The Boulevard (Mishpatim)

The lights flash by on the Boulevard. A light rain has lifted oils off the road. They shine in the streetlights, giving the asphalt a rainbow hue. Their smell rises up from the road and mixes with the exhaust of the cars, filling the air with a gritty scent.

As the cars pass by, all their drivers seem to notice me. I can’t blame them. I’m standing under a street lamp in cheap high heels and a cheaper mini-skirt. I am meant to be noticed.

Many who pass stare at me with open contempt. I stare back at them, defiant. Others, men and even a few women, glance guiltily in my direction as they speed by. Still others have eyes that seem to consume me. But I don’t need eyes. I need money. $50 ought to do it.

I watch everyone’s faces as they pass, feeling strangely at home as they look at me. This is my first night on the street and yet it seems like my whole life has led me here.

I see a pasty-white woman zoom by in a late-model minivan. She’s probably running home from some late-night soccer game. She glances at me and in that instant, I see a look I know too well. My first memory is of that look. It is my mother’s look: supportive, caring and hopeful. But underneath it is something else.

More cars zoom by.

I’m a thin woman, eaten away by drugs. I know I don’t look good, but I try to keep my hopes up. I know there is risk to what I’m doing. I know junkies must attract the worse kind of clientele.

I don’t show my fear. I’ve long since lost my shame.

Instead, my face stretched thin by malnourishment, I try my best to give the Boulevard what it wants.

My parents were pasty white people. They lived the middle-class dream. They had a home, a yard, everything. But everything was surrounded by middle-class responsibilities; and middle-class fears. They may not have said it, but all anybody cared about was what other people thought. They were prisoners in a carpeted cage.

I wasn’t like them and I’d always known it. My earliest memory was of trying on my mom’s makeup in front of her mirror. I put it on the way I liked it – thick and loud. My mother caught me, of course. I saw her looking at me through the mirror. That was when I saw that look in her eyes. It was supportive, caring and hopeful. But there was something else. I guess maybe it was fear.

I was already a wild child.

My parents wanted to limit my worst impulses, but they didn’t exactly hold the line. It wasn’t that they were weak (or that I was stubborn). Instead, they had a philosophical object to constraining me. I was raised in a house with no ‘negative’ energy. They believed, deeply, that I needed to express my true self. They believed that, given enough love, everything would turn out well. That belief wasn’t so deep. I could see it in their eyes.

They wanted me to be a free spirit, but they didn’t like what they saw when I was.

I could see it in their eyes. As soon as I could put ideas to it, I realized they were afraid I’d be a street kid. They were afraid I’d do drugs. They were afraid I’d sell my body.

All that expectation was waiting for me.

As I grew older, the expectation spread. Childhood friends acquired it. They drifted away. Elementary school teachers acquired it. They focused on other children. By the time I was thirteen, I was hanging out with a rough crowd and I was the roughest of them all.

My parents, my teachers, my oldest friends? They saw nothing in me and all I wanted to do was get away from them. I hated my world and I hated my life. My parents would ask where I’d been and what I’d done, and I’d lie. They put trackers on my phone and I uninstalled them. They didn’t let me have cash, so I stole it from them. They even locked their medicine cabinet; which is when I figured out that that was where I wanted to be. They wanted me to join them in their carpeted cage but I wasn’t going to allow it.

I wanted to be free. And my friends, my real friends, made me feel that way. We’d get together and we’d do whatever we wanted. I’d get home at 3 or 4 in the morning. I’d be drunk or high. And while my parents and my teachers knew what I was doing, they never said anything about it. Nothing real, anyway. They all just said they expected more from me, but I knew they didn’t.

I wasn’t actually a disappointment. I was an accepted reality.

They wanted a free spirit, and that’s what they had.

I left home when I was sixteen. My parents made all the right motions, but they were secretly delighted. They could just say I had just gone off to discover myself. They could tell everybody about their free-spirited daughter’s return in a few years, with a few grand adventures under her belt. They were sure I would grow up. In the meantime, they didn’t have to deal with me. Best of all, nobody in the community would be talking about their daughter.

When I moved out, I didn’t exactly travel the world. Instead, I carried a single bag to a massive and growing homeless camp on the east side of town. Some of my friends were already there.

