People always say your life can change in an instant, but I thought they meant something drastic had to happen, like a car accident, or maybe a blood vessel burst in your brain. Or it could be that something really lucky happens, such as being spotted by a talent agent, or winning the lottery. I didn’t know that your life could change in an instant but that it would not instantly change. What I mean is, something could happen, something subtle, and you may not realize it at the time but it changes the course of your life. You could be going along in a rut, not even knowing how deep the rut is and how unlikely it is that you will ever get out of it, when something happens that lifts you out of the rut and your life takes a slightly different trajectory. Months later you look back and think how stunning, how utterly remarkable it is that your life ever changed at all. That is what happened to me last summer, and it started when a complete stranger hugged me.
That may sound kind of corny or even churchy, but you would have to understand what kind of a guy I was back then, what kind of a person I had become and how I was living. I was hanging out with this guy Robbie who was a homeless panhandler. I wasn’t either of those things, but people often mistook me for a homeless person. I was getting the weathered look of a guy who lives outdoors. The truth is I wasn’t technically homeless, but I didn’t go home for days at a time.
My hair was in dreadlocks, which contributed to the homeless impression. Not the cool kind of dreadlocks that a guy in a band might have, mine were nasty. I didn’t even set out to have dreadlocks, it just happened when I wore a knit cap for a month and neglected to comb my somewhat coarse hair. It got a few matted spots in the back and I didn’t bother to do anything about it. By the time the weather warmed up and I took my cap off, I had a dreadful hairdo. Not neat and symmetrical dreadlocks. I had a few big ones in the back, a few small ones all around, and some hair that just didn’t conform. To my surprise, my dreads did not cause people to stare at me. In fact, it had the opposite effect. People avoided me and gave me space. I looked homeless which made people assume I must be crazy or a drug addict and they left me alone. I kind of liked the feeling of being invisible. I realized if you wear headphones, sunglasses, and a cap, you can go days on end without anyone talking to you or trying to mess with you.
One particular day, I was standing next to Robbie, who was asking people getting off the subway for a dollar. It works better to ask for a specific amount rather than just ask for change. I was standing about five feet away from him so that he would look alone, which is also better for panhandling, but we could still converse and joke around with each other. Robbie and I liked to try and make each other laugh while we were acting like we didn’t know each other. I was usually a pretty shy person, but when people look right through you it gets easy to be bold sometimes. Most people wouldn’t look my way, so I felt comfortable saying crazy things to strangers. This time I was pretending like random women getting off the subway were my girlfriend coming home from work all happy to see me. I would hold my arms open and pucker my lips. This got a good laugh out of Robbie, so I started to say to a few of them “Hey honey, I missed you. Where’s my kiss?”
Of course they ignored me and kept walking, but then suddenly one stopped. She stopped and looked at my face, which kind of startled me since most people don’t do that. She stopped and said, “I won’t kiss you, but I will give you a hug.” I thought she was joking, but when she took a few steps towards me, I figured she was some sort of religious zealot. I got ready for a “churchy” hug expecting her to put her arms on my shoulders and give me a few pats and tell me that Jesus loves me. But that is not what happened.
She set her briefcase down on the ground and put her arms around me and hugged me like she knew me, like she was completely comfortable. It wasn’t just an upper body hug. She sort of folded herself into me and I could feel her legs touching mine. And she held on for a long time. In actuality, it was probably five seconds, but I wasn’t expecting her to do that. I could hear Robbie laughing and practically screaming, hooting and hollering, but I stayed quiet and still, not wanting to ruin the moment.
She released her hug and I mumbled, “Thank you.” She looked me right in the eyes and said, “You’re welcome,” then picked up her briefcase, turned, and walked away.
I was so startled I started shaking. “Go after her, man! There’s your chance. She wants you, man!” Robbie laughed, doubling over and slapping his knees. “I can’t believe it, man. Go after her!” But I could not explain to Robbie that I didn’t want to spoil it. I did not want to scare her or follow her. I wanted to go think about what had just happened, so I walked in the direction she went without looking for her, just trying to get away from Robbie. Back to the bustling world where I was invisible so I could sit down and think. I sat down next to a wall and thought about every detail that had just happened so I wouldn’t forget it.
She was wearing a business suit, a grey skirt and matching jacket, but her shirt was hot pink and shiny, like the kind you could wear out at night. Her clothes and briefcase made her seem mature, but I could see in her face that she had to be in her twenties. She smelled really good. She had blond hair that was pinned up. She was a lot shorter than me. She was good at hugging. Her eyes were blue. I didn’t want to forget anything, but then I started to question if it really happened, it seemed so bizarre. But I’m not crazy and I don’t do drugs. A pretty girl thought I was huggable, and I thought she was very brave.
