I have a memory that keeps coming back to me. It's a small memory. No big drama or tears were involved. Even though it was 24 years ago, it persists. I thought of it just now while doing dishes and decided to set it down in writing.
It was 1986 and I was 19, living in an apartment in West Philly, although I spent a lot of time hanging out in a squat occupied by a bunch of punks. One evening, a cute boy from the squat invited me to his friend's apartment. I don't remember the boy's name, only that he had a dark brown mohawk and was wearing a thin pink t-shirt over his bony torso.
He and I had a great time walking to the apartment, laughing and flirting. At one point he gave me a piggy-back ride and I rested my head against the back of his neck, relishing the small intimacy.
Once we reached our destination, however, I shut down. Two men lived in the apartment--they were in their thirties, which seemed impossibly old and sophisticated. But more than their age intimidated me: they were successful artists and their apartment was filled with paintings and record albums and instruments. One was a photography professor at Drexel; the other a musician.
They were like no one I'd ever met. I'd only recently moved from my parents' home in New Jersey. My dad worked in a factory and my mom was a grocery store checker. No one we knew made art--why would they?
The men gave us beer and we talked. Or they talked. I said nothing. I sat there silent as a ghost. I can't remember what they discussed, but I remember how I felt. Young, stupid, uneducated, unwashed, just some lame punk with dyed blonde hair hanging in one eye (both were lined with thick black eyeliner), too-tight jeans and Converse. As if that costume could make me smart. As if that costume could make me cool. I wasn't going to college. I wasn't making art. I worked at an ice cream parlor in University City for Chrissakes. I had nothing to say.
At one point, after we'd been there an hour, mohawk guy turned to me. "You haven't said anything," he said. "You've just been sitting there and haven't said a single word."
It was clear from his tone he was embarrassed by me. He'd thought I was cool enough to bring to his friends, but he'd found me out. I wasn't cool. I was awkward and working class.
One of the men in the apartment looked at me. "She's just checking it out. Right?" he said, smiling. "Just checking out the scene."
I looked down at my hands and smiled and nodded, happy to have a reason for my silence. And that was the end of it. Shortly after, we left.
To this day, I am grateful to the man in the apartment. I never saw him again, never saw mohawk boy again either, but I remember clearly the compassion in the man's voice. He understood I was scared and confused and gave me a plausible excuse. I wasn't intimidated into muteness. I was simply getting the lay of the land. I wasn't some poseur in my band button-laden denim jacket. I was checking it out.
It's weird that I remember this small incident, weirder still that it pops up when I least expect it. But when it does, I'm flooded with gratitude. And hope for humanity, corny and grandiose as it sounds for such a trifle. So thank you, whoever you are! Know that your small kindness, your empathy, has stayed with me and bolsters me still.