Some tent cities had rules and a curfew. Those places were for people who couldn’t afford rent. They were for people who wanted to be a part of the world. They were for people who dreamed of a carpeted cage.

While we couldn’t afford rent, that wasn’t why we were there. We were there because we were free. The rest of humanity was a bunch of mindless robots, programmed by the world around them. Society made them dance like little puppets. But we were free. We alone made our own choices. We alone were real. Unlike all the simulations of humanity we’d abandoned, we felt real joy and real pain – not some carpeted version of true emotions.

We had the guts to truly live life.

It wasn’t easy though. Society is all about protecting society. It can’t let people like us really be free, or others might escape and everything would break down. So, the police would hassle us. They’d arrest loiterers, or rampage through our homes or roust those sleeping on benches. Maybe some thought they were helping us. But we knew better. They were just doing what society wanted. They were trying to make us conform.

They were attacking us because our way of life upsets theirs. Our choices forced them to confront the hollowness of their own lives.

I guess that’s where I got the attitude from. Whenever some buttoned-up stick of person looked down on me, I looked right back at them. Society was trying to judge us, but society was nothing.

We dealt in reality. We lived in reality.

They were the ones trying to hold reality at bay.

Of course, repression didn’t stop with the cops. When it came time for the distribution of wealth, society tried to cut us out. They wouldn’t let us have our fair share. We protested. We stole. We sold drugs to the proper people’s children. But even so, things were tight.

There were limits to what we could get our hands on.

And my hands were beginning to need more than they ever had before. Literally. I used to just enjoy the painkillers, but now I needed pills to feel anything but pain. I started skipping meals so I’d have enough money to buy them. But drugs were more expensive than food.

I started spending time with men I barely knew. I started partying with them, and taking advantage of the drugs and alcohol they all seemed to have for me. I tried to tell myself I liked them. I thought maybe I could lie a smile back into my heart. But they knew and I knew that we were engaged in a far more simple transaction.

It worked for a while though. I got what I needed. But then they started to turn me away; I was too well-known a commodity.

Soon, I was hanging out on the fringes of the tent city. I was on the edge of civilization. I tried to convince myself that I was just free of another society; I was just free of another kind of repression. But I knew it wasn’t so. I was trapped within myself; buried by my own freedoms.

I was done.

It was there, hanging out on the edge of that camp, that I decided my end had come. I would spend everything I had on one final dose. Not a pill, but to go out with one final overdose. I’d buy 5 Fentanyl patches. It would cost me $50. I’d use them all at once. And I’d leave this world feeling good.

All I needed was the $50.

I knew I could get it on the Boulevard. But even here I can’t seem to catch a break.

And then I see it. A beautiful car cruising down the street. Is it a Bentley? I watch in shock as it pulls up next to me. A window rolls down and I walk up to it, flaunting what little I have. And then I look inside and see the face of a woman.

Her eyes lock with mine in an expression I’ve never seen before.

“How much?” the woman asks. She’s wearing incongruous clothes; a tee-shirt and a hoodie.

“$50,” I say. I don’t want to ask for more than I need. I don’t want to risk not getting it.

“Get in,” says the woman. She snaps her finger and the driver’s side door opens. A huge man emerges. He is hulking and frightening and I look at him in absolute terror. I suddenly don’t want to get into that car. I don’t understand what the woman wants.

I shudder. And the man stops.

I look back at the woman. I can’t read her expression. I can’t place it. She is in a Bentley though. She must have money. And I need money.

Steeling myself, I lean towards the window, letting the woman see as much as she’d like. But she only looks at my eyes. And then, she looks away. In a loud voice, she pronounces three words: “Mark, let’s go.”

My hands are still on the window as the car begins to pull away. As desperate as I am, I can’t hold on for long, though. I let go. I watch the car roll away and it seems like I’ve got nothing left.

A minute later, Mark, the woman and the Bentley are gone.

I stumble back from the street and towards the façade of a building. And there, I just collapse. I fall to the ground hungry and tired and fundamentally exhausted.

I wake up the following morning. I do wake up. And when I do, there’s an large padded envelope in my hand.

I look at it through bleary eyes. I don’t understand what it is, not at first. An envelope is so incongruous I can hardly imagine it. But, eventually, I pull it open.

