As my teenaged bandit led me down 7th Street to an ATM, in order to swindle another 20 bucks from me under the guise that he would help me retrieve my phone, I was hysterical.
“Stop crying,” he whisper-yelled through clenched teeth. “Stop crying.”
And it wasn’t so much the object itself, but the fact that I had no means of contacting anyone in a city 8,000 miles away from home, the feeling of being so vulnerable that I could have a stranger just rip a personal belonging right from my hands, and the thought that I could coexist on this planet with a person who would want to do that to another human being–for fun!–that overwhelmed me.
The girl had ripped the phone from my hand and darted across traffic, laughing, clearly satisfied with herself and her feat. Her friends ran in front of me, also laughing. Most likely, this was a reflex to the adrenaline rush of getting away with doing something taboo, but all I could hear was their smug gratification crackling into the night air, finding my misfortune hilarious.
And, when he saw that he could capitalize further on my naivety, one of the friends agreed to help me recover my phone. I fantasized that I was laying out my case for him in a convincing manner. The phone wasn’t worth anything–the screen was cracked! I’d had a record-breaking bad day already. Had he even seen Empire Strikes Back? Otherwise he wasn’t even going to appreciate the tacky phone case depicting Han Solo frozen in carbonite on the back. Kids these days.
“But,” I whimpered, “I’m a person. I’m a person.”
It wouldn’t be the last time I would issue that plea to someone that weekend.
As about 20 DC metro police officers encircled me outside of Penn Social–presumably this was the de facto response to a call about a pretty white girl crying on the street–I imagined whether, maybe ten years from now, the boy would remember taking the extra $20 from the lady he had robbed outside the Gallery Place metro station, and feel remorse.
Probably not. People have a way of justifying these things to themselves. “Man, she was so stupid,” he will probably say. If he even remembers. And he won’t be wrong.
It reminded me of afternoons of exasperation in my eighth grade science class. For a year after teaching in the North side of Fort Worth, I froze when I heard children’s laughter in the aisles of convenience stores. I remembered trying to bribe my students with donuts to sit still and be quiet for one hour while district representatives evaluated my lesson. I remember the glistening of their eyes when the class inevitably devolved into pandemonium, the looks of sheer joy on their faces as mine crumpled into despair (I’ve never been good, or even passable, at hiding my emotions), and thinking, “Why does it have to be me against them? Why can’t they see that I’m a person, too? Ten years from now, will they remember this and feel remorse?”
But people explain away and people justify. “We were just kids,” they will say. If they even remember. And they won’t be wrong.
I tried to think of times I had been cruel, when I had caused people unnecessary pain. It was difficult. In my narration of my life story, I am the perennial martyr, sometimes loud and vulgar and naive, but never sadistic and loyal to a fault. If you would believe My Story of My Life, my only flaw is being too open and empathetic and desperate to assign the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I came up with one or two instances. “But that’s not the same,” I assured myself.
I left a voicemail with a friend whom I had traveled halfway across the globe to visit, who had seemingly dropped off the face of the earth upon my arrival on US soil, with no explanation.
“I’m a person, I’m a person,” I pleaded. But by the time you have to say it, by the time you have to argue your humanity, you’re already dehumanized.
And people have a way of justifying these things to themselves.