Eager to Help – Calvin Atwood
July 26, 2022
Last night, towards the end of my run in Prospect Park—it was around 7pm and the park was almost deserted and of course dark—I encountered, in the middle of a road that circles the park, an older woman who’d just wrecked her bike, and a runner of about my age—around 40—trying to help her. I stopped running and removed my headphones as I approached them, anticipating some sort of urgent interaction.
“Can you help?” the runner asked. The woman was at his side, slightly hunched over, mumbling to herself, with bloody hands cupping her mouth. A mangled bicycle lay on the ground beside her.
I thought that the woman might be drunk, drugged or destitute, but she was wearing Mephisto walking shoes, the classic ones, a long green puffer coat, and black cotton tights. So I figured I might as well help. I didn’t have anything better to do.
The runner was especially clean-cut and well-groomed, attired in what appeared to be recently purchased running clothes. He looked like a high-end personal trainer who owned a new condo. I could tell instantly that he thought I was also gay and maybe even a potential sex partner, but I’m always thinking like this.
The front wheel was bent so I carried the bike while he helped her along; not that this seemed necessary, as she was physically quite capable of walking on her own; it was more a means of emotional support. I too could play the role of emotional support mammal, I thought to myself as I observed the graceful gay man help the injured woman along. My being white, gentile, hetero-normative, and from a relatively privileged background, didn’t mean I was incapable of looking after the least fortunate among us – but of course I needed to stay in my lane: I wasn’t a social worker or state licensed mental health professional. If it turned out that this woman needed services reserved for the dispossessed, I’d have to politely bow out. Meanwhile, she was on her phone. “I have the tooth” she was telling someone in a nebbish, whimpering sort of voice.
So, she had an in-house dentist or oral surgeon at the ready. This was fantastic news. It meant she was well connected, of means and, likely, capable of championing my prose in its rawest form.
The bike was a heavy, ancient, faded black Peugeot hybrid. “This is a beautiful piece of machinery,” I told her, taken aback by its functional beauty and true economy of style; but she’d didn’t respond to my compliment; maybe she didn’t hear or perhaps she had other things on her mind.
One could tell by its weight that the Peugot was old -world-quality. I didn’t need the back story on it, but I couldn’t let it go. Was it a garage find or inherited? Some questions are better left unanswered but of course there were only so many plausible origin stories. But this wasn’t the time for vapid chit-chat, so I used the power of mindfulness to redirect my thinking: an old trick I’d picked up at my East Hollywood Sanga.
Now we were three, walking side by side. We were headed to the emergency room a few blocks away, but first we had to find a place to lock up the bicycle. I knew a spot nearby and we headed there. Once the bike was secure the gay runner said his goodbyes and I was left with the woman.
“I’ll be walking you to the hospital now,” I said. I wasn’t about to play it coy: there was too much at stake.
The residential blocks of Park Slope were quiet and empty. The hospital was only two blocks away and the woman was still cupping her mouth with her blood-stained hands and was still slightly hunched over. She was around 60 years-old but it was impossible to really tell as I still hadn’t gotten a good look at her face.
As she seemed upset I considered telling her that everything was going to be fine or something similarly weak and false, but I thought better of it and went with something practical:
“You’re lucky you don’t have a brain injury.” I said, hoping to put her at ease.
“I’m a flutist. This is it for me. It’s over,” she responded.
This surprising admission reminded me of something that happened last summer.
“A friend of my wife is a violist in the BSO.”
“Well, good for her.” She countered.
This was just the introduction but apparently she didn’t want to hear my story. That was too bad: I was going to tell it anyway but she started walking more quickly and I feared that she was trying to escape me. I could not allow this to happen.
“Hey, slow down,” I called out.
She wasn’t walking too fast for me to keep up, but this quick movement seemed potentially dangerous given her recent accident, and she did slow down; she took my direction.
I was concerned that she might think I was up to something nefarious and be wary of me, but since this didn’t seem to be the case I continued with my little story.
“Well, we were in the Berkshires last summer, staying with these friends of my wife, and we were going to Tanglewood that night and the violist was making us lunch and she cut her hand open with a knife and she had to get stitches, and she was out for a while, but I guess she’s back playing again.”