There are only two things inside. a credit card and a note. I pull the note out and read it:

The credit card has $100 on it. Buy breakfast and then a bus ticket. Go anywhere small. Once there, go online (I suggest the library). If you visit the following address, I’ll add another $100 to the credit card.

– the woman in the car

A URL follows the note. I just stare at it, trying to work out what this crazy woman wants to do to me. I’m trying to work out how she is going to torture me. But I can’t work it out.

I get up from my stoop and then I head to an ATM. I’ll get the cash and then I’ll disappear.

I consider buying the drugs I wanted just a few hours before. I still want them. My body is wracked with pain. But I don’t want to die, not yet. I spend $20 on a patch – a real rip-off. I stick it on, the feeling of relief is immediate. Then I spend $10 on cheap snacks at a convenience store. And then I find myself heading to one of those on-the-street intercity bus stops. Maybe I’ll see where this road goes? Or maybe I’ll go back to the dealer and finish myself off.

For now, I’m curious. And so, as each bus stops, I ask the drivers what small towns they might stop at. They tell me. And I listen. And I realize that I can choose where I’m going to go.

I have just a little bit of freedom. Perhaps my life is not yet over.

I finally pick place and buy a ticket. I spend $65. I’ve got almost nothing left.

As the bus pulls away, I drift off in a stupor. Eight hours later, the driver drops me off in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The place is a small town, the kind of place I’ve only ever driven through during insufferable family vacations designed to gather photos for my parents’ friends.

The town has a main drag with low-slung buildings running down either side of it. There are a few traffic lights and angled parking on either side of the street. Half the shops seem boarded up. The other half have “Help Wanted” signs plastered on them. The place seems dead.

I look around until I figure out where the library is. Then, I head there.

It is time to collect my next $100.

There’s no wait for a computer, not like in the city. There’s just a woman who looks at me like everybody else does. But she lets me use the computer. I go to the address from the note and there’s another message waiting for me.

The card now has another $100. If you want more you must do the following.

First, you have to pull a fingernail out each and every time you use

Second, in two days you have to visit this address again, from your current location

Do those two things, and another payment awaits you.

  • — The woman in the car

I stare at the screen. My first thought is anger. Who is this woman to tell me what to do? And how could she possibly enforce what she’s asking for? I could spend all the money on drugs and then come back here and she’d never know. That’s actually what I plan on doing. I log out, stand up from the desk and storm out of the library. The librarian seems relieved to see me go.

But once I’m outside, a thought occurs to me. The woman can’t enforce what she’s asking for.

Instead, she’s trusting me to do it myself. Her calculus seems pretty brutal. If I harm myself, I have to harm myself. But I know it can work. The thought of pulling a nail out reviles me even more than the thought of needles once did.

I commit, then and there, to her demands.

I don’t bother converting the card to cash. I’ll let her watch what I do. I’ll let her confirm I can be trusted. I find a diner, I buy myself dinner. It is the best I’ve eaten in months. I rent a room at a cheap motel. It is the nicest place I’ve stayed at in over a year. My whole body hurts, I miss the patches, but I make it through the next two days.

When I come back to the library, there is another $100 and another note.

The fingernail rule still applies, but this time the woman insists that I walk. I have to walk five miles each day. It isn’t easy. My body had been thrashed by my lifestyle. But I make it. Five miles each day. And I feel better for it.

There is $200 and another note. The rules are layered on. This time I have to “buy new clothes and keep them clean.”

I visit the general story and I do what she asks. My clothes haven’t been laundered in forever and so whatever cheap crap the store has is a big step up. I find myself dressing in tracksuit pants, a tee-shirt and a hoodie. They smell clean. I look a little less like a junkie.

Another $100. “Open a bank account.”

Another $100. “Stay away from men. I can give you what you need.”

I’m falling into a rhythm. I’m standing alone.

Another $200. “Give the waitress a huge tip.”

She smiles, delighted with the $100 I leave her. I feel even better than she does.

Another $100. “Respect yourself.”

I don’t know what that means, but I realize it might actually be happening for the first time in my life.

Another $100. “Get a job.” I apply at the diner. They accept me. They accept me!

