Harlem, New York City
An explosion of bright lights, billboards and bustling activity welcomed us to 125th Street. The boulevard named for Martin Luther King Jr. is the main vessel of Harlem----a long winding thoroughfare that stretches from one side of the Manhattan island to the other, the Hudson River flapping at its edges on the West Side, the choppy waters of the East River chomping on its East Side.
It was a Friday night and the streets of Harlem were alive with an energy all its own. Music blasted from every corner, offering every rhythm from jazz and hip hop to soul music. There were even African drummers and salsa somewhere in the mix. Harlem is an international village after all.
Soul food dives and fast food joints were already filled with the Friday night crowd. And out on the street, you could find anything you wanted from the sidewalk vendors. Fragrant oils, shea butter from Africa, designer knock off bags, belts and shoes of every kind and everything else you could think of were offered to the passersby.
A new Harlem was on the horizon. There was the new Magic Johnson Theater in its state of the art building and the new chain stores that had ventured Uptown gave us a new sense of hope that Harlem would again reclaim her glory. There was even a new Starbucks on Lenox Avenue where an old cigar store once stood.
“What are you thinking about Diamond?” my boyfriend Stone asked.
We were riding in his new Yukon Denali blasting Tupac Shakur’s latest CD. Tupac had been gone for four years but managed to put out new music every other year it seemed. I didn’t mind, he was still my favorite rapper.
“Nothing. Just looking at all of this new stuff on 125th street. It’s looking good...” I said it like I didn’t live in Harlem. Like I had never been across 125th street a million times.
“Yeah, it’s looking good all right. Won’t be long before the white man comes back to claim it all!” That was Jazz talking from the backseat. He was Stone’s cousin and my sister Jewel’s boyfriend----and the bane of my existence.
“Oh please, they ain’t coming back here. Magic Johnson is just putting his money back into the community where it belongs. Harlem belongs to us. Always did and always will,” my sister Jewel responded.
She was laying in the crook of his arm with a proud scowl on her face. A brown fox fur wrapped around her caramel colored pant suit, a Louis Vuitton clutch bag bounced around in her lap as Stone navigated along the potholed streets.
She was a younger version of our mother, Azalea. They had the same smooth caramel skin, sensitive brown eyes, high cheekbones and prominent jawline. I was more of a cross between my father and my grandmother, Georgia Lillie. Everyone said I was a younger version of her with my father’s honey brown skin.
Recently, Jewel had hacked off her hair into this funky asymmetrical shaped bob which only made her look even more like Azalea. I sometimes wondered if Jewel cut her hair as an act of rebellion, if it was her way of saying that she was not like our mother. But I would never say it.
“I hope so,” I muttered.
I loved Harlem with a love that most people did not understand, unless they were from Harlem and felt the same. I knew so many people who did not know much about Harlem and were afraid of what they thought it was. I loved Harlem the way she was. Her beauty, stained and imperfect, was perfect to me.
Like most of Harlem, Lenox Avenue had two faces. Towering oak and elm trees guarded its grand brownstones, pre-war buildings and massive stone churches bore one face. Another look at the crowds of guys huddled on its corners and the gambling spots and hustler dives buried in the back of its bodegas and the basements of its storefronts revealed another face.
We circled around for a bit until Stone found a parking space on a side street, and then we wandered into the world-famous Lenox Lounge. The vintage red metallic and chrome front designed in the Art Deco style glittered under the streetlights. Dark mirrored windows offered a peek into its hidden world where jazz music and soul food met. For years, I had wondered what lay inside and that night I was going to find out.
A smoke-filled haze enveloped us in the front lounge, the curious scent of tobacco and liquor filled my nostrils. A jukebox in the back blasted a James Brown record. A TV screen perched in the corner above the bar flashed the last quarter of a Knicks game. We found an empty table in a corner and sat down.
A few minutes later a barmaid appeared. “How are ya’ll tonight? What are you having?” she asked us with a pen pad already in her hand, her face painted with a generous amount of blush and silver eyeshadow.
“You know what I want. A Henny and Coke and keep ‘em coming,” Jazz leaned back into the brown leather banquette seat.
“I’ll have the same,” Jewel agreed.
“I’m going to have a screwdriver. And the lady here will have a Sprite,” Stone ordered for both of us.
“A Sprite?” the barmaid asked with a smirk.
She looked me over as if she were going to card me, her long faux eyelashes fluttered in the lounge’s dim light.
