ONE NIGHT, ONE KID, ONE BENCH, TWO PROSTITUTES
(Or: Explaining THE ART OF TRUE COLOR BLINDNESS – PART 1)
I owe much of my openness toward stereotyped people to a night spent on a bench with two prostitutes.
I bet that you would like me to explain that statement a little bit more.
I was fifteen and a half at the time, living in Milan, Italy. There was a girl I really liked who lived in Genoa, some seventy-five miles away; it was early August, school was out and there wasn't much to do until we left for our summer vacation. I had some money in my pocket – enough to buy me a second-class train ticket to Genoa, and a couple of sandwiches and a coke to keep body and soul together. So, as befitting a hot-blooded Italian youth, without giving much thought to what would happen next I jumped on an asthmatic train that took its sweet time getting me there.
I reached Genoa at about 9:00 p.m. and navigated the short distance from the station to my girl’s house, knocked on her door and prepared to savor her delight at seeing me. She opened the door, blinked and then asked, wide-eyed “What are you doing here?”
“I’m happy to see you too,” I retorted. I was a bit stung by her lack of enthusiasm. “School’s out, so I thought I’d come to see you.”
“At this hour? You’re crazy,” she whispered. “Come on in. Wait here,” she added, closing the door behind me, “I’ll talk to Mother.”
Soon excited voices came from within the apartment and I grew uncomfortable as I caught bits of the conversation.
“He’s not going to sleep in the same house with you!” the mother ruled.
“But why? What’s the problem?”
“It’s not proper.”
"But he has nowhere else to go, and he hasn’t had dinner," came my girl's pleading voice.
"Well, that's not my fault, is it? He can come back tomorrow morning and I'll give him breakfast," was her mother's final verdict.
So that was it, and having been kicked out I had little choice but to return to the train station. Luckily, the night was warm so I resigned to a fitful sleep on a bench of the platform that, at that time of night, was almost empty. The bench was hard but being inside the stationhouse gave me a feeling of safety and soon I fell asleep.
An unkind hand shook me awake and through the mists of sleep I saw a uniformed figure standing before me.
“You can’t sleep here. Go away,” he ordered.
“But…I had a late train and have nowhere to go until morning,” I pleaded.
“See that?” he said, pointing to a No-Loitering sign. “If you don’t leave immediately I’ll have to call the police.”
It was no use pleading; he didn’t care. It was around midnight by then and I walked out to look for a place to while away the rest of the night. A bench in a small garden near the station was my choice and I sat there, feeling miserable, too scared that I might get mugged to go to sleep.
Now, Genoa is an ancient port, renowned for its seafood and for its ladies of ill repute. Songs have been written about them and the alleys in which they conduct their business, and the one I had chosen turned out to be one of the more active venues. I had been sitting all alone for some time when two women passed by and stopped next to me.
"What are you doing here, boy?" asked one of them.
"Just sitting," I said. "I don’t have any money," I added, defensively.
"We weren't going to take money from you," said the other one, laughing. "Why, you're just a child…"
"This is our bench," explained the first one. “Why don’t you go home?"
I looked at them; one was about my mother's age and the other looked younger. They spoke with the funny Genoa accent, but other than that, they seemed polite and kind. They inspired confidence, so I told them about my predicament and why I didn’t have a place to go. "Keep us company, then," they said simply, and sat on the bench with me.
They sat with me for hours, talking about their lives, their homes, the sea, and every topic that occurred to them. Once a man stopped by and the young one went away for half an hour and then came back. Other than that we were treated as invisible people by the few passers-by, who averted their gaze from our bench. I guess that I was scaring away the customers but that didn’t seem to bother my newly-found friends; they talked candidly about themselves and the tough times and asked me many questions about my family and life in the big city. In the middle of the night I grew so exhausted that I fell asleep with my head on one of the ladies' shoulder and they let me sleep until first light.
When they woke me up to tell me that they were leaving I felt an inexplicable pang of sadness and a sense of loss.
“I have a boy almost your age,” said the elder woman, as if that explained everything. I didn’t know how to respond to that so I kept silent.
“You need to wash you face,” said the younger woman. “You can use the drinking fountain over there.”
I had the feeling that they were lingering, that they were reluctant to go. Perhaps they waited for me to say something, but my head was empty. At last we parted simply with thanks and goodbyes, as if we had known each other for a long time and were going to meet again soon, although we all knew that we would never meet again.
I regret that I have forgotten their names. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about most of the time, because we were simply having a conversation. Nothing of momentous importance was said, but the simple fact that they cared enough to sit with me, to watch over me, created a human contact, which for the few hours that lasted was amazingly genuine and disinterested.
That night taught me a precious lesson. I never again stereotyped anybody or judged people without first trying to establish a human rapport with them, and never will.