Spent some time in Amsterdam. It was a long time ago. It was in another time, and another life. I was out walking the streets alone late one night, well past midnight. Things were pretty deserted. Four men appeared in the near distance and fanned out as they approached me. They were, to say the least, not sending out signals of love and brotherhood. And they were not smiling. I knew I was in trouble. The four men surrounded me. One of them stuck a pistol in my chest and demanded cash, credit cards, passport, everything. He pulled the hammer back with his thumb. I was terrified. The sound alone sent shivers through my soul. I knew I needed to keep my cool. He was shaking, more so even than me. I was relatively calm. I had no other alternative. I had to take control of the situation. I needed to relax a very agitated man with a very big gun, and a very nervous finger. I began talking to him, calmly giving him the respect he was demanding with his gun, but that he had obviously not found, to date, in his larger, and more significant life; the respect he would have been deserving of as a fellow human being. Interjecting some friendliness and humor, I did my best to try and get us through the incident without the predictable consequences we all would have regretted. Especially me. The others were egging him on, but now he was not hearing them. They had encircled me, threatened me, got what they wanted, and then left. When they were comfortably out of sight, my already quietly trembling heart began pounding even louder, my pulse began racing, and a steady stream of warm piss quietly found it’s way down my quivering legs. But I was alive.
I quickly flashed back to a time a couple of years earlier when I had been in Harlem in the middle of the night.
Then, as in Amsterdam, I was alone, and the only one upon whom I could rely. I found myself surrounded, being verbally harassed, and physically roughed up as I tried to make my way. A street gang, angry young men who were, other than myself, the only people out at that particular hour of the night. I was being threatened, and I was scared. Very scared. I really had no avenue of escape, or recourse, in the event of rising aggression. There was no one I could call, no one I could count on, only my seemingly inadequate self. I was very much on my own, so I retreated to a safe and familiar place. Humor. It was my only available means of defense. I began to talk to these guys like they were no big threat at all, like they ought to be afraid of me, like I could relate to them, as if I liked them even. I relaxed, in appearance anyway. I became self-deprecating and sarcastic. And somehow, before long, they began liking me. I actually began liking them as well, in a perverse sort of way. They began to appreciate that I had risen above my fear, that I was bringing some lightness and levity to the situation. Internally I was terrified. A wreck. Ready to soil my pants. But they began laughing. The shoves turned to slaps on the back, and then hugs. We carried on, bull-shitting one another and making fun of our own stereotypes. They even began making fun of each other. They ended up taking me to an all night diner, buying me a chicken dinner, and eventually escorting me safely back to the subway. On the underground back to Manhattan I relived in my mind what exactly had happened out there, how dangerous a situation I had really been in. But I also realized that I was witness to the transcending power of humor, and the miraculous effect, and positive impact, derived from including, into my own world, those who would otherwise threaten me, or seek to do me harm.
My experiences of having been assaulted (and there have been several additional occasions over the course of my life) serve only to remind me of long-existing conditions, but also of the opportunities held forth for redemption. I am not naïve enough as to believe that every man will find transcendence, but that every man can if given the right conditions. Inclusion, trust and opportunity.
It is imperative that, as a people, as a nation, and as a culture, we overcome our lingering fears, our disproportionate exclusion of those we have stereotyped; that we learn to fear only the repercussions of our own dishonest, duplicitous, and divisive actions, that we include the poor in the wealth of our dream, that we invite the wallflower to the dance, and then dance with her, with him; that we provide hearts of fertile soil for trust to take root in, and that we value the garden above even our own ego-connection to it.
It is equally necessary that the outcast, the outlaw, the wounded, the con, the hater, the gang-banger, the grudge-holder and the blamer begin to forgive, and to begin to understand their own complicity in the discord and disorder that has arisen in our world. It has not happened without their participation, and it will not be remedied solely by the good intentions of others.