The Wisdom of the Stairs

In response to WordPress’ Daily Post prompt, themed Break the Silence

There is a french expression, L’esprit de l’escalier, that loosely means “the spirit of the staircase.”  The term comes from Denis Diderot’s philosophy that your best retort to a confrontation always dawns on you after you’ve walked away and regain mental clarity.  I experienced this a week ago, around 35th and 8th.


I don’t spend a lot of time in Manhattan anymore.  Ever since we moved to North Jersey, I go in for my Tuesday night acting class, and that’s about it.  I get off the train, walk up 8th Avenue, and duck into the building on 38th.  Midtown, especially in the 30s, is my personal hell during rush hour.  I keep my eyes down, I weave in and out of the bike lane to avoid turtle-paced tourists, and I adorn my face with the perfected “don’t you dare cat-call me” look of rage.  It’s a delightful state of being.

Anyway, at the end of class, I have approximately 8 minutes to make it from 38th and 8th to Penn Station.  Otherwise I don’t get a seat on the train.  I have become a pro.  I cut over the east side of the street, put my eyes down, and sprint in between the happy hour crowd being released from the bars.  I try not to be a jerk about it, but I definitely don’t have any shame in bursting.  Bursting is a term we created in college- It’s when someone is walking down the street like a normal person, when SUDDENLY, it dawns on them that they are running late.  So they run!  They run with all their might.  And then, and here’s the key to bursting, they realize they have caught up with the schedule, and walk again.  This was a lot of fun to observe around campus.  But people, including myself, do it all the time all over NYC.

So last week, while I was mid-burst, I saw a some teenage girls talking to a group of strangers up ahead of me.  They made a sort of blockade with their group, so I strategized to head into the road a bit, dodging a pile of garbage with a mysteriously colored puddle next to it.  Just then, they spotted me, leaping over the garbage.  One of the girls, who was slightly ahead of the group, came up to me and yelled, “Hey, can I have some change?  Do you have any change!”

I did what I always do, I turned red, froze, and squeaked out, “Sorry, I don’t.”  So she stomped away and the rest of her group looked at me with disgust.  I thought about retuning to my run, but the final girl in the pack turned suddenly, got in my face, and yelled, “You said no?!  Why did you no?!”  She waited for a response, and I did what any New Yorker does, I pretended it wasn’t happening and walked away as if suddenly everyone around me was invisible.  I went neutral and numb and ignored the poor angry teenager.

And I hate that the city has made this okay for me.  But what would I have said?  I wasn’t going to get in a fight with her.  I wasn’t going to apologize again, just to have her yell at me, so what was my option?  She’s a teenager.

By the time I got on the train, I felt a little less shaky, and the “spirit of the stairs” set in.  I thought of everything I could ever say, everything about that situation that was startling.  And I decided my two options were as follows.

I could have A. Said what I said, which was something close to, “No, I’m sorry.”

Or I could have said B. which, if I had really let loose would have been something like: (best if read at top speed without breaths) “You know what? I don’t actually know if I have any change on me, because I switched my bag before I left the house and this one actually has a few holes in it.  So if there were any change in it, there’s a chance it would have fallen out.  And I don’t carry cash in my wallet because then I spend it too quickly on things I don’t need, and you know my husband and I are already on a budget, even though it seems unfair that I am taking a fancy acting class in the city and can’t seem to give you pocket change, but then how does any of this seem fair?  You’re a teenager having to approach strangers on the street for money, which A. is dangerous and B. really really crappy that no one is looking out for you, but maybe you’re totally fine in life and just being an obnoxious  teenager OR maybe you live in a shelter or something and here I am with my yoga mat judging you, which is just terrible, when normally, you know what?  I DO tend to give money to people who ask on the streets because I don’t feel it’s fair to judge anyone who has to ask for money.  I even gave a homeless man a cake once!  He yelled at me but that’s another story  {deep breath inserted here}  but even saying this sounds condescending, and I am sorry that you are asking anyone for anything, and seriously, how about we just sit down and talk and see if I can do anything for you since clearly I don’t have any loose change and there must be something I can do with my stupid privilege, but also, I would really like to get to my train because I’m not the best about sharing seats with loads of strangers.


So as you can see, A. was the better option.  I would have terrified the poor things, they probably just wanted to buy soda from 7-11 or something.  They never would have seen all the crazy coming from such an unassuming yoga-mat carrying bursting girl.

Normally, L’esprit de l’escalier makes me feel worse.  I realize the best comeback in the world, the one that would have brought “Ooohhhs” from everyone in earshot.  And then other times, I realize it was best to keep my mouth shut.  A little confusion and embarrassment is better than scaring a group of teenagers.



4 responses to “The Wisdom of the Stairs”

  1. How true, how true, how true! It’s nice to know that my post-confrontation thoughts have a name: L’esprit de l’escalier! . So what do I do with my thoughts about confronting the new wave of “homeless” young people on 7th and 8th avenues with their cardboard signs, that include two woman with “Help, I’m pregnant” sign, but after 6 months there has been no change in their appearance?


    • Thanks, pop! I always assume that even if someone is lying about their situation, they’re still in a bad enough place that they have to ask for money, and that’s not my place to judge. It’s hard though, there are definitely days when I catch myself trying to decide if someone is telling the truth or not. But then again, I don’t have to sit and ask for money, so I don’t really know what they’re going through.


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