The Boy from Virginia Finds a Place (The Concrete Chronicles)

September 2012

            At the start of the month, my sub-letter had returned and I was still without a new place to live. Being the person I am, I hate overstaying my welcome anywhere and I had the unfortunate feeling that I would be overstaying for a few more weeks. Luckily for me, the sub-letter was a gem of a woman, and she and her roommates (who had made my acquaintance before she did) became the first “sort-of” family I’d made in the city. Having been in New York longer than myself, they seemed to uderstand my plight and excused my housing delay. Excusals aside, I still needed to find a place  and ASAP.

            Finding a decent place to lay one’s head comfortably in New York City is among the more difficult life-tasks I’ve ever taken on. Period. Not only is it tedious, strenuous, and merciless…I’m sure it’s a rites of passage for aspiring New Yorkers that truly separates the boys from the men. (To feel my pain, click here)  With no potential roommates and no decent leads on the horizon, I was back to being a boy. So where to start on this second go-round?

            I’d put up a status blast on Facebook saying that I was looking for housing and/or roommates and for people to contact me. I received two private message replies from people I knew, but we’d wanted different things; some people wanted Brooklyn, some wanted Washington Heights, but more importantly, our pockets also wanted different rent amounts to pay. I was still craving Harlem, but I felt I wouldn’t be able to afford the area considering the epidemic of gentrification it’d gone through.

My bro, Ray.

My bro, Ray.

Then I’d received a surprise message from a young man from my past. He was an actor I’d been in contact with for four years but our only interaction was at his movie debut back in Philadelphia in the summer of 2008. Somehow, I’d remained on his radar and he’d made the selfless attempt to reach out and assist me in my search for a place to live. I conceded that this might be the only true helpful gesture I’d receive, so I made plans to have him help me.

It’s not that I couldn’t find a place in New York. It’s just that I couldn’t accept the very first one that became available. Shopping around for the right place to call home was a good idea. I’d turned down a small place in Washington Heights at the end of August because it was the first place I’d actually seen and I didn’t want to just say yes. I also turned it down because the renter was all too eager to pressure me into being his roommate. When he explained that his former roommate had just…left one day and didn’t tell him he was leaving; though I felt sympathetic, I also felt there was also a reason behind that guy’s sudden departure. Red flags told me to consider other options.

It was funny however that I’d ended up in Washington Heights, yet again, to link up with my friend. He’d told me that he had success with a room rental company. They would charge a small finder’s fee, but I’d be able to hopefully find a place in two weeks or less. Catch was, I’d be living like a boarder in a room in someone else’s house and the renter’s might’ve only spoken Spanish, but there was a possibility I would luck out and ended up somewhere comfortable. It worked for him.

The agency (if I should even be allowed to bestow such a  legitimate name upon them), was one of those “hidden-in-plain-sight” type of places that looked like it could double as a tax office/ immigration office/ job centre, (etc.), but when we got there, the woman who was responsible for housing placements wasn’t there. No one could seem to contact her either, but I was assured that she knew what she was doing and was good at her job. I thanked my friend for his help and we planned to meet up again if I made any further progress.

The next day, I decided to go at the search alone…silly me.

After ending up at another room rental agency, and sitting for about two hours after they took $150 from me as a finder’s fee (when they hadn’t even found a room for me yet), I was supplied with an address on the back of a small business card. I headed to the location and ended up…in. a. fucking housing. project. Lies and deceit? Not this time.