The next day I returned to the exact same spot at the exact same time hoping to see her again, just to make sure she was real. I was glad Robbie wasn’t around. I thought about how my mom used to tell us not to feed stray dogs or they will never go away. I felt like a stray dog.
I tried to get a good look at every blond that got off the subway. Then I saw her. It seemed like she might be looking for me too. She had her head up when she got off the subway and I saw a quick grin before she looked down and kept her eyes on the ground as she walked. I expected she would walk right past me, which would be okay. I was just so relieved to see her again, to validate that it was real. I did not expect her to acknowledge me.
But she walked straight up to me and said “Where’s my hug?” She actually said that like it was the most natural thing in the world, so of course I hugged her. And it was amazing, I heard her sigh, or I felt it. It seemed like she relaxed in my arms, like she knew me and wasn’t scared. Again, I held very still, trying not to ruin it by seeming to cop a feel or anything weird like that. I would have stayed in that position for days, but she released the hug and looked me straight in the face and said “Thank you.” She actually thanked me, so I muttered a quick “You’re welcome,” and she picked up her briefcase and walked away.
I started shaking again, but not as bad this time. I was able to watch her walk for several yards so I could study her and remember everything about her. Her hair was blond and silky and fell past her shoulders. Today she had on black slacks and a royal blue cardigan with a white shirt underneath. She carried a black briefcase. Her shoes had small heels. She walked really fast.
Of course I went back the next day. This time I expected to see her and even planned my day around it. I went by my apartment that afternoon to brush my teeth and pick up some clean clothes. The reason I never go home is that I live in a tiny one-room apartment with two drug addicts. They were not always that bad, but things had gotten crazy and I never knew what would be going on there. I seldom went home, but I could not afford to move, so I continued to pay rent on a place I couldn’t even feel comfortable in, but I could not give up the apartment. If I didn’t have an address, I really would be homeless. Plus, I could afford 1/3 of the rent with my unemployment check and my check got mailed there. When that stopped, something would have to change, but I tried not to think about that.
I always knocked on the door of the apartment even though I have a key. I wanted them to know I was coming in so they could at least put the pipe away or turn the porn off or something. Even though I knocked and waited ten seconds to turn the key, Jeff looked startled. He was standing in the middle of the room naked. He mumbled “Hey” and headed towards the bathroom, the only place where there was any privacy.
“Wait!” I shouted. I knew if he went in there it might be hours before he came out. “Let me get my toothbrush first!” But he quickly shut and locked the door.
“Hey, man, I need my toothbrush.” No answer. “Jeff! Just give me my toothbrush! I need to take off.”
He cracked open the door and tossed out a red toothbrush.
“That’s not mine.”
“That’s the only one in here. Just rinse it with hot water.”
I went downstairs to get my clothes. I stopped keeping clothes in the apartment because my roommates used to steal them. I never saw them wearing any of my clothes, but they all disappeared. I found a solution to the clothing dilemma when I saw a sign on the cork board in the entryway advertising for light housecleaning and laundry. There was a woman name Louisa downstairs and she would wash my clothes for 25 cents each. I would give her pants, a shirt, underwear and socks for a dollar. (She counted a pair of socks as one item, bless her soul.) But the best part was it gave me a safe place to keep clothes. I gave her a dollar and she handed me a clean set and I headed upstairs to change.
This time I just used the key since I knew Jeff was locked in the bathroom and would stay there, but instead I saw Thomas doing lines on the kitchen counter. I didn’t even know where he came from: he didn’t pass me in the hallway, but there he was. He actually yelled at me, “Hey, don’t you knock?”
“I live here,” I stated.
“Well I wasn’t expecting you,” he barked.
I didn’t answer since Thomas was a hothead when he got high. I just wanted to change my clothes and get out of there, but there was no privacy so I just turned my back to get changed as quickly as possible. I dropped off my dirty clothes to Louisa and headed out. I walked to the dollar store and bought a toothbrush, a travel sized toothpaste, and a deodorant, which smelled all wrong, and that left me with only one dollar to eat that day. I used to try to keep myself on a five-dollar-a-day budget, which was really hard to do when I had as much as $150 in my pocket the day after my unemployment check came and I paid rent. My routine was to shove my money through a hole in my left pocket; that meant my cash would be safely stored in the lining of my jacket. I would keep just $5 in my right pocket, my cash for the day. I took a bird bath in the sink at a bathroom in a convenience store, but I had to buy something to get the “customers only” bathroom key, so I bought a granola bar and I still felt hungry. This was okay because I knew some restaurants that throw away perfectly good food every night. I just had to wait.
