Three Breaths


The following essay comes from a collection called CORNER Stories, the result of the Becoming Writers Workshop at Washington Heights CORNER Project. The Becoming Writers program is an eight-week memoir-writing workshop in which those with underheard voices are taught to transform their personal experiences into outstanding literary nonfiction. To support the program, you can buy a copy of CORNER Stories here.


1. I’m running as fast as I can, ignoring the groups of men, some young, some older, whistling and hissing like snakes at me and summoning me to them however they can, calling out to me with words like “Snowflake” or “Crystal.” I’m used to this language by now. It doesn’t shock or offend me. This is just another day in Washington Heights. I’m perpetually late, but I need to make it to this writing class—for my own survival at this point—so I keep running. Nothing can stop me. It’s at the exact moment that I’m thinking this that a cop car pulls up next to me and drives real slowly. I try not to look at them, at least not directly. I know the drill, their psychology games. If I look up at them they might be even more suspicious as to what this crazy white girl is doing running down their streets, but my heart skips a beat. It’s raining and cold.

Two more blocks, I think, but that’s when I see it and stop dead in my tracks. There’s a huge group of young men, maybe 15 or so and one or two women with their hands up against the wall of the local supermarket wall and their legs spread as the undercover and uniformed officers pat them down and search them before escorting them to two big white police vans. I runningknow these vans. I’ve ridden in the backs of them before, handcuffed and defeated. I look up at one of the nameless men and we exchange glances for a moment, and I can see the sadness and hopelessness in his eyes. I wish I could call out to them, to ask them if there’s anybody they need me to call for them, to tell them to keep their heads up, but I know that I can’t, so I just keep moving, walking now, not running anymore, feeling shattered and helpless. But it’s just another day in Washington Heights.


2. There’s this prostitute named Elise who wanders on my block. She has become a diversion to me in a neighborhood left colorless by Dominican children who answer to names like pequeño bastardo—the land of the fatherless, of the people they call illegal aliens, as if they were really brought forth from another atmosphere or dimension. To call her a prostitute really sort of deprives her of any sort of other sense of identity, though, so let’s just call her Elise, a self-proclaimed puta of gypsy Spanish ancestry who hustles her days away making men moan in the backs of their cars in her faded leather jacket and caked-on coverup that slightly conceals the sores that appear not too soon before the sickness kills off the rest of her cells.

She spits at death, as if a mere virus could outlive her and her perception of her own invincibility. Her lips are always painted red as blood, and they can shape themselves into the most seductive pucker, the cruelest sneer, or the most inspiring and heartwarming smile. Of course, I love her smiles the most. Her eyes are brilliantly lit up always. The way a crackhead is constantly aware of their surroundings with an underlying fear is the way Elise watches the world, as if she’s been attacked before and is waiting to reunite with her enemy for revenge, as if she’s been loved before and is watching to see if one day her lover will return. And sometimes as if she’s been safe before and is awaiting that refuge.


WHCP3. She leads me into her office. She has curly, untamed graying hair, still spunky as fuck at 52; beautiful, deep, empathetic eyes; and a calming, feminine voice. She walks with a slight limp that I’ve always been curious about but could never bring myself to ask about. I’ve always imagined there’s some sort of narrowly escaped disaster story behind it. I’m sweaty, I’m tired, I haven’t taken a shower in days, and I can feel the grime accumulating on my skin, but I’m just too tired to care at this point. My hair is dreaded to the point where I may have to cut it, as I haven’t had the energy to brush it for weeks. I’m not sure I have the will to go on in this crazy fucked up world anymore.

It’s at these times when it’s most important for me to come to Washington Heights CORNER Project and see people like Synn. She is a living confirmation of possibility and hope in the very world I’m living in because she survived it. Although Synn grew up in a far more interesting and dangerous era, when they didn’t have cell phones to trick with or needle exchanges during the AIDS epidemic. She ran away when she was fourteen years old. At fourteen, she slept on the subways in New York City and learned the hustle game as a means of survival, her only mothers crack whores and junkie drag queens. On some of my lowest days, she lets me into her office, and I submerge myself in the world of her wild past and how she overcame it—because now Synn works as a counselor, among other things, at Washington Heights CORNER Project. She represents the ultimate survivor heroine to me.

When I leave her office, I know if Synn survived and flourished, maybe I can, too. She gives hope to the hopeless, injects life into the lifeless, as if Joan of Arc had averted that execution or maybe god talks to Synn, too. She obviously knows secrets, but secrets that she doesn’t guard, secrets she is more than willing to pass along to those they may help. Sometimes it frustrates me that she is probably one of the most important people in my life and one of the most instrumental to my recovery and I’m just her client, but I suppose it doesn’t matter, because she is a part of my life regardless. When I get up to leave, I feel uplifted and alive again and inspired to be able to give back one day like she does.redscarf

“Oh wait,” she says, pausing as she walks me to the door. “I have something for you.” She comes back with a pretty red scarf that’s embroidered with gold and purple stitching. I blush at her thoughtfulness. “I thought it would match your hair.” She smiles. I wear this scarf every day, and on days when it’s too warm, I wrap it around my bag and carry it with me wherever I go. It becomes my shield, my armor of sorts, my constant reminder to never give up or lose faith in humanity, at least not while there’s people like her around.


First image by Flickr user Rene de Paula.

Second image by Washington Heights CORNER Project.

Third image by Flickr user Michelle.


Lily O'Delia is the pen name of a writer in NYC. More from this author →