“Yes, a Sprite. I don’t drink,” I said with a fake smile.
“Good for you, I’ll be right back with your drinks,” the barmaid smiled warmly and disappeared.
I rolled my eyes when she walked away. The truth was, I was barely legal and I had no business in the Lenox Lounge but there I was. My eighteenth birthday was less than six months away and I was a freshman in college. Didn’t all college students hang out in bars on the weekend?
“You two are really pushing it, but I guess the secret is finally out!” Jazz laughed.
“Yeah, well tonight is our official coming out party. Isn’t that right Babygurl?” Stone smiled a little but I thought I saw an unspoken warning flicker in his dark eyes.
“It’s about time! I knew right away that you two were creeping around but it took months for ya’ll to admit it,” Jewel twisted her mouth in mock disapproval.
“I’m saying, Diamond was always leaving her shit at the crib! I was always coming across books that I knew Stone ain’t never read!” Jazz chuckled.
I blushed and Stone wrapped his around me and nudged me closer to him. He kissed me on the cheek while I played with the hem of the short silver mini-dress I wore that night. It was a one-shoulder number that showed off just the right amount of cleavage and my thighs.
Stone and I had begun dating right after I graduated from high school but we didn’t want anyone to know because Stone was four years older than me. We agreed not to say anything until I was officially in college. Once I began classes at Columbia, we didn’t want to hide it anymore.
“Look at you two! All lovey dovey and shit! Damn, they in love! Right, Ma!” Jazz teased us loudly.
“Aw, shut up man. You don’t know nothing about this,” Stone smiled and leaned in for a kiss, rubbing my leg under the table.
I leaned into him, inhaling the soft spicy cologne he liked to wear. He began playing with my hair, which fell past my shoulders, in long candy curls.
When I looked up, he was smiling at me protectively, his dark brown eyes radiated love making me feel warm all over. Stone had a smile that was mesmerizing, beautiful bright white teeth, naturally perfect, a sharp contrast against his dark chocolate skin. I loved to stare at him when he wasn’t looking. He bent down and kissed me on the forehead.
“Yeah, those two are in love. I'm surprised they were able to hide it this long,” Jewel said.
“No doubt. Stone had no choice though. His 'Babygurl' is on the young side--”
“Yo, so what you sayin'?” Stone interjected, his brows furrowed with annoyance.
Jazz laughed. “Ain't nothin' wrong with that, Stone. I'm just saying, you know Mrs. La Rue ain't havin' it. You had no choice but to keep it a secret. And I'm not even talking about Safia and her crazy ass.”
I bristled at the mention of Safia's name but maintained my composure. I gave Jewel a pleading look but she was busy checking out her manicure for flaws. Her nails were painted a vamp red which matched her lipstick perfectly.
Jazz had his arms wrapped protectively around her. He grabbed her left hand and kissed it, more to show off the new diamond ring he’d brought her than as a sign of affection.
I gave Jazz a dirty look but he ignored me.
“Enough!” Stone's voice was low but firm. Stone’s jaw flinched and it was enough to silence Jazz, which was no small feat.
Safia Santiago was Stone's ex-girlfriend and the mother of their daughter Jessica. Their relationship had ended two years before I came into the picture but it didn't stop Safia from making it known that she wasn't happy that Stone had moved on with me. Even if she had already found a new boyfriend and had already had a new baby with him.
The barmaid returned then with our drinks and a complimentary tray of appetizers. “The appetizers are on the house,” she said before disappearing back through the crowd.
“Give the owner our thanks,” Stone was always a gentleman.
“Diamond---Aren’t you glad that I suggested this place? I knew you would like something like this,” Jewel said when the barmaid left.
She nudged Jazz with one shoulder and the flounce of her fur wrap.
“Yes, Jewel. It’s better than I imagined it would be,” I said grateful for the change in conversation.
And I was a little awed at the place. Growing up I had passed the Lenox Lounge on many occasions, but this was my first time venturing through its swinging metal doors.
Sure, I’d been in finer places downtown but the Lenox Lounge had always held a certain mystique for me. It had a certain vibe, a feeling that could only come from its history and unique location in Harlem. Another jazz club of similar style and taste south of 110th Street just wouldn't have felt the same to me.
Something about the lounge appealed to me. It had that vintage 1940s vibe but had been renovated to meld the old with the new. And the patrons were a melting pot. There were the old Harlemites side by side with the young Harlemites. There were the suburbanites looking for fun and the tourists who came from all over the world to get a glimpse of Harlem and to hear jazz music.
