A Simple, Memorable Act Of Kindness

In a pair of posts which cast a wistful glance back at my running days, I made note of a graduate school summer in which I brushed up against the edges of genteel poverty:

I had no financial aid from graduate school and no regular employment (I worked hourly as a waiter once in a while, getting called in by my boss when she needed me), and to make things worse, my girlfriend and I broke up halfway through the break. I was up the proverbial creek. [Original post here]

[W]ith my impecunious condition  making it ever harder to indulge in even the occasional beer or large meal, my running transformed me into a whippet-like creature, with sunken cheeks that enabled a resemblance to a prisoner of war at a not-particularly salubrious holding facility. [Original post here]

Those ‘sunken cheeks’ had come about because, as I note above, I just wasn’t eating or drinking too much; I couldn’t afford to. I went back to an old and dreaded routine: fueling myself on coffee during the mornings, and then buying 99-cent burritos at Taco Bell for lunch and cooking some rice and beans for dinner. (Another possibility was rice and beans at a Tex-Mex joint on 42nd Street.)

My dire financial straits were not known to all around me. My graduate school friends thought I was absent from parties and drinking dates because I was avoiding awkward social encounters with my girlfriend–partially true–and busy working on incomplete term papers–also partially true, even if a rather charitable description of the hours I spent in the computer labs staring idly at word processor screens. But I was also absent from life in the polis because I could not afford to be out and about. Hermithood was mine by choice and circumstance alike.

But my physical appearance, my relentless consumption of the endless refills of coffee at my favorite diner–the now-defunct Grace on 43rd Street,  and my persistent declining of other menu choices had not gone unnoticed by the waiter–‘Joe’–who was our regular server there. Joe was affable and gruff, with enough time for a sardonic quip or two as he hustled from one table to the other, running a tight ship for his boss through the busy breakfast and lunch times of the day. He saw me every day, and he was paying attention.

One afternoon, I finished my third or fourth cup of coffee, and prepared to head out to the lab for a couple of hours before heading out uptown for my waiting gig. (On the days I worked there, I was guaranteed a full meal at the end of the day.) As I picked up my backpack, Joe walked by and said, “Wait up.” I waited. Joe walked over to a basket full of leftover bagels with cream cheese, picked up one, walked over, tossed it on the table, and walked away. I picked it up, put it in my backpack and walked out. The boss was busy at the cash register, his eyes still facing down.

Joe and I never talked about that bagel. We didn’t need to. And I haven’t forgotten.

The Pleasures Of Providing Directions To The Lost

A short while ago, as I alighted at the New York City’s Herald Square subway station, I was approached by a Chinese gentleman seeking directions to Penn Station; he needed to catch a New Jersey Transit train to, well, New Jersey. I was already ‘late’ for my weekly Tuesday stint at the library, but I stopped and gave him explicit and detailed directions. He listened eagerly and attentively and then sallied forth; I slapped him on the back as he left, calling out ‘good luck’ as I did so. As I strode off to the library–where I am now writing this post–I had a smile on my face. The beneficiary of my directions had been bewildered and disoriented; now, hopefully, he wasn’t any more.

Once, some twenty years or so ago, while walking up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, I had spotted an elderly Sikh gentleman clutching at the hands of passersby, imploring them for something; I crossed the street, and heard him asking for directions in extremely broken English. I sidled up to him and spoke in Punjabi, “Sir, what are you looking for?” (Rather, I called him ‘padshah,’ a colloquial term that literally means ’emperor’ but doubles as a respectful term of address.) His expression changed dramatically from confusion to the broadest of smiles; he grasped my hand and squeezed it with some feeling. A minute or so later, I was heading off again, to the same library as I was headed to today, once again smiling from ear to ear.

There is something deeply satisfying about providing directions to the lost, to the bemused, to those cast adrift in strange environs. I have not yet descended into the realm of the symbolic or the metaphoric, and I don’t need to; getting lost, even if only temporarily, is a disconcerting experience. The fear of being so informs every step of mine in the great outdoors; it has prevented me, until this past summer, from ever going hiking solo. I can empathize effortlessly with the lost, with those temporarily ‘unsure of their position.’ I have ‘been there,’ I have ‘done that’; and I didn’t like it. (This act has special resonance for me in New York City, my first port of call in the US some thirty years ago; back then I was often too scared to ask for directions, intimidated by the city’s reputation and by the supposed dangers of being mistaken for a tourist.)