 The room I’d been sent to was on the ninth floor of a building with an elevator that decided it would take the Lord’s day of..on a Thursday. I skipped steps up those nine flights, occasionally passing elderly people who were wondering why I was taking the stairs and then I ended up outside of the apartment that was written on the business card. Even before I stepped in, my Tommy senses were tingling. The door opened and I was greeted by a man in a wheelchair. A man who looks as if he hadn’t bathed, who was in a wheelchair. There was also a woman present (His mother? His nurse?) who seemed to care less that I was there. There was a bed that looked as if it were stolen from a hospital, cold dull-looking tile floor, a box fan in the window, and a television was playing…Who gives a fuck what it was playing because in my mind, I felt as if I were in a hospital ward. The man in the wheelchair did his best to sell me his apartment, and while my heart felt like it was being sliced and diced by that box fan in the window, I tried to maintain my dignity (which had spun on its heels, sucked it’s teeth and headed back down the stairs). Thank God I’m an actor because I was able to remain diplomatic, take a deep breath and say things like, “Hmm…well…I..have…some other places to see, but I’ll get back to you. (insert forced smile) I’ve seen all I need to see here.”

And then I rushed down the stairs of the projects and rushed to work, all while my brain was being mangled to death by confusion and the feeling of being swindled.

I went to work my shift and I couldn’t even function. All I could think was, ‘I was sent to project building. I. was sent. To a PROJECT. To live…(OK, yes they are livable spaces, but I’d had my healthy dose of underprivileged living as a child. I didn’t need a reprise…back to my thoughts)  And I can’t get my $150 back. I’m a fool. I’m alone in New York. And I’m a burden to these wonderful women I’m staying with.’ My insides were debating whether or not they wanted remain inside of me, and it seemed my tears were doing the same. As I swallowed everything back, I couldn’t help but think the worst.

‘I’ve lost favor with God. This is punishment for what happened between my sister and me. I’m no longer one of his chosen people.’ Had I ever really been chosen to begin with? I mean, here I was crashing on a couch; my luggage (though neatly stacked) littering a living room that wasn’t my own, and my growing despair puddling the carpet. I wasn’t completely down and out, but I was definitely around the corner from it. Or was I?

Though I was discouraged by the small amount of people who stepped up to help me in my situation, I had to give a hand to all of the co-workers on my job. The ladies all offered their assistance to me in some way, whether it was offering to bring in a lunch, or to provide money, or to even shelter me for a bit. And my actor friend also came with me to try and get my money back from the people who’d taken it. He went with me to view more rooms, and other (much better) options I’d found from Craigslist. People -not the ones I expected- were subtly showing me that I mattered and that I deserved to be in New York, just as much as anyone else. I was immediately humbled. My heart hadn’t planned on being in NYC, but people wanted me to succeed here.IMG_1237

That subtle encouragement was more help than I’d given to the burn victim who’d lost his nose who begged me for money on the train. It was more help than I offered the family who was kicked out of their hotel room whilst visiting the city for a holiday. It was more help than I could give myself, because I’d even forgotten how to do that effectively. The job I did was so rooted in helping others, that I didn’t know how to pamper myself. Instead, I worried myself. I stressed myself. I had started to hate myself for being -what I considered- incompetent and inefficient. What was my purpose?

What was worse…I was beginning to crave the city where I faced the most challenges, and yet felt the most loved: London. Would I ever return? Had I given the Big Apple enough of a chance? I felt like it was biting me instead of the other way around, and I could tell I was becoming bitter to the taste.

To pull myself out of the funk that was beginning to waft through my brain, I decided to join one of my current roommates at an event called Sundae Sermon. There’s nothing like an outdoor picnic full of Harlemites, House music, and high spirits to completely turn your mood around. In the span of 5 hours, I’d felt free and as if I were being introduced to the pulse of the city. Sundae Sermon is where I met two wonderful people who would become my “friends of the moment” (you encounter many of those temporary types in New York). And it was under their wings that I got completely shit-faced drunk (as you do, when you feel free).

That Sunday was only a temporary relief to what needed to occur. I still needed to find a place and I was determined that I was NOT going to remain a lodger on a couch for another month. So it was back to Craigslist. I’d abandoned the agency, and my chances of getting my money back so whatever methods I used this time would have to work. Or else.

