In part two of the Race/Sex interview with Alex on The Zola System blog, we discuss my mugging --and the response I got when I wrote about it for The New York Press.
Here is the interview in its entirity:
Twenty-one years ago, one my professors, Miles Davis’ former press agent the late Marc Crawford, sent me and several other students to St. Nicks Pub in Harlem to hear some jazz at a venue he described as “legendary.” We were all giddy to see the music Crawford told us was “American classical” in a majestic club that helped to make jazz part of the national lexicon. What we found was a hole in the wall joint complete with drug dealers and locals glaring at the dumb NYU kids who managed to find their way uptown. I still don’t know how the five of us got below 14th Street with our scalps intact.
So all these years later, when my dear friend Susan Crain Bakos started going up to hear various acts play their gigs, I wasn’t thrilled. But, then again, the whole island was gentrifying and so was Harlem. How bad could it be?
Well, last year, Susan got mugged outside St. Nicks and I had to go collect her. When I walked in the joint, I swear the same eyes from 1988 were looking through us.
In today’s interview, Susan and I discuss her mugging, the New York Press piece that followed and the really pissed off responses including more death threats from people who need to get a life.
Q. For our mutual safety, especially mine, we are conducting this interview from a secure bunker somewhere other than Manhattan, the undisclosed location previously used by a certain Vice President who shall remain out of office. My first question: Why didn’t you listen to me when I told you not to hang out at St. Nicks Pub where you were knocked down and robbed in front of a group of bar regulars who did nothing to help?
A. In retrospect, I should have listened to you but until I hit the pavement on the back of my head and the small of my back, I naively assumed that the small-time drug dealers and buyers who do business there wouldn’t bother the jazz crowd. I’d witnessed some minor skirmishes at the pub in the past, but they were between marijuana dealers, petty little thugs. I knew the guy who knocked me down and stole my bag. He is a hairdresser in the ‘hood who did my hair twice—and kept asking for more money, a gift, a loan, whatever, because he had to settle with his dealer. Nobody tried to intervene. They stood by while a 6’5” 250 pound man knocked down a woman half his size. And they were mad because I called the cops!
Q. (Laughing) The place was the same moldy dive 22 years ago when I went there for the first time. And how did calling the cops work out for you?
A. They asked me what I was doing uptown alone at 10:30 at night. When I said I was going into the pub to hear jazz, they couldn’t believe it. “What is a woman like you doing in a place like that?” Good music, cheap drinks, no cover. That isn’t good enough? Clearly they were not jazz aficionados or they would have realized that jazz is an expensive habit. If you love it, you’re looking for the bargain. They told me that “nobody in the bar saw nothin’ and that’s how these people are.”
Miles and Coltrane and Bird drank at that bar. Billie Holiday sang on the tiny stage. Every jazz musician who matters has been in St. Nicks Pub, to headline or jam or just drink. Did I romanticize the place? Hell, yes.
Q. It was a bad experience all around. Before you called me, you called that guy you’d been seeing. He lived right around the corner but he couldn’t come rescue you. What, was he only in it for the blowjobs?
A. Yes, yes, he was. I knew that. But I really knew that when he couldn’t walk around the corner to see if I was okay and put me in a cab headed downtown. He didn’t want anyone to know that we were lovers because he was very invested in his corporate image and I am a sex writer. He was also seeing a rather blandly pretty little teacher; and I’m sure he didn’t tell her how much he loved those blow jobs. If he hadn’t possessed such a fine cock…..
Q. I know, I know. However, given what a terrible night that was for you, why did you decide to write about the experience for The New York Press?
A. I was annoyed that the police couldn’t manage to pick up my assailant when I knew who he was and where he worked and would identify him and press charges. If they couldn’t at least make him sit in jail overnight, I thought I might get him fired by identifying him and his employer in the paper. Honestly, I do believe that they would have gone after him if I were a social worker or corporate manager and not a sex writer. Years ago a writer for Forbes magazine joked when introducing me at a party that I was “the high class call girl of journalism”. That attitude is pervasive. You write about sex; you are open about your own sex life—and, therefore, you are a slut. A sex writer alone at a jazz bar in Harlem is a slut looking for action and, in this case, finding trouble. When something bad happens, like a mugging, you find out how people really think. The judgmental Puritanical American character is squirming beneath the skin of many people who try to appear more cosmopolitan about sexuality.
In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that I am a big flirt—which may be a contributing factor to the image problem. On a few occasions, I kissed a man at the bar, mainly to annoy the man who was pretending we weren’t lovers, watching from across the room.
