MotM Essay | Random Acts of Kindness

The tower at Columbus Circle. New York City, June 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

The tower at Columbus Circle. New York City, June 2017. © Pamela Kerpius


25 July 2017

MotM Essay
Random Acts of Kindness

“Everyone’s existence is tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.”  –Pope Francis, June 15, 2017

I was staring out the window from the twentieth floor of a glass skyscraper on the west side of Manhattan. I was there for work, a copywriting job I’d picked up since my return to the city from Arizona and Italy in late May. 

Further afield, a friend from a small mountain town in the north of Italy sends me pictures of the scenery of her commute to Milan, where she reports for editorial work a women’s magazine everyday. It’s one way we keep in touch. There’s not always time to talk or even text, so a few images from our day sent through the WhatsApp ones and zeros has been a reliable means to keep a friendship alive from afar. 

So I sent her one of the view from this skyscraper. Our friendship is still in that stage of mutual fascination, I think: we’re each from a place that the other wants to be from, or at least know a lot more about. She’s informed much of what I know about Italian life, culture and politics; the inverse must be so for her too. I remember one late-night walk through the back streets of Rome in April describing the phenomenon of American optimism to her (“It’s in my bones,” I said.) But I wonder which American thing she might say has been the most definitive for her from the inter-cultural debriefs we’ve had. 

As short-hand, she started calling that sky-high prism of glass I was looking through la torre, the tower, when she’d ask how my job was going. The view from there gives everyone a bit of enchantment, as the green sprawl of Central Park sets the backdrop for the soaring skyscrapers around it. Wally sent me a photo of the garden he has been tending near his housing; he’s been looking after patches of tomato, onion and lettuces on a volunteer basis. I returned a photo of what was unique to my view here in New York, the shot from la torre again, and he said he’d never laid eyes on anything like it.

But I was staring out of that window for reasons apart from the general view, although that is always striking too. It was the building directly across the street, in fact, a high-rise condominium complex that had been on the receiving end of my gaze for almost decades. Somewhere around 2002 I came through the neighborhood to a club to watch a friend’s band perform. I was in town from Philadelphia, where I lived at the time. On the stomp through the streets before my friends and I found the bar, that building stole my attention. Its tall silver streak imposed itself on the sky. I might have stopped dead in my tracks, but being with friends and not eager to reveal myself as an impressionable, plate-eyed tourist I kept moving, but kept looking back too: I remember it was then that this structure came to embody, for me, the meaning of success.

It was an almost impossible height to rise to. All of those little lives squared away inside so neatly. Such tight organization and vision seemed to define what it meant to be alive inside there. It wasn’t just about the style of the structure itself, nor how impeccably designed its interiors would surely be if only I could see them; it was an entire lifestyle built for the achievement of this place. On the gray facade of the building I overlaid the biting economic ability and professional dexterity of its inhabitants that existed up there in the abstract. I didn’t know them. Who could be real and have this? This exact fixation was maybe triggered by a latent childhood psyche formed on a feast of images of 1980s upward mobility. That all ruthlessly conditioned me to behold the strive for status, Alex P. Keaton and all that. I wonder if it will ever be completely cleansed from my bloodstream, but whatever the trigger, the effect was the same, that stunning sense of awe.

That’s really what mattered, the awe, the mystery imposed by something you don’t understand first-hand. Because it was within that mystery that success found meaning: the ability to attract and sustain fascination. It didn’t matter whose, just someone’s, a stranger’s actually, since that’s who we are specifically as residents and even transients of this city. That was the reward you got for acquiring this class of residence; not class at all necessarily, just the ability to fascinate people anonymously.

The valley at street level, Columbus Circle. New York City, June 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

The valley at street level, Columbus Circle. New York City, June 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

. . . 