I’d courted the idea of moving to Brooklyn. I’d even gone all the way out there from the Bronx to view a place. The renter of the apartment was older than me, but well put together. The room was spacious and the entire place would’ve only been the two of us. So far so good. There was a pool on the roof of the building. Great! I don’t swim, but great, nonetheless. The commute was lengthy, but I was excusing that for the pool I’d never use. Hmm…I could see myself here….

But the goal was always to move to Harlem. I couldn’t sell myself so short…or so long-distance.

Just when my focus became clearer, I came across two listings for places to live in Harlem. Both about 10 odd blocks from one another. One option was a two bedroom that I’d share with a Turkish man. I loved the place…but you had to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. …Interesting setup… but a small price to pay. I thought I marketed myself and my intentions well. But I was informed that he’d get back to me.

The other place was right in the middle of everything. I was three blocks away from Sylvia’s -overrated- Soul Food restaurant (I mean, it’s good, but it’s not down south cooking), There was a grocery store across the street from the apartment, I was four blocks from 125th street (one of the most iconic streets in Harlem) and to top it off, I was in a decent building with a doorman. Granted, it wasn’t a real doorman like you see on films about people who live downtown, but it’d suffice. IMG_1407

Only thing…I’d have to share this place with four other people. But after having interviewed with all of them, they seemed nice and one of the guys was originally from England. To me this was an omen. Even if I could just live around this man to hear an English accent, I’d be fine. I equated his accent to feeling like I was home. Like the Turkish man, they told me they’d be in touch soon. They were and they informed me that I was their second choice. If the person who they’d chosen decided not to take the room, it would be mine. But I’d have to wait three days to see if I got the place.

The other Harlem apartment I was interested in had a second round of interviews to which I went and encountered two other guys who also wanted the place. It was as if we were on a TV show competing to be the Turkish man’s Next Top Roommate. I didn’t mind this process, but I just thought to myself that the next time I went apartment hunting it would be with people I knew, and people I could trust.

Two days later I’d gotten notice that the first person decided to pass on the apartment, and that I could go ahead and move into the Center of Harlem if I was still interested. It was the final week of September and I was happy that I wouldn’t be entering October on anyone’s couch. I passed on living with one other person to live with four because the rent was most definitely in my range and my room had an actual closet. That is a true luxury. (You have no idea the multitude of places in New York have no closets at ALL…which is NOT okay)

After receiving that news, I also found out that I’d booked a small part on a new show for NBC. Revolution, it was called. Though I knew nothing about it, I was happy as hell to be able to do some actual work on a major primetime television production. But everything in my new New York life was complicated, of course…

I booked the job as a local hire. What did that mean? That meant I was hired because people thought I still lived in Virginia. Where were they filming this show? In North Carolina, a good 5 states south of where I now lived. An obstacle? Yes.  I knew I was going to get my ass to that set if it killed me, but I had less than 24 hours to plan a journey back down south. This would mean trying to find someone to cover my shift at work and also trying to find a cost-effective method of getting to North Carolina.

It was a Tuesday, I’d need to film Thursday, and somehow, be back in New York on Friday for my shift. No one wanted to over for me, and I didn’t want to get written up on my job. But I decided that I’d somehow make filming work…and I’d also make work work…and I’d do this by going into the money I’d saved up for my deposit and first month’s rent on my new place. My rationale: I’d get it back once I was paid from the show.

Wednesday morning came. I was packed and ready to go to the Port Authority Bus Station when I got off work at 4:45. I managed to catch a $64 bus (very last minute) to Richmond Virginia, then transfer to an $80 bus to Wilmington North Carolina; a journey that lasted a total of eighteen hours. Because NO buses would be headed back to New York at the time I needed one, I had to book an early morning ($188) flight to New Jersey, where I’d eventually catch a shuttle back to Manhattan. I was beginning to worry about my money big time.

