I called in sick the other day to attend the soon-to-close Cubism exhibit at the Met. My priorities are seriously fucked. Risking my employ just to look at some art is mental. But it’s an historic gathering of paintings, never to be repeated. It’s important to me. It’s meaningful.
The Met doesn’t open until 10:00 and I had time to kill. At 6:00 a.m. I walked into the Starbucks on Lexington Avenue across from the Chrysler Building, bought a coffee, took a seat, opened my laptop and crawled inside. It was just me and the two young girls behind the counter.
The door opened with a swoosh and a bang. A disheveled, agitated man stomped up to the counter. He was a giant. I’m 6’ and he was easily a few inches taller than me and broader. His hands were clenched into fists. They look like two softballs. He yelled at the girls, “Gimme a cuppa hot water!”
“Would you like anything else?”
He snapped back, “I just said hot water, didn’t I? Did I ask for anything else?!”
We call those guys time bombs. They move through the city in slow motion like they’re anesthetized or walking under water. But at any moment—on the subway, in the middle of 6th Avenue, in a coffee shop—they detonate. And when they do, you wish you were someplace else.
They gave him his hot water, he took a seat and seethed. The air was thick with his anger. You could feel it. I got lost in my work but a few minutes later I snapped-to because he was standing at the counter screaming at the girls, calling them the most foul, hateful things you can call a woman. And what did I do about that, brothers and sisters?
I sat there like the useless lump I am and stared straight ahead into my screen.
He’d have pulverized me. I don’t know how to fight. I imagined my daughter’s tears when I walked in the house with my face smashed in. I was supposed to be home sick. How was I going to explain it at work? But what difference does any of that make? I sat there.
He never laid a hand on them but those poor girls took a proper beating. He finally ran out of gas and left. A minute later, one of them walked over to me and said, “I’m so sorry about the disturbance. Would you like a free refill on your coffee?”
The final humiliation.
“No, thank you,” I said. I stammered an apology for not helping. I might not know how to fight, but I’m awfully good at apologizing. She said it’s no bother. That it happens all the time. As if that made it okay. I tucked my tail between my vagina and went to the museum.
I struggled with whether or not to include the fact that he was black. Does injecting race into the mix change anything? The girls behind counter were black as well. He attacked them for being women but he also attacked them for being black. So that’s a different post, isn’t it? When race enters the conversation, it changes the temperature in the room.
I have a precedent for being such a coward. New York hasn’t always been so nice to me. It was a mess when I first got here. I’ve been mugged three times. All three times it was by black men. (Men. Plural. Never just one). The second time I was mugged they didn’t even take anything. They just punched me in the face a few times and kept walking down the street, laughing. I had moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Fort Greene is a gentrified artist’s colony now, but back in the early ‘90s it was violent. I was one of only three white guys living on the block. I wasn’t welcome and they let me know.
Have you ever been mugged? It stays with you a long, long time. The revenge fantasies go on forever. So, yeah, giant, angry, insane black men scare the shit out of me.
The rest of the day unfolded like some sort of Bizzaro World miracle. It went from everything you’d hate about New York to the very best this place has to offer. From an ugly fright to this:
Click on this. It’s just beautiful.