2017 Theme Issue - Stranger(s)
On my Christmas tree hangs a key chain masquerading as an ornament. It is a small red, white, and blue beaded dog. The colors aren’t Christmasy, and it looks as if an elementary school child could have made it: one black beaded eye hangs a little loose and the four legs are uneven. It hangs on my tree every year and has for the past decade.
In New York, it is very difficult to have any physical challenges. There are many miles to walk and stairs to climb. Sure there are taxis to be had, but to rely solely on a cab for all your getting about town would be exorbitant.
Rush hour and not rush hour, the stairs in and out of a subway station are a carefully coordinated feat. You can’t climb or descend too quickly. You can’t take your time. There are people behind you and beside you and in front of you ascending to street-level. In New York, time and personal space is a commodity.
Seventh Avenue South. An old woman. Two bags of groceries. The bags had no handles. The woman, whose name I believe was Sally, carried one bag up a few steps, placing it down and went back for the other. She then climbed those same stairs and put the bag down. She lifted the first bag, brought it up a few more stairs, set it down. And then repeated the movements. She wore a red hat, a man’s tweed jacket over a calf-length muted skirt and top, and a turquoise flowy scarf like a river. Like the Hudson on a crystalline day.
I was in no rush. I stopped to pick up the bags. She insisted on carrying one of them. Been shopping at Fairway as long as I can remember. Been living down here for as long as I can remember. I’ve got it, young lady. She didn’t say this coarsely. She said it in the direct way New Yorkers come at everything. This is the way it is. That’s how we do.
I refused to leave her be. I held onto the bag. She harrumphed, as sometimes old ladies do and we ascended the rest of the stairs. Slowly, one orthopedic shoe in front of the other. And then the wheeze and screech of a train below. I knew what that meant and the woman knew what that meant. If we didn’t quickstep it out of there, the new wave of passengers would soon be at our heels.
I took her arm. We made it the final few steps and stepped aside. In the loud hush you speak in on New York streets, under the din of taxis and underground trains and conversations we aren’t a part of, she asked if I was native. Yes, I’m a New Yorker, I said. I could tell, she told me. New Yorkers help each other out. It’s the ones not from here that give us a bad name. I asked where she lived. She nodded up the street. I told her I was going to walk her to her stoop. She tried to dissuade me. I told her at least to the corner.
First, let me give you this. From a well-worn tote bag, she pulled out a beaded key chain in the shape of a dog. I make these, she told me. I try to sell them, but well. . . and she trailed off.
It was so thoughtful and so gentle I wanted to cry. In my young twenties way, I said this is so cool! Maybe I said awesome. She laughed. I love when the kids say that! She exclaimed as she put her gloved hand on my forearm. I picked up her shopping bags and together we walked down Greenwich Avenue. At the corner, we didn’t stop.
She told me what the storefronts used to be, some thirty, forty, fifty years before. This place, it’s new, but I like it, she said as she pointed to a trendy brunch place. I told her I liked their French toast. She said she liked their mimosas and that if she goes in around 3 in the afternoon, the bartender fixes one for her. Gives it to me free, she said. Gratis.
She then directed me to turn left and then right. This is my street, she said. And I saw that she had purposely taken the scenic route. We reached her building, an old brownstone that had been divided into multiple small apartments. I can walk you up, I suggested. She told me that wasn’t necessary, that she lived on the first floor. I stood back as she unlocked the building door. She held it open and I put the bags on a small banquet along the wall.
Thank you for the dog, I said. It felt paltry. It was. She thought I was doing her a favor. A decade later, the key chain has become a talisman of kindness and connection. One that reminds me how just holding the door, or helping a stranger out in a small way can have such an impact. It is a charm that I will show my daughter. And I will tell her of an ordinary weekend day in New York that I remember as if it was extraordinary.