First day in the city, 1999, and I had a huge problem: I had no idea there were so many steps. Steps up and down to the subway tracks and steps leading into buildings and shops; the city suddenly appeared to be made of stairs. Like in the movies, you never know you are in quicksand until half your trunk is swallowed up.
When you've never lived in a city, you assume the train or bus will somehow drop you right in front of the door and an elevator will wheel you up to one of those cool lofts you see on "Friends." But, it doesn't work that way and I had way too many bags.
A friend would put me up in Staten Island , so I got on the ferry. "It looks like something out of the Book of Exodus," I quipped to a stranger beside me.
Thousands of people moved like a herd, a horn blew, and away we went. The Statue of Liberty drifted by and then we were there. I dragged my two suitcases along the ground with another bag slung around my neck and shoulder. I moved like the Elephant Man, labored yet determined. But unlike him, nobody seemed to notice me. The crowd moved by me like swarms of ants headed to the queen. That is, until I reached three flight of stairs that seemed to climb right out of sight. Then, I was almost alone. I never felt so stupid; there was no way to get the bags up. I would have to leave one or two, take one up, then come back down to get the other. But, this was New York. "Fort Apache The Bronx" played in my mind and the voices of all those back home that were certain every New Yorker was a pocket-picking pro.
Then, I saw him.
He was African-American - thirties - and had some sort of uniform on. His eyes were strong and alive. He grabbed two of my bags before I could say a word. The rumble of the herd on the steps was so loud, even a scream would have gone unnoticed. I followed him, frantically, all the way up, noticing he carried a bag of his own along with mine. When we got to the top, he didn't make a break for it. He didn't bribe me or threaten me for my wallet; he helped me onto the bus and showed me where people with bags should sit.
He sat further in the back and the bus lurched along, stopping at almost every block - forever. As I sat holding on tight to everything I owned in the world and pressed my fear down into my stomach, I looked back to see the man watching me. He had the eyes of someone that knew, a glimmer that showed he had once been in the exact same spot. He grinned at me and I smiled back, embarrassed.
He got off before me and didn't say a word. He never asked me for anything and I don't know his name. But... I don't need to.
Drawing by: Richard Barlett