On a Saturday afternoon in Midtown, the clouds became pouring rain in an instant. I have learned as a walker to be prepared at all times, succumbing to the whim of the weather. As I popped my umbrella open, a middle aged woman with a thick Asian accent reached her fingertips out from under an awning.
“Excuse me. I walk with you? I just got my hair done.”
“Of course,” I smiled as she gently grabbed my elbow under the protection of the vinyl. She let me guide her a few blocks out of my way to her subway, chatting about where we came from and how we would spend the rainy day. It was a brief encounter that has lingered in its lovely simplicity.
On the $9 fare, he told me about his son who played basketball in high school and asked me about the organization I was interviewing with.
“Look, I got you here early enough to grab a coffee and relax. That will help. I know you will get the job. Good luck to you. Good luck.” He waved at me as I crossed the street in front of his taxi. As I was turning my head toward my destination, I caught him smiling and giving me a reassuring thumbs-up through the windshield. I walked leading from my sternum, with the support of a stranger powering my strut.
It came in a text message from a former student who is now in Iowa, “OMG Ellie did you hear what happened?” What happened was a tragedy beyond my comprehension that affected the community from which I came. Four beautiful young people lost their parents simultaneously, one at the hand of the other. I was inconsolably angry, and sobbingly sad, and I felt so very far away from home and the people I loved. The calls and texts kept coming, “I wish you were here.”
“Are you ok?”
“Thinking about you.”
“The ceremony was beautiful.”
I spent a day in my apartment, the silence only broken by the vibration of my phone or an unexpected wave of my own sobbing. I had never so badly wanted to opt out of a world where this could happen.
The next day, I ventured to class shaky, with swollen eyes. It was a hard day, a day in which my presence was against my will, as if showing up would infer my deference. As if interacting with the world meant that I was approving of it. In between two classes, a faculty member did a poetry reading that was stunning and awe inspiring. The eight tears I had left took their time surfacing. In between poems she offered, “You know, poets don’t hurt more than everybody else. Everybody has pain in life. But artists have decided to take the pain into their bodies and transform it into something else.” I took a deep breath and resigned myself to that truth. It is exhausting, good work. I am not ready to transform this; I don’t know when I will be.
I found myself passing an extension cord out my second floor window to its owner, a man in white overalls and a forest green mesh hat. He had a thick Indian accent, but spoke Spanish to his comrade on the roof. I did not know who they were, who had called them, what they were doing, and why I had to be bothered to be involved. I was feeling very busy and important.
“I know you. You look familiar,” he said with certainty as he let go of the ladder to grab the fire orange cord.
“I don’t think so. I just moved here.” He surprised me out of my crabbiness and fatigue on a Tuesday afternoon. I changed my mind about being annoyed at the distraction.
“Oh, well welcome. I think you will like it here. Have you tried Gino’s pizza?”
“Yes, greasy goodness.”
“I used to work there. A father and son place. They are not very smart I think, but they make good pizza. Yes, good food.” His friendliness was almost alarming. “Try Morningside though. Can you believe it? You can get a gigantic slice with pepperoni and mushroom for $2.50. Very good deal. Cheaper and better than Gino’s. I think you will like it here. We will fix your shingles. I hope it will work for you.”
I take the North Metro train line into NYC on a regular basis. The tickets are little paper rectangles, and a person (usually a man) in a blue hat comes by and pokes holes with a paper punch to mark payment. It amazes me that there is not a more sophisticated system established to take tickets that may or may not include implanting a scannable brain chip. As the worker walks the cars, hole punching away, I am always struck by the monotony of this job. Most New Yorkers do not look up from their smart phones to acknowledge the existence of a fellow human being. One day I watched a worker pull a card out of his back pocket as he asked a young girl with a pom pom ponytail, “Why are you crying?” Without getting an answer, he hole punched a smily face into the ticket and handed it to her with a warm smile. She looked him straight in the eye, accepted the gift and sniffled.
From my first day in New York, I get asked for directions an alarming amount. Whether I am in Bronxville or Manhattan, I get stopped regularly and shown little strips of paper with addresses, or pitched street names like a softball in hopes of clarity. I assumed in moving out here that, in addition to my accent as a dead give away, there would be a big flashing neon sign over my head that blinked “NOT FROM HERE. MIDWEST SUCKER.” So this pattern has really thrown me off. Just yesterday, I got stopped twice on my walk to school by people more lost than me. And I felt cool because I had an answer for one of the two wanderers. The fun is trying to help even if I have no idea. The fun is that I have built a life where I am not in a hurry for the first time in, maybe, forever. If I do not have an answer, I can find one. Last week an older couple was looking very dismayed at a particularly tricky roundabout and stopped me. I got on my phone, and a few minutes later had them on their way. I am sure people stop me because I am walking, or because I exude some openness and approachability that hints, “I am not caring a knife.” But some days I pretend the new phenomenon is because I look like a woman who knows where she is going.
