What the Neighbors Said

The meals I give Robert are barely helping him sustain himself. I buy him lunch and give him a five or a ten dollar bill for “coffee money” every day. I can spare it. But he comes back every day, lost and hungry. And I see no end to this. It has really been weighting me down.

For a couple of weeks Robert was showing up constantly – tracking me down at coffeeshops, finding me on the street. He was dialing my apartment from the building intercom several times a day. He only knows the numbers to press to reach my phone, he doesn’t know the code to hang up and can’t read it off the instructions. So he’d stay on the line through my voicemail message, past the beep, waiting silently. When the intercom system hung up automatically after a minute, he’d redial immediately.

I was feeling sorry for myself, feeling helpless and hunted. I was ignoring the phone. I couldn’t face him. When I’d leave the apartment I would take a route around the park, in an area where he doesn’t usually wander. I knew he’d find me at some point during the day, sitting in one of my usual coffeeshops or walking somewhere. (I’m as predictable as he is.) When he’d find me, I’d put on my best face and listen to his talk for awhile, then get him some food or money.

Robert showed up again one evening, a few hours after our daily meeting. He dialed my number from the intercom and I let him in and made him some tea. We chatted for a little while, he noticed I was distracted and got ready to go.

I stopped him and tried to explain. “Robert, when you dial my apartment over and over, . . . it’s getting really frustrating.”

He tensed up and asked me, “What do you mean?”

“Sometimes you redial again right after you’ve hung up.”

“Well, I’m not sure if you’re in the shower or if you’re gone. . .”

“It’s just, . . . it’s like you’re always there. Hanging around outside, waiting for me . . . you know?”

He didn’t. He was halfway out the door and I brought him back inside.

“How would you feel if it seemed like someone were always outside your home waiting for you? And how do you think that would look? What would your neighbors think?”

“I wouldn’t care what my neighbors thought! They can do what they want, and you do what you want. I know I look pretty bad, carrying around this bag. I had people staying with me at my old apartment all the time. And sometimes they’d wait outside for a long time and the super would get mad at me.”

And suddenly I was defending my neighbors. “But a lot of the people in this building are my friends.”

“Are they worried about me because I’m black?”

“No, of course not. It could be anyone. If anyone waited around outside as much as you do, I think they’d have a good reason to be concerned.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“Don’t use the intercom so much.”

“Do you want me to call you from a payphone?”

“That would be fine,” I gave up.

He left and I was as frustrated as ever. He didn’t get what I was trying to tell him – I wasn’t even sure myself what I’d been trying to say. Maybe I was just venting. I’d demonized my neighbors, who have never said a word about Robert, projected my own guilt and frustration onto them.

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