People-Watching in NYC

“Oh Brave new world that has such people in’t!”

People in NYC are, well, different. Getting to know some of them on our adventures was fascinating.

Our strategy in passing out HIV cards was to simply be ourselves. We smiled, gave a big, “Good morning!”, and handed passers-by a card. People at City Uprising had told us, “New Yorkers are not rude–in fact, they’re some of the friendliest people you will meet. But they are focused.” Coming from West Texas, I laughed a bit, but tried to accept the advice. When we said Good morning on the street, people would continue walking past us for two steps. As I continued to make eye contact, you could see the thought process of, “Oh, that girl is talking to me.” They would stop, turn around, and reach for the card in my hand, even though I was now three or four feet past them. Quite amusing. The reaction time to “Good morning!” is a good three seconds longer in New York than in the South.

The man at our first clinic taught Rachel and me his strategy. He is familiar with the neighborhood and told people, “Hello! How are you doing today? Free testing down at the clinic–here’s a card. Do you want some more for your co-workers?” It was so comforting to watch him really interact with these people. I suppose I had expected people to give me the same reaction that I often give to people passing out cards: a slight smile and a no-thank-you or complete indifference.

Standing at an intersection in Harlem waiting for the light to change, I handed out cards to people crossing the street. One person was wearing a long, cotton dress with a womanly haircut and a three-day-old beard. I was very relieved to note that I felt no disgust or discomfort; rather, I smiled at this child of God and handed out a card.

New Yorkers were surprisingly open with private tidbits about their life history. As I handed one woman a card, she informed me that she didn’t need a test because she had been celibate for two years. Another informed Rachel that he already had AIDS.

Walking through the housing projects was almost peaceful. Groups of neighbors gathered on benches or in the small yards between tall, red-bricked apartment buildings. Sometimes we were warmly received by these groups; other groups believed that the only reason for our friendliness was to recruit them for testing. Between these buildings one could most clearly see what day-to-day life is like for these people.

One young man walked up to Rachel along a relatively empty street in Harlem. “So, I was wondering, could I get to know you a little better?” (I envisioned her flashing her engagement ring in his face. “Bam!”) She handled it beautifully. “I don’t think so. But there is free HIV testing at the clinic down the street.”
We saw him throw the card in the gutter directly in front of us a few steps later. Oh, well.

The construction workers in Manhattan were quite an interesting group. Of all the people we spoke with, these workers had the most candid reactions.
“HIV testing? I don’t need that.”
“Oh! Here comes Joe. Go give one to him. He needs it.”
“What are you giving out? Free food? Free workouts?” “Actually, free HIV tests, sir!”
“Nah, nah, we don’t need any of that.” One man bravely contradicted him. “I’ll take one.”
“Do I look like I need HIV testing?” “I don’t presume to judge, sir. I have no way of knowing who needs a test, so I hand cards out to everyone.”

While we were in Manhattan, it was sometimes hard to distinguish between tourists and locals. After he had taken a card, I realized one man was definitely touring the city with his wife. Oops, I thought. He turned around to question me about what the card was. He asked if I had been tested.
At our training meeting the first night, the pastor had encouraged all of us to get tested. Whether we had possibly been exposed to the virus or not, it set an example to the people of the city. All who work at the church had been tested. That night, my roommates and I discussed it. There’s no chance I have HIV, but I had decided to take the test if it was offered at the clinics. There was never really a clear opportunity and after we learned that clinics were running out of tests, it seemed selfish and pointless to take a test for myself.

Overall, we learned that we were completely unable to predict who might take a card. After our first few lessons in our ineptitude, we started offering cards to everyone. Only God knew who might need one.
Surprisingly few people declined a card when it was offered to them. Most people who refused were very polite, either responding to our Good morning or saying, “No thank you.”
A few times we passed people without offering a card. They rapidly corrected us by turning around and extending a hand for a card.
Businessmen with one hand on a cell phone and the other around a cup of coffee would take a card.
Women with hands full of groceries would take a card.
A few half-asleep men and women sitting on the sidewalk would take a card.

The pastor at church said something this morning that resonated with these lessons. He said we often don’t strike up a conversation about God with a person because they “don’t look like church people.” He asked, “Well, have you invited them?”
We so often judge by appearance. I definitely judge literal books by their cover, but my meager life experiences are slowly teaching me not to judge people by how they look. Heaven will be filled with people of all nations, tribes, tongues, colors, hair cuts, clothing styles, accents, tattoo preferences, piercings, and smells. God will make us all holy; we are all His children.

“How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beautious mankind is!”

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