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.