Issue 11, December 2013
{ Phantasmagoria }
by DéLana R.A. Dameron
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."—Joan Didion

August 23, 2009

Even though he denies it, I believe M really does like me because he never tells me no. So, I've learned to ask him for obscure favors: repeated trips to IKEA in New Jersey and back; full reign over his television when I come over; picking me up along with my exorbitantly-priced plant I bought from the Flower District in lower Manhattan only to drive us back Uptown above 145th street, up four flights of stairs to my studio, and of course, watering said plant while I was away in Ithaca, NY on my four-week writing residency.

I admit to myself that I liked M because he reminds me of home. M is a southern transplant, too, and makes sweet tea by the pitcher and keeps it in his fridge and watches the 11 o'clock news. He's an engineer and finds my creativity intriguing and indulges my narcissism by listening to me read poems and lets me talk about my days in Ithaca: writing or not writing, coffee drinking and cookie making. Maybe I wrote or edited, but only in between episodes of the whole series of The Wire, an HBO television series that chronicles crime and police beats in Baltimore, Maryland, centered on a large and intricate drug ring. I report to M where I am in the series each night we talk; he tells me what is happening in Harlem.

"Don't get worried or anything," he starts, and I think that is the equivalent of someone prefacing a statement with, "Don't get offended"—they mean what they're about to say, they're going to say it, and the listener has to suspend any radical response to whatever the speaker says because of the order at the beginning as if to cushion the salvo. It's 11:30pm and he's called so that must mean the news is just over. I'm tired from watching The Wire on my small laptop screen, and I'm frustrated. I tell him to just tell me. He reports that there have been a series of rapes "up near [me]" which is thirty blocks from M and is—what he calls—"The Hood" because there are always sirens along St. Nicholas Avenue interrupting our phone conversations, and this latest news doesn't help support my stance that it is not "The Hood."

You can see the explicit traces of gentrification in Harlem though they diminish exponentially the further north you travel from 110th street to 155th street—the beginning of Washington Heights. If it were traceable like a calculus graph, 150th street seems to be the limit to the gentrifying asymptote: the saturation of whiteness decreases and decreases until it just touches, but never crosses, the limit. That is to say, the closer you are to 110th street, the more obvious the attempts to change the demographics of the neighborhood, and, save for the stronghold of African Muslim presence along 116th street, you wouldn't think Harlem was ever majority black below 125th street. Above 125th street, the high rises keep the population pretty strong, and that is where the turn begins to happen: it's too far north and only a few have made it this far, and further, to my neighborhood, above 145th street. Here, older men sit outside on the corner in white plastic chairs, younger men shoot craps against the stoops; Friday night is Fish Night at Devin's Seafood and the Fish Market. The only sign of changes to come is down the hill: a brand new Starbucks and New York Sports Club. Around these places, and sometimes the Dunkin Donuts, but less so, gather the few white faces living this far up in Harlem. Or else travelers with cameras taking pictures of residents sitting at their windows (I've had a guy take a picture of me), or Convent Baptist Church or Harlem School of the Arts, or the kids opening up the fire hydrant on the corner.

M gives me the locations: West 148th Street and Broadway. West 144th Street and Convent Avenue. I draw a mental map around my studio. I'm still in Ithaca, but return to Harlem in three days, so of course I begin to worry.

August 26, 2009

It's the first time I've emerged from the A train stop at 145th street in over a month. Already, it is too dark and I can't help it because of my six hour bus ride from Ithaca. The window of the station attendant booth is plastered with black and white sketches of a hooded black man. There is an issued warning. I remembered M's account the night he told me—the suspect followed women into the lobby and elevator of the buildings or cornered them in the alley. Depending on which exit I use, my apartment—affectionately called The Perch—can be as close as less than two blocks from the train station exit. I can't decide if this proximity is blessing or curse: either I am so close to the train station that a potential attacker doesn't have time to follow me before I'm inside my apartment, or I am so close to the train station that I don't have time to identify a potential follower outside of the train station. The circular mirrors in the corner of the staircases of the stations allow me to see at once all of my blind spots: in front, around the corner, and behind me. I'm clear. When I'm finally outside of the station, I swing a wide turn right: I walk to the edge of the sidewalk, away from the buildings and dark crevices between the buildings—that's how one woman got cornered in an alley—and walk towards my building. I keep a peripheral watch as I walk, tilting my head slightly left and right to open up my blind spots. My keys in my hands pointed as if I'm Edward Scissorhands—just like I learned in college in a women's defense class. When I get to my building, I pass my staircase a few steps to make sure no one is hiding behind my neighbor's tall stoop. I return to my door, and while I'm inserting my key, I use the door's window slot as a mirror: there's no one behind me. I don't know if I think now of my small walk-up building as a blessing, but there's no lobby, and there's no elevator shaft. Only four flights to my studio before I'm safe.

