Yesterday, 9 a.m.: I was sitting alongside people you’d expect in the waiting room of a Harlem mental hospital. Nurses entered sporadically to bark names at clipboards. Behind a pane of bulletproof glass, the receptionist’s head was rocking in a distrait ricochet after yet another, “No, just take a seat.” A box-TV blathered about map tallies and early turnouts, but the screen, to us, was hardly as intriguing as the window. Across Amsterdam, a crowd was sluicing into the front doors of PS 153. The line stretched and wound around the corner of 146th Street. Among us, some comments were exchanged. Some words of hope, a few of fear. But for the most part, we just sat stooped in silence, waiting for our names, watching our neighbors.
A Dominican nurse in Uggs and yoga pants swiveled through the door, the one that leads to the fluorescent entrails of the Upper Manhattan Mental Health Center.
Our chins twisted for Yakolo.
“Yakolo?” he said, agitated. “Yakolo Álvaro Guanzón?”
“Oh.” I waved apologetically. “I’m Jakob. With a b, though.”
The nurse squinted at the clipboard. He blushed. “This b look a like a l-o.”
He giggled, we chuckled, and across Amsterdam more of our neighbors joined the line. The face beside me knotted into a smile. She had fingernails like Fritos and with them she squeezed my knee.
“You have a wonderful day, Yakolo.”
I gave her hand a squeeze, as if to tell her I’d try.
After my session, I crossed the street to join my neighbors, the line by then reaching well past the post office. For two hours, neighbors hugged and chatted and laughed off the unthinkable. We took turns wriggling into the patches of November sun before the line scooted us back into the shade. In the school’s halls hung children’s artwork. Holding hands were multicolored stick figures of hues hardly mimetic but certainly as varied as those of us waiting to vote. Crayoned phrases in Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and Hebrew topped the drawings, and while I couldn’t understand most, it warmed me to imagine that each one relayed a message of kindness. How nice it would have been to hear those words spoken to me. Better yet, to say them to my neighbors.
I cast my vote and closed my eyes and when I opened them this morning it was raining and it won’t stop.
I’ve spent all day walking. Drizzle swills, tires hiss, the city is on mute. No dust to settle. No smoldering rubble through which to forage. No flags at half-mast, although most chins are downturned. When eyes do meet, we exchange shrugs like strangers at a funeral. Are there words to comfort my neighbors, here and across this country, who have so little and ask for even less? They might look or love or think or speak or pray in different ways, but all of them belong. All of them are beautiful. All of them, over the course of this campaign, have at some point been insulted or threatened or demonized in one way or another by their—as of this morning—president-elect.
The sky looms gray over Harlem today as it does these next four years. There are no words of solace, and I can’t stop crying.
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