I was sitting in Columbus Circle swallowing up the sunshine. It was a month ago in mid-June after I left work for the day, and down below on the street level valley between the mountain range of skyscrapers, I was confronting this place as a convergence point. Of course, Columbus Circle is exactly that in its most functional sense, the place where four of the city’s main streets connect to coordinate your transfer to the next one across Manhattan. It’s also one of the city’s primary points of reference you use to orient yourself in space. And from that, my focus moved in a wider scan across this mini panorama, to the big and small histories it held.

2 Columbus Circle, for example, had been there since the sixties, and had its proponents slating it to be landmarked. It was six years after I moved to the city that plans stopped short of that, when the original facade of the building was stripped away for the glass one you see today. It’s designed and managed by the Museum of Design and Arts, who completed the renovation in 2008, apparently to much preservationists’ dismay.

The Time Warner Center on the west side of the circle reached completion two months after I moved to the city in August of 2003. So even those two mammoth mirrors camouflaging themselves with the sky up there weren’t really alive in the most nascent moments of my being in the city. I remember watching an afternoon newscast with my roommate in our East Village apartment after the center’s opening. That apartment, by the way, was an excuse for a two-bedroom abode that boasted a party fridge as one of its major kitchen appliances, had no windows in the second room, and cost a cool $1,795 a month. This is what New Yorkers have collectively tricked themselves to call a bargain now, so you can think of how expensive it was for us then. We sat on her college futon looking at the tiny 13-inch TV that reported fallen window tiles from the Time Warner Center’s upper facade: the first price of the heights you can rise to, the potential to topple.

A look out my front window on St. Marks Place in the East Village showed an unending parade of shoes pattering by on the stained sidewalk. My roommate, Camille, and I saw celebrities from our fire escape that doubled not infrequently as a porch. Pierce Brosnan shot a movie scene down the street once, and Julianne Moore too. I remember I saw the writer and theater director Peter Sellars skip by Cafe Mogador from that window; a block over Jude Law shot something on a late summer night in 2003 and I swore he made eye contact with me when I walked by; and nearby that, Will Smith shot something else, maybe some iteration of Men In Black. There was a sense of possibility in the view, even if it overwhelmed you, even if you were always looking at all those shoes forever tramping by without a break. I still always think of whoever that man was with the cart filled with tin cans at daybreak in the middle of St. Marks when I hear “Turn Around (Total Eclipse of the Heart),” because he just ached as he belted the lyrics to himself, to us, at the top of his lungs, TURN AROUND, BRIGHT EYES

By 2006 when the new Hearst Tower opened for business at 8th Avenue and 57th Street, just outside the swirl of Columbus Circle, I had years earlier already moved to the then-new version of the East Village, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was at least baby steps away from the Manhattan rent payment that robbed me less of the contents of my checking account than it did of my dignity for allowing the former. Brooklyn was softer––well, anyway, softer in the sense that neighbors might sit on their stoop and say hi to you; not as much for the spray painted numbers above the door marking your building’s address, nor the carpenter roaches that skittered around your kitchen sink, but those just mostly in the month of August.

I visited the Hearst Tower for the first time in 2009 for a board meeting on behalf of a non-profit company in the beauty industry that I truly had no business being a part of. It is why, in retrospect, it was a surprise to no one that I was so easily laid-off after a nine-month tenure as that company’s staff copywriter. I remember snaking out of their office on East 40th Street fifteen minutes early on Fridays to make an adult gymnastics class at Chelsea Piers, which was across town at the last western edge of the island. I pulled a hamstring soon thereafter kicking up into a handstand, so none of it was really meant to be. But before I left that job, my unnecessary attendance at its annual board meeting put me in the space of this Hearst Tower on one of its top floors breakfasting on pastries that few of its magazine empire would dare touch for reasons of diet and decorum. The carpeted room where I stood in a patched together business ensemble that would bring my mother shame had so much sound-proofed square footage that my memory of how it looked is actually more like how it feels to peel off your glasses and stretch your eyes after staring at a computer screen for too long. The luxury in that gaze was of its distance which enabled a really long exhale. 

