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My Soul Looks Back

  • Fester Einband
  • 272 Seiten
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"Harris's culinary expertise winds through her stories, and each chapter ends with a recipe, including her mother's Sunday... Weiterlesen
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"Harris's culinary expertise winds through her stories, and each chapter ends with a recipe, including her mother's Sunday roast chicken and Goujonnettes de Sole with Ersatz Sauce Gribiche, inspired by her favorite after-opera meal. No doubt a few of Harris's friends have been saying for years that she had to write this memoir, and if so, they were right."
Shelf Awareness

Jessica B. Harris holds a PhD from NYU, teaches English at Queens College, and lectures internationally. The author of the memoir My Soul Looks Back as well as twelve cookbooks, her articles have appeared in Vogue, Food & Wine, Essence, and The New Yorker, among other publications; she has made numerous television and radio appearances and has been profiled in The New York Times. Considered one of the preeminent scholars of the food of the African Diaspora, Harris has been inducted into the James Beard Who’s Who in Food and Beverage in America, received an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales University and recently helped the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture to conceptualize its cafeteria.

In this captivating new memoir, award-winning writer Jessica B. Harris recalls a lost era—the vibrant New York City of her youth, where her social circle included Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and other members of the Black intelligentsia.

In the Technicolor glow of the early seventies, Jessica B. Harris debated, celebrated, and danced her way from the jazz clubs of the Manhattan's West Side to the restaurants of the Village, living out her buoyant youth alongside the great minds of the day—luminaries like Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. My Soul Looks Back is her paean to that fascinating social circle and the depth of their shared commitment to activism, intellectual engagement, and each other.

Harris paints evocative portraits of her illustrious friends: Baldwin as he read aloud an early draft of If Beale Street Could Talk, Angelou cooking in her California kitchen, and Morrison relaxing at Baldwin’s house in Provence. Harris describes her role as theater critic for the New York Amsterdam News and editor at then burgeoning Essence magazine; star-studded parties in the South of France; drinks at Mikell’s, a hip West Side club; and the simple joy these extraordinary people took in each other’s company. The book is framed by Harris’s relationship with Sam Floyd, a fellow professor at Queens College, who introduced her to Baldwin.

More than a memoir of friendship and first love My Soul Looks Back is a carefully crafted, intimately understood homage to a bygone era and the people that made it so remarkable.

My Soul Looks Back
Chapter One


It’s boarded and shuttered now, with windows taped as though for an impending hurricane or a wrecking ball: a relic of another time. Those who know the Meatpacking District from Sex and the City hurry by on their way to the High Line and the trendy restaurants or window-shop at the Louboutin shop across the street, but occasionally a passerby stops and stares into the blank windows as though recalling another time: a time before the area had a name, when this was the farthest outpost of Greenwich Village and there were some West Side blocks where only the brave dared walk because the rats were the size of small dogs. The Village then was a grittier place, but one that was equally vibrant with its own life. Beyond the building at the corner of Horatio and Greenwich Streets, farther up the street, West Street and the Hudson River loomed with meatpacking warehouses, single-room-occupancy hotels, hookers, johns, pickup bars, and nighttime cruising haunts for the gay population that had come out of the collective closet only a decade or so earlier.

Then, this now-abandoned building was a beacon, a way station. Filtered light puddled on the corner outside its windows, the hum of conversation poured out the door, and on weekends the sounds of guitar music and singing could be heard as the tuna (singing groups from various Spanish universities) made their ways through the bar throngs singing Spanish college songs for tips. Then, if one lost the way, all that was required was a sense of smell. It didn’t have to be particularly good, for even those without acute olfactory nerves could recognize the aroma of garlic wafting from the kitchen. If you followed the pungent fragrance down the street, El Faro beckoned. It was a West Village landmark signaling safe passage to travelers like the lighthouse for which it was named.

Reputed to be the first Spanish restaurant in New York City, El Faro sat on the corner at the nether end of the “respectable” Village. Vivian Kramer described it in 1969 in the Greenwich Village Cookbook:

El Faro is a small Spanish restaurant tucked away in the western part of Greenwich Village, well off the beaten track. The prices are moderate and the menu includes paellas and other rice dishes, as well as spareribs from northwestern Spain, which is where the owner comes from. One followed another, and fellow Galicians are still migrating to join the kitchen and dining room staff.