My upper pocket held my phone, charger, earphones and ID. My phone was my prized possession and that’s how I treated it. My Dad still had me on his plan as long as I agreed to check in once a week, so I didn’t have to pay for the phone bill, but I did have to find places to charge it. I didn’t charge it in the apartment when my roommates were there – for obvious reasons.
The next day at the subway station, I stood in the same spot waiting for her. I scoped out every blond woman that gets off the subway, but I don’t see her. The subway moves on and the crowd thins out. I try not to feel disappointed, but I do. I wonder if she missed her subway and I decide to wait for the next one.
Again I searched the crowd looking at the face of every blond, but I didn’t see her. I wondered if she purposely got off at the previous stop or the next one, to avoid me. Maybe she came to her senses and knew not to pet a stray dog.
I walked around a lot that night and stopped for a few naps. There are a few 24-hour places where I could hang out for an hour, such as a donut shop as long as I bought something, so I dipped into tomorrow’s money for seventy cents. I can sleep sitting up with a cap pulled low and as long as I don’t stay too long, I can get away with it. During the day I hang out at the library a lot. I may look scruffy sometimes, but I am young and I don’t stink and I don’t babble, so with a book in front of me I can really catch some z’s. I even have a library card and sometimes I’ll check out a paperback I can fit in my pocket and carry around. I’ve heard it said that NYC is such a literate city that even the homeless read. It seems to be true since I’ve seen other guys that are truly homeless with books. Again, I think it is a good shield to hide behind when avoiding the human race in a crowded city.
I think about the subway girl a lot that day and wonder what happened to her. I contemplate going back, but I don’t want to be disappointed again so it is easier to act like I don’t care, and I catch myself trying to make up mean things about her. But in the end either my curiosity, my boredom, or my loneliness wins out and I head back to the same spot at five o’clock. I really don’t have anywhere else to be anyway.
This time I see her and I am sure she is looking for me. She walks right up to me and I said, “I missed you yesterday.” I didn’t plan to say it, it just came out and I immediately regretted it.
“I was sick,” she said. And then she hugged me. Didn’t ask, just did it, not that I would have denied her or anything.
“Are you feeling better?” I asked while she was in my arms.
“I am. Thank you,” she said. Then she released me and turned and walked away.
I watched her go and noted that she seemed sad today. Her voice was different. She wasn’t walking as fast. She had on grey slacks and a black sweater. I wanted to follow her and talk to her, but again I was afraid I’d break the spell.
The next day was Saturday, but I knew I’d be back on Monday.
Saturday was my favorite day of the week, the only day that was different from the other six. On Saturdays I played soccer in the park, and it was the one time I forgot about how my daily life had become, and I felt like my old self, the young and optimistic Ray who moved to NYC with his buddy Carlos, back when we both had jobs.
Carlos and I had been buddies in high school and it was his idea to move to the city. He had a cousin who was the maintenance manager of a big office building and he said he could get us jobs. We were basically janitors, but we also go to fix stuff, which was cool. We had a room with some tools and parts where we worked, mostly on office chairs. I was amazed at how often people complained about a broken chair. We had tons of damaged chairs and we would scrap parts and repair chairs, then take out trash, clean and stock restrooms, change fluorescent lights, fill up the water bottles, stuff like that. It was a great job. At first we were always busy and could not believe we were so lucky to work in this nice office when the weather was freezing cold or scorching hot outside.
We got the apartment I still have – the one tiny room with a kitchen “area,” which was really just a few cabinets and sink and tiny appliances along one wall. The only separate space was the tiny bathroom, the private domain of my current roommates. With Carlos it seemed small but bearable, since we didn’t hate each other. Even though we worked together, lived together, and played on the same soccer team, we managed to get along.
Carlos and I had always played soccer and within weeks of living here we managed to get in with a group that played every Saturday morning. We did not have organized practice, just showed up and played, although Carlos and I practiced together during the week. Carlos moved back home when we lost our jobs, but I stayed and continued to show up no matter how weird the rest of my life got. Moving home would make me feel like a failure. The only thing left for me at home since my mom died was my dad and brother, and they both resented me for not joining the family plumbing business. “You too good for us, Ray?” my brother would ask, and my dad would chime in with, “Ah, we don’t need him.” I knew my dad did not have enough business to pay both of his sons, so he seemed relieved when I found a job in the city.
