A student’s delusions
February 14, 2008
On dark Brooklyn nights, it’s difficult to tell which is scarier: an empty street, or figures walking in your direction. So friends would accompany others to their apartments on foot, often holding them up after an evening of revelry. The difficulty, I learnt one day, was that since this generosity could not be repaid immediately, the friend who returned home alone was quite likely to have interesting times. Interesting because our university was a street away from the kind of neighborhood that snapped at its heels occasionally as a reminder of its presence. It was the start of the projects. People just didn’t go to the projects.
It was two-thirty or thereabouts, and Shivani giggled and sang film songs on her way back. She never sang songs. Not until the attention was unnecessary, apparently. The walk was slow, and I remember feeling somewhat martyred and a little frightened at the endless street before us. Perhaps I would not return, not now, not ever, and legions would be inspired by my example, and walk their happy women friend home, and then walk away honorably themselves. The brownstones’ darkened windows reflected light off parked cars and black shadows eerily, but she was not aware of this world now, and had none of its fears. And so she sang, and did so loudly. By my reckoning, there were several places from where muggers could sneak up. I clenched a fist around a set of keys that peeked out between fingers. It would hurt if they got close.
Brooklyn nights are cold, endless, and threatening. In winter they become longer. Groups are mostly safe, but sometimes muggers are prepared, and do not wait for night. A group of Koreans was accosted one afternoon outside a Citibank. The sole man or woman, walking with hands in pockets and shoulders shrugged, as if to become invisible under a monkey cap and clothes, stands no chance. It could be a coat, or a hat, or something shiny that catches their attention. It could even be the walk.
In Bhavesh’s telling, he was heroic. It had been a rough day. The train ride was long and lousy. When he emerged from the subway, there were a few boys and some men outside on what was otherwise an empty sidewalk. They loomed, as muggers do. They would have seemed taller than they were. Money, he was told. Bhavesh was reluctant. Money would be nice, they insisted, circling around, reaching out to touch him. Friends of Bhavesh have often spoken about what came next. Bhavesh had travelled on Bombay trains and acquired a habit of keeping his wallet on a chain. It was hindi film time. The guy’s a chintu, but he pulls out the chain and whirls it like a propeller, taking out his day on them. He kicks too. They take the first blows well, but the beating goes on and on and on until the circle warps and is finally punctured. He walks home without further incident.
That was once. No other bravery had been reported.
Shivani sings off-tune. She sounds hoarse on low notes, and squeaks when they’re high. When she’s high too. Fifteen minutes after we had started out, we reached her apartment. In the kitchen there were gulab jamuns she had attempted to boil in water the previous day. They sank to the bottom of the pan and burned. Her offer to take some home was refused, and I showed myself out.
Return journeys usually seem shorter, but these night walks back, past the desolate Higgins Hall, where architecture students are up late, seem so much longer. That night I bumped into a group whose gaze I had done my best to avoid. They were slightly younger than me, and twittered on in the language of trouble. A few steps later, stones hit the back of my head. I turned around to look, and one of them asked ”What are you looking at?” In my retelling, I’m heroic. I ran at him and tried to kill him by choking him. His feet, if I remember correctly, were off the ground. I caught the other guy by the ear and twisted it while choking this one. They both broke free and scarpered, and when they turned to look, I was right behind them. One of them shouted, “Oh fuck, run, he’ll kill you.” Deeply satisfying. Will a man kill? Maybe not. Will he be happy aware that others believe he can kill? Yes. I’m a beast, y’all. It was so unexpected, the revelation that I was finally dangerous, that I turned on my heels and walked back.
There were several reasons I imagined taking a life, and they were gorgeous visions, in colour, with proper emotions attached. Even as a bottle flew over my head from behind, I was imagining the body count. The crash was resounding because it crunched into a windshield and set the car alarm off. They had already begun scattering. I ran, too. No cop likes being pulled out late at night. Responsibility could wait.