I get home and text my friend J to say I'm home. That's all I say. Earlier, we were texting while I was on the bus. She knew about the rapist because it was all over the news, all over the subways in Manhattan, but she didn't know how close it was to where I lived. I tell her the locations: the one on 148th street, where they had camera surveillance in the lobby looked just like the lobby of my old building where I lived, right at West 148th and Broadway a few months ago before I moved into The Perch on St. Nicholas Avenue, and still is only three blocks from me. I say at least when I lived there I had roommates, someone to expect me home, and someone to get worried if I didn't come home. Now, I live alone. The quiet I sought means this: no one will ever expect me anywhere, I say. She prescribes a regimen of texting when I'm about to head home from wherever I am and texting upon my arrival into the apartment. That way someone expects me somewhere at all times. I thank her for this. I say, it's a shame, I love Harlem. I love that my Harlem is nothing but beautiful black folks all around, and I look out my window and see black folks, but right now, right now, I hate that I walk around my Harlem afraid of black men.

Each night following my first night back in New York, M calls to check up on me. I don't have much to say except I'd been inside since 10:00pm that night, and that I'm giving myself a self-imposed curfew. I go out in the morning to work with my high school students and adult GED students, and go to class for grad school—here, the night time course offerings do not appeal as much as it means I cannot get home before 9:00pm—and text J to say I'm headed home at 9:10pm and text J to say I'm home, inside and safe at 9:30pm. Days pass and M says he hadn't seen anything else on the news about the rapist, but that also means they hadn't caught him. What has happened in this time is that the news of the rapist has made national coverage and my mom calls me at 10:00pm only to say, "Are you home?" I tell her I am, and she says, "Good." I ask her why? And she tells me that she heard on the news that night that there was a serial rapist in Harlem, and she didn't know where that was in relation to me, but wanted to make sure I'm being safe up there, and inside. I tell her that the incidents were happening "in the neighborhood." With my parents, I have to be as vague as possible lest they worry and hours later my dad is at my apartment ready to bring me back to South Carolina. I promise my mom that I'm being safe, and say I don't stay out late anymore and come home as soon as I take care of what I need to do in the city, but that my grad classes are so late, I can't help be out until just about this hour. She says a quick prayer over me before I hang up. My grandmother calls soon after.

"Baby, I heard about the news up there," she says. I tell her hello, and yes, it's in my neighborhood, but not quite near me, so I should be fine, but I'm staying inside as much as I can. She tells me that she knows I must be scared, and asks me if I am carrying my pepper spray she gave me? I tell her no, I'm not carrying it. She asks me why? She gave it to me for this reason, to protect myself, and that I should at least just put it in my bag when I have to leave the house, and I should only leave out of necessity. Even though I doubt I will, I tell her I'll start carrying it, and thank her for the call. We exchange "I love you's" and hang up. I search my closet for the red case of Mace.

August 29, 2009

I leave the house weighed down with the red case of Mace. Despite the fact that my grandmother gave it to me two years ago when I ventured out of the South to live "Up North," and I'd never even taken it out of the plastic case, I found it in my utility closet and put it in my purse. I hated the idea of carrying pepper spray. I felt it warranted a type of heightened anxiety, almost like a talisman welcoming the violence I was trying to avoid: like, because I was carrying pepper spray, there would be a time that I would need to use it. Of course, I thought about it the other way: there would come a time where I would need it—was that time nearing for me?—and it would be in The Perch, and my family would ask me why I didn't use it, and then what would I say? I still won't walk with it on my keychain or in my hand, but I have it on my person and it makes me feel both more anxious and protected at the same time.

I get home and I text my three friends and checked in with my mom, my dad, and my grandma all before 10:30pm. M calls at 11:30pm again and says the news reports the attacker is thought to be in his 30's, about six-feet tall, with a medium build. He's black, a fact I knew from the sketches already, but the news confirms and reiterates it. That description seems to be every man I pass by and nod my head at when I leave my house; the same men who'd say, "Good morning" to me; the same men who stand outside of the barber shop, and because of my locks swinging behind me to my waist, call out to me, "Whas gwoin on, Ras?" and I smile and nod and keep walking. M says they've released video footage that was supposedly taken right after the third attack where a 69 year-old woman was followed into her building and robbed and raped. I search the internet and look at the video, read the reports. The video is grainy and shows a black man in a white t-shirt and dark pants walking in front of a surveillance camera and the ticker reads 2:44am. The camera is supposed to be on the outside of the building where the woman on Riverside was raped. In the video—a snippet of the 11 o'clock news M must have watched—the clip jumps from the surveillance video to a clear camera shot of a building with a white man walking out of the building. The two news correspondents are black men reporting on a black man raping victims in "Upper Manhattan" (though the writing on the screen names "Harlem" as the correspondent's location). The video then quotes the Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his warning to women when they are out late:

"I would urge women to be particularly aware and alert when they frequent 24-hour shopping locations. We've seen this in the past, where people are lurking outside and following the women from the locations."