For that hopefully brief period of time when we are not sure which way to turn, we are overcome by a panoply of emotions, novel and archaic: frustration, irritation, impatience, anxiety, these all surge to the fore; we worry about missed appointments; we curse our inability to magically walk on the straight path home; men fret about whether their masculinity faces its most rigorous challenge yet; the GPS rises in our esteem as the greatest blessing of this technological age. To apply a healing balm to these myriad afflictions is Good Work; we should not shirk it.  And I don’t.

On Not Living In The ‘Real’ America

I live in Brooklyn, in New York City, but I don’t live in ‘real’ America. I’m surrounded by artifice and fantasy; specters and ghosts walk the streets. The sidewalks beneath my feet are insubstantial; it is a miracle they are able to sustain my corporeal weight. The buildings around me have been plucked straight from the pages of comic books; I walk through their walls effortlessly. There is no English spoken here; merely an incomprehensible gibberish consisting of many alien tongues.

Here, no one works for a living; no one has to get up in the morning, or evening, to go to work and earn an honest day’s, or night’s, living. Magic money is automatically deposited into our virtual bank accounts–presumably as a reward for our insubstantiality. We do not pay taxes (state or city or Federal), grocery and utility bills, rent, mortgages, road tolls, parking tickets, subway fares, alimonies, school tuition, and all of the rest. Our lives are expense-free; we do not need to balance budgets.  We do not deal with bosses and workplaces and co-workers; we do not deal with workplace conditions, good or bad. We are never fired; we merely receive the occasional raise.

This is a conflict-free land; there are no disputes, legal, political, or personal. When all is unreal, what could we possibly be quibbling about? Thus, our social and economic interactions with our fellow spirits move along smoothly on friction-free planes, with differing needs and desires effortlessly reconciled with each other.  Solomon would have been an incompetent adjudicator here; there would be no work for him; his skills would rust from disuse.

Our children are fantasies too; they do not possess substantiality beyond our dreams. We do not worry about their welfare, their schooling, their moral and material education. We care little if they go missing for a while; they are not ‘real’ after all. They do not feel pain, and neither do we. We are free from parental anxiety, the greatest blessing of all.

We have few aspirations for our lives; all has been given to us, and our lives consist merely of picking through the goodies, selecting and choosing which clothes to wear, which lunch dates to go on, which movies and which plays to see. We take vacations occasionally, venturing out into the ‘real’ America, but the hard edges of reality drive us–all too soon–back into the welcoming arms of this La La Land.  We cower under the blankets at night sometimes, offering thanks and prayers for not being subjected to reality the way so many of our fellow citizens are, unfairly and cruelly.

Our health is perfect; we do not fall ill, and die. We do not worry about that pain in the chest, that nagging sore that won’t go away. Our families do not have to pay medical bills; they do not have to sit by our bedsides,  cremate us, or lower us into the ground. Grief is besides the point; why mourn for what is not real?

We are uncertain how this zone of fantasy came about, how it managed to separate itself from the mainland of reality. But we do not question our good fate; we merely draw upon our benedictions. And plot, endlessly, to keep reality away from our lives, from this coast, far away in the hinterlands where it belongs.

The Subway Car’s Daily Dose Of Culture

My train ride into Manhattan today reminded me that yesterday’s lament about the possible lack of adequate ‘cultural consumption’ in my life in this city was sorely missing one aspect of my urban experience: the culture that this city’s residents  experience and ‘live’ by the mere fact of being in this city.

This morning, I dropped my daughter off at her daycare (one run by a very hard-working and well-organized Haitian lady) and then caught the uptown Q.  To describe that train’s usual complement of passengers as a veritable United Nations is a running cliché in Brooklyn; this morning was no exception. (The Q starts at Coney Island and terminates in Queens.) I could hear at least four different languages–Russian, Spanish, Bengali, English–around me as I sought a position in my crowded car. Having secured one, I opened up my book and began reading.

Distractions came easily. Standing next to me, and leaning against the subway pole in a manner that might soon require a reminder in subway etiquette from a subway rider more cranky than me, a young, fashionably dressed Orthodox woman read the Torah, swaying her body as her lips moved. Across from her, a thirty-something hipster, inadequately dressed for the cold, his lips, nose, and ears a bright scarlet, began loudly muttering to himself. A young couple, one standing, the other seated, held hands, and gazed soulfully into each others eyes, perhaps preparing themselves for the moment when the intended destination for one of them would induce a tearful and kiss-inducing separation. And so on. (For some reason, morning rush-hour trains do not feature, quite as often, the musical performers, break dancers, and various panhandlers who are a near-constant accompaniment in the evening hours.)