 Once off the bus, I walked to my lovely hotel, which had been negotiated by my Virginia talent agency, and I promptly fell asleep. Once I’d awakened and after a lovely self-date at Buffalo Wild Wings, I made my way back to the hotel and caught a van to set. It would be a late night shoot. Working on any film set is exciting, but seeing your first on-set explosion has to be the best thing you’ll ever see (unless you catch fire). I never tire of seeing how many people it takes to put on a production and this was no different. I’d had my hair and make-up done and gotten in my costume and sat. IMG_1376

I sat.

And I sat.

 I ate at craft services. And then sat some more.

At 4am, (after arriving on set at 7pm the night prior), I geared up to yell my one line in multiple ways. But because I needed to be back in New York by 5 the next day, the crew rushed through my performance (or either I hit my mark and got it right the first time, who knew?) and I was hurried back to my hotel to prepare for my flight.

I’d arrived back in New York at around noon on Friday. I was proud of myself for accomplishing a hell of a lot in a small amount of time. I’d also had the help of my mother through what could’ve been a messy process, but overall, things kinda of worked out. I was back at work, though I felt a bit underappreciated because I’d gone through hell and high water, (and money I shouldn’t have touched) to return to a job that was paying me a fraction of what I made in 10 hours. Regardless, I’d ended my month with less woes than when I started it. Soon enough I’d be off a couch, and in my own room in Harlem. With no worries and no stress.

 

Yeah, fucking, right…

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The Boy from Virginia Starts Over

Final two weeks of July 2012

My impromptu, yet necessary trip to New York had been more than successful and I came home with both dread and anticipation in my heart. Dread because I’d have to figure out how to navigate being in a house where negative energy had become a tenant, yet I brimmed with anticipation because I would soon be away from the familial shenanigans. It also helped that I had a gig that would help make the time go smoother as an extra on adocu-drama about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Me as an "uncredited" Union Soldier in Killing Lincoln

Me as an “uncredited” Union Soldier in Killing Lincoln

During that small job, however, I said a tiny prayer to myself:

“Dear God, I ask to never play another slave or underprivileged antebellum man again. We both know there are more stories to tell that are more interesting than being on the periphery of someone else’s history. Please and thank you!”

 

            Once that gig was finished, and once I’d handled all of my paperwork for my job, it was time to hop another bus to the Big Apple. My only regret was leaving on my mother’s birthday. Having not been in the country to celebrate it for the previous 3 years, I’d wanted to at least plan a huge outing or give her a  huge gift, but her celebration money soon turned into moving money and next thing I knew, I was saying “I love you and I’ll call you when I arrive at my new place.”

            Nine hours later, I arrived back at the Port Authority (a station that was becoming more and more familiar to me) with larger luggage, a backpack, my smaller wheelie luggage…and no one to meet me upon arrival. One of my new (temporary) roommates has texted me the information I would need to find the place in Bronx, and lucky for me, I had my map app on my iPhone, but I was still hoping that someone could assist me with my luggage. The last thing I wanted was to let go of my bags for a second and have them snatched away from me as quickly as I let them go. Little did I know, I had nothing to be afraid of, except blocking the doors of the “2” train, which I couldn’t help given the size of my luggage and my not wanting to over exert myself in the sweltering heat.

            I enjoyed what little dribble of A/C the train decided to distribute and ended up at Intervale Avenue. It was when I departed the train that I realized there were no elevators here…and the escalator was broken, and that I was way too dressed up for what looked like “the hood.” (No lie, I was in dress pants, a button down shirt, dress shoes, and, if I recall, a tailored button down vest) ‘I guess I won’t be fitting in today’, I thought to myself. After a deep breath –and a prayer- I dragged myself and my luggage down the stairs and huffed and puffed…about three blocks…in the wrong direction. It didn’t take me long to call my new roommate and ask her to meet me (something I felt she should’ve done, anyway. But hey, I was in New York, from here on out, I wasn’t expecting any hand-outs or any manners).

