Years ago, I was traveling by Greyhound bus, scheduled to transfer at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. This was in the early Eighties when New York was in the midst of a cocaine epidemic and the South Bronx looked like a war zone. All the talk among us passengers on the way to the Big Apple was how dangerous The City was. Most were happy to say that they had little time to wait for their next bus. I had two hours.
“Don’t talk to no one,” said the man sitting across the aisle. “Don’t even look at ‘em or they’ll take it as a challenge; but if they look at you, give ‘em the old stare down, right in the eye. That’s what tells ‘em not to mess with you.”
“Aren’t there police at the bus terminal?” asked the cute young woman sitting next to me by the window.
“Oh, the police don’t care. Most of ‘em are on the take. They just walk by and wink.”
The man across the aisle had a suitcase where his knees should’ve been, his legs were in the aisle, and his hand grasped, as if it were a scepter, a fishing rod with the hook still attached. A spoon lure waved by my eye whenever he moved the rod around. He was the kind that could take all the room he wanted because he never asked you if it was OK and never listened to you say that it wasn’t.
“But don’t you worry, honey. You can walk with me and I’ll look after you. I’m going to Raleigh.”
He had her hooked and was reeling her in, nice and slow. She gave him a smile that made me wish I wasn’t there in the middle. However, seeing that I was there, I just wanted this leg of the trip to be over and to see for myself how dangerous a bus terminal could be.
“The ones you have to watch out for the most are the Blacks wearing colors,” he said. “Red bandanas mean one kind and blue ones mean another. If you see both, don’t get between ‘em.”
The bus entered the city and we craned our heads to look at the buildings.
“Don’t look up or everyone will know you’re from out of town.”
The bus began a long ascent up a curved ramp into a parking garage. The fumes gagged us. He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and the spoon lure swung in front of my face.
“I’m putting my wallet in my front pocket; otherwise the pickpockets will get it. Better safe than sorry.”
The young woman clutched her bag, even though we were still in the bus. “I’m so excited,” she said, “and scared.”
“When you walk with me, put your bag under your arm and keep it between us.”
At last the bus applied its brakes. We began to file out. They left together. “Stay close to me,” he said.
The two went off like young lovers, instead of the strangers I knew they were. Her long hair swung behind her. He held his suitcase in the same hand as the rod, leveled like a lance.
I went to find a place to spend the next two hours. There was a crowded café. I bought a coffee, a New York Times, a package of cookies, and turned to find a seat. There was only one available, with a large Black man sitting at the table; he wore a red bandana.
The seat wasn’t taken, so I sat, opened my paper, and sipped my coffee. He reached over, opened the package of cookies sitting on the table between us, took one out, and ate it. Just as the man with the fishing rod had warned, this place was lawless and dangerous.
My companion’s arms had more bulges than I thought possible. I would not still confront him directly. Not over a package of cookies. I was not going to be intimidated, either. I, too, took a cookie and ate it.
He looked up at me as he munched. This must’ve been the stare I was told about. I stared back. He took another cookie and ate that, too. I took a second, dipped it in my coffee and sucked it dry, never breaking our gaze.
This continued until all the cookies were gone, then, without another word exchanged between us, he stood up. I was in for it now and looked around for someone who would come to my aide. However, all the muscled-bound man did was to take the empty wrapper and throw it away as he left.
It took the rest of the layover before my heart rate died down to its proper pace. I didn’t want to be late for the bus that would take me out of this city. I finished the coffee and folded up the paper. Sitting there, underneath my New York Times, was my package of cookies.
Evidently, I had been eating his.
I told you this tale to illustrate how a narrative had influenced me so much that I initially failed to perceive the kindness and generosity of the man at the café. I could’ve gotten my ass kicked.
It’s necessary to always keep two things in mind and keep them separate: things as they are, and our stories about them. When we are at our leisure and feeling safe and secure, then we may be able to attend to things as they are without getting too caught up in stories. Listening to music, good food, work with our hands, a walk through the woods, worship, meditation; these activities often permit us to perceive things as they are. We lose ourselves in the moment. On the other hand, when we encounter something strange, or when we are called upon to perform or understand; then things as they are is not enough. We then look for an interpretation of things as they are. We create or accept a story that explains everything.
The man with the fishing rod had his own reasons to indoctrinate us to fear New York City. He wanted the girl to need to depend on him. I had my own reasons to listen. I was going to a new place, a strange place for me. The things he told us about the city provided me with a means to interpret what I would see. Certain things: the race of the man at the café, the color of his bandana, the stare, all things I normally would not have paid much attention to, gained special significance because he warned me about them. I thought I perceived signs of danger largely because I was expecting to see them.
Story telling is second nature to us, we often do not realize we are doing it, and we often confuse things as they are with our stories about them.
Powerful stories can come to blind us to alternate interpretations; just as I was so dominated by the danger story that I failed to see generosity. Many people who struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, or anger problems are blinded by a story. The depressed person sees everything through a lens of hopelessness and loss. The anxious person is busy warning herself of the extreme risks she runs. The traumatized one is stuck in a horror story that gets retold over and over. The angry man has lots of examples of oppression and injustice.
Most of the time these stories that people tell to themselves have a kernel of truth. The New York City Story did. New York really was having a crime wave. But, at best, a story only captures general trends; it summarizes the gist of the data. It does not account for all of the exceptions to the rule.
What are the powerful stories that have dominated your life? What wonderful surprises might be waiting for you if you were to stop thinking and talking about things, but, rather, saw them simply as they were?