Such descriptions of the ethnic, cultural, and psychological diversity found in a New York City subway car have the status of cliché now: Oh look, so many different ‘types’ of folks and behaviors! How interesting! How fascinating! For all of that, the resultant edification remains the same as it ever was.

The substantive point here, of course, is that such experiences constitute a very distinct and pleasurable kind of cultural phenomena; they are not second-rate or low in comparison to attendances at classical music concerts, museums, ballets, operas and the like. They enable an education; they refine our senses; they introduce us to distinct ways of living (I have observed many, many, diverse techniques of wooing, childcare, passive and overt aggressiveness, reading, listening to music, and the like on subway cars). They bring us into contact, sometimes a little too closely of course, with those we share our urban spaces with. Yesterday, like a good New Yorker, I complained: about the lack of time and money and attention and energy. This morning, I was reminded of other riches in my possession.

Note: As a reminder of some of the mixed blessings of a subway ride, as my train pulled into the 34th Street Station in midtown Manhattan, a malodorous aroma indicating an overly rich breakfast or an upset stomach, or both, wafted around the car. The car emptied in a hurry.

A Persistent Reminder Of A Hardened Heart

A few weeks ago, as I approached the entrance to the subway station I use on my way back home after a trip to the gym, I noticed a familiar figure standing by its stairs: a man of indeterminate age who stands at the top step, next to the door for a deli, asking for change from subway passengers and deli customers (his location is strategic and well thought out.) His normal tone of request is never aggressive; just a little plaintive with just the trace of a wheedle. And he is persistent, repeating the same plaint: his down- and-out-ness, his desperate need for the smallest bit–a penny, a dime, a quarter–that anyone can spare to move him along just a bit toward the desired goal of a full stomach.

On this day, his tone was significantly different. He had shifted into a more insistently repetitive tone: his vocal delivery of his plea had become a monotone, delivered once, and then followed up, immediately, with a precise copy on its heels: “Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have; Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have.” And on, and on. Whereas previously, he had only directed this plea to emerging or entering passengers and held his peace otherwise, now it seemed a tripwire had been hit, and he had been catapulted into a new state of being. He now sounded jarring and harsh, and the persistent repetition of his lament was now more invasive. It made me move quicker–past him, down the steps, and into the station. Anything to get away from that  Chinese water torture–it was like having a cup with a few coins rattled, again and again, in my face, under my nose, their jingling threatening to unravel me, bit by bit, thread by thread.

As I walked on, I remembered I had never, ever, given that man any of my spare change. I have, over the years, become impervious to the many beseechments that are sent my way in this great city: from those who lie on sidewalks, a cardboard sign detailing the precise state of their misfortunes, economic, personal, or medical; from those who walk into my subway car, announcing the loss of a job or home, the parlous state of their family and children, their hunger, their desperate desire to convince us that the money given out as alms will not be spent on alcohol or drugs. I have, more often than not, simply looked a little closer at the book I have been reading, and turned away. Perhaps I fear charlatans; perhaps I have become numb; perhaps I think my efforts at ‘helping’ are better directed elsewhere.

Now, I had fled from a scene of escalated desperation; I had turned away, again, unable to respond adequately to this nagging reminder of how, in this city with its fortunes and misfortunes, with its too-big-to-process tragedies and comedies, I had let my heart harden just a little.

Memo To NYPD: Don’t Let The Door Hit You On Your Way Out

Over the past few days the NYPD, offended by protests against their policing, and still in a huff at New York’s mayor, Bill De Blasio, for daring to suggest they might need reform, has gone on a work-stoppage of sorts, refusing to carry out arrests or hand out parking tickets or miscellaneous traffic summonses. Meanwhile, I have not been quivering in my home at night, afraid that sundry villains will break down the doors and come rampaging in to my castle to loot and pillage, to despoil my wife and children and rob me of my belongings.

The police are not a thin blue line separating us from the forces of darkness and disorder. They are a street-level, heavily armed, occasionally violent, revenue collection service for New York City. The police department’s threat to the city is not that law and order will mysteriously vanish to be replaced by anarchy now that its members are busy keeping themselves safe and sedentary–not too far from the nearest doughnut establishment. Rather, it is a threat that the minor monies the city relies on the police to collect on an ongoing basis to ease its perennial budgeting crises will not be forthcoming. That is, in case you missed it, the police are refusing to be partners in a low-level extortion racket the city has been running for a while now, the cracking down on behavioral nuisances deemed too dangerous and disorderly for civil society.