It was a terrible story, but it was relevant to her situation, and I also wanted her to know that, like her, I also knew individuals who’d reached the apex of some old guard institution. That way she wouldn’t hesitate to introduce me to her literary connections. Of course, I didn’t know for certain if she had any, but I figured I might as well let her know that I could also help her out. It wasn’t an entirely parasitic situation; I wasn’t a vampire.
I would have left once we arrived at the entrance of the ER, but I needed to know where I stood with her. Also, we hadn’t exchanged contact info. She hadn’t removed her hands from her face, so it was difficult to get a read on things. I didn’t know how to treat her because I didn’t know what she had to offer, and maybe I never would, and maybe she didn’t even know what she had. This was a sobering realization. I’d myself to get a little carried away but still, anything was possible, so maybe this unexpected detour into caring behavior hadn’t been a complete waste of time. One never knows who someone else knows and who they might be willing to introduce you to. This is another thing I learned in Los Angeles.
“Maybe I should come in with you, just until you get seated,” I offered.
“Oh, thank you.”
This was wonderful to hear given all I’d recently been through: fired the day before from my teaching position for absurd and groundless charges of ‘racism.’ Additionally, my stories had been rejected by every reputable publication and now I was forced, at 42-years-old, to sell my pathetic little books in the park. These ‘books’ were filled with stories that could only be appreciated by bitter outsiders (20-something traditional Catholics, ironic Trump supporters and unapologetic junkies).
Meanwhile all the levelheaded writers from my Columbia University MFA program were pitching and selling their novels by shrewdly commodifying some marginalized aspect of their identity or life experience, and brilliantly hitching it to some timely and pressing cause. Examples of causes, identities and life experiences that sell: a blue collar/hardscrabble upbringing, being from Oklahoma, being gay, being mistreated by a man, being adopted, being non-white, being white, being Asian, climate migration, having a body that somehow feels intrusive thanks to an oppressive system, having inadequate health care, being debt-ridden, having a parent who committed suicide, embodying a sound cloud rap persona while applying to grad schools, defiantly not living in New York or LA, dating a passive-aggressive man from Staten Island, briefly working at Walmart, delivering food for an app – and of course they knew how to frame it.
They all shared this essential trait. The trait being: it wasn’t all about them. Whether they set out to do it or not, it was always about something larger, something that we all cared about. Because, of course, as mentioned, it wasn’t about them. They were simply a jumping off point, a place to start, a means to explore pressing issues, to bring awareness while shifting the narrative via posing important questions surrounding language, art and the body politic, while also acknowledging past transgressions, how they benefited from structural inequality, etc., etc.
I’m not criticizing any writer or agent or editor. They’re just doing what it takes, and I’d do the same if I could. I’d spent hours trying and failing to cook up an authentic victim schtick: some aspect of myself that was true and immediately compelling on Twitter. I even tried, in my darker moments, to performatively hate myself for having such a large dick and being so conventionally handsome, athletically gifted, not being poor or the victim of some relatable trauma, and for not caring one drop about the climate crisis, people of color, the rise of Christian White Nationalism, the carnage left behind by 90’s style toxic masculinity, the imperialistic propaganda machine known as The Marvel Universe, the Russian Bot Farms, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and how they really could have leveled the playing field. But I could never follow through with any schtick for more than a few pages, and without an agent, who really knows the market and is adept at sanitizing specific passages while also taking issue with others, then asking me hard questions about passages that fail to answer or even acknowledge the big questions of our time. All I needed was a clever, clean-cut Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence or even Duke grad with a closet full of slim-cut Oxford cloth button-downs and a nice lawyer boyfriend, someone who’d know exactly how to put my conflicted but ultimately indifferent perky-nihilism in the right cultural context.
But I didn’t need any of that because my altruistic gesture of assisting this late middle-aged woman would be my contribution. Taking this action was all about tapping into my guardian-breed, Northern European genetics while protecting working-class Black women from unemployed schizophrenic Puerto Rican Men. That’s what this story is ultimately about. It’s about looking out for the underserved, not just on the page but in tangible reality while, also, setting an example as opposed to voicing an opinion.
As we entered the hospital, I realized that she, the flutist, was wearing what looked like a heavy messenger bag: a patriarchal shackle of sorts.
