Getting off the late-night train at Penn Station, I couldn’t believe it. Homeless people were stretched out on every bench. I’d never heard a sound like the tubercular wheezing coming from those bodies. I’d never smelled anything like it either. Coming from my childhood neighborhood of swishing sprinklers and mowed lawns, I was a little scared and disgusted, truth be told.
But when I walked out into the sweltering summer night, everything changed. I was thrilled at the hiss of tires on wet, glistening streets as I tried to catch my first taxi. Take me to Times Square, I said. Music came through open windows as if welcoming me to town. The air was industrial but sweet. I took a breath. No mowed lawns here. Just people. I was going to give New York a shot, and nobody was around to tell me no.
In a month, I had a trainee job at an insurance agency and a place to live.
But I was lonely.
My first date was at a pizzeria where people ate standing up at a counter. It wasn’t really a date, just a midtown lunch with Gloria, a co-worker. We’d met at the copy machine
“Where are you from again?” she asked.
“Outside of Pittsburgh,” I said. “You’re from Brooklyn, right?”
“Nacido y criado,” she said. My forehead wrinkled. “Born and raised,” she said. “It’s an expression.”
“Oh. This is the first time I ever stood up to eat lunch at a restaurant,” I said.
“Let me show you how to eat pizza,” she said. “Otherwise, people will think you’re a tourist and not want to have anything to do with you.” She folded the slice in half lengthwise and genteelly put the pointy end in her mouth.
“You see?” she said. “This way you don’t make a mess. You can even eat walking down the sidewalk.” I nodded, not realizing that people in New York actually sometimes did that.
“What do you do when you’re not at work?” I asked.
“I take karate,” she said. “Yellow belt. Huzzah! Don’t mess with me.”
I put my hands up in the air as if surrendering.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said. Of course, I would dream of other things involving her, but not that. “So what should I do in the big City?”
She wiped her mouth. “Walk your ass off. Pick a neighborhood and walk slowly like it’s a nature hike. If you take pictures, be careful. Since you’re white everyone will think you’re the government. Listen, Pittsburgh, this is New York, you need to toughen up. Take it from me.”
“Want to do this again some time?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said, wiping her mouth. “I’ll see you back at the office.” At the doorway she turned around and said loud enough for everyone to hear, “you’ve got sauce on your collar.”
A week later, she quit the job. She didn’t say goodbye, which, truth be told, depressed me. But I took her advice and walked, a different neighborhood every weekend. I wore a lightweight hoodie, trying not to advertise my white-guy-ness. I took photos, but I was cautious as she suggested, and walked slowly, trying to absorb what I saw. Living beings undulating in a slow-motion dance, sticky with juice and sweat, humming and muttering who knows what. I loved it and tried to make sense of how they made it work. When summer turned into winter, I switched to a down parka but kept the hood. By then I had a thousand pictures.
One Saturday I was in a down-and-out section of Bedford-Stuyvesant covered with advertisements for stores that had closed down. Under the Myrtle Station El tracks, vendors sold bootleg DVDs, used books, Our Lady of Guadalupe candles and incense. I walked up to a folding table displaying literature for the Bed-Stuy Women’s Shelter. Gloria was standing behind the table. She was wearing a huge winter coat that covered her whole body and her neck was wrapped in a wool scarf. We recognized each other immediately.
“You made it,” she said, as if she had been expecting me.
“I’ve been walking, like you told me,” I said. “But this is my first time in Brooklyn.” I picked up a brochure. “You work at this shelter?”
“No,” she said, “But they’re good people. I help out when I can.”
She was fidgeting. I was making her nervous.
“ ‘Still taking karate?” I asked.
“Got to,” she said. “I’m working on my orange belt.” I waited for her to repeat the “Huzzah” that she had said when she told me about the yellow belt, but she didn’t.
“Hey, it’s cold, you must be cold,” I said. “I saw a pizza place back a few blocks. Can I bring you a slice? My treat.”
She looked at her watch. “I don’t think so. Someone is coming to pick me up at 4.”
“Your husband?” I asked.
“No rings on these fingers,” she said, holding up her mittened hands. “Been there, done that. It’s my sister who’s coming.”
“I’ll get a whole pie. We can share. What kind do you like?”
“No, I’m really not hungry,” she said smiling. “But it’s nice to see you.”
I guessed she didn’t want me to meet her family.
“Well, how about a phone number?”
“How about you take my picture?” she said.
I took out my phone. She sat up straight and brushed back her hair a little. After I took the photo she said, “Listen to me. In a couple of years, you’ll either decide to stay or leave. Most folks like you leave. No offense. But if you stay, the shelter folks will know where to find me.”
We said goodbye, and I went around the corner and hid out of view. At four o’clock no one showed up. I watched her put the pamphlets into a suitcase and fold up the portable table. She started down Broadway, carrying the suitcase in one hand and the table in the other.
I followed her from a distance. I knew I shouldn’t, but I just had to. In a few blocks she passed the shelter and went in. Maybe she had to drop the table off. I watched for fifteen minutes, but she didn’t come out.
Back in my apartment, I printed out her picture and tacked it to the living room wall.
“I guess I’m staying,” I said to no one.
“I guess I’m home.”