I picked up my clean soccer uniform early every Saturday morning from Louisa and returned it to her stinky and sweaty every Saturday night. Louisa always said “Play hard” when she handed me my uniform. It seemed a really strange thing for her to say, but on weekdays she always told me “Work hard.” I took her advice only on Saturdays.
I got to the park that Saturday, saw the guys kicking the ball around, and went up and said hello to Marcus, an older guy I’ve become friends with. He has a pretty wife and two little kids who come with him to the park sometimes. His wife always gives me a Gatorade. None of the guys know that I roam the city all week. They think I am normal and they treat me like normal, but we don’t talk about anything besides soccer. Today Marcus asked me how Carlos was doing, but I have not talked to him so I just said “Fine.”
After the game I went by the apartment and for some lucky reason, no one was there. I jumped at the chance to take a shower. There was no soap and the bottom of the bathtub was filthy and grimy, but it felt great to let the warm water run over my body. Really great. I kept thinking about “Subway Girl” and how nice she felt in my arms, how good it felt to touch somebody. In fact, I was thinking about it so much that I started to get hard and took advantage of this rare moment of privacy. Just in time too, as I heard a loud crash out in the main room. I didn’t have a towel to dry off with, so I stood there shivering a while and listened to my two roommates yelling at each other in the other room. I used the outside of my jacket to dry myself off, got dressed, and got the hell out of there. They didn’t even acknowledge me when I walked out. They were quiet and hovering over something on the coffee table I couldn’t see, so I just headed to the door and reminded them “Five days ’til rent is due.”
Sundays were sometimes easy, sometimes hard for me, because the library and a lot of businesses were closed, but churches were open and I knew a few that I could go to where people dressed casual and I wouldn’t stand out if I just sat in the back. I had three different Catholic churches I could go to and this day I scored as one of them had a potluck in the parish hall after church. I was able to save the $4.30 I had left over for that day, which was good because something usually came up. The afternoon wasn’t cold so I sat outside in the park. I even saw a soccer buddy who was practicing and got to kick the ball around for a bit. Then came the weekly Sunday afternoon call home where I told my dad I was looking for a job and asked how he was doing. He always asked when I was coming for a visit, but the price of a bus ticket was way out of my reach. I couldn’t tell my dad I didn’t have enough for a bus ticket, so instead I acted like I was busy on the weekends with soccer and friends and stuff. I don’t know how he believed me or if he just wanted to believe me, but he didn’t push it; the phone calls seemed enough to prove I wasn’t dead or on drugs or anything.
Monday I went back to the subway station at 4:45 to wait for Subway Girl. Robbie was there this time and kept trying to talk to me and I was really nervous about it, so finally I just asked him, “Hey, Robbie, if that pretty blonde girl hugs me today, can you do me a favor and just keep your mouth shut? I’ll give you a buck to just stay quiet.”
“Five bucks,” Robbie answered.
“Hell no, two.”
“Dude, that’s harsh. I’ll pay you two.”
“I’m gonna make a scene when your chick gets here.”
“And I am gonna kick your ass.”
“I’m gonna steal your four dollars and take your girl on a date to McDonald’s. Let her order offa’ the value menu.” Robbie was laughing now, so I knew we had a deal.
Then I saw her. She was wearing a blue dress with boots today and she looked beautiful. My heart started racing. She smiled when she saw me and looked down as she walked straight to where I was standing. When she got to me she set her briefcase down and she hugged me, arms around my shoulders and mine around her waist. As soon as I could feel her loosening her grip, I let go and I really wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what. She reached in the pocket of her dress and handed me a folded up piece of paper and said “Bye. See you tomorrow,” and she turned and walked away.
“Four dollars, dude. Hope it was worth it.”
I turned to Robbie and pulled the $2.00 out of my pocket and didn’t answer. I wanted to get somewhere private and see what was on this piece of paper.
“Hell yeah, man, tomorrow I’m only chargin’ ya $3.00!” Robbie was laughing as I walked away. I found a place to sit by the wall and slowly unfolded the sheet of notebook paper. It was handwritten in black ink and said “My name is Alicia, and hugging you is the bright spot in my day.”
I reread the note several times, said the name “Alicia” out loud, then folded the note back up and put it in my chest pocket. Alicia.