Evan Marquis was Harlem.
Born and raised, in a Striver's Row brownstone, owned by his ancestors that'd migrated from the south, his family embodied the American Dream. On the sporadic walks home, from his cushy corporate 401K in the Bronx, he envisioned Harlem as it once was.
The Cotton Club turned Community Center.
The Dark Tower, now part residence and part nail salon.
The Savoy, now a housing projects.
Evan heard the stories from his great grandmother. She was almost 102, her birthday nearing, and still vibrant as ever. He cherished their nightly talks:
Girls were more than just woo, back in my day. You needed to pitch more than that honey. We were all checking for Langston, but he wasn't checking for us. That's another story. But I knew love in another way. It was more than pretty boy and smooth talk. I looked for a man with rough hands, a man who'd seen and heard things, a man who could build a castle if need be. Your hands ain't rough Evan. You ain't ready for no real love. Your parents weren't either, but they do what they do and I mind my business.
Evan always laughed at her sentiments. He wasn't sure what she meant by rough hands equating to being a man. He considered himself a man: he had a great job, could live on his own if he chose to, and could woo a woman with his wit and check book if need be. Grandma had wisdom, but she couldn't be right about this.
Evan took the long way, today. He longed to daydream and take in Harlem, on the days he got out early. It helped that it was summer. The streets smelled of sweat and sweet things. He walked down Adam Clayton Powell Blvd and imagined that it was 1926. He was dapper, having just left the haberdashery and something beautiful and bright walked by.
Evan snapped out of his daydream, because something beautiful and bright...just walked by.
Ella was Brooklyn:
Knew all the lyrics to Lauryn Hill's Doo-Wop, jump rope queen, and stoop chiller. She was the girl that no one dared stand up to, when she was a hard-hitting tomboy and the first person to help a friend a need. The perfect mixture of her hardworking Jamaican parents and the block-boys her brothers assimilated into, she was incredibly smart, streets and otherwise.
Ella was late to her new job in Harlem, as a junior curator at an art gallery. During the day, she spent a few hours manning the desk at the Schomburg. Her friends often joked that her multiple jobs deemed her a true Jamaican.
Her new boss was a total a-hole and she did her best to accommodate him, but nothing was ever good enough. It was her second week on the job, with perfect attendance, and she was only running ten minutes behind, but she knew he'd let her have it. The trip from East Flatbush to Harlem was an arduous one. She had to take a dollar van, cushioned between women in scrubs and suits, headed to Eastern Parkway, to catch the train to the city. After hopping out of the overcrowded van, she barely made it on to the train. Even worse, the train was delayed.
She ran through the gallery's glass doors, flung her purse and coat into her office chair, and made her way to the back office that belonged to her boss.
"Good morning, Jake."
Jake rolled his eyes at her, "You're late."
"I know. I didn't expect the trains to be this delayed. No excuses though, I'll leave earlier next time."
"That was an excuse. Nevermind. I have a bunch of places I'll need you to go to. Bring me back a new Kehinde Wiley and ease up on the Basquiat. We have a show late tonight, so be back before 7pm."
Ella loved abstract work. She loved Kehinde too, but she was biased when it came to work that needed longer interpretation.
Jake handed her a slip of paper, with three addresses on it, and she headed to her cubicle to put them into Google maps. She was so glad to be out of his presence. Jake smelled of cigarette smoke and unhappiness. He was an older white gentleman that was fascinated with African-American art, but didn't seem to have any patience when looking for great pieces that actually reflected the gallery's mission.
Ella was a graphic design major, taking general art classes, when she realized that she was after the wrong profession. She became fascinated with Norman Lewis, Howardena Pindell, Basquiat, and many alike. She was interested in everything abstract and some Harlem Renaissance art. Lately she'd fallen for Kara Walker and Maya Asante and she was looking forward to helping discover unknowns who created work that was just as powerful.
She printed the directions, for backup, just in case her phone died, and sped out of the door. Jake had given her three hours to go to places located in the L.E.S., Harlem, and the Upper West Side. He was certified crazy.
Before she could make it half a block, she felt someone touch her arm.
He was perfectly tailored. He wore a plaid hat, bow tie, and was holding a briefcase in one hand. Clearly he was trying to sell her something or talk to her about her lord and savior.
