When we moved to New York twenty years ago from Nebraska — after first deferring through Washington, D.C. for a year — we rented a giant, three axle, Ryder truck for the price of a van — they were out of vans when we arrived with our prepaid reservation — and we motored into the muggy urban core of the Big Apple by driving down the wrong way of a one way sliver of Riverside Drive near Columbia University in the repressive heat of a mid-August afternoon.

When the police officer asked me what I was doing, I told him I was hoping to attend graduate school if I didn’t kill or get killed trying. The officer laughed and waved us along our way. After unloading a ratty futon mattress, ten milk crates packed with books and some garbage bags filled with clothes into our summer sublet on Riverside Drive near Grant’s Tomb and 120th Street, Janna and I set out to return the big yellow Ryder truck to an address somewhere on 125th Street in what we would soon learn was Harlem.

We had to pay $5.00 a gallon to fill up the Ryder truck. We could have filled the tank ourselves for less money, but after a harrowing drive from Washington, D.C. and nearly getting killed and unloading our stuff into a hotbox of a non-air-conditioned apartment, we decided to pay the extra money instead of searching for an open gas station in a city that was already overwhelming us with noise, smells and the unforgettable, acrid, taste of a building burning with a neon orange fire a block up the street.

Since we had no cash and no other form of transportation we decided to walk back to the apartment after returning the Ryder rental. That was a mistake in Midwestern judgment from which we nearly did not recover. As Janna and I walked hand-in-hand along 125th Street, we two ignorant innocents on a lazy summer stroll, we looked for breadcrumb landmarks that would lead us back to Riverside Drive.

Nothing looked familiar. Whenever we slowed down, those behind us pushed us forward with yelling and insults about being tourists. We were met with ugly stares on the street and we were mocked from storefronts pocking gutted brownstones. People would stop, open-mouthed, to look at us — we both with bright, garish, white skin and matching white short-shorts and tank tops and goofy, glowing red “Nebraska Cornhusker” trucker hats — as we strolled by trying to figure out how to get back to our new home.

Night was falling fast as we continued to walk and Janna began to shiver a little. The lights became more garish and throbbing in the night. The sounds of traffic and street hustlers grew so intense it hurt your ears to try to make sense of the multiple conversations happening in concert. We kept walking. We kept our head down. We tried not to make eye contact. Each tiresome New York block became longer and longer as we yearned for a familiar landmark. We stopped talking to each other as we concentrated on trying to find our way back home. We finally came to the end of the road.

125th Street turned into a busy intersection with cars and trucks barreling down on us hard from massive concrete ramps and streets and severe curves. We did know which way to go next. We were out of walking choices. People on the street were not only looking at us they were moving nearer to us. We were too young and too stupid to be terrified; we had no idea how much danger we meandered into as White Folk stuck in Harlem without a clue or a friend. Bad intent was closing in on us as we were obviously vulnerable and tender and completely unaware of any danger.

As we stood immobile together on a corner, hands now clenched together in an unconscious, creeping, uneasiness that ignites the flee or fight impulse, we neither crossed the street nor moved forward. We didn’t wear watches so we had no idea how long we’d been walking or what time it was. Our bodies just stood there while our eyes went wild in their sockets searching for a clue to get us out of there. Then, as we were ready to try to start running in a frantic attempt to change our destination, a voice called out from behind us.

“Are you lost?”

Janna and I turned our heads to see who was calling out to us — our bodies were still unwilling to move faster than molasses — and out of the darkness of the night, we saw a middle-aged, tall and lithe Black man with a warm smile and a green backpack fast approaching us in a trot. I couldn’t speak. I was conflicted by a yearning to get home and a manly pride to stubbornly never admit not knowing where I was even if it killed me. Janna answered him.

“Yes, we’re lost.”

I was grateful she was able to express what I was not.

“I’ll help you,” he said in a kind and soft voice that was just loud enough that only we could hear. “Follow me, but don’t run. Running makes you a mark. Walking fast means you have intent and people won’t bother you if they think you’re expected somewhere.”

