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.