From Jake B.

The sun was setting and traffic was dense. I was swerving and cursing and diligently flicking my turn signal before switching lanes. My friend Jessica rode shotgun, we hadn’t seen each other for months and her flight from Miami had just landed. Already we were bandying. Sassing+interrupting for no good reason. Too happy to see each other, not bothering to hear each other, you get the idea. The interior of my old-school wagon smelled its age. The backseat was a mess of: accumulated junk, emergency auto-supplies, bags of puppy chow, and miscellaneous luggage. Only car on the highway honking its horn. 

When we exited Interstate 40, the White Bridge stoplight was red. I decelerated the wagon into the left-turn lane. Third in-line. Visibility at zilch, thanks to the massive SUV sitting second. 

Gloaming fell fast and then, mid run-on, Jessica’s eyes got wide. ‘Who is that?’ she pointed to my window. 
*
I was born and (sometimes) raised in New York City, so I’m accustomed to sharing space with displaced folks. But homelessness is not a monolithic experience; e.g. New York poverty is experienced+endured very differently from Nashville poverty. The reasons for this differentiation are multifarious (culture, climate, topography, municipal laws, unwritten norms, so-on and so-on), and mostly make common sense. But still though, when I moved to Nashville two years ago, I was not prepared for this city’s version of homelessness. 

New Yorkers confront poverty+homelessness whenever we step outside. The city is cramped, its neighborhoods fluid. Public transportation is egalitarian and universally indispensable. Domestic trash is public property. Poverty + pain + hunger + substance-abuse + isolation + depression are ineluctable truths of the NYC human condition. Spend a day in the city and these truths will penetrate your personal space. You hear outside pain from inside your apartment. You see hunger on the subway. You smell substance-abuse in the park. You feel depression in front of Duane Reade. These truths are omnipresent+steadfast, as essential to New York as Upper West Side bagels or pickup games on 125th. Point being: I am familiar with NYC’s version of homelessness. I know how to help and when to stop-and-chat. I consider the city a communal space and I cherish sharing it with the whole spectrum humanity has to offer. And really, that’s what makes New York unique. There’s nowhere else in the world with so much of the world so up in your face so constantly. Living in NYC isn’t ultimately about convenient cohabitation between residents; it’s about affirming coexistence between humans. The city is unforgiving and you’re all forced to get along. In-it-together because you have-no-choice. Tourists are the only outcasts.

It was clear from the start that my NYC mindset did not translate to Nashville. This is a distinctly modern USA city, at once intimate+sprawling. Neighborhoods are geographically disparate and culturally insulated. No one walks anywhere. Public transportation is inconsequential and class-tinged. Communal spaces are field-trips. Domestic trash is private property. In other words, Nashville is a bubble city. It encourages residents to curate their experiences and manage their environs. It makes urban life comfortable. 

Pretty quickly I had my very own specialized Nashville bubble. House, car, job, friends, haunts, etc. Ricocheting from one comfortable locale to another, always via comfortable wagon transport. Always on my terms.

Then I had my first encounter with stoplight homelessness. I recall being totally bemused as the middle-aged man emerged with his newspapers. Me waving back like an idiot, wondering what he wants. Rolling down my window and perusing his literature. Shaking my head: no. Asking questions: yes? Apologizing. Making promises. Window up-then-down again. One last apology. Window completely closed. More waving. Smiling then frowning. Accelerating hard. Not looking back. 

For weeks I thought on my reaction to the man at the stoplight. It’d been a weird reaction, out-of-character for me and antithetical to any New Yorker. Then eventually it just clicked: in that moment, at that stoplight, I had experienced that man from inside the comfort of my bubble. Sitting in my wagon + listening to my tunes, basking in my custom-fit comfort, I was unprepared for a surprise moment of affirming coexistence. I felt unnerved and infringed-upon. I didn’t react well to someone knocking on my personal space. Bursting my bubble. The man could have been anyone. The man was someone.
*
Outside my window, the shadow smiled. I lowered my window. He dropped the hood of his hoodie. Jessica paused the music. 

Through what was now near-total darkness, I couldn’t quite decipher the man’s signage. His hair was bright blonde and his teeth were gray. I told him to wait-one-sec, then went face-first into the backseat. Deep amongst jumper-cables + canine-costumes + empty-Gatorade-bottles, I heard Jessica say: no kidding, it’s crazy how quick it gets dark here. 

When I gave the man the LUWL backpack, he seemed genuinely happy. He shook my hand and I shook his. That was it. The light changed. Jessica waved bye-bye. The SUV finally budged. I changed lanes ASAP. The man’s blonde hair went dark. 

On White Bridge we sat at another stoplight. Jessica playing with her window.

‘I mean, come on,’ she said. ‘That's unfair in the middle of a fight.’

We laughed.