Janna and I nodded and willed our tired feet forward to follow him into the middle of the street. We stood there, trembling behind him as cars and barreled down a hulking off-ramp right at us. Our guide whistled for a cab. He waved his hands. Cab after available cab drove past him.

He silently directed us with his hands for us to move back a little bit
— right there, in the gutter, not back on the curb — and he turned back into traffic and timed his position in the middle of the street between traffic light changes to put him dead-straight in the way of an available oncoming cab crossing the intersection. When the light changed to green and the cab gunned its engine, our new friend raised his arms and waved at the cab.

When the cab swerved to avoid him, our friend swerved in the same direction — this was a bullring dance between matador and animal and our friend refused to give up any ground to the beast behind the wheel. The cab squealed its tires as it slammed on its brakes to not run over our friend. The cabbie yelled something but our friend stood in front of the cab and held both hands firmly on the snorting, steaming hood.

Our friend called out to us without breaking intense eye contact with the cab driver: “Come on! I got you a cab!” The Middle Eastern cab driver looked at us with a relief as we tumbled into his back seat. We thought he was relieved because we were not killed in traffic as we jigged and jagged to make it to him, but we later learned, he was probably only relieved by the color of our skin. Our friend released his position from the front of the cab and motioned for us to roll down our window as he leaned in to talk to us above the angry horns honking around us. “Do you have any cash?”

Before I could answer him, he knew the answer and asked another question, “Where are you going?” Janna and I looked at each other. We couldn’t remember our new address. Our blood sugar was fading. We had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast. “Are you tourists?” We shook our heads. “Are you students?” We nodded. “Columbia?”

We nodded again.

“You’re lucky,” our friend pulled a twenty dollar bill from his shoe and threw it at the cab driver and said in a tough voice, “Take them to Columbia and keep the change.” His looked at us again and his tone softened even though cars were careening all around us. “You got lost in a good place. This is where all the cabs come back to Manhattan after dropping off fares in the Bronx.

You don’t usually find a cab in Harlem at midnight.” Midnight! We had no idea. We had been walking lost for six hours. The cab peeled out into traffic and our friend yelled out behind us, “Welcome to New York!” Janna and I finally unclenched our hands as we sat, drained and motionless, in silence. The cacophony of the street and the circus of people speeding by us washed around us as we lurched back and forth against and away from each other in the back of the cab.

Our cab driver glared at us in his rear view mirror, shook his head and grunted his disgust. We knew we had been saved from the pride of our own stupidity and to this day we wonder how our new friend found us and why he decided to help us and how we could ever repay him without knowing his name or anything else about him other than the goodness of his heart.

We decided then to work every day to repay his selfless, anonymous, kindness with others in our lives that may not be as lucky as we were on a hot August night in Harlem.

28 Comments

  1. Great story!
    I, too, am originally from Nebraska — North Platte — left in 1967. The summer I was 15, 1965, was spent in a very, very poor neighborhood of Houston near the downtown area.
    My first time in New York was not anything like yours. I stayed on the freeway and didn’t stop. Stationed in Connecticut, we had plenty of opportunities to take I-95 down to New York, and we took them — right straight on through, never stopping. Even when we took a wrong exit one time, we kept on going and managed to get to the New Jersey turnpike by another route. I refused to go into the city back then, even though my wife wanted to.
    It wasn’t until almost 30 years later when we finally went into to the city. We were visiting my daughter and son-in-law at McQuire AFB. They and my wife had plans to spend a day in the City! There was no way I could get out of it.
    I absolutely loved it and swore that someday we would make it back — and go all of the way to the top of one of those two big buildings. That was in July — 2001.