Q. A big flirt? Talk about the concept of understatement. You once made out with your old friend, a broadcast journalist, in front of me at Caliban’s,
I have to admit I was relieved when you went to the bathroom, You two were blocking my view of the blonde sitting in the window.
A. Oh, yeah, he and I were a bit exhibitionistic together. Did I ever tell you about the time in Soho…. Never mind.
Q. So your motivation was to out the bastard who stole that green reptile skin bag and once again—all hell broke loose when the article was published. You got more angry responses from that than you did from the one on sleeping with black men. Why did so many people blame the victim?
A. First, I broke the Harlem code of silence regarding crime reporting. An African American male friend in Chicago called me when he read the article online and said, “Baby, if there’s one thing black people hate more than crime in the ‘hood, it’s the po-lice.” Pub regulars were especially concerned about preserving their habitat. Fine. Then police the thugs yourselves. Don’t stand by and let them knock a woman down and steal her handbag.
Q. Ah, yes, the use of that word “thug” drew some ugly comments, didn’t it?
A. Some readers assumed that I was labeling all African American males “thugs.” Several drew the further conclusion that I must now hate all black men. I was compared to Bay Buchanan. Angry old white men wrote to tell me they didn’t want me back. Yeah, guys, I had been petitioning for re-admission to that club. A pretentious African American woman “intellectual” wrote an unintentionally hilarious diatribe about how my love of African American culture was part of the problem that led to me ending up on my back on concrete. Married to a jazz musician who hit on me every time he saw me, she has spent years claiming that a famous woman writer stole her work. The crazy people crawled out of the woodwork en masse. Oh, yes, I heard from various sources that many men, pub regulars and musicians, were claiming they’d had sex with me. (In three years of hanging out at St. Nicks Pub, I went home with two men, the aforementioned dick-matizer, and one very nice man who cooked for me a few times. Best Senegalese food I’ve ever tasted. I still have one of his white shirts. Maybe I should return his calls.)
Q. My favorite bit of stupidity came from the readers who thought the title—“My Harlem Romance Ended With A Head Bang” referred to romance with the thug who knocked you down. That begs the question, why do so many people have trouble reading?
A. That shocked me too! It was so clear that the shattered “romance” was my romanticized idea of Harlem. My favorite nasty note came from a white male literary agent who drew that “romancing the thug” conclusion and said I was out on a “booty mission” that turned ugly. Jerry Portwood, the Editor-in-Chief, opted not to print his letter because the writer was “obviously motivated by some personal grudge. “ (Yes, he shopped for weed at the pub.) I was a little disappointed. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see how women editors and writers responded to the “booty mission” remark?
The most ugly comments, including threats on my life, were posted on my blog. I deleted them. As you know, every time someone hits our blogs, their email addresses and computer IP numbers are recorded forever. People who think they can menace someone in cyberspace and remain anonymous are stupid. They should all hope nothing happens to me or they’ll be suspects.
Q. Do you think those comments were motivated by your previous New York Press article on sleeping with black men?
A. Yes, I do. The consensus was: You said you sleep with black men; therefore you will sleep with any black man; and it was inevitable that you would get hurt by one of them. First, that argument is illogical; and, second, it is demeaning to black men as well as me. I’ve never had sex with thugs, black or white. You know some of my lovers; and they are professional men.
Q. The responses exposed the underlying anger and racism and sexual judgment, didn’t they?
A. I never understand how people can harbor so much rage and resentment about another person’s sex life. But some do. When you add race to sex—you may create a real witches’ brew. The angry, resentful people don’t just have opinions; they’re ready to kill you over them.
Q. How do you feel about Harlem now?
A. I love Harlem! It’s a vital, energetic and artistic community—with its own unique set of pros and cons like any city neighborhood has. I am more aware of the problems now than I was a year ago; and I certainly got the message that a lot of black people remain angry at white people. I don’t feel quite as safe as I did before I was knocked down. I could get mugged anywhere in the city, of course. It happens. But if it happened in Gramercy Park, the cops would be more sympathetic—and manage to arrest the thug.
Q. Do you expect a negative response again from this piece?
A. I am more optimistic about race relations since Obama won. The election changed the landscape immediately. I was in Harlem on election night. You could see it in every face, black and white, this beautiful transformation. Yes, racism and sexism and ageism and many other forms of prejudicial behavior still exist. But the President and First Lady, the Attorney General and the CEO of American Express—to name a few—are African Americans. It’s a new world order, long in coming.
Harlem can throw the thugs out of the jazz bars now.
Although I agree with Susan, I just have to worry if the thugs leave the jazz bars, where are they going to go?
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