The dining room is mostly tables and chairs—the emphasis here is definitely on food. The walls are decorated with life-sized portraits, like storybook illustrations, that do have a certain Spanish look, but, because of the food, nobody seems to pay much attention to the atmosphere.

The phone rings frequently. Many of the callers are would-be customers who have lost their way. The owners give directions, but no reservations—the management just can’t promise to serve everyone who wants to eat there on a given night.

Kramer captures some of the atmosphere, but she doesn’t convey the sense of surprise that many had when happening upon the dappled light streaming from El Faro’s doorway at what then seemed to be the end of the known world. Nor does she give a sense of the stygian decor of dark wood and stained glass that prevailed in the front room near the bar. El Faro was a hub; astonishingly cacophonous, it bustled nightly with the activity of neighborhood folks for whom it represented one of the few dining options. They packed the place along with others who came from afar to sample delicacies such as barbecued pork with almond sauce and shrimp with green sauce and partridge Spanish-style and pollo al ajillo (chicken with garlic) washed down with pitchers brimming with a heady sangria.

Those in the know or with little to spend who wanted something comforting and warming would order the Galician specialty: caldo gallego, a hearty kale and sausage soup rich with shredded collard greens and chunks of potato. It was the owner’s salute to Galicia, his native corner of Spain, and a bowl made a filling meal. Neighborhood folks who were loved by the management could call for take-out orders by special dispensation, and the back room had booths where folks could hunker down for serious conversations well lubricated with drinks from the full bar.

Kramer does not mention, and perhaps did not know, that the city’s famous showed up there on more than one occasion—actors Rip and Geri (Torn and Page); Richie Havens, who lived up the street; writer Dick Schaap (whose daughter Rosie remembers it well); and perhaps the most famous resident of Horatio Street: James Baldwin. I didn’t know El Faro and I’d never been to Horatio Street, although I lived in the West Village on Charles Street only a few blocks away. That would all change one afternoon in the early 1970s.

It was a day like any other: I’d finished teaching my French classes at Queens College for the week and was heading down the street to the bus stop to return to my Manhattan apartment when I noticed a colleague in front of me. Awe inspiring in his intellect, with a notably acid tongue, he was the terror of the college’s SEEK Program, where his rants about pedagogy were legendary and kept the program on the academic high road. He was also the bad boy of the English department, where he taught some of the first courses the college ever offered in African American literature; the professors there admired his erudition. I was therefore astonished walking along behind him one afternoon to watch him surreptitiously as he capered down the street like a playful kid (in both literal and colloquial senses of the word). We met up at the corner and, chatting collegially, found out that we lived within blocks of each other in the West Village. I was nonetheless astounded when he asked me to stop by his place for a drink.

We walked companionably and talked about everything from Village life to SEEK matters, the French courses I was teaching to things more personal. Sam began what would become a running joke, teasing me about my mother, who also worked at Queens College, albeit in another department and as a lowly administrative assistant, hounding him to make sure that the job I had been promised remained mine on my return from a year in France. To hear him tell it, she was a terror, and I giggled recognizing her single-mindedness in all things that concerned me, her only child.

We both lived in a Greenwich Village that was in transition from the bohemian outpost where the grandmothers of those who’d made it in Little Italy lived alongside the artists and writers of another era. I lived on Charles Street right off Greenwich Avenue, the first tenant in an old-line tenement that had just been renovated into luxury apartments as part of the Village’s ongoing gentrification. We got off at West Fourth Street, my stop, as I had some things to drop off at my apartment before heading over to his.

