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On my first day in the city, I went walking for a few hours to get a feel for the place and to buy supplies to transform my dormitory room from a prison bunker into a welcoming space.
When some university staff members found out what I’d been up to, they warned me to restrict my walking to the places recommended as safe to tourists and the parents of freshmen.
With my descent came an increase in the vibrancy of street life—except when it didn’t; some poor neighborhoods had both the violent gunfights and the eerily deserted streets of the cinematic Wild West.
I knew well enough to avoid those even at high noon.
Walking became so regular and familiar that the way home became home.
Within days I noticed that many people on the street seemed apprehensive of me: Some gave me a circumspect glance as they approached, and then crossed the street; others, ahead, would glance behind, register my presence, and then speed up; older white women clutched their bags; young white men nervously greeted me, as if exchanging a salutation for their safety: “What’s up, bro? They regularly stopped and bullied me, asking questions that took my guilt for granted. (So I’d dress Ivy League style, but would, later on, add my Jamaican pedigree by wearing Clarks Desert Boots, the footwear of choice of Jamaican street culture.) Yet the all-American sartorial choice of white T-shirt and jeans, which many police officers see as the uniform of black troublemakers, was off limits to me—at least, if I wanted to have the freedom of movement I desired.
” On one occasion, less than a month after my arrival, I tried to help a man whose wheelchair was stuck in the middle of a crosswalk; he threatened to shoot me in the face, then asked a white pedestrian for help. I had come from a majority-black country in which no one was wary of me because of my skin color. I’d never received what many of my African American friends call “The Talk”: No parents had told me how to behave when I was stopped by the police, how to be as polite and cooperative as possible, no matter what they said or did to me. “Accidentally” pull out my college identification card when asked for my driver’s license. In this city of exuberant streets, walking became a complex and often oppressive negotiation.
” “Manhattan’s streets I saunter’d, pondering.” –Walt Whitman, “Manhattan’s Streets I Saunter’d, Pondering” My love for walking started in childhood, out of necessity.
” –Fats Waller, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?