New York State of Mind

MelvinThis Month, May Dobosiewicz interviews Melvin White, Environmental Assistant, Laboratory Safety & Environmental Health.

From: The Bronx

Been here: 30 years

Lives in: Manhattan


Do you feel that New York has a sense of community?

I do. I’ve had so many rough experiences, and as a whole I’ve received good love from my community, even when I’ve made mistakes. Sometimes you see somebody with a mean face walk by, but if you met that same person in a different environment, you’d probably have so much in common. That’s what makes this city so social.

Do you like to escape the city?

Yeah, I love camping. My favorite spot is Ten Mile River Scout Camp, which has this ten-mile road. If you can ever see a sun half-way in the air when it’s yellow and trees are covering it and there’s nothing but a long road and maybe a tiny bit of fog – that’s this road every day to me.

Do you have a favorite museum?

The Transit Museum. If you haven’t done that yet, do it.

Do you take advantage of New York’s literary scene?

When I was young, I was part of this program that encouraged you to write and be good since we came from areas that weren’t so great. They brought us to the second performance in my life, and it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. This was our spoken word show that we put together. There were a lot of people, lots of cameras; made us feel like we were stars. But that was a long time ago. I’ve always wanted to go to the Nuyorican Café. I love that you can go almost anywhere and find spoken word poetry.

What is one memorable New York moment?

This one time when I was young, I went to see my friend in the Village area. We’re walking up the block and these girls ask us for directions, and somehow this girl says she sings and dances, does art and poetry, and my boy says, “Oh he does, too!” So this girl just starts singing, and I flowed right in with a song I wrote. Then her friend starts beatboxing and my boy starts beatboxing, I’m rhyming, she’s singing, and everybody around was quiet. It’s rare that you get a hundred people in one area quiet. They didn’t even know we had just met five seconds ago. That is the most spontaneous and beautiful thing.

If you could change one thing about New York, what would it be?

Cell phones, texting, the looking down. Phones are beautiful, but they steal from social life and causes a lot of accidents. Being a biker, do you know how many people I have seen walk out into the middle of the street with their heads down?

How do you feel about de Blasio tackling the rich-poor gap in NYC?

I’ve lived it, so I have first-hand experience seeing what it’s like to have to be harassed, to be poor, to not get a job based on where you’re at. It puts you at a poorer position because you have to settle for what you can get. I went back to Harlem, where I used to live, and I had to look up at the street signs to know where I was. It looks just like down here now. Years ago when I was 15, we were saying this was going to happen. We always wanted better. It’d be fine if the people could afford it, but we can’t, so it’s forcing people to move out and go even cheaper places because now they’re raising rent for even worse places.  To tackle that topic is beautiful.

Has stop-and-frisk ever affected your life?

One day I was jogging to get this free phone before they closed. So I’m running and these cops pull over and tell me to put my hands up. I ask him why they stopped me and he said I looked suspicious. “Listen, I’ve seen you running, you looked like you were holding something in your coat.” And this is broad daylight and not even crowded. And then he starts checking my pockets and I just had to stand there and let them do that. I was a grown man, old enough for them not to treat me like that. And these guys, after they finished, didn’t even say sorry. Just humiliated me, got into their car and drove off. And that’s happened many times. So as far as Stop-and-Frisk goes, no, I’ve never agreed with that. The right to stop and frisk is basically saying that if you look it, I have the right to treat you like it. And it just means you have to change the way you look and be careful about what you’re saying, and that’s not free to me.