The complicated kindess of strangers: A story from the streets of New York
With my ears sealed against the world, I felt the shock of each step as my feet struck the pavement. I was so deep inside myself that I didn’t immediately notice the woman stopped on the sidewalk in front of me. Her lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear the words.
I was on my way home from a bar. Earlier, I had been kidnapped by one of my periodic blue moods: a beguiling combination of oppressive loneliness and claustrophobia at the thought of all the human longing being played out in the towers and the streets, in the privacy of little urban rooms. I didn’t have the patience for reading, my usual strategy of escape, and I don’t own a television. So I paced the rooms of my apartment, listening to Chet Baker records until I tired of the repetition. I took my notebook and went for a beer at McLaughlin’s. There was something soothing in the voices, the clank of glass, and the jukebox’s moan, men and women talking and laughing in the smoky intimate light. I could never entirely rid myself of the hope that I’d find a beautiful woman sipping whiskey all alone in the corner. Our eyes would meet. I’d buy her a drink. We’d step from the frame of the Hopper painting that was our lives.
She was never there, of course.
After two beers I shouldered out the door, back into the midnight streets. The world had begun to veil itself in mist, and I stuck my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. Tumbling stray coins through my fingers, I came upon the little foam plugs I sometimes tuck in my ears when I read on the train. What if I were deaf? What would a walk in the street after midnight be like if it were bled entirely of sound? I stuck the plugs in my ears to find out.
Now, feeling rather foolish, I re-moved them so I could hear what the woman in front of me was saying.
'I’m sorry?' I said.
'Pico,' she said.
'What?' I said.
'You’re Pico,' she said.
'Uh, no,' I said.
She claimed she recognized me. She said I’d lived with my girlfriend 'over there,' making a vague sweep with her arm. I told her it was true that a year earlier I had lived with L. on 34th Street, somewhat in the direction she’d indicated. But I now lived alone, and my name was definitely Phil, not Pico. Seemingly persuaded, she explained that Pico’s girlfriend would come to his apartment at night, pound on his door, and shout at him. With each word, I was more and more pleased not to be Pico.
I asked what her name was.
'Michelle,' she said, lowering her head, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, back and forth in a slow, scissoring motion. She was thin, chocolate-skinned, late twenties I guessed. She wore white tennis shoes and white socks, black shorts, and a light rain jacket. She had a gym bag hooked over one shoulder. Her short hair was pinned flat to her head. I noticed she had nice legs and small, girlish breasts.
We stood silently for a moment, unable to turn away, yet unsure how to continue our accidental conversation. Her odd mixture of shyness and forthrightness gave her a coy, flirtatious charm. The two elements seemed to be at war on her brow, and I waited to see which one would win.
Finally she said, 'So, Phil-not-Pico, what you been doin’ tonight?'
I told her I’d had a beer at a place up on Broadway.
'I’m goin’ to have a beer, too,' she said. 'My girlfriend say she meet me in the park. You know Socrates Park?'
'She say she get some beer and wait for me there.'
She looked down again, scraped one foot across the sidewalk, making a Z with the point of her toe. Both of us followed it with our eyes. Mine lingered on her leg a moment too long, and when I looked up again she was smiling at me.
'So you don’t got no girlfriend?' she asked.
'No, not really. I mean, I’m not sure. There’s this woman . . . it’s a long story. The short answer is, I don’t think so.'
I asked if she had a boyfriend.
'Naaaw,' she said. 'He kicked me out. Kept all my furniture, too. He won’t even let me in to pick up my clothes. He afraid I’ll take everythin’ and leave him with nothin’. And I should, too, ’cause it’s all mine. He know none of it his. My money paid for it.'
'That’s terrible,' I said.
'Yeah, it’s all confused. I moved back in with my mom awhile. But she get all moody and sad. She forget to take her pills and then she just not right. She start whinin’ and cussin’ and feelin’ sorry for herself, and she won’t stop. She make you feel like it’s all your fault. She got diabetes and a bad heart. I had to get out ’fore I hauled off and smacked her one. Since then I been stayin’ with a girlfriend, you know, in the praahhjects.' She stretched out this last word, seeming to mock both her own situation and the white imagination that gave the term its stigmatizing power. 'We don’t get along no more. She get mean. She only really good to be around when she first start drinkin’.'