            A girl with a Texas accent greeted me and though I couldn’t get an immediate read on her, I knew we’d get along as she led me in the right direction to the apartment and to the room which I’d sublet for the next month. I spent the evening trying to get acquainted with the local bodega (which closed a bit too early for my own liking) and then I slept as work began the next day.

Sunset view from Intervale Avenue station

Sunset view from Intervale Avenue station

 

August 2012     

            For the month of August, I would accept whatever hours were given to me as well as take other shifts if no one else wanted them. I just wanted to keep busy and re-learn the art of selling soap and lotion (among other things). Coming back to a job you thought you knew well can be daunting. I constantly found myself knowing that I was capable of doing a fantastic job, but feeling like I wasn’t quite up to par, given the differences between working for the company in the US versus the UK. All I could do was compare what I’d done overseas to what I was doing on home soil. Still, I’m a hard worker and I wanted to make sure I could actually do my personal best, regardless. If I can recall, I believed I worked 8 days straight with no complaints, just a strong desire to make money and refocus myself.

            It had been the end of a week of long shifts, acclimating myself to Manhattan, failed attempts at apartment/ roommate searches, and to top it all off, I’d discovered some news that made the ground tremor. It had come to my attention after my final shift of the week, that back in Virginia, I had been disowned as a family member. Actually, being disowned would have been a privilege. I was told that I did not exist. A source close to me informed me than an uncle on my father’s side claimed that he didn’t know my mother had any children, though he’d met me on multiple occasions when I was young. What baffled me wasn’t the fact that he could say this with conviction. I wondered how he could’ve brought himself to deny that I was alive because I’m sure it’s not something he came up with on his own.

Then it hit me.

The only way that anyone could jump on board with saying that I didn’t exist was if the seed was planted by another source: a familial source that could’ve been angry with me. That source had to have been my father, who I’d not spoken to since before returning to the United States. It only made sense considering he was none too pleased when he learned I had arrived back in the states and hadn’t contacted him. (That was due to his lack of help when I needed him most back in January 2012 when I was basically being detained in Britain and had exhausted all of my funds trying my best to return home.) If, indeed, he had disowned me, and succeeded in having others jump on board with this foolishness in which he would deny his own progeny, then I guess I’d have to follow suit and continue not existing in his world.

I tried to be nonchalant about the statement, but it vexed me. I thought to myself ‘Wait a minute. People who I’ve known, but may not have dealt with much, are saying that they do not acknowledge me as my father’s son? Better yet, they state that they, indeed, know who my mother is, but are convinced that I’ve not existed over these past 27 years? I’m HERE! And I’m sure those people I interacted with have the factual knowledge of my being a product of my mother and father’s love.’

Obviously love wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to keep my parents together and it wasn’t enough for me to “exist” after all these years.

The news shouldn’t have been as heartbreaking as it was, but I couldn’t help but feel jilted by this man I used to champion for his charm, joie de vivre and genuine loving nature. Who knew he would grow to become so dilapidated in his mindset and disdain for me; his blood, who has only done his absolute best to do right in this world?  In the aftermath of that news, I was beyond disappointed in this man who, at that point, would hold no weight with me beyond the circumference of where he grew up.

I’d have to ask God for healing, to grant me the power to forgive, and to push me to be greater. I promised myself not to subscribe to poor examples of leadership. Then I thanked God for the many powerful men that had been placed into my life; some older than me, but the majority of men were my age, who I’d met in high school, college, and overseas. If you can’t emulate your father, the only solution is to emulate the Holy Father you see in the spirit of others. Thank God, I’m blessed with many fine examples of men who love, uplift, and inspire and who acknowledge my existence.

Patriarchal tangents aside…

On my days off, I had to reward myself with things that would make me feel like a competent human being. On one day off, I linked up with a friend from high school and we managed to go see Valerie Simpson perform live under the stars. Nothing like a bit of old school to make one appreciate the good things in life.

