Sunday night I was walking home from the train, slowly. It was 11 p.m. I was tired. I was going to walk into my apartment, stumble into my room, drop my bag, fall into bed. It was going to be really good. I couldn’t wait.
A few blocks from the station, I noticed there was a man walking a few feet behind me. I was aware of him because I am a woman, and when you are walking in the dark, you notice the other people on the block, and where they are in relation to you. I had been listening to music on the train. I’d pulled one earphone out as I entered into the night, street smarts, safety. When I noticed the man behind me, I took both out. I didn’t turn around but I did turn my head enough to see him in my periphery. Tall, large, broad shouldered. Black. That’s all I got. I kept my pace.
New York recently ran an essay by Questlove about all the times people have crossed streets or held purses tighter when they are around him, even in the elevator of his building. He says he understands, he’s a large guy, he must look scary, but it hurts, it must. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to speed up when there’s a black man walking behind me, don’t want to instinctively hold my purse tighter. And so I consciously don’t speed up, don’t change my bag to my other arm. Sometimes I walk through the housing projects near my house instead of going around them, for the same reason. I don’t want to walk around them.
We live in a racist society. I have some racist instincts. I want to ignore those instincts, to shut them down.
The man walked behind me for a block, and then we came to a large street where we both stopped to wait to cross. I looked over to him and smiled, a smile meant to be friendly and neighborly, meant to make up for the fact that I’d noticed him walking behind me, even though I’d taken pains not to change my behavior.
He was maybe in his late forties or fifties. Friendly eyes, broad smile, dark skin, no hair. He smiled back and kind of laughed, “You are tired,” he said in accented English. African, maybe.
“Oh no is it that obvious? It’s been a long day.”
The light changed and we crossed, still talking. “You have had a long day, like me,” he said. “I am just getting home from work now, I left here at 6:30 a.m.”
“That is a long day!” I said, instantly regretting having complained at all. I had not left my house at 6:30 a.m. I had left my house at 10 a.m., taken the train to the first stop in Manhattan, taken a cab the rest of the way, late.
“I park here at 6:30 a.m., take the train two hours to the Bronx. Work all day. Tonight I saw a friend in Newark after work, he is taking a trip and I will not see him for a long time. So I went to Newark, then back here. I will be back here at 6:30 tomorrow. Every day.”
“What is your job, in the Bronx?” I asked.
“I am the manager of a retail store, clothes and shoes, electronics. I walk around the store, to make sure everyone is doing their job. Sometimes I drive a car, anything I can to make money.”
After that I said, “I work in a restaurant. It’s not so hard. And not so far. And not so early. I shouldn’t complain.”
He said, smiling, “Just get some slippers to put on after work.” I was wearing new boots. They were hurting my feet. He had noticed.
He had been in New York 10 years, came over on a boat from Burkina Faso. “It is a country in West Africa, do you know it?” I nodded, then clarified. “I don’t know much, mostly just that it exists, I’m sorry.”
“Do you have a family?” I asked. I don’t know why I asked. I think I wanted him to say yes, he has four children, they are why he works so much. It would have made me feel better.
“I have no one,” he said. “I just have the work, the commute. It would be nice to have a friend, someone to drink a beer with, talk about the day.” He did not sound like Eeyore; he was not complaining, just stating fact. He also did not sound like he was asking me out, though in retrospect, maybe he was.
Maybe this was my cue to say, “I will drink a beer with you.” Instead I said, “Thank you for talking to me, I hope you get some rest. I won’t complain again.”
He laughed and said, “Just get better shoes!”
And then he was at his car. “I’m Logan,” I said.
“Barry,” he said. “See you on the train,” I said. “Or the street.” I don’t know how to end encounters. We said goodnight and he got into his car, an old town car. It must be the car he drives sometimes.
I’d actually gotten off work at 9:30 p.m., sat at the bar in the restaurant for a shift drink. That’s why I was getting home at 11. I was tired because I’d had a full day the day before, a proper day off with exercise and brunch and friends and whisky. This morning at the restaurant I drank free, very good coffee throughout the day, and got free, very good food midday. I had friends at work that I laughed with. It had been a good, long day.
I still went home and kicked off my shoes and fell into bed. I really was tired, the day really was long. For me. Everything is relative, isn’t it. And then I was out.
photo by david mican