There have been a few occasions in the past year where I’ve felt immense pride for having handled ‘a sticky situation’ with an agile mind and common sense. Conversely, I’ve made decisions that have, in retrospect, forced me to ask myself introspective questions like, “Who the hell are you, even? A complete goddamn idiot?” This story falls under the latter category.
I was walking home from a bar on a Friday night. Same median intoxication level, same route, same time as usual – the only thing markedly different about this night was that I’d left my earbuds at home and was conscious of my surroundings rather than playing “Rolling in the Deep” on loop while simultaneously crying and pretending to star in the World’s Most Pathetic music video. (Oh, like you haven’t.)
I was four short blocks away from my house when I spotted three dejected children sitting on a stoop. “Miss? Can you tell us what time it is?” Why, most certainly children, and thank you for calling me “Miss.” How civilized of you. I pull out my phone. “It’s 1:30 a.m.” This announcement is met with groans and shivers. “We have to get home,” the littlest one says to the others. My adult alarm starts to go off. Children… must… get… home. Me. Adult. You. Children. Must help children.
“What’s going on, guys,” I state. I’m not asking a question, really, I’m demanding information. “We gotta get back to Corona, Queens,” the girl tells me. She’s the oldest. “We’re stuck here,” another one chimes in. “You guys shouldn’t be out this late,” I scold. It’s true. Even I shouldn’t have been out that late, but there we all were. “I know you don’t know me,” I smile, showing them they can trust me, “but if you take a walk with me to Broadway, I’ll put you in a cab.”
The kids look taken aback. “You’d pay for our cab?” one asks. “Um… yeah? You seriously should not be out right now. What are you even doing here?” The two boys look at the girl like she’s to blame, so I turn my attention her way. “We came to hang out. We just need to call our mom, we don’t know our address.” This girl is way too old to not know her own address, so I press her. “We’re foster kids; we just moved to Corona three days ago.” Ah, of course. Foster kids. I can dig it. I’ve spent months of my life watching Law & Order: SVU. I know the score. “Give me your mom’s phone number, I’ll call her.”
I dial the 718 number the girl offers me and hear a generic voicemail message after a few rings. “She’s not picking up,” I announce. The kids sigh heavily in unison. “It’s okay,” the girl says, “we’ll just sleep at that kid’s house.” She points to a boy on a bike, about ten feet away. “I met him online.”
Like hell you will, I think. Are these kids kidding me right now? Did they buy a book called, What to Say to Alarm Urban-Dwelling Twenty-Somethings? (The answer is no; they actually wrote that book. They’re quite industrious, these kids.)
It’s about 2:00 a.m. now. “Seriously, it’s fine. We can stay at his house,” the girl tells me with the brand of 13-year-old flippancy that keeps parents up at night. “You can go talk to him, but he probably won’t say anything back,” the littlest one says. “Yeah, he doesn’t speak!” says the older boy. I’m starting to feel desperate to get something accomplished, so I take a crack at the boy on the bike. “Are these kids legit? Like, what is going on?” I ask him. He’s a few years older than them. I wait, and true to what I’d been told, he doesn’t speak. In fact, he just vacantly stares over my shoulder and ignores the whole lot of us. The kids speak at him animatedly in Spanish, but to no avail. My brain is doing the equivalent of a shoulder shrug.
The kid on the bike rides away from us, and I express my exasperation in maybe not the most mature way. “What the fuck, you guys?” The kids look at me with faces full of horror and disappointment. “Why you gotta curse?” one says. “Man yeah, don’t curse like that…” I’m bewildered by the moral upswing the night has taken, and now more than ever, I resent getting involved. “Can we just try to call our mom again?” I call the number. Nothing. “Can I text her?” The littlest one pleads. “Yeah. Whatever.” I hand him my phone. He is standing beneath my right armpit, Underneath My Wing, so to speak. I watch him text, “Mom where r u.” I think about how messed up it would be if this kid ran off with my—hey wait a minute, are you guys seriously running away right now? After stealing 45 minutes of my life, you’re stealing my phone, too? Well, DAMN.
In Chicago, they call it “Apple picking.”
A group of men I hadn’t been privy to call out to me from the shadows. “Hey, what just happened?” one yells. “Those kids stole my fucking phone!” Oh, I’m cursing now, you little shitheads. YOU MORAL CHAMPIONS. “Call the police,” one suggests. “I don’t have a phone!” I laugh. Why am I laughing? Wait no, someone give me a phone please? Goddammit.
