I can't believe it's real. And I can't believe it's true. After an all-consuming yearlong apartment search, which resulted in me having an ulcer, I finally found a place to call my own in ghetto-fabulous Harlem, U.S.A. From the same streets where rappers Cam'ron and Mase wax poetic, I'm hoping to finally recover my health and sort things out. Work my way back to a higher CD4 count and a lower viral load'back to the serenity that I once knew.
I moved uptown to the land of Al Sharpton and the world-famous Apollo Theater because, from an economic standpoint, I could barely afford to rent anything else in sky-high New York City that wasn't visually depressing, unsanitary, or too far removed from a decent grocery store and acceptable medical services.
But my decision to move here had as much to do with the easy, welcoming smiles toward me by longtime Harlemites, the feel-good soul music'from Martha and the Vandellas to Marvin Gaye'blaring from street vendors' boom boxes, and the opportunity each day to bear witness to the lasting culture of all that is still black and beautiful in America.
And all that ain't beautiful. In addition to disproportionately representing other social ills, such as gun violence, Harlem leads the city in AIDS deaths, according to a recent New York health department survey. For every billboard advertisement around the way that shows Magic Johnson explaining why he takes his meds, there's a Harlem resident like me still struggling to make that decision. Lucky for all of us that there's a funeral home on Malcolm X Boulevard whose canopy boasts 'prompt, convenient 24-hour service' for befallen locals and their kin.
It's the kind of information that's good to know when you'or people near you'are accosted by a teenage thug waving a gun. That's what happened at the entrance of the very first apartment, a lopsided studio, that I looked to rent in Harlem. Fortunately for me and my small posse of T cells, the li'l gangsta's .38 was aimed at the stoop of would-be neighbors across the street. Just two hours before, an episode of black-on-black violence had left the gunman's friend dead. And now he was back for revenge.
'Y'all can't live no more!' he declared, leaping from the passenger side of a heavily customized economy car, Glock cocked. As his targets scattered, I inched my way toward safety. Sadly, the apartment was the only one I'd seen that had struck a balance between accessibility and affordability and seemed remotely feasible for me to live in. It was better than the one-bedroom in Queens with a dead mouse left in the bathtub. Or the studio in Brooklyn where it was explained that the locks had to be replaced after the front door was kicked in by drug enforcement agents. Maybe a gun-toting hood wasn't so bad. After so many months of searching, I worried that I wouldn't find anything better for the rent.
Through a well-connected housing hookup, eventually I did. (You know who you are. Thank you.) Now I'm situated on the most beautifully serene block in all of Harlemworld. I can finally get outside of my own head. Reconnect with the AIDS community. Dream. Wake in the morning without worrying about where I'll live. Make sound decisions about taking meds. And get back to the business of AIDS reporting, to which I am committed. From this place it can happen. I am certain of it.
Whitfield is one of the nation's leading journalists reporting on AIDS among African-Americans. A frequent Vibe contributor, he is based in New York City.