I doubt exhaling was anything the guy across the street from 3 Columbus Circle was able to do circa 2012. The former General Motors Corporation headquarters at 3 Columbus Circle was once a solid pile of brown bricks. It still is, it’s just that it was given a facelift in 2012, when a sleeve of silvery glass was secured over it. I know this building, because three years ago I worked there at an ad agency as a freelance copywriter. The resource manager who hired me led me on a tour and said the owner of the building across the way was so disgusted with the new design that he tried to buy the building, just so he destroy it. Or, so the legend goes. The deal, if it was true, obviously never went through, and I wonder if that man ever caught his breath. 

In the lobby next to the elevator banks at 3 Columbus Circle there is a barely-visible seam, a door frame that blends in with a bronze wall that embeds it. You can roll your bike through that doorway and into the succeeding room for storage if you commute by those means; but the main reason people go there is to find the FedEx drop box, which sits flush with the original stone walls that are revealed there, and as far as I know, only there. 

Being in that room gave you a space to be still. Sound stopped. Air didn’t circulate the same way, it always hung in contrast to whatever the prevailing thermostat read on the other side of that secret door. It had the temperature of another time, really; maybe because you would so infrequently meet anyone in there whose presence would bring you up to the present. It was just you, a dusty floor, a few florescent lights, and these original slabs of marble with their veins of color asleep inside them.


. . . 


Sometimes I get desperate messages from migrants. There’s change they have to face and they are scared. The cries for help often come as they reach their new camp, the housing Italy provides to them in Sicily or on the mainland after they’ve been transferred from Lampedusa’s processing point. Lampedusa can be thought of as a sigh of relief: they made it, they survived the sea, their feet are on the ground now to prove it. It’s like a mirage, I think. 

After the transfer, things change. Optimism wavers. The facilities they stay in might not be so nice. The management of their building might try to intimidate them. Their camp might be fenced in by barbed wire. The food they eat might be the same plate of pasta every day for dinner. By now, they miss their native dishes and are eager to recreate them with whatever ingredients the state-paid housing managers might provide; the request to do that though is often denied without any given reason, or at least not as the information is handed down to me. 

At one housing camp outside of central Rome, young Nigerian prostitutes line the streets. That’s the first bit of ambiance they get as they leave the grounds. From the inside of that nearby camp, some migrants have sent me pictures of bed bugs on the walls of their rooms. They sleep on the floor so they don’t get bitten up as much. The same ones say hot water isn’t always available. Mostly, they complain, there is nothing to do.

“I’m just here,” Bartholo (25, Cameroon; story forthcoming) always tells me on the phone or by text message when I ask how he’s doing. He is in housing outside of Naples. That has been his refrain for months, “I’m just here”: a life described in standstill. Alive, but not living. He and his housemates, which number about 45, petitioned the house managers to allocate the money they were spending on pasta to go toward ingredients they could use to make the African meals they missed so badly; they were told no. It seems like these little victories, these tiny changes, if they were successful, have the potential to make them feel, finally, at home. Even if it’s just for an hour. 

When they are very upset, I reassure them that they are not alone and remind them that they’ve been through a trauma and must acknowledge how big it is; and I tell them that change comes slowly. But how can you imagine anything will be different when you think you’ve been forgotten about? I do my best to communicate that they are not.

Others muster up confidence that must come as a way to triumph circumstances that leave their inspiration levels at none. One day over WhatsApp I asked Yvan (14, Ivory Coast) how he was doing: “I’m still in Italy,” he said, “difficult the life here. So I will leave soon in Germany to follow my career of football. And you?” 

That is the discourse of psychological self-preservation. For weeks Yvan would write message after message, “Hello.” And then another, and another, day after day, even as I would say hi back and ask how he was, “Hello,” he would inevitably blink back. It wasn’t until I began writing to him in Italian that I realized he could say more in that language, as it’s the next best alternative to his native French, and one he’s starting to learn there on the ground. So it took persistence on both of our parts to find a way to talk. He gave me that initial note in English, likely from the help of Google Translate or something like it, but it wasn’t anything he could sustain. A hello he could, that much he knew; but then, a hello wouldn’t be enough to sustain me. So we sent our texts back and forth until we found, finally, that common ground: Italy’s.


