I had some typically unique experiences walking around New York City this week. Experiences typical of New York in their uniqueness.
I don’t even know if I should call all of them experiences. Some are observations. But, then again, many of the observations I make from day to day — especially when walking around the city, which I tend to do a lot — they end up affecting me to such a degree that they take on an aura of the personal. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is bad. All the time, it’s just the way it is.
I was rushing down 34th Street the other day when I was suddenly stricken by the sight of a young woman, who was standing alone all the way to the edge of the sidewalk on the street side. She stood tucked between a signpost and a phone booth, hunched over a cigarette, which she pulled at with such care and such a look on her face that I knew instantly that it was the only thing in the world, at that moment, that could keep her from bursting into tears.
I can’t explain how I knew this, and neither can I explain my certainty — that this was not only true but exactly true. I didn’t believe she was going to cry. Not at that moment. She had the cigarette; to balance her physicality, and her chemistry at that moment, with the storm going on behind her eyes. Maybe not a winning formula in the long term, or in the eyes of some people, but it was working.
She was in pain, or crisis, or both. It was striking — but I didn’t feel sorry for her. And it took me until just now to realize why.
I didn’t feel sorry for her because I’ve been there. And, retrospectively, I cherish the fact that I’ve been there. Do you know why?
Because the woman was fucking feeling something. Sure, maybe she was fighting it a bit, in order to keep herself together at that moment (with the help of the cigarette), but, she cared enough about something, someone…enough to bring her eventually to that moment that I witnessed.
I don’t often worry, anymore, about people who are processing their emotions. Feeling their feelings. It doesn’t happen enough, here and now. I know I’ve failed at it in key ways in the past. Just as I know I’m lucky, on several accounts, to have not failed at accessing my emotions in other key ways in the past.
If anything, she should have been proud. Everyone else on the block, myself included, was just rushing around under the spell of some device or another. With her, it was just what was in her head at that moment, and the cigarette. Life and a momentary break from it.
I also had a brief conversation this week with a handicapped drunk man. He was having the time of his life while the Bee Gees played loudly on the boombox he had balanced on the front shelf of a walker he was pushing in front of him. I’ve seen the guy before, talked to him before. He shows up in my building sometimes to visit my neighbor (also handicapped — he’s legless), and as far as I can tell they just visit and sit around and drink and listen to music. Sometimes my neighbor starts without his visitor, and falls asleep and doesn’t hear the bell ring. On those occasions, the visiting man waits in the hall, usually on his back, sleeping occasionally, until his friend wakes or someone else with a key shows up.
Both men love my dog. Last night, I helped the Bee Gees guy pull the walker up the stairs leading to the elevator. It’s interesting, how you have to go up and down stairs to get to the elevator, in a building where one of the tenants (on the top floor) has no legs. I’ve helped carry my neighbor to the roof before, to get to the other elevator in the building, when the one on our side isn’t working.
The last time I talked to him, he asked me a bunch of questions about Zelda (my dog) and then started telling me about a dog he had once, who was a little mean but protected his apartment. The Bee Gees guy never liked dogs until he met Zelda — just this week. That’s what he told me at least. He played with her a bit and said: “Now I know why they say they’re man’s best friend. Look how happy she is to be with us.”
And then, finally, I had a sad experience yesterday morning with a man on the street. He startled me, by grabbing my bag from behind — not a great tactic when you’re looking for a signature, which was what he was doing. I move quick, so I was a little thrown and upset by the resultant yank. I was minimally caffeinated and focused on fighting the day.
Essentially, what I’m saying, is that — prior to his talking to me — I didn’t feel like hearing what this man had to say.
Those of you who live in the city probably know the feeling — there are just too many people vying for your attention (and your money), for too many causes, as you move from place to place. If you stop, and you’re a decent person, your contact information and maybe some of your cash is going to go to whatever cause birthed the clipboard that the stopper person is holding. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, or that causes aren’t worthy — but I am saying that they can be wearying on a macro level. Especially when most of the time and resources you have already go into fighting for many of these causes in a different way.
So I started moving again, as soon as I saw what the man was presumably about.
And then he pushed the folder (it was a folder, not a clipboard) into my face. There was just a legal pad there, with some names and other information scribbled on it in ink. There was also a picture of a kid clipped to one side of the folder.
“This kid got killed two days ago,” he said. “Don’t you want to help?”
It all happened very fast. I said I was sorry and I kept walking.
I felt bad. But I didn’t see how anything I could do, then and there, was going to help that dead kid get undead. Also, to be honest, all things considered, I wasn’t sure the man was legit.
I had been in a typically frenzied head space when he had yanked me, thinking about Sophia, thinking about all the many reasons why I must tell her story, and, related to that, why I do what I do. I was thinking of all the big things I want to do with my life, to help contribute to the creation of a better place for myself and for others than the one we see in front of us these days.
And the man had upset me with the yanking, and then again by shoving the folder in my face, and…he even seemed a little combative…and…
…I don’t know.
Sometimes I can handle these things. On other occasions, I can’t. Sometimes, it’s just too much, too quickly, and there’s not much more that can be said about it.
But I wonder what it says, about me and about us, that the overwhelming weight of the fight — and of our lives within it — can cause us to fear the time it would take to stop for a moment and listen to and communicate with someone who is right there, in the flesh, and needs help. Or needs help helping.
Then again, New York City is a big place, throbbing with life, with more joy and more pain that any one person can absorb and parse at any one time. The girl with the cigarette was okay. The drunk guy with the walker was mostly okay. He only needed a little help, and maybe, a little companionship. The kid, if he really is dead, has already been lost.
Which leaves me just where I started, if a little wiser. I guess what I’m saying is that this week I was reminded that the fight for a better future doesn’t exist only in the abstract. It’s not about statistics, it’s not about what you see on the news, or about what’s trending on your social media channels.
It’s about people.
Have a good week, everyone. Get angry and speak up.