The kid on the bike returns to my side. “Those kids live right there,” he points. “They’re always causing trouble, that’s why I didn’t say anything. Here, use my phone,” he offers. “Thanks. Don’t worry, I won’t steal it.” The police station is two blocks from the crime scene, so they come to my rescue rather quickly. Must’ve been a slow night. After answering some preliminary questions, we see the kids dart into their house. The police instruct me to get into one of their cars, and we roll deep to the apartment building.
“Some kids stole a phone, they just ran inside,” I hear the police explain to the group of men positioned on the stoop. “Oh, hell no. I’m their uncle,” one says, “I’m gonna kick their asses. Come,” he tells the police. They disappear inside. I continue to peer out of the blackened car window, waiting for the gypsy grifters to be brought to justice.
Once the kids have been apprehended and secured in another car, we all take a ride to the police station. “You have to be careful, in a neighborhood like this,” the cop tells me through his rearview mirror. A neighborhood like this. The implications of that statement were not lost on me. You mean, a neighborhood that mirrors the one I grew up in? Which happens to be 15 minutes away from here? Please don’t add insult to injury. I feel foolish enough already.
He continues. “If you thought those kids were in trouble, you should’ve called us.” I couldn’t argue that. I can blame my lapse in judgment on my buzz, I can blame it on the fact that I’ve been that stranded, way-too-young, 2 a.m. kid before, I can even blame it on the idea that I’m a supposed adult (albeit, a sometimes idealistic, stupid one). That all played a factor — but the real problem was, in a moment of vulnerability, I needed to be needed.
When we get to the police station, I sit at a police desk, the kids sit in an open detainment area, and seven or eight family members sit in a waiting room telling every cop who walks by, “She’s only 13!” or, “He’s only 9!” He’s also old enough to steal someone’s phone, I think. A young cop sits at the desk next to me, fondling a yellow envelope that holds at least a couple eight balls of coke in it. He makes casual conversation with me, promising that I’ll be home soon. It’s 2:45 a.m.
The young cop takes the cocaine somewhere. Left alone with my thoughts, the night’s events start to wear on me. I know that, despite the role I played in the situation, no has the right to take the property I paid for and run away with it. I didn’t feel guilty for calling the cops and making an effort to retrieve my phone. But admittedly, I did feel ashamed for being so earnestly trusting. Optimism-bordering-on-stupidity has never been a good look on me, and yet earlier that night I still found myself thinking, “Well, even if these kids did plan to rob me, I’ve shown them I genuinely care for their well-being. How could you rob someone who offered to pay for a cab to Corona?” Quite easily, I’d found. Past experiences have taught me, in more damaging ways, that being ‘good’ is not necessarily rewarded and that bad people will continue to do bad things despite my ‘goodness.’ And still, I’d encouraged what was, in hindsight, a golden opportunity to exploit that optimism.
I thought about how even children are incapable of appreciating someone who cares for them, how these kids would go home with the parents they claimed they didn’t have while I’d go home alone, like I’d gone home alone every night for the better part of the year. I thought about how, more than wanting my phone back, I wanted someone to call when all was said and done. Someone to confirm that, yes, I’d messed up, but that it was okay.
There’s a scene in Edward Scissorhands where the Boggs family tries to teach Edward (Johnny Depp) about ethics. When asked what he would do if he found a suitcase full of cash, he responds that he’d give the money to his loved ones. The father tells Edward this is the wrong answer, but Kim (Winona Ryder) spins it, “Well, think about it, you guys, I mean, that’s the nicer thing to do. That’s what I would do.” I needed to hear someone say that, even if it weren’t true.
I came to a lonely realization while sitting in the station: I’d just spent hours tied up in this drama and no one had any idea. The fact that I never made it home was of no concern to anyone. Maybe if it were, I wouldn’t have had to find validation in trying to ‘fix’ some downtrodden kids. Maybe I would’ve called the police and let them handle it. It was 4:15 a.m. when I placed my head on a cop’s desk and started to cry a little.
The young cop emerged and told me he’d make sure I got home ASAP. Another cop came out and gave me my phone. “I just need your contact information,” he said. I didn’t ask why I sat in the police station for almost three hours to give him my contact information; I didn’t care anymore. I signed a statement they took earlier and was shown the door. I walked home alone. The sun was coming up.
The next day, 9/10/11, I lay on the couch watching and rewatching thousands of people lose something far more important than a cell phone and felt grateful for both my misfortune and my loneliness, grateful for the ability to feel anything at all.