Northeast Route

by Nelly Rosario
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Reader listens to Invisible Man on drives between Brooklyn and Cambridge.
Reader, like Ralph Ellison, published an only child.
Awkward silence on departure.
Writers’ block on RFK Triborough Bridge, over waters baptized Harlem, Bronx Kill, Hell Gate.
Later near Connecticut, static cuts up “This American Life.”
Reader switches gears, radio to auxiliary.
Last audiobook rescue: a Zora Neale Hurston daughter that kept Reader’s eyes watching God, deliberately missing exits.
With Ellison’s only son, Reader signals before merging.
He’s a brother from another planet narrated by Joe Morton, actor once muted as a cimarrón chased by extra-terrestrial bounty hunters through Harlem, birthplace of actor himself, where Reader’s sister lives, because Northern Migration does happen from Brooklyn to Uptown and DR to NY, though not as bumpy as from down South circa 1930, in skin of no color to physics, colored to Jim Crow.
Read signs, Reader breathes, slow down.
Blue-red lights in her rearview stain the cans of Optic White mixed by invisible workers at Liberty Paints—fast forward to the Bryant Park scene written as if to give a cop a shiner.
The po-po speeds by in Doppler effect that leaves her a moment of silence.
RIP Tod Clifton, Sandra Brown, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, et. al.
What did we do to be so black and blue…
Pause. Rewind. Play.
Chapter One booms with Louie Armstrong, 1,369 light bulbs strong.
Right. Left. Right.
Merge—wait—now.
Converge lanes.
Slow, past the college chapel Ellison modeled after his alma mater Tuskegee, designed by architect Robert R. Taylor, great-grandfather to Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and first black graduate of MIT, Reader’s GPS destination and on which curriculum Tuskegee’s was modeled by founder Booker T. Washington, whose respectability politics Ellison skewers in the—brake!
Fender-bender ahead.
She rubbernecks for miles as Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer preaches black-life matters, scorns optic-white diplomas like hers and the kind of mental slavery tearing up her island of birth, where a centuries-old Battle Royale pits Dominican against Haitian in full view of the powers that be.
To be a power that be, Reader sees as traffic lets up, is to be half-blind Brother Jack who plucks the glass eye from his socket to get black minds back in his pocket.
By the Mass-Conn border, a Sybil is seducing an Invisible Man, narrated with much camp and smarm by Morton, making Reader laugh so hard she has to pee.
Holding her bladder on the woman question, Reader pulls over at a rest stop.
For she and her gender are apparently unable to stray “far from biological reality—even when they cloak themselves in intellectual sheep’s clothing,” wrote Ellison about women to Richard Wright.
We might even be said to possess a mind, thinks Reader midstream in the Women’s Room, a mind that expands without girdles.
With seatbelt fastened, she gets back on the road.
When reading The Canon Reader knows to keep her E-ZPass replenished.
At the tollbooth she pays in coins instead, and Americana gives her a mechanical-arm salute all the same.
Piggybanks and writers, says receipt, are by-products of their eras.
Time is calculated by dividing distance traveled by speed of progress.
According to Siri, she will arrive in time.
Reader may be invisible to Invisible Man, but as the northeastern skies go dark he keeps her aligned with the road.

Nelly Rosario is author of Song of the Water Saints: A Novel (Pantheon) and researcher for the Blacks at MIT History Project. She has served on the BookUpNYC faculty and interned for the National Book Foundation.