WELCOME TO THE LAND ABOVE 96TH

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Harlem is happening. (This is not news to many, but sometimes I bloom late.)
I was returning to Manhattan on Metro-North and, for the first time, got off at 125th Street planning to then take the subway one stop to 86th.
Even though I’d been hearing for years about the gentrification and newfound popularity of Harlem, I had no firsthand knowledge, since I usually don’t venture past my comfort zone known as 96th Street. My loss. What I found as I emerged from the rail station on Park Avenue, which is wood-paneled and extremely well kept, and walked across 125th toward Lexington, was basically the twin of bustling 86th Street. Except for one thing.
I couldn’t help but focus on the huge Pathmark that commandeers the southeast corner. It reminded me of the thousand-car parking lot supermarkets in the suburbs. My mouth dropped open as I entered this airplane hangar that sells everything from groceries to cards to office supplies. I roamed around just out of curiosity, but after noticing so many items that were nowhere to be found in my usual food shopping haunts, I grabbed a cart. Not only do they have better prices and selections, but there’s a self-scanner for us “thanks I’d rather do it myself” types. On my way out with three shopping bags in each hand, I managed to have the strength to pass up the vending machines with the Instant Lotto scratch-off games because I felt that I already had hit the jackpot.
It was a nice day, so instead of getting on the subway, I waited for the M101 Limited bus, which stops in front of a 99-cent store with party decorations, favors and knick-knacks. Ninety-nine cents? When was the last time you bought anything for 99 cents? Anyway, I figured the bus would give me a taste of the whole area, not just one street.
The best part of the journey home, though, was getting to see where my mother used to live when she was growing up. I always felt connected to Harlem because of her, but I am embarrassed to say I never bothered to tour my family’s roots. Back in the day (WWII), she lived at 1860 Lexington Ave. Her old building still stands and looks as though it’s been refurbished. As I surveyed the apartment house from my bus seat, I tried to imagine her at the window calling her brothers up for dinner.
My new enthusiasm for the land above 96th Street was mocked by family and friends, who heralded me as a one-hit wonder—until I went back, and not just for another Pathmark super grocery shop (where, by the way, I found even more stuff not available along 86th Street.)
I have been ice-skating at Lasker Skating Rink on 110th Street and Lenox Avenue. I also have plans to visit the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, on West 115th Street right off Fifth Avenue, as soon as the weather gets warmer and I go into flea-market mode. I am counting the days until the opening of East River Plaza, which will span 116th to 119th streets and house Target, Marshall’s and Costco.
My husband and son have now jumped on the bandwagon, declaring the Savoy Bakery on 110th and Lexington the best place for breads and pastries.
And to think what brought me to my new discovery was the thing I usually hate most: shopping for food.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl has been named Humor Writer of the Month by the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Her column appears every other week.

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