White Girl In Harlem

My Dad worked downtown and sometimes I would get to go to work with him and hang out for the day. One of the things I loved about hanging out with Dad was that we would always get to go somewhere interesting for lunch. He has a spiritual gift for finding obscure, little known, out of the way places to eat (not always restaurants). They always have great food even if the ‘ambience’ is sometimes a little dodgy. The best breakfast I ever ate was at a gas station/grill in the Middleofnowhere, Illinois. The best barbeque was at a little place in downtown Springfield called, Popeye’s. This Popeye’s had nothing to do with the Midwest chicken chain of the same name. It was run by an older black man, Popeye, and his family.

Never before and never since have I had barbeque as good as Popeye made it.

One day I decided to take one of my best friends there for lunch. Despite what Harry told Sally, we were friends, great friends but just friends. Of course, it helped that she had a very steady boyfriend so that took a lot of pressure off. The general routine in high school was to date, go steady, be deeply in love, figure out where the two of you would live after you got married, choose the names of your first three kids (which was six names in total, 3 boys, 3 girls) and then break up and then finally hate each other. Of course my general routine was ask a girl out, be told, “No.” (with optional laughing) and then moving on to my next rejection. I was spared either scenario and had a brilliant friend.

It also helped that her boyfriend was older and could easily kick my butt. He was going to be a State Trooper and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be on the bad side of someone who could shoot me as part of their job. Plus, he’d once killed a hamster by giving it a heart attack while talking to Shellie on the phone so getting him mad was not on my ‘to do’ list and any romantic feelings were kept in a tightly sealed and locked box buried deep in my sub-conscious.

That day, all I told Shellie was that I was taking her to a great place to eat. I think I told her it was barbeque but kept the rest of the details secret just to keep it special. I had no idea the stress I was about to create in her life.

We grew up and went to school in an intensely white world. The only people who weren’t white at our school were the foreign exchange students and one beautiful black girl that had been adopted by a white family. Springfield, on the other hand, was a racially diverse community and we had, in the home of Abraham Lincoln, a very large black population. Despite being the Land of Lincoln however, there was quite a gap, in some places and cases, between the white world and the black world: economically, geographically and culturally.

Popeye’s was on the other side of that gap.

The closer I got to the part of town where Popeye’s was located the greater the strain I was putting on my friendship. I had been there with my Dad and I wasn’t thinking about anything but good food. Shellie was thinking about how far we were from home. The truth is, when we parked along the curb outside Popeye’s, we were only blocks away from ‘the Projects’ and in a part of town that black faces out numbered white faces 20:1, a fair amount of crime went down in (that’s my TV cop lingo) and compared to our white bread world out in Rochester this was the ghetto, the ‘hood, it was Harlem. And I was oblivious to anything Shellie was feeling at that moment, I just smelled barbeque.

We walked inside the little place and the brightness of the outside made the inside seem very dark. Popeye greeted us from behind the counter and one of the waitresses pointed us towards a seat. The booths were in an L shape, we came in at the top of the L and we got a booth at the very bottom and end of the L. Shelley sat facing me and the wall behind me as the waitress handed us plastic covered menus. I was looking over the options and telling Shellie that everything was excellent here but I really recommended the barbequed pork sandwich, the only thing I’d ever had there, when I finally looked up at her. She wasn’t looking at her menu, she was looking at me and her eyes were big and she had a sort of panicked look.

“Brian,” she said as she leaned forward and spoke in a choked, whisper, “we’re the ONLY white people in here.” I blinked, paused and took few seconds to process the words. I leaned back and looked around. “Um, no we’re not.” I said. Her eyes narrowed and she looked at me doubtfully, I was the one, after all, who had taken her across the gap. She very inconspicuously turned and leaned out of the booth to get a good look around. As she spied out the room her whole body relaxed into her seat. When she turned back she picked up her menu and looked at it with a mixture of embarrassment and relief. I wanted to laugh but held it in.

