So, I started dumping the contents of our home on the curb: an empty fifty-gallon fish tank and its stand, all of the paintings my roommate and I had done during arts and crafts time, the kitchen table, the plastic pink and purple dresser from Target and all of its contents, which were—of course—gay pornographic magazines and similarly themed VHS tapes, also expired prescriptions, and old medical documents. I really used this piece of furniture as more of a filing cabinet than a dresser. I thought, I don’t want any of this, so why bother putting the papers, pills, and porn in bags, why not just put the whole thing out on the curb? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because people go through the garbage when it seems like someone is vacating his house of its everything. They certainly open the dresser drawers.
When I had finally packed my car to its ceiling and dumped almost everything else in a poorly formed pile, I heard a car pull up. Thinking it was my landlord, I started looking for the keys. When I found them and went outside to say that I was almost done cleaning (which would have been a lie), I saw an old black woman standing in front of the plastic dresser, the porn file cabinet. There was a moment wherein she looked at me and I looked at her, and we were both very confused. Then she said, “Patrick?” And I exploded. It wasn’t until she looked at the sheet of paper in her hand that I realized she had just been reading my personal medical documents. Then she said, “you don’t want this?” and picked up a magazine titled Mandate. On its cover was a stocky gentleman with hair all over his body. You see, that’s the kind of gentleman I like. All of the porn was like that—guys with bellies and beards putting parts of their bodies into and out of other guys with a bellies and a beards.
So she said, “You don’t want this” and holds up Mandate and I say, “No, um, it’s all yours.” At which point, she giggled, then started grabbing the magazines and squirreling them away underneath the front seat of her minivan. Oh, I forgot to mention she was driving a minivan—probably from church. She told me her name, and I forgot it. I invited her in to take a look at what was left. She knew the Latin name of the specific kind of orchid on my counter, which was a recent gift, one that I would have killed within a week or two. She asked if she could have it, and I said “of course.” In the end she only took the orchid, a painting my roommate made, and the porn—the magazines. She didn’t want the VHS tapes because it was 2007.
The old black woman drove her minivan away. My landlord called and told me he wasn’t coming, to just leave the keys in the mailbox. I finished cleaning around midnight and crammed the last of my possessions into my 1995 silver Chevy Lumina. It’s weird to leave a house. It’s weirder to leave a house when you’re completely alone with the emptiness, when you give a tour of the emptiness to a stranger. I had lived there for two years. My boyfriend had lived there for the two years before me before he moved away for his own grad schooling. Spiders had taken over the basement and we let them. Once the pilot light on our heat went out during winter, and we went a month before calling our landlord. Instead, we hung paper snowflakes from the ceiling with sparkly blue yarn.
When I left, I left with everything—everything I owned, everything I cared about, every thing that was a thing that mattered. My car was busting at its seams, actually and literally. It was hard to close the doors. Busting. Later, I was on the highway scooting along at a reasonable clip when I hit a bump and heard a noise, a soft noise, a soft whistling noise like a window or perhaps a door had been cracked open. The silver Chevy Lumina was filled so tightly that I couldn’t turn my head to check. I had a carpet between my legs, a pillow cupping my neck, and only a small divot in the junk to see out the rearview mirror. I couldn’t even reach my pockets, but had placed my phone on the dash in case it rang. The radio wasn’t playing because I couldn’t reach it, so all I had was the whistling, which was growing in volume. It was near 1:00 a.m. at this point, and so few people were on the road that I slowed my car to forty-five mph. There was a rest stop fifteen miles outside of town, the fear that my life would spill out onto I-55 so overcame me that when I arrived at that rest stop, I pulled across four parking spaces.