Near the subway exit at Eighth Street at the corner of Sixth Avenue (no New Yorker has ever called it Avenue of the Americas), the Women’s House of Detention still loomed gloomily, although it had been closed in 1971. Longtime Villagers recalled the street theater created by the women prisoners yelling from the windows down to their friends, pimps, and passersby on the streets and the replies shouted up. I remembered the prison from Angela Davis’s brief incarceration there and trials of the Black Panther activists that marked its last years. The tall red-brick edifice dominated the corner and had housed a range of prisoners from Polly Adler to Ethel Rosenberg to Grace Paley, and included Afeni Shakur who was two months’ pregnant with Tupac at the time of her sequester. It was torn down in 1973 and replaced by a garden, creating a deceptively peaceful memorial to the women who’d suffered there. Across the street on Sixth Avenue, Balducci’s, an old-line Italian greengrocer, offered vegetables and fruit at a time before every other Manhattan corner boasted a Korean market. Old man Balducci had taken a liking to me and always slipped an orange or two or a grapefruit into my bag when I shopped there.

Small eateries catered to the neighborhood denizens and to those who headed to the Village for their weekend dose of bohemia. Many were red-sauce Italian like Angelina’s on Greenwich Avenue around the corner from my apartment, where Angelina, someone’s Italian nonna, terrified the kitchen and presided over the dining room greeting those she knew warmly and banishing others to the outer reaches. Other spots like Jai Alai, La Bilbaína, Café Valencia, and Sevilla were Spanish in the model of El Faro, each boasting variants of the shrimp in green sauce and spare ribs in almond sauce served in the same clay cazuelas and brimming aluminum cauldrons that the Horatio Street restaurant had made famous. And still others were steak houses and fine-dining establishments like Casey’s, the Coach House, and Charles French Restaurant. There was even a good representation of international restaurants serving cuisines from Middle Eastern to Japanese to Jamaican.

Greenwich Village in the early 1970s was divided into several neighborhoods. The West Village, the main residential area, ran from Sixth to Eighth Avenues and from Fourteenth Street down to Houston Street. (A snootier section ran east of Sixth Avenue over to Fifth Avenue and was simply called Greenwich Village.) Eighth Street was the main shopping drag and boasted record shops with bins of vinyl discs including the Nonesuch ones of what would be later called World Beat Music, Brentano’s sold books, and on MacDougal, a side street, Fred Leighton sold frothy Mexican wedding dresses that I loved but couldn’t afford, long before he moved uptown to sell the antique jewelry that now adorns red-carpet denizens at Oscar time. Bleecker Street east of Sixth Avenue housed spots like the Village Gate, which hosted Latin musicians and jazz greats, and showcased some of the remaining beatnik coffee houses like Caffé Reggio and Le Figaro Café in the pre-Starbucks era.

There were small off-Broadway theaters like the Circle in the Square; The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Playhouse had already been running for a decade. West of Seventh near West Tenth at 340 Bleecker there was Boomers, a jazz club that had amazing musical brunches and lethal Bloody Marys. It was so much a part of downtown Black life that it was even featured in the film Superfly. Nearby, the Pink Teacup provided hearty breakfasts complete with grits for jazz-loving night crawlers of the dawn patrol and soul food—fried chicken, smothered pork chops, and catfish—for nostalgic southerners. On Seventh Avenue, the Village Vanguard and other spots made the area known for jazz hangouts. A few short blocks to the south and the east, NYU offered the Collegiate Village. It was then contained in the zone around Washington Square Park, which still could be a nightly no-man’s-land. By day, though, the Village was every young girl’s That Girl dream and I knew all of those sections.

But Sam and I left the Village I was familiar with, headed down Greenwich Avenue, and rounded the corner to Horatio Street, where the wind howling from the Hudson River seemed to chill things by several degrees and indicate that this was a different part of the Village—a wilder zone. We stopped in front of a Federal-era building at number 81 around the corner from the spot where Alexander Hamilton died following his duel with Aaron Burr. The building had been a private house in those days; in more recent times, it had been carved into multiple apartments. This was where Sam lived in what I would learn had formerly been James Baldwin’s building. They had been neighbors; that’s how their friendship began.

He opened the door, and I was delighted to see the swish of a cat’s tail as Monsieur Blues, a sleek round-headed bluepoint Siamese, wandered over to greet Sam and nose around my feet, no doubt smelling my own Siamese cats. Blues, I would later learn, was Sam’s familiar, his confidant, and his solace. I settled in on the circa-1950s couch, and Sam took up residence in his throne by the window, he nursing a J&B scotch with a splash of water and me a glass of red wine.

