by themr.normanmaine

Bear with me because this story needs a back story… When I first moved to Harlem seven years ago I really had no idea what to expect. I was coming from the familiar comfort of the west village, from an apartment I had lived in for 25 years and was forced out of by developers.

I liked Harlem, I had a few friends who had moved up here and I was acquainted with the neighborhood because I visited them often. The people were cool, lots of stores and restaurants, amazing train access (even though I hate the subway), it’s an overall good vibe. A lot of people asked me if I was crazy moving up here, it’s too far, too dangerous, it’s too (insert minority here), basically telling me it was a mistake. Imagine, advice coming from idiots who considered it a crime to go north of 14th St.

I was absolutely devastated by having to leave my home of 25 years. Moving day came quicker than I would have liked but, off I went, 135 blocks north to my new apartment. A completely renovated, big 1 bedroom apartment that I hated (great floorplan, but a cheap reno) and have since moved out of. I’m actually only one black away from that place but this apartment is far more interesting.

I have truly wonderful friends and knowing how sad and depressed I was, they rallied around me. They were all at the new apartment unpacking boxes, putting things away, assembling the bed and assorted furniture, and cleaning, really amazing people. I stood in the kitchen drinking wine out of the bottle and half heartedly pointed at things…no put that there, no other corner, etc etc.

It was about 8:30ish that night and things were winding down and thanks to my friends the apartment actually looked pretty together. We were all sitting or standing and talking when the door to the apartment burst open (it wasn’t closed all the way) and I heard an obviously drunk woman yell “Who livin in this motherfuckin apartment?” And there she stood…a five foot tall, black hurricane with a shaved head and a cute, chubby round ass.

She came right in, didn’t ask, didn’t wait to be invited, just barged in. “I live here,” I told her, “and who the hell are you?” She abruptly answered me, “Kim, I live on the 6th floor but I lived in this apartment 32 years ago. So, you bitches got anything to drink?” Well, to make this first part of this story shorter than it (could) should be, I’ve seen Kim almost everyday since that first night. If I were Batman she’d be… well, she’d be Batman too.

A force to be reckoned with this one is. The next day was Miss K’s birthday so I gave her a bottle of champagne (someone gave me the night before) and we drank it on the street. This is okay I thought to myself. Kim took me around the neighborhood and introduced me to everyone. Pointed out what bodega had the cheapest cigarettes, what liquor store had the best prices, who to avoid, who was cool. She’s the unofficial Queen of St. NIcholas Ave. She knows everyone, or thinks she does and most everyone knows her. I’m the weirdo white guy with the long hair who hangs out with Kim.

Alright, let’s jump forward 7 years and here we are, in the middle of a pandemic. Kim was having trouble remembering the word pandemic so I told her just remember fryingpan-demic, which is how she now refers to Covid19, as the fryingpan-demic!

When the whole thing started, we, like most people, weren’t afraid because Gov.Cuomo and Mayor Warner Wilhelm Jr. (Bill DeBlasio’s real name) were telling people well into the first week of March to go out and have fun, which we did. I would work on my art a few hours a day and then Kim and I would hook up and I’d have some wine and Kim would have her Tequila and we’d chain smoke and gossip. Then things started to get a little crazy so we were hanging out but 6 feet apart. All while the hand sanitizer, toilet paper, masks and ventilator hysteria kicked in. We went along with it all but still hung out everyday. We figured if one of us was gonna get it we’d both probably end up getting it but by this time the world was on lockdown and we were basically the only people the other saw. So things really hadn’t changed.

The weather started to get better so we’d been hanging outside more. One day about four weeks ago, it was a Wednesday as I recall, I suggested we go over to 146th and Broadway and get tested. Better to know we thought. So we started our trek up the hill to Broadway. Normal people could make this walk in 15 minutes.

45 minutes later we arrived at City-MD. We walk slowly, Kim has COPD and I have two bad knees. Plus we have to stop on the street in the middle of a story to make a point, and to light a cigarette. Once we arrived, the line wasn’t too long but it was moving slowly. After about an hour of waiting I walked to the first person in line and asked how long he’d been waiting. I was horrified when he said four hours, so I went back and told Kim the info, we both decided to come back earlier, another day. Kim summed it up best when she said, “Fuck these motherfuckers, we got shit to do.” I completely agreed, especially as I was in the early stages of a panic attack. So we decided to thank ourselves for at least making the effort to be responsible citizens and walked over to the discount liquor store on Broadway and 145th where we treated ourselves to a bottle of wine for me and a tequila for Kim. We eventually ended up back where we usually do, sitting on my stoop, drinking and smoking! I guess this was the shit we had to do.

A couple cocktails later, and we were feeling very determined. We made a plan that we’d meet up at 7:30AM the next day, take the bus (because the bus is free and who wants to walk that much so early in the day) and be at the City-MD when they opened, we’d be the first in line or close to it. Plan made. We were feeling very proud of ourselves.

