Making Tracks: Walk #5 (Bill Withers)

Kyra Sims
12 min readApr 22, 2020

A week ago I wrote a letter to my friend Katharine.

Letter writing was the first branch of nostalgic comfort I reached for when my quarantine began one month ago- several days before sourdough was even a twinkle in my eye. I remember standing on the corner of 12th Street and 6th Avenue, having just left my final in-person musical commitment, mulling dark thoughts in the warm sunlight. The sharp left turn I took down the block and into a stationery store felt like a desperate lunge towards survival.

I enjoy the ritual of sitting down with my thoughts, putting pen to paper, saying things that I maybe wouldn’t say in a text message, where I tend to re-read over and over again the things I’ve said to friends. It’s nice not quite remembering what I wrote when a friend reaches out a few days later with the news that they received my letter- that friend now shares something of a secret with a past version of myself, and I’m connected to them in overlapping moments of time and thought.

Katharine told me she really needed the letter. I really needed to send it. Glad it worked out for both of us.

Direction: South down St. Nicholas Avenue

Album: Bill Withers, Menagerie

The morning of my walk, I woke up to a text from my mom. She had sent me a link to a video of Bill Withers singing “Just the Two Of Us”. It’s a live performance from an old TV show- he’s handsome, sporting a brown suit and wide lapels, salt-and-pepper beard, smoldering to the camera in front of gauzy purple, and strings of lights. “This song was playing on my walkman at the very moment you were born,” my mom wrote in the accompanying text. “Every time I hear it, I think of you. RIP — Bill Withers”

I had heard this story before, about this song being the first notes to hit my postpartum ears, but I hadn’t yet put it in the context of Bill Withers’ death. I downloaded Menagerie and headed out the door.

Weather: *chef’s kiss*

I had had this walk in my calendar for days, excited for the promised sun and warmth after a weekend of cold drizzle. I left home without a jacket for the first time this spring- though with some other added layers.

The Invisible Man (1933)

I hadn’t even walked one block away from my apartment before I heard a man call out-

“Are you Spider-Man?”

The response, coming from a person outside my field of vision, was clear, determined, and immediate:

“Yes, and together we’re gonna fight this Coronavirus.”

I turned around and watched a full-on Spider-Man, wearing a backpack, continuing his way down the sidewalk, waving back to the man who had called out to (and was now filming) the departing hero.

(Would have been wild if I had seen him during my last essay walk, huh?)

Another single block later (Fort Washington was hoppin’ that day), I ran into my friend Justin. He’s a wonderful reed musician, strong and expressive, his sound always blending into mine with ease. It’s always an honor to get to sit next to him, and I hope that happens again someday soon.

I caught him and his boyfriend Anthony in the process of moving apartments- a humbling reminder that Life Things still have to happen, even in the midst of a pandemic.

We exchanged brief happy 6-foot greetings and parted ways.

Author’s Note: I decided not to start playing the album until I reached St. Nicholas Avenue, since I had already walked these parts of my neighborhood in previous essays, but I also didn’t expect so much to happen on the journey there.

Firstly, I walked alongside the northern section of the Fort Washington Armory, which I haven’t written about yet, and will rectify now. Secondly, I got very weirdly hit on, which I will elaborate upon next.

I think we as a modern New York society don’t appreciate our armories as much as we should. Sure, the more cultured among us may attend a performance at the Park Avenue Armory, perhaps on a promising second date with a chemist, but do you realize our city is lousy with castles? Huge, impressive structures, in both Neo-Classical and Gothic Revival styles, with turrets and shit? That is dope.

At one point New York had around 20 armories, built between the late 19th century and the early 20th centuries, during a time when individual states relied more on their local volunteer militias rather than a centralized military run at the federal level.

Fort Washington Armory around the time it was built (1911). It looks basically the same today, just with less sepia-tone.

These groups’ main job, it seems, was to quell the many riots that occurred during this period, between races, class strata, and even different factions of theatergoers. The enormous castellated structures acted both as arms storage and as housing for local regiments, but today many of the ones that remain no longer have any military affiliation whatsoever. The Fort Washington Armory, once home to the 22nd Regiment of the Army Corps of Engineers, later became a homeless shelter, and now boasts a professional-level running track. I love that- military buildings used for peace. A stark and blatant blend of what we are and what we have the potential to be.

