The classmate of a 15-year-old New Yorker cuts school to hang out in Greenwich Village for the day. In the course of his adventure he meets an artist who impresses him so much he immediately tells his more dutiful classmate that he, too, must meet this fascinating bohemian character. To this end, the hookey-playing student gives his friend the artist’s address: 181 Greene Street.
On an evening not much later when he gets off his afterschool job at a Canal Street sweat shop, the 15-year-old, who always dreads returning to his unhappy home in Harlem, makes his way to 181 Greene Street, which turns out to be a dilapidated building with a twine warehouse on the ground floor. Climbing to the top floor he knocks on the artist’s door. From the moment he steps into the small studio, which features white walls, a potbellied stove, vividly colored canvases and a small record player from which will issue music by the likes of Ma Rainey, Fats Waller, and Bessie Smith, a friendship begins that will completely transform the young boy’s life. Decades later, after he has become a world-famous writer, after he has seen the painter shaken, broken but never bowed, he will recall how he was “the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.”
[James Baldwin, Beauford Delaney]