SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2009       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Martina Alexander

Express Train to Harlem

Why did I feel out of place when I found myself on an express train to Harlem? It was partly due to my sheltered upbringing and lack of diversity where everyone in my suburban neighborhood outside of Indianapolis, Indiana could be, categorized as white. My family moved to San Diego, California when I was thirteen in 1984. I did not take notice at the time of the abundant variety of diversity, possibly because of the culture shock of moving to a larger city and not knowing anyone. My suburban neighbors included Samoan, Hispanic, Asian, Filipino and White.

I did notice the diversity, however, on a family vacation a few years ago in 2004, when my husband and I got on the wrong train. It was the first time my husband, Neil and I and our three boys traveled to New York City. We accompanied Neil on a work trip. We stayed a few extra days and wandered around the city. We were from Phoenix and did not know the metro or bus system in the city so we walked for most of the weekend.

Late in the afternoon, on the day before we were going home, we wanted to go uptown to the Natural History Museum and we were tired of walking. It was raining in New York City, the rain was sporadic; it would shower for a short amount of time and then clear up. After the rain, the smell of hot asphalt and we identified leftover food products moving down the gutters. The humidity was high and it was not refreshing after the rain stopped, unlike the familiar sweet smell of greasewood plants after a rain in the desert. We hurried down stairs into the lit depth of the subway terminal to get out of the rainfall and find a reprieve from the dark clouds that hovered menacingly over the street that we were on moments before. The sight of the dry, well-lit terminal with shops and food booths was a restful place even with the noise of many other people occupying the damp underground antechamber.
The rich aroma of hotdogs and bread roasted on the turn stills in the subway hall. After walking down the steps and the smell of cooked food affected me half way down the stairs, the rain that we had just left behind did not matter anymore. We purchased five all-day subway passes and attempted to decipher the map. We assumed it was like the Euro-rail that we had ridden from Berlin, Germany to Rome, Italy, we looked for the appropriate color and end stop of the subway. The station was crowded with many people. When a train arrived we boarded, we were the first to get on and sat down in front, facing everyone in the car. Everyone seemed to have very dark complexions in fact they were black, and their large eyes seemed to stare in our direction. The people seemed to all be dressed in their particular business attire.

It has been another long hard day at work in the city. I wanted to get home and rest, tomorrow always comes too quickly. It seems like I do the same thing everyday and still don’t have enough time, to get done half of what I need to do. The subway is crowded today; it is high season for the tourists. The train is crowded and I have to stand up, my feet hurt from standing all day at work. I have a list a mile long to do when I get home and on top of it all, I have to go get something for dinner tonight for my daughter and myself. At least I have some time on the train everyday to take mental notes of all of the things I have to do.

I see a family got on the train too fast. This happens occasionally, a few tourists get on my train. Can’t they read the signs? It’s in bold letters, “Express to Harlem, No Stops”. I wonder how long it will take them to figure out their mistake. Right when the door closed, they figure it out and the woman looks like she wants to crawl right out of her skin, being on a train with all of us black folk. I work hard all day and have to stand up, while these tourists are taking up the entire row of seats. Everyone should know, if people are standing, put your kids on your lap, it’s common courtesy. Maybe they don’t teach that in their schools, wherever they have come from.

Just as the doors closed, my husband and I noticed we might have gotten on the wrong train. We immediately looked down at our map to find out if the inanimate object could tell us any information. Neil stood up and walked over to the door to decipher the train line map above the door. It seemed as if everyone on the train was looking at what he was doing. I turned to the boys and in a hushed tone told them to look down at their maps and find the Natural History Museum because we were on the wrong train and we needed to find our way back to the museum.

My heartbeat sped up, I was beginning to get sweaty palms, and I wanted to get off that train. The hard metal of the seat under my sweat-filled clammy hands was shockingly cold. I had the impression that all eyes were on us, so I focused on Neil walking back over to sit next to me. I heard the current of air swirling around the train car and it seemed to be making a whooshing noise through the cracks in the windows of the train car. The black void outside of the train with the tunnels only lit, seemingly by a few small bulbs seemed ominous. The subway tracks were not recognizable in the darkness and the walls sped by quickly, the writing was undistinguishable with the current speed of the train. The train’s metal wheels ground on the tracks as the subway car gained speed and made bumping noises when the tracks connected to other tracks leading down other long dark tunnels. Neil turned to me and stated (and it seemed he was making a speech to everyone on the train) that we mistakenly had gotten on an express train; it was a different color line, we should have taken a different one. The boys and I stared at him, waiting for more of an answer to our dilemma. Our oldest boy said, we should probably get off at the next stop and take the next train back into the city. The five of us smiled at each other and nodded in agreement. We sat, quietly and continued to look down at our maps not wanting to return the gaze of anyone else on the train. It seemed some people on the train began to talk; I continued to feel awkward, I had the impression that people were still watching what we were doing.

