New York City
30 degrees on a good day
Steven looks up from the brownstone step where he is bundled in a coat. He doesn’t have a scarf on. The quarter-pint bottle of vodka beside him is half-empty but the cap is twisted on. He hasn’t been sipping it as we talk.
When he looks up, his eyes are rimmed with tears.
Later, when I tell my mom about the tears, she says, “Well, he was drinking.”
I say, “Well, he was sad.”
He says, “He looked at me and said, ‘I want to kill myself.’ Do you know how it feels to hear something like that?”
I think, “Yeah, I do.”
Steven continues to cry. He only stops crying about his friend who want to kill himself to tell me about the last time he got a blow job, up in a club in Harlem, how it made him feel good.
He doesn’t feel good that often. The last time was, maybe, 2014.
People keep walking past us, as we talk. What a sight, I wonder. A homeless drunk crying about the last person who told him he wanted to die, and his last blow job, and a lawyer on her way home from work. “I could’ve used a lawyer when I got all my felonies,” he says.
He tells me he’s an actor. He laughs sometimes. I give him cash sometimes. “It ain’t that kind of party,” he tells me with a glint in his eye. I laugh at him. The bundle of blankets on the corner doesn’t always stir when I walk by.
One night, Steven notices I’m not wearing a scarf. “Do you want one?” he offers from his pile of belongings. “No,” I say. “It’s ok.”
I have a home down the street.
“You know where I live,” Steven says.
I have a local grocery, a local liquor store, and a local homeless guy. And it feels cheap to say that. Even writing about it feels wrong. The winter is so cold, and I worry about him. In a distant way. I know he’s been ok since before I noticed him. He doesn’t need my concern.
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” he says.
I wonder if this is growing up. If this is success. Knowing the guy on the corner and blogging about it like I deserve to exploit my interactions with him.
“I can’t tell this to anyone,” I tell myself every time I walk away.
It’s a strange secrecy. The same way I withdraw into myself when I’m tired. In the city, the more overwhelmed I feel, the more alone I want to be. On some days, the only place I feel that I want to be is in the middle of field in North Carolina.
I put country music on when I left work two days this past week, so I could feel like I was on a back lane somewhere off the route that my sister and I used to drive out to the horse farm. The truth is, I only imagine myself out in the middle of empty fields. In real life, I only stopped once off an empty road, in a field, in the dark, and I felt like that was how a serial killer would kill me. So, I quickly turned around, turned the car back on, and drove away.
Fear. The main reason I only imagine myself in empty fields. The main reason I don’t tell anyone about the drunk felon I talk to on my way home from work. Because opening myself to live in the world like that, authentically, openly, is only giving people reasons to blame me if I die from living like this.
Part of the might is that I’m so often scared of being a woman, alone, in dark places where my safety is never guaranteed, and I never really feel freedom from the specter of warnings not to go out alone.*
I miss the night runs I used to do in law school, pretending that the oasis of my parent’s neighborhood was the whole world: the whole world where the whole world is safe and clean, and no one says, “Don’t run there.”
When I move into Manhattan, my mother makes me promise I won’t go near Riverside Park at night. I tell her, “Obviously.” Every girl I know was raped in a place where she felt safe. Still, there’s a pretense that we all can protect ourselves by staying there: in the comfort zone.
The felon on the corner looks at me with tears in his eyes. I’m in the street in the dark with him. It gets dark at 4:30pm. I sit down beside him, to prove a point. In November, I was in a maximum-security prison, talking to rapists and murderers through a metal door, saying, “I’m here to help.” They wanted to talk to me. I wanted to make their lives better. I both did and didn’t want metal doors between us. Steven cries and cries. I head home, later, and I’m safe.
I think about how much of fear is realistic and how much of it is insisting we curl up inside ourselves. In November, I went into the general population unit of the prison, and I sat down at a table of tattooed men. I said, “I’m here with the ACLU.” They said, “Thank God, you gotta do something. It’s awful. You don’t feel like a human in here.”
Steven keeps saying he didn’t know what to do when his friend wanted to commit suicide. I still don’t know what to do when people say, “Can you help?” I guess all I can do is sit down on the dark step, or stand outside the door, or look across the table, and listen.
In the middle of every night, courage might not be knowing what to do. It might be knowing what not to do: forget our humanity, our commonality, the part of us that wants equal humanity for the prisoner and the survivor of his crimes. I’m waiting for my naivety to catch up to me. I’ve been waiting for 12 years, which makes me think that maybe my naivety already caught up to me, back then, and I won. I kept moving, and I kept trusting. I kept myself alive by not stopping to curl up inside myself when I felt afraid.