It is a truth universally acknowledged, that “Everybody likes cookies.” Or so I thought.
I want to share you a story about why I was wrong.
Truth be told, I don’t even eat cookies anymore. I like them well enough. Somewhere along the way, calories, carbs, sugars, and gluten became part of my vocabulary, and so I no longer partook in the eating of cookies.
I was on my way back to my apartment on Houston Street, but decided to swing by Gasoline Alley Coffee, an eccentric little sliver of a coffee shop on Bleecker and Lafayette. It’s on that chic street that’s slimmer than a normal street–too hipster to be on the gridlines of New York–so that it has an entrance on either side.
There was a homeless man on the corner of Houston and Lafayette, near the Halal cart. He was familiar to me. I pass by that corner a lot.
I sometimes wonder if he recognizes me, the way I recognize him. By the time I’m writing this, I’ve forgotten his face and his voice. I thought I would remember, but I don’t now. His name was Tyrone, which I would learn later.
Anyway, Tyrone had been asking passerby for something to eat. I don’t usually do anything when I see a homeless person. Actually, that’s a lie. I try to ignore it. I have to try really hard, because their voices and faces stick with me.
But I avert my eyes because I feel like I can’t give them anything – I don’t have food, or cash, and even if I did, would that be the most effective method of altruism, and what about the slippery slope of helping all people if you help one person? And if I couldn’t give anything useful, what was the point of giving my eyes or a smile?
That day, on my way to Gasoline Alley, I happened to be in a happy mood. For once, I thought, “I’ll just go grab a chocolate chip cookie while I’m getting coffee, and give it to him.”
To be honest? I was a little afraid. You might ask, of what? What was the worst that could happen?
I was afraid, because in my head, the worst thing that could happen was that he didn’t want the cookie. It would mean that I did something wrong, which meant that I did something stupid which meant that I was stupid and wrong – but that’s a different story.
Realistically, the worst that could happen was that he says no, and then I’d need to find someone else who wanted a free cookie. That wouldn’t be hard, right? Free cookies. Everybody likes them.
I purchased the cookie. It was full of melty chunks of chocolate chip. It was large, and soft, with crags that suggested a crisp exterior. They put it in a small brown paper bag for me.
I passed by Tyrone on the way out. “Hi, would you like a cookie?” I offered him the brown paper bag.
“No, I can’t eat that,” he said.
My heart dropped. “Oh, why not?”
“My teeth,” he said. He opened his mouth and pointed at a row of jagged, missing teeth. “I can’t chew that.”
That was the day I realized I had privilege.
I had cookie-eating privilege.
I had parents who took me to the dentist, who told me to brush my teeth, who told me to eat less sugar at night. Tyrone probably didn’t.
That day, I realized how different our experiences of the world can really be.
That was also the day that I wanted to experiment with the rules of the world.
You see, I have what I like to call “white girl privilege.” I’m not actually a white girl. I’m Asian. But in some contexts, it’s pretty much the same. I also have a pretty face, a pretty demeanor, a gentle voice. I dress in a way that’s clean and unassuming, with an emphasis on comfort and fun. I like to think that I’m approachable.
So imagine if our situations were reversed, Tyrone and I. There’s a pretty Asian woman dressed in Lululemon on Lafayette. She’s asking, sheepishly, if anyone has any cash for the Halal cart because she forgot her credit card and it was so embarrassing but she had a meeting to run to and could anyone help her out?
It’d be shocking, and funny, and you might just give me the cash. Especially if I tug at your sleeve with an embarrassed smile and say, “Hi, I know this is super out of the blue and I don’t know you, but…”
I had the privilege of knowing how to ask for help.
I had the privilege of others likely being receptive to who I am.
I had the privilege of knowing that people can be kind. Think about it. You’d lend or even give cash to your friends, family, maybe a stranger if they looked really cool.
You and I both probably do it all the time, with friends and family. I always know that I can ask for things, as cute as can be, knowing that the people I’m asking love me and would give me the world to me. They would do it for me, and I would do the same for them.
People are really kind to their “in group”. In a way, I’m in an “in group.” For whatever reason, Tyrone isn’t.
So I wanted to know how far I could go. I had ten minutes – I couldn’t run back to the apartment and get cash – but I had time to experiment a little bit.
In the meantime, as I stood temporarily shocked into reverie, Tyrone had clarified what he could eat. “I can eat rice,” he had said, pointing at the Halal cart.
Aha! Rice. I knew that rice was a “high margin” good. I was going to make a trade. We were going to go old school – barter. I knew that the chances of a trade on a cookie to a box of rice were slim, but not none.
“Here, wait,” I said to Tyrone. I went up to the Halal cart line, patiently, smiling, wondering if this would work. I hoped for, though I didn’t expect, a miracle that day on that street corner of Houston and Lafayette. I wanted to see if a human being would see another human being in need, and maybe take a chance and make a trade.
“What are you doing?” Tyrone asked, a little suspicious.
“I’m going to see if this gentleman wants to trade a cookie for a box of rice,” I said, blithely. It was a hipster cookie – three or four dollars – and everybody likes cookies. Tyrone shook his head in disbelief. “Ain’t nobody gonna trade a cookie for rice. Lamb and rice,” he added on.
Oh, I thought. That would be harder to pull off.
Lamb was low margin. Still, $4 cookie, $5 lamb and rice…it was possible, wasn’t it? I was here, in line, and I was going to try. I told Tyrone I knew my chances, but was going to do it anyway.
Tyrone shook his head again. He looked nervous. “Don’t mention my name.”
I realized, then, that this was Tyrone’s spot. This Halal cart was his neighborhood restaurant. They probably knew each other by name. I couldn’t sully his reputation. I smiled and assured him that this experiment would be mine alone.
So there I stood in line, waiting, waiting, and then it was my turn.
“Hi, sir,” I said, trying to speak loudly enough for my voice to carry over the hustle and bustle of the traffic. “Would you like to trade a cookie for a lamb and rice?”
“What? Cookie?” The man peered at me from above, metal spatula in hand, sweat pouring down his face. “No. I don’t want that. I don’t like cookie.”
My heart fell, again.
That day, I had met two people who didn’t like cookies. What were the chances? I thought. I walked away from the cart. Tyrone saw me.
“I told you – ain’t nobody gonna trade a rice for a cookie.”
I apologized, wished him luck, and walked home. I wondered what I could have done differently. I wondered if there were magic words that would unlock the possibility of this man getting a lamb and rice. I wondered what it would take to inspire people to break the script, to see, truly, what they usually ignore, and to help a fellow human in need.
I thought about it, and I realized that Tyrone was much wiser than me.
Tyrone knew the economics of that corner on Houston and Lafayette. A Halal cart has razor thin margins already. The men on the cart have families to feed. Everyone is struggling to get by.
The man on the cart probably couldn’t trade me lamb, even if he liked cookies. He probably didn’t have the luxury.
He didn’t have the privilege of doing that.
I walked back to my building – 25 West Houston Street. It’s a posh place. I’m lucky – as I’ve told you.
I flagged down my doorman, Mohamed, as I came in. We talk a lot about soccer, astrology, and feelings. “Hi Mohamed,” I said. “Want a cookie?”
“Yes, please! I love cookies!”
I’d never seen him so excited. I handed him the cookie, and caught the elevator on the way up. One of my neighbors was standing there, holding the door. He smiled and said, “Who would say no to that?”
I replied, “You’d be surprised.”
“Some people can’t eat them–”
“–Oh, don’t give me that–”
No, I said.
Not because of the carbs, sugars, gluten, or calories. Not because of the privilege of choosing what to eat.
Then I told him this story.