I tumbled out, leaving the engine running and ran around to the passenger side. Sure enough, it looked open, so I opened and slammed the door—but it still looked unsecure. I ran around to the driver’s side and pressed “lock” to lock all the doors. Leaving the driver’s door open, I went back to the rear passenger’s side door. I pulled it. I pulled hard, and it didn’t open, which was a relief until I realized that I pulled so hard that I shook the car, shook it enough that the driver’s side door swung closed. It was locked. I had locked it. The car was running. My phone was on the dash. It was one in the morning. Everything I owned was trapped. Naturally, I went inside the rest area for assistance, but it was vacant, and the payphones were out of order because it was 2007. I waited an hour for other drivers, but none came. I gave in and pressed the button on one of those glowing blue emergency pylons. Nothing happened. There was no soothing British woman’s voice telling me: “Remain calm. Stay near your vehicle. Help is on the way.” Nothing. There was just nothing.
Also, it was May, which meant I had been wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Normally, this sartorial choice would have been fine, but the temperature had dropped to about forty degrees on that particular night. I could have remained in the rest center, where it was warm, but then I would have risked missing a passing car, so I stayed outside, balled in the wheel-well keeping warm off of the running engine.
Eventually, maybe another half-an-hour later, a car pulled in, a pick-up truck actually, a big pick-up truck out of which stepped an equally big Latino man. When I saw the truck pull in, I thought, I’m saved. And when I saw the man, the big man, the big Latino man, I thought, um, okay. Well. Okay. I walked on an intercept path and shouted, “Hi! Excuse me. I locked myself out of my car and really need help.” The man didn’t look at me. He didn’t even not look at me; he didn’t register me, that I was a human producing human sounds intended for the purpose of communication. He just kept walking. I froze, hand in the air, mid-stride, terrified. Then a woman stepped out of the truck and I thought thank god, and started again. “Hello, I’m locked out of my car…” She explained that her husband didn’t speak a lick of English, and yes, of course I could use their phone when he returned from the bathroom, and I did. I phoned the police who sent a tow-truck who opened my door.
But now I’m going on a small detour: I wish I could say that that’s all, that no other part of this story makes me uncomfortable, but alas—this last bit of uncomfortable-ness isn’t the fun kind where I talk about hairy dudes blowing each other and then get to watch you squirm. After George Zimmerman was found innocent of murdering Trayvon Martin, Questlove, the very rich and famous drummer for The Roots, wrote a post on Facebook that New York Magazine picked up as an editorial. In it, he describes an experience with a white woman in the elevator of his building. Questlove, as I said earlier, is fucking rich. He’s also black and tall and I would fuck him, which means he’s got some girth. He’s a big black man who lives in a fancy New York building with a lot of codes and safety procedures. One day he stepped on the elevator, the elevator in his own building and a white woman got on after him. In the post he writes that he could sense her fear. When he asked what floor she wanted, she refused to answer. She refused to look at him, so he assumed that she must live on the same floor—the number he had already pressed. But when the door dinged and he held it for her to exit first, she said that that wasn’t her floor. And Questlove put it together, that she didn’t want him to know where she lived, that she was afraid he would attack her or rob her or—something. The effect, writes Questlove, is that that feeling is internalized, that every day in mundane ways it is always clear exactly what people of privilege think of him: he ain’t shit. He’s ain’t shit and Tryavon Martin wasn’t shit.
The big Latino man. The old black woman. I know my reaction to both of these people was all bound up in my preconceived and uncritical beliefs about race and gender and age. And now, all I can do is unpack and confront that racism whenever it appears—and yes, I (or you) can rationalize my fear, that it was late and I was already scared—fucking blah. But I didn’t tell you the whole story with the big Latino man. When this man, this kind man, came out of the bathroom and let me, a stranger, use his phone. He offered to stay and wait with me, which was translated by his wife. Of course I said no, that he had done enough. Then he turned to leave, but stopped and said something to his wife. She said, “You’re not waiting out here are you? It’s so cold.” I shrugged, and the man unbuttoned the heavy-duty shirt he we was wearing and held it up to me. When I protested, he threw it at me, so my only option was to catch it or let it hit me in the face and fall to the ground. I caught it. The man said something. His wife said, “good luck.” I returned to the wheel well of my car wearing the remarkably warm shirt off of a stranger’s back, a fucking kind stranger, a stranger who was better than I am, better than I have ever been.