Step Right In
A gust from the wind tunnel along Amsterdam Avenue launched us forward across 65th Street. Before us, a woman pushing a monstrous stroller along the sidewalk forced two workmen with hand trucks of teetering cardboard boxes to step aside. Reminded me of the way George’s words and my angry response rammed their way along my neuropathways and shoved aside any other thoughts. My colleague Rene pulled her bright blue scarf tighter around her neck and said, “I can see by your face you’re thinking about George again. Let it go. He’s an idiot and everyone knows it.”
I could barely hear her for the loudness of George’s voice in my head. In the meeting with all the department administrators, he’d tapped the cover of our magazine and said in his nasally voice that my design was weak, that the head looked pasted on the model’s body, and that the whole idea was cringe-worthy. Weak? Cringe-worthy? I’d redone it to the exact specifications he’d requested, which is why it looked so old school and feeble. Too angry to respond, I left, calling back as I got to the door, those were George’s corny ideas. I was ashamed of acting so unprofessional; I should have stayed and spoken calmly. Why did I let him get to me like that? I should have said—damn, why can’t I make this craziness stop? It’s so banal, so miniscule on the scale of things. To switch it up. I said to Rene, “Anthony and I see Revelations each year at Christmas. You know, with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.”
“Yes, I've seen it a number of times. Love all that gospel music.” Rene slipped smoothly between two workmen eyeing her.
“Anyway, here's the thing. That song Sinner Man has always been my favorite, because of what I thought was forgiveness at the end. Throughout the song, the Sinner Man asks the sea to save him or the rock to hide him on judgement day.”
Rene sang in a strong voice, “He ran to the sea, sea was a boilin'/He ran to the moon, moon was a bleedin'/All on that day.” A man passed us and turned, gave Rene the once over, she cut her eyes at him and he looked away. She added, “I don’t remember the end. Just that part of him asking to be hidden from the Lord’s judgement.”
I said, “Every year I’m uplifted when the angels sing at the end that he should be saved and the music swells and gets all triumphant and the lyrics are Save him, Save him. For me, it was the voice of God singing, Step right in, as though He was forgiving all of us. I forgot some of the lyrics so I went online to see the full—”
I stopped cold. Before me a gray-haired man fell straight back, plop, sitting on his backside on the sidewalk, leaning on one hand. As he crawled onto his knees to get up, a grandmotherly woman with a baby in a stroller stuck out her arm to help, but nearly fell back herself as he made it to his feet.
They leaned on each other as he opened the library door and she pushed the stroller through. Before the door closed behind them, the elderly woman said in a quavering voice to the teenager in a baseball hat and big parka with a fur-fringed hood, “Why did you push him down? Why would you do that?”
Rene and I were in front of the library now and almost next to the teen, who stood staring, a raging fire in his eyes that were also oddly, at the same time, blank. I could practically see madness churning inside his head. I didn't know if he was rightly or wrongly accused, I only saw the man fall backward, he could have slipped or could have been pushed. With the great forgiveness lyrics booming in my ear, Save him, Save him, I wanted to help. So I asked him, “Are you okay?”
The kid stared at me, then, with only three broad steps, followed them into the library. From outside we heard him yelling, voice deep and harsh. “I didn't push that man. You homeless people. You're disgusting. I didn't push him.”
The elderly woman rushed out propelling her stroller forward, but the kid stormed after her and corralled her, forced her to stand with her back against the building, stroller between them. Leaning over the baby, he shrieked into her face, “You homeless people, you are ruining everything. It’s disgusting. I don't know how people stand it in this City. Where I come from, we don't have homeless people.” The veins in his very beautiful young neck stood out in tight, angry ropes. How could he think this woman wearing expensive clothes, pushing a stroller that cost a month's salary for about half of Manhattan's workforce, was homeless? As I watched spittle gather at the corners of his mouth, I could see this teen had the muscle-power and rage to do real damage. I couldn’t really tell his age, maybe eighteen.
I glanced over to where Rene stood, a few buildings farther down the street. A woman was talking to her. I should join them, but I looked at the elderly woman, her face wrinkled and frightened, lost in confusion at this attack on her, the baby in the stroller forming an extremely vulnerable shield in front of her. Oblivious to the threats above, the tiny child gurgled and sucked on a pacifier, protected from the wind by a hat and blankets. My feet inched closer to the woman and I continued to look sympathetically at the seething young man. I said again to him, “Are you okay?”
He shifted his gaze to me, eyes gorged with crazy, as though he’d discovered the single theory that explains it all and cradled in his mind the absolute belief in his rightness. Our eyes met, I tried to look softly at him. He looked confused and turned and leaned over the stroller, his face inches from the woman’s face. “I hate you homeless. You’re everywhere, making everything disgusting. I should punch you in the face.” He, handsome, full of youth, in the glory of health, screamed while this grandmotherly woman stared straight ahead at nothing, frozen in the face of violence.
A twenty-something woman came out of the library. With shoulder-length dark hair and large brown eyes, she stood a few feet away, pointing her cell phone as though it had super death-ray capabilities. He scanned her up and down and yelled, “And look at you. You are all fat and bloated from having those six kids. Your belly is all fat and wobbly. You just pop them out each year. You’re fat and stupid.” He glanced at the phone and puffed his chest up. “What do you think you are going to do with that?”
When the young woman from the library didn’t respond, the kid turned his laser-sharp focus on me. If he saw homeless when he looked a well-off grandmother and welfare mother of six when he looked at a librarian, what would he see in me? He stared a little longer, then, without a word, turned back to the grandma pushed up against the wall. I’d escaped his scathing critical analysis. He clenched his fists chest-level like a boxer. I stood closer to the grandmother and kept trying to look compassionately at him. The kid moved back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Fucking homeless. I'm gonna beat the shit out of you.”
