The complicated kindess of strangers: A story from the streets of New York

| January/February 2002

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.

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