by Susan Tepper
Alexis Hope Lerner is a violinist, composer, and biology nerd from New Jersey. A student at the Manhattan School of Music, she has been a prizewinner in multiple national and international competitions. When Lexi is not practicing or composing, she can be found in her high school’s Environmental Science Center (where she hangs out with the turtles) or watching movies with her cat Marie Antoinette. Lexi dreams of becoming a virologist, a film composer, an explorer, or some wonderful combination of all three. Next year, she will be attending Brown University as part of the 8-year Program for Liberal Medical Education.
by Alexis Lerner
Twenty feet from the left entrance of the Port Authority was where the man called home.
Around him was a semicircular buffer zone enclosed in broken bottles, shielding him from Manhattan’s noisy sea of taxis and commuters.
In his coat pocket: a blunt razor, half a comb and 87¢. No cardboard sign. He didn’t want pity.
He was more a grizzly bear than a man. A mother of four walked by–a swan with trailing cygnets. She huddled them into her arms’ nest. -Don’t get too close, children, or he might bite.
Through cataract-riddled eyes, the man saw the smallest break from the group and skip towards him through the snow. A six-year-old princess with Mary Janes and a mink hat. She accidentally kicked over a bottle.
“Excusez-moi. Voulez-vous un ami?”
Is she talking to me?- He grimaced, sinking deeper into himself. Only his bulbous nose and coarse beard showed between his hat and scarf.
She smelled like sugar cookies. Warmth. Safety. Protected by youth, innocence and socioeconomic status.
He hated her.
He heard a zipper; then the mother’s boots quickly clacking against the sidewalk. She snatched her daughter’s hand, hissing in a foreign tongue as they retreated.
The man lifted his gaze. In the child’s open knapsack was a teddy bear just as grizzly as he was–beady eyes yearning, disappointed.
He sighed and looked up past the Port Authority overhang, past the Times Square skyscrapers, and into the endless grey space, hoping to see some ultimate good there.
Susan Tepper: Your story takes place outside of a somewhat controversial NYC landmark. How do you feel when you enter it, or walk by it?
Alexis Hope Lerner: On Wednesdays, I intern at a recording studio in the city; to get there, I take a bus in from New Jersey to the Port Authority. Usually I have my headphones on and am planning out the long work day ahead as I go down all of the escalators and pass the various shops and cafes on the first floor: Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, Hudson News, etc. The Port Authority entrance is almost completely glass, and what I see – every week, without fail – rocks me from my complacent state. People with untrimmed beards and dirty faces, wrapped up in wooly, musty blankets, create little islands for themselves on the thick sidewalk in front of the building. To me, it is astounding how many commuters – including myself – look past them as if they were part of the urban landscape itself. It is unfortunately too common a sight in the city – especially at the Port Authority – to see the homeless in public places in broad daylight. We become numb to what is around us, and that is what I am most afraid of. The distraction of daily life allows us to look past the hunger and pain that is often right before our eyes.
ST: In a surreal sense, the homeless, the grifters, the addicts that populate the area around Port Authority are ‘foreigners’ as compared with the lives of the day-to-day people who use the terminal strictly for transit. Interestingly, you have given real ‘foreigners’ entry into this story. Why not just some average Americans?
AHL: I agree with you in that the homeless are certainly “foreigners” within the Port Authority environment. But the other foreigners there are not the people whom we might expect. The fact that the French family is not native to the area does not necessarily render them “foreign” to the Manhattan sentiment towards the homeless. Actually, the only true outlier in the story – at least to me – is the little girl, and that is for reasons other than her nationality. The point is that callousness towards the homeless is an international epidemic. Even the people we would expect to be foreigners in this story’s microenvironment – those who live across the world from the Port Authority – fit in all too well.
ST: All too true. Did you know ahead of time that you would make them French (or other than Americans), or did this just strike you as you moved along the keyboard (or paper) writing?
AHL: I always knew there should be a language barrier between the little girl and the vagrant because I wanted her intentions and character to be clear beyond her words. The idea of making the family French, specifically, struck me as I was writing; it stemmed from the fact that our perception of French culture is often tagged with a romanticized view of its “poshness”. Consider how we view Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton… or even how we idealize the concept of being a “starving artist” in a beautiful Parisian flat, eating baguettes and sipping on hot cocoa in cafes and boutiques.
ST: As in the famous opera La Boheme. Which didn’t end well either.
AHL: There is a certain sense of unattainable charm and glamour associated with French culture, which many Americans covet. But when I visited Paris six years ago, I saw firsthand a surprising number of homeless men and women sitting on steps outside of bakeries and museums. Even if Paris is the “city of love”, it is not exempt from the cruelties of reality. That realization affected me deeply and was integral to this story. Although the vagrant views the family as swan-like and elite, the mother’s ugly feathers show when she huddles her children away from him and turns a cold shoulder – a behavior that breaks our romanticized view of foreign culture. Even the most posh and beautiful of us can be ugly on the inside.
Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com