One of my co-opted life sayings is, “If we all put our problems in a public pile, I will gladly keep my pile.” I was reminded of that truth recently while at a friend’s boozy (unlimited mimosas), board game/UNO playing brunch in celebration of her birthday. I notice that when the opposite sexes of the single variety get together the conversation tends to stray towards sex and relationships, which makes sense given that our lives revolve around the two in some form and fashion. This conversation, however, was slightly different largely because all the participants did not know each other well. We were all associates, having all seen each other at different music industry events and being introduced previously, but not everyone were friends. Thus, we asked those seemingly standard, non invasive questions, in no particular order, like: what do you do for a living? so why are you single? any kids? where did you go for undergrad?
After my round of twenty questions, which I dislike because once people hear that I graduated from two Ivy league schools their view of me often changes. Some become intimated, especially when they learn that I teach English; they become much more self-conscious about speaking correctly, whatever that means. Some are surprised because I “don’t look the type,”confused because I have a six year old son out of wedlock, live in the Bronx, and have tattoos. Their vision of an Ivy League grad is not me. *Shrugs* I’m used to it by now. However, the same way I am slightly irritated by people’s projections and assumptions of who I am or who I’m supposed to be, does not mean that I am excluded from doing the same thing. And I have to remind myself of that fact.
Next, a friend (editor’s note: I use this term loosely because even though I consider him a friend, the following conversation made me question and think about what it means to be a friend) began his obligatory twenty questions. The barrage of questions, from the opposite sex, began with what he does for a living, and he quickly disarmed them with a curt response: “Whatever I want.” Taken aback by the ambiguous retort, they reloaded with a seemingly simpler question, “Why did you go to school?” Once again, he quickly responded, “I didn’t go to college.” Surprised once more, the firing squad asked the next logical question, why, which allowed for him to share a deeply moving personal recount of being homeless for roughly eighteen months after high school graduation. The questions increased as everyone’s interest was elevated. I had my own, but decided to be a silent observer.
The cheers of shots being given for losing Connect Four and the raucous laughter and conversation of a cacophonous sports bar during the Final Four were suddenly muted, and I only heard his voice. Not once did he falter when retelling his story because he knows it better than anyone else. He kept eye contact throughout the course of the questions, even smiling at times when the story took unexpected (Editor’s note: the whole story was unexpected) twists and turns, nothing short of divine intervention at one point. He even shared small things that I never considered, like knowing where to get water or where to use the bathroom without being hassled. As I sat to his left, watching his big brown eyes move around the table, fully engaged with everyone within earshot, I witnessed strength and resiliency firsthand. I wondered, while he shared his story, if I could have made it through those situations with the same high level of integrity. Could I be so open and honest about such a personal history with people that I see at various functions and parties? Could I…In the end, I had no response, but was grateful…not because I thought of my situation to be better or easier than his. But rather, I was grateful for the moment, an opportunity to share in something special. Needless to say, my admiration and respect for him grew a thousand fold.
After he stopped talking, the table was silent for a few moments, when one of the beautiful women said, “And look at y’all,” pointing towards my friend and I, “different paths but in the same place.” Her acute observation reminded me of how little assumptions should matter, and, more importantly, how much more valuable personal stories are.
Reflecting on the moment, I wonder why we don’t share our piles of issues more publicly, more often, probably out of shame or fear of judgment. Those few minutes, while our UNO game was suspended and our attention undivided, I felt so connected…to him and the others who listened. Understanding just this one part of his struggle, makes me cheer so much harder for his success.