Distract Yourself with the Marvelous
As a New Yorker, there is every reason to look down when I walk anywhere. There are animal fecal bombs left inconsiderately on the sidewalks; there are sections of concrete that catch the toe of my shoe as I stride and cause me to trip unceremoniously; there are hostile eyes that catch mine and seek to tear at my right to exist as I am with an insulting air kiss or a sexual smirk.
It was a lovely late spring day and my first venture out as a fourteen year old with the sole and soul intention of making my own way, my own foot traffic, into the world where I wanted to be, to get where I wanted to go – which happened to be at my friend’s house for lunch. Normally, my mother would have driven me, or I would have ridden my bicycle. But that day, I decided to walk. I decided to take in the world slowly, to observe the trees and houses and smells and air with each step. It was not convenient, but is was bold and brave (for me, at least) to venture so on foot so far from home base.
He came out of nowhere. If you can picture the scene, picture a winding, middle-aged, tree-lined, double lined tributary road that connects neighborhoods with neighborhoods and leads to an equally narrow but more used traffic vein which then leads to the heart of a little well-to-do suburban shopping area. It was never meant for walking or exploring. It was meant to keep you driving past, to give you a device to get you somewhere else, to keep you from walking and exploring.
It wound its way through upper middle class houses evenly spaced in acre-wide plots of land and there was no one in sight, as is the case in a suburban afternoon. People keep to themselves in their houses and only venture by car when need be. They don’t know their own streets. They don’t know their own yards well, except to know to have their grass cut. They don’t know their neighbors. They don’t look out of their windows, and they are oblivious to young teenagers and old stray destroyers of self-confidence who walk right by their homes on the sides of their roads.
It’s as if the Universe sent him for the Divine Purpose of reinforcing in me an absolute fear of irrational mankind in a key moment in my life.
He was old to my mind; somewhere in his late 50s. He was piss drunk, or high, or both. He came rearing from behind a turn while I was two miles into my trek. He called out to me.
“Hey, there! Hellooooo!”
I looked back, took in his form, and felt primal terror. I kept walking and tried to ignore him while he continued calling.
“Wait! Come back! You’re a pretty lady. Did you know you’re a pretty lady? Hey, slow down,” he called loudly, his words slurring, his gate uneven and strange.
He was a monster. A monster is a thing you cannot understand, you cannot grasp, which seems to serve no other purpose than to strike fear and terror into the hearts of the innocent and threaten to destroy them unless someone came to help. No one was coming to help, because not only it was a weekday and the suburban homes were most likely empty, but I did not think to call for help. It seemed as if it were something I was meant to deal with. There were no other witnesses, not even a car on its way to elsewhere. And for some reason, despite the fact that he was obviously impaired in some chemical way, he could walk faster than me.
For I was trying to ignore him, and had picked up my pace. To run would have not only been futile, but would have demonstrated my fear, which I felt would have been fatal – for I was still trying to believe that perhaps I was overreacting. He thought I was a lady. He did not know I was a child. When he got close, he would see that I was a child and he would leave me alone.
He did not leave me alone. This skinny, disheveled monster kept ambling closer to me, yelling at me to stop for him because I was a pretty lady.
Have you ever had a dream that you were trying to get away from something but you could not move your limbs fast enough, as if you were under water, trying to run with the force of the ocean pushing against you? Have you ever had a living dream like that? I was living a dream like that.
He finally sped up behind me and wrapped his arms around my body, grasping my new breasts in his dirty hands. It was so unbelievable to me. It was just unbelievable to me. Right there at midday on a suburban road with people and no people anywhere, he came out of nowhere and accosted my body and my mind.
I did something I had never done as of yet in my young life, and something that shocked me as I did it: I cursed at an adult. I threw off his arms and turned to face him violently, fearfully, my fists clutched at my sides. I roared at him with every force or self-preservation that I had in my gut, “Get the f**k off me!!!”
He responded as if I hadn’t a right to myself. “Well, sh*t, all right, you crazy tease, you crazy b*tch, I was only trying to make friends, I didn’t mean any harm, you crazy b*tch, all I wanted was a little love, a little understanding,” He kept muttering in this vein; he kept attacking my perception of myself as a good girl who only wanted to live right by my God and my world while he wandered backward from me and disappeared as insanely as he appeared. I walked-ran with furious purpose on my way, my dander up, ready to kill this agent of shame and humiliation if he reappeared, if I had to.
I learned a life lesson that day, something so horrific that it has followed me since, has poisoned the way I live my life, and continues to do so some thirty-odd years later. There is unspeakable, irrational evil even in tree-lined towns with no sidewalks, in places where people try to escape from reflective interaction with others and the world, where they try to escape as to bring peace to their lives, but they know they cannot escape. They never venture forth right out their front door because evil is waiting just outside, just around the bend, just at the edge of their yards, waiting to molest them.
I got to my friend’s house and reported the incident to her and her parents, shaking with unbelievable terror and shame as I did so. There was no one to call. There was no one to arrest. The man came and went into the afternoon like a bad dream. They listened to my story gravely, commented quietly that it was terrible, and we went on with our day as if nothing had changed my perception of life irrevocably. To this day I’m not certain that my friend or her parents fully believed my story.
