Azikiwe || Harrisburg, Pa.
A photojournalist talks about being poor in a rich neighborhood, friendship with the opposite sex, and how to make a DJ gig less boring.
He's lurking in the hallway, not wanting to scare me as I barrel through the bedroom door on my way to an interview I'm late for. But it's the first time we've met; I didn't even know he was in the house, let alone around the corner.
"Hi," he says.
"Holy shit," I gasp.
He's very tall, of which he seems apologetically aware, lowering over me when he speaks with a posture that is half ingratiating, half conspiratorial lean.
He wears a loosely stacked Afro, high tops, and at least three shirts under his windbreaker, with a thick silver chain over it. An extremely well-preserved set of Ninja Turtle headphones rest like a crown at his temples.
He's here, he tells me, to get to the people that the rest of us can't.
I know exactly what that means, but it's weird to hear him just come out and say it.
After sitting for twenty minutes at Sturges Speakeasy, elbow-to-elbow with a skinny cute guy on my right and a bulky cute guy on my left, staring at the crowd of disaffected 30-somethings and trying to choke down an ill-advised Sazerac, I pay my bill and text Azikiwe to find out where I should meet him.
"I'm at Club 1400. But white people definitely not allowed in here. N--ga's be talkin about how many bodies they caught."
I head in that direction anyway, though I do it on North 2nd, the genteeler block of streets. North 3rd is more direct, the main thoroughfare through Harrisburg, but it's also less welcoming of outsiders. At 7pm the previous night, in full view of a street busy with the monthly arts festival, a woman with dirty Dockers and iron-grey hair jumped into my way, got in my face with the whites of her eyes, disgruntled to hear that I didn't have a light for her cigarette. When I told people about it later, they assumed I'd been hassled by the guys who loiter out in front of the club.
No, I told them, it was in front of a CVS. And it was by a white lady. (Somehow--in a way I haven't figured out yet--that made it scarier.)
So I'm not about to cross Calder to the opposite corner, even though Azikiwe has said he's in a bar on that block. I stand, hopping from one foot to the other, under the supermarket awning. It's only 7.45pm and the street is a wasteland; there are hardly even any lights, besides those that come from inside the store. I text him again--what's the name of the place you're at? I peer across the street, but I can't see any signs.
A man in sweatpants and a hoodie comes out of the club, crosses from the adjacent corner, and sizes me up as he walks past.
"What are you doing? It's not that cold!"
I protest that it might not be cold, but I most definitely am, and make my standard plea--that I'm from southern Californian.
His face breaks into a smile.
He gives a raucous laugh.
"Then it's cold!"
He goes inside the store, just as I get an answering text. Another man, this one in a peacoat and tweed cap, walks up.
"Can you tell me where the Tap Room is?" I ask him.
He gives a wondering but not unkind smirk, and points toward a window lit by cloudy red neon.
Azikiwe is engaged in loose-limbed conversation with an elderly white man, both at that stage where simple statements are spoken with deep earnest conviction.
The only other white person in the room is the bartender, a turtle-postured woman with a thinning bob and bangs dyed the color of cough syrup. I ask her for a Jameson with two ice cubes and offer her my editor's credit card; she looks at it and give a slow shake of her head.
I nudge Azikiwe and confess that we've only just met and I have to hit him up for cash. He answers with deep conviction,
"That's why I'm here, to buy your drinks. To buy your drinks."
I take a sip and nearly spit it out. The bartender has given me a glass filled with straight Southern Comfort.
There's a show at the MakeSpace that at least five people have invited me to see, plus Liz Laribee, who runs the collective there, offered to give me a little tour of the place. I figure he won't want to come, but he does.
It's cold as fuck outside, the melted snow refrozen into a precarious slick.
He lives in Tribeca but scoffs when I act impressed.
"I live in Section 8 housing," he specifies, digging into each syllable.
It's where he grew up, but when they look out the windows, they see all around them a neighborhood that they don't live in.
"If you're going to live somewhere, you gotta be able to buy a sandwich. You gotta be able to pay for a beer. Twelve dollars? That ain't a sandwich."
His voice has the breathy weight of Terrence Howard, with an insidious undercurrent of humor in almost everything he says. He talks as a bemused observer, when he tells about the sticker shock of local bars around his apartment. There was one night where he asked the bartender, who charged him $8 for a Red Stripe, where he was from. Queens, the bartender said.
"I said, 'How much you pay for a beer in your neighborhood? This is just us talking...your boss ain't here.'"
The bartender caved, and gave him a "neighborhood discount" on the drink, but told him not to come back again.
Azikiwe says it's unlikely that he would have, anyway.
