In Another Life I Was Nola Darling (Or Why NYC is my Favorite Place to be Black)

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When I was a kid, after the late-night parties my parents hosted, me and my sister would sometimes watch New York Undercover. It was decidedly not a kid’s show but it held such intrigue for me; a black girl in suburbia. We’d watch Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo fight the crime and corruption of New York City. I always got a kick out of the fact that Yoba was in Cool Runnings and DeLorenzo was one of the dancers in the Beat It music video.

I think I felt grown that I noticed this back then.

And I wonder if this was where my love for New York City was born.

Sometimes I joke around that the only reason I ended up going to military school for five years and being in the Coast Guard for eight is all because of how deep in love I was with New York City.

I was a daydreamy, sometimes class-clown, artistic, quiet kid since basically forever. Military culture seemed the anti-thesis to who I was but when the US Merchant Marine Academy told me they would fund a three-day trip to New York City for a school visit, I was like, um, yeah.

Why is New York City my favorite place to be black in? Because Harlem and Crown Heights and Fort Greene. Because you can teach pre-schoolers during the day and then perform burlesque at night and most people won’t bat an eye at the dichotomy.

Because one Saturday when I was living in Fort Greene I went to a morning yoga class at a black-woman owned yoga studio, to a meditation class led by a Black Buddhist in the afternoon and at night danced with a group of black women at an Afro-Beat class which was taught by a dancer from the Fela Broadway musical. And I didn’t have to drive or even hop on the subway to do all of this.

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Because it was the first city I felt desirable in. Because in New York City no one asks me why my hair is like this or my nose or lips like that. Because in New York my blackness isn’t special or exotic. It just is.

I am not from a place like that. I am from a place that has two Wal-Marts less than a mile from each other. My neighbors wrote their Christmas cards from the POV of their toy dog. I was almost always the only black kid in my classes. I didn’t have a date to prom (though honestly that may have had more to do with my awkwardness and tallness than being black, but hey…)

When my father decided to take up walking for his health in 2015, the police were called on him three separate times.

And we’ve lived in that neighborhood for almost thirty years.

I was the first black president of my middle school in the year 2000.

I am from a place like that.

Now, of course, I cannot pretend that New York City is all la-di-dah. From what I can see, dating can be a bitch (though the options seem so fun!) The street harassment is real. I enjoyed my living in New York City mainly because I had a beautiful, steady income and a generous housing allowance. Sometimes you can start to feel a strange, ever-present of FOMO when you see all the things Cool New Yorkers Are Doing This Weekend and you realize the most exciting thing you are doing is getting pie at Four and Twenty Blackbirds.

Also, there are many pigeons (which is not good for people like me who have a pretty intense pigeon phobia). Why do people eat stinky ass food on the subway? The sometimes, intense precise racism. The rats are obviously on a steady diet of Wheaties and anabolic steroids; these motherfuckers will survive the Apocalypse.

But still.

I put up postcards of famous New Yorkers in my bedroom at home during high school. The New York City skyline.

One day, I would be Nola Darling with fashionable haircut, a chic apartment, and a multitude of dating options. I would be so far away from the tall, quiet black girl that never had a date. I would be Glamourous and Desired.

New York would remake me.

There was a high number of New York dudes who went to the Roswell, New Mexico prep military school I found myself in after graduating high school surprisingly. I probably had crushes on all them because they said cawfee and hot dawg and “one” when they hung up the phone.

One day, in the near future, it would be me and my cute New York Boyfriend walking the Brooklyn Bridge, going to sublime under-the-radar restaurants, and making out in sweaty nightclubs. Even though I was terrified of what the US Merchant Marine Academy would bring me the next year, I was sure I would have my New York Boyfriend.

At 23 years old, I graduate USMMA a low-key depressed virgin who has never kissed a boy.

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My love of New York City reminds me of the distance–sometimes so sadly vast–between our dreams of who we thought we should be and who we actually are. The oft-repeated maxim that has been finding itself in the majority of my writing right now is all about acceptance. Acceptance of who we are and our lives. It is letting go of a Perfectionism that robs us of the beauty of what is.

Yeah, I never got my New York Boyfriend. And even when I was living my Brooklyn Boheme dream in a 320-square foot apartment in Fort Greene, I was never a “cool” New Yorker by any stretch. Like I said, I was into pie.

Watching the newest Netflix revamp of She’s Gotta Have It, I am reminded of all I did have. So many of the places the stunning DeWanda Wise walks through in Fort Greene are places that were my everyday frequent spots as well. I did my homework at baba cool. I jogged around Fort Greene Park. I rode my bike to the Brooklyn Library, I went to Afropunk every year. I went to Russian bathhouses and hunted for the best dumplings in the Lower East Side and got to see all the art and readings a nerd like me could stand.

Me and my boyfriend went to shows, museums, tried adventurous shopping at the Fort Hamilton commissary.

The late night talks, the bar nights, the heartbreaks and joys–all these were somehow intensified because well, THEY WERE HAPPENING IN NEW YORK CITY.

And sometimes, when the weather is just right in New York City, when I put on my headphones, it still feels like I’m in a music video. My jadedness diminishes and my contentment grows and I am that shy, 18-year old visiting New York City for the first time with my mom. I am staying with my aunt and cousins in East New York and taking pictures of the C train (to the embarrassment of everyone) and marveling at the myriad aspects of black on Fulton Street. I am getting my makeup done in the Macy’s in Times Square and geeking out at the crowds in front of Total Request Live.

I see my Coast Guard meetings in the Financial District and riding on pilot boats on the Hudson River, the 5-Boro Bike Ride, and getting my face on a screen at Madison Square Garden with a truly grateful heart now. Distance sometimes does that.

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I never was Nola Darling in New York City, but I’m more and more happy that I got to be Hannah Eko. Even when Hannah Eko was crying on a bench in public in Mid-Town (that’s my barometer of a “real” New Yorker—crying in a public space).

Okay, I am still sorta jealous of my friends who got to grow up in New York City. I know it was often complicated, but I envy that they get to call themselves New York City kids.

I totally get Lil’ Mama of 2009. I really do. In the right state of joyful inebriation, I would’ve probably walked onstage and posed next to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys too.

My first apartment in New York City was a “middle income” apartment building right off of Myrtle in Fort Greene. One day, I walked into the building and who the fuck is walking out but Malik Yoba. He lived there too.

On my last day before I moved to my smaller, less expensive apartment, he opened the door for me.

It kinda felt like a blessing, a reminder of the imperfect but full way I got to have a New York City life.

New York, I love you.

I always will. Even when you get on my nerves.

Onward,

Hannah

 

 

 

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