When I was 15, I applied to be a junior counselor at a summer camp in upstate NY for “underprivileged” children. Part of the application process involved spending time during the winter and spring volunteering at the Settlement House which sponsored the camp.
I took the train into Manhattan, then walked through unfamiliar neighborhoods strewn with garbage, smells of decay, broken stoops, dirty children playing in the streets while darting among cars that sped by. I felt as if I’d entered a foreign country. My parents had recently bought a modest three-bedroom, one-bathroom, two-story house in a quiet neighborhood of well-kept houses. There was no comparison.
I’d been working at the mental hospital for about a week when I was told my supervisor wanted to see me. Immediately. Wondering what I’d done wrong, worrying that I’d be fired and have to try to find another summer job, I walked into her office ready to hear bad news.
Instead of being fired or disciplined, she said she’d heard I was a storyteller and that the psychiatrist in charge of the small group of hospitalized children wanted me to tell them stories. I would be given time off from my work with the adult women. She told me when and where to go. I was not asked if I wanted to do this.
My boyfriend and I were walking down a dark street toward an underpass in a not great section of London. By myself, I wouldn’t have gone, but he was 6’3” and well built. I figured no one would bother us. As we entered the underpass, I saw a big, heavy-set man, dressed in filthy clothes, his hair a matted tangle, drinking from a large liquor bottle. In between sips he yelled and cursed. Suddenly he aimed his bottle at the heads of a young couple who had entered the underpass from the other direction. They ran, shouting for the police.
The man whirled around and came toward us, lurching and screaming. My boyfriend shrugged off my hand, yelling at him to calm down, fists out, ready to stop him. Terrified, I pleaded, “Let’s go. He’s crazy.”
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.