As anybody who has interacted with the police knows, complaining about crime that is most likely to affect a New Yorker–muggings, break-ins, car theft–is normally met with a shrug of the shoulders and a laconic “Whaddyagonnado?” There is little reward in this for the police; no glory, no fame. There is instead, some tedious detective work to be done. When it comes to ‘big-time crime’–homicide, drug smuggling, terrorism, etc–police work is done by specialized detectives in conjunction with more specialized outfits like the FBI. Most of the conflict resolution work the police do-intervening in domestic violence disputes,  in minor altercations at home or commercial establishments like bars for instance–can be done much better, and more safely, by unarmed citizens groups. (These interactions with citizens are typically dangerous because of the easy availability of guns, which is a separate problem altogether, and on which more, anon.)

What the police are really, really good at enforcing is low-level disorder offenses because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked in their favor. They have guns and they can use them whenever they want; they can be as violent as they want; and they never work alone.  This kind of work, this policing of joint-smokers and beer drinkers, homeless panhandlers and building project teenagers, ticket-less travelers on subways, this low-level ass-kicking, where you get to say “Sir” in your most faux-polite voice, where you can just casually shove up someone against the wall, or punch them for looking at you wrong, or talk in your most menacing tone, the one you spent years perfecting in high-school but never got a chance because guess what, in that jungle, someone else, some other bully, was kicking your ass instead, this is the kind of work the NYPD likes the most. This is the kind of work whose parameters would be affected the most by recent protests. (After all, the protests are not asking for police to change their fingerprinting procedures.) No wonder the NYPD is upset and wants to walk off the job.

But the folks who get hassled by them everyday are not; they want to make sure the police don’t let the door hit them on the way out.

Memo to Blasio, Bratton, Lynch: Ixnay On The Suspension Of Protests

On Saturday, a lone gunman with a history of violence, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot dead two New York City policemen. Before he did so, he proclaimed on his Instagram page that the killings were revenge for the choking to death of Eric Garner by the NYPD. After he shot the policemen, Brinsley killed himself at a nearby subway station.

Brinsley seems to have been a mentally ill person, someone who had, earlier in the day, also attacked his partner. He was not acting on behalf of any political organization or movement. He acted alone, and violently. Unfortunately none of these facts seem to matter in the aftermath of the killings. Irresponsible and incompetent journalists are reporting hearsay that some cheered on hearing the news of the policemen’s shooting, and yet others are writing that Brinsley had tenuous connections with shadowy violent groups.

Most unsurprisingly of all, the worst reaction of all has come from the NYPD itself. Stewing in a deadly soup of resentment and self-pity over the years, it has come out swinging recklessly, threatening a coup d’etat of sorts, and declaring war against the the city and the people it polices. Pat Lynch, the head of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, proclaimed:

The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies, and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly. Absolutely NO enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual MUST be placed under arrest. These are precautions that were taken in the 1970’s when Police Officers were ambushed and executed on a regular basis.”

There is no comparison between the stray killing of two policemen by a violent criminal and the peaceful protests that have been prompted by the relentless killings of citizens by the police. This elementary fact is clearly of no import to the NYPD, convinced as it is of its martyrdom, its saintliness, its eternal rectitude. If it wants to make the lives of policemen on duty safer, it should begin by changing its crude and violent policing methods.  Threatening a coup d’etat and a quasi-strike won’t help. It won’t stop the ‘Fuck the Police’ chants that bothers them so much. It merely makes an already dangerous organization even more threatening.

Among my reactions to the news of his actions was the sinking feeling Brinsley had done incalculable damage to the protest movement currently underway; there was no doubt the protests would be blamed for the killings and sure enough, they were.

Today, New York police department commissioner Bill Bratton said:

[I]t’s quite apparent, quite obvious that the targeting [of] these two police officers was a direct spin-off of this issue of these demonstrations.

And then, New York City’s Mayor Bill De Blasio made matters much worse by asking protesters to cease and desist:

It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time. That can be for another day.

To paraphrase what Neo said to Agent Smith, when offered the opportunity to “bring a known terrorist to justice”, let me just say the following to Mayor De Blasio and Commissioner Bratton:

Well, that sounds like a pretty good deal. But I think I may have a better one. How about I give you the finger and you give us the protests.

Deal?