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A Magical Day in New York City

Some days are good. Some days are hard. Some days stand out even among the good ones. This day surely did for me. Wednesday, June 22, 2016 was a magical day. It began on the train– and I love taking the train. I boarded an early morning Amtrak at Union Station in Washington, D.C. heading for New York City. I’d been hoping and planning this day for several months. The original reason for my trip was to read at an evening reading celebrating the new poetry anthology Poetry of Resistance: Voices of Social Justiceedited by Odilia Galvan Rodriguez and the late Francisco X. Alarcon. But what I also planned was a long-awaited pilgrimage to Langston Hughes’ house in Harlem.

The train from Washington, D.C. to New York is fast. I was there by 10:30am, checked into my hotel and figuring out how to get to Harlem. I’d planned to take a cab but then talked to a generous advisor at my hotel who said the bus would be cheap, easy, and I’d see a lot along the way. He was right. I caught the M4 and then the M1 which headed straight up Madison Avenue from my hotel near Penn Station. At 125th Street in Harlem, I got off the bus to walk the last two blocks to 127th Street. At 127th I went left and saw Hughes’ house in the middle of the block.

127th Street, between Madison Avenue and 5th Avenue in Harlem is a quiet, leafy street. Hughes’ house sits in the middle of the block, a stately brick brownstone. It sits empty and has sat empty for many years, unfortunately. A large staircase rises from the sidewalk to the graceful, tall front doors. The railing is beautiful iron work, but in poor repair. The windows are large. The stonework is beautiful. There are dead ivy vines along much of the front of the house. I stood and looked at it for a bit. I walked up the stairs and looked in the windows and door. There was nothing inside that I could see. I sat down on the steps and opened up my Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. I read for a while until the Postal Service mail lady walked up. We talked for a moment and she asked me why I was sitting there, saying she’d never seen anyone here before. I asked her if she knew he used to live here. She didn’t. When I told her the poet and writer Langston Hughes lived here for the last thirty years of his life, her face lit up with a grand smile, exclaiming: “I didn’t know that!” She remembered memorizing a Hughes poem in grade school. I asked her if she’d take a couple of pictures of me on the stoop and she did. We talked a bit longer about her kids and her memory that one of them studied Hughes’ work in school too. She had to move on so I went back to reading.

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The magic of the place was beginning to seep into me. A man across the street was washing his car. I looked up and he waved. Then a woman came out of the brownstone next door and sat on her stoop. We exchanged greetings and I walked over to her steps. She told me she’d seen a few visitors come to take photographs of the house over the twenty years she’d lived next door. But she didn’t think anyone had ever lived there in those twenty years. She’d heard there used to be poetry programs there but was sure nothing had gone on there for many years. She told me about her favorite Hughes poem– “Harlem.” I told her that was one of my favorites too. She raised two kids in her house, next door to Hughes’, and she told me about her son who was now living in California. She’d worked for many years as a Parent-Liaison for the New York City Public Schools. When I told her I was a high school teacher, she bloomed with stories and jokes. We talked for a while there on her stoop until she had to go to the local grocery store. I went back to Langston Hughes’ stoop to read.

I tried to imagine Langston Hughes walking up these very steps where I sat. I imagined a photograph of him I’d seen standing on this stoop and looking down the street. I imagined him opening these beautiful wooden doors and walking in after a reading, a visit to the library. The magic was now in full effect. I sat and took several deep breaths. A wide sense of joy filled me. I felt like I was in a good place, maybe even a holy place. I imagined that many of my favorite poems in the world were birthed on the floors just above me. I imagined the hands that typed “I, Too” and “Theme for English B’ and “Harlem” and “Dream Boogie” had also gripped these ironwork rails. I was sitting at the home of the man who created the “Simple Stories,” the moving play “Black Nativity,” many short stories, hundreds of poems. I also remembered this was the home of a poet who was summoned to appear at the McCarthy hearings, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He went to the hearing in the U.S. Capitol but refused to name any other writer or artist.

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I thought of students I’d taught over the years, whose lives were changed by Langston Hughes’ poems. I remembered one student from a few years ago, who was deeply moved during a class discussion of  Hughes’ poem “Harlem”– when he realized the poem was really a kind of threat— “Or does it explode?” I also remembered a student-poet from this past school year who sat stunned during our discussion of “Dream Boogie.” When he realized the jazz rhythm Hughes used– and how Hughes interrupted his own rhythm– he exclaimed aloud “That’s amazing!” So many students, over my years of teaching, have been drawn to poetry and to writing because of Hughes’ accessible, layered, and powerful work.

One element of Hughes’ work that has always moved me is his ability to name the sorrows he saw in the world– clearly and poetically. Langston Hughes doesn’t shy away from naming and describing the injustices he saw in the United States. Yet, he also never failed to find joy, beauty, even humor in the world.

I realized I’d been sitting here for a while when the man who had been washing his car across the street, came out of his house, got in the car and drove off– but not before waving to me again. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been sitting there reading and I was shocked when I realized I’d been sitting there for close to two hours. Regardless, the day was magical. I took several deep breaths there and decided it was time to go.

I went down the steps and walked over to 5th Avenue to find a bus that would take me back to Midtown. A couple of folks at the bus stop on 125th and 5th made sure I was on the right bus and off I went. The woman next to me noticed the Langston Hughes book in my hand and she asked if I was a teacher. I said yes and she told me she was a retired high school English teacher– she’d taught in the New York City Public Schools for thirty-two years. I just smiled. When I told her I’d spent the last couple of house sitting on the stoop at Langston Hughes’ house I thought she would cry. We talked about her years of teaching. I told her about my school and my classes and how much I loved teaching American Literature. Clearly, the universe was conspiring to make this a day like none other. We talked all the way to 32nd Street where I got off the bus. I needed to clean up for the poetry reading that would take place in a couple of hours.

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I am very grateful to be part of a beautiful poetry anthology, Poetry of Resistance: Voices of Social Justice. Odilia Galvan Rodriguez is one of the co-editors, along with the late Francisco X. Alarcon. When Odilia said she was organizing an East coast reading I told her to count me in. The reading took place in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, at the Medicine Show Theater, directed by Chris Brandt. Poet Rich Villar was the emcee and we had a great reading. We not only celebrated the anthology but we also celebrated the life of poet Francisco X. Alarcon who died just before the anthology was published. The poets who read included Martin Espada, a poet I deeply admire, Rich Villar, Odilia Galvan Rodriguez, Susan Deer Cloud, George Wallace, Melissa Tuckey, and me. We had a wonderful crowd, a spirited reading, and a rich evening celebrating these poems and the beautiful life of Francisco X. Alarcon. We each read from the anthology and we each read a poem by Francisco. I read the opening poem from his gorgeous collection of love poems, Of Dark Love.

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Poetry of Resistance Reading: L to R: Rich Villar, Susan Deer Cloud, Martin Espada, Odilia Galvan Rodriguez, George Wallace, Melissa Tuckey, Joseph Ross.

This was one of those magical days. A day I had been looking forward to for several months. You anticipate what a day might look like. You plan how you’ll navigate a city you don’t know. But you never know how rich or beautiful a day might become. I was overwhelmed by the joy of this day. I was filled with a sense of peace. I was confirmed in my desire to write and teach. A day like this reminds me to savor each day of this rare and precious life.

One Response to A Magical Day in New York City

  1. Jeanne Worthy June 29, 2016 at 4:32 pm #

    Joe, I absolutely LOVE your musings and that you share them!!!! The sharing, and the love, are absolutely the best part of the internet!

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