It was my second time on the NYU campus (I will pause here, long enough for some self-important student to roll his eyes: “We don’t have a campus,” as if the word is a smarmy, sordid curse); it was my first time there alone, and I wore the trademark face of an awed tourist. Open-mouthed. Wide-eyed. Forgetful of the impoliteness—even when well-intentioned, interested—of staring.
The mid-twenties boy with the clipboard knew easy prey when he saw it. He zeroed in as I crossed West 4th, ensnaring me with the trifecta of eye-contact-smile-and-handshake.
Ooh, I thought as I saw the clipboard, a petition. How college! It was all starting already, all happening, I was delighted, I was enthralled.
The boy introduced himself. He was Dan, or Sam, some three-letter name. “Do you support gay rights?”
“I do!” Hoping my voice conveyed pride in my beliefs, hoping he would note my slight southern drawl with surprise and appreciation. I listened as he launched into his spiel on discrimination against the LGBTQ community. I nodded vigorously in all the right places. I waited for him to get to the part about the petition.
“And so,” Dan/Sam said finally, “our organization lobbies for gay rights. We can’t do it alone, though. We run 100 percent on donations. You can contribute just twelve dollars a month—or more!—and make a huge difference!”
My heart sank. No petition. I was seventeen years old from the rural south, about to start college at one of the nation’s most expensive universities in one of the nation’s most expensive cities. Twelve dollars a month was a luxury I could not spare.
“Oh… I can’t afford that,” I replied in a small voice.
He smiled, but when he spoke his voice sounded less buoyant, more stern. “It’s only twelve dollars a month.”
I explained that I was saving all of my money. “But, do you have a website I can visit? Maybe I could sign up to volunteer.” I meant it, too, smiling up at him brightly, digging in my bag for a pen to jot down the URL.
“We do,” Sam/Dan said icily, “but if you really cared you’d just donate.”
The words came like a one-two hit, a cold slap in the face and a twisted punch in the gut.
Had he really just said that? To a sweet, naïve girl—a child, really, a minor? Ashamed, a blush rose to my cheeks.
“I—Sorry,” I mumbled, eyes down at the sidewalk. “I just don’t have any money.” He walked away.
I shuffled the last few yards necessary to escape into Washington Square Park, where I could sink into a bench and go unnoticed. Staring at my feet instead of risking eye contact now, the sidewalk looked filthy. For the moment, I was no longer enamored with New York.
Slouched in the bench, though, the shame I had briefly succumbed to fermented; suddenly, I felt mad. Angry that the boy had been so alarmingly rude, and perhaps even more angry that I had reacted so pitifully. I should have shot back some snide remark. I should have yelled at him, caused a scene. I briefly fantasized about going back to that busy stretch of sidewalk, knocking the clipboard out of his hands. I’d get arrested for assault, maybe, maybe even charged with a hate crime. I let out a snort of derisive laughter at the thought. Next time, I promised myself, I would fight back—verbally, at least.
Instead, I learned, as so many other New York transplants must learn, to avoid people with clipboards.
Originally from a rural town in Tennessee, Theresa Reed currently lives, works, and writes in Manhattan. She is an NYU alumna (2013) and Fantasy Football Regular Season Champion (2012).