NYC. Sometimes, when I come here, I’m convinced this city is the most beautiful place on earth. Walking past a column of subway steam, through wafting scents of pizza and falafel and Pad Thai and grilling kebabs; catching snippets of Hungarian and Mongolian, Swahili and Haitian Creole; wandering through the parks, thickets of trees and stone benches amidst skyscrapers of concrete and steel. Everyone is constantly in motion, but there’s nowhere to go, a wild mess of humanity, blue jeans and headscarves, saris and baseball caps and turbans and miniskirts.
But where can I go to be at peace within myself? I don’t have the money to pay every time I want to sit down somewhere. The benches are all taken, the cafes are too crowded. I sit down on a low wall, and within seconds, a security guard tells me to move. Wandering through the streets with nowhere to go, sucked across crosswalks when the lights turn white, my bag is getting heavy. I sit on a bench, but an old lady walks up so I offer the seat to her. I sit down somewhere else and they tell me to move again. Suddenly the beauty of the place morphs into a harsh, anonymous loneliness. Finally I just sit on the ground with my back against a building, dreadlocks flying, my backpack leaning next to me. Now I look homeless. From down here, there’s no striking up conversations with random people and walking away smiling, no flirting with pretty girls, no exchanging glances with the guy because the pigeons just swooped so low overhead. Now I am one to carefully avoid making eye contact with, they glance at me sideways as they walk by wondering how I ended up here, I am a person with so little value to society. A lady walks by with a plastic bag of bananas. “Are you homeless?” I smile. “No, I—” “Oh, sorry…” and she walks away quickly. NO, WAIT! I want to call after her. Yes, I’ve tried over these past months to blend in with the marginalized of society, I’ve tried to wear their shoes and taste that lifestyle, but now, for once, just see me for what I am! I HAVE A COLLEGE DEGREE, I silently shout at everyone who walks by blindly. I’M A WRITER. I’M TRYING TO PUBLISH A BOOK. I PLAY AN INSTRUMENT. I HAVE FRIENDS. I’M SMART. Look, I’m reading Kerouac. I’m not a bum, I am a beat-gen-inspired traveler, see? It’s glorious and romantic that I’m sitting on the ground. I am looking for it. Sure, I could just tie my hair back and pay for the coffee-rent. But like having an injury and constantly prodding it to see if it still hurts, I refuse to move from the ground or make myself look less unkempt, trying to will people to understand me just with my eye contact.
I close my eyes until I disappear. When I open them, I am invisible. I look straight ahead and watch legs flit by from knee-level. Suddenly, hope wells up like a river bursting through a cracked levee. Travel amplifies emotion. On the road, my moments of sadness are powerful, my moments of happiness are immense, and the two emotions fluctuate madly and without warning. I am invisible, people see a guy slumped against the side of a building, and without moving, my soul bursts and explodes like fireworks screaming into a star-spattered sky. The city reverts to its previous beauty, and I am safe within myself, my heart within my body, and in that moment I am home. Am I going crazy?
Dinner is a chicken gyro from a street food vendor. I try to haggle from $5 down to $4—this time, not because I can’t afford it, but because I’m legitimately trying not to get ripped off. Despite my protests, the guy behind me insists on buying my meal.
In the warm night, finding companionship in the books I’m carrying. As I reopen On the Road, Kerouac is just returning from Frisco to New York, and I devour the alternating despair and ecstasy he feels as he travels. Vinny just lent me a book called The Mezzanine, and I’m transfixed by the author’s ability to fill an entire chapter with a vivid, gripping description of his broken shoelace. Then I flip open Letters to a Young Poet; Rilke’s gentle, beautiful reassurance forces me to actually close the book every few minutes and soak in his words. (This book is the source of that old favorite quote: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”)
At home in these books, at home in my notebook (I now have only three precious pages of Notebook #6 left), a lady with bags walks by—“you ok?” I smile. “Yeah, I’m ok.” She hesitates, just to see if I do, before heading into a CVS. When she reemerges a few minutes later, she walks over and hands me a cigarette. She’s wearing a dark overcoat, and from the shoulders down, she’s dressed down, she could be homeless. But her face is illuminated. A blue head wrap outlines her hairline. She’s wearing blue shades even in the darkness. Golden double helixes wrapping blue stones dangle from her ears. “Can I tell you my story?” I ask her as we light our cigarettes.
She smiles a little bit and says yes. When I finish speaking, she just nods. “Yeah, I figured you were a traveler. That’s why I asked if you were ok. I just wanted to make sure—I know sometimes it gets hard out here living this way.” She’s a traveler too. Francine wanders the streets, seeking out the homeless, and she tries to help them get back on their feet. She carries pages and pages of city-wide resources for free food and shelter, how to find work, how to have an address for banking and postal services, how to shower, etc. As our conversation finally begins to wane, a homeless guy walks up and asks for money. “I’m homeless myself, hon,” she says. “But do you know about the Midnight Run?” He shakes his head. “You just met the right person,” I say to him as I rip out one of the last pages from my notebook so that he can copy down the things she has to share.
I walk away into the night, shaking my head. Over these past months, learning how to receive the gifts that others have shared with me has been a beautiful journey. It has helped me to cultivate humility and gratitude, and by receiving, I have allowed others to give. And I’ve been striving to give through my gratitude and through my presence. But suddenly, that doesn’t feel like enough anymore. I think it’s time to resume giving more than I’m receiving for a while. I need to pay some of this forward.