Brandy

Brandy

On another day, I swapped shifts with a young lady at work so that I could go meet Brandy Norwood (my absolute favorite vocalist) in person at BET’s 106th and Park. Despite feeling like I was way too old to sit in the audience of that show, I was happy I waited in line for 2 hours with the 18-24 year old fans (called STARZ), to see an artist who I respected and admired for her never-ending desire to be what God made her: a supernova of positive energy and light. The highlight of that experience was getting the chance to see Brandy debut her first video in years, “Put It Down,” and having her push a fan aside so that she could hug me. I’d hurriedly yelled to her that I traveled all the way from Virginia to see her (this is a true story) and she left the person she was with and gave me the hugest hug saying “Thank you so much for coming. I appreciate you so much.” If I ever get fans in this lifetime, I’ll have to keep in mind that appreciating them at all times is how you keep them.

 On other days off, however, when I was frustrated with myself for thinking that I wasn’t good job at my new job (or led to believe so by some in the all-female environs I was in), I found another activity to bring me peace: Walking.

            I’d had bad day at work and it was the customers who were giving me a hard time. But I was so incensed at feeling like I was perpetually doing something wrong that once I left work, I couldn’t go home. So I commenced walking downtown. As the numbers on the New York streets decreased, my heart sank below my ribs, past my abdominal organs and sauntered in tandem with my trudging feet…until I trampled upon a smidgen of joy: The Donut Plant in Chelsea. I thought to myself, ‘The people in this section of town probably don’t even eat donuts. Probably trying to watch their figures. Well, fuck them; they aren’t in need of gourmet salvation as much as I am.’ Uncharacteristically, I didn’t indulge in my donuts immediately. Instead, I allowed myself to be lead to the Chelsea Piers, which would soon become my favorite place in the city. It was where I  eventually devoured my donuts. It was, also, where I found the most peace. IMG_1115

            Open water. Something about it soothes the shit out of my soul. Can’t swim a lick, but boy-oh-boy, I can listen to lapping, waving water for hours. I imagine that it’s God having a conversation with only me. Once the conversation is over, I imagine mermaids reassuring my existence with their serene smiles…and then I envision an asshole of a prankster pushing me into the water and me drowning. This drowning is further aided by the appearance of an octopus which suction cups me to death and drags me deep into the ocean-y abyss. (Yes, that is how quickly my spiritually enlightening situation turned ridiculous because my imagination ran wild.IMG_1118Once I pulled myself out of Imagination Land, however (looking around suspiciously to make sure no one was trying anything sneaky), I walked back into my New York life, from Christopher Street to 72nd Street. From there, I took the “2” back to Intervale Avenue.

            The final two weeks of August I decided to be more proactive in my apartment search as my month of subletting was rapidly coming to an end. Looking for housing in New York has to be one of the most frustrating, strenuous, and unsatisfying acts in the world. Things started well. I’d found two potential roommates online via one of those “We’re artists and we’re looking for roommate/sub letters” groups on Facebook. Everything started fine. We all got along, and we were looking for various apartments in various places together. We were mainly looking to stay Uptown, and in or near Harlem. We saw a perfect apartment, but at day’s end, the price range was completely astronomical for our artistic budgets. Also, there was the little thing about guarantors, and filling out an application that was longer than a work application. “Tedious” isn’t a good enough descriptor for what we went through.

Eventually, one roommate decided he’d want to live in a different environment while the other lucked up and had her leased renewed for the same low price she’d been paying…and I was left with no one to live with. I had no leads on affordable places to stay and about 5 days left before my sublet was up. Had I been given a false sense of security about my circumstances? Was I truly working hard enough to survive in this city? Where was my focus? How had I allowed myself to get to this point with no safety net whatsoever? Was my beginners luck coming to an end? By the final day of September, my clothes were packed and in the living room of the sublet, but I hadn’t moved out because I still had no other alternatives…and that was after seeing roughly fifteen different options and almost being scammed by one Craigslist posting. Things were not looking good…

Waiting on the train...

Waiting on the train…