Everything froze. The universe funneled into his eyes, while I trained on him like a sniper with some kind of pacifist rifle. I saw in his face that conviction was winning. Some absolute truth took over. Dogma truth. Unchanging, stagnant, motionless truth. The stillness at the center of the hurricane.
Decision time was upon him.
Coiled for the attack, his nitro ignited, and his arm shot out, releasing his raging energy—straight up in the air. He had not aimed at the elderly woman, only struck out at the wind. And the wind kept blowing around us, heedless of our human comedy.
With that explosion, the kid turned in frustration and stomped down the sidewalk, taking wide ferocious steps through people walking the opposite direction. Never ceasing his tirade about homeless people, he crossed the street oblivious to the red light and traffic zipping around him.
Wind whipped my hair around my face. The librarian ushered the grandmother and the baby back into the library. Though the three of us had been caught together in this drama, not a word passed among us.
I rejoined Rene. I felt surprisingly calm, floating along in a strange quietude as we resumed our walk to get lunch. Rene put her arm around me. “I was so scared. I just wanted to get out of there. And there you were standing close. I was afraid for you.”
“I couldn't do anything to stop him, but I couldn't leave her alone with him.” As I said it out loud, serenity dimmed and adrenaline started to kick in. I was vividly awake. The bright, cold day gave passersby a brilliant vitality and animation. The sky was 9/11 blue. Cars sped by, workmen lifted boxes, women passed with more strollers. We were in the stream of life. I took a very deep breath and said, “I wonder if that old guy is okay.”
Rene gasped. “Me too. I almost forgot about him. I was scared for you, but also proud. You seemed to have such sympathy for both the kid and the old lady. That’s what struck me.” Rene added, “I think your being there helped calm him down.”
I was flattered by her words and frightened by them. I craved the attention, yet wanted to blast it out of the sky. Suddenly I could hear Anthony, my husband, a life-long New Yorker, telling me that standing there was stupid. And dangerous. If you see a fight you move away. Then I lost all sense of right and wrong. Or rather, now I had the sense of being wrong. I said to Rene, “My husband would kill me it he knew I stood there. Don’t tell him, okay?”
She nodded and opened the door at Gourmet Garage, singing to me, step right in, step right in, from Sinner Man. We bumped our way through the lunch shoppers, stood in line, paid, and headed back to work with our soups and coffees in white paper bags.
As we turned back down Amsterdam Avenue, my delayed adrenaline was now in full riot. I had helped someone. I was heroic. I had earned the right to be alive. A joyousness raced through me and all my fears and anxiety flowed away from me like a viscous spirit leaving my body. I could perform an Ailey dancer’s jeté over the heads of the pedestrians. I had risen to the level of the right to be alive. I was exulted, glorious, released, forgiven.
Then my brain took another hairpin turn. How sick is that that I need being heroic to give me the right to live? And then I understood in a physical way why some arsonists start fires so they can rescue people over and over, obsessed with desire and need for praise and gratitude. They want this feeling I’m having right now back, adrenaline and life-saving holiness conjoined to create a speedball of emotional energy and fireworks. Same with vigilantes. Same with police. Same with hate groups.
I wondered where the kid was now. Had he hit anyone? Had he calmed down? Had he pushed the elderly man down or was that an accident?
Rene said, “That was so crazy the kid calling that affluent grandmother a homeless person. I was wondering if he'd recently been attacked by some homeless people or something. And where do you think he was from?”
“No idea. After the kid went off on the librarian, I wondered what I would do if he started in on me. What if he called me an ineffectual human being who got into stupid arguments with co-workers? Probably I would have sat down on the sidewalk and cried.”
The wind blew my hair into my face. I pulled it back and said, “So, about Revelations. When I got the Sinner Man lyrics online, I found I had the words screwed up. What I heard as the angels singing, Save him, Save him, Step right in, the lyrics actually were SATAN says, Step right in. I had everything all wrong. What had been for me a song of God's great forgiveness and redemption was actually a song of eternal damnation. The devil won, we sinned and lost, our souls are all going to hell.”
Rene laughed. “That's terrible. I never listened that closely to the song.”
“So here I am bawling my eyes out at the beauty of God's forgiveness and really we are all being condemned to hell. Now ain't that some misunderstanding?”
Rene sang, “Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”
“I was forever walking around singing that song to comfort myself. I mean, how wrong can a girl be?”
“The road to hell is paved with misunderstood lyrics.”
We were laughing as we walked by the library again. Suddenly a man’s loud voice said, “Banging.” He violently popped his lips so it sounded like a gun.
I turned to see a big man in a brown jacket holding a package from the back of the truck he was unloading. He was leaning out to watch a young woman in a short skirt in front of us. His voice was brutal, as though he was forcibly screwing her with his words. “She has a banging body. But that face. That face has gotta go.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said, making sure the guy heard me. He looked at me like I was piece of dirt.
Rene sneered, “Satan can take him.” The wind blew her scarf off her shoulder. The guy dismissed our responses as though we were subhuman and carried on with unloading his truck. He had no trouble taking up space in the world, feeling his right to be alive.
With his words thundering in my head. I said to Rene, “A moment ago I was all for forgiveness. Even for George at work. But this creep got me rethinking my entire philosophy. It’s a good thing I don’t have a conceal carry permit, cause Satan would be welcoming this guy right now.” A sudden gale blast nearly knocked me over.
Rene said, “I just remembered Nina Simone’s version of Sinnerman. She is so angry and defiant, and she ends it singing power, power. You seriously feel her emotion.” Rene tossed her scarf around her neck, the wind howling in our faces. “This a hell of a day. And we haven’t even eaten lunch yet.”