. . . 


Matteo Renzi left his post as Prime Minister in December after his failed referendum vote, and six months later in the June 11, 2017 regional elections across Italy, Lampedusa’s long-time mayor (and Renzi ally) Guisy Nicolini lost her bit for reelection. Change can come swiftly, I guess, too––at least symbolically. That day made me think about the head-rush of victory, the life-span of a political party, and the time it takes to institute thoughtful, creative change, because what seems to be pouring in now to replace the old are leaders less sympathetic to the migrant plight. 

The Movimento Cinque Stelle (5-Star Movement, M5S), led by comedian Beppo Grillo, for example, has advocated closed-door policies for Italy. He, as far as I can understand it, is more of a pot-stirrer than a visionary, although he has his allies, including the Rome mayor, Virginia Raggi, who has expressed urgency to shut out migrants from her city’s streets and subways. Of course, she’s faltering too (while Roma fa schifo thrives), after just over a year in office, so that head-rush seems to have become a bit of a brain-freeze. 

Really, I hope that the leadership changes instituted on the island and in Italy as a whole haven’t been made in haste in the face of this migrant crisis, because the crisis is surging, and nowhere near its end. Nor do I hope the election of Salvatore Martello as the new mayor of Lampedusa has happened with the aspiration of a return to normalcy, with a longing for the good ol’ days (Martello previously held office, from 1993 to 2002). How long will it take for the high to wear off when thousands more outsiders will continue to make landing? 

I’m still understanding the finer points of Italian politics, and sometimes even the broader ones, so this is by no means a denunciation of Martello nor an endorsement of Nicolini; this is merely a questioning of motivation.

Nicolini has been the one who has seen Lampedusans through the most gruesome moments of the crisis, when bodies from capsized boats were still washing up in the island’s ports and on its beaches. The people of Lampedusa wanted change though. From the few I’ve spoken to, they think, now, after years of responding to outsiders, that they have been the ones forgotten about. Was there enough time for Nicolini’s initiatives to take shape? The crisis itself shape shifts every day. Italy’s role in this is not only vital but mandatory. In the U.S. we speak with great folly about building walls. There is no wall to install in the sea though, and Italy won’t be able to alter its own geography and become a nation without waterfronts; the country itself cannot migrant inland.


. . . 


Back here, things are moving slower. Maybe on account of summer, maybe on account of still being so far away and trying to join a life together across time zones. I went to my first yoga class after ten weeks away from it, and as I squished my tail into a downward dog the instructor hummed something about doing “whatever feels luscious to you.” Things sound foreign when you haven’t heard them in awhile.

On the board outside of the studio, there was an announcement for a rooftop yoga class, which was to be held at a hotel in “NoMad.” That’s code for the rebranding of a neighborhood that has always been known to locals and the whole world alike as simply “the Madison Square Park area,” including the north-of in this case. Somehow this vague, oatmealy title sustained us. Well, it has a new wrapper now, and it says New Look, Same Great Taste. We have officially been oriented in a space we already know.


The other building off Columbus Circle that I haven’t yet mentioned is a product of the real estate developer and current President of the United States called Trump International Hotel and Tower. Apparently years ago that man bid for the work that would become the Time Warner Center, and lost. Trump International though, sits at the lauded 1 Central Park West address, in the direct field of vision of the Time Warner Center (TWC). So when TWC finally opened, Trump International’s owner wanted to meet his new neighbors. So he wrote them a note and placed it in the window:

“Your views aren’t so great, are they? We have the real Central Park views and address.” 

