Archive for the ‘People Watching’ Category

A Gift

December 28, 2011

The first time I saw her, she was sitting and talking with a homeless man who looked just like Jesus. They were outside Trilliman’s, an upscale bakery and sandwich place at the shopping center. Two small wrought iron tables with chairs were set up there for patrons to enjoy intimate talks over specialty coffees. It was hot that day. She and Jesus, in their layered clothing, had usurped the space and were sipping orange sport drinks purchased from a vending machine. A policeman ran them away from the establishment. Homeless people were not welcome.   I decided that day the woman must be an angel. She was by Jesus’ side and her frizzy white hair haloed her head. After that, no matter where I saw her wandering the streets with her grocery carts and shopping bags, or which homeless people she was with, I thought of her as the angel, a disciple of Jesus.

As I stepped from the door at work the week before Christmas, rain surprised me. It wasn’t forecasted. I covered my head with my purse and ran to the car. As the defroster blew warm air, it took the chill off.  I fished around in my pocket for the shopping list I’d scribbled at lunchtime. Sighing at all the gift buying I still had to do, I put the car in gear and resigned myself to fighting crowds before going home.

My youngest son had to have the latest style of sneakers. The ones he wore still fit, but according to his assessment, they were vintage. No one wore those kind anymore. The shoe store in the shopping center displayed the latest rage in sneakers in their weekly ad flier in the newspaper that morning. If I didn’t hurry, they’d all be gone and I’d be browsing ebay and bidding way past the true purchase price, with the addition of  express shipping to have them before the holiday. That gift was number one on my list.

The oldest boy had recently bought a used truck and was ‘pimping’ his ride. He talked non-stop about fender flares, grill guards, camouflage seat covers, fog lights, bed liners, and lift kits. I had lots of items to choose from and several automotive stores to visit.

My husband, the hardest man to buy for because he has everything, had mentioned sometime in the spring that he needed one of those battery rechargers and rechargeable batteries. The boys used his flashlight and left it on, killing the alkaline batteries. “Children,” he’d muttered. “They don’t appreciate the value of a dollar.”  The specialty store with the charger and batteries he needed was way over on the other side of town. Traffic was always horrific this time of year. I’d not get home until late. I was glad I’d put a beef roast in the crock pot to cook early that morning.  

I took my place in the line of cars at the traffic light leading to the main thoroughfare. In the distance, I spotted the angel.  It had been several months since I’d seen her last. She stood on the corner of Pine Street and Garrison Road. I recognized her immediately. She has a presence that makes you remember no matter how long it’s been. She seems to understand her direction without maps or a GPS, goes about her business with an unstated purpose; and I never see the troubles of this world reflected in her eyes. 

The rain came down hard enough to use my windshield wipers, and the angel didn’t have an umbrella or a hat. A bright yellow terrycloth headband spanned the area between her forehead and hair line. The ends of her hair drooped and dripped with the water which ran and soaked her Green Bay Packers windbreaker. The jacket was tucked into a pair of olive green army fatigues which were cinched at the waist with the sparkle of a silver sequined belt. Her pants legs disappeared into the tops of knee length black rubber boots sporting bright multi-colored polka-dots, the kind preppy college girls can’t wait for rainy days to wear. Mud from the North River Trail caked her boots. The angel had appeared street-side from the path in the woods where a small group of homeless people on this side of town congregate to commune and sleep at night.  

She was standing there at the intersection when the crosswalk sign changed offering her a safe passage. She didn’t take it. She stood there, holding her electric blue tote bag close to her chest. She peered into the car waiting for the light to change at the end of Pine, then she pecked on the passenger window with her index finger. She reached inside her bag, pulled something out and handed it to the person inside the car. She waved as the light turned green and the car pulled away from the curb. She stepped back and waited. The cars coming down Garrison got their green light and surged forward toward their destinations.

The first car sped past the angel close to the curb and through a puddle. A wave of rainwater crashed up onto the sidewalk and over the angel’s feet. The caked mud slid off onto the sidewalk, and she looked down at the colorful polka dots on her shiny wet boots. She smiled.

My light turned green after a minute, but the yellow one caught me before I could pull out into traffic. Cursing my fate under my breath, I sat staring at the now red light. I was first in line, but waiting again. I noticed movement to my right. The angel had come over close to my car. She pecked on my passenger door glass.

I pressed the button to lower the automatic window. It slid down halfway.  The angel reached into her tote and pulled out a plastic covered candy cane. She handed it to me.

“Merry Christmas,” she said.

High Stepping

December 8, 2011

Her legs are not long, but when she was in her twenties they were as shapely as a pin-up girl’s. She has pictures to prove it. She’s lying on the beach, propped on elbows, one knee bent, white rimmed sunglasses cover her eyes, a wide, lipstick smile invites the camera in for a kiss. Bathing suits were one piece back then, and sex appeal was truth.