She shifted the gym bag from one shoulder to the other. Through the unzipped opening I saw what looked like the elastic band of a pair of cotton panties. Later, I wondered if it wasn’t the glimpse of her underwear that made me say what I said next.
'You need a place to stay?'
She shrugged, noncommittal.
'Consider it a standing offer.' I tore a piece of paper from my notebook and wrote my number on it. 'If you’re ever in a pinch, just give me a call and you’ll have a place.'
She took the paper from my hand.
'You don’ even know me,' she said.
'I do now, don’t I?'
'Phil,' she said, reading aloud.
'Michelle,' I said.
We both smiled.
'I goin’ to call you.'
'I mean I may need a place tonight.'
'If so, you know what to do.'
I turned to walk away, but she called my name.
'You live close by?' she asked.
'Three blocks this way,' I said, pointing down the street.
'I tellin’ you,' she said, waving the scrap of paper under the street lamp.
'I’ll be there,' I said.
Two years of nine-to-five had tamed my undergraduate hope of changing the world. I had seen such disillusionment in the adults around me all my life—despising them for it, in fact—yet I tried to be amazed at how quickly my own idealism had been eroded by routine and a middling salary.
Unlike my colleagues at the office, however, I hadn’t let my privilege steel me against those who didn’t share it. The fact was, I had more or less blundered into my current position—the usual striver’s tale of desperation, luck, and a single useful connection. My memories of waiting in line with my mother at the town hall for a handout of government cheese were still nearly as real to me as my copyediting duties at The Wall—Adventures in Capitalism!—Street Journal.
Although my politics were vaguely socialist, I understood more clearly than ever the seduction of a philosophy of rational markets. The tentacles of the system had begun to fasten themselves on me. I now had a 401(k) account, and I could see how easy it would be to lose oneself inside a private reverie of corporate dividends and compound interest, mutual funds, bond prices, IPOs, and ten-year Treasury notes.
The Journal focused on titans of commerce and empire. I worked in the midst of intelligent and well-meaning adults who believed it was downright immoral to help people, because charity merely encouraged an unhealthy dependence. I read these sentiments in the editorial pages—read them more religiously than did the converted, believing that to ignore them was a supreme act of naïveté—and I stewed and fulminated privately. So privately, in fact, that when I was promoted from copy boy to editor on the arts page and took up residence in the same precinct as the editorial writers, it was assumed by many that I was a fellow-traveling reactionary. I quickly found it necessary to make a small but visible statement of dissent, so I tacked a poster of Ralph Nader to the wall of my cubicle. It seemed to create a dead zone around my desk. Those few of my colleagues who dared to make small talk with me did so in a conspiratorial whisper.
Still, a purely symbolic resistance would not, I concluded, suffice. Sure, I could surreptitiously publish book reviews in obscure leftist journals, but what difference would that make? I had long since admitted that I didn’t have the temperament for the theatrics of civil disobedience. I was not, by nature, an organizer or an activist. My zone of humane rebellion, I decided, would be that ill-defined borderland between the public and the private where so much of daily life plays out—especially for those of us who live amid the density of the world’s great teeming cities.
Michelle was the first person I engaged in that unmapped territory.
I took the stairs two at a time and locked the door behind me. My first thought was that she wouldn’t come. It was all a little game. But if so, it was one that had me—there was no other word for it—aroused. I began to imagine the age-old scenario of a woman in need and a cynical benefactor willing to trade on his good deed: her supple, supplicant body in bed next to mine, the voracious yearning of the flesh.
Clearly these were not the musings of a freelance social worker. I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face, and tried to think of it another way.
Suppose she did come. Suppose she rang the bell, and I buzzed her in, and when I opened the door she appeared to be alone. But suppose that before I locked the door a man who’d been hiding around the corner kicked it in my face. Suppose they subdued me, bound and gagged me, taunted me, laughed, and pissed on my head. Suppose they boiled a pot of water and slowly dribbled it onto my arms and neck, then stole what little I had worth stealing. Or suppose they piled all my books in the middle of the kitchen and lit them in a giant bonfire.
I fumbled for a cigarette. She does not know where you live. Let the telephone ring. Better yet, turn off the ringer and the answering machine and crawl into bed. Pretend you never met her.
