As I walk through the lobby and out into Times Square—into the pulsating mass of humanity, in the city I have always called home—it occurs to me that some days are better than others. Some days, in fact, are so good that you scarcely know how to process them. They seem, on the surface at least, to be the stuff of fantasy. This is one of those days.
A few minutes ago, I was on the phone with Brad Smith. The purpose of his call was to offer his congratulations on my promotion. With Brad’s encouragement I had applied for the position of associate general counsel supporting global sales, marketing, and operations (GSMO), US regulated industries, which includes financial services, health, and life sciences, and the public sector group. The title is a mouthful, befitting its workload and strategic importance within one of the world’s most prominent organizations. And now the job is mine. I will be overseeing a team of twenty legal professionals and leading the engagement of a $20 billion business.
More important, or at least of equal importance, is the fact that in this new role I will be supporting a division president who happens to be an African American woman. And the very thought of the improbability of that scenario—a Black female president, supported by a Black associate general counsel, in a company that, frankly, when I first arrived, could not have looked less like me—nearly brings me to tears.
There is more. I am trying to process all this while swimming across stream, navigating one of Midtown’s busiest neighborhoods at rush hour on my way to the Port Authority Terminal and a subway ride back to my home in Brooklyn. I pause for a moment, take a few deep breaths. Summer in the city, and the air is thick and wet and pungent—an urban stew of car exhaust and food from street vendors and the sweat of a few million folks just trying to get through the day. I look around. So many people, all in their own little bubbles. I wonder if they see me. I wonder if they notice, and if they do, what do they think? A fifty something Black man walking out of an office building in Times Square, wearing sneakers, jeans, and a polo shirt—pushing the envelope on “business casual.” Would they think he was a lead counsel at Microsoft? Or would they think he worked in the mailroom?
I smile and start to walk. At the intersection of Forty-First and Eighth, there is a blockade of people waiting for a chance to cross. My destination is dead ahead, but for some reason I look to the right. North. Uptown, so to speak. Roughly twenty blocks away are the Amsterdam Houses, and as I stare up Eighth Avenue, I am struck by the fact that it feels simultaneously to be both near and far—a literal mile from where I am standing, but a metaphorical world away.
The pedestrian light changes from red to white, and the crowd lurches forward. I am carried along with them, but on the other side, I pause again. I decide to turn right and head uptown, to check out the old neighborhood. This is something I do from time to time, both here and in Brooklyn, where I’ve also experienced poverty and comfort. I like to go back in time, to visit old friends and relatives, and to remind myself of where I came from.
It keeps me grounded. It keeps me sane. It reminds me that there is so much work still to be done when it comes to diversity and inclusion and social justice. I am living proof that America is a land of opportunity and promise, where anyone can rise above circumstances and turn dreams into reality. But I have experienced enough to know that hard work and determination are not always sufficient, that the playing field is woefully unlevel, and that in many ways, I am the exception that proves the rule. So, I do my part. And I don’t forget.
I start walking up Eighth Avenue, insert a set of earbuds, and begin scrolling through the Spotify playlist on my phone, finally stopping at “Juicy,” by the Notorious B.I.G.
Yeah, this album is dedicated
To all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’
To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustling in front of
Then, it’s on to Jay-Z, another New Yorker, singing “I Made It,” both beating his chest in triumph and bowing down in gratitude to the friends and family who helped him and loved him along the way, and vowing always to take care of them. I shove my hands into my pockets and look at the asphalt and concrete, Eighth Avenue unwinding in the glint of the afternoon sun. I think about my grandmother, gone now, and what she would say if she could see me, and for a moment, the sadness rises in my throat. I choke it back down, turn up the volume, and push ahead. At once into the future . . . and into the past.