On a summer evening in 2001, after work and after grilled cheese in the Greek diner on Amsterdam, Jeremy and I are walking through Verdi square, past the 72nd Street station on the 1 and 9, the most treacherously narrow subway platform in all of Manhattan, forever poised on the precipice of disaster.
The streets are packed with nervous life and even still our attention is suddenly drawn to a ruckus in the street. Right in the middle of rush hour traffic, a black guy is sitting down smack in the center of Amsterdam Avenue near the Papaya King hot dog place. He’s yelling as a cab is starting up again and moving north. The man has been clipped by the cab, not actually run over, and everyone is reacting in New York ways, switching on their horrified faces, yelling at the cabbie, or just stopping forward motion, clutching the arms of their companions.
Before I have time for a single thought, I find myself striding out into the avenue against the light. Jeremy is feinting behind me, checking for oncoming traffic, while I head straight into it, the unthinkable thing: I put my hands on the man.
I bend over and I take his shoulders and say, “Are you OK,” and look right into his face, into rheumy unfocused eyes. He is not precisely lucid in his response, his head lolls a bit. Behind me, I can tell Jeremy does not think this is wise as the traffic is making its annoyed way around us. Crouching down on the hot pavement, it occurs to me that I’ve never had my face so close to the wheels of moving cars and it stirs me.
Because I’ve broken the seal on this creature, this unclean pile, because I have tagged him with my lotioned hands as close enough to human, other people start to come forward, out of shame, or because allowance has been made, or because they want a story to tell or maybe actually for the right reason, who knows, but they are all women. The men are hanging back, making hand gestures at the cabbie who is now long gone.
As they are coming forward I see it, to his right, something on the street about two feet away from his hip: his wallet. I reach and put my hand on it, knowing that to touch this thing is far riskier than it is to touch the man himself. But I believe without a single doubt that I am the best person on the scene to do it. I pick it up and quickly, so quickly as though it was hot, I place its girth in his hands, use my hands to close his hands around it, a loving kind of gesture, and I say, “Here’s your wallet, here, hold onto that, make sure you hold onto that.”
By now a police car is pulling up and the cops, one fat white guy, one hippy Latina with a slicked back ponytail, are getting out with their go-ahead-impress-me swaggers. And Jeremy, with his beautiful poet’s soul, he knows I have gone too far and feels protective of me now and so he takes my shoulders and gets me up. The cops move the man to sit on the curb and someone seems to be offering him a hot dog, and so I follow Jeremy’s lead and the crowd opens a space for us just like in the movies, shot from overhead, and we go.
Jeremy says, “God you’re fearless.” I don’t tell him that it was his presence that gave me allowance, that if I had been alone, such a gathering would have caused me to clutch my purse tighter and quicken my step. I don’t know which is the real me or even if it matters that I am so malleable. Who wants to go through life unscathed?
We walk down Broadway together then not touching, all the way to Hell’s Kitchen, to my stoop, at the mouth of which we kiss messily because we can’t help it and then I go inside. It is hard to say who is more scathed by that summer, but I think it is me.
It’s not until years later, because I’m a fool and vain about this incident that it dawns on me. That wallet wasn’t that man’s at all, of course it wasn’t.