May 3, 2009A New York Moment 2

A Polaroid camera captured the bottom of my young life in an instant. A police officer positioned me a few feet in front of the entry desk for the photo.  It was early.  My breath stank of sleep.  My armpits were wet and showing through one of my favorite shirts, an afroed man styled as the NBA logo next to “Nuthin’ But Africans” written in red, black, and green.  The despair in my eyes and the American flag hanging behind me dominated the image. I was stranded in New York with no money, no identification, no plan.  A police report was my only flicker of hope—the sole document that proved my existence.  It was the ticket back to my insulated life as an undergrad.

I traveled to New York for the first time with Dave, a Jewish friend who worked with me at the University of New Orleans.  The boring evening hours we spent manning the desk of the recreation center forced us to get to know each other.  He was a tall, portly film major from Nebraska  who enrolled at UNO only because he figured New Orleans would be a wonderful place to live.  I swallowed a laughed when he told me this. I knew New Orleans.  It wasn’t the perpetual party that most foreigners assumed.  My New Orleans was the soiled sheets of an afternoon tryst between lovers who made a game of secreting their fluids everywhere, unconcerned with the people who had to clean their mess.  The cleaners were my family, my friends, my enemies, virtually every black person jammed into the sinking city. I hated my home. Tourism kept New Orleans afloat. Yet when the show was over, the same faces that smiled for tourists reappeared as frowns, sullen.  I was determined to leave that place.

Dave didn’t know this then, but that’s what intrigued me about him.  He was lost, defeated, searching for signposts that didn’t exist.  For some reason I wanted to direct him.  I had never met a Jewish person or anyone from Nebraska, and I was sure that I could show him the New Orleans he hadn’t expected.  He would enlighten me too. He taught me to appreciate film–100 Blows, Kubrick, French New Wave, early Deniro, Scorsese, and I don’t know how many times we watched his favorite, The Big Lebowski. (The more we watched it, the more he became John Goodman’s irreverent character.)  I showed him the neighborhoods away from the French Quarter, where my family lived. He said they look like shanty towns.  He confided that his mother was the voice of “Velma” from Scooby Doo, his dad a recurring actor on Mash.  I wasn’t awestruck and it moved him.  He was convinced that they wouldn’t buy him a car, a necessity in New Orleans, and I helped him devise an argument.  We shared an unshakable love for hip-hop, reggae, jazz, and marijuana. We became best friends.

When I transferred to Morehouse after my sophomore year, we kept in contact.  Every time I went home, we would get together and catch up on each other’s lives.  His parents had moved to New Jersey, and he had been to New York frequently with his Jersey friends.  I had to see New York he demanded.

I didn’t need much convincing.  My wanderlust had already taken root with my move to Atlanta.  My family thought I was foolish to leave UNO because I had a state scholarship, going to school for free, but I couldn’t articulate how stifled New Orleans made me feel.  I had to flee.  So what my tuition was twenty thousand a year, twenty thousand more than I had, that my dad said it would be the biggest mistake of my life, that I had never lived on my own.  When I boarded the plane for Atlanta, it was the first time that I traveled by air, and I didn’t regret leaving everything I knew behind.  The most prestigious black college would make me a better person. I would learn how to be a successful black man in a world that didn’t afford me opportunity.  I would emerge anew.  When Dave called and urged me to meet him in New York, my transformation was already underway.  I was growing dreadlocks and becoming conscious, as I liked to refer to myself then, and New York seemed like an apt stimulus.

Dave booked a room with four bunk beds at a hostel off of 106 St. and Central Park West.  Only the two of us would stay there, but he told the guy at the desk that we were expecting two more guests so we could have the room to ourselves.  Although I had never stayed at a hostel, the place met my expectations.  It smelled of European sweat and funk, crowded with groups of twenty-somethings peering into subway maps, swaying back and forth from the weight of their overstuffed backpacks.  The beds were thin and firm, and the lone bathroom on our floor was cramped.  None of these things mattered though, especially when we went to the rooftop deck and looked out onto the city.  The view was numbing, nothing like I had ever seen. The only high-rises in New Orleans were hotels and I had never been atop them. Even more, this building wasn’t a skyscraper and it still dwarfed the shotgun homes of my birthplace. As we stood there, I could feel my eyes extend from my head and turn and gaze at my body.  From this vantage, I could see my exact location in the world, the distance I was from New Orleans, Atlanta, the equator, Africa.  Never had my humanity been so real to me.

