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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with reporters

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with reporters at Make My Cake in Harlem before an appearance at the Apollo Theater on Wednesday, March 30, 2016, in Harlem. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

The former New York senator visited the storied neighborhood. But she was in a different place from the New Yorkers who live and work there.

Yesterday, after a certain prominent politician made the requisite appearance at the Apollo Theater, two observers stood outside the back entrance, unfazed as a tumult of Secret Service agents and supporters passed through. They’d seen it before.

Shaheed Muhammad-El, 48, says he did lighting design at the Apollo for years up until last spring. Over the decades, he’s seen Bill Clinton many times, he says, walking to what was once his main office nearby. The former president never failed to wave, say hello.

He showed a picture on the phone of him and the former president on one such visit. “That’s my best friend,” he says. Swipes — another picture, of President Barack Obama shaking hands with Muhammad Ali.

His companion, George Ryner, owns the commerical parking lot next door to the theater. It’s bad for business when the big wigs show up, because the Secret Service blocks traffic.

Ryner shrugs. It is what it is. Like how he’s not sure Sen. Bernie Sanders can accomplish going after Wall Street: “You can’t change what’s unchangeable.”

A politician's Harlem

Clinton was in town Wednesday, getting her New York primary campaign started. She wants to bury once and for all the persistent Sanders, demonstrating her New York values and strength. She started in Harlem, where relatively few residents are feeling the Bern.

All of the presidential candidates are making as many pit stops in New York as possible before the April 19 presidential primary, giving the illusion of local understanding and time spent. Gov. John Kasich visited a Howard Beach pizzeria on Wednesday, fork in hand. Sanders will have a rally here on Thursday night.

In the morning, Clinton visited a bakery on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. reinforced by the retiring Congressman Charles Rangel, summoned to show how firmly the Harlem establishment stood for Hillary. He expressed some skepticism of his esteemed colleague Sanders’ record of achievement in Washington. They smiled for the cameras. Reporters were ushered out before she could take a bite of cake.

An hour later, at the Apollo, Clinton was onstage with Sen. Charles Schumer, reminding the excited capacity crowd that Clinton, as their senator, had helped bring the city back after 9/11; she was a firm backer of gun control from the Brady Bill on; she knew how to get things done for New Yorkers, like a New Yorker.

“I take a backseat to no one on income inequality,” said Clinton. She knew how to take it on, in addition to “discrimination on all fronts” — attacking Sanders’ presumed weakness with African-American voters.

She left the stage, and ushers and campaign operatives soon began showing visitors out. They had to set up the stage for Amateur Night, the real business of the theater, at 7:30 p.m.

The people's Harlem

Outside, Muhammad-El and Ryner discussed the candidates. They were sympathetic toward Clinton. She understands discrimination and the African-American voter, Ryner, 48 says, because she’s been discriminated against as a woman.

Sanders hadn’t been at the Apollo, Muhammad-El said, though he’d stopped for a similar photo-op at Sylvia’s. “With Sharpton,” he added. They guffawed. “We don’t pick our leaders,” says Ryner.

They talked about the America behind the leaders, the difficult times that the nation had been through — two wars, a lousy economy, gas prices so high that Ryner says he sold his SUV. Now, “more people work than ever,” and President Barack Obama had passed Obamacare. Ryner thought America was ready for a female president.

Two Secret Service agents walked by and waved. “They know our name,” Muhammad-El says. “They vet you,” says Ryner.

There was a commotion down the block, where some passerby had been gathering to watch Clinton get into her car. Secret Service officers brought out a movable fence, pushing the crowd back.

Muhammad-El pointed to the agents: “Look how much she likes black people. They’re moving them away.”

It seemed to him like inside the theater, when the politicians came in and were sequestered from the workers.

People wanted to be around to see history happening, and the politicians were eager to pose with supporters for selfies. But, of course, office-seekers can only ever be here briefly and in cordoned-off doses, which means they hardly make it at all.

There was some consolation. “Even if Trump becomes president, he’s going to have to come here,” Muhammad-El said, meaning not just to Harlem. To the Apollo.

This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers.


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