One-Bedroom Garden Apartment in 1900s Brownstone


Location Harlem

Rent $1000

Square feet 500

Occupant Rodney Terich Leonard (poet; student, New School)

We’re strolling under the dripping willow in the community garden across the street from your house. You must be gardening all the time. You’re from Alabama and all. No. And I took the South so for granted. I did not want to be in anybody’s garden doing anything. I’m from Rockford, a pretty jerkwater textile town in central Alabama. I went in the air force, ’89 to ’93, two years in England, two in North Dakota. I had been living so fast in England. Too much to do, the opera. In another life, I was a hair stylist, a flight attendant. I was in love. I was fast. I was on that train.

We’re just passing under these hanging leaves. I’m getting tangled. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, that’s what really lured me to Harlem, 135th and Lenox. My neighbors are a mixed group. My tailor, Mr. Ralph, has been here since the ’60s. He made my dashiki.

You say your home is like an old Southern woman’s home. Here we are. These small carved-wood sofas, pale green satiny brocade, like my Aunt Pearl’s house in Alabama. Each room had a theme—the Pink Room, the Yellow Room. The dining room had Chinese blue wallpaper with big white flowers with these petals and I have a feeling there were pagodas too but that could be someone else’s dining room. All the dining rooms of the world, quiet in the afternoons, like a theater set. Then they get busy in the night. Oh, you don’t have a dining room. The old-Southern-woman thing just sort of happened. The aesthetic was not my mother’s, or grandmother’s. For them, it was everything matching, throws over the furniture, plastic. I have a fabric fetish. I have to be surrounded by beauty. I come from a family of great storytellers, bootleggers, musicians. My father was incarcerated for killing a man my age. He’s in for 10 years for manslaughter. It happened last year. I have four sisters, a deceased brother. I’m the youngest. I remember the kitchen in every house we’ve lived. My mother was a bit more tender in the kitchen, talking to a neighbor, listening to “Misty Blue.” Dorothy Moore sings it.

This photograph of you on your soiree invitation with the small winding turban on your head makes you look as if you are in a Delacroix painting. You have all these black-and-white photographs on the walls. Here’s my paternal aunt whose daughter was burned. Here’s my family standing around an open coffin with my great grandmother in it. That was the custom to take photos like that. I have no idea who these people are.

What a great photo, the table in the nightclub must have 20 glasses on it. Everyone’s laughing. The one woman has her eyes closed. Your bedroom opens out to a garden. It’s my landlord’s. Every year I host the Harlem Artist’s Salon here, October 5, invitation only. Here’s my neighbor, Mr. Baez. [Mr. Baez] My building used to be the YWCA in 1918. I’ve been living next door since ’70. I came from East Harlem in ’68. The ’70s were not as good a time. Before this house was fixed, it used to be a clubhouse for the Masons. When it became the city’s property, there was concrete all the way back. I had many parties here then, 200, 300 people. [Rodney] Then, this has always been a little party place. So Mr. Baez, are you going to give me your records? [Mr. Baez] I don’t think so. [Rodney] I’ve been trying to get Mr. Baez to sell his albums. He has Nina Simone. He has everything. [Mr. Baez] I’ll leave it in the will. [Mr. Baez goes back to his landscaping. We return to the apartment.]

Look at your bedroom! Smoked glass mirror on the floor, three mangoes in a crystal bowl. Do you know why your father killed that man? They were at my father’s home. An argument broke out. I don’t know why my father shot him. I don’t know why I can’t get the whole story. It’s such a small town. I went to Nice right after. Here’s a photo of me at James Baldwin’s house. Me on the couch, can you believe it? The house is not open to the public. The lady there let me in. I went in and wept for the longest time.