As we sat and chatted, Sam shed his gruff Queens College persona and eased into himself. He lit up one of the Gauloise Bleues he smoked obsessively, creating the fragrance mixture that would forever mean Sam Floyd to me—Chanel Pour Homme and French black tobacco—and talked of African American literature and opera, politics and cooking, and golf. I was intrigued and entranced by the breadth of his knowledge on so many disparate things.

We hit it off, and a few weeks later, I invited him to join me at a dinner party I was giving at the Spring Street loft of a friend who was a dress designer. I’ve always loved hosting sit-down dinners with multiple courses, a raft of china and glassware, a tablecloth, linen napkins, and place cards. This was one such extravaganza laid out on the working loft’s cutting tables. I’ve long forgotten the menu, but I remember that the dessert was orange givré, a recipe that I’d cribbed from the bill of fare at the Paris Drugstore Saint Germain. There, it consisted of a hollowed-out orange filled with orange sorbet and then refrozen. In New York, there was no sorbet then, and the only sherbet available was raspberry, and it was a vivid blood red that made the result more grand guignol than grande cuisine. It certainly ended the evening with a flourish. To my delight, Sam came, ate and drank well, and behaved well, verbally challenging a few of my friends. At the end of the evening, he even waited to accompany me home. I have a dim memory of Sam starting an argument with my friend who’d graciously agreed to hold the party in her loft, accusing her of being a sellout and not politically aware. That should have been a warning note, but the clanging of those bells was lost in my glow of a successful dinner party, and out I swept on a love-besotted cloud, heading back to my Charles Street apartment with Sam, who’d actually waited for me until after the cleanup was done. That was the beginning. We first slept together that night, finding comfort and companionship in each other in a wine-sodden haze. In time, our nascent friendship turned into deeper affection and then into something stronger, and eventually we were acknowledged to be a couple.

Sam had the ability to transform the ordinary into the special: transmute the dross of daily life into magical moments of spun gold. He’d taken to occasionally stopping off after work in midtown at the old Russian Tea Room, when he felt like it and was feeling flush, for champagne, blini, and caviar. Owner Faith Stewart-Gordon used to advertise it on WQXR every morning as being slightly to the left of Carnegie Hall, and it was the kind of spot where you could see émigrés, socialites, and the occasional star like Nureyev. Sam arrived like Grant taking Richmond, occupied one of the coveted booths, commandeered the center of the red leather banquettes, and spent the rest of the afternoon regaling his guests with tall tales and quiet confidences. These forays often evolved into dinner at a nearby restaurant. Each day offered another possibility for exploration, expansion, and delight.

Sam’s apartment at 81 Horatio Street was the downtown hub of activity for the group, and he hosted one and all in his small living room in a permanent floating salon where on any given occasion, you might run into fellow academics Corrine Jennings, Richard Long, and Dolly McPherson; writers Maya Angelou, Louise Meriwether, Rosa Guy, and Paule Marshall; actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page; and just plain friends like Mary Painter and her French chef husband, Georges Garin, or Baldwin himself, though at this point, he’d been spoken of but I’d yet to meet him. Liquor flowed—the three J’s: J&B, Jack Daniels, and Johnnie Walker Black. Wine never ran out, and if Sam wasn’t cooking, food could be ordered from El Faro up the street. The apartment so bubbled with activity that some of us just referred to it as Club 81.

Entertainments at Club 81 were usually unplanned and just seemed to happen when someone was in town or there was an event of some sort. We’d gather, drinks would be poured, food prepared or ordered, and it was on to the next stop. If Maya were in town, there would be at least one dinner at Paparazzi on the East Side. The Brasserie was another favored spot that recalled the Brasserie Lipp and others in Paris. The grand staircase that bisected the room was suitable for sweeping entrances and offered a perfect vantage point from which to scope out the crowd. The menu featured such Parisian favorites as steak frites and choucroute, the Alsatian sauerkraut dish that I’d come to love.

