birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

New York City

A garbage strike, so the trash is piled high in the heat and the air stinks, except near stands roasting nuts in sugar, which smell almost like cookies. Every few feet a sign that says something like: "Dog waste is disgusting and causes disease. Curb your dog." A train rumbles and screeches up above 125th street, and below, car horns and a low roar, or just an engulfing full-throated one. More black people of every shade, posture, age and costume than I have ever seen before in my life. And sirens, radios blaring from the open doors of bodegas (a name I've never heard before). For the first three weeks, I feel exactly as though there's LSD in the drinking water, erasing the sensory filters between me and all that. I see-hear-smell-taste everything, including my own sooty sweat, all the time in a grimy-colorful-horn-blasted synesthesia.

It is the Summer of Sam so added to this are layers of warnings everywhere. Don't go into the parks, at all. Don't go out alone if you can help it. Don't be a single woman on the street. Don't get too comfortable in your own bed, even the one on the 6th floor of a crowded residence hall where later, you will hear someone screaming, then make out the words, "He's pouring acid on me," which are not some dream but real, and the New York Post reporters get your number and call incessantly to try to get you to say that again. 

So you make up a rule that goes, "I'll only go out alone if I feel confident, if I can walk down the street without looking back over my shoulder again and again."

Alone in the South Bronx, talking to people in the projects, the fear comes up. So many burned out buildings and bricks spilled across glass-filled lots, so many signs of life, like boxes for cheap guns that don't look like toys on the sidewalk. And if they are toys, what difference would it make when someone points one at you? 

Brownsville, Brooklyn, sounds poetic, like a small town in Texas, but getting off the train with a reporting buddy, a guy I don't know, it's another grafitti'd stretch of boarded up brick buildings with laundromats and bodegas holding the place together for people against the strange entropy pulling it down. I'm supposed to stop people and ask them how they plan to vote for mayor, but the first person I run into is a matronly black woman who stops me and says, "I don't know what you're doing here, but I want you to do this for me. Take off that watch and put it in your purse. Don't let that purse hang off your hand, pull it up under your arm like this"-and she shows me-"and get on out of here as soon as you can." I am too stunned to ask my question. I just say thanks.

Dressed for Colorado in corduroy pants and a checked gingham shirt with hiking boots, I am clearly an easy mark, but the good guys spot me first. My buddy, who's supposed to keep me safe, disappears for a time, and then I see him run by, chased by a group of young black men. He waves, ducks into the subway entrance and I'm on my own.

New York rushes up around me and swallows me like a tsunami. I've never been farther from home.

The Reluctant Chaperone

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