The Makespace, a well-loved beat-up house on North 3rd and Muench, is an artists' collective managed by Harrisburg celeb Liz Laribee (recommended as someone I must know by at least as many people as invited me to the show tonight). She's gracious and garrulous even in the midst of moving Craigslist furniture around the room to accommodate the crowd they expect; softly clothed come and go, talking of whatever Harrisburg arty types do talk of, in half-mumbles.
A Yorkshire terrier in a sweater tries to follow her owner into the bathroom; he wheedles her into waiting for him.
Azikiwe and I stop giggling long enough to offer keeping an eye on her.
Her owner looks at us with polite alarm.
Why don't you leave the city, I ask him, and come somewhere like here, where you can get way ahead?
He shakes his head like an aging boxer toward a scrappy protégé. He's too far down the New York freelancer path to leave now. Starting over in a new place, even a cheaper place, would put him back at zero. In New York City, he says,
"I'm just getting to the place where people are calling me instead of their friends."
Nevertheless, the way they find him--through his 2012 Kickstarter campaign, through a VICE magazine profile, through Facebook--is kind of weird, for him. People friend him thinking that they know him--a professional guy with all his shit figured out. It's who he has to be, to get hired, but it's not really him.
"That guy's gross."
His voice hits a high pitch of protest.
"I hate that guy."
He leans like a redwood trunk against the wall, talking in an undertone to match the room's unassertive vibe--Liz, the only force of energy in the place, is long gone--but somehow his words keep attracting attention. Or maybe it's his gaze, that cases the room like a searchlight even as he directs his comments down to me. Or maybe it's me that's attracting attention, laughing hysterically as he laments the downside of being raised by women--that it disposes him, a red-blooded American male, to being better friends with women than with men...which means, among other things, convincing them of their beauty while curbing his natural appreciation of it.
This is often his job with one of his best friends. She calls him to ask advice about guys who want to get with her; his smirk betrays with real regret.
"I tell her, 'You're still thinking like you're an ugly girl. You don't have to suck so many dicks.'"
He lifts his eyes like a martyr.
"She's like, 'I'm sixteen--that's how we get down.'"
I'm shocked to learn that he's thirty. He acknowledges that he doesn't look like it, but he feels like it.
I don't know if I feel like it, I tell him, but I'm starting to think I look like it.
He stares searchingly into my face, then traces the line of my cheekbone with his finger.
"Because you got these. These lines, around your eyes. But they're because you laugh a lot."
The difficulties continue:
He suffers the mistrust of his roommate's boyfriend, who makes no secret of sleeping with other women. Azikiwe's roommate talks to Azikiwe about it; Azikiwe, in turn, talks to the boyfriend; the boyfriend resents it, though they all know he has no leg to stand on.
Furthermore, when Roommate has her friends over, they get wasted and fall asleep all over the place, helter skelter. Azikiwe says he'll walk out of his room in the morning and find one of them--beautiful, mostly naked--passed out on the floor in front of his door.
"And I know what she's thinking, when she wakes up and doesn't know where she is, and there's this black man standing over her. So I can't do nothing, except say 'Hey, girl, you okay? This is my roommate's apartment you're in. Come in here, let me make you some eggs.'"
It's for that same reason, however, that he gets gigs like the one here in Harrisburg. People call him because they know he can talk to people and get into places.
I guess I can see, from his perspective, how this would be dehumanizing. However, propelled by my own perspective, I beg him to teach me.
He shifts up from the wall and hunkers over me; I feel like I'm a character in a fairy tale, standing under a talking tree.
The thing, he says, is not to tell people you're a journalist with a travel magazine.
"You tell them you're in town looking for Real Stories about Real Life in this place. "You ask them if they know any Real Place in this town, where you could find Real Dudes to talk to about Real Shit. "'Aw man,' they'll tell you, 'this a Real Place, right here.' "Yeah? you say. "'Yeah,' they'll say. "This is a Real Place, right? "'Yeah!' they'll say. "You're a Real Dude, right? "'YEAH!'"
His nostrils flare; his chest puffs up, and he growls the word like a lusty frat initiate.
"That's funny, you respond, voice dropping down low, because I just happened to be here, taking pictures of Real Shit with Real Dudes. "Then you're in. They let you take their picture, they take you around to everybody else hanging around and get them to let you take their pictures, too. "Then you call the next day: "'Yo, you that Real Dude I talked to yesterday?'"
And then, he says, if you're lucky, you get invited to something like watching a guy sell heroin in his apartment.
Ideally, over time, he'll get to the place in his work where he can leave New York, and come back, and people will still call him.
The guy comes out of the bathroom; Georgia, the Yorkie, is eyeballing the window across from us, which has been opened to relieve the stuffiness of the gradually populating room. Azikiwe jokes with one of the guys who's been nervously half-eyeing him the whole time from the corner, about what she's thinking: taking advantage of her leashless state, and Steve McQueening her way through the opening and into the snow outside.
