By JACQUELINE WOODSON
One night when I was 15 years old, I stood in the center of Studio 54 and watched Grace Jones descend from the ceiling on a swing. I was slightly stoned, from a joint my friends and I had passed between ourselves on the subway into Manhattan. And I was in love — not with Grace Jones, and not with the fact that I was a young person standing inside one of the most famous clubs in the country. I was in love with New York City, and it felt, in that moment, as though the city belonged to me.
My friends and I had become regulars at the club, the crew of us a bevy of young black and Latino girls serving up eye candy and authenticity. We thought nothing of it — yes, it was a hot club, but we had been to many hot clubs. We knew people at the door and never paid for entry. We didn’t drink, although more than once we had been caught smoking weed, too naïve to know that we needed to be on the down low about it. But we learned quickly that there was a way to be inside the club, low-key and cool, a been-there-done-that hooded-eyed sense of the world.
That night, as Miss Jones moved toward us from what felt like Heaven, it was hard to maintain that knowing cool. I sensed that I was in a very special place at a very special time. Even as a teenager, I understood I was coming of age in a time that would be looked back on with awe, in a city that would become the love of my life. I was in a moment that, even at 15, I knew would not last forever.
My friends and I all danced hard and dressed well, and thanks to jobs that sometimes had us working until past midnight on the weekends, coupled with our ability to lie to our parents, we had all kinds of reasons why we needed to stay out late alibis. So as Miss Jones dropped onto the stage that night, I stared in terror and awe.
At the time, I had been living in Brooklyn for nearly a decade, having come with my family — through the Great Migration — from South Carolina. Until I was about 13, Manhattan had been a world seen from its edges. The Macy’s holiday windows on a cold Sunday afternoon. A hole-in-the-wall fish fry in Harlem where a cranky old man fried up perfect porgies and served them on sliced white bread slathered with tartar and hot sauce. A rainy trip on the Staten Island Ferry with my third grade class followed by a meal at a restaurant in Chinatown, where our teacher, Ms. Moskowitz, tried in vain to teach me how to use chopsticks. (Till this day I hold them like no one I know.)
Aside from a few forays across the Williamsburg Bridge via the aboveground J train or, on days when it wasn’t running, the long trip through the tunnel on what was then the LL (now the L train), I was more than happy to exist in the haven of my Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn. There, my friends and I had the freedom to roam the familiar streets in search of greasy slices of pizza on Myrtle Avenue, handball games in Knickerbocker park, cheerleading practice at the captain’s house on Cornelia Street and double Dutch on what seemed to be every corner.
It was the 1970s and adults still stepped into the street when young people were taking up the space of sidewalks, eager to give us the small power of our chanting, tagging and hopscotch games. Although I would later learn that our few blocks in Brooklyn were tiny in comparison to the rest of the city, for many years my friends and I owned our neighborhood and believed it to be the only place in the state that mattered.
In our neighborhood we were popular and smart, and some of us were very pretty. And with this combination, in 1970s Bushwick, you could get quite far. That and the fact that our first summer jobs via SYEP (the Summer Youth Employment Program) had left us with enough money in our pockets to buy designer jeans and suede Pumas at VIM, the popular clothing store nearby.
My sister went off to Hunter College High School for seventh through 12th grade, and she quickly became a child of Manhattan. Yet even as she told us of her adventures — being kissed on the cheek by Robert Redford (Who the hell is Robert Redford?), sharing a joint with Rick James in Washington Square Park, who then took her to Sam Goody and bought her an Aiwa stereo system (Rick James! You met Rick James?!) — my friends and I happily rambled the streets of Brooklyn.
When my sister was about 16, she landed a job as a waitress at a small cafe in Greenwich Village called Yogurt Delight. I feared Greenwich Village, since it was rumored to be the place “where lots of gay people hung out.” As a teenager, sporting what my mother called “mannish” sneakers (Pumas) and “mannish” hats (plaid or striped Kangols) and “mannish” pants (tailor-made, seamless sided gabardines), I must have looked, to the trained eye, the not so trained eye and to my mom, like the poster child of Baby Dyke. My own oblivion of this is now both funny and heartbreaking in retrospect.
Not long after she was hired, my sister got my best friend Maria and me jobs at Yogurt Delight, and suddenly the freedom we had had on the streets of Brooklyn felt like nothing compared with the lives we would come to know in Manhattan.
For many years, Yogurt Delight sat right next to what was then the Waverly Theater, an art house where, once we became friends with the young black and Latino ticket takers, we traded yogurt, tuna melts and date-nut bread and cream cheese sandwiches for admission to “The Deer Hunter” and “Eraserhead.” We discovered that the Village was alive with black and Latino teenagers willing to barter. A T-shirt store on West Fourth had hired a crew of teenagers from the Jacob Riis housing projects who supplied us with enough Keep on Trucking, Black Is Beautiful and Superfly tees to carry us well into our 20s.
And when our shifts were over, there was Studio 54, at once exclusive and fabulously accessible, stopped in time and yet already fading into history.
My memory of those years is loud — filled with strobe lights and “Disco sucks” being shouted by haters, alive with names like Sylvester, Grace Jones and Tina Turner, who sang and danced and hung out only inches from me. So when my beloved city tries to big-box-store and middle-ground itself into something tamer and in line with the rest of the country, I venture back to that time of sheer possibility, when Manhattan was a place people from so many different neighborhoods and classes came to. They danced beside one another, shared a joint, cheered on a black woman dropping from the sky. And I remember that the city I love is deeper, older, more beautiful than those who weren’t here then can ever understand.