Curtis Mayfield was playing from the jukebox now. It was old school funk, the kind of record I would find in one of my uncles’ record collection. A circle had formed in the middle of the front lounge where some folks were dancing, unable to resist the groove.
“Doo-doo-wap is strong in here!” one woman called out as she waved her hands in the air, a man held her behind the waist as they began to grind to the rhythm.
Around us, I could hear people singing along and swaying to the music. Everyone just wanted to have a good time. I found myself swaying and singing along.
“I didn’t know you knew this song, Babygurl,” Stone whispered to me.
I shrugged and smiled. I wanted to say that there was a lot that Stone didn’t know about me but decided not to.
“Heyyy! Look who just walked in!” Jazz snorted loudly.
A small entourage of two women and three men had entered the lounge. The women were draped in expensive sable and chinchilla fur capes and diamonds that dripped from their ears, throats and wrists like jeweled waterfalls. Their cocktail dresses and shoes found at only the best fashion houses in New York City.
The men were equally adorned in custom gold chains and watches. Diamond earrings sparkled from their ears. They wore custom black pantsuits and matching alligator shoes. Their jewelry alone could have caused any young boy from the ghetto to have wet dreams.
“Hey, Shorty Red!” Jazz shouted out the shortest guy.
Jazz made sure that everyone heard him. I saw the other patrons look over at us. I was sure the tourists thought these guys were rappers and not the ghetto celebrities they really were. They stopped at our table and a flurry of hellos, handshakes and hugs followed suit.
Shorty Red was well known in the streets of Harlem and from what I’d been told, in some sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Most hustlers of his caliber created excitement wherever they went, and Shorty Red was no exception. He’d gotten his name for his red wavy hair and his diminutive in size. A receding hairline revealed a prominent forehead and a spattering of freckles all over his face.
“Yo, what’s happenin’ man. Good to see you Jazz. What's up Stone! How you doin’ man?” Shorty Red spoke with a big smile. He seemed to be loving all of the attention.
Stone joined in the reverie, but was more laid back. I swear Stone had more cool in his right pinkie than Jazz could ever have.
“Good seein’ you here, Red,” Stone said simply as they embraced.
“No doubt, no doubt. The ladies look lovely, as always,” Big Red smiled and flattered Jewel and me.
I smiled meekly and Jewel thanked him for us both. A weird chill ran up and down my spine as his eyes lingered on my breasts. Shorty Red winked at me when Stone wasn't looking.
“Hey Jewel! So good to see you. I love that fur you got on, girl. You look good! How's the baby?” Chanel squealed to Jewel. She was a pint-sized doll under all the fur and diamonds.
Jewel hugged her back. “Thank you! My baby is good. How are your babies? You always look good. I don't need to tell you that. But you haven't come to the salon in a minute.”
“I know, right! I'll be at Splendour this week coming up, okay. I need you to hook me up. I went to this girl Uptown and I'm not too crazy about what she did to my hair,” Chanel patted her coiffure nervously.
“It looks all right. But you know I got you!” Jewel smiled.
“And is that your little sister, all dolled up and grown? I see you!” she said to me and winked, nodding her head in Stone's direction.
“Thanks, Chanel. You and Mink look great too. As always,” I said to both of them.
Chanel and Mink were old friends of ours from the neighborhood. There grandmother, Mrs. Pryce, was also one of Gram’s closest friends. Like us, Mink and Chanel had been raised by their grandparents and we had grown up together.
Growing up they lived in a prewar cooperative apartment on Convent Avenue, just around the corner from us. And Chanel and Jewel had attended the same Catholic schools for elementary, middle and high school. They were best-friends before Chanel began dating Shorty Red.
Everything changed when Shorty Red entered the picture. And over the years a cool distance had formed between us, one that we could never seem to get over.
“Diamond, you look so grown now. The last time I saw you, you were wearing that school uniform. Now I hear you're a college girl,” Mink chimed in at last.
“Yes, I'm at Columbia,” I responded.
I didn't know what to make of her comment. Was she pointing out the obvious or was she hinting at how different we had both become?
“You know I had a baby. His name is Marquis Jr. after his father,” she continued.
“I heard. Congratulations,” I looked over at Marquis who stood close by.