As I waited for the light in order to cross east across Broadway, an older gentleman approached me. “You are so beautiful,” he purred. I burst out laughing. I mean, you saw that picture of me.

He then proceeded to do the regular song and dance, can I get your number, you got a boyfriend, etc. It’s funny- in the midst of a global pandemic, experiencing something normal like getting hit on by a persistent guy on the street felt weirdly comforting.

I will grant him points for his parting shot- as I brushed him off with the easy out of “I have a boyfriend” and proceeded to cross the street, he called after me, “Well, when he gives you a headache, I’ll be your Tylenol!”

A minute later I made it to 168th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, and hit play on Menagerie. I knew I’d made a good choice for the weather that day as the first track began- it may have even been a little too on the nose:

When I wake up in the morning, love
And the sunlight hurts my eyes
And something without warning, love
Bears heavy on my mind
Then I look at you
And the world’s alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it’s gonna be
A lovely day

St. Nicholas Avenue is an old-ass street. Older than I’d even thought to guess, in fact. Before pavement, cobblestone, carriages, or the Dutch, the road was part of the Wickquasgeck, one of many trade routes used by First Nation tribes, notably the Munsee tribe. (Note: the history of the First Nation tribes in this area and their interactions with the Dutch is fascinating; I may dedicate an essay to it soon).

As colonists began to settle and develop on Manhattan, the road became known as Harlem Lane, a postal road between lower Manhattan and the northern towns Spuyten Duyvil and Kingsbridge. In the 1800s the Dutch changed the name to St. Nicholas Avenue, named after the patron saint of New Amsterdam (and, fun fact, the same St. Nicholas whose habit of secret gift-giving inspired the tradition of Old St. Nick! Imma call this road Santa Street from now on).

Santa Street circa 1868 (then named Harlem Lane). (source)

My hips began to sway to the groove of Track 2 as I walked. It’s a fun sexy song, but I can’t help but see our world in so many lyrics these days:

I can’t keep lookin’ at loneliness

And tryna call it freedom

Do you ever feel it?

I do.

This part of uptown (163rd and St. Nicholas) was not one I could remember specifically visiting before, and I started to wonder how old the buildings surrounding me were. As I started research for this essay, I fell into an absolutely delightful rabbit hole of old photos of buildings on St. Nicholas and started to compare them to how those same buildings look today. Here are a few!

The outline of a demolished building can be seen in this empty lot, see?

791 St. Nicholas Avenue

I found a photo of what used to be there, from 1932!

A candy/soda shop and an empty storefront! Neat.

One interesting thing I noticed was that at some point it was common to have awnings over every east or west-facing window. I wonder when that stopped being a thing- perhaps with the advent of air conditioning?

964 St. Nicholas Ave. — 1910 vs. 2020

One interesting thing I noticed was that at some point it was common to have awnings over every east or west-facing window. I wonder when that stopped being a thing- perhaps with the advent of air conditioning?

1090 St. Nicholas Avenue — 1905 vs. 2020

This was the biggest difference I saw between the old pictures and current day. Look at this chaos! New facades! An added window! One chimney is just gone!

953–955–957 St. Nicholas Avenue (1932 vs. 2020)

Thank you for indulging me these pictures- this section of the essay probably took up the largest chunk of time as I was researching.

Author’s Note: So, this is embarrassing. I don’t know if it was the weather, the mask, taking too many notes, or just a temporary complete lack of navigational awareness, but five blocks into my walk down St. Nicholas Avenue I ended up on Amsterdam Avenue, and I didn’t realize it until I got to 145th Street.

I conducted a post-mortem, and here is an analysis of what happened:

Conclusion: womp womp

Anyway, the next little bit of the essay will be about Amsterdam Ave!