The following Tuesday we finally made it back to the City-MD at 2PM exactly. Took our place at the back of the line and began our wait. At 2:20 I said to Miss Kim, “Shit, we should have brought something to drink with us.” Kim opened her purse and pulled out a pint bottle of Jose Cuervo, and I pulled a small bottle of wine out of my jacket pocket. We started laughing hysterically at our shady behavior. “Shiiiiit, I knew you had something with you,” she said. I told her I figured she had something too.

By 3:30 I was out of cigarettes so I left Kim in line. Securing my nicotine I got back to Kim who looked like she made about 5 feet of line progress. I lit us both a cigarette and there we were, leaning against the City-MD on 146th, standing right next to each other, masks around our necks, smoking, drinking and laughing our asses off. To say people were social distancing from us would be the understatement of the decade. 

In the meantime everyone on line looked like they were falling apart, sickly, weak, tired, hot, bored and generally over it all. We on the other hand were fine and time flew by. We finally made it in at 5:20 and walked out at 5:35 having had both tests, blood and the evil nasal swab.

Now we were really feeling proud of ourselves so of course another stop at the liquor store was in order. Back on my stoop, as we recalled our latest adventure and patted ourselves on the back for actually doing it, it struck me like the proverbial bolt of lightning.

“Miss K, I just realized something…” “What?” She asked me as she lit us both another Newport 100. I told her, “Of all the people in New York City, the fryingpan-demic has probably affected you and I the very least. I mean, day to day, what’s changed in our lives? Other than everything being closed we still hang out most days, we’re still drinking and smoking way too much, there’s nowhere to go but who cares cause we usually don’t have any money to go anywhere with anyway…”

“Motherfucker, you’re so right, nothings changed,” Kim said. We started laughing again at the basic ridiculousness of our lives then we both took a swig out of her bottle of tequila, virus be damned.

By the way, three weeks or so went by when we finally got our test results back and we are both negative. But, we want to go get tested again because we decided if we were ever going to get the fryingpan-demic, it would have been in that broken down line of messy people on West 146th St. and Broadway.

A little side note for anyone who is reading this: if you’ve never visited Harlem, please do so. It’s absolutely one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city. It’s been torn down and rebuilt countless times and it’s endured; it has a magic to it.

What Harlem still has that most of the city has totally lost is a sense of community, Harlem watches out for itself. During the riots that have been happening across the entire country recently, all protests in Harlem have been peaceful and respectful. No looting or damage. It’s a testament to a big chunk of the city that’s seen it all, too many times. Everyone wants justice, but no one wants to burn down what’s taken so many decades to get back. Also the police in Harlem have a real relationship with the community, I see it every day. Harlem feels like the West Village used to before it became a mall where all the stores closed and the streets are overrun with strollers. The countless parks of Harlem are beautiful, public pools are amazing and the heavily tree lined streets are home to the most beautiful brownstones in the city. Please come and visit this magnificent, and incredibly historic part of New York. Even if it’s just to see a show at the legendary Apollo Theater, you won’t be sorry. I never have been.

Comments are welcome at

ART OF INTELLIGENCE: Rainy Street Stories

Retired Army Counterintelligence Officer John Davis has published his second book, “Around the Corner: Reflections on American Wars, Violence, Terrorism and Hope.” Look for that review here in September.

The following was originally posted on October 29th, 2013.

Having created a section of the SoHo Journal many years ago that fosters an appreciation for the creative talent of current and former American intelligence professionals, we were recently offered a new book to review. On our Art of Intelligence commentary we have displayed paintings, described novels and published poetry by those who have fought the secret wars for our country. Often, (as is described in The Book of Honor by Ted Gup) those who have served are neither publicly acknowledged nor identified after having made the ultimate sacrifice. Only a star is affixed in place of a name.

Along this road of discovery, which provided entertainment, appreciation and pathos for the writer and the readers, we met an Army Intelligence Officer of particular talent—John W. Davis. He offered poetry, essays, observations and support for our publication in the mission which we were intent on undertaking. This officer, now retired after 40 years of service to our country, has just completed a book of poetry, essays and remembrances that give us, the readers, a glimpse of the secret world of espionage war.

John Davis, recently retired from Army Intelligence, provides us with the conundrum of America in the current world of terrorism and hidden wars. How do we maintain our freedoms as we change and adapt to the new realities of engagement? While he gives us some answers, he describes the choices that we must make through analogies that clearly make the decision much easier. As he tells us in his prologue, “Nowhere is there a free pass from choices of good and evil.” It is as if he is alluding to the fact that it is not only Intelligence professionals, but all of us in a free America that must, on a daily basis, make a Hobson’s choice from among more than two equally unpalatable alternatives.

Davis’s Rainy Street Stories does not gloss over lines with the novelist’s adroitness as does LeCarre, nor does he appear to draw upon the wealth of knowledge that Nigel West, the “Godfather of Intelligence,” draws upon as the acknowledged historian of the Intelligence field. Instead, the reader is drawn into a collaboration with Davis in understanding the moral dilemma and making the difficult philosophical decisions about how we proceed from here. Davis enables the reader to travel with him by using short essays and poems that evoke the feelings and experiences of fear, betrayal, pain and death that are intrinsic and inescapable elements of the secret and not-so-secret wars.

