By the end of a very long day I had become intimate with that hospital elevator, including the pile of vomit in the far corner. So when I noticed the only other passenger heading right toward it, my voice had a degree of urgency and world-weary hardness: "Watch your step!" I barked—King of the pile.
I instantly realized how threatening that must have sounded to him. As we stood there, alone in the late night elevator, my words hanging, I confess to savoring the implicit power of the threat, the white man calling out the Black man. Then, as quickly as I could make the words come out, I added, "I mean, literally watch your step, heh, heh," pointing at the offending corner.
He reacted politely. I was unnerved. When the elevator came to a merciful stop, I left him in a cloud of small talk.
I spied a vacant seat on the subway going home, residual elevator guilt fresh in my mind. As I began to sit down, a strong black hand slapped at my back, pushing me up off the seat.
I didn't struggle, but I did, in that instant, realize how much I wanted that seat. Unaccustomed as I was, my mind went into auto-fight mode; I actually flashed on tabloid headlines. This was followed immediately by my more natural, nothing-is-worth-your-life mode. I didn't really care about the seat, but I felt abused, usurped.
Once upright, I looked at my attacker (What could he be thinking, to do this in public? Was this related to my innocent evil in the elevator?)
He gave a world-weary gesture in the direction of the small puddle of water on the seat—King of the puddle.
Wild smiles of relief played lacrosse on my face. I left him in a hailstorm of small talk.
I soon noticed a man combing his hair—nothing out of the ordinary nowadays—though I cling to the absurd notion that male grooming is best done in private. In any case, I found his aggressive preening both effeminate and threateningly masculine.
He was going non-stop, now, and only myself and one other person seemed at all interested. I noticed the practiced, wary way she sized him up; Perhaps she felt responsible for him in some way; the stable Black woman having to put up with the crazed Black man.
Finally, she and I made eye contact and exchanged simultaneous eyebrow-raising as though we were in high school together, making fun of the class clown.
But maybe she wasn't ashamed of him. He hadn't done anything except violate my idiotic sense of male decorum. Maybe she was humoring me, putting me off. Maybe she thought I was crazy for staring at him!
Was she being friendly or hostile? I had no idea what she was thinking. Why had I assumed I did?
I looked away from her and never once looked back.
"Watch your step!" I said to myself, as I put my head down and hurried out of the tunnel.