This seems like a dream, but it happened. I don’t really know how or why, but it happened.
I’m seventeen, and I’m applying for colleges. There’s the Philadelphia College of Art, my first choice, and Pratt Institute, my second, and School of Visual Arts and Cooper Union, these last three all in New York City. And it’s coming down to financial aid, because I clearly get the idea that my parents cannot afford to send me to college. Whichever is the least, and offers the best package, is the one I will go with. PCA is my first choice because I went there during my junior year of high school for a pre-college program, which is where I fell in love with art school. And I’m hoping, hoping, hoping for a scholarship, because that would just make so much, so much easier. But I’m late out of the gate, and the scholarship has an essay requirement, and the deadline is two days away. I don’t remember how I got so far behind the gun, and in retrospect it feels like one of those dreams where you walk into a room without pants-—you don’t know exactly how you got there, and at the moment that seems the least of your worries. The action element is to get some damn pants.
So the action element is to write the essay. My father and I get in his truck, and drive to Philly. I bring my lined paper and start writing the essay in the car. Scribbling, really. I know the paper needs to be something highly conceptual, something that will knock their socks off and get them to cough up the dough for a scholarship. But, though I’m interested in writing from a young age, I’m not really good at it.
The paper isn’t done. So My father, who needs to be back at work the next day, gives me money for a train ticket back to Springfield, and gets me a hotel room downtown overnight. The plan is that I will write into the wee hours—all night if necessary—and complete the essay neatly and completely to deliver to the admissions office the next morning. I know downtown Philly from y pre-college experience, and know how to walk to the school, and to the train station. My dad trusts me, and cautions me, ad I know how to take care of myself, and for crissake at 17 I’m almost an adult. So, though I have no clothes for an overnight stay, I’m staying.
The room s small, an inner city special with a bed and a small bath, and a writing desk, which is where I concern myself. I’m writing into the night, when I realize I didn’t have dinner. After the third draft—one of the drafts being a simple clean copy-over of the hand written essay from my initial scribbles—seems a good opportunity to take a walk and find what food is available in the city at midnight.
The first thing I realize is how different a city can look, at street level, after dark. I’d never been out in a city in the wee hours by myself, only with friends, coming back from something or going to something. But here, ‘m totally on my own. Which is why, maybe, it doesn’t strike me as strange when the woman in a short skirt asks me if I want a date.
“Do you want a date?”She repeats a bit more slowly, like I’m hard of hearing.
Am I that naive? Maybe not, but from the vantage of the present day I can’t recall immediately realizing that she was a prostitute, asking me if I wanted to hire her. I mean, I had the hunger in my head, and was puzzling over what I had written in my head, thinking of better ways to say something, searching for stronger hooks. So it’s not hard to picture myself puzzling over her words for a split second before realization hits. And I walk on, with a “Uh, no. No, thanks.”
For some reason, this reaction makes her laugh, and it’s that laugh that makes me nervous. In that laugh is a high-angle panorama shot of me standing on a street where I do not belong, in a situation I was not prepared for, telling me I donlt know what I’m doing or where I’m going, and that I am far, far out of my freaking element. That laugh highlights the gap between being alone, and being a target somewhere you don’t belong, which are two separate neighborhoods, in completely different galaxies. Suddenly, I was aware of having all the money I had in my pocket—the money I needed to get a train the next day. Suddenly I contemplated how long it would be if I was lost or hurt in this city, and how long it would be before anyone realized it. Suddenly, I needed to be back in the safety of that small room,
I rode back on the train the next afternoon, after dropping off the essay that would not get me a scholarship, and would therefore firmly establish my career starting at Pratt Institute. And maybe it’s that train ride then that’s reminding me all of that now, as I write this, on a train to New York City, on a trip for work.
Because here, now, as often in my life, I am alone, a stranger going into a strange land. But I’m a large black man, and I have confidence in my ability to take care of myself. I know that does not make me invulnerable, and a bullet can kill a man of any size. And these days I seldom feel more that a few fleeting seconds of the vulnerability that tried to take hold of me that night in Philly; uncertainty, mixed with a sense of weakness and unnamable dread. But it does occur to me, from time to time. I’ll be in a hotel for just one night. It’s the least expensive hotel I could find, in Brookyn, and just before I left I read some online reviews that were mixed. One actually said it was “in the heart of the ghetto.” (I mean, who uses the word “ghetto anymore?). And I’ll likely use that night to write, and contemplate being where I am, and being alive. And still, sometimes, alone.