The work spans decades from Hitler’s Nazism, to the Cold War under Stalin, and arrives at the burgeoning of al-Qaeda and the War on Terror. Along the way, he mentions the declared horrors of Northern Ireland’s “The Troubles” and the genocide of the Bosnian conflict.

Among the bread crumbs that he drops for the reader to discover in his Mission Impossible, of finding a firm footing for establishing a personal moral view of the secret wars, are vignettes like “Z-1557.”

In a visit to Flossenburg, at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp, Davis comes upon a woman visitor who had been a gypsy and was rounded up, along with her whole family, and taken to the camp. While she escaped, the rest of her family was murdered. Their fate was among the likes of Canaris, the head of the german secret service, the Abwehr, who was tortured and then hung naked with Piano wire at the same camp.

The former camp is now a park, and the woman tearfully feared that the memory of what had been done there would be forgotten in another generation. Davis cautions that evil was present in this park and warns us, “It has been said that to do good and avoid evil is not enough. We have to do good and undo evil.”

In his essay “Serving Your Country,” Davis describes how America is the dream of the world. He follows this with “Veteran’s Day Reflection,” in which he suggests that the holiday should not only be celebrated by parades, but also by visits to the hospitals where our servicemen and women have landed for our freedoms.

We cannot take any of our Freedom for granted, we must be ever-vigilant of others as well as of ourselves, and we must make efforts, both individually and as a nation if we are to avoid the mistakes of previously great societies.

As Davis points out that while, “[Rome] was a model of virtue that the world admired, it had become a culture of death . In the quiet of the Colosseum, I could imagine the whisper of Fate warning us today.“ Unspeakable horrors took place there. It had once been “a coherent society.” Each citizen was honor-bound to do his duties of public service and civil defense. Each tried to behave in the Roman character; to strive for the ideal of the pragmatic, fair and well-balanced citizen. Was this not once the moral stance of America? And now?

His comments on torture are instructive. In addition to the fact that “Torture breaks everyone involved. No amount of double-talk makes the pain go away. […] Torture kills souls. The only cure for such a spiritual pain is confession.” Davis points out the practice’s frivolity. Said an old soldier, “ We got more information from a German general with a game of chess or ping-pong than they do today with their torture.” And, as Davis shows of torturers, whether they be CIA or water-boarders or electrode wielding mercenaries, “They become secret sociopaths, alcoholics, drug users or worse.” Yet, what do they accomplish?

But, Intelligence work involves dirty wars, secret wars, betrayal, pain and death. There is nothing romantic about espionage and intelligence work, though we like to think of it that way. As Erich Gimpel, Canaris’s Agent 146 once said, “There is, there was not, and there never will be any romance about the spy trade. The silent war of the spy is mean, cold and bitter. Is is the dirtiest side of war.”

Yet, Davis gives us some of the emotive beauty born of fear and pain. In his poem, “Webs,” he describes an operation with poignancy:

When the light from the match glowed, I chanced to see the web stretched across the window’s corner.

The man passing the restaurant window had paused, lit his cigarette, then faded into darkness.

Since I knew the web was there, I’d glance up from my dinner and look at it every now and then,

Finding in its construction a measure of transcendent beauty.

Remarkably, the street lamp across the square, where the figure waited, backlit the web.

The more industrious the spider, the more visibly agitated the figure waiting.

At last, the man who lit the cigarette met the man beneath the lamp.

At that very moment, a moth landed on the web and was pierced by the waiting spider.

I pressed a silent alarm, and the uniforms moved in.

-by John Davis

As we in America who are concerned with how our society evolves, how many new cameras are installed in our public places (reminiscent of the ubiquitous Stasi Secret security apparatus), we must take note. Davis points out in The Lives of Others that “The Stasi were masters of the telephone tap, the hidden camera, the surveillance personnel, the faked encounter, the elicitation and the ultimate betrayal. This was life in a police state.”

One out of every 14 were part of the Stalinist East German Democratic Republic security apparatus. As Ulrich Muhe, an East German soldier-turned-actor did when he finally said ‘enough,’ he stood up for the cameras in 1989 and “demanded freedom of speech, and freedom from police state oppression.”

While Davis does not draw conclusions for us, he does drop enough hints and suggestions that we must remain vigilant. Is is neither a “liberal” or “conservative” point of view that we must embrace or espouse in America – when we hone in on the ramifications of our collective actions. We must be ever-vigilant about terrorists. But, we must shield our information from journalists and news organizations, And, we must protect our own humanity when we agree to participate in lest we, too, become the victims of our own inhumanity. Lest we, too, become the monsters—and the terrorists.

John Davis, in Rainy Street Stories, gives us a highly readable and entertaining book which addresses the philosophical ambiguities facing our country. We must defend ourselves, yet, we must grasp our hard won freedoms for which many died on the battlefields, tenaciously and jealously. Spend a few hours delving into the moral fiber of our democracy and think about what this talented author, a veteran of the secret wars, can tell us.

John Davis may very well be the new philosopher of U.S. Intelligence – The Chancery Gardener of America’s moral garden.

— D. Clark MacPherson