I came to New York straight out of college with no money. A friend suggested I move to Newark because it was an up-and-coming area just a short train ride from the city.
Yeah, he lied. Newark is the first place I ever heard gunshots. But I figured it’s just a place to sleep. I came to New York for theater, and I did it. I worked every day in a French theater as a receptionist for next to nothing, and at night I was a playwright and a director in a small theater for exactly no money. And so I really only saw Newark early in the morning and late, late at night, and I did my best to keep my head down.
The problem was I had to go to the bus stop every day, and it was basically an HBO miniseries about urban decay. I tried to be a jaded New Yorker, but I was terrified. And so I would hide in an empty train station by myself when I had to wait for my bus to get there and run across the street when it did. And for a long time this was all right, until this one night.
I was sitting on a bench, and a homeless man sat right next to me and said, “I want some money.”
I knew the drill: Don’t make eye contact, don’t engage in conversation; just pull out some change and hand it to him.
But he wouldn’t take it. He said, “I want money, not change.”
My heart started to pound. This isn’t how this is supposed to go. I looked into his face for the first time, and I said, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have any cash,” and because I’m just a naturally helpful person, I showed him my empty wallet.
He saw my bank card, and he said, “There’s an ATM down the street. Let’s go get some money.”
I didn’t like the idea. And the truth was, I didn’t have enough money for the $20 minimum withdrawal. When I told him that, he became enraged. He said, “You’re gonna get me some money. You wouldn’t be the first person I killed.”
I considered running, but I’m slow, so I did what I do best when I am nervous: I started talking.
I said, “I know you think I have money. I really don’t. I don’t have it as bad as you do, but I’m sleeping on my floor right now because I can’t afford furniture, and most days I have ramen noodles and a banana, not that I’ve lost any weight since I moved here.”
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He didn’t laugh.
I said, “No offense, but if I did have money, I wouldn’t live in Newark.”
He didn’t really look all that offended by that.
And then I figured these were my last words, so I said something I’d been holding in since I moved to New York. “You know, people from home call and they say, ‘Oh my God, New York City, that’s so exciting!’ And I don’t have the heart to tell them, ‘No, it’s actually Newark,’ and I also don’t know how to say that I really hate it up here. I think it’s loud and dirty and expensive, and everybody’s always in a bad mood, and I feel like a really stupid cliché, the country girl who comes to New York to change the world with her theater.
“I’m not gonna change the world with my theater. It sucks, actually, and I’m probably gonna die here tonight because I’m too proud to admit that I don’t belong here.”
And then I got really sappy, and I said, “I really miss my mom! I miss sweet tea and porch swings and people smiling at me, so could you please not kill me so I can see those things again, please?”
I hadn’t looked at him in a while, afraid of what I would see, but I had to look. And his face had completely transformed, and he moved toward me and pulled me into a bear hug. You know, it was my first human contact in months. He said, “You’re gonna be something great one day. Don’t you leave New York City.” And he got up and walked away.
The next day, I went out and I bought pepper spray, but I also started dropping my guard a little bit, because I couldn’t stop thinking, What made this guy go from wanting to kill me to wanting to comfort me? My theory was we were both sick and tired of our bubbles, you know? I was tired of not looking at the people and the things around me because I was so afraid of how different they were from what I knew. And I bet he was probably tired of people never looking at him.
Randi Skaggs, 41, is a middle school language arts teacher, writer, storyteller, and mother. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
Told live at a Moth show at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville, KY