So sometimes the signs of what life could really be like on the inside of those sleek towers that stoke our awe are actually very visible, and sometimes they’re vindictive. I don’t believe everyone up there behaves like that. Though, as I was staring at that condo complex from the twentieth floor of la torre, the question now was not about what it meant to acquire a space like this, but why you would want to. Standing to it closer than I had ever been, I noticed a rainbow oxidation that the sun had stained over its silvery surface. I’ve still never been inside of that building, but I don’t need to. The jig is up. 

I like it it closer to the ground. The problems I encounter instead in my Brooklyn neighborhood are no secret, and well documented. Literally, they are documented in the Herculean log of 311 complaints I’ve filed with the city, mostly over noise. I was telling a friend how big that figure had grown the other day as we commiserated about the tribulations of noise pollution in New York, but the number is so high, I'd be ashamed to share it here.

There was a mass of men congregated on the stoop across the street, where their conversations are audible in my apartment, and where, apparently, mine are audible to them too. One of them burped, and I yelled from my kitchen table a few feet from the window, with no intent of him ever hearing me, “You’re gross!” 

“I’m gross,” he mocked to his friends and then burped again louder. I did not yell back. 

On June 11, the same day Guisy Nicolini was being voted out of office, I overheard another, more palatable conversation. “I ate every fry,” a woman told her friend on the phone on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum. “They’re like the perfect crunchy, right? Shit!” 

She was making a verbal list of foods, a review of everything she and her friend loved to eat. “No more fast-food” though, “except Shake Shack.” On the walk there, it was so hot that a handful of Hershey’s Kisses were smashed on the sidewalk, oozing chocolate wax through their flattened foil wrappers. Somebody must have dropped them; somebody else must have stepped on them. A teen or twentysomething dude stood in the middle of the street, rapping to himself, to us. I told my friend Ester who lives in a quiet section of L.A. over the phone that this must be the summer of Rihanna’s “Wild Thoughts,” because, as I was admiring the stillness she describes of her neighborhood, it was the sound of that song that I heard from cars pumping by on Pacific Street.

My next-door neighbor Tony is constantly clamoring about, making adjustments to minor construction projects that have no objective. He is engaged in movements, swinging tools that take hard falls and rattle walls harder. His wife Joanna is there, in his ear, almost always yelling. They are addicts, and now getting too old to manage on their own. When I moved in six years ago, neither of them would talk to me. Hellos fell on deaf ears. Cursing me through the door was customary. They threw back a bag of Christmas candies I gave to them on my first holiday season in the building. Sometimes Tony knocked at the door for five dollars. I told him I didn’t have cash to give and he told me I was a bad neighbor. 

Not all of this is personal though. When they’re angry, it’s not them, it’s the drugs or the drink. Now, they are accustomed to me, and friendly if they’re not being shy. Joanna tells me things when she’s sober. Like how hard it is for her not to go to the bodega to buy a beer, and about the mistreatment she got from her father as a teen, who looped her into late nights of drinking in her old neighborhood, and mine (at a much later time), Williamsburg. Everything she tells me comes out in the unplanned encounters we have in the hallways or on the stoop.

Tony has been a harder nut to crack, never remembering my name in spite of countless greetings over the years. 

“Yoo-hoo, girl! Neighbor!” he called at me from his door, then kicked a cardboard package to the threshold of mine. It was his random act of kindness: he kept my delivery in his apartment until I got home so no one would steal it. I bent down to pick it up and said thank you. When I stood up, he had a crooked expression on his mouth that was a smile he was giving all of his effort to make, and in the six years I’ve known him, it might be the first time I’d seen it.

It was such a contrast to the high-altitude Rear Window (1954) in Columbus Circle, where in that condo building, all the windows are vacuumed shut. Where, if you scream, L.B. Jefferies isn’t going to hear you. On my Brooklyn block, there is constant confrontation, and on some days, make no mistake, it is difficult to live there. But I also from that perch see people and witness all of their joy, pain and problems as real, and then a little bit as my own. Looking down from those top-story windows in midtown, the taxis and tiny people look like toys. And looking across, is a woman looking in at you wondering why you sealed yourself in there.