"Freedom makes you do weird shit."
The first act that night is Victor Herrero, a folk guitarist visiting from Spain, who has a Dali-esque mustache and a head full of boyish curls. He sings in a humble unaffected tone, but his eyes make passionate love to the neck of his guitar. The room, peeling paint flickering in the light of luminary candles, is mesmerized. Azikiwe grins at me in approval. He leans over in between songs to whisper,
"This guy is getting laid at least three times tonight."
When it's over, he's the first up from the floor. He waylays the guitarist in the second room and wraps his arms around him, whispering in his ear. The guitarist's rosy cheeks spread flame throughout his face.
At the close of the second song of the second musical act--a four-piece band featuring Georgia's owner on piano--I look at Azikiwe and ask if he wants to bounce.
Once we're outside, he sighs,
"Thank God. I didn't want to say anything, if you liked it, but that room was getting too white for me."
The Uptown Grill is owned by same owner as 1400 club and also the Four Aces. It's as busy inside as a christening reception, but only one woman is working the bar. Her skin glows youthfully between the creases; she wears a silk scarf knotted around her head like a gypsy.
Azikiwe seems to approve when I ask for an old Grand-Dad; he comes back from the bar with two glasses and two bags of potato chips. He ordered a hot dog, he says, but it's going to take a couple of minutes.
I point to the microwave on the opposite counter, where the bartender is flicking buttons, and tell him I'm guessing it'll take exactly ninety seconds.
This makes him laugh. When the bartender calls him back to the counter, and asks if he wants mustard, it seems to make him even more happy.
"You can't find bars like this north of the Mason-Dixon. Blacked out windows, jukebox..."
He looks at me.
"As long as you don't mind being stared at."
In fact, maybe it's because I'm a few drinks in, myself, or maybe it's because I'm with Azikiwe, but I've had nothing but smiles from everyone I've looked at. At that moment, a man with dime-size spectacles, a leather jacket and a doo-rag drinking a Heineken turns around on his stool--he cases me out, looks at Azikiwe, looks back at me, and gives a half-smile and what I perceive as a shrug.
The chips, stale and covered with fake sour cream dust, taste delicious.
Azikiwe comes back with the hot dog and says that the bartender's name is Althea; she's worked here for two years. He points out a beautiful young woman, her legs crossed like a pageant queen. Her name, he tells me, is Ebony; she also works at Club 1400, though she was on the customer side of the counter when he saw her earlier tonight.
I tell him he should go talk to her.
He demurs, just at the moment that a man in a stocking cap approaches her on the same mission.
She looks no more than amused.
Althea's hands are like an Ansel Adams photo of Georgia O'Keeffe, holding a trailing Newport as she scrolls through her iPhone. I murmur that I'd like to get a photo of her for my smoking series.
Azikiwe urges me up there, reprising the Real Dudes in Real Places speech for my reference. I throw back the end of Old Grand-dad, feeling like a noob for even needing to, and approach the bar. I ask if they have any more pickled eggs; she says she already ran out. Then I give her the Real Dudes line, as best I can choke it out. I motion to Azikiwe as my associate; next thing I know, he's at my elbow, offering a business card from the magazine. I ask if I can take her picture.
She says yes, if she can take ours. From under the counter, she produces a hefty Canon DSLR in counterpoint to my Nikon. We both react in respectful awe. She turns it around in her hands, lamenting that she doesn't really know how to use it.
A drawing, about 5x7, made with blue ballpoint pen, hangs in a frame over the bottles. I ask who it is.
"That's me," she says, evincing some satisfaction.
I ask who the artist is.
"His name is Frank," she answers. "But I ain't seen him in a while"
Azikiwe opens a crumpled piece of paper with other names written on it. He's going to hit some more bars tonight, up in the hill--the part of town where only he can go. The angle is to get invited to someone's house after church tomorrow.
"I'm trying to do what I do faster. Earn people's trust. Get invited into people's homes."
He pulls up the hem of his windbreaker and the black sweater under it, to reveal a bright pattern from the early '90s underneath them both. His clothes make him ignorable, he says.
"Then I can be whatever they need me to be to get what I need from them."
You get that done by being there and blending in, he says. He motions from his sternum to mine.
"My angle is your angle. 'Me too, homey'--that's my schtick. I'm a good activator; I know when to shut the fuck up."
"Hey, it's my grandma's birthday party--you want to come through?" leads, he says, to, "Hey, I'm trying to get into some shit..."--he baits his breath--"You wanna come through?" in the final call.
It means being at a lot of nieces' and nephews' christenings. It means learning a lot of names.
