Map of Harlem, neighborhood in northern Manhattan, NYC

Map of Harlem, neighborhood in northern Manhattan, NYC

On the ground floor again, we breathe a sigh of relief as we spot the bus two blocks away ready to pick us up to go back to the mission. On the way to our mobile haven, we pass pawn shops armed like fortresses, lurid adult bookstores with XXX ratings, filthy-looking lounges, a stark store-front church.

Then we spot a gargantuan black woman with a red satin turban and purple robe–a bathrobe? a graduation gown? She’s “preaching” about Jehovah God in the middle of the sidewalk. I think she’s preaching until I see she is holding an upside-down Sears and Roebuck catalog as her bible and then inhale alcoholic fumes emanating from her body. We try to go around her, but this frightful creature grabs me by the shoulder in a death grip, and I am spun round and round in dizzying circles. There is little I can do to resist the grasp of this drunken prophetess. “Hazel, Hazel, help me,” I call out with a voice that feels somehow disconnected from my body. Hazel is astounded too and stands there immobile. I fall onto the scorching pavement as the woman lets go of me mid-air. By now Brother Paul and Sister Lois have raced up the street to our aid.

Someone deposits me across two empty seats on our bus. I am aware of heads hovering over me as a blurry hand wipes my face with a cool, wet handkerchief. We are going back to Brother Ernie’s mission on Eighth Avenue for lunch. It’s quiet for a few minutes. Then Brother Frank leads everyone in singing “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There” as we bounce across the avenues.

But I don’t join in. My head is buzzing with the pain of too many unanswered questions. Did the church elders know about the risks and think that telling us would discourage us from going? Did they come here innocent and ignorant like us and also get a rude awakening? Why didn’t Brother Ernie, now almost a New Yorker himself, give us more pointers?

Back at the mission, I have recuperated enough to eat our meal of home-made egg salad sandwiches and chicken corn soup brought up from home in ice chests, relieved that I have survived the jungle of Harlem.

BLUSH Contest closes tonight, October 2, 2013, at midnight! Here’s the link to the Contest Rules for a chance to win a copy of Shirley’s memoir:  

Review of Shirley Showalter’s BLUSH and Book Giveaway

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