I paced: kitchen, living room, bedroom; bedroom, living room, kitchen. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. I finally did what I told myself I must. I turned off the ringer and the machine. I stripped to my boxer shorts and got into bed. My heart thumped against my ribs like a pneumatic jackhammer. I stared unblinking at the ceiling and tried to steer my imagination away from a combustible mix of sexual fantasy and racial paranoia.
I thought of the night my mother called me and told me she was worried about my brother. He had broken up with his girlfriend. He sounded depressed. She was sure he’d be fine in time—maybe they’d even work it out, get back together—but that night, she told me, it might help if he heard my voice. She had told him I was moving to New York, and he said he hadn’t even known. We hadn’t talked in months; we were brothers in our early twenties, living on opposite ends of a vast country and we had better things to do.
I hung up the phone and thought, yeah, I’ll call him—but later in the week. I’d arrived in New York that very day and hadn’t seen L. in months. We were finally back together, and I was intent on cherishing her. My silly kid brother and his silly love life would wait. After I took a few days to get settled, I’d call and get the news.
As it turned out, he couldn’t wait, and I got the news from my father the next afternoon. Late the previous night, deep inside a fugue of self-pity, fueled by a bottle of scotch, my brother had put a hunting rifle to his temple and shot a hole through his brain.
Imagine my guilt, the second-guessing, the bitter rages, and the quiet, endless despair. Imagine feeling you might as well have pulled the trigger on him yourself.
I got out of bed and turned the ringer back on. Ten minutes later Michelle called, and I gave her directions.
Outside my building, I positioned myself in such a way as to see her before she could see me. If some menacing accomplice was with her, I could either slip back into the building unnoticed or slip around the corner down the avenue.
I waited. The mist had dissipated. All was quiet save for the faint swish of tires on wet pavement. I dug in my pocket for a cigarette and matches. There was comfort as always in the little ritual, the dry paper on the lips and the match’s flick and flare.
After a few minutes I saw, far off down the next block, a pair of white shoes and white socks moving. As they came closer their wearer emerged, too. She was alone. I took another calming drag on my cigarette. She was walking fast.
'Peekaboo!' she yelled from across the street. 'I see you!' I stepped out onto the sidewalk. She crossed the street and gave me a quizzical look as she approached. 'You gonna scare people lurkin’ in doorways like that.'
I released a little nervous laugh and held the door for her. As we climbed the stairs, I adjusted the bulge in my pants to make it less conspicuous. It occurred to me that a man might find it convenient to cast doubt on another’s motives precisely in those moments when he couldn’t trust his own.
She dropped her bag and sat on the couch.
'You want anything?' I asked. 'Water? Juice?'
She reached in her bag and fished out a beer in a paper sack. 'I’ll stick with this,' she said.
She took a long swallow. 'Can I have a cigarette?'
I offered one and lit it for her. She blew a plume of smoke into the air, sat back, and crossed her legs. She looked older than she had on the street. I revised my guess upward to early thirties, a little older than me. She smoked avidly, bounced one crossed leg atop the other, and looked around the room.
'You got a lot of books,' she said. 'You read them all?'
'Maybe half,' I said. 'Maybe a little more.'
'You must be pretty smart.'
'I’m not sure reading books makes you smart.'
We smoked one cigarette and then another, until the light in the room turned faintly purple. She noticed a small bag of marijuana on the coffee table. 'You smoke weed?' she asked.
'Now and then,' I said. 'Do you?'
'Not no more. I got to like it too much and smoked it all the time. Made me lazy.'
After a moment she pointed across the room.
'Say, you videotapin’ me?'
Atop one bookshelf was an old Bell & Howell Autoload 8mm movie camera, probably made in the late forties or early fifties. I used it as a bookend.
'They don’t even make film for those anymore,' I said, laughing. 'I wish they did. Now it’s just a curiosity, an antique.'
'Just what I need,' she said. 'Have some freak videotapin’ me.' She went across the room and picked it up, turned it over in her hands. It had a handle and a trigger like a gun. She pointed it at me with an exaggerated air of menace.
'To film something you would just hold down the trigger,' I said. 'If you let up it stopped filming.'
