I step into the Amazing Grace African Market where Uche(oo-chey) is bagging up plantains, four for $2. Uche is about my height, 5’ 9”, with a welcoming face and a round belly. He laughs easily and is quick to greet me. I tell Uche what I’m doing with my blog, that I want to get to get to know the people and places of Poughkeepsie and put the whole thing down on paper and share it with people. He smiles and says “one second”. Then he starts speaking in a language I’ve never heard before with a few English phrases like “talk to you later” mixed in. He reaches over and hangs up the cell-phone that I hadn’t noticed.
“I’m sorry man, I didn’t realize you were on a call.”
“No problem. I call him back. So what would you like to know?”
“Let’s start with what’s on the shelves,” I say. “Can you show me around?” It’s a small corner store, but there’s a lot to see.
“Sure, come on.” Uche starts with the palm cream “to make cream soup” he says, then the cassava leaf (which is something like spinach). Then there’s the palm oil for frying, powdered coco yam, powdered green plantain, cassava flour, and countless other ingredients I’ve never seen. In the freezer are whole red snapper and a big box unambiguously labeled “Cow Foot!”
I’ve never seen another store like this and here it is in my own town on the corner of Clinton and Main. “People come from all over,” Uche tells me. “ I have people come from Newburgh, Middletown, Westchester county, Danbury, everywhere. I have people come from Canada. This is the BEST place.”
“You don’t have any problems here? No crime?”
“Well…” he says looking across the street, “They sell beer and loose cigarettes over there. People stand out there all day. It invites bad things.” I look up and notice the big screen TV hung above the plantains. It’s showing live video streams from all over the inside and outside of the store. “But those guys don’t bother me here. I don’t sell nothing they want. No beer, no liquor, no cigarette and I don’t let people stand around outside. But these people standing across the street, they need something to do. They let them out of prison and don’t give them no plan. Nothing to do, so they stand around outside the stores and they invite trouble in. They should give these people a broom. Tell them, this spot from Clinton to Cherry, that is your area. You keep it clean. No garbage. No spot of litter.”
Uche and I talk like this for almost an hour about everything from welfare to immigration to the best way to prepare fufu. He is proud of his place in the community, but nothing has come easy. Beneath that easy going smile there is a struggle; the fight to get to America, the hard nights driving taxis in NYC until he had enough to open his own store, the constant battle to keep it going, the crime he suspects just across the street, this strange country, his long road to citizenship and his struggle to have his mother join him here. And despite all this he tells me that America is great. “This is the BEST place,” he tells me.
He knows full well that there is crime, but that doesn’t distract him from a more important fact, “this is the HEART of Poughkeepsie” he tells me. His store used to be down near the corner of Main and Hamilton, but the rent was too high and he wasn’t finding the customers that wanted his products. “Location, location, location” he says, “There is a bus-stop one block up and all the people live here.”
Whatever problems there might be in his new neighborhood there are a lot of good people living there, people who enjoy a good meal and want the taste of home. Some fufu and snapper maybe, maybe some chicken peanut stew.
As we talk an older Jamaican woman comes in. She picks through the plantains for the best ones and she and Uche banter about how she should take one of the bags he already made up like everyone else. She keeps picking through the box. I can tell by the way Uche grins that this isn’t the first time he’s had this talk with her. Tonight, she tells us, will be her first night working after almost two years of job searching. Luckily her landlord’s been kind and let her stay even when she couldn’t pay. I wonder if Uche might have given her those plantains for free when she was out of work. It takes people helping each other sometimes just to get by. But she doesn’t expect charity. She wants to pay her landlord every cent that she owes and she’s happy for the work. At the end of five minutes I know more about this woman’s life than some friends I’ve had for years. Uche rings her out and goes back to bagging the plantains.
Poughkeepsie is a strange town. It’s a tough town. But it’s also a town where people are leaning on one another every day. Sometimes that means letting someone stay even when they can’t pay the rent. Sometimes that means believing in a place and its people despite the evidence and sometimes it means knowing the heart of a place when you see it.