Something happened to me Sunday night.
I’ll tell you about it.
I’m going to start the story with a thought and end with a plea. And though I still have the driving need to confess the rekindling of my adolescent romance with fantasy Barry Gibb, and it is imperative to share with you how dog rescue videos and that viral video about the guy who was told he would never walk without crutches and leg braces, but works so hard at yoga that he looses 140 pounds and can now stand on his head without using his hands make me weep like a woman with PMS strapped in front of a television playing Kleenex commercials.
But right now, I think this is more important.
Last Sunday night feels like a series of seemingly unrelated circumstances led me to a singular moment and that singular moment is not an end, but an open door. A complete story in itself and a drop in the pond of my reality that rippled into my life and is now rippling back out into the universe.
Early in the evening, I met a friend. We sat and had a heart to heart about life, family, and the things you talk about with friends when you’re not talking about other friends.
She said that actions speak louder than words, and I mostly agree. But words are powerful, too. We cast spells every day with the words we speak, the stories we spin, the tall-tales we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from. They cut through space between things and etch themselves into our personal paradigms.
I asked my friend what she thought would happen if I stripped myself of every little thing my family ever told me about myself. The good and the bad. If I stopped worrying about the person they decided I was before I found my voice. Or who they think I am now. What if I could free myself from the burden of a childhood someone else wrote for me. If I could loosen my grip on of the narrative of my life.
She didn’t have an answer, except for try it and see.
2 a.m. isn’t late for New York. That’s when we parted. She went one way, I went the other.
The Penn Station subway platform is dingy, noisy, and dark. The fluorescents are weak and tinged with sadness. People without homes sleep sitting up on benches. And those waiting for trains are worn and tired.
A slight Bangladeshi man, twenty years old or so, long lashes and doleful eyes restocked potato chips in his cubby-hole kiosk. During his graveyard shift, he sees thousands of people, but only a handful see him. We talked for a little bit. I asked him about his work. I wished him a speedy night and moved on, past the middle of the platform, to wait for the train.
It took forever to come.
The doors opened. I sat. And somewhere between 2 and 3 a.m., we loped towards home.
There’s something about late night trains and the people who ride them. They’re either coming home from a long night, or heading out to a long day. It’s a lonely time. Quiet. The trains are dirty. People don’t talk much. You can always find a seat.
At 155th Street, a guy came into the car looking for handouts. Young. White. Plaid shirt. Cropped short hair. He lived in a squat in Brooklyn, he said. The winter was cold. He was feeling desperate. He needed anything anyone could give him.
There was not a single thing anyone wanted to give him.
He sat across from me, waiting for the train to inch up to the next station. And when it did, he lunged at me, punched my face, and grabbed at my bag.
I don’t know if I screamed or whispered “get the fuck away from me” as he pulled one way and held on tight. I didn’t let go of my bag, though.
He gave up the fight and ran and I don’t know what happened to him next. I asked someone if I was bleeding and two guys peeled off to chase him. The doors closed and I looked at my hand and the blood dripping into it.
He broke my nose, I said, to whoever was listening. That punk fucking broke my nose.
Do you speak Spanish, asked a man with a mustache. I said no.
I’m sorry, he said.
As the train pulled out of the station, I studied my reflection in the darkened window, put my hand to my nose, and pushed it back into place.
That same man handed me a wadded up paper napkin from the bottom of his bag.
It’s all I have, he said.
I thanked him. For the tissue, for sitting there with me, for being gentle and speaking softly, even if I didn’t understand most of what he said.
Several years ago, I worked with an actor who considered himself, above all else, political. One afternoon, he told me that he wouldn’t allow himself to be happy until there was world peace. As if the world would take it personally that he was on strike. As if pursuing misery helped anyone, including himself.
Peace is easy, I realized. People with the most guns can broker peace. As can medicating people into submission. Or deadening foods and poisoning the water.
We can do better than that.
What I want is an end to violence. In all its forms. Violence against women, against children, against animals and humanity, against our mothership earth. And an end to the violence we commit when we put people in boxes and don’t let them out. The violence of labels and the violence we lob at people who don’t act according to our unwritten rules. And, the violence we thrust upon ourselves.
It won’t be easy, but it’s worth a shot.
I’m not mad at the kid who punched me. I don’t care what happens to him. I don’t wish him well, but I don’t hate him, either. He was a messenger. And I’ve learned to listen to the message, even if I don’t like the messenger.
So, my plea. It’s simple. Let’s try to shed the outfits other people dress us in, the pieces that don’t fit, the items that chafe, and the accessories we really never really liked. And then, let’s try to see who we really are.
I imagine if we can do this for one moment, and then another, if we stop allowing others to write our stories, if we can stand still and listen, maybe we’ll stop fighting.