'Heavy sumbitch,' she said. She placed it back on the shelf and sat down again. But she couldn’t take her gaze from it. She stared at it for what seemed like a long time.
'That big eye, or whatever you call it, makes me nervous. Like someone’s watching me.'
'Lens,' I said.
'Gives me the creeps,' she said. 'Lens. Whatever.'
I went over to the shelf and turned the camera to face the wall. I understood a thing or two about paranoia, and I didn’t want to encourage hers.
'Maybe you want to take a hot shower,' I said.
I took a fresh towel from the closet and set it on the edge of the sink. After I heard the water turn on, I sat down on the futon next to her coat and lit another cigarette.
One pocket of her coat lay open like a great gaping mouth, an invitation. With hardly a moment’s hesitation I reached into it. I found a scrap of paper with an anonymous address written on it, a payroll stub for a man named Gerald, a Trojan condom in a creased wrapper indicating long transport without use. I wondered whether it would be safe to wear it anymore.
The other pocket held nothing. I went next to her bag. In it were a pair of scuffed, black, high-heeled shoes, a blouse, a pair of underwear, an empty paper bag damp with beer, and a small black notebook. I held the notebook in my hand. Everything else I’d touched was a practical object with a clear purpose, while the notebook was a thing of mystery, capable perhaps of revealing some aspect of her private life. But even as I violated her privacy, my conscience was calibrating degrees of violation, and I finally thought better of it and put it back.
I suddenly felt dirty and ashamed. I sniffed my hand, which smelled of stale beer. I went to the kitchen sink and washed up to my elbows with dish soap, more out of a desire to absolve the instruments of my transgression than to stave off unwanted odors.
She came out of the bathroom wearing nothing but the towel. She held a damp pair of underwear and two damp socks.
'Can I put these someplace to dry?' she asked. There was neither shame nor coyness in her expression. It was as if she had asked me what time it was. Adopting a similar nonchalance, I arranged an electric fan in front of a desk chair, over the back of which she draped the socks and underwear. Then she sat down, put her feet up on the coffee table, and lit another cigarette.
There was a scar just beneath her clavicle. It looked like a bright pink worm crawling toward her shoulder. She noticed me staring at it.
'This here’s a gift from my dad,' she said, tracing it with her index finger. 'He came home drunk and dinner wasn’t ready. He threw me across the room. I ain’t seen him in fifteen years. But this don’t let me forget him.'
She said that her mother and father were both alcoholics. Her father was given to indiscriminate spasms of violence. Her mother’s temperament was sullen and submissive—she never uttered a word of protest against the beating of her children.
Michelle fell in love with a neighborhood boy when she was seventeen and moved out of her parents’ place to live with him. She got pregnant shortly thereafter and had a son. Then she had a girl and another boy. She confessed that, at the time, she had been drinking too much. 'Hittin’ the hooch,' she called it. After one bleak episode during which she blacked out, her boyfriend left with the kids and later sent them to live with his mother in Pennsylvania. Michelle visited them a few times there, but she’d been made to feel unwelcome, and after a while she stopped going. She didn’t think her children should see their mother treated with open hostility. She could imagine the things that were said about her behind her back, for her kids seemed wary of her. 'I been beat, I been cheated, but nothin’ ever hurt me worse than that,' she said. She had not seen them in several years.
As she said this, tears glistened on her lashes. She sniffled once or twice but kept the tears from tracing down her cheeks. I wanted to reach out and touch her, as though my skin on hers would be the perfect salve. She looked frail and small, clothed only in a bath towel, her thumb incessantly flicking a cigarette butt. But I feared that if I reached for her, she might take it the wrong way, as if I were demanding her submission. And the sad thing was, she must have expected it. Why else would she come out of the bathroom in a stranger’s home with nothing but a towel on? That was her tacit signal that she knew the rules of the game. Everything had its price, and she had made her bargain. Or did she, in fact, trust me more that I trusted myself?
Either way, there seemed to be nothing in the way of consolation I could give. The only favor I could offer was to withhold my impulse to reach out for her. And so I listened, nodding my head from time to time, handing her another cigarette. After a while we fell silent. I rose, went to the bedroom, and took the comforter off my bed. I made up the futon for her, each crease and tuck a kind of penance, a displaced gesture of the affection I dared not show. She thanked me and curled up under the comforter. I turned out the light, went into the bedroom, and crawled into bed by myself.
