zone. I say, it is both. Yet, again, as a black woman, I cannot assume that a black person living in America would not shoot me if I went running in the woods in their backyard. And I bet a white person would either immediately call the police, confront me or try to shoot at me.

ImageInterestingly, when I did the Hash [my international running group] with one of the metro Altanta Hashes, I went through backyards, front-yards and woods in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood with ease. Perhaps because I was with a predominantly white group, and the only black person running, in addition to the Grenadian couple [one looking more Hispanic] who walked it. But I could not replicate that comfort zone, when I ran all by myself this past Friday, in a predominantly white neighborhood, to follow off-road trails and into the woods. For once, all the other runners I saw were white, yet only one said hello. The other did not care, although runners, like smokers tend to pride themselves in acknowledging each other with a “hi”. When I lost track of how to get back home and had no one on the road to ask for directions, I could have branched off and knocked at one of the doors in the neighborhood or asked a motorist. But I could not dare, afraid they would consider me a threat and call the PoPo. 

So, either way, black like me cannot win in a white or black neighborhood. It is different in most of the Africa I have lived, I can run anywhere with no fear of the neighborhood, unless of course the State House. I know that many folks who have never lived the “American Experience” within geographical America wonder why, “we are SOO obsessed with race and racism”. I say, until you get that opportunity and allow yourself to internalize “the American Experience with Black America”, you better be sure you, “Know Thy Neighborhood”. Image