In response to The New York Times article “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.”
184. “What Ethical Dilemmas Have You Faced?”
Money is a big issue, and I’ve been offered bribes before. Once, I was offered by a drummer I managed to split the band’s money with him after the breakup. Another time, cash to write a student’s job application to the United Nations. Even payment to take a college entrance exam for a stranger overseas. For that I would have gotten a fake id and a lot of money, at a time when I could have used it. I turned them down.
During an Juanes concert at South By Southwest 2012, as an intern, I was set to manage the line, and get guests safely inside. To anyone who knows what the festival is like, there is no need to explain how quickly things can fall apart at the door. First, folks weren’t showing up for the opener. Then the festival producers made the show free. Then too many concert-goers appeared, and suddenly hundreds of people lined Second Street. Running back and forth, keeping the line tidy, this dude with a buddy and two ladies handed me a twenty. He told me I could buy something nice. I didn’t shake my head before he offered me a hundred. “I would pay this much to see the show anyway,” he said, smirk on his face. “Take it.”
I told him to wait his turn, and walked away.
That same year, at a smaller Latin show off Sixth Street, a cute singer-songwriter I liked offered me a free drink. I was twenty at the time, and my supervisor had specifically told me not to drink at the festival. She told me interns had gotten caught doing naughty stuff before. She told me that if a city official noticed that interns were drinking unsupervised, not to mention under-aged, then not only she but the whole festival would get in trouble. She was right, especially considering the heat the festival already gets every year. It’s hard to please the whole world, and the city your in at the same time. But I did it anyway: I had written about this band before, and the lead singer was cute, creative, and Colombian. After her set, she struck up a conversation. I was dazzled still from the performance, and the glittering plum makeup she had on made it hard to look away, or say no. She handed me two drink tickets, and told me to walk up to the bar and get her “una Gin con Tonic” while she changed out of her performance costume. Who could say no? Who would find out? I felt like the biggest pimp in that bar with my SXSW intern jacket and a pair of blue raffle tickets. My elbows to the bar, bartender dropping cold streams into cups, there was a tap on my shoulder. “What do you think you’re doing?” Oh, man, I dropped so hard when I turned around and saw my supervisor. I hadn’t been scolded in two languages since infancy. I remember admitting I was wrong, but don’t remember why the hell I admitted to who had given me the tickets. I could have spared the singer. I should never have ratted on her. Silliness all around, guiltiness inside. Anyway, a year later, walking down that same Street, my supervisor and I were showing another artist around. She recounted the story, jokingly: “He even told me who gave him the tickets,” she said. “Why?” asked the artist. “I don’t know,” she said. “Because he’s honest.”
Gender violence is another one I’ve seen too much of, imprinting memories that haunt me to this day.
“Get away!” she yelled. This was a year ago, a weeknight off Washington Ave in Houston, on a quieter street with not enough light, and too many cars parked outside. I was with four buddies I hadn’t seen since middle school, hiking block after block towards the main Ave. “Get away!” she yelled again. Up a few blocks we spotted a woman in high-heels, with a sparkling white purse hung from her chest with folded arms. “Stop following me!” Behind her was a gorilla of a man, the type who wears an untucked big and tall fisherman’s shirt to go out. He bellowed her name through a hoarse throat, as he limped after her. “Come back!”
“You are an asshole!” she cried.
By the time we all crossed the same intersection, they didn’t even notice us. Her tip-tap, however, had gotten her far enough ahead of his chase for us to view both of them from in between. He stumbled past us, though, and picked up enough speed to catch up to her. Their night wouldn’t end out in the open like that. All because we didn’t do anything.
“Keep to yo’self,” someone in our reunion had said. “It better to mind your own business.”
I’ve always regretted that moment.
The worst one happened ten years before.
I was headed to my locker between classes at the far end of what we called the Cafe-gym-a-locker-torium at the old Carnegie Vanguard High School. There, I heard a girl crying. When I rounded the corner, I saw why. I had had a crush on Karina for the last several weeks. She was in my geometry class, and I would listen to her ask questions, and I would sneak glances at her eyes as she took notes. Her eyes were always busy. But now, by my locker, they were crimson, jet black, and pouring streams of salty tears. Making fun of her, cornering her, was the misfit duo, Charlie and Eric, these two skinny anime kids who always wore that brown domo hat and long sleeves in the spring. I clenched my fists and stepped nearer to the lockers. Charlie, the one with long black hair, closest to her, and with a palm on my locker to prevent Karina from running away, turned around and stole the words right out of my mouth–“What are you doing here?” His bud, Eric, swung his long blond hair around and spit in my face as he spoke–“He’s minding his own business!” I stood there, saw Karina sobbing still. She didn’t look up at me. She didn’t see me turn around and walk away.
Next was the worst part. Later that week I mustered the courage to ask Karina to be my girlfriend. According to a mutual friend her and I had “chemistry.” We chatted on Yahoo for a month, sent one another hearts and “te amo”s, and held hands between classes. One day, at my house, eating fried eggs and red rice–I’ll never forget–she called me on my flip phone and broke up with me. I was in the restroom, hugging the bottom of the toilet bowel, with the taste of too much salt on my tongue. “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” she said.
The next day, before geometry class, she mustered enough courage to tell me the truth. “I’m in love with Charlie.” Freshmen year ended a few weeks later.
Fast-forward to 2017. I was on my way home from work, the L-train into Brooklyn light on passengers. Usually, I read or nap before reaching my stop. This one day in February, folks in peacoats, the sound of crying broke the silence of the train ride. I woke up from my nap and looked directly ahead of me. There was a couple in front, cuddled closely together, looking straight past and out the window behind me; down from them was a man with his hands clasped and nose pointed to the ground. I heard more crying. This time, my gaze found it. At the far end of the train-car sat a young girl facing the car door. Next to her stood a young guy, pestering her, stomping his feet, and demanding that she tell him something. He stomped and stomped at the ground, slapped at the pole and hand rails, and made a big scene. The other riders in the train minded their own business. I fixed my eye on the two making noise, and stared. When the young girl went to sit down, the guy put his entire body weight on her lap. He grabbed the back of her hair, and pulled just enough for the tears in her eyes to glitter with the florescence of the lights above.
I stood up.
I walked up to him.
“She’s had enough.”
“Aw, nah,” he said. “We’re only joking.”
“Jokes can hurt.”
He stood up to me. Clicked his cheeks. Then went to sit at the seat across from her. I held on the the rail next to him by the door, and kept watch the rest of the ride.
As it goes, I got off before they did. When the door closed behind me, I turned around one last time and I looked through the window and into that young lady’s eyes. They said something to me, and I knew.