“This here is our own little piece of heaven.”
He looked out over the crowded park chess tables like a king proudly showing off his kingdom. He had a crown full of white hair and sat on the weathered green park bench like it was his own personal throne. He looked old enough to be my grandfather and had a face just as kind. At the time, I hadn’t known him for long but from what I could tell he had a life full of experiences behind him. I could only imagine all the knowledge he had to share.
In August I moved from the west side of Manhattan to a cozy little apartment in East Harlem. I’ve only been here two months and I already feel more connected to this neighborhood than I ever did in the 12 months I lived in my last neighborhood.
I was first introduced to the chess tables in Marcus Garvey Park by an amazing friend who has a habit of making new friends in the most unexpected places. I don’t know how she stumbled upon this little gem but I’m grateful that she let me in on the secret.
“Young lady! Make sure you stop by and say hello any time you come through the park!”
That was what I heard shouted to be across the pavement the next time I passed through the park. Apparently being introduced to them meant that I was no longer allowed to just hurry through the park without checking in.
In the past weeks I’ve come to know more about these players. Whenever I walk through the park they’re sure to ask me how my day was, what’s going on with school and if Harlem has been treating me well. I’m not much of a chess player but I’ve learned a lot since my first run-in with these hallowed tables. Some of the players have been nice enough to sit me down and give me one-on-one lessons, just because they want to share . My favorite part of the whole thing? Just listening to them talk to each other. What spills out over these tables are real, candid words on life, struggle and what its like to be black in today’s society. Words and experiences shared that are valuable beyond measure.
When it comes down to it they’ve formed their own kind of family. Different skin colors, different cultural backgrounds, different life stories and a whole range of ages, but they’re brought together by a love of a game. One of the players I met had just graduated from college and said he couldn’t even remember how he learned to play. “I grew up playing chess in this park,” he said. “I can’t ever come back home without stopping by and showing some respect.”
It makes me wonder what our communities would look like if we welcomed each other with open arms the say some of these players have welcomed me. Coexisting isn’t the same thing as living in community. You can feel the difference.
What do you love about the community that you’re a part of?