The clip cuts to the posters that are plastered all over the subway of the sketched hooded black man and two stills of grainy video surveillance of a black figure in a black hoodie and dark jeans.

September 8, 2009

I am walking home after class and it is nearing 10:00pm. I have no choice. I do my wide exit from the train station, checking my mirrors and blind spots. I'm walking towards my building and there's a black man walking in my direction. Measuring our pace, we'll get to right in the vicinity of my doorway at about the same time, so I slow my steps, even though this seems counter-intuitive to my quick-shot to my door to get into the relative safety of my apartment building. I don't want to get to that shadowed threshold at the same time as this man, this black man, this dark figure I've come to fear. My plan is now: walk past my building and pretend to go to the corner store, even though that is no longer safe. I reason: at least it's lit, and there are bodies there, and I can reach my phone or my Mace or something. I walk past the man, past my apartment, and he leans in, and I hear: "Yo, why you walking home by yourself?" The tone does not seem genuinely inquisitive, or in an I'm-looking-out-for-you type of way. Instead, it confirmed my need to not stop in front of my apartment, and I walked to the Corner store and bought a Diet Gingerale, then, when all was clear, made my way home.

Later, M calls and it's not even 11:30pm yet and the first thing he asks me is, "Are you okay?" I say yes. I think about the man on the street I just passed but don't mention it to him. It is past curfew for me, so of course I'm inside, but a few days have passed and we hadn't talked because I was becoming overwhelmed with school, and he probably with work. He says, "Good." He was watching the news and there was an incident last night on St. Nicholas Ave above 145th Street. I look outside my window, because where I sit, I can see up and down St. Nicholas Avenue from 145th Street about three blocks. Across the street from my apartment is a NY1 News van and a flood light and I see a man holding a camera. They are filming the news right outside my window and M is watching and called because he recognized the buildings and locations. "I was worried it was you," he said, "because I hadn't talked to you." I say I'm all right, but ask him more about what the reporters are saying. He tells me: the rapist climbed through the woman's bathroom window before he assaulted her at knifepoint.

I get off the phone and call my parents. My mom says another prayer. My dad asks me if I have my window open, and I say yes, of course, it's September and I have no window AC unit. I say, as a type of condolence, that I don't have a fire escape and I live four floors up, so it would be almost impossible for someone to climb in, or at least more work than say, a building with a fire escape already. My dad tells me to be careful, as if I am trying not to be, and that he loves me. I tell him I love him, too.

I call St. Nicholas Ave the emergency vehicle super highway. Sirens up and down the street at all hours of the night. In addition to sirens, there are low-flying planes arriving or departing from LaGuardia Airport just a few miles away. When I first moved there, it was hard to sleep while adjusting to the constant noise. I got used to it, and the sirens no longer alarmed me as I realized it was just passing through. After I got off of the phone with M though, the siren frequency increased, and I was on higher alert because I had looked outside my window and saw clear as day the apartment building of the latest attack. I walk by that building every day. I sleep across from that building every night. Suffice it to say I have a hard time sleeping now because of my anxiety, and even the place I retreated to early was now not even safe, in fact, given that I do not have a fire escape, and am four floors up, could even be a trap, and where else am I to go now? What else am I to do?

A few hours after I fall asleep, I am started by the sound of a low-flying helicopter. I look out the window and do not see it. I go to the bathroom and from the skylight, I see flashes of light like a flood light coming in intervals. I hear the helicopter over my building, and each instant my bathroom is illuminated by this white light. It moves away, but is still close. I go to my windows to see if I can see it, and it hovers over the building across the street. Not the building where the last attack was, but the building next to it. I see the beam of light emanating from the helicopter onto the roof of the building, and the helicopter so low it looks as if it wanted to land. Later, some police cars on the ground, and I look at my clock and it's 1:45am, and I have to get up early the next morning for work but I can't sleep because there's a helicopter above the buildings flitting back and forth like a bumble bee and police cars have turned on their sirens. After about an hour, the helicopter flies away and the cars drive off and unblock the street. Somehow, I fall asleep.