Sometime in the middle of the night I rose and ran a glass of water from the bathroom tap. I paused outside my bedroom door and listened to her snoring softly. Such a soothing sound: a human being near and warm and safe and at rest.
On other nights, when I wake suddenly in the dark, my thoughts often turn to my brother. I find it impossible not to judge everything I do now against his ultimate desperation. It is the salient fact of my existence. My brother chose death over life, and I could not help him. His decision has become an act of ever-evolving significance, an echo set in motion that never quite falls to silence.
In the months after his suicide I experienced a condition I can only compare to quarantine. The shadow of my grief was so long that anyone who came near me fell under it. Aware of this, and not wishing to darken the hearts of others, I lived alone in a tiny apartment, reading and scribbling in black notebooks, going whole days without so much as exchanging a single word with anyone. My loneliness was excruciating—but not so terrible that it compelled me to risk infecting anyone I cared about. It was a kind of fear, too. I didn’t dare reveal the enormity of my sorrow, which I believed would not truly exist unless someone else observed it, verified its existence—and if that happened, I thought, I might dissolve in a mist of tears that would never cease.
Over time, starved for human contact, I tentatively began to seek the company of strangers—men and women who knew nothing of my past. Trained in the practice of journalism, I found it easy to ask the most intimate questions. 'Think of it as a ticket,' my mentor used to say about my reporter’s notebook. 'Think of it as permission to ask the things that everyone else wants to ask but doesn’t, believing they’re being polite. Everyone has a story. That’s the thing. And everyone wants to tell it to someone who will listen.'
I came to understand that the notebook was merely a prop, a tool that induced an inquisitive and receptive state of mind. Eventually, seeking to escape my own oppressive thoughts—which, for several long months, perversely included suicide—I slipped into that state as a matter of survival. I became a collector of stories, boring toward the tragedies that lay at the heart of so many human lives. On trains and in bars, from people I would never see again, I heard stories of divorce and early death, abortion and molestation, eating disorders, cancer, HIV. In some perverse way, these stories eased my loneliness. They helped me understand that everyone had suffered, and my own suffering seemed insignificant for it. I turned out to be lucky, really: twenty-eight, healthy, gainfully employed, a white-collar pilgrim from the prairie who worked at one of the most venerable institutions of American journalism, dealing with words for a living—a decent approximation of the life I’d imagined for myself.
And there on the couch, this particular night, was a woman without a home to go back to, separated from her children, alienated from her parents, traveling toward God knows where with a small black gym bag and a bottle of beer in a paper sack.
Some might call what I felt in that moment—standing in the dark, listening to her breathing—a cleverly disguised version of schadenfreude. I prefer to think I was moving—almost imperceptibly, but moving nonetheless—along that tortuous path from the most inward-looking self-pity to the most generous empathy. At that moment, in the middle of the night, with a stranger sleeping soundly in my living room, perhaps it was enough, finally, to find myself equidistant from both.
I had wanted to wake early and go to the deli on the corner, buy some eggs and bacon, make breakfast for her. But the cigarettes and the beer and the late night of talking kept me reaching for the snooze button. When I finally rose I had time only for a quick shower. She was still asleep on the futon, curled in a little ball, when I went into the bathroom.
After I shaved and dressed I noticed the futon was upright, the comforter folded neatly at one end. I heard running water and clanking dishes from the kitchen, and I was pleased to think of her feeling at home enough to help herself to breakfast. I straightened my tie in the mirror, pleased with myself, too: my benevolence, my restraint, my delicate diplomacy across the borders of race and class.
Of course, I should have known this would be the last time I’d see her.
When I went into the kitchen she was not boiling water for tea or pouring a bowl of cereal, as I had envisioned. She stood in front of the sink with a sponge in her hand, scrubbing my dirty dishes.
'Please,' I said. 'Don’t do that.'
She turned, eyes wide, startled by my tone. I realized I’d spoken with a harshness I hadn’t intended. She finished rinsing the bowl in her hand, placed it on the rack, and turned off the water.
'Sorry,' she said. 'I was just tryin’ to help.'
From the literary journal The Georgia Review (Spring 2001). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from the University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602.