Age: 17, Grade: 11
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Caitlin Donovan
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Every day I meet the same three strangers on my way to school.
HE is around my age, with black cotton hair and ebony eyelashes, a charcoal hoodie with grey sweatpants, and swings on the thin rods of the dusty street posts. SHE is in her late thirties, barefoot, with red-straw hair and a sundress, kneeling dreamlessly on the strewn newspaper coating the 42nd street pavement, clawing red eczema-riddled skin. The last one scuttles underground along the subway entrances in a set of dilapidated black sneakers, torn black track pants, and a dusty black t-shirt, shaking his clay-like hands and smoothing blackface over his forehead.
Their greetings are so similar:
“ey man you got a sec?”
“can you pleeeaase; spaaaare; some chaange…”
“…pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaassssseeee siiiiiiiir? …some chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaange siiiiiiiir?
The convention, as I’ve learned from the tacit observation of “professional” New Yorkers, is to clutch my phone and wallet, burrow into an advertisement, and ponder upon something else, like the sluggishness of the train or its symphonic, Bartokian “clicketyclacks,” looped on Rumanian Folk Dances. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly nasty, I’m supposed to brandish my expensive phone and melt into its blue glare, or pull out my near-empty black wallet and pretend like I’m emotive enough to give, but can’t because I too am pretty much broke.
I think, however, that it’s one thing to joke about it on a page, on the subway, in school, or at home; it’s another when I’m walking 3-feet away, and the humor, confidence, and uppishness float off like morning’s street fog after a rainy night. I say “morning” because it WAS morning, that 7 AM sunrise, when I had -for the first time in years – more than a near-empty debit card in my near-empty black wallet, more than enough time before school began, and more than enough verve to try – for the first time ever – breaking canon and responding.
“CAN I HELP YOU?” I shouted to the first guy. He was sleeping, shivering, snoring, almost slipping from the top of the awning, his torn smoky Nikes dangling desperately, gripping the barely-intact threads of sock. I saw a stifled yawn.
And as if on cue he rolled off his perch, slid down the pole, swung on his hoodie and sized me up, standing so close I could taste the pungent, bittersweet smell on his grey foggy breath. We were alone.
Weary, green, reptilian eyes, specked and glazed with dried tears. “Yo man I jus’ need s’m change, man, t’get some food today, and for the kids man, the kids, you know? Tryna take’em up to Orlando for the weeken.’ See the Castle, hey. Just a dollar, anythin’.”
The mist was rising, suffocating the heads of the steel buildings, and it was impossible to see anything from above the 40th floor.
“Oh sure, sure,” I pulled out my wallet and through my eye’s corner caught him inconspicuously flicking down a small bottle of Hennessy peeking through his hoodie.
Hennessy! Like he’d actually have bought anything besides alcohol. Come to think of it, he was always loitering on the same street corner, sitting, swinging, and hanging on the same street posts and awnings, much to the chagrin of the doormen. I’d never even seen him with kids. For heaven’s sake, he looked my age!
I slid the crumpled dollar back into my wallet, glimpsing his physiognomy flood with despair.
“I’m sorry, never mind”
I jumped to the side and rushed across the street, head down, gripping the black leather like it was an extension of my own heart. And Oh, I could go on forever about the names he called me and his comments on racism and – for a fleeting moment – Marxism, but the shards of glass that flew from his broken Hennessy bottle smashed on the sidewalk had me scared to stop running forward. Later I noticed a small cut in my sock tinged with a thin ring of red.
To my understanding, it’s true that his circumstances were desperate, and pity money is certainly easier to come by than investments in drinking and laziness, but honesty and integrity underscore maturity and command respect; those who exemplify it have proven the merit of their character and truly deserve to be rewarded.
I’ve trapped myself in a corner.
This silly little vignette is fake, and if you reread it, you might notice that there are a few storytelling gaffes my lie couldn’t cover:
Can I tell you what he said? Yes, I can tell it all. He talked about Marxism.
What did he say? Oh shoot, I ran away too fast to listen.
So how do I know what he said? There was no one else to hear, but…um…
Was I scared? Yes, too scared to stop running away from him.
Did you see him again? Yes, “every day I meet the same three strangers on my way to school.”
Perhaps you saw straight through me. I’ll admit, my story is maybe too dramatic, too descriptive, too detached. I used too many elements of fiction. There’s Exposition where there should be Scene, Scene where there should be Exposition.
