It is early April, in the evening. I’m walking through Times Square on my way to a birthday dinner at a restaurant I’ve never been to. As I weave through the souvenir stands, I’m trying to concentrate on the instructions on my phone screen.
I keep walking — in what I hope is the right direction — when I see a cluster of hats shaped like Lady Liberty’s headpiece. The foam green spikes point to the sky, sticking out above the yellow cab magnets and “I Heart NY” T-shirts.
I’ve been wanting a Statue of Liberty hat for a while. One of the silly ones, in the shape of a crown, with a band that wraps around the chin. They’re probably meant for children, but they have always made me laugh. And now that I’m on the verge of graduating from New York University and leaving for California, the hat would be a tiny piece of New York to take with me.
I approach the stand. A woman and her young daughter are looking through a stack of hot pink sweatshirts with “NYC” bedazzled in rhinestones across the front. They have Midwestern accents, I notice. The vendor, a middle-aged man, has a bright smile as he helps them find the right size. I wait until he has a free moment before I step toward him.
“Excuse me, how much for the hat?” I ask.
He doesn’t reply.
Assuming he hasn’t heard me, I ask again.
“How much for the hat?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he says.
He waves a hand at me after the rushed reply, as if to dismiss me. Then he turns his face away.
I feel a hot rush of fear and embarrassment. I hear the rumbling noises of Times Square, but the only thing I’m registering is the look of disgust I see flashing across the man’s face.
I turn to the Midwestern woman, looking for some sort of explanation. Have I done something wrong? Then I turn back to the vendor. With some uncertainty creeping into my voice, I ask, “Is this not your stand?”
He is busying himself with his wares, as if I haven’t spoken. The woman and her daughter look uneasily at the man, and then at me, bedazzled sweatshirts in hand.
I feel myself sinking deeper into my embarrassment. My heart rate speeds up. The vendor points to the next merchandise stand, where a young man is selling abstract paintings.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Why don’t you ask him?”
The young man he is pointing to is Black. He and I are the only Black people in the immediate area. He is selling items completely different from the souvenirs at the middle-aged man’s stand.
It becomes clear what is happening. I understand, now, the look of disgust on the man’s face.
The Midwestern woman turns to me and says, “I guess he wants you to ask him?” I look at her shoulder-length brown hair, her friendly face. She seems to be in her late 40s. She could be my mother. “But I don’t know!” she adds, with a trace of guilt. “Just relaying the message.”
Then she is silent. So is her daughter.
The middle-aged man helps them look through more clothing. I hear people yelling, laughing. Horns blaring. Music floating through the air. So many people around me, but I have to deal with this alone.
The vendor is sneaking glances at me. I suppose he’s worried I might make a scene. I finally have a chance to speak to him after the woman and her daughter finish checking out. But before I can say a word, he is all charm.
“Sorry, sorry, so sorry,” he says. “I got confused. Five dollars, please.”
It is a lie, and a bad one at that. There is a stilted quality to his voice. I give him the money and take the hat.
When I arrive at the restaurant, everyone is already having drinks. I’m the only Black person there.
I met these people through work, and that’s what we talk about first: our jobs. I order a drink, and we slide into a booth. I give my friend her birthday card.
Everything in the restaurant is pink and orange, drinks included. As we work through other small-talk topics, I wonder whether or not I should talk about what just happened. Bringing up race around white people is, I imagine, much like playing amateur-level darts: a game of luck, with high potential for disaster.
“Something pretty racist happened to me today,” I say eventually, over plates of chicken wings and burgers.
It’s a weeknight, and the restaurant isn’t too busy. I speak at normal volume as I tell them about my interactions with the vendor.
There’s some discomfort in the air as everyone struggles to find a reply. Then I hear variations on “I’m sorry that happened to you.” I listen. I nod. I say, “Thank you.” A bit later, someone suggests, “Benefit of the doubt for the guy — maybe it was all a misunderstanding?”
The knot in my stomach tightens. I realize that in every experience with racism, I am never given the benefit of the doubt. “No,” I say, “I don’t think so.”
When I get back to my dorm room, I decide to put the incident away. And when I process what happened a few days later, it is in therapy. I have the session over Zoom, alone in my room. After I describe what happened, I tell my therapist that it didn’t bother me too much.
“It’s OK,” I insist.
“No, it’s not,” she says.
We sit in silence for a moment. I think about the other times I have found myself describing similar incidents to my therapist. Being called slurs as a kid blurs into my encounter with the Times Square vendor.
These days, when I look at the little foam crown, I try to imagine the Statue of Liberty as a real person. I can never decide what she looks like. Maybe an older woman. One day I pull out my phone and look up the inscription at her feet.
“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I haven’t thought much about those words since school. But now I’m stuck mulling them over. They are engraved in stone, like they meant something important. I’m also mulling over the words of the Times Square vendor. His words also feel as if they are written in stone.
I wonder if Lady Liberty were a real person, if she were there with her daughter, watching it happen — would she step in? Or would she shrug and say, “I don’t know, I’m just relaying the message.”