Last Saturday night, I got mistaken for a homeless person. Here’s how it happened. I was waiting in the atrium of my friends’ apartment building in Cincinnati for another friend, Emily, to pick me up. If you’re familiar with Cincinnati, the apartment is in Clifton; if you’re not, that means it’s near University of Cincinnati, an area which has undergone extensive redevelopment into the kind of neighborhood every 19-year old with a bank account full of student loan money lusts for. The glass-fronted atrium where I waited was within walking distance of at least a dozen restaurants, bars, a salon, a gym--you get the idea.
Anyway, I was relatively toasted, so I had flopped down on the floor to sit and wait for my ride. Emily had been bartending at an art show since 6pm. She works at Tacocracy, a hip place in the Northside neighborhood serving artisan tacos, art, and poetry. (They have a Twin Peaks related drink on their bar menu, so I was in love from the start. Who drank Laura Palmer? Clearly, I did.)
Since I was staying with Emily for the weekend, I tagged along at the beginning of her shift and drank Old Crow bourbon and soda alone while reading a book, Leaving the Pink House, at the bar. About two hours later, some other friends rolled in. There was more bourbon, no soda. There was beer. There were jokes and quesadillas and general goodness that comes from a group of people coming together in love.
(Side occurrence: I wanted to compliment one of the poets who read at the art show, a tall black girl with a majestic profile. But there were two tall black girls, both good looking in jean jackets. I got them confused, a mistake I immediately realized while shaking the smooth, strong hand of the wrong girl. However, introducing myself to her led to some dancing between us, a connection of goodwill. She seemed pleased to meet a stranger and frolic. Does confusing two black people make me a racist, even if both were happy to meet me ( I later found the right girl) and my intentions were good? I’m not sure. )
I had come back to the apartment of my friends to relax away from the crowd, and caught a quick nap. Now I sat in the atrium, my mind whirling, and listened to a savage fight between a man and a woman going on somewhere above me. It was constant, both of them shouting over the other. I was just far away enough that I couldn't make out the words of their argument, only the tone of it. The woman’s voice was the melody, her anger rushing out of her in a flood of alto shouts. The man was the bass line, his rumbling rage occasionally bursting into a harsh tenor of tense protest. As I listened, the woman’s voice dropped into her belly, her defiance rising out of her in a flood. “No, no,” she said, loud enough that I could make it out. The man retorted with his own string of “no’s,” his mocking, sarcastic, as though her denial meant nothing in the face of his authority. I wondered what the hell they were so angry about at 2:30 in the morning. Were they drunk? I prayed wholeheartedly that there were no children in the apartment, flashed back to my own childhood, the way I would cup my siblings in my arms when that music started to be composed.
There was no pause in the fight, ever. I’m not even sure they were breathing. I imagined the relief which would come for them after this outburst, like the slow ease of pain after popping a huge whitehead. Whatever tension was within them might subside. Maybe one would sleep on the couch, but tomorrow, there could be reconciliation, or the decision that this was the last time, the last agonizing release of frustration the other couldn't answer. I wanted to go knock on the door, interrupt, remind them of….what? What would I say to mend them?
As I was occupied with these thoughts, two men materialized outside. They stood on either side of the door, one looking in at me, one with his back turned. The one gazing in was clearly homeless, a lanky black man with teeth like dried out kernels on a cob of corn, yellow and brittle.
“Can you spare anything to help the homeless?” he called to me through the glass which separated me from the sidewalk. I shook my head wordlessly.
“Can you let me in?” he asked. I shook my head again. The other man by the door told him he needed to go across the street, that he couldn't wait there.
“What about her?” the homeless man said. He pointed at me. I felt like an animal in a zoo.
“I’m gonna take care of her,” the other man said ominously. All the hairs on my arms stood up at once. He wore baggy gray pants and a jacket of the same tone. His back was still to me as he watched the man cross the street. Then, he turned abruptly and without looking at me began trying to open the door to the apartment building, which needed a fob to unlock. Fear crippled my bones. My phone had less than 1% battery left. I wouldn't be able to call for help if he got in. What did he want with me? Rape kidnapping murder, my mind spit out. I tried to get a look at him. He was a young black man, attractive, wearing a knit hat in the same grey as the rest of his clothing. He didn't speak to me or ask me to let him in, just kept rattling the door in its frame. I decided not look at him directly, just kept my eyes focused on the blank wall before me, let the bourbon do the driving. It’s always been my defense mechanism to withdraw, conserve energy, retreat my consciousness deeper into the well of my mind, where I cannot be touched, cannot be harmed. Upstairs, the screaming went on. I shifted my hands underneath my body, prepared to unleash the upward kick I learned in Hapkido in college. If this guy came at me, I determined, I was going to try to catch him in the groin or the gut. If push came to shove, I had a pen in my pocket. I could stab him in the throat.
Perhaps sensing my readiness to defend myself, the man stopped trying to get in and resumed his position facing the street. Another man in similar attire materialized next to him and looked at me. This guy was white, tall, lanky. I didn't meet his eyes.
“She’s homeless,” the new guy said, his voice full of some kind of pitying pleading to his partner. In those two words was a weight of social sorrow, a sense of helpless responsibility, of kindness at conflict with THE RULES. I wonder, would this same pity have been extended to the skinny black man they had just hustled across the street? Or was the pity motivated by my youth, my gender, my looks, the grave determination with which I steadfastly ignored them? If I had really been homeless, the atrium with its warm carpet and secure entry would have been a haven, a place to rest without threat.
“I know,” the first man said, “but she doesn't belong in there.”
Before I could rise and get their attention to correct their assumption, the two stalked away down the street, perhaps to confer, to call for permission to show mercy, to prepare to be cruel. I decided to risk killing my phone to call Emily, who told me she was two minutes away. As I hung up the phone, I looked up to see the young black man staring at me through the glass. For the first time, I registered the Securitas label on his jacket, the gleam of his badge.
“Hey,” he said to me sharply through the glass. I rose and opened the door, allowing in the balmy evening air.
“Hey,” I said.
“I’m gonna have to ask you to step outside,” he said.
“Yeah, no problem,” I said. “I’m just waiting for a friend, I didn't realize it was an issue for me to be in there.”
“It’s an issue with people like that man I just asked to cross the street,” he said.
“I get it,” I said. “He asked me to let him in and I said no.”
His tall corn-fed partner appeared beside him. They both stared at me like an artifact, something marvelous and mysterious from another era.
“I’ll just wait here,” I said. “My friend should be here any minute.”
“Cool,” the guard said. He and his partner turned to walk away into the night. They were about 50 feet away when I heard them start to laugh.
“What just happened?” the black guard exclaimed. The two continued to laugh, not amused giggles but long releases of air from deep in their bellies, the relief of misjudgment, the knowledge that they had not, in the end, deprived me of a safe place to lay my head, sentenced me to a night on the sidewalk. As Emily’s headlights crested over the hill to bring me home, I marveled at the depth of their true humanity--and the power of their employer to ultimately subdue it.