I lingered on the roof alone for awhile until a girl who looked like a graffiti artist transplanted from the eighties perched herself in one of the lounge chairs.  She was equally moved by the view. She was from Melbourne.  I asked what it was like.  If you like hip-hop, you’ll love it. You should visit. There were no lulls in our conversation.  We volleyed contrasting images of the Australian and American music scenes, clothing trends, and people in general.  I sensed a connection between us as she went on, and I wasn’t sure if it was sexual or platonic. Still, I wondered what she looked like without the visor, wristbands, baggy Polo, and loose velours.  I know she sensed something too, but nothing was said.

Our plan was fluid: get high and go somewhere, eat something and get high, then relax and get high.  Dave’s friend had scored three different types of weed, all of which I had never had.  In New Orleans, the most potent weed I smoked had fuzzy red hairs, but New York’s selection was superior—Hydro, Chocolate Tai, Sour Diesel.  We walked half a block to Central Park and found a spot behind some trees to smoke before we explored the city. For the few days we were there, everything flew by in a blurry haze.  Off to Canal Street we floated to see Chinese men huddled around Go boards; to Washington Square Park to observe chess games and spontaneously cop some more weed (I always had a knack for finding weed dealers in the street); to a comedy club in the West Village; to Little Italy for an expensive dinner where we tried to identify mob soldiers; to a performance play called De La Guarda staged in a standing-room-only, dark space, where the action occurs above the audience’s heads (During the final movement, when the players descended into the audience and a carnival of sorts ensued, one of the sexy actresses kissed me.); to the most organically massive bookstore I had ever seen, a place called Strand, undoubtedly a bibliophile’s heaven.

In between our movements to and from the hostel, I saw the Australian girl one final time.  She looked as if her face was swollen from crying or smiling from hours on end, but I couldn’t tell the difference.  She carried at least twenty shopping bags from her trek up and down 5th Avenue, virtually the length of Manhattan. They swallowed her arms and made her look like an amputee, but that’s why she came to New York. At least once, I was certain that she must have been overcome with tears.

“I think I lost my wallet,” I said to Dave, deflated after searching my bags and the room while he slept.  He didn’t know what to say.  It was the morning that we were to check out of our room and go back to our own realities, New Orleans for him, Atlanta for me. “Where do you think you lost it?” he finally asked.  “The last time I remember having it was at Strand.  Then we got on the wrong train headed to Queens, and I now it’s gone.”  We planned to fly AirTran because of a discontinued promotion for college students: anyone under twenty-one with a college ID could fly one-way to any AirTran destination for $99. Dave had already bought his ticket and didn’t have extra money. Even if he had, I didn’t have identification and couldn’t board a plane.  I called the airline frantically and learned that only a police report would suffice.

We waited in silence outside the police station until he flagged a cab.  He felt bad, I knew, but he had to leave or it would have been two of us in jam.  I tried to reassure him that he didn’t have to worry about me, that I would be fine, but I hadn’t a clue how I would get out of my predicament.  The trip had been ruined, and I wished I hadn’t come.  It felt like I had performed poorly in bed with a gorgeous woman and we both knew that she would never want to see me again.  Even if she gave me another chance, my shame would have always been lurking between us and I wouldn’t be able to meet her eye.  I had to roll out of her bed and flee.

The police report was my only promise. With it I knew that I could access the money in my checking account, so all I had to do was find my bank.  But when I searched for it online, the closest was in New Jersey.  Now what, I thought, smelling the incoming patrons at the front desk, my hope flatlining.  Relax, I had to keep telling myself.  Next to every valley there’s a peak.  I will get out of this.  I have to.  Take a shower and pray.

If I kept feeling sorry for myself, I would drown, so I suppressed my emotions and began to approach the situation with reason.  If I had money in my account, surely they could wire it to another bank. So downtown on the train I went with the metrocard Dave gave me before he was whisked away.  Any bank would do, and I walked into one next to the train.  The cold air of the lobby was refreshing, and I almost smiled.  This would be the place of my liberation.

I walked over to the customer service desk and explained my situation with as much urgency and civility as possible.  The bank teller told me to use one of their phones to call my bank and get the wire transfer approved.  One step closer to home.