“Let me get that bag,” I offered.
But I didn’t wait for her consent. She didn’t like men who asked. They made her nervous about getting raped by a coy, repressed type, anxious to show everyone just how much respect he had for women. We all know that the askers, the practitioners and enforcers of consent, are the real rapists, or at least the ones who feel a strong urge to rape. And I’m the opposite. In fact, like a woman, I desperately need to feel wanted to get aroused.
So I asserted myself. I unfastened the clasp that connected the strap. But she didn’t respond; her hands were still covering her mouth. I took up her burden. Given my history—a history I’ll never discuss with anyone (thank God for the statute of limitations)—wasn’t the burden mine to carry? Additionally, by taking up this bag, I was, among other sacrifices, betraying my preppy alpha-aesthetic aside. As backpacks and messenger bags demean a man of standing, and, given my recent laughably insulting job termination, my capacity for humility had already been severely tested. But then, as I always do in such moments, I recited the parting words of my big-shot TV writer AA sponsor back in Los Angeles. He was ending our relationship. He could no longer sponsor me. Apparently, I wasn’t willing to concede all to the program and the steps. “Humility builds empires” he said before storming off, leaving me car-less. I was forced to take the bus back to Silver Lake. And, of course, he was right about everything. If only I’d acted on his words: I would now be published in all the most important and sacred places; places that even my mother and her woke multi-millionaire friends coveted. All this reminiscing filled me with a violent self-loathing but maybe the dawning of the hideous messenger bag was an opportunity to at least karmically erase my past. But the bag wasn’t heavy enough.
A guard at the entrance to the ER handed me a mask, which I dutifully put on. Obviously, given her oral injury, the flutist wouldn’t be wearing one. We joined a short ER check-in line. Everyone in the waiting room was quiet and masked except for a young Puerto Rican Man who was pacing and ranting in a paranoid manner. This was my big chance. If I couldn’t do it on the page I’d do it in I.R.L.!
“Yo I can’t wait for this shit. I got business uptown. Now you’re messing with my money G. Where my MRI at?”
The Puerto Rican man wasn’t directing these comments at anyone specifically, but he seemed to assume that we were all somehow complicit. He caught my gaze for a moment, and like a coward I quickly looked away. I was already plotting against him: I wanted to see him in cuffs, restrained, face to the floor – and then he’d catch my gaze again, from the ground, and this time, I wouldn’t look away, I’d flash him a very amused smirk. But at this point I was avoiding eye-contact, and when we finally got to the receptionist, she was talking with a security guard about him.
“He’s freaking me out. Something’s off with him. I think he’s gonna do something crazy,” she was saying. And her instincts were spot-on. He was local. I knew him. I had already witnessed a disturbing little incident involving him. About a year ago, returing from my teaching gig, I had alighted from the G train at 7th Ave. and was headed home when I heard some shouting on the street. So, instead of taking a left toward my home I took a right, toward the trouble. Somebody was really speaking truth to power and the source was this deranged individual. He was pleading with a sultry Latina. She looked as if she might have been his sister but apparently she hardly knew him.
“I’ll always be here. These are our streets mama. You my ride or die!”
“But you barely know me papi. You need to get some help,” she countered diplomatically. She was wearing her work uniform, and she needed to get to work.
The last I saw of him the police had him hog-tied and blindfolded (Texas Style) and he was being hoisted by the chains into the back of an NYPD van but he was clearly incapable of learning a hard lesson. Chemical castration might be the only option for tough cases like that, but who am I to say? I’m not a social worker, just a humble prose-stylist with an unapologetic passion for gainfully employed women of color.
My flutist, mouth covered with her slightly bloody hands, was at my side as we waited in line. I was holding her insurance card and ID. The receptionist and security guard were interacting right in front of us. The guard was young, black, tall, handsome, muscular and maskless. He looked away from her as she spoke. He seemed bitter, as if he’d been taken away from some preferred activity.
“But what’s he doing?” he asked, as if he was the one being unfairly accused and this was just typical female shit.
“He’s crazy. He’s threatening everyone.” She responded.
I suspected that if it wasn’t for her crossed right eye that the guard would be more eager to assist her and confront the potential time-bomb. But he wasn’t. In fact, he seemed to feel a kinship with this deranged man. I had to intervene on her behalf.
