One night recently, I was unable to sleep and so I turned on my lamp at around four a.m. and began to read — a back issue of THE SUN, as a matter of fact.
I’d been reading for nearly fifteen minutes when I heard a knock at my neighbor’s door. I couldn’t imagine he’d be having visitors this late and I felt a bit frightened. The knocking stopped, then came again, then stopped, then came again. My neighbor was obviously ignoring it and I figured it would soon proceed to my door, especially since my light was on. I was right.
Strangely, it was not a rude knock, even for four in the morning. It was sustained and insistent, yet respectful. Still, I was nervous.
“Who is it?” I barked, leaping from my bed.
A small voice said, “I know it’s late. . . .”
I snapped on the outside light and parted the little curtain at the top of my door to have a look at her. She was a young black woman with a ravaged face. She looked sad, not dangerous.
“I’m sorry, I know it’s late,” she repeated. “Uh, can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you.”
“My four-month-old baby is having an asthma attack. I’ve been back and forth from the hospital all night. I need $19.95 for her medication. I can bring it right back to you in the morning. If you’re not here I’ll just slip it right under your door.” She was pleading, but forcing herself to be polite and contained.
I was confused. “Why don’t you go to the hospital?”
“I been back and forth from the hospital all night. They won’t take my welfare check. I can cash it in the morning, I’ll bring the money right back to you. I live just around the corner, I been in this neighborhood for twenty-five years. I promise I’ll bring it right back to you in the morning.”
“Where would you get medication this time of night?”
“There’s an all-night drugstore, corner of 19th and Broadway, ’cross the street from Capwell’s.”
My mind raced and I looked away for a minute. She looked familiar, possibly; I wasn’t sure. I’d had people come up to my door before with all kinds of cons to get money. (“See, I have this check for $10,000 but I need a few bucks to go cash it. . . .”) And anyway, surely no hospital would turn away a dying baby on account of money! (Asking around the next day, I discovered I was mistaken about this.) And I didn’t have twenty dollars. I had exactly fourteen dollars in my wallet, so if I was really going to believe and try to help this woman, I would have to drive her to the drugstore myself and make out a personal check and hope they’d take it. But I had a dense day in front of me and I knew I was already in trouble by being up so late.
All this flashed through my mind in a few moments. I was conscious of her watching my face through the glass window of the door, and I knew from experience that if you let con people see you thinking they act as if you’re already hooked and then they don’t let go without a big fight.
So I turned back to her directly and said, “Well, I don’t have any money on me right now.”
“OK, thank you,” she murmured and turned away quickly. I watched her scurry down the sidewalk, stooping slightly as if she wanted to huddle under herself from the dampness of the night.
I felt dazed. I began pacing up and down my room. Slowly it dawned on me that I believed her. But she must be gone by now. What could I do? Wish her luck.
I tried again to go to sleep and failed. Half an hour from the time she’d left my door, I got up and put on my clothes, went out to my car and drove around the block a few times looking for her. I didn’t find her. It occurred to me that there were probably more people than I ever imagined — many of them single mothers — who are alone enough in the world to have to knock on strangers’ doors in such emergencies.
I haven’t seen her since, though I keep an eye out for her in the neighborhood. I hope her baby is OK but I have no way of knowing. How I acted, or reacted, that night was not my biggest mistake, however.
My biggest mistake is the one I make over and over all the time: regretting and dwelling on past mistakes. Usually the mistakes I make hurt only me and no one else, and those are hard enough to let go of, learn from and forgive myself for. But a mistake of the magnitude I made that night can give rise to months of useless remorse if I don’t simply realize that I was blind, that I knew all along that I believed her and yet simultaneously didn’t know it, and that, hopefully, I will be capable of acting with more compassion next time around, whatever form “next time” will take. Hopefully I’ve learned something about the balance between “taking care of myself” (it’s important, no question about it) and listening to my heart when it is moved.
Mistake implies an action. One does something hurtful to another or to oneself; one behaves carelessly, foolishly, selfishly, cruelly. But behind all action is a state of being, and this part of a mistake is rarely confronted or even observed: the is that does, the being behind the doing, or the being that doing passes through. Most people make the same mistakes over and over all their lives because they don’t regard the doing as an integral act of the doer. They call it a mistake; they believe it wasn’t intended, or wasn’t indicative of who they really are. What is actually true is that it wasn’t indicative of the offending person’s idealized self-image.
So, to begin with, there are no mistakes — only a person’s reality expressing itself in an unguarded moment, a denied part of ourselves leaking out. If we were always unguarded, we would do almost nothing but “mistakes,” in that doing one’s real self is so often going to be at odds with society, which is the collective idealized self-images of the mass-persons, persons too significantly shaped from the outside.
Thus I can say with confidence that I’ve made no mistakes in my life, let alone big ones. My actions have many times revealed unpleasant and ugly things about me. I’ve been rude and selfish, surely; I’ve hurt people’s feelings with unkind remarks which I thoroughly intended to be unkind and to hurt; like all of us, I’ve behaved inelegantly, made faux pas, acted stupidly, carelessly, destructively. But it’s been me manifesting myself every last time of them.
