Treading Water

By Jayson BufordDecember 25, 2023

Treading Water
This article is an excerpt from the LARB Quarterly, no. 40: WaterSubscribe now or stay tuned to preorder a copy from the LARB shop.


ALL MY LIFE, whether I was stocking shelves at Trader Joe’s, going to pretty awning-laden Manhattan sports bars to watch the Aaron Boone–era Yankees lose another heartbreaking playoff series, or inhabiting my current mode of powerhouse hip-hop critic and amusing lifestyle writer, I’ve had a fraught relationship with money—particularly with not having enough of it, and not knowing how and where to spend it when I do. My family has always risen and fallen in class status: intermittent trips to Miami, a yawning apartment at the end of Riverside Drive that was replaced by a small spot in Riverdale. The fact is that, most of the time, my money comes from white institutions and is spent in white neighborhoods. An ex-girlfriend, whom I will always love dearly, used to tease me by calling me a 1970s Black man: “Your ideal mode of conversation is cocaine, Scorsese, Spike, Black–Jewish relations, the Knicks, Ghostface, and a white woman,” she once said. Not wrong.

May 2: Scarr’s Pizza—$18.01 (thanks to the two Presidentes I had with my pizza)

Scarr’s, a Black-owned pizza place, is a good spot; I like that you can see John Starks dunking on Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. I’m sure Pippen blames MJ for being him on that poster, like he blames MJ for everything wrong in his life. I got a Hotboi slice—beef pepperoni and jalapeño peppers.

Living in New York, particularly Manhattan, means that it is impossible not to spend money every time you step outside. Cash transactions don’t even matter. Spend money and watch the amount on your latest check wither away like a receipt dropped in water. The maxim is that you have to spend it to make it, and I’d argue this is true especially if you are in the Black middle class like I am, where taste is social currency. You have to move through the spaces and experience whatever you can—process, evaluate, and process again, chasing that electricity you can identify, define, and communicate to others.

I don’t quite fit into the Black-and-bougie aesthetic of brunch hats, photo booths, and colorful cocktails with twee names. I can hang with anyone; some days I wish I could fit into that world, if such a world would accept a maniac like me. I want to look in the mirror and see Theo Huxtable. But I don’t. Instead, I see Jayson Buford—a man who lives with an emotional intensity in a city that doesn’t desire him, a man who can’t stop chasing women, a man who thinks all police should be guillotined except for the ones on Law & Order, a man who dated a Zionist, a man who adores Reverend Wright and controversial Black preachers like him—and that, despite the attendant complications, will have to suffice in this lifetime.

May 2: Le Dive—$18.81

Let the record show that two High Lifes for 18 bucks is a rip-off. But Le Dive is nice: it’s posh and en vogue (being on the scene is my gift and curse) and sits right where Canal Street turns to Ludlow, across from Metrograph, a glass theater/restaurant that shows old movies. The weather is getting nicer; when the tables are set outside, that’s when Le Dive comes alive.

My pops—a wonderful man who taught me about movies, the Knicks, the Yankees, Black history, and how to be kind—couldn’t quite keep our class level as steady as my mother or my older brother wanted. This is not on him; this is not a moral failing. Being Black in New York is hard. Some days, I wonder if the way I spend my money is going to keep my head bobbing just above and just below that water line too. Money allows me to enjoy all the luxurious dinners that fill me up with joy; when that evaporates (it always does), I am taunted by my lack of institutional backing and my measly freelance life.

My mother is an immigrant, from Jamaica. My father isn’t. This explains at least some of the difference in how they think about money. Immigrants are taught to keep their heads down and stay grounded; Black Americans usually have a more parasocial relationship with the country. No matter how much the racists beat us, we keep hoping for financial glory, no matter how implausible it seems. My parents are sweet and lovely. I need to take breaks from them, but they’ve been there for me my whole life, and have given me a sense of purpose, humor, dignity, sociability, and the ability to be myself in every single room. That’s all that matters. No one is perfect, but as parents, they were close to it.

May 5: Clandestino—$11.00 (but I drank more—believe that)

All discussions about Dimes Square—positive, negative, or simply confused—start and end in Clandestino, a solid dive with strong drinks and decent prices. To some, Clandestino is a front for unabashed fascism in a traditionally working-class neighborhood. To me, it is just a fucking good-looking bar; either come drink pilsners with me or don’t. There are three corner tables, a bench for insane conversation while standing up, eight seats at the bar, and tables in the back. I realized Ben Detrick—a writer and podcaster I’d admired since I was on Twitter yelling at Porziņģis—was a patron there, and it made me want to go more to hang with him. I’ve been in better bars than Clandestino—or “Clando,” as people call it, affectionately or derisively. But convenience, price, and beautiful women are what I look for when I make a bar my spot, and Clandestino rates well in all those categories.