I am going to be paid in two days and then I will have to go find the perfect gift for my daughter. I cannot believe she is going to be a teenager. Her birthday is next week. Everyone is going to be at her party and I have so much to do to get ready for it. I still need to make calls to some of her friends and remind my mom that she offered to make the cake. I don’t know how the time goes by so fast, every year it seems to get shorter and shorter. It seems like she was just a little girl last year and now she really is growing up.

It seemed like a very long time later the train stopped and pulled into the Harlem Station. Everyone exited the train and we were the last ones off at that stop. Instead of following everyone, we looked around for the train back into the city. We then walked alone up the stairs and crossed what seemed a deserted street. We went down the subway stairs on the other side and were the only ones in the station waiting for the next train back into the city. I was still uncomfortable and wanted to get back to where everyone was again familiar, or I should say where everyone was white. I do not know what impression that experience left on our three sons and I do not believe we talked about it afterwards. How could we start a conversation with the boys when we as adults did not know how to verbalize why we felt the way we did? The kids are used to getting lost with me, however this time getting on the wrong train was a mistake. It was a revelation that I could become as uncomfortable as I was that day, sitting on the express train to Harlem.

Four years after moving to San Diego in 1988, I drove to Los Angeles and met friends at the University of Southern California. I was a high school senior at the time, made a left hand turn off the highway, and mistakenly drove into Compton. It happened to be dusk. A police car pulled up along side my car and the officer asked if we were lost, the four blonde girls in the car all said yes. The police car with its siren on, escorted us to the other side of the freeway. It seemed as if that experience and getting on the wrong train going to Harlem had some consistencies. I had similar feelings, which included embarrassment, not belonging, and not knowing how to react. I was out of my element and did not know what to do.

Another historical event in Los Angeles affected my life, however minutely, but at the time seemed like a crisis. Four years after making the wrong turn into Compton, the Los Angeles riots happened, in 1992 after four officers were acquitted at the Rodney King trial. Our business closed down for a few days while Los Angeles was on fire. We were concerned that riots would also occur in San Diego. I did not realize the extent of the injustice to Rodney King. I was reacting to the aftermath and wanted to be safe and feel secure in my city. At the time, I did not comprehend the racial motives being used as a justification of the violence in the aftermath of the verdict. A correlation between Compton and Harlem is the large population of African Americans, that injustices and segregation of communities continues.

I had hoped that with the civil rights movement and globalization in the world that individuals would be more accepting of all people. As a child, I was taught that differences between people should not be pointed out or talked about. As an adult, I assumed segregation between people of different ethnic backgrounds was abolished and that communities were integrated. We learned a lot about the civil rights movement in school and the positive things that have arisen because of that era. The express train to Harlem led me to believe that this is incorrect and there continues to be injustices that cannot be righted with avoidance and denial. We need to acknowledge our fears and insecurities in order to identify new solutions for the injustices in relation to all minorities in our society.


1984 July- the Jones family moves from a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana to San Diego, California with an abundance of diversity in cultures and ethnicities.

1992 April 29- 4 police officers who beat Rodney King (on video tape) were acquitted and LA riots ensued.

1993 May- Martina Jones was engaged to a Civil Rights Attorney and moved to Sacramento, California.

1994 June 12- OJ Simpson murder trial-found not guilty, if he was found guilty LA Riots were assumed by police to follow trial, National guard was in LA ready to protect private property.(view source)

2000 Census- Segregation in New York City still exists. According to Annette Fuentes the Latino, Asian and African American population in New York is still segregated. I would guess minority populations live in clustered areas because of economic reasons (cheaper housing) but the author suggests it is because the minority population chose to be close to each other. (view source)

2000 Census- University of Michigan mapped the United States by city with data from the 2000 census that shows by density where Asians, Hispanics, Blacks and Whites live by city, there seems to be no overlap to where Blacks and Whites reside.(view source)

2001- The Patriot Act passed allowing ethnic profiling (of certain ethnic groups which include Muslims, Arabs and South Asians.)

2001- The Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics released the data from their human genome project. The National Geographic Channel aired in 2009 the Human Family Tree and traced a common gene in everyone in the project, back to one black woman in a tribe in Africa thousands of years ago. With migration and time (and lack of UV rays) skin color changed to suit the particular environmental conditions.

2004 Summer- My subway ride to Harlem

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