Though I still may wince, I no longer despair for my “mistakes.” In forgiving myself, I am able to more clearly observe myself, and thus put my mistakes into the service of self-recognition. This is a religious exercise, a fertile soil to grow in. You feel the hands of higher development coming in to work on you.
Petersburg, West Virginia
My biggest mistake was believing my mother when she said:
“Chocolate cake is not fattening. All it has in it are milk and eggs.”
“Are you reading again? Why don’t you do something useful?”
“Play dumb. Boys don’t marry smart girls.”
“Nice girls don’t like sex.”
“All men are animals.”
“Your mother should be the most important person in your life.”
“Unless you call your mother twice a day you will rot in hell. That’s a mother’s prayer.”
“If you insist that I’m the cause of your terrible guilt feelings I’ll kill myself. Then you won’t have to worry about me anymore.”
“It’s your choice. Either let me move in with you or I’ll hover over your house after I die, which, by the way, will be sooner than you think.”
Ma died last year at age ninety. No, we didn’t let her move in, and, no, she’s not hovering. At least I don’t think she is.
Park Forest, Illinois
Several years back, chasing dreams of fame in Los Angeles, I attended a seminar for screenwriters. The main speaker was a film producer who had arranged for a television executive and a director to be there, too. I was early. I went in and showed my receipt to a plain-looking, casually dressed woman. I figured her for a volunteer helper. She crossed my name off the list; I went into the auditorium and spent twenty minutes reading until the program started. Imagine my surprise when the main speaker and host of the evening, The Producer, turned out to be the woman with the list. Had I known who she was, I would have taken the time to talk, which perhaps would have led to something. Instead, I had judged a person by her appearance and lowly function and dismissed her as a nobody.
But how can you ever know your biggest mistake? By the way it turns out? Nothing ever turns out — it just goes on. There are mistakes of omission, but there’s no way of knowing what might have happened farther along the line, had you done the thing you didn’t do. Mistakes of commission are a little easier to pin down, but you can still never be sure: an ostensible mistake may prove to be a blessing in disguise.
Fort Collins, Colorado
I should have danced with Nan Zuckerman at the Sixth Grade Prom.
Brooklyn, New York
“Nor will the candidates for my love
(unless at most a very few) prove
victorious. . . .”
Walt Whitman, “Calamus”
In 1952, I was a junior in Woodrow Wilson High School, in Camden, New Jersey, where my family lived on Mickle Street and South 29th. Miss English was our English teacher and one day, when she was sick, we had a substitute teacher, James Law. I only met Mr. Law that one day, but my life was changed during the fifty minutes he taught Miss English’s class.
Mr. Law explained that he was unaware of exactly what Miss English wanted him to do, since she was so seldom absent from her classes. But, had any of us ever heard of the poet, who died right here in Camden, Walt Whitman? None of us had. I certainly hadn’t. My only interest at the time was football. A back injury in practice had made even that once-consuming interest a frustrating one. Mr. Law read us the poems of Walt Whitman.
Six years later, I was manager of the Eighth Street Bookshop, in the Village, in New York. The manager’s station was behind a plate-glass window with a nice view of the Village’s most popular street. One day I noticed a car roll up and park in the no-parking spot right in front of the store. It had Pennsylvania plates. Two men got out. One was James Law.
Mr. Law and his friend browsed around the bookshop. After an hour’s browsing, he came up to the register with his friend, who was buying a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment. I saw that the sale was rung up properly and turned to Mr. Law. “Aren’t you James Law?”
Mr. Law and his friend were astounded. “We don’t know a soul in New York! How do you know us? We just drove in from Chester, Pennsylvania.”
I told Mr. Law how I knew him. “That day changed my life. It was the way you read. The, well, conviction in your voice. The devastating beauty of what you read. I found Leaves of Grass. I read Whitman for myself.”
I told Mr. Law how my life had changed. I decided to go to college, to learn English and American Literature properly. Then I dropped out of Columbia, to write my own poetry, to work in the Eighth Street Bookshop. I gave him a copy of my poetry magazine, Pan, the first of many poetry magazines and poetry books to which I have dedicated my life, these past twenty-five years.
Mr. Law’s friend, his boss, was very impressed. James Law himself didn’t know what to say. “I guess I’ve been pretty lucky,” I concluded, “because of you. And how about you? What became of you after that one day substituting in our high school? I never saw you there again.”
Mr. Law answered, and he spoke very slowly and softly and hesitantly. Although the bookshop was quiet, I had to strain to hear him. “I gave up teaching,” he said. “I moved to Chester. I’m an insurance salesman.”
His friend confirmed all this.
“I decided I didn’t have the knack for teaching. It was very frustrating. I thought, I’m not really reaching anyone.”
Greensboro, North Carolina
This story originally appeared in The Mickle Street Review, which publishes stories relating to Walt Whitman.