Another $100. “Keep that job.” I make sure to show up on time. And I do.

Another $100. “Trust your head, your heart wavers.” I don’t understand what she wants. But for the first time in my life, I begin to save my money.

I keep going every other day. As I do, the amount the woman gives me slowly falls away. $80, then $60, then $40, then $20 and then… nothing but a note.

A note without money. It has only one line:

Do something worthwhile with your life.

    – the women in the car.

I get up then, and walk the streets of that small town. This is the biggest challenge of all. I have no idea what I must do. I keep working. I keep saving. In a few months, I have over $2000 in cash.

I look at the money one night. I just stare at it. It doesn’t feel like a carpeted cage. The number rolls through my head. And then, with a jolt I realize something that shocks me. The woman had paid me

The woman gave me only $1400. And with that $1400, she saved me.

I head to the diner and I ask the cook if he can do something with me. He’s a brute of a man. Together we take a bus to the nearest city. We rent a luxury car. He drives.

And then we head for the nearest Boulevard.

I cruise the street, looking at the women selling themselves. And then I see her. She’s standing there, looking like I must have. But when I look at her I don’t see what my mother saw, or what my teachers saw, or what my friends saw. I don’t see the expectation of a short life ended by an overdose.

Instead, I see myself. I see a free woman. A strong woman.

A woman able to help another.

I roll down the window. The grit of the city seeps into the car.

The woman looks at me. She’s confused. She’s scared. She’s never seen eyes like mine. She’s never seen eyes that saw her potential instead of expecting her failure. She can get into the car. She can ride away with me. But she trembles and I know it is not meant to be.

As I pull away, I see her slump onto the sidewalk, just as I had done. We return the car. And in the middle of the night, the cook goes back.

He finds the woman sleeping. He slips an envelope under her hand.

In it is a credit card, a note, and the possibility of a new reality.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, the Jewish people are given the Ten Commandments. But there is a hint of something more being available. We are meant to come up the mountain. We are meant to experience Bimshoch HaYovel, which I translate as a fundamental transformation to the yovel – a reality in which, perhaps – we are no longer constrained from reality. But then, so afterwards, we are forbidden from ascending the mountain. We miss out on the yovel.

The question is, why? Reading the text, we see that we do only one thing between when we are supposed to ascend and when we are forbidden from doing so: we tremble in fear.

We have a chance for a fundamental change, but we are too frightened to accept it.

We do not trust Hashem.

As I understand it, that is the context of these laws. These laws are meant to teach us what Hashem seeks from us. They are meant to teach us not to be terrified of him. They are meant to build us up.

The process of being able to face Hashem – in fear but not terror – starts with understanding that He wants our potential to be maximized. Without will, we have no potential. This is why Hashem establishes laws that limit our slavery. They guarantee that society is never without its limits. And they show us that such limits come from G-d.

We can choose to reject our freedom, but when we do so we drive an awl through our ears and symbolically sever our connection to Hashem; our ability to hear. And even when we do this, we are making that choice.

In the story, the young woman decides where she wants to go. It is her first step in freedom. It is the first step of her understanding that the woman in the car means to lift her up, not tear her down.

The laws continue. Threats to life are next. The loss of a life in a society damages it, just as the use of drugs damages a body. It is resisted through punishment, just as in the story. The laws continue, protecting our bodies (exercise) and then property (clothes) and then our future (the bank account). Then forbid us from worshiping other values (men).  They insist we treat the weak well (waitress tip), respect judges (listen to our heads, not hearts), and build a relationship with Hashem through investment in Him (do something worthwhile with your life).

Step by step, the laws build us up. At the end of the Torah reading, we make a national offering – our first national offering – to Hashem. We ask to come close to Him, repeating that we will do and we will listen. And He welcomes us. We sit before Him. We eat. We no longer tremble in terror. We have grown, and we have grown to understand.

And we are ready to build the house of G-d.

The story doesn’t end this way. I wasn’t trying to imitate Pretty Woman. Instead, it ends with another concept. Hashem gives us our laws. But he does not tell us how to enforce them. In reality, enforcement is up to us. He trusts us to work it out. Ultimately, we fill His shoes – raising up our society and those of the people around us. Ultimately, we deliver our own transformation.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

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