Thoughts flash through your head really fast when you’re getting kicked in the gut. This is a dangerous country.
A 2010 article of Newsweek made international news with the title, “Pakistan is the World’s Most Dangerous Country”. Growing up in Pakistan, I never once experienced a moment of panic. And yet, coming to the United States, I traded my safety for fear and a higher standard of living.
It was a dark, stormy morning, as if it was a foreboding of what was to come. The pavement splashed and pattered as I walked over it. The air tasted moist and damp; It had rained the night before. The smell of weed rang loudly and obnoxiously through the streets. It was a typical autumn morning in New York.
For “the City that Never Sleeps”, New York sounded suspiciously like it was sleeping. The only thing missing from the light and steady breathing of the wind was the snoring of people. The blackness was reminiscent of the view from shuttered eyelids. I learned freshman year: even cities that don’t sleep, in fact do. New York closed its eyes between four and six in the morning. That’s when I used to wake up to study, for the sleeping city provided solace for me. I could enjoy the two hours, left to my own thoughts, because Sinatra’s “concrete jungle” was silent.
At six in the morning, I would go to the gym. A lone rat or two might be scurrying along Washington Square Park. However, the birds would be resting, the weed dealers scarce, the drunk people passed out. The subways did not ring with the whoosh, whoosh of the trains as they passed by vents from below. The NYU gym would open at six-thirty and as I approached it, I would see no sign of active life. New York would be asleep.
This day, I wasn’t actively thinking about New York being asleep but it was slumbering, true to its unspoken promise. I’d see the random person every now and then, a lone straggler trying to figure out where home was, trying to see through the drunken haze of liquor clouding his eyes. But other than that, nothing.
I had a Crunch gym membership. I wanted to visit all the locations in the city at some point. There’s one that looks like a church from the outside, one that has a view of the Times Square, another that looks like a high-profile bank . Today, I was trying out the one on Leonard Street, near Wall Street. I lived on Union Square. The walk was long, so I had my phone out. My eyes were not exactly glued to it, but comfortably attached to it.
An unfamiliar pattering of feet, one that was not my own, and the splashing of water reached my ears. I looked up. A skinny, tall Caucasian was walking past me. Somewhere in his twenties or thirties? He tottered, small scruffy beard, very skinny, loose, baggy pants. He didn’t seem to be in a state of being physically or mentally capable of harming anyone. Not a threat. I went back to my phone.
My not-very-impressive beard itched on my brown face.
As soon as he was close to me, he rammed into me at a forty-five-degree angle, and I fell down. How hard did I fall? How long did it take? How much did it hurt? The shock of the moment absorbed the pain. My memory flashes between these two scenes as a poorly edited video. One scene. Cut. Next scene. Cut. I ended up on the ground instinctively curled up in a ball.
Kick, kick, kick.
I remember wondering why other people didn’t do anything. Was there no one else on the road? Were the homeless on the streets just numb to this?
Kick, kick, kick.
In 2012, I was about to fly to the United States from a country that had a few years earlier been named by Newsweek as one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. I had never once experienced a moment of fear in Pakistan. Everything I’d been warned about over the months following my acceptance to NYU was reiterated prior to my flight.
Kick, kick, kick.
“Be completely honest at airports. They have all your records and will be suspicious if you say something that didn’t happen,” my parents warned me. As if I wouldn’t, “Be precise or accurate.” Did I really need them to tell me not to lie?
“The people in New York are rude.” I had met some of the kindest people on the streets of New York, people who gave me directions with a smile on their face, and kindness in their voices, and were even too polite to correct my pronunciation of the word Houston.
“Taxi drivers won’t care if they run you over.” I found them to be the nicest and most well-tempered drivers on the road, even when they were being spat on the face by racist, angry, young white men. Those few incidents made my blood boil, as it surely must have made theirs, but those immigrant taxi drivers said absolutely nothing.
“Don’t discuss politics or religion with anyone.” I was too afraid to do that with anyone except my best friends in closed rooms.
“New York is dangerous.”
Kick, kick, kick.
I had never thought about danger until I experienced it.
Thoughts flash through your head really fast when you’re getting kicked in the gut.
The most absurd thing happened. You know how when you’re in a dream, and you hear a voice from everywhere around you. “Wake up, Danish. Wake up.” The voice is coming from the mouth of one of the people in your dreams but the entire world seems to be echoing it. Well, I shouted a loud ‘no’. A ‘no’ that echoed off the sidewalks, bounced off the puddles, jumped off the walls of the buildings. A loud ‘no’. An angry ‘no’. The closest thing it reminded me of was when my dog was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing, “No, Timmy, no.”
Kick, kick, kick.
He stopped. He walked away.
I got up fast. My shirt was twisted, my glasses weren’t on my face, my first thought was for my phone. But the biggest wound of all, the one that would haunt me later, was the stab that the racist had left behind; the idea that even for a country that was as progressive as this one claimed to be, I was not safe just because of the color of my skin.
Should I run after him? I wondered. I really want to. My hands were clenched in anger, in frustration. If I can curl40 pounds, how hard would it be to beat him up? It wasn’t even fair. He threw me to the ground. Why was I even on my phone and not paying attention to my surroundings? My breath slowed. I tasted hot blood on my tongue. My mind was pounding from the rage that was coursing through it. And then: No, what if he has a knife. The kicking is fine, but what if he pulls out a knife, then I’d be done for, I’d be carved up like a turkey. Should I call the police? At 5 in the morning?! I can’t even describe the guy. With my beard, I’d probably get in more trouble than he would. It would waste more time than it’s worth.
I watched his back, as he sauntered away. My heart was pounding, not from fear, but from the anger and the frustration that a skinny, white male could beat me up and I could do nothing about it. My beard began itching and my furious, shaking hands, rubbed the skin underneath it. My breath puffed in snorts and my ears rang with the blood racing through my body. My footsteps made angry, jerky, and fast movements as I walked forward. My nails bit into the palms of my hand. Goosebumps ran across my back. I looked back, he was gone. Fear intermingled with the growing anger. Still glaring at the direction in which my assailant had walked, I realized I did not have my phone.
Had it fallen out when I was being kicked? Had the glass broken? Worse yet, had it fallen in between the cracks in the sidewalk to the subway?
I scrambled for God knows how long, on my knees, looking back every now and then until I found it near a small pond of water on the edge of the sidewalk.
My glasses had fallen from my face to assumed safety and landed a few feet away from me. But they were mistaken about the safety. One side of the frame was broken. I hung the unbroken side onto my shirt, and walked to and into the gym.