  2. Hi Mike!
    It’s nice to meet you and I thank you for taking the time to post a comment.
    My mother was born in North Loup. I know North Platte well — I met my wife there during a play contest in the giant, beautiful theatre in the middle of town! I write quite bit about Nebraska. Check the sidebar for the category link.
    I don’t blame you for barreling past New York on I-95! It’s a tough city to take unless you’re emotionally prepared to accept its eccentricities.
    The view from the top of the Empire State building is quite delightful and here’s a picture of the World Trade Center my wife took from that view – it is one of my favorite images of New York:
    http://boles.com/memory.html

  3. David,
    Very well told story. You are a natural. I can totally relate to this experience as I moved to NYC/Brooklyn from small time USA once upon a time. And you get a mix of people.
    One of my early experiences from there was when somebody went out of his way to tell me to take a highway going north of La Guardia to get to JFK. Fortunately, I knew my geography better than to get tricked into following his advice. I always wonder why would people make an effort to get a stranger in trouble. This guy must have been the anti-guy that helped you.
    However, the diversity of the people that you meet in NYC make it such an amazing place. We never forget the good deeds though!
    cheers,

  4. You are quite kind, Thomas, and I thank you for your supportive comment and I welcome you here.
    Yes, there are all types in New York and we were extremely lucky. It could have easily turned the other way if someone with bad intentions pulled up to us in a car and invited us in for a ride and the outcome could have been much different.
    I’m sorry someone tried to trick you. That’s pretty low. My experience in New York has been if you are genuinely in trouble there will be someone kind who will step forward and do the right thing even at the risk of being called a “Sucker.”
    I’m glad you were smart enough not to be fooled by that creep.

  5. SuperAgent Matt Wagner!
    Thanks for the super support!
    I am thrilled to hear from you here and I cherish your thoughtful words.
    It’s tempting to say we became New Yorkers that night — irrevocably changed at the core where values and morality and wishes are held — but we didn’t really become New Yorkers until we started to repay the unrequited kindness given to us that night.

  6. Hi James!
    Thank you for taking the time to post such an understanding comment.
    It is a great feeling to know there are people like you who care enough to let another author know the craft of a piece is being followed and appreciated. Thank you!

  7. Wow, what a really well-written experience. I could picture the whole situation in my head. While I’m too settled down now to pick up my bags and head for New York, it makes me wish I was young again, naive and with nothing but my life ahead of me.

  8. Hi Karl!
    Welcome to this blog! Your heartfelt comments are wonderful and I thank you for taking the time to memorialize them here for us. Your compliments are too kind!
    You make an excellent point about youth and trembling. The only reason we were able to get up and leave Nebraska and move eastward is precisely because we were poor, dumb and young with nothing to lose.
    Would we do it all over again today right now?
    Probably not.
    We’d be older but just as dumb and wanting. It’s a tricky line to walk between wisdom and daring.

  9. Great story!
    It shows that there are good people, no matter where you are or how bleak a place may seem.
    I haven’t had the pleasure of wandering through NYC’s at midnight, but I do live in the city adjacent to “The Nation’s Murder Capital.” I can’t say I’ve done any major walking in Gary, however.
    Walking with a purpose in any urban area is a must and great advice.
    You always have to look like you have a purpose for being where ever you may be. You can never look or act worried. There’s something about the way people look when they are anxious that attracts trouble.
    How you dress makes a difference.
    Someone told me once that if you are male, white, dressed in business attire, and look confident, people assume you are the police. Especially if you make eye contact. Only crazy people or the cops do that.
    Of course, the opposite is true. If you are male or female, white, dressed casually, and look confident, people assume you might be in a neighborhood to partake of what ever underground activities may be had there.
    Either way, people seem to give those types the pass because it isn’t good for “business” to kill or harm someone who may or may not be the police or a customer from the suburbs.
    Before Chicago started cracking down on dealers and their customers, news reports said it wasn’t uncommon for cars with backwater Indiana and Illinois license plates to be found wandering around some of the toughest neighborhoods and housing projects in Chi-town unmolested in the search of heroin.

  10. Hey Chris!
    Thanks for your support here. You make what I try to do here worthwhile because you always have something fascinating to add to the point I try to make here each day!
    Yes! Walking quickly and with determination clues a lot of people away from you that you’re in a hurry and you don’t want to be bothered. If you want to meet everyone in the urban core, meander, look at the sky and lollygag your way down the sidewalk. You’ll get everyone’s attention directly in your pockets!
    😀
    Dressing is a fascinating topic and I hope to address that issue in a future post here. I get mistaken for a cop all the time even when I’m lugging my laundry home from the Laundromat.
    In the urban core, Janna believes in looking people in the eye – it tells them “I see you, leave me alone.” It works for her. I prefer to try to slide by invisibly as much as possible.
    Unfortunately drugs like heroin create unnecessary pain in neighborhoods with transient neighbors.

