The Umbrellas of Harlem

This past Thursday in NYC, it rained. It was the first rainy day since last autumn that was warm enough so people weren’t bundled up.

The vernal equinox was only a day away. The light was lovely — warm and deep, despite the wet and the dark clouds. There was almost no wind.

In Harlem, a few women were bucking the usually-austere NYC umbrella color scheme, which is black and dark gray, with a bit of red thrown in for audacity’s sake.

Umbrellas of purple, yellow and green glowed on the streets, held aloft at sweet angles by women whose long strides said they liked the rain. The umbrella-filtered light washed hints of color over their their foreheads and cheeks, like strange-hued blushes.

A couple of nights before, I’d read that D.T. Max profile in The New Yorker on Tony Gilroy, the writer and director of Duplicity. It inspired me to think about writing short stories. I love to write on rainy days (don’t know why). So there I was on my long commute, on a rainy day, with all this visual beauty around me. I roughed up two short stories. Here’s one of them, almost unedited.

Mobile 01:A blue shopping bag with yellow lettering on the webbing handles (Ikea) was looped around her left wrist. She was talking into her cell. She clutched a torn piece of junk mail in her other hand, as if it were a ticket to heaven. “Digame, ¿cuándo llegarás?” Laughing, she turned sideways to stop anyone from sitting next to her. Selfishly. For privacy.

The sun had backlit the Studio Museum’s red, black and green American flag. She watched as the wet cloth bellied in the breeze. Red and green glowed against the somber gray building. Beautiful.

She had worn her black velvet jacket, the quilted one. It fit her waist tightly. The fawn-colored trousers with embroidered side-stripes were tight, too. She’d matched her makeup to her pants. Everything except the jacket was fawn or golden. Even her lipstick was gold. Her skin was smooth and gold-brown. Soft black jacket, fawn pants, everything tight, and the crown of her dark hair, which she’d streaked in fine stripes of blond, then curled. She looked good, she thought.

She left the bus, her cell still held in her sweaty palm.

At Madison, she crossed to the northwest corner and stopped under a marquee. There was a little drizzle.

Everything around her was golden. She took this to be a good sign. There were dull gold leaves on the dead oak trees, and gold-brown bricks and stones on all the buildings, and on the church two blocks away. And the street itself was black asphalt-covered. Very good.

Suddenly she was shoved back against the building wall. Her cellphone went flying into the street, where it slid into the gutter.


She couldn’t speak. She watched the man peddle away. He glanced over his shoulder twice, first with a worried look, then with a kind of distant complacency.

She went to the curb and scanned the street. Her phone was right there, but the back was open — where was the battery?

She crouched. As she did, she noticed how the embroidered side-stripes wrinkled too much where her knees were bent. She wondered if she should have worn something simpler. Black slacks, or jeans even.

The battery was there. She reached, picked it up and stood, in one smooth motion.

Walking back to the shelter of the marquee, she reseated the battery, and called her sister. No one would be home. Happy that the cell was still working, she turned her attention back to the street and watched for him. Not yet.

She thought about her pants, how tight they were. Would he read her hunger in them? He would. She strategized. She’d turn her smile on him, and he wouldn’t care that she wanted him more than he did her.

He came. He smiled at her. It was OK.

She thought he liked her smooth goldness. She was hoping her tight black jacket, and the way in contrasted with her skin and trousers, would talk to him, telling him that even if she was hungry for him, she was on her toes, ready for a sophisticated lifestyle.

She knew could give him what he wanted for now.

She wanted him to understand that she could keep giving him what he wanted, even if she didn’t know what it was yet.

I don’t like the choppy rhythms made by the short sentences. I made that rhythm inadvertently by trying to cut out anything baroque, dramatic or melodramatic that might conceal the story. I’m trying to understand what makes a story work. I also found that writing short stories is like sketching on the streets — you’re under pressure to do it fast and tight, and make a picture true enough to be recognizable later. Under that pressure, you see more details and understand more of what you’re seeing.

These thoughts are the result of my thinking about the story differently after I sent it to Sabu Quinn, my son. Knowing he’d read it, and getting his feedback, helped me understand more about what I’m trying to do.

Making something, no matter what it is, can be a lonely and fraught experience. It helps to think of it as an exercise, or a meditation. It helps, too, to get it out there, to unstick it from the creator’s mind and heart, and see how it stands on its own.

love to you all,

© 21 Mar 2009, Heather Quinn, all rights reserved

This entry was posted in ...Grafetti, ...writers' work, composing, early fiction, inspiration, writing fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.