Mink smiled, “Yeah, he's my world. Maybe one day the four of us will get together.”
“Yeah, that would be nice,” Jewel chimed in.
I was sure Jewel missed our old friends. But I wasn't really sure how to feel. Part of me felt that we had all moved on. I didn't know if we could get back what we used to have but I agreed anyway.
“Me and Mink will be into the salon later on in the week, Jewel. And Diamond keep doing your thing girl. Mink and I are so proud of you,” Chanel said to us both.
I nodded, grateful for her sincere words. We were different, but we were still the same, I thought. We were still sisters from Harlem. And maybe we could hang out and even reminisce. It wouldn't be a bad thing.
“I’ll be at the shop next week. I need an oil change on that Benz, Stone. See you then,” Shorty Red said before he led his entourage away and into the back lounge.
Shorty Red was a frequent client at the family auto shop Jazz and Stone worked at. From what Stone told me, he was always stopping by with one of his cars or trucks.
“Hey everybody, listen up! The first set is coming up right now. So, if you want to enjoy the funky jazz sounds of our band tonight, come on into the legendary Zebra Room,” the club’s host called out, his deep bass voice interrupting my thoughts. He was a tall wiry man with a graying box-shaped Afro, the kind I'd seen in old movies from the 1970s.
We headed toward the Zebra Room. Stone took my hand and led me through wooden swing doors into a space with zebra printed walls and brown leather banquettes. Framed black and white photographs of famous jazz performers clung to the walls. We found a table toward the back of the room under a print of Art Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem.
We had a clear view of the small stage at the front of the Zebra Room where a band stood tuning their instruments, getting ready for their set.
“Do you see anybody you know babe?” Jewel asked Jazz as they snuggled up together in the leather banquette.
“Nah, Jules,” he called her by her nickname.
The Zebra Room began to fill. This crowd was a little different: mostly serious jazz lovers and fellow musicians, a few intellectuals, and tourists looking for culture sprinkled in the mix.
Waitresses walked through the tables, taking orders and serving patrons. A woman with an intricate up-do of dreadlocks took ours. The Lounge offered soul food along with some of the best live music Uptown. We ordered everything we could, appetizers, entrees, drinks and desserts, as if we hadn’t eaten in days.
Once the waitress left, Jewel and Jazz talked amongst themselves and Stone played around with his new cellphone. I stared at pictures of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Muddy Waters and wondered what it would have been like to see them perform at the Lounge during their heyday.
Moments later the lights began to dim low and the leader of the trio, a burly balding piano player introduced himself and the other members: a slew-eyed drummer and a club-footed bassist. They began with a slow, mesmerizing tune, but picked up the pace with each subsequent number.
With each song, the solos became longer, faster, and more intricate. It soon became apparent that the trio wasn’t just playing for the crowd; they were playing for one another.
And although I was enamored with the music, I couldn’t help but notice that the bassist and drummer were at odds, each one trying to outperform the other with an increasingly intricate solo. The pianist joined in the fun by interrupting the other two whenever he felt like it. A scowl of disgust curled on the lips of the drummer but the bassist always seemed to give in.
Somewhere in the middle of the set, our food and drinks arrived. But, I remained focused on the music and the sounds that I was growing to love more each moment. Experiencing live jazz music created an urgency within me to expand the little knowledge I had about jazz and discover its flavors for myself.
While we ate, the band played song after song, each one better than the last. I nuzzled in the crook of Stone’s arm, hardly noticing that Jazz and Jewel were ordering round after round of their favorite drinks.
They bopped and swayed to the music in between gulps of shots of vodka and tequila. Stone seemed to enjoy the music as much as I did, but eventually his eyes began to glaze over as he nodded to the rhythm. I was pretty sure that he was off to fantasy land thinking about cars and his life’s future plans.
The trio finished the set with a flurry of fingers against ivory keys, strands of wire against brass-winds, and sticks against goat skinned drums. Their harmony reached a loud crescendo, a feverish pitch of melody, emotion, and competition before culminating with a final bang of the drums and the crashing of cymbals.
The pianist fumbled to the microphone. “Now, that'll be the end of our first set. We'll take a fifteen-minute intermission. I hope you folks stick around and enjoy what we have to offer in our next set,” he wheezed and wiped a sweaty brow with a white handkerchief.
He wandered off to a nearby table with the other band members. And then, the double doors to the Zebra Room opened, and in walked a familiar face, one I hadn’t seen in several months....