  11. Thanks for the compliment, David!
    I’ve found that moving fast in the urban core is always important — especially around the entrances to drug stores, train platform entrances, and other places where people hawking items or begging like to gather because of large numbers of people coming and going.
    If you ever stop, you’ll be offered all sorts of opportunities to help someone out, buy a newspaper, candy, or any other numerous ways that people have to separate you from your money.
    Same thing goes for befriending people you may run into on the street.
    When I was 21 and in D.C. for an internship with a group from Indiana University in the summer of 1991, a housemate and I were walking back to our rented townhouse on Capitol Hill from Union Station.
    A guy approached us while we were fairly close to Union Station and asked for money. He said his car had broken down in a bad neighborhood, his wife was still in the car, and he wanted to get a tow truck.
    My friend wanted to help.
    I told him to be careful because it might be a scam. (No guy would ever leave his wife in a car in a bad neighborhood). I suggested we find a cop who could call a tow truck and check on the wife. The guy listened to us debate while waiting for any kind of handout.
    I was always broke, so I gave my standard reply to the guy: “Sorry, but I don’t have any money.” I probably had a maximum of $2 in my wallet.
    My friend gave the guy $20.
    The stranded motorist asked him for his name, address and telephone number to repay him. I warned my friend to not give out his personal info. He did it anyway because he felt he could trust the guy.
    My friend was never repaid.
    Right after giving the guy our address and telephone number, we started getting strange phone calls from people asking for my friend and mispronouncing his unique name. We also started get lots of hang up calls, as well.
    If we hadn’t had a bunch of students living there at the time (we had 5 people living there and numerous friends and family always stopping by to visit while in D.C.), I bet we would have been burglarized. Of course, it would have been a fool’s errand because nobody had anything worth stealing.

  12. I love that story filled with excellent advice, Chris, and yes, you were certainly getting set up for a hit job in your home. You should have grabbed your friend by the arm and dragged him away and said, “Shut up!”
    Speed is vital in the core. If you slow your pace when approached you are already telling them you’re on the hook enough to slow down and listen. Be easy and friendly, though, even if you’re in a hurry.
    I also keep a quick pace and when approached I always look the person, smile say without breaking stride, “Sorry, man” to whatever I am asked — I used to say “No thanks” but that was too formal for the street and it didn’t always bat away the request in the right manner — and they usually turn and leave you alone.
    You cannot ignore them, however, because then they’ll follow you until they’re recognized — it’s a strange code of the street that you can beg off without a hassle but if you ignore the person you’re going to pay by getting harassed.
    Dick Cavett tells a great story when he first moved to New York and a guy approached him on the street wielding a knife and told Cavett to hand over all his money. Cavett stopped, looked at the guy and said, “I’m not interested” and stepped around him and moved on — I guess Cavett’s response was just strange enough to throw the guy off his game. Robberies are like role playing and if you play along with the routine you usually won’t get hurt — people get hurt when they try to change the script of the inevitable outcome.

  13. Hi Anne!
    Thanks for that! The title actually begs a bit of a story.
    I have had that Harlem story brewing in me for 20 years and really bubbling for the last two years. It was an emotional experience that still reels me in many directions of horrible “what ifs” and then… last week or so Chris@ made a comment in another thread about helping people at a gas station who ran out of money and I knew then I had to finally let this piece come forth.
    The title of this piece for 20 years was always “Lost in Harlem.” Then, the instant before I pressed the “Publish” button I was struck by a force that was not my own and I was told the title was never “Lost in Harlem” but actually “Lucky in Harlem.”
    I couldn’t learn the real title until the story wrote itself out here. The process of writing brought me the story but the story carried its own title. Am I making sense?