A Saturday on 125th Street in the spring is like a carnival. Let's start with the ice cream trucks, either parked at the curb or cruising along with their darling music box chimes. Add sellers of pineapple on a stick, carmelized nuts, fresh fruit, shaved ice, bottled water. Then, throw in some church ladies with a few tables of yard-sale items and home-baked goods for sale: fat slices of cake and sweet potato pies. The backdrop is a swathe of shops both old and new, ranging from soul food dives to American Apparel ridiculousness. The sun is shining and everyone is in a good mood. An old guy is busting out some dancing moves for a guy selling cds of old-time R&B. Ladies selling big colorful wooden earrings laugh at him. Other people are selling corsages, Mother's Day cards, sunglasses, plastic kewpie-doll heads with tootsie-rolls for hair. Then there are the Obama calendars, Obama wallets, t-shirts with Obama's face in sequins. Still other vendors hawk original paintings, Egyptian knick-knacks, and books on every subject from romance to Freemasonry. Don't forget the people with the African shea butter, bath crystals, and incense. The sidewalks are full of strollers, shoppers, romancers, people-watchers, sun-lovers, flirters, and all kinds of people from tourists to old ladies in their curlers to young studs strutting their coolest rhinestone belt-buckles and bling. At street-corners, people are handing out flyers for nail salons alongside Jehovah's Witness ladies in flowery dresses, who stand aback demurely, as gypsy cabdrivers honk, trolling for business. On my way to run an errand I walked down this carnival street, this bustling main street, and soaked in the joie de vivre of the whole scene, regretting that I'd left my camera behind.
The colorful festival atmosphere stood in stark contrast to the scene I encountered in the Harlem Branch Library, located on quiet 124th Street. I stopped there to reserve a book, and felt like I'd stepped back in time. Dusty beams of sunlight shone through the large windows of the old brownstone library building. Beyond a wooden staircase, one large room bordered with bookshelves was peppered with men and women reading newspapers quietly. Circulating air lazily around the warm room, a large fan was attached to the antique wooden desk of a harried librarian, in intense conversation with a handsome young man whose white linen shirt and khaki trousers gave him the look of an expatriate journalist in war-time France. A woman in West African dress sat by the door, fanning her napping child. If not for the laptop users and the librarian's computer (which might have been a card-catalog for all the good it was doing her), it could have been a scene from any day between now and 1925. Some things don't ever change much. For that, I'm grateful.
I checked out my book, smiled at the handsome man, and headed back out into the sunny flower-scented street-carnival day.