I’m still not sure just how or why Sam settled on me; perhaps my naiveté attracted him. I certainly came from another side of his spectrum. I suspect that some things about my family’s oh-so-aspirational, oh-so-bourgeois lifestyle reminded him of a quieter, more sedate life that he’d perhaps hankered for in his youth in Durham. I was young, but I had all the trappings of a worldly sophisticate. I could keep up a good conversation about world politics. I was a bona fide bluestocking. I’d read the classics and could quote Proust in the original with a Parisian accent. I loved nothing more than his Sunday sessions when whoever had assembled at Club 81 sat around and read “When Malindy Sings” by Paul Laurence Dunbar in full dialect or acted out snippets of plays directed and stage-managed by Sam, especially Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, or read poetry from God’s Trombones by James Weldon Johnson in full-throated voices.

I can still hear Sam’s stentorian tones, complete with the rich preacher’s cadence of one who has spent more than one Sunday down front on the mourner’s bench in a Black church.

Weep not, weep not,

She is not dead;

She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.

I can still see the Angel of Death and hear the horses’ hoofs as he journeyed to Yamacraw to take Sister Caroline home:

Go Down Death, and bring her to me.

  •  •  •  

It wasn’t all poetry and parties. Alongside my teaching, I was building a career as a journalist at a string of the newly forming Black magazines. In short, I had been raised by Edwardian-era parents to be perfect midcentury modern wife material: an accommodating helpmate. I loved to entertain, made good conversation, was pretty much game for anything, and as a colleague of Sam’s at Queens College had my own money to spend. Just the kind of girl you could easily take home to Mother. I was also fifteen years younger than Sam and so wet behind the ears that the waterfall sounds drowned out any warning signals there might have been. I was quiet, polite, unquestioning, and very well educated: the perfect clay for Sam to mold.

Sam, of course, had been presented to my parents, who were not sure what to think of this volatile suitor who was fifteen years older than their much-coddled daughter. They were all too pleased that someone seemed to understand the daughter they had spawned who did not fit into any of the worlds that they knew, but they were decidedly cautious about his temperament and his age. Sam did not attempt to curry favor with them. He knew my mother from Queens College and regarded her as a professional ally in his ongoing battles with the powers that be at the college. He regarded my self-taught, southern-poor-boy-turned-aspirational-bourgeois father with interest, no doubt seeing glimmers of his own life. They shared an affection for telling tales and creating stories, and I remember my horror when at one Sunday dinner, Sam calmly told my father that he “would lie if the truth were in my favor just to keep in practice!” My father was shocked and taken aback at Sam’s audacity but simply nodded and, after some discussion, agreed: indeed, they had both re-created the narratives of their lives, and my father’s adolescent desires had become his adult truths in much the same way that Sam’s had his. A tenuous truce was established, and my folks came to regard us as a couple as well as joining us from time to time at the opera or sitting down to hear Mabel Mercer at the St. Regis Hotel. My mother occasionally joined the crowd at Horatio Street. They were trying to be modern parents and keep up with the progressive and permissive times and made no mention of weddings or commitments. And so it went for a while.

It was not always about friends and the famous. Sam also had moments when the doors to Club 81 were firmly shut to the world. Like many apparent extroverts and indeed like his best friend, Baldwin, he was a deeply private person and required his downtime to think and renew his energy. In these moments, he would also write, and when he returned to the world recharged, he would occasionally bring a page out of the drawer in his coffee table to read the precious paragraphs that he’d crafted. Writing was not something that came easily for him. It was agonizing, but the results were memorable.

He had that kind of eye and that ability to transmute the detritus of everyday living into wordsmith’s gold. But the paragraphs were few and far between, and for the most part, he’d disappear into his own world—sit and sip scotch and listen to the music he adored: Maceo Woods’s growling organ playing old-school gospel songs like “Peace Be Still,” deep-moaning blues that talked of loss and longing, or full-blast operas to which he would sing along. Christmas was a no-fly zone for friends. Club 81 was always closed for the holiday. Sam remained sequestered and meditated on things while surrounding himself with the plangent voice of Bessie Smith. And so the year went by with the unfurling of events and my increasing acceptance by Sam’s crowd.


Titel: My Soul Looks Back
EAN: 9781501125904
ISBN: 978-1-5011-2590-4
Format: Fester Einband
Herausgeber: Simon & Schuster N.Y.
Genre: Briefe & Biografien
Anzahl Seiten: 272
Gewicht: g
Größe: H213mm x B140mm
Jahr: 2017



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