8 Million Stories: The Visible Man

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It was close to 2:45 in the morning, and I was walking to a friend’s house in Bed-Stuy when I was unexpectedly punched in the mouth. Hard. As soon as I felt the numbing sensation in my face and the warm blood gushing out of my nose and mouth, I felt it was time to get the hell out.

The nurses who examined me that night said that I should have expected something like this to happen walking alone in Bed-Stuy on a Friday night. Maybe that’s true, but I figured walking would be faster than waiting for the G train. They probably thought a “white” guy walking in the neighborhood should know better. But, the thing is, I only became “white” about 15 years ago when I immigrated to this country with my family at the age of 11. Being “white” lumps me into a group so big and diverse that I find the whole thing laughable. I was born in Russia to Jewish parents, but I’ve been mistaken for Italian, Spanish and Israeli more times than I can count. My identity is something I create (and continue to question), not something I’m assigned.

Earlier that Friday evening, I was at a party in Bed-Stuy with a friend whom I’ll call Anna. The crowd consisted of hippies, anarchists and hipsters, and most were just hanging out in the backyard drinking and smoking. Some people dressed as if they were fighting for the Colombian guerillas—but with a fashionable twist.

Sometime after 2 a.m.—and several beers later—Anna and I left the party. When we got to the Bedford-Nostrand G-train stop, I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and we parted ways on the corner of Nostrand and Lafayette. My destination was my friend Lea’s house.

After making a left on Bedford, I noticed a tall black dude walking about 15 steps in front of me in the same direction I was. He looked to be about 2 inches taller than my 6 feet, but I couldn’t get a good look because he suddenly bent down toward his feet, almost like he was doing a stretch. When he started to roll up his right pant leg, I instinctively looked to see if he was concealing a gun or a knife. He wasn’t.

Before I hear any shit about me looking to see if he had a weapon just because he’s black, let me tell you that I would have looked if he were white, green or zebra-striped. A big dude stops in front of you at 3 o’clock in the morning, you look.

Suspecting nothing, I continued to walk.

A few steps later I was hit. It was quick and sudden, as if I was running down the street and hit a tree because I wasn’t paying attention. No thoughts entered my brain, but as soon as I saw Lea’s apartment building (about 40 feet away) I sprinted toward it.

With my right thumb I rang the buzzer, and with my left hand I felt my face to see if anything was broken. Didn’t feel like there was. The face bleeds quickly and easily, so it probably looked worse than it felt—like some kind of blood volcano. I looked back to see if this guy was chasing me, but he was walking quickly in the opposite direction.

Holding my nose shut, I speedily told Lea what happened and went into the bathroom to wash up. A few minutes later, I got a good look at myself in the mirror: There was a deep, open cut on the left side of my swollen lip.

After about 15 minutes of sitting on the couch with an ice bag pressed firmly against my face, I agreed with Lea and her roommate that I needed stitches. The closest place to go was Brooklyn Hospital, which, Lea emphasized, is notoriously slow. In the cab over there, Lea confessed that she had never been to a hospital before. So it wasn’t only an emergency but a fieldtrip.

We arrived in the emergency room at about 3:15 a.m. and went through a pointlessly long series of bullshit bureaucratic formalities. Kafka, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky would have laughed their asses off. An emergency worker asked my name, address and other info, all of which he casually entered into a touch-sensitive computer screen. He misspelled my first name at least twice and, for the most part, appeared to be in no rush. Or, with only one doctor on duty, he didn’t see the point of hurrying. Before getting treated, I was called upon at least four times: to receive an icepack, then to give my information again, then to receive a diagnosis and again to give my information.

Two-and-a-half hours later, by sunrise, I got to see a doctor! After deciding stitches were unnecessary, the doc sealed up the laceration with Dermabond skin glue. Hot glue on an open cut is just as yummy as it sounds. But I was so glad to finally get treated that I didn’t care what they poured in there.

And now I have to share this with you this: A few days before the incident, I started reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In one of the first scenes, when the main character—the Invisible Man—is smoking a joint and listening to a Louis Armstrong record, he has a hallucination in which he talks to an old black woman about freedom. She gets frustrated and complains that her sons “gits to laughing and wants to kill up the white folks.” She concludes, “They’s bitter, that’s what they is.” Then, out of nowhere, one of her sons appears and punches the Invisible Man because, he explains, he made his mother cry asking all those questions. So the son, instead of engaging in a discussion about freedom, turns to violence.

Ellison wrote most of the book in Central Harlem, which is where I live. But unlike Ellison’s hero, I’m used to being the Visible Man, especially when I walk at night. (As you would expect, fewer “white” people are out in Central Harlem late at night than during the day.) I’ll admit it’s impossible to walk the streets here and not think about race, class and history. And I do. But I also think about the energy, architecture, food, parks and people of this neighborhood. And I feel happy—sometimes unbelievably overjoyed—to be a part of it.

And I feel sorry for anyone, of any color, in any neighborhood, whose boredom and bitterness turns him to violence against another.

Dmitry Kiper is a freelance writer who lives in New York City and is currently working (albeit slowly) on a book of short stories and poems. He also blogs on dmitrykiper.wordpress.com.

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