“He lives down the street. He’s extremely dangerous,” I stated soberly and at low volume, hoping the Puerto Rican wouldn’t hear me, yet knowing as I spoke these words that he might have and that my snitching might lead to street violence being performed upon my body by one or both men. And I liked something about this terror sensation. Some might call it being drunk on dread.
“Who the fuck are you getting into this?” the security guard spat at me, overwhelmed with contempt. Perhaps he thought I was somehow under the false assumption that he worked for me and I was demanding that he do my personal bidding.
I didn’t return fire. He was on the clock and I wasn’t. I needed to show solidarity with the worker. I liked walking around staring at trees, composing short stories in my mind, and tipping three dollars on a three-dollar cup of coffee at my neighborhood café.
My flutist had disappeared, and I’d gotten sidetracked. My guardian-breed instincts to protect Black single moms was at the controls but I had the messenger bag and I needed to find her to return it. The white supremacist system would look after its own. She’d be fine without me.
The security guard was gone. The receptionist had moved on to the next patient. I was wearing running clothing and I was sweating like crazy. Maybe my flutist was getting treated but was she really that injured, I wondered. Something was off about her makeup; maybe she was a pill-head. But once she mentioned her flute and her private dentist, I was forever in her service.
I’m not claiming to have saved her. I think the other runner would have gone the distance, but he passed me the torch. The flutist was the torch but now I’d lost her while trying to do my part to reverse 300 years of racial domination. She’d disappeared into some restricted wing of the old hospital. She knew how to advocate for herself in white-dominated spaces. This was a trait that she needed to examine.
I was glad she was so old. I didn’t have to imagine us fucking. Instead, I could be fully present to her suffering. That’s what I was doing when I walked her to the ER. This was right after I told her about the violist’s hand injury.
I recited my old meta-mantras as we walked, the ones that remove all the depraved thoughts and visions.
“I see you. I see your suffering.”
“I see you. I see your suffering.”
“I see you. I see your suffering.”
I repeated it over and over to myself, but now I’d lost her.
I went through the doors marked “restricted,” expecting an inner sanctum or central corridor, the beating heart of the operation, but was surprised to find myself in a minor auxiliary. There were no patients, just a chubby blonde manning the desk. She turned her head to see who was entering. She was wearing a blue surgical mask. I approached and engaged.
“Hi, I’m looking for a woman who had her teeth knocked out.”
The chubby blonde was unable to discuss a patient’s medical records, but she wasn’t rude about it.
I wasn’t upset with my flutist. I was just concerned for her and myself. What was I really doing here? The odds of her knowing some influential tastemaker were slim but maybe I’d run into someone and they’d witness my service – ideally a friend of my wife’s or someone from the school that I was fired from on grossly unjustifiable charges.
On my way out I nearly ran right into my flutist. She’d been looking for me as well, and she had her teeth in a plastic bag filled with milk.
Nobody should have to be at the hospital alone. It’s important to have someone with you even if that person is a total stranger. I am, after all, a useless person, as my writing doesn’t address anything that matters to anyone who matters so I might as well attempt to be of use to the people I encounter (black women and old white women who own brownstones in Park Slope).
We found some seats in the waiting room and sat close to each other. She still had her mouth covered and remained slightly hunched over. She was a short woman, maybe 5 foot 3. The room was, of course, very bright. I was getting hungry and was about to walk away but then I found myself talking.
“Can I get a look at it?” I asked rather greedily.
She seemed a little taken aback by the question and maybe also by my tone.
“You want to see it?”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you how bad it is.”
She owed me and she knew it so she slowly moved her hands away from her mouth. And there she was. She looked like the actor Frances McDormand.
“Hey, give me your number and text me if you need anything. I live right down the street,” I said. She gave me her number and I texted her back immediately, so she’d have mine.
The next day she texted me and told me all about the various procedures she’d undergone and would soon be undergoing. She thanked me and said something about how much she appreciated me.
But I was unmoved. It had only felt satisfying in the moment. I considered asking her if she knew anyone in publishing, but I didn’t because I knew, even if she did, that they wouldn’t be interested in my work. I felt completely hopeless about my chances. This meant it was time to go for a run in the park. Which is what I did.