"I've really got to catch the next train out of here. Sorry!"
He walked fast, alongside her, "I'm Evan. I don't usually do this, but you look so familiar..."
"Is that your best pickup line? Dude, I'd be so much more enamored if you respected my time."
Evan walked faster, "I do. That's why you should just give me your number. We can just speed things up."
Ella stopped for a second, she looked him up and down. He was Sahara sand brown, eyes the color of the sky when everything felt wrong. Grey and deep. There was a sadness to them, but somehow it made him more handsome.
"I'll pass. I really have to go."
She descended into the 135th street station.
Evan finally made it to his house. He entered through the garden apartment door, so he wouldn't have to deal with his mother. He knew she was waiting on him in the parlor room, as she always did.
Before he could pull off his blazer, he heard her coming downstairs.
His mother walked into the area of the house they'd reserved for him. She was dressed as if she was headed to high tea, when she'd do nothing but sit home all day and complain.
"Good evening, momma."
"It's still afternoon, son. Get your salutations in order."
She sat down in his sofa and patted it, beckoning him to sit next to her, "How was your day?"
"It was cool. Walked home, took in Harlem. I watched some of the boys playing in the park. I wonder if they know about what their neighborhood used to be. I've really been thinking about starting this young men's program again..."
"Oh, this idea. Listen, we did more than enough for this community. You don't need to do anymore for it. Just climb that corporate ladder and make me some grandchildren."
"I'd have to leave home, to do that."
Evan was annoyed that his mother disregarded his dream, once again, but he tried not to let it show.
"Why? Why can't you find a respectable woman that understands your circumstances?"
"No one wants a man who's almost 30 and still lives with his family."
"Fine, move then."
"You know my trust fund won't allow that."
His mother laughed, "Exactly Evan. Find a girl that understands. It's just not your time yet. Come up later, I have some people coming by that I'd like you to meet."
She made her exit, after grilling him with more questions about his day. Evan kicked off his shoes and locked the door that led into his space. He loved his home, but sometimes it felt like a prison. He was ready to be free.
Ella was coming up on her final stop for the day. The last visit was in Harlem, so she'd come full circle. The neighborhood was beautiful, all the houses looked exactly the same. She'd walked past the block several times, but never down it. With all the gentrification that'd been happening in Harlem, she was sure that no black family owned any of the homes.
She looked at the address, on the paper Jake gave her, and then the house. She'd finally made it. She knocked lightly and waited for someone to answer the door.
To her surprise, a beautiful middle aged black woman answered. The woman was overdressed and Ella assumed that she was headed to a party shortly.
"Hi, I'm Ella. I'm from the Umoja Gallery."
The woman clasped her hands together, excitedly, "Oh! We've been waiting on you! Come in."
The woman led her into a beautiful living room. The space was filled with tons of artwork, predominately from the Harlem Renaissance, and ornate antique furniture. An older woman, sat, napping, on a love seat, in the corner.
She yelled at the napping woman, "Ruth, wake up! We have company."
Ruth jumped awake, "I'm only resting my eyes. Calm your nerves, Bethany."
Ruth wore a long black robe and looked like she was wearing every pearl she owned. She was holding what seemed like Scotch, in a glass, in her hand.
Ella giggled on the inside, she could tell that Ruth was something else in her day.
Bethany smiled, "Above sleeping beauty's head is the piece we're trying to sell. Your gallery owner fawned over it at our last social gathering."
Ella walked closer to it, "It's beautiful."
It was a painting of jazz musicians sitting on a stage, each musician was painted utilizing several different shapes. It seemed to blend Ella's favorite time period and art genre together.
Ella heard footsteps enter the room, behind her.
Bethany spoke again, "This is my son, Evan. The piece is his favorite, ignore his attempts to get you to purchase something else."
Ella turned around to face the gentleman she'd met on the street earlier.
Evan rubbed his chin in sheer confidence, knowing she was trapped.
They both looked at one another knowingly.
Ella extended her hand and Evan shook it, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, again."
Bethany interrupted, "You two know one another?"
She took in Ella's shoulder length dreads, bright yellow summer dress, and huge Sankofa earrings. Bethany's face was not one of approval.
Ruth took a sip of scotch, laughed, and clutched her pearls, "Seems like they do."