I’ve Never Touched One

The year was 1993 and I was eight months pregnant and trapped in an elevator with an unstable guy who was rumored to have murdered his wife. I wanted to get out, but thought it would be rude, since I’d already told him I was going to the top floor for something to eat. Mr. Thomas was a large, shy man in his late 60’s and I was his social worker. We were in the Times Square Hotel, a residence for homeless people that my organization had recently converted into the largest supportive housing residence in the world. The place had been a rat-infested mess when we first took it over, with ceilings and walls falling down and crack addicts sleeping in the lobby with their weapons nestled to their faces like security blankets. We’d had to put Vicks Vapo-Rub under our noses when we entered just to stand the smell. 60 Minutes later said it looked like the Waldorf Astoria, when they did a story on it, and we were enormously proud to have created a beautiful home for people who had done with so little for so long. We were willing to do whatever it took to keep them living there for the rest of their lives, safe and stable. If we knocked on a resident’s door and were cursed out or spit upon, we simply went back the next day. And the next, and the next, and however many nexts it took to gain their trust. There was a grand piano in the elegant lobby with a sign “play me” and artists like Cindy Sherman lent their art for exhibitions and hung it alongside that of resident artists. Much like the physical renovations, it was thrilling to watch our residents morph from vulnerable discombobulated shadows into a closer semblance of the person they were meant to be.

I was dizzy with fear, my knees started to feel like they might give out on me and I thought, this is how people die.

The work veered from mundane to high stress, like being on the front lines in a war. Most homeless people aren’t dangerous—they’re just like us except a cruel combination of busted genes, bad luck, and betrayal conspire to derail their lives—but we were filling the place with 650 of them and many had serious chronic mental illness and substance abuse issues; the transition could be profoundly disorienting for those who had lived on the streets for years. Situations arise. In our line of work it was generally assumed to be your own fault if you got hurt by a resident, as most incidents were the result of bad judgment on the part of the worker. I’d had a table thrown at me, a gun pointed in my direction, and dodged a machete, which fell unexpectedly from a dropped ceiling, but I’d never been hurt. I’d been lucky but had a tendency to let my clients be overly familiar with me, which presented risks; starting with my first job as a student teacher I’d been criticized for acting in ways less than professional, when I’d allowed an emotionally disturbed student to braid my hair.

I was a young scrappy girl doing this as a real job, not to ‘give something back’ to anyone for gifts that had been bestowed upon me, which was the case with many of my co-workers who came from more privileged backgrounds. I went home to a tiny studio apartment all too similar to the ones in the Times Square Hotel and my sole income came from the salary.

I’d just come from a meeting where our treatment team had sat around a large conference table discussing Mr. Thomas and brainstorming ideas to help him avoid the impending meltdown he seemed headed for; he’d recently become uncharacteristically agitated, more withdrawn than usual, and was mumbling to himself. We wanted to head off the kind of emergency that brought out dozens of policemen in riot gear to address an EDP, or emotionally disturbed person, as many of our residents were labeled. I mentioned his intense loneliness and how embarrassed he’d been when I’d talked to him about his urinary incontinence. He said he could not discuss such things with a member of the opposite sex and that he was “still a man.” In the meeting, to the horror of my co-workers, I’d suggested we consider buying him a prostitute for a night or two, using our petty cash fund. We were located in the heart of the sex-for-hire-industry after all. I explained that we could coach her not to tell him she was being paid and the whole affair might give Mr. Thomas a boost of masculine confidence and let him know he was still connected in this world. The idea was shot down, not surprisingly.

After the meeting I’d hopped in the elevator to head up to the fifteenth floor garden roof deck when Mr. Thomas happened to enter just before the doors closed. I felt a twinge of claustrophobia and the nauseating smell of cigarettes, grease, and urine was impossible to escape. He began nervously running his left hand through his short hair while his right hand stayed suspiciously inside his bulging pocket. I couldn’t see his hand or get a good look at what was going on over there, because I did not, under any circumstances, want him to see me looking at him down there.

Mr. Thomas alternated his gaze between floor and ceiling, as if an invisible flying insect was trapped with us. We stood side by side in silence, me with my enormous belly sticking out and he with his—then he started cracking his knuckles loudly, as if preparing to throw a punch, and clicking his teeth together while sliding his jaw forward. I was dizzy with fear, my knees started to feel like they might give out on me and I thought, this is how people die. I had fainted once before, early on in my pregnancy, so the idea of passing out in a secluded room with a potentially dangerous man was not out of the question. But, I wanted to eat and was still trying not to be impolite, so I stayed. What’s the worst that could happen in the fifteen seconds we’ll be in here together?

We rose, floor by floor, as if they were centuries. “You going to the roof?” I asked. No reply. “It’s amazing how many plants are up there now, huh? The garden group has done a great job. . . . ” I trailed off as it was clear he didn’t want to talk.

Finally, my protective Mother instincts kicked in and I reached to push eight and get out of there.

“Um. I’ve never touched one before,” he said abruptly and sort of snort-chuckled.

What? Is he talking to me? I had three thoughts, in rapid succession: First, he was hearing voices telling him to touch one or more of my private parts. Second, he said this to his wife right before he killed her. And, third, maybe . . . he’d never touched a pregnant belly.

I was prickly with heat and my breathing was shallow. But, with only two floors to go, I thought, screw it, and took his hand in mine, both our gazes still fixed forward and unwavering, and placed it over my baby bump.

“If you leave it there, you might feel the baby move.” Amazingly, he left his hand in place and after a few seconds we both felt the baby kick. I turned towards him and he looked stunned, and then said, “Oh! Wow!”

“Boy or girl?” he asked. “We won’t know until the baby is born,” I whispered. And just like that, we were in on a surprise together, practically swapping stories and braiding each other’s hair.

The doors opened onto the bustling roof garden and sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. It felt like the elevator had its own time and space dimension and I almost didn’t want to get out. We walked in different directions, he towards the garden, and me, the food. I came out feeling like a better person–more alive, awake, and appreciative of everything around me. Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that have the biggest impact.

I’d trusted the tiny little voice inside my head that day, the one that told me to connect to the humanness in this man, and it had changed my relationship with him, forever. Whenever I find myself in situations where I’m not sure what to do, I try to amplify that voice and to drown out all the superfluous noise about how will this look, or, what will people think, or, can you REALLY trust your instinct. It has been my experience that you can build your instincts the same as you build any other skills, by practicing.

And, Mr. Thomas was right, it was a boy.

Anne McGrathCommunity organizer and event planner Anne McGrath is devoted to the art and craft of storytelling. She has been featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essays and Speak Up, and lives with her husband, two sons, and two dogs in Rhinebeck, New York.