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She lowers her copy of 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' and sees I am daunted, lost, nervous, and facing the spiky shrew that is my own pride. She smiles at me. It is the direct look-you-in-the-eyes sort of smile, which, in a single moment says; I see you. I know you.
"Where do you want to go?" she asks.
"Staten Island Ferry," I say as I wipe a sticky piece of hair off my forehead.
It is August in New York. I've never been. I dared myself to take the subway. It is a sweltering armpit crowded with mostly cranky people. She is a picture of youthful grace. She pushes her horn-rimmed glasses up her nose. I wonder if I'm in a movie and she is the younger sibling of Alfre Woodard.
"I'll tell you when to get off," she says just above the subway clatter. She offers me another knowing smile, opens her book and resumes what looks more like meditation than reading in the midst of stifling madness.
When we think of spiritual pilgrimage, images of exotic lands, far-away dripping jungles, red-dirt landscapes, ancient moss-laden cathedral forests, and all variety of shaman and holy guru often come to mind. We see ourselves retreating into hushed caves of emotion and spirit to do our soul searching, only to return to the surface with glittered ethereal gems adorning our heart chakras and third eyes. I am a spiritual seeker. A soul spelunker, never letting an expansive thought go unthunk. But I had no idea New York City would become a Mecca of sorts for my soul. A place to remind me, again and again, I am not separate. We are all part of something vast, knowing, and bodacious.
She closes her book, slides it into her bag and smoothes her vintage skirt.
"This is us," she says. I like the sound of that.
Us, I repeat in my head as I stand beside her, swaying when we come to a stop. Next to her natural elegance, I feel like a musty dishrag in running shoes. The doors slide open. The air outside the train is thicker than wet wool.
"Have fun," she says, then is swiftly ingested by the swarm of people moving in and out.
I do not get the chance to thank her or repay her. She has no idea what she's done. I send a wish out to her angels that someone tell her she is an altogether lovely soul.
Perhaps it is the very antithesis of silence that is sometimes needed to get us out of our own way. Maybe being in a sea of people drowns the inner critic. Perchance, Techni-colour lights as bright as the Sahara sun may blind us to navel-gazing. Perhaps the guilty lure of the habit-forming tourist attractions distracts us with fun instead of melancholy. I mean, who doesn't want to see a wax-figure Johnny Depp while on their way to higher consciousness? In a place like New York where shoulder-to-shoulder is the status quo, there is very little choice than to support one another, see one another.
I eat my giant slice of pizza as I walk up fifth Ave. I am celebrating successful navigation of the New York subway to and fro, and the fact that it is past 11:00 PM and I'm still awake. He is slumped in his wheelchair. Several plastic bags hang off the back. One of his legs is gone. I'm curious, but not rude enough to ask. There is a looming upward slope of sidewalk in front of him. I am no small-fry, but I estimate I am a quarter his size.
"Where do you want to go?" I ask. I hand him my giant slice of pizza, and say, "Hold this and save me a bite."
"Up a couple blocks. Lots of fuckin' slopes in New York City," He mumbles.
"Really?" I say as I put my scrawny legs into it. We chat. He tells me he likes Canadians. I tell him I love New Yorkers. We laugh when I nearly dump him out by hitting a curb. A couple of blocks turns into four or five.
"This is us," I say as I stand beside him and watch the people go by. He hands me back my giant slice, untouched.
"Have fun," he says.
I shake his enormous hand and say, "Thank you. You're an altogether lovely soul. Sure you don't want my slice?"
He looks perplexed, but only for a moment, then smiles the kind of direct look-you-in-the-eyes sort of smile that says; I see you. I know you.
"You earned it," he tells me.
"You're right, there's a lot of fuckin' slopes in New York City," I say.
As I walk away, his chuckle follows me up fifth Ave, transforms my heart chakra into a glistening ruby, and fills my third eye with sapphire tears of light.