On my way to work tonight a young man stopped me and asked if he could use my phone. I asked him who was he going to call. He said he needed to call his mother because she was inside Harlem Hospital, which we stood right outside of, in order to get her out of there. I asked why he couldn’t get someone inside to help him? He said they told him since he was a minor that he couldn’t go inside without an adult. I said let’s go back inside because that didn’t make any sense. I asked him his name. He said Malcolm, then I introduced myself. I made sure he understood that asking strangers to use their phone in the manner he did was inappropriate. He said he knew, but I could tell his circumstances demanded desperate measures. He added that he really needed to get his house keys from his mother so he could go home and get ready for school in the morning. He couldn’t have been older than 14 years old.
Once inside the hospital lobby I noticed the first problem. There was no one attending the front desk besides a female NYPD officer standing behind a podium. I saw two office phones sitting on the counter, but before asking could he use them, I told the officer of the young man’s problem. She told me that he came in earlier but she can’t let him through without an adult escort. So then I asked could he use the phones available on the counter. She made sure to inform he could only call a number within the hospital. He dialed, but got no answer. I looked towards the officer to see if she was willing to further assist, but there was nothing from her.
Malcolm went to sit on the lobby bench, defeated. I offered him my phone to call his aunt. By some stroke of guilt the officer asked us to come back to the podium. She then interrogated Malcolm about his day from leaving school to how he ended up at the hospital, as if she wasn’t speaking to the definition of a lost child who was in her presence with a stranger he just met off the street. He explains to her how he went home from school and his mom was home, but then he left to go to his recently deceased grandma’s house to pick up some things. When he returned home he was surprised to find out his mother had been rushed to the hospital and he had no keys to get back inside the house. The officer, seemingly needing my presence as a catalyst to validate his story, picks up her wall mounted phone and asks him for his mother’s name. The simple act of verification which could have been done the moment he entered the hospital the first time they encountered each other. She informs us casually that Malcolm’s mother is in the emergency room. With more nonchalant, she instructs me to pretend to be an adult, of which I graciously assured her of my apparent adulthood, and escort him to the emergency room.
On the way there I felt obligated to advise Malcolm of the difficulties of being a young black male in the inner city, especially when dealing with black adults at times. He seemed to understand. He reiterated how negatively the officer treated him the first time he walked in. I asked him was his face twisted in a frown like it was at that very moment? He assured me it wasn’t and that he had a regular face. I reiterated the need for him to always behave and appear presentable. He understood.
While waiting on the desk attendant to locate his mother, Malcolm asked me what time I needed to be to work. I waved it off and said don’t worry. It was then I recognized he wasn’t interested in not being a burden and holding me up. He was concerned with how long I could stay with him and not leave him alone. After some assistance from the emergency room front desk we finally reached Malcolm’s mother. I immediately could see Malcolm’s major problem, his mother. She was more than ill. She was obviously dealing with some substance addiction and did not appear to be struggling with fixing it for herself, based on the small talk she offered. Malcolm glanced at me and I could see he was embarrassed and ashamed. He asked her could he have the house keys so he could go home. She replied by asking him where were his. He reminded her that they were locked in the house. She changed the subject and told him she would be out shortly and that he could wait in the lobby. Interesting how the lack of concern for Malcolm was universal. He asked her again for the keys. She reinforced that the set she had were hers and that she thought she just gave them to him. The negotiation was disheartening. He finally got the keys and he and I left the hospital together.
Once outside I asked was he going straight home? He said yes. I asked him where did he live? He told me on 145th St. Before parting I left him with some lasting words of wisdom which I think every young black man should have the opportunity to hear from an older black man. I told him to use his education to one day open his own company and employ his people, black people. We gave each other a firm handshake and bid each other farewell.