Lesson number two that day: It is safer to ignore a wrongdoing or believe an innocent is lying than to face an unimaginable evil. Even if people believe you, they may not know how to help in such a way that will keep them safe in their inner homes, or are too fearful to address your pain and end up resenting you for bringing it to their doorstep.
I never told my own parents. I felt the shame of wisdom deeply and did not want to soil what I thought was their belief: that we lived in a safe, just world.
Since this incident, I have had many other reminders of these two lessons, and they have served to help me create my own shell in which I have subconsciously cowered in shame and wondered if I had a right to walk anywhere boldly. I have recently realized that, even now in my mid-forties, I have been fearful to walk down a crowded sidewalk in New York sometimes for fear of the irritation that I face when another perceives I am in his or her way, which is pretty much everyone in New York. I have kept my head down to avoid the disdainful glares and the “You’re a pretty lady” insults, and I have learned not to look in anyone’s eye for too long lest they get a chance to know my shame and fear, and thus take advantage of it.
To others, I must have looked like a cranky New Yorker when I walked, with my head down, my jaw set and purposeful, like I knew where I’m going and that I wasn’t letting anyone stop me.
I wonder how many of us who appear grim and purposeful feel the way that I feel, deep inside, where we almost can’t see it anymore?
I made a resolution to walk with my head up because I forgot this pubescent incident that has contributed to a long-term fear; despite this, I knew I was only living a half-life and I was letting my terrors interfere with my life purpose. I have chosen to walk with my eyes forward, risking walking in garbage and fecal material, risking meeting the eyes of evil and goodness both.
I am afraid every day, but I am doing it. Because I am also thrilled.
I am seeing afresh the wonders of the city, the way the winter sun strikes the buildings throughout the day, the way the gray clouds cast a beautiful shade to the architecture, the way people are either miserable or happy, the length of the avenues and the horizon of New Jersey and Long Island in tall buildings, the wonderful sights and smells and treks of trees in Central Park where people share their art and their delight. I am reminded that I belong here.
And yes, I have been suffering the slings and arrows of soul-ugly fools who try to remind me that I am a pretty woman, even still, and that in their minds I exist only for their purposes, in order to insult me that they might feel strong, and use me carnally if they could get away with it.
I hate their sense of entitlement to try to impose their ridiculous, destructive willpower over me.
I acknowledge that they have lived a life that has led them to this state, and I have compassion for that person’s spirit for this reason. However, I have also learned compassion for myself, and I have learned that I need to love myself the way a mother would love and defend her budding child against such destructive acts. I have learned to allow myself to hate the actions of monsters without feeling guilty for feeling hate.
Yesterday, at the Harlem 125th Street/Lexington Avenue station, I looked up as I was passing through the area where people buy their tickets from machines, on the way to my platform. The station was full of close to a hundred people standing far from three other people. The three other people were these: a large woman clutching the collar of another, smaller woman while pressing her up against the gates of the station, menacingly screaming profanities and threats in her face. The other woman clutched her cellphone to her ear in one hand (no reception; we are underground at this point) and the handle of a stroller that housed the third: a male toddler looking up confused and frightened at the violence against his mother (or sister). The smaller woman was desperately trying to call for help on a dead cell phone while simultaneously trying to menace her attacker, and no one stepped forward to stop this. Indeed, two men cackled and jeered that they loved this scene, that this is what they wanted to see, for these b*tches to keep it going.
I was fearful. I wanted my soul to be strong enough to step in between the women, to put a stop to the madness, to take a stand. Instead, I rushed down to the platform to look for an official to stop it, because no one else had the will nor the bravery to step in to help – including me.
Luckily, I found someone who worked for the subway system, who ascended the stairs to handle the situation. I do not know how it resolved. I remained on the platform and waited for the train that would take me away from there.
I hear the fearful voice in me that likes to pretend it is rational. It tells me that my stepping in would have been futile, that the women would have seen me as an interfering b*tch who was butting into something that was none of her business, that I couldn’t have brought peace to the situation all by myself, and that I would have brought danger to myself. It tells me that authorities needed to be called to handle the situation, and that I performed the right course of action.
All of this is true. And all of it is a lie. It is a soul lie.
My soul wanted to step in, to yell at the masses for their evil impotence, to tell my sisters to stop this, that this is wrong, that this is violent, that this baby will never forget this terrible moment.
My accrued life habit is to look down. Over the years, I have trained myself not to see these things consciously. I would have passed right by the yelling, deep inside my distraction, getting to where I was going, lost in music or words of wisdom blasting into my ears from my earbuds, oblivious to the scene. I would have been safe from my soul’s knowledge that I had done nothing to stop this violent injustice and hateful action.
But as of January 1, I am making myself look up. I am making myself see others. I am making myself see myself. So, I know I did right, and I know I did wrong.
Is this better? My spirit tells me yes. My heart tells me no. It hurts.
I’m going to listen to my spirit. I’m going to keep looking up until I get it right.
Posted on 01/14/2013, in Uncategorized and tagged Fear, God, New Yorker, September 11 2001, United States, Upper middle class, War on Terrorism, Warfare and Conflict. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.