She was born in 1934 and Radio City Music Hall was built in 1932. They’ve both held up pretty well under the years.  Her physique is a bit more curvaceous than the Art Deco symmetrical lines of the theater, but both are stunning in their own right. They know how to shine. Both accessorize in crystal dangles, and drape themselves in gold silk.  The woman is small, standing one half inch over five feet tall. The theater is large, seating over six thousand, with a stage measuring sixty-six feet by one hundred forty-four feet. Its shape and style reflects that of the setting sun.  

Tickets to see the Rockettes are for the 11:30 matinee. She, the matriarch of the family now, has ridden all the way from Virginia, chauffeured through five states and multiple speed limits to the home of her niece, the one who procured the one hundred ten dollar orchestra seats for the show.

An alarm set for seven-thirty Saturday morning gives her and her progeny just the amount of time needed to awaken from their soft beds in a New Jersey suburb, don robes and slippers and sip coffee with cream over a toasted buttered bagel before having to bathe and dress for the event. Conversation is punctuated with soft laughter. She stops at one point, china cup in hand, and says, “It’s good to have my girls together again.”  The sun promises to be warmer than yesterday just because she’s visiting the city.  

She dresses in black wool slacks with matching flats for midtown walking. A soft gray cashmere pullover sweater is accented with a long knotted strand of vintage jet black glass beads. Their facets reflect light. Her short style of natural waves shines white atop her head.

Black has always been her favorite non-color. She remembers her brother’s funeral. He was buried in the family cemetery on a day hanging gray with clouds in 1944. It was war time and clothing was drab then, but even at age ten, she felt herself coming into her own. She sorted through her sister’s closet and found a simple A-line black wool dress. She wore it over a white cotton blouse with a peter pan collar. She found black tights to match the dress and slipped her feet into a pair of patent leather Mary Jane shoes. The eldest of her sisters admonished her to take special care of the strand of ivory  pearls she fastened around her little sister’s small neck that day. 

She pulls a tiny faded black and white photograph from her wallet to share. It was taken just before the funeral. She stands out amongst the members of her family, chin held high, gloved hands clasped together in front of her. The seriousness of her expression reflects the solemn occasion.  

She will not leave the house without lipstick.  She throws the charcoal gray wool cape over her shoulders, wraps the Blumen Tuch silk scarf from Germany around her neck, and pulls red gloves onto her hands. That and the lipstick are the only splashes of color she allows.

The seats are ten rows back from the stage. The lights lower and the curtain rises. Thirty sets of legs begin to kick in unison to the opening number. She reaches out to the niece sitting next to her, motioning her to lean in close. “As old as I am,” she says. “I can still kick up my heels.”

She is not to be doubted.  

As Luck Would Have It

August 23, 2011

I stand frowning at the old gas pump.  I stopped to fill up the Honda at the Royal Mart convenience store on the corner of West Broad Street and North Pickett Avenue in New Hope. Royal has cheaper gas than the service station over the mountain, closer to home. As luck would have it, they only take payment for gas inside, no credit at the pump.  Oh well, I’m thirsty anyway, so I walk inside to pay for the gas and grab a cold soda.  The temperature outside has topped ninety-eight and the humidity hangs on my shoulders. Even in the shade, taking breaths is like sucking in thick heat. 

As I walk back to the drink cooler, a tall, thin man staggers past me on his way to the front of the store. He brushes my shoulder. “Scuse me,” he slurs. The smell of beer on his breath is almost as strong as his body odor.  He grabs onto the display racks of cookies and potato chips, trying to balance on legs that are willing, but not able to hold him steady. He makes it to the front of the store, thumps the forty ounce bottle of cheap beer onto the wooden counter and asks for a pack of Marlboro’s.  He leans against the counter for support.

I look into the glass display case of bottles and see the reflection of the man who passed me. His back is hunched a bit as he searches pockets. I see the cashier frown, hear the concern in her voice. “Is that all the money you have Jack?  If that’s all you have, you better take it easy. It’s three more days ‘til the first of the month.”

I pick out my soda and press the cold bottle to my neck as I make my way to the cash register.  Jack hasn’t said anything to the cashier, but continues his search for money.  He’s a wiry man, mid-forties I’d guess, with long strings of wavy blond hair under a faded blue baseball cap.  His hands shake. Jack wears a nylon windbreaker over his tee shirt, dark jeans and a pair of worn New Balance running shoes. I drip perspiration just looking at him.

I join the line at the front of the store.

Jack had put several crumpled dollar bills along with a wrinkled lottery scratch ticket and some gray lint onto the counter. He slides the bills and the lottery ticket up next to the glass beer bottle. He fishes in the front pocket of his jacket, finds some coins and scatters them across the countