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The Second Time is Easier

© By Kelly Putter
  Little did we know that our trip to Harlem would net us an encounter with a hometown hero of sorts. I'd been to Harlem three years before, for all of fifteen minutes. Then, with visions of Billie Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. and every other black cultural reference in my head, we were dropped at 116th Street, near a metal rail bridge. It felt seedy, not at all what I expected and I was - hate to admit it - somewhat frightened.
     So here we are three years later, and it was different. Again, within sight of that once scary bridge, we had delicious café Americans on 116th Street in the Kiosk, a friendly and funky little Moroccan cafe decorated with colourful hookah pipes.
     To find the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market on 116th near Malcolm X Blvd., we had to backtrack, which was fortunate, allowing us to admire the beautiful architecture of the churches and the brownstones.
     We finally found the market, known for its traditional African crafts and textiles. We also discovered great prices on knock-off handbags, better prices than in Chinatown, where we'd spent part of the previous day being led around by little Chinese ladies to clandestine underground stores.
     Five handbags later, my travel companions and I sauntered up Malcolm X Blvd, looking for Harlem highlights. We found a great one at the Lenox Lounge (288 Lenox Ave, also known as Malcolm X Blvd., near 125 th St.), a landmark jazz club that since 1939 has served jazz greats such as John Coltrane, Billie Holliday and Miles Davis. The intimate Jazz Club at the back of the establishment is also known as the Zebra Room thanks to its zebra-printed walls that surround black leather banquettes.

Harlem Brownstones  Lenox Lounge  Sylvias Soul Food Restaurant  Vincent Smith Mural 

     We headed further north on Malcolm X Blvd. to 125th Street. To the west, we could see the legendary Apollo Theatre. To the north was Sylvia's, a renowned soul food restaurant opened in 1962 by Sylvia Woods. My first taste of soul food included fall-off the bone barbecue ribs made with the restaurant's famous cookin' dippin' and 'moppin' sauce with a side of collard greens and black-eyed peas. We each quaffed Sugar Hill, a made-in-Harlem beer that was smooth and flavourful.
     I knew little about Sylvia, but felt compelled to meet her, especially after reading her bio and how nearly fifty years earlier she'd traded in her life as a South Carolina beautician to strike out in Harlem. On our way out we stopped at her table and told her how much we had enjoyed the food. She took my extended right hand and blew me a kiss before I walked away. I'd been blessed by the Queen of Soul Food.
     Still high on Harlem, we snapped photos outside of Sylvia's, while my cousin, the only male in the group, responded to a passerby, who'd lobbed a wisecrack at us. The passerby told my cousin that he was the son of the Wesley Autrey, the New York subway hero, who received international notoriety two years ago when he risked his own life to save a stranger who had fallen onto the subway tracks.
     "If you're ever doing business in town and would like me to make an appearance at an event," he instructed my cousin, "just give me a call." He offered his business card, which reads 'Local Hero', and underneath that, his name, Wesley Autrey Jr., followed by his title, executive assistant of the CEO.
     As modest Canadians, we had a few good laughs about our Harlem hero, but thinking back on it maybe there was something more. Heading back to our hotel in Chelsea, I left Harlem this time with a lighter step. I clutched the plastic bag that held the Barack Obama t-shirt I bought at the market for my 11-year-old daughter. It's the evocative one with the colourful image of Obama overtop the word, Hope. I saw it in Harlem, all right.

Kelly Putter is a Niagara-based freelance writer, whose stories have appeared in the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen, Hamilton Spectator plus numerous magazines.

Photo Credits
Kelly Putter

If you go
Harlem, New York
as seen on
YouTube
Harlem: www.harlemonestop.com
Harlem: http://www.stumbleupon.com/s/#4TYwuE/www.harlemhiphoptours.com
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem,_New_York
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/New_York_(city)/Harlem

What's happening, money, distance, time?
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Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/




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