"Sometimes, it's not three steps...sometimes it's ten steps...to earn people's trust."
I've barely noticed that the bar has emptied out, and we're the only ones left. He asks for another hot dog and Althea makes it for him, though mentioning when asked that she's going to wait another fifteen minutes and close up early, if nobody else comes in. She walks up to the electronic jukebox hanging on the wall, and presses some buttons.
He eats, and I click through my photos, until I hear another voice join the one singing. I nudge Azikiwe and he turns; we watch Althea from the back, as she lifts her hands and lurches passionately back and forth, singing along with the words, "I'm giving myself over to you."
He shakes his head in committed appreciation. Keyshia Cole, he says, brings this out of black women. When her music comes on, they can't control themselves--they have to start singing along, like it's their own song coming spontaneously forth.
"My mother, my godmother does it. Eyes back in the head--gone. Every word she says is fuckin' Bible school."
Wandering around Harrisburg the next morning takes me past Mr. Mike's Record Store on South 3rd Street. I'm eagerly stepping toward it when I see a tall, heavy man of color walk in the door.
Slowing my approach, I look in the window--it's densely populated by more tall and heavy men of color.
Wanting more than ever to go inside, I keep walking.
Later that night, I'm walking down North 3rd to get to the bookstore when a white woman with gaunt cheeks, frayed hair, and no lips left steps in front of me to ask for a cigarette. I tell her I don't have one. She mumbles something at me; as I'm repeating my words, she takes a darting step right up into my face, her eyes flashing insistently.
I'm pissed at myself for petrifying, the way I do when dogs chase me while I run. All sounds narrow to a point; I can feel my own eyes widening and hear my breath recede into my throat.
Then she steps back, and I walk around her, evading her glare that pursues me as far as I can still see her.
When I return to our editor's house late that afternoon, Azikiwe is going through a bunch of vinyl that he just bought. I ask him if he got it at Mr. Mike's. He found it at a thrift shop near the bar where we met up last night.
He laughs that he's going to spend more of his expense account on records than on drinks. But the purchases serve a purpose--he moonlights as a DJ for hire, which is very different from club gigs:
"You're there for insurance. In case the party turns into a real party."
Generally, at these parties, nobody's paying any attention to the music. If they hear it at all, it's only beats and vibe. What makes it fun is to play increasingly filthy tracks, and see how much he can get away without anyone noticing. A personal point of pride was the time a 90-year-old woman told him how much she liked his music choices.
"It gets to a point if you're not getting it over on somebody, you just feel weird."
A decade's worth of shit jobs flashes before my eyes, and I agree whole-heartedly.
Which is why I'm surprised at his dismay, later, when I repeat this line to him. That's not what he meant, he protests; he's not trying to go through life taking advantage of people; we're all in this shit-storm together.
It never occurred to me that it might be taken this way; I assumed that his words would be read the way I heard them--with irony that tickles, the fraternal protection of his hugs, the sincerity that flows like an electric bass line under all his interactions.
The problem with knowing a person, I guess, is how it makes us think we know their kind. Beautiful girls, black men, crazy white women who mad-dog strangers on a street corner.
It's easy for me to be cavalier, about this, to think that people who make these assumptions are just narrow-minded and not the kind of readers I want, anyway.
But those are the very people whose stories we want to hear. Or maybe the ones we need to hear, even if we don't want to. Like Azikiwe said, we're all in this shit-storm together, and it's all too easy to forget about that.
These are also the people whose expectations we have to satisfy by playing to a certain type, in order to convince them to give us those stories. It seems so wrong--that we'd have to lie in order to get people to trust us.
Or maybe it's not a lie. Maybe it's just mirror neurons, or maybe an inner self that doesn't get out much. I hope there's a good explanation for it, when I remember how I'd start to talk in a profane wigger-y patois while Azikiwe and I were walking around together. I'm not trying to front--it feels natural, or it would, if I weren't so keenly conscious of it.
Maybe this kind of thing, lies or latency, is just a means of telling deeper truth. Maybe it's a way of letting people know us in the gentlest way possible--starting on their terms, conforming to what they expect in what we wear and how we talk. Maybe it's a modern version of ancient prostration, where sojourners would stretch out full-length in front of rulers and holy men, to demonstrate their submissions to the laws of a land where they sought shelter.
Or maybe it's just a co-conspirator feeling I enjoy, meeting the kind of journalist I'd like to be one day. Because while for us the stories are their own prize, for those who trust us, the prize is what we do with them. Maybe I haven't come to a righteous conclusion on that, as indicated by the smarting rebuke I feel from what Azikiwe says next:
"Only by finding commonalities, and bridging the gaps between seemingly different batches of people by sharing stories, can we hope to change the shitty parts of all of us."