You prepare yourself with several breaths of the musty garage air. After your fifth round of inhaling and exhaling, you pounce into the white portal on pure intuition. You fly headfirst through the unknown yonder, keeping your eyes closed until you tumble onto the grass of your latest destination. With eyes wide open, you see that you’ve now arrived in a park. Astounded at the transportation, a whole new world stretches before you. In the spring evening, its open acres look picturesque. The wind blows softly through the grass while you stare all around at the mango-orange sunset above a far-off city. Sprawling ways of cement paths separate yards of grass and brush. Every mile, or so, a bench rests on the path where people sit to talk, to stare, and to feed birds. Young strangers stroll the park’s promenades, seemingly unaware of the difference between them. Slowly, you pick yourself up, and begin walking along the path to which you landed nearest.
The fall had hurt your knee, giving a slight limp to your first few steps. You pass a bench and the couple sitting on it stare at you. They find your clothes a little distracting, and your dented leg entirely bizarre. Deciding it might be best to find a new spot to sit, you deviate back onto the grass and cut toward the other side of the park towards a bench facing the edge of the street. Here, a man sits alone, and you take a seat next to him. The two of you watch the occasional passing car in silence. Beyond the street, you see a café with tables on its patio and an iron fence enclosing the tables around the café’s façade. A mass of black men occupy the patio, while through the windows it can clearly be seen that those inside are almost exclusively white.
Casually, you turn to the man next to you, and he does the same. His black face, tired eyes, and a red scarf paint a visage of painfully-earned wisdom. He holds a torn and beaten book with scribbling in it. The man is black like the men across the street, but in a different way. His tone of brown is off too many shades, and his bone structure looks nothing like theirs. You nod at each other, then turn back to the street. Time steams through you both while you each comfortably watch the café. It’s springtime, and while you’re not exactly cold, your clothes don’t suit the season, making you uncomfortable, and so, slightly irritable. The men across the street enjoy their coffee and conversation—a good day for the lot of them. But for you, sitting beside a stranger on a bench in an unknown land, feel alienated. You raise your feet to the bench and hug your knees in an upright fetal position for warmth, still watching the café.
You feel unsure: the unconscious whispering of depression becomes audible once more, and your discomfort grows along with it. It hurts, Icarus, I know. But know yourself in the pain. Accept that the hurt is a part of you. No. This is fleeting. I can handle this. Oh, sure. Forcibly remove me, then discover what little is left inside. You can’t lie to me, you can’t ignore me: I’m not your conscience, but I’m inside. I’m a member of your nature. I am you. I can feel better. I can do more to remove you. Is happiness worth emotional cesarean? Is that the best you can hope for? Memories of your early days in Chicago spark to life: back then, freedom turned into aimlessness, and then to heroin. The tiny pin pricks in your arm: little reminders of spiritual cabin-fever. But forget about that for now: do you really think anything could stop me coming back again?
A young white man walks out of the cafe and speaks to the group of black men sitting outside the café. You don’t know what he’s saying, but he has attracted the attention of the group of men, so it must be important. One of them says something back to the young man, and the group erupts in laughter. Angry now, the young man flails his arms. A strangely-dressed police officer walks by and begins speaking to the young man. They point as they speak; you can hear the sharp tones of an argument, but can’t catch the words that, regardless, you wouldn’t comprehend. The officer points at a single person in the group and says something indiscernible. The group grows quiet, and no one moves. The officer yells again, but again, no response. In a practiced motion, the officer raises his baton at the man he’d singled out and strikes him swiftly in the head. He strikes again and again and again before he stops, though you don’t know whether he stops from simple exhaustion, or from some delayed instinct for restraint. The group of men quietly exit the café patio, carrying their friend along with them. With the storefront empty, the young man takes a seat, and the officer walks away with a tip of his cap. Nothing more happens after that, but the horror keeps you staring at the patio nonetheless.
“Algerians,” your bench neighbor says. He hasn’t looked up from his book, having watched the entire scene with only his peripheral vision—as if what just happened represented only part of the scenery.
“They are Algerians.” He closes his book. “They always do this.”
“Hang around cafés until they are forced to move. The old ones never put up a fight, but I suppose that’s how they get old.” he says. You find his logic disgusting. “Obviously, you’re American, yes?” he asks.
“Then you don’t know about the Algerians.” he replies. “Now, you do.” He returns to his book again, then produces a pen from his pocket. He jots something down, then lets his pen pause above the page. He doesn’t seem to want to speak on the subject anymore: whatever he wrote takes greater precedence.
“I asked, ‘Why?’” Whatever just happened, you need to know about it. The moral ambiguity of the situation, along with everything that preceded your latest dip into the dark, has left you feeling sensitive to ethics. You just need something, anything: any reason that treating someone like that might be appropriate.
“They just don’t like them.”
That’s not the answer you’re looking for. The man seems unfazed as your face turns pink. You can’t blink for fear of tears.
“It’s very sad, I know,” he says. “But that’s just that.”
Despite your best efforts, a tear slowly slides down your cheek. All the time in the world couldn’t make “that’s just that” into an acceptable excuse for what you’ve just witnessed: nothing could brace you to witness something so inhuman.
“So, you don’t care?” you ask. “Not at all?”
He stops and looks around, pausing he stares at the young man across the street.
“It might be the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” he replies coolly. “But it’s not the worst thing that could happen; and that’s why they keep getting hurt.” He returns to his book and continues to write his inscrutable somethings. He still appears unaffected with what you’ve just witnessed, or even with your conversation.
“And you’re okay with that?”
The stranger continues writing. “No, no I’m not,” he says, after he pauses his pen. “I’m just not bothered by it. Something of my pedigree, you see.”
More people exit the café and find a seat in the front. Some don’t even have drinks, but join the company of the young man with skin-tones that enable them this right. The two of you watch as the strangers enjoy their day.
“When I was young,” the old man begins, “I never saw my father or stepfather cry at injustice. Instead, they just got angry or quiet. It took me a long time to understand why they were like this. It took me a long time to understand Negro wisdom.” He turns to you: for the first time, intentionally. He pauses, waiting for a response until he’s sure you’re clear on his message. “Negro wisdom: the knowledge that everything’s are always breaking down, and that people hold the greatest savagery.” He turns back to the café. “It’s not that I’m unhappy. I just know worse. Those boys got to walk away. That’s more than most.”
The café patrons slowly exit the front, and like clockwork, four new black men turn the corner and take their seats. Three happily converse while another enters the café.
“See?” the old man says. “Could’ve been worse; now it’s better.”
The fourth man exits the café holding four tiny cups. His friends cheer, receive their beverages, and pull over a chair for him to join them. At least these men can be happy. Just for a time. You give another sigh: this one with knowing sadness and an accompanying acceptance.
“This city smells like shit,” you say, yawning as you wipe your eyes. “But at least that means the people are eating.”
Your neighbor nods his head. You lean back into the bench, cozy with the knowledge of Negro wisdom, and rest while the stranger writes. Then he stands to leave and you rise to shake his hand, but instead you fall straight through the sidewalk and into a blinding whiteness.
(go to Nineteen.)