Unlike the relatively charming story of Santa Street, Amsterdam Avenue got its name for more grisly reasons. From the mid-1800s until the 1930s, the southern section of Amsterdam Ave- still called Tenth Avenue- had street-level railroad tracks running down the middle of the street, with trains carrying freight from Albany down to the west side piers. With the appearance of the steam locomotive in the 1860s, the trains- again, literally running down the middle of the street- started to kill so many people in accidents that the street soon earned the nickname “Death Avenue”.

d e a t h a v e n u e

Business owners farther north, above Columbus Circle, thought the nickname was bad PR, and successfully lobbied to change the name of their stretch of the street to Amsterdam Avenue, a nod to the city’s Dutch heritage. So, basically for the same reasons that real estate agents will create new neighborhood names, like “Hudson Heights”- to add caché, and erase an area’s history. Nothing new under the sun, especially not in New York.

(Note: it took decades of protests for the city to finally figure out a solution to the deaths- and that solution was the creation of The High Line in 1934.)

As I move a few more blocks down Amsterdam, I’m suddenly reminded of the image I had of NYC when I was growing up- long rows of apartment buildings and fire escapes, bodegas and fried chicken places. It’s here. Millions of people squished together in 100-year old buildings. Ants in an ancient hill, trying to create something new.

Considering how similar those old photos I found are to today, I can’t imagine this area looked much different in the 70s, when this Bill Withers album came out. As Track 3 comes on, the groove paints me a picture of warm nights, open windows, and a radio in the kitchen, playing this song.

And oh, from sunset to sunrise

No more weakness, for the music turns me on.

(Allow me a moment of blue: this album would be great for getting stoned and having sex. Put it on your list.)

I spend a good few blocks just enjoying the weather and listening to Bill. The next two songs that come up have surprisingly timely lyrics:

You’ll reach out for me, baby

I’m as close as your phone

Ever since you’ve been gone

I’ve been home

So many of us have only our phones now as a source of any sort of comfort. The last time I had a moment of physical intimacy with someone was over three months ago, on a different continent. Seems forever ago. I am so very grateful for WhatsApp right now.

It’s better to remember things

That make the sun shine in your memory

There’s clouds enough for you to see

They say you shouldn’t live in the past, but are Extended Stays acceptable?

Once I realized my navigational error at 145th Street, I made a left to get back onto Santa Street. This little stretch of 145th between Amsterdam and St. Nicholas is actually one of my favorite parts of uptown, so it worked out. The street slopes gently, sporting brownstones with wonderful stoops, another trademark of the New York I grew up anticipating. I spent a good chunk of my first years in the city dreaming of someday living in this area, particularly on Convent Avenue, a short, quiet and beautiful tree-lined street nestled between the two larger avenues.

Didn’t I say the weather that day was *chef’s kiss*?

Convent Avenue is named after Convent of the Sacred Heart, which stood on what is now the south campus of City College of New York from the mid-1800s until City College purchased and then demolished its buildings in the mid to late-1900s.

Convent of the Sacred Heart at 133rd and Convent, late 19th/early 20th c. (source)

And thus I find myself right smack in the middle of Sugar Hill, the sub neighborhood in northern Harlem where “life is sweet”. An area filled with gorgeous townhouses in various architectural styles, and lousy with black history. Many prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance resided here when Sugar Hill was predominantly a neighborhood for affluent black families- W.E.B. Dubois, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and W.C. Handy, to name a few. Billy Strayhorn’s gorgeous historic house sits on 143rd and Convent, just two blocks south from where I was standing.

The legacies of musical giants echo off the stone walls and hardwood floors of these homes. I bet this area has the coolest ghosts.

Bill dropped me off here with a flourish of gentle drums and flutes.

May not know enough about you, babe

That can only come in time

Only know enough to make you stay

On my mind

It took me a while to love New York. I’m still not quite sure that I do completely- she’s never been cruel to me, but she also hasn’t been particularly kind. She’s held me at arms length at times when what I needed was to be held. In some ways, though, this quarantine, and this walking project, make me feel not that I’m trapped in this city, but that I’m trapped with this city. We’re forced to sit still, and look at one another for what we really are. And now, after ten years, she and I are finally getting to know each other better.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this essay, please consider joining my Patreon, where I offer fun stuff like bonus essays and a u d i o w h i s p e r s. If you can’t commit to a monthly thing, I also love getting tips on Venmo (@Kyra-Michelle)