September 11, 2009

While in Ithaca, I worked on a collection of poems that map out my relationship with Harlem. I am invited to do a reading with Cave Canem—a national organization for black poets—at Bryant Park's Word for Word series. During the reading, I still chose to read my poems, what I call love letters to and about Harlem, but preface the reading with an acknowledgement about my reality: women in my neighborhood are being attacked, and I'm scared, but I'm going to lean into that fear and continue to love my neighborhood, my neighbors. I read my handful of poems about the place I love and live.

September 20, 2009

Outside of the building where the woman was attacked by the rapist climbing through her window, there are two men standing at the door in red jackets. Between them is a table and that infamous sketch of the hooded black man. I don't go to the table but walk near enough to figure out what is going on. They are soliciting DNA samples. A few people stop by to speak to the men and one of them identifies as being part of the Guardian Angels—a group I hadn't heard of before, but looked up later that day—saying the police have collected DNA samples from the attacks but have no one to match it to. I walk away from the men standing at the table intrigued by the whole operation: self-reported DNA testing outside of the building of the last attack. Who…? I start the question, but head underground to work, and later to my night classes.

September 21, 2009

M calls at 11:30pm with good news. I ask what? He says they seemed to have caught the Harlem rapist. While on the phone with M, I look up the information in the New York Times to see what they have said. In the online version of the paper, there is a picture of three black men in red jackets and red hats, and the headline: Arrest After DNA Matches In Rapes in Manhattan. I tell M that I don't know. How do they know he fits all four cases? I thought they only had DNA for a few? According to the news article, I told him, police officers stopped him because he resembled the sketch that had been plastered around the city; the same sketch that I felt could be any-black-man in Harlem; the same sketch that could be any-black-man in any-urban-area-USA. According to the news article, the suspect said, "Yeah, that does look like me," and "volunteered to take a DNA test on the spot, swabbing his cheek himself to take a sample."

M said the woman who was attacked across the street from me was Asian. The news article confirmed it along with the ethnicity of the victims had been released, now that they had captured a suspect. She was a 28 year old Japanese woman, attacked by the suspect with a knife and climbing through her seventh-floor bathroom window from a fire escape, having "climbed to the roof of a neighboring building…and jumped to the fire escape outside the woman's windows."

I think M is calling me to tell me that I can breathe now. M is calling to say that it is okay. I want to believe M. I want to believe that I don't have to run to my apartment from the train station, but I tell him that I feel the New York Times article to be too clean: did the suspect, named now as 21 year old Vincent Heyward, really agree with police officers that that was his picture they held up next to him and say, "Of course, I'll swab my cheek for you?" Did Vincent Heyward really exist? Am I asking these questions as some sort of protection against my own self?

How much was it costing the city to have this Harlem ("Upper Manhattan") rapist at large? Another news report identified the victims as white women. None of the victims were black. What does this say about me, about my relative sense of ease? I tell M I feel bad, horrible even, because I don't believe I was the targeted victim. But I don't believe the rapist has been caught. Look, they built a brand new Starbucks and New York Sports Club here on 145th Street, and new multi-use condos—the same as those along Eighth Avenue below 125th street. Once, my older gentleman neighbor who sat outside in his white lawn chair told me this is the sign that they're trying to attract a different demographic, meaning: they want more white folks up here. They want to extend the asymptote line. Another neighbor, speaking to me—and I stopping long enough to speak this time, now—tried to talk me up about what'd been going on the past month, and it's a shame, he said, that he believed if the victims were black, he asked me, would there have been all this fuss?

Because I'm black, I think about that statement. I think about my relief. I think about the silence that would have prevailed in my mostly-black neighborhood if these black brothers were attacking "only" black women. It's all speculation. I know. He could still be out there, or another. But, the Mace is back in the closet. I don't have to text my friends so much anymore noting my whereabouts. I think: they needed to find something, someone, so that potential residents could feel this was a viable, livable area in "Upper Manhattan"; that this wasn't, in fact, "The Hood," or that anyone can live here, and justice will be swiftly served for those who have been violated.

M asks me if I want to go out for drinks this weekend. I think it's been a while, and agree. We hang up for the night, and I sit at the window. Sirens ring up and down St. Nicholas Avenue.

DéLana R.A. Dameron is the author of How God Ends Us, a collection of poems selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Dameron's poetry, non-fiction and fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and she has received fellowships from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the Cave Canem Foundation, Soul Mountain Retreat and New York University where she received her Master in Fine Arts in poetry. Dameron has conducted readings, workshops and lectures all across the United States, Central America and Europe. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, she currently resides in Brooklyn.