But even so, there’s something somehow believable about this story, something that makes it feel like it could have happened. It’s understandable that a homeless person would be drinking, that he’d forgo his integrity for money, that he’d lie about having kids to stir pity, and that he’d use the money to get more drink. It’s understandable that I wouldn’t give money to him. It’s understandable that he’d be angry and violent. A good lie is grounded on ostensible truth and to me, the ostensible truth was that this guy was homeless for a reason, and didn’t deserve what I had to offer.
Here’s the truth:
“Can I help you?” I knelt down in front of the lady.
She snorted and thrust her eyes open, grabbing a dirty, slightly bloody handkerchief, and rubbed her snotty nose vigorously.
“can you pleeeaase; spaaaare; some cha-”
“Yes, yes, I can do that…” I smiled and took out a dollar.
Her eyes glowed, couched in grey bags of grey tears.
“…But please tell me what happened.”
The glow fell and she looked at me as if I’d told her she’d melded into the concrete. I grabbed a few newspapers and laid then on the ground next to her, careful leave about an inch of room between her cluster of pages and mine – there was a layer of black on the ground beneath her.
“My dad threw me fifteen years ago,” she began hoarsely, coughing between words. “I had a husband, but he took my money, left me alone for a year. Raped me. No job and they kicked me out. I have a lot of husbands now, but they’re just other guys who come and go when they can. I sold my shoes for soup, and my good clothes for money to call my parents, but they didn’t want me back. I’m a thousand dollars in debt and nobody knows where I am.” Her eyes welled up. “Nobody knows where I am.”
A thousand dollars. I squeezed my already-crumpled singleton note. There’s no way she could buy food with one dollar, much less pay back her debt, but that’s all the money I had. What, was I going to give her my wallet too? My books, my bag? My watch? There were better ways for her to get help: she could go to a soup kitchen, she could collect and recycle bottles, she could get cleaned up and apply for a job. But one dollar was a start.
“Here, here” I nodded and dropped the bill in her calloused hands as she sighed, sniffled, and squinted, holding back tears. “There’s a soup kitchen a few blocks from here – go, go get yourself something”
As I walked towards the station, wiping my hands on my jacket, I glanced back and saw her crossing the street, head held high, staring into the rising sun.
Giving is in some ways a trade-off, then. We lose material investments for the betterment of ourselves and I think the latter is the more fulfilling option.
I’m back in the corner.
This silly little vignette is also fake, and though I tried to be a little less extraneous, you might find it hard to believe I was willing to test homeless people before giving them money.
Perhaps you saw straight through me. I wouldn’t be surprised, since my honesty is already in question here.
Perhaps you fell for it this time and I’ll admit, there is something believable about this story too. This tale is about success. The damsel in distress strolls confidently into the sunlight, ready to build her better future at the drop of a dollar. And I, the dropper, helped bring that success. I helped gave her advice, the opportunity to pursue a new path in life, the trust that she was more than what she had become. In a sense, I was her savior.
Wouldn’t it be nice if that was true?
This story is believable to me because it does exactly what the first one does too: it rests upon our own truths. But a good lie also connects with its victim, fits and mimics their emotions, fulfills their deep desires. In some sense a good lie seeks to please, to satisfy, to console. It feels better to be left happy then to be left scared or dejected – why would I challenge my happiness?
Here’s the REAL truth:
“Can I h-”
His bloodshot eyes flung open one lid at a time.
“Yes! How can I help y-”
“Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, pleaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaassssssssssssseeeeeeeee ssssssiii-”
Wide-eyed he crawled to me, his hand pressing against what I can only imagine was feces pressed against the corner wall of the station.
“Some chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaangggggggeeee ssiiii-” I jumped back but he rolled towards me and grabbed my shoe, pressing a grimy hand on-
I think you know what I’m going to say.
Maybe you expected to believe me because I said it was real. Maybe you believed that someone in the same situation would truly go insane. It’s possible. I did my best here to be ridiculous plot-wise, to avoid flowery fictitious language, to avoid confining to expectations or desired emotions.
Maybe you expected to believe me in the very beginning because this is, after all, a personal essay. It’s supposed to be believed. But what’s funny is that you never really know whether what someone says is true or whether it’s just a fantasy, a lie they made up to validate their truth or to rationalize their fears. As readers we assume that what we see is what truly is.
But I don’t think that an essay has to be wholly true to be personal. Perhaps we can learn to see the truth behind the lie, the insecurities behind the fantasies, the directness behind the rhetoric. I can’t weave a true, detailed, entertaining story without spinning something, but if you know WHERE I’m lying then you know what I value, what I see and don’t see. And that’s as personal as it gets.
These people are real and I see them every day. The truth is I never spoke to them. I don’t think I will.