“Hello, um, yes I have problem.  I lost my wallet in New York with my identification and bankcard, and I’m trying to catch a flight today, so I need to you to transfer money from my account to a bank in New York,” I tried to say as calmly as possible.

“Sir, I can’t handle that request, but I can put you in touch with the branch where you opened the account and they can explain the procedure to you.  First, let me get your account number,” a voice responded.

“I can give you my social but I don’t know my account number because it was in my wallet.”

“Certainly.”  I gave him the number and he connected me to the branch two blocks away from Morehouse where I saw myself standing in line there as I had done so many times before.  Things were working out.  When the branch manger picked up the phone, I tried as best as I could to restrain my happiness.

“Sir, unfortunately we can’t handle that request.”

“Huh, what do mean? I have money in my account, m’am, as you can see. I don’t understand why you can’t give me my money.  Don’t you do wire transfers to other banks?” I said, jolted from my brief state of relief.

“Yes, we do sir, but I can’t just transfer money to someone over the phone without verifying their identity.”

“What do you need then, m’am? I’ll give you everything, my address, my phone number, my social, my mother’s maiden name,” I responded almost losing it.

“None of those things will work, sir, I’m sorry, but you have to be present for me to authorize it.”

“So let me get this straight, I have money in your bank but you won’t give it to me, because I’m not there.  Well, I can’t be there if I don’t have money.  I have a police report that will show you that I lost my wallet and I can fax it to you with my signature.”

“Sorry, sir, that won’t work either. I’m sorry we can’t help you.  Isn’t there anyone you can call to send you some money.”

“Yes,” I screamed, forgetting restraint, “it’s you.  I’m calling you.  You are all I’ve got.  I just need to get home, and I need my money,” the force failing in my voice.  I had always thought those images of people bursting in tears mid sentence was so unrealistic, yet there I was sobbing one the phone to a woman thousands of miles away while people in the bank began to stare. “This is my life.  I’m stranded in New York, and I have never been here before. I don’t know anyone, and I don’t have a place to sleep.  If you hang up on me, how will you sleep tonight?”

“Sir, there’s nothing I…”

“Please don’t interrupt me.  Just hear me out.  I’m a college student and I live in Atlanta.  I go to Morehouse right up the street from you, and I need help.  Please help me,” I said, trying to steel my quivering voice.

“Sir, sir, calm down. Let me put you on hold.”

I felt so helpless.  Maybe my dad was right. I couldn’t conquer the insurmountable on my own.  What was I even doing in New York?  I didn’t even tell them I was coming here.  How would I explain myself without conceding everything about the man I thought I was? Independent. Carefree. Lost.

“Hello, sir, are you there?”

“Yes.”

“Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but I’m going to risk my job for you.  The branch manager would like to speak to you.”

“Thank you so much.  You did the right thing.  God will bless you, I know he will. What’s your name?”

The money wasn’t available until the next day so I had to figure out where to sleep. My things were still at the hostel and I went back there to think. When I returned I went directly to the roof.

Then it hit me. When Dave was there, my key card to our room didn’t work once and I had to go to the front desk where one of the attendants quickly swiped it through something that looked like a credit card machine, and viola, it was new again. So all I had to do was wait in the lobby until it was packed with Euros and then feign frustration when I asked an attendant to do it again, hoping that my tone and his need to serve the groups waiting wouldn’t alert him to my expired reservation. It worked brilliantly.

The next challenge was food. I went to sit on the stoop at the entrance of the building to think until two Belgian sisters joined me.  I thought they were African-American until they began talking. They were gorgeous, radiant even. The older was there to chaperone the younger on modeling calls throughout Manhattan. When I told them my situation, the eldest took the lead and offered to feed me. After I inhaled a sandwich from a bodega and thanked them profusely, we walked around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. It was surreal and I felt like I was in the movies as the moonlight reflected off the pond and I flirted with two enchanting women, their giggles punctuating their Dutch. Their eyes smiled and said it was okay. I was meant to be there. This was my destiny.

The next morning I knocked on their door with a note in my hand, rising early to leave for the bank and make it to the airport. A white kid about my age answered with sleep in his eyes and an unrecognizable accent. I asked him to give the note to the older sister, my love, but I’m sure he threw it away. Even if he had given it to her, would she really email me? Would I visit her in Belgium? Would she come to Atlanta? Probably not, but I was convinced that it was just something I had to do.

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