I find the conversation about Dimes Square to be hilarious. You mean young people are congregating downtown? Color me shocked. Of course neophytes are going to a two-block-radius downtown to drink and clown. I understand, and empathize, with a Chinese New Yorker complaining about the rise of Dimes Square. An Asian mentor of mine told me that he didn’t like my calling the area by this new name. That was fair—imagine yourself and your people shoehorned into a tiny part of the city, over-surveilled and -policed, then having your identity scrubbed from it as soon as the party reporters started showing up. But every neighborhood goes through its annoying moment when it seems inescapable in conversation and in print. You can argue that Dimes Square is different because of how quickly it happened, and the fact that it happened during the pandemic, though that’s the same end-of-history solipsism that fuels every scene. To me, it’s mostly just a place where I have those pilsners, smoke cigarettes outside, argue with Ben about basketball, and converse with people. On this night, I sat next to FKA Twigs and playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

I’m from 155th St. and Riverside, in a section of Harlem that stops being Black and turns very Hispanic, even white. Just up the block from me contained more people of color than the actual block did. It was very New York: most people around me did not look like me, but I didn’t have to go far to find those who did. I went to high school in the Bronx, which I am eternally grateful for. I remember when Kristin, a Black girl I liked, told me she felt I was molded by white people. This hurt my feelings. I am a Black man. I want to be loved and appreciated by Black people. What I didn’t realize then, but do now, is that she was trying to connect with me. She was from Jersey; New York is an entirely different life experience. She couldn’t quite grasp who I was.

May 4: Kossar’s Bagel—$14.43

Speaking of New York: I had an everything bagel with some nice lox and scallion cream cheese. I highly recommend that order. Bagel spots in New York are distinct for the smell: the wheat traveling lazily through the air. I go there for that and the coffee.

I don’t give a rat’s behind how weird you believe you are. As a Black person, you must be able to relate to other Black people. If you can’t do that, then take your anime posters and crawl back to your room. Fuck what Kanye West thinks; you can’t opt out of being Black. If you try to, it comes crashing down on you like it did for O. J. in that Bronco.

May 11: +$800.00 (I wrote about rappers and their relationship with Donald Trump)

As a freelancer, finally getting paid is glorious, because you truly do not know when you are going to get your check. It comes when it wants to come—at the infinitely lackadaisical pace of media conglomerates. The people who work for those companies are just doing their jobs, and I don’t want to blame them as individuals. But all payments should work the way they do at Condé Nast. You know when the direct deposit is scheduled to hit, and you can plan your life ahead of time. Condé isn’t perfect—no place is—but they do a decent job of that. Now I have an $800 check. The first thing I plan to do with this check is eat food.

MLK once said that he felt integration might have been a burning house—a means for oppressing us while being friendly in our faces. This is, still, in the back of my mind, as it should be for all Black people in a white man’s world. New York, despite its reputation as a melting pot (or whatever other tortured metaphor those in power use to placate those who aren’t), is very much a white man’s city. It’s why someone like Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg could so easily implement their brands of technocratic fascism. The state is allowed to cut social services, promote NYPD robot cops, and gentrify neighborhoods so that the walls close in on us from every direction. So when I’m in Dimes Square spending money at Le Dive or Bacaro, quite enjoying myself, I always either feel like I’m the one negro in a city that is hard on Black kids or I get defensive. (Defensive or depressive is always a mood.) Truth be told, though, I have never met a fascist who is into the Red Scare girls. At least not yet.

May 11: The Scratcher—$18.77

I hung out with a group of people, including my friend Caroline, a.k.a. Team Caroline, a.k.a. TC, who complained that I was not showing her enough attention. We made plans for a Sunday dinner.

I have found it hard, in my short lifetime, to have a coherent political dogma because, holy shit, do I like posh restaurants, people who contain multitudes, and chasing women. I’m just a Black man with vibes and issues. I crave this lifestyle even as I feel it corroding me. Capitalism does not work but Jay-Z’s crisp and clear-eyed raps about transposing its ethos from boardrooms to the corners I could see from my childhood windows made me addicted to the hustle. All of my most deeply held convictions would be considered progressive, but some of the most insightful Black men that I know are as conservative as NOI members.

May 12: Uncle Lou—$72.67

I never went to Chinatown as a kid. For some reason, my parents’ wide palates never brought us down to Mulberry Street. But walking down those streets today and seeing how busy they are—how Little Italy turns into Chinatown, how the curbs are filled with Asian families, or young people going on a date—I know this is going to be a neighborhood that I’ll enjoy for the rest of my life.

But I do proudly and purely hate the police, a gang of criminals bent on oppressing poor people. I voted for Bernie twice. I actually wrote him in for the 2020 election, because there should be no billionaires in a country that cannot afford to give people free healthcare—even if I think it is largely Bernie’s fault that he wasn’t able to convince older Black people that he was for real. If I had to pin myself down ideologically, I’d call myself a champagne socialist: someone who shouts for free healthcare and fewer cops over a white wine at Clandestino. The inability to shake this sense of tension, of disagreement, gives even those quiet moments of leisure a pressure-cooker intensity. But I’m from New York: I preserve my intensity. It keeps me sharp, on edge, and where I need to be: always moving quickly, forward.

LARB Contributor

Jayson Buford, born and raised in New York, is a writer for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, GQ, Pitchfork, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Passion of the Weiss. Go Knicks.


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