If I hadn’t already been crazy about her, that moment would’ve sealed the deal for me. It suddenly occurred to me that she’d been scared and we had gotten so far away from her comfort zone that she’d probably never get back to it. We had a nice lunch that day, at least I did and I imagine she remembers it completely differently from me. That’s one of my favourite days from those years (I have a few) and though Popeye is long gone on that low swinging sweet chariot, and his place is gone, I won’t forget his barbeque or the day I spent with a white girl in Harlem.


About brianmpei

Stumbling towards what comes next.
This entry was posted in Food, Friends, Life, Rambling, Reflective. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to White Girl In Harlem

  1. John says:

    What a great story. I had many a lunch there and fondly remember Popeye and his “skipper” cap. While he has passed on, his restaurant remains. It is now called Clay’s Popeye’s Barbeque and they have moved to South Grand. The food is exactly the same, the BEST sauce in the world and mushy, sweet potato salad. Popeye’s, along with Mel-O-Cream donuts, are two indulgences that I always enjoy everytime we travel back to Springfield.

  2. brianmpei says:

    Wow John, that’s great to know. I will make sure I get there next time we’re in town. My Spfld indulgence is Taco Gringo/Jolly Tamale. Nothing like a Sancho to really hit the spot. And it’s good they’ve found a use for the nuclear waste.

    The one I miss the most: Galena’s. Not sure if I spelled that right, two Italian brother who knew how to make pizza and subs.

  3. brianmpei says:

    By the way John, I’ve been dying to write up some adventures involving a certain, Mr. Magico. Any stories you DON’T want me to tell or suggestions for names you’d like me to use to disguise your involvement?

  4. John says:

    I personally miss Angelo’s pizza more although if you like thin crust, try Monical’s. It is really outstanding. Feel free to write away wherever your muse moves you. No need to disguise my name but perhaps use “Harry” in honor of our magical friend. I mean really, how many people have you ever known that carried around their own, personal straight jacket?

  5. John says:

    P.S. I love how you cleverly included the hamster heart attack story…

  6. brianmpei says:

    And handcuffs. Man I’d love to see him again.

  7. Rene says:

    I remember going to the old Popeye’s. I guess because I did not grow up in Rockester, I didn’t consider the area or the restaurant any differently than any other. I have been told that I can be extremely sheltered in my outlook on life.

    I have to disagree with John. The new Popeye’s really isn’t the same. Maybe it had to do something with the ambiance of the old place. You just knew you where going to get some of the best down-home food. I have only been to the new place once. It was just too bright and clean. I don’t mean that the old place was trashy. You just felt like they had one heck of a pig roast going all the time. The food was the attraction, not building.

    One of the Gallina brothers has a restaurant in Riverton. A cousin, I belive, has on Monroe Street in Springfield.

    By the way, would your John be the same one who may have been involved in the Mr. Brennen math class “demerit incident” along with A. and G.?

  8. brianmpei says:

    Hmmm. I’m sure John was involved in all kinds of ‘incidents’, not sure about the demerit one. John?

    Gallina, right. my brother Brad used to work for them. Now HE could write some stories!

  9. Rene says:

    Probably a different John. This one would have been even older than you.

  10. shellie says:

    You have the sweetest memory, my friend. I had definitely forgotten about that trip to Spfld’s Harlem. And I wish you hadn’t remembered that I was such a dweeb about being the “odd man out” there. heehee! But I’m sure you are right… I think you and John got me into many scrapes when my eyes were as big as saucers!! I was either laughing or terrified when we were together! hahahaha! Yes, I had a steady boyfriend, but I always had more fun with you guys. (And no, he didn’t like it much! haha! … But I don’t recall him killing a hamster! I think that is a figment of your imagination…. or a bad memory that I’ve repressed over the years! Who knows.)

    You’ll be glad to know that I’ve gotten out a lot more in my old age, and I’m quite comfortable in places where I am the odd man out… no biggie if I am the only caucasian or the only English-speaker or the only whatever. 🙂 Maybe you dragging the little white girl to Harlem helped.

    And I am really looking forward to hearing the Mr. Magic stories!! Do tell!

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