There was a period of my life (I’d just returned to Jersey from North Carolina after a brain damage causing near death experience) when I would commuting from Trenton to Palmer Square in Princeton to barista. At times, this period is hazy (brain damage), but several memories remain in my immediate recall – this is one. When the weather was nice, I would sometimes peddle to the station and bring my bike on the train car, exit at Princeton Junction, and ride the Dingy into Princeton Station (the shuttle that empties near the back entrance of Princeton University). Like many commutes prior, I exited onto the platform at Princeton Junction and rolled my bike towards the Dingy.
An asserted voice towards me says, “I hope you don’t think you’re bringing that bike onto my train?!?”
“I was going to,” I said.
“Not today your not!” He retorted, then turned his back towards and walked back towards the Dingy doors.
His exclamation confused more than annoyed me: this had never been an issue before.
I stood dumbfounded by this interaction. A conductor from the train I just exited turned to me and said, “That man has no control over his own life. People like that…who try and control other people…rarely have control over their own life…so…they try and tell other people what to do. Nothing to do but feel sorry for him.”
I smiled and said, “Thank you…I was wonder what the hell just happened…”
She said, “You did nothing wrong honey. That man’s in a lot of pain…he decided to take whoever’s hurting him out on you.”
I got on my bike, peddled towards Alexander Road, and finished my commute to work.
Now, 15 years later, and I just met, what I perceive, a similar man (just the latest of many I’ve encountered during my breathing years). I’ve been living in Cincinnati, OH, for about eight months: and I am not going to pretend this is the first time, in my sobriety, that I’ve been asked to leave someplace because of my actions, which to my knowledge, as it was expressed to me, were within the expected etiquette guidelines.
I started going to an open mic around the corner two months ago. A desire to break free from a nearly two month isolation period gifted by our buddy Covid precipitated my desperation for social interaction. I had spent so much time alone, writing, and in a 400 square foot apartment during a mostly gray and often single digit outside temperature, that my brain was doing interesting things – more so than usual. Most desire to go outside, engage with people, and physically walk through the waking world had been stifled by inertia.
But, on this night, I stared in the mirror and said to myself, “Dude, you are leaving this apartment tonight…you have to go outside…you have to talk to people…it’s OK to go outside.”
I did a quick search for a neighborhood activity, and to my joy, I learned that a local bar, MOTR, hosted open mics every other Wednesday: it was one of those Wednesdays. This was a pivotal event to regaining some semblance of sanity and powering through a quasi-agoraphobic period. I had a great night. The story and poems I shared were well received, and I felt, for just a moment, part of the neighborhood community. In fact, I can say with confidence, that this evening was the event that broke me out of my Covid sickness and deep depression of the previous months.
So, tonight, I attended that open mic around the corner. I hadn’t been there in several weeks because of a work scheduling conflict; plus, I almost didn’t go tonight because I was pretty tired (a lame excuse). I wasn’t sure if I was going to sign up to perform or just sit happily in attendance. All the performers were finished 30 minutes after I arrived, and the host encouraged artist to sign up again – double dip. One person from the first set of musicians remained, so I figured I’d sign up to close out the first round of performances. I usually told stories from my sordid past, but I was tired. I decided to read a story and a poem. It went well, and I felt wormed up. I approached the host and asked about playing a song during the next round.
He said, “There is a house guitar on stage…so yeah…you can use the house guitar.”
“That’s great!” I said, “I didn’t know there was a house guitar…thank you…I might play a song.”
He said, “Yeah, go for it.”
About 15 minutes passed, and I still hadn’t decided if I was going to play. I asked to borrow a friend’s guitar pick, walked on the empty stage, and picked up the house guitar to try and shake some nerves. I had not played music at this venue yet, and I didn’t want to shit the place up during my first go. Distracted by figuring out what to play, I stepped off the stage: from the time I picked up the guitar, to the time I stepped off the stage, about 15 seconds had passed.
The host shot a death-stare at me from the soundboard and said, “What do you think you are doing with my guitar? Put my guitar down! This isn’t a thing where you can just go on stage and grab guitars and do whatever you want…You’re done! You’re out! No more!”
I put the guitar down, walked towards him, and said, “I’m so sorry…My sincerest apologies. I meant no disrespect…”
He said, “Whatever…You’re done!”
I said, “Alright…Thanks again…Have a good night.”
I walked over to my friend, returned his guitar pick, and thanked him.
A somewhat shocked and confused look passed over my friend’s face, in reaction to what the host just said, “…uhhhhh…okay…what the hell was that all about?”
I said, “Not sure…have a good second set…I’ll see you next time…”
During my walk home, I recalled the conductor from the Princeton Junction platform 20 years prior, “That man has no control over his own life. People like that, who try and control other people, rarely have control over their own life…”
And I suppose I could end this story here. I could go on about how there was, perhaps, so sort of underlying lesson to be learned, or meaning, or some etiquette norm I completely missed, or how it was just a misunderstanding, or how something was obviously lost in translation; but I am not going to. And the reason I am not going to, as previously stated, I’ve experienced myriad similar interactions over the previous decades. In fact, I was telling my sister about one of these occurrences 20 years ago as we walked onto the St. Greg’s Carnival fair grounds. It’s not that she did not believe what I was telling her, she was just surprised that behavior so seemingly innocent and innocuous could trigger such a dramatic response from someone. And, quite literally, three minutes later, my sister and I were laughing and spinning around on the fairgrounds. I grabbed her forearms, and she grabbed mine. I began spinning her around like you do when you’re kids.
Five seconds later a police officer walked abruptly toward us and asserted, “What do you think you are doing?!?!? STOP SPINNING HER!!! YOU’RE GOING TO HURT HER!!!”
I slowed down, and gently guided her back onto the ground.
My sister said, “He wasn’t hurting me; we were having fun…I was safe…”
The officer insisted that she was not safe.
“Well…,” I said to the officer, “…and I feel confident speaking for the both of us…we felt much safer before you walked over here…”