The apartment was located in the very last house on the block of 120th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. I met the landlady on the garden level and followed her up three flights of decrepit stairs. We entered the available apartment on the top floor. Its green-painted hallways and matching green carpet were hideous, but there was light streaming in from the front and back windows and a skylight presiding over the entryway and landing. To cross from the front to back required a short stroll. It was, even without a kitchen, the very definition of happiness. I wrote a check for the first and last months’ rent, then went downtown to collect my things.

At the time, the miraculous location of a floor-through brownstone apartment—even a floor-through brownstone apartment without a kitchen and with a lamentable green hallway complemented by ugly green wall-to-wall carpeting—held a certain sense of destiny. It was somehow meant to be. The notion that an apartment without a kitchen was ever anyone’s destiny has to do with the general desperation of real estate in New York City, but it is a good indicator of how I saw the world then. I needed providence as an escort on my own ascent from the subway station into Harlem. I, too, was going to meet a place I had already filled with so many expectations. I, too, would have to match the pictures in my mind—the ones I’d invented and the ones I’d seen in books—with the world that was now my own.

Reprinted from Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, copyright 2011, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, with the permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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