“Where are you from, miss? No offense, but I do not think you are from here.”
“No, I am from Minnesota. Just moved here a month ago. And you? Where are you from?”
“I moved from Haiti about seventeen years ago. My family likes to go back, but this is home to me now. Minnesota. The Twins huh? Are you really a Minnesota Twins fan?”
“Yes sir. I love the Twins.”
“Listen to me.” The cab driver leveled with me. “Come over to the dark side. Join the empire. You know it will happen eventually, so you might as well enjoy the playoffs. The Yankees are where it is at. Get the navy hat with the NY. It will look great with your eyes.”
“I would be slaughtered if I became a Yankee’s fan. I can’t do it.”
He shook his head with a smirk. “Join the empire, man. I am telling you, it is just a matter of time.”
I sat figuratively at the feet of my memoirist mentor for our weekly conference. She is a zen-like goddess who I could watch sip tea all day in hopes of gleaning some of her wisdom from the angle she tilts her mug. I told her that the piece she assigned was keeping me up at night, and even getting me out of bed to write. “Yes!” she whispered closing her eyes and gracefully raising her left fist above her pepper hair. As if her infiltrating my brain was the first step toward art. She clearly intuited that breaking me of control, schedule and composure was the first step toward me writing something worth reading.
I am happy to report that Dan and I have won the battle, if not the war, on gross New York roaches. After killing three, spotting a few more and waking from bug nightmares, it was time to take matters into our own hands. Plus, we were having people come stay on our air mattress, vulnerable to the ever-scampering roach. After some research, Dan looks up and chuckles, “Roaches like flour.” So says my bread-making spouse. I came home from class one day to blue powder outlining our kitchen and strong fumes wafting freely. “Is that going to poison us, too?” I asked with a crinkled nose.
“No, no. Safe on people. I promise.” Dan reassured before detailing a battle that ended with some Raid and a dead roach on his back on top of our microwave. We haven’t seen a roach since.
Every morning when leaving to walk to the North Metro to take a train to Harlem, I throw an extra apple in my bag. Without exception, I get approached for money every single time I am waiting for my train home. I deal in cash less and less, but most are asking for money for food. This is a city of extremes, and economic violence is overwhelming. There is no easy answer, but I do not think that excuses me as an individual. I make a point of looking people in the eye, listening to their stories, and offering them the apple in my purse. Some take it. Some complain of bad teeth. No matter what the encounter, I never leave feeling at peace with myself or the world. Which is how it should be.
Exactly a week after the tragedy stuck my former student back home, I won my first story slam. It was the first time in New York sharing a piece that I wrote to a large group of people, not to mention live storytelling with six judges and no notes. I think that maybe I deserved to win, which was shocking. I left with my congratulatory bottle of wine, pretty exhilarated. I sat down on the same couch I had sobbed on by myself seven days earlier. Noting that pain and joy come from the same wellspring, I sipped my prize wine by myself and pondered it all.
“Sorry,” I offered to a young man with optimistic blue eyes and blond hair peaking from a backwards baseball cap who I bumped on the subway.
“No worries. Where are you from?” It is actually a question you can ask anyone because people from away are proud to be there and people from there are proud to be native.
“Minnesota. Moved here about six weeks ago. You?” I asked. Most New Yorkers avoid the middle subway cars and sleep, being able to wake up at their stop from a deep inner instinct. I knew he was new.
“From Florida by way of California. Got in three days ago.” That is all the time we had before my stop.
“Nice to meet you. Good luck,” I offered as I minded the gap and faced the transient crowd.
“Yep. See you around.” I smiled at the unlikeliness, while appreciating the gesture.
My program is asking me to produce every day, and I am getting sick of my own voice. I sometimes write impersonating other people’s voices just to give me a break from myself. On Wednesday, my professor asked us to swap our pieces with one other person, and I sighed as I opened my folder. Looking at the classmate to my left, I self-deprecated, “Just for the record, this is my least favorite so far.” Her piece was precise, clever, funny as hell and alive. I waited for her to finish. She looked at me, handed me my piece and said with a genuine intensity that jolted me, “This is very important. Work until it is published. I have some ideas of where you should try.” I realized a few things. No one else has to live in my head with me, so there is meaning to my writing even if I do not love it. And, in her generous response, I realized that all I really ever want is to be taken seriously.
They say that New Yorkers are pushy and rude. I don’t know who “they” are, but based on my experience this far, I would have to disagree.