Category Archives: New York

1001 Black Men #957

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On the New York Subway, April 2016.

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I love riding commuter trains, whether its BART in the San Francisco Bay Area, the subway in New York City, the T in Boston, or the Metro in Washington, DC. I like it because riding public transportation is often easier, especially if you don’t enjoy circling the block in search of parking. It also provides me with a block of time in which the wi-fi is either spotty or nonexistent, so I can do nothing but read or listen to music.

The main reason I like commuter trains, though, is because riding them makes me feel like a grownup. That might sound peculiar, coming from someone who is less than two months away from turning 50.  But, if  you grew up on Long Island, like I did, it might make a little more sense. You see, when I was a kid, the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) was primarily a commuter pipeline, shuttling working men (and I use the word men quite literally) from the bedroom communities of Long Island to their offices in Manhattan. Unlike its bigger sister, the New York subway system, which really, truly served the masses, kids usually only rode the LIRR on fieldtrips to Manhattan; and when we got on board, we were surrounded mostly by men in their business suits, briefcases at their side, reading the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times on their way to work. For me, riding the LIRR into Manhattan, carrying a briefcase, reading the paper, and looking very important and serious was what adulthood was all about. Because he worked on Long Island and not in The City, my dad didn’t take the railroad, but, every morning, after reading the paper over breakfast, he would pick up his briefcase, put on the last piece of his suit (the jacket), and head out to the car to do the other thing that felt really adult to me, drive the Long Island Expressway to work.

Luck would have it that I’ve never lived more than two miles away from any place I’ve worked, and so I’ve never really had a commute of any kind. Maybe that’s why I can romanticize the idea of depending on public transit. It still feels to me like the people who pick up their briefcases and hop on the train to get to their places of work are having one of those singular adult experiences that I have not. This is not to say that, living in the Bay Area and seeing the stress and the cost of commuting, I actually want a longer ride to work. I know how good I have it, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Still, it’s fun to hop on the commuter train and feel like a real grownup, every now and then.

Ajuan Mance

1001 Black Men #952

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On the last day of our spring 2015 trip to Brooklyn, my partner and I took a few hours to go up to Harlem, have lunch at Manna’s Soul Food and look for some of the street vendors who used to be so plentiful around 125th St. As we strolled around the neighborhood, it became clear to us that the once-lively street vendor culture of Harlem had greatly diminished by the demographic and economic changes in the community. The man in this drawing was one of the few vendors still left on 125th street, and when we stopped to admire his cleverly designed Black power- and Black history-themed t-shirts, he greeted us with the usual inquiries about where we were visiting from and whether or not we’d been to the City before.

Over the next 20 or so minutes, he regaled us with fascinating stories of his family, his struggles, his encounters with law enforcement, and his lively and spirited mother (who he clearly admired). I could probably have enjoyed another 20 minutes of stories, if I hadn’t been so worried about getting to the airport on time.

He most certainly had a lot more stories to tell. I hope I run into him again, some time. He was an amazing man with a warm and welcoming spirit, whose experiences had left him not embittered, but empowered and incredibly resilient.

Ajuan Mance

1001 Black Men #917

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At the same time as the Kehinde Wiley show,  the Brooklyn Museum was also presenting an exhibition of the notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat, in a different gallery.  I spotted this young museumgoer at the entrance of the Basquiat show. Though you cannot necessarily tell from this portrait, he carried himself with the poise of Beyoncé Knowles, and the self-possession of Maya Angelou; and his confidence was inspiring.

Even in progressive Brooklyn, his lace top and his carefully chosen accessories stood out among even the other LGBTQ Black people at the museum that day; and looking at him made me very aware of all the ways my appearance doesn’t draw the attention of others. As edgy and stylish as I might think I am, the world sees me a just another middle-aged Black woman in a v-neck sweater, perhaps a bit under-accessorized, but otherwise unremarkable.

It may seem strange to commend someone simply for dressing their body as they please; but that is the world in which we live. I admired this young person’s absolute refusal not to be himself.

Ajuan Mance