A few weeks ago I tumbled down a rabbit hole and found myself on the streets of New York City! I went by train accompanied by my sweet man and one terrible cold that wouldn’t seem to make up its mind as to where to land … in my head or in my chest. I had spent 2 days prior to leaving considering whether or not I should go, having relapsed into a cold I thought I was over a few weeks beforehand. But armed with my Doc’s blessing and some chinese herbs I decided to give it a whirl. The train was paid for along with tickets to 3 broadway shows.
By the time we arrived in the city, my symptoms were worse and I was regretting my decision. But once we checked into our hotel and took a walk in nearby Bryant Park I was feeling so much better. It was a beautiful 70 degree afternoon, laughing children rode painted ponies on the carousel, pink tulips were in full bloom and a street drummer around the corner on 5th played to a crowd of onlookers, each of us moving in our own ways to his magical beat. Here I was in the Big Apple in all of its busy glory and it was difficult not to get swept up in its seductive splendor. We decided to stay in that first night to give me some healing time. Usually we’d be out looking for a good film that presumably might never make it to Charlottesville, but that night my tired body gave up and shut down at 9:30.
I have not always loved New York. Until I graduated from high school on Long Island, I adored it. It was where my dad took us Christmas shopping every December, where I first went to the circus and where there seemed to be so many adventures afoot. In my senior year my parents actually allowed me to take the train into the city all by myself to meet a friend. I got dressed up in my finest and met her under the clock in Grand Central Station. From there we walked up 5th Avenue, ate lunch in a swanky cafe, shopping as we went along. I bought a pair of shoes my father deemed a waste of money. But I was thrilled with them and the opportunity to play at being a grown woman for a day in what I thought was the most amazing city in the world.
After graduating from high school I immediately moved to Vermont where I went to college. I got married the weekend after my college graduation and then lived in Vermont for the next 18 or so years. I didn’t make it back to the Big Apple much but when I did, I felt it was a crushing experience. If you’ve ever lived in the rural north you’ll know what I mean. New York equals too many people, too much frenetic energy. Not something I was used to by that time. I have difficulty with crowds and the population of New York does nothing but grow. However, my fondness for The City That Never Sleeps is returning. Even not feeling 100% well I loved every minute this last trip.
The day after we arrived I was still feeling under the weather, but we walked up 5th Avenue to the Plaza Hotel where an outdoor exhibit by Ai Weiwei, was in place. He is the Chinese artist recently detained by the Chinese government and has only this past week been allowed to see his wife. The Chinese authorities are once again at work silencing dissidents who speak their truths and Weiwei has been very active on that front. Works by Weiwei are being exhibited in a number of venues around the world at the moment and his arrest has done nothing but make the Chinese government’s actions more obvious and his work more popular. There is nothing controversial about the work we saw. The pieces are simply bronze sculptures of characters in the Chinese Zodiac, beautifully executed.
Besides seeing two movies and three astounding plays we skipped the usual gallery routine and played first time in New York tourists. The weather was spectacular so getting me inside for lengthy periods of time was difficult. We went to the Central Park Zoo, the Top of the Rock and the wonderful farmers Market at Union Square.
The last day we were there was the most rewarding for me. We had gone to see the matinée performance of Jerusalem, a play that was definitely not my cup of tea. (Look on my husband’s blog at View in the Dark to read his critical responses to all of the shows we saw and the movies, too. ) I was very disturbed by the play and needed to just sit and talk. We stopped to have dinner at a restaurant on 45th St. between Broadway and 6th Avenue, across from a fairly new boutique hotel. We were seated in a large window looking out on the street and the hotel entryway.
While we were leisurely discussing and enjoying well prepared steaks and accoutrements, I noticed an older woman going through large garbage bags near the hotel entrance. She was dressed in simple but immaculately clean clothing and did not look like your average homeless woman. She had no bags full of belongings with her and no vessel for collecting money. She and the maintenance man who was bringing out more garbage bags, seemed to be acquainted.
Being a shy type and very much an introvert, it’s difficult for me to go about striking up a conversation with just anyone on the streets of New York, especially a homeless woman who might very well not appreciate my approaching her and who might be … you know, crazy or something. Talking to homeless people can be a problem among the Haves of our country. It almost seems as though we believe that simply making a connection with them will somehow make the needy person’s situation contagious and we’ll instantly become Have-nots. We can’t face the possibility that we may someday be in the same situation.
As I sat there enjoying my evening meal, I watched as numerous people passed by this aging woman on their way over to Broadway, without giving her a glance. I decided that I needed to acknowledge her, to let her know that she was part of this glorious world we live in, even as she suffered.
After we finished our dinner I crossed the street and started talking with her. I noticed she was not collecting scraps of food but empty soda bottles and cans for their refund value of 5 cents apiece and that the maintenance man was handing her the most promising bags of trash. I told her my name and started asking her questions. She stopped her work, smiled at me, introducing herself as Alice and that she sometimes liked to call herself Alice in Wonderland. Looking to be near my age but tad older, she told me that she was a retired nurse and had grown up in an orphanage in Austria. She said that she was going through tough times, but she knew she’d get back on top soon. She thanked me and seemed very grateful for my stopping to speak to her. I gave her a hug and a few dollars and she asked where she might find me so she could repay me one day. I told her that it wasn’t necessary and that I’d always be thinking of her. I’ve kept my promise. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t see her on the busy streets of New York collecting bottles and cans so that she can get through her days and back on top.
I don’t expect an award for doing what I did, but I do acknowledge that my stopping to chat with her was something new for me. My courage is growing. Alice is someone with a message for the rest of us who enjoy our lives filled far too many things. Alice is no drug addict or crazy person. She is a proud, hard-working woman with needs, living in a society that too often passes her by, not recognizing her presence, not willing to help.