It’s a cold December night and I’m taking my co-worker Tamisha home. She missed her bus and I don’t want her waiting at a bus stop freezing and alone. What can I say? I’m a nice guy.
“You sure you know the way?” I say, guiding my car through the streets of Newark.
“Sorry,” Tamisha says. I always take the bus and don’t drive. My sense of direction is rusty.”
To my the right glass sheathed apartment buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe tower over us, their windows winking like a binary code of light and dark squares. Ahead of us the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart sits on a hill bathed in light. Despite the weather plenty of people are on the streets.
“”There’s my cousin,” my passenger says. “Little jerk. He should be home.”
“How old is he?” I say, looking at a group of kids clustered under a streetlamp.
Something tells me these kids aren’t coming back from the malt shop. But Tamisha is black, I’m white and voicing my opinion would probably be awkward. Instead, Tamisha speaks for me.
“Already up to no good that one,” she says, “Damn shame.”
“Anyplace for kids to go in this town at night?”
“Now?” she says incredulously. “What do you think?” My silence withdraws the question.
“Make a left here,” Tamisha says. “ Steve, this town is crazy. One day some gangbangers had a gun battle in front of my house and bullets went into my baby’s room.”
“Jesus!” I say. “That’s insane!”
“We moved the next day,” she says. “But our new neighborhood isn’t much better.”
A large speed bump appears out of nowhere and I hit the brakes. “Like those?” Tamisha says. “City put them in to slow down carjackers escaping to the highway.”
I’m actually very aware of carjackers. My eyes are constantly checking the rearview mirror and I give the cars ahead of me plenty of room. Rule number one, don’t get boxed in.
“Ever since that white guy got shot in Short Hills people are suddenly interested in carjackers,” Tamisha says. “Happens here all the time.”
“The murder rate is going up I understand.”
“You have no idea. I’m Brick City born and bred but my husband and I want out of here.”
“Looking for a place?”
“We are but we can’t afford a car and take buses to work. So it has to be somewhere close to the hospital.” That will limit her options.
“Where do you live?” Tamisha asks me. I tell her.
“What a beautiful town,” she says. “Lovely houses, safe, good schools. You’re lucky.” For no reason at all I feel guilty.
“Lots of good people in this city,” Tamisha says. “But the bad ones run it. Sucks.”
After ten minutes of driving around I pull up to Tamisha’s apartment. She lives on the second floor of a house. Despite the temperature being in the lows teens, several young men are sitting on her porch.
“You see that shit?” Tamisha says, pointing to them. “They don’t even live here. That’s what I have to put up with.”
“I’ll wait until you get inside,” I say.
“Let me call Ralph.”
Tamisha gets a hold of her husband and a minute later the front door opens. “ Now I can go in,” she says. “Thanks for the lift.”
“See you tomorrow,” I say.
“Be careful going home.”
Tamisha walks past the men on her porch and go inside without saying a word. Then I notice all the guys on the porch are looking at me. Makes sense. I’m a stranger in their neighborhood. If the tables were turned I’d wonder what the hell they were doing in my town. Fair? Of course not.
Ten minutes later I park in front of the cigar shop. “Hey, Steve,” Rich, the proprietor, says. “Enjoying the weather?”
“I just dropped a co-worker off in Newark. It’s even colder there.”
Rich’s eyes narrow. “Where in Newark?” I tell him.
“Promise me you’ll never do that again.”
“Are you fucking stupid? You know how many people get shot in that area? You have a baby on the way, don’t be an asshole.”
“I’ve been driving around Newark for years. I know the score.”
The proprietor flicks an ash of his cigar. “Steve, you are too nice. That’s your greatest weakness. If you got blown away your co-worker would be on T.V. saying, “He was such a nice man!” but you’d be dead. Fucking dead. What good would you be to your wife then?”
“I dated a girl in Harlem for years,” I say. “Nothing ever happened to me there.”
“Newark is not Harlem.”
I spend an hour at the shop and then go home. With no traffic it’s fifteen minutes from my house to Tamisha’s but we might as well be on different planets. As I look at my pregnant wife sleeping Rich’s words ring in my ears. “You’re too nice.”
People have told me the same thing before. While it’s true suburbanites have overblown fears about the “inner city” Newark isn’t a playground. I know a guy whose cousin was carjacked at gunpoint on McCarter Highway. But my personality has gotten me into some interesting situations over the years and most people told me I was crazy afterwards. I guess I have one of those “where angels fear to tread” things going on.
I shrug to myself. Was I irresponsible taking Tamisha home? I have a kid to think about. Should I be a little more cautious? Do I have to change how I’m wired? If I’m honest, I like that part of myself. But will I pay a price for it one day? Thinking about poverty, race, inequality and my own shortcomings, I turn on the boob tube to shut off my buzzing brain.
Thinking about it will only take me to a place I’d rather not go.