Silent Streets, Empty Runway


One night last spring, I left work and walked through the frozen lamplight in the quiet hours of another throwaway night. At first I didn’t notice anything in particular about the person up ahead. I could tell she was a woman: flowing braided hair, big high heels, purple shirt, and tight black leggings. There was a slight wobble in her stride, like a boy in his mother’s high heels. I caught up to her at the corner of my street, 132nd, where the all-night bodega sells loose cigarettes and sodas through a bulletproof window to people from the projects across the way. It’s a corner filled with unease and addicts, the stench of urine and trampled trash.

She strutted slowly in the middle of the sidewalk as I hovered a few feet behind, looking for an opening to scoot by, to escape a second faster from the barren night into the security of home. But in that instant, as I moved just behind her, she froze and pivoted, like a runway model, her hand gripped on her hip, and stared calmly into my face. I dodged past as if she’d turned to look across the street or focus on something in the distance. My heartbeat was tense and surprised. When I looked back a few steps past, she was still holding the same pose, as if counting to five before she started her return down the runway.

I’ve walked home many times late at night, at hours during which any streets, let alone the streets of Harlem, are probably unsafe. I’ve lived in and traveled through poor slums, slept in cheap motels filled with drugs and prostitutes, paced narrow, foreboding alleys. I’ve crossed avenues to avoid hooded men walking in the shadows. I’ve puffed up my chest and born a scowl, daring someone to fight. I waited in each town and city of my past—I wait still—for the knife-wielding mugger, for the group of menacing men. And yet they never show themselves. They never find me in the dark.

I realize now it wasn’t fear that kept me moving past her. It was embarrassment, an embarrassment born of edging momentarily into her life, of finding myself inexplicably there and not knowing how or why.

I never meant to scare her, to walk so close behind. But perhaps she wasn’t scared. She turned to face me on an empty street in the dead of night and did it with style.


I heard the name Islan Nettles the other evening, while listening to poetry at my local Harlem café. Islan was a young transgender woman beaten to death in Harlem last August. She’d left a party around midnight and, while walking on the street with friends, encountered a group of men. At least one of them began taunting her with homophobic slurs, then knocked her down and beat her face until it was unrecognizable. The prime suspect in the case, Paris Wilson, was charged with misdemeanor assault at the time, before Islan died a week later. Last week the charge against Wilson was dropped. The case was complicated, the district attorney said. Another credible suspect had turned himself in to police a week after she died. They were both viable suspects. Murder charges could still be forthcoming, said the DA, for Wilson or the other man.

I thought back to the woman who stopped and faced me on the street last spring. Maybe it was Islan walking to see some friends, or on her way home from work, like me. Perhaps it was simply someone else who was born to be a woman.

There are certain simulacra, certain small disturbances of life we recreate, reimagine—months, years later—people and places where we stopped, aware suddenly of the hidden souls, muted voices all around us.

I walk home from work each night now and ask myself if she’s just around the corner, waiting with her arm cocked to her waist, posed and frozen. What would we say to each other if she were? Where does one begin? If only I’d stopped that night—I tell myself now—paused there in front of her, I might have known her name.


Image credit.

Geoff Bendeck's essays have appeared recently at the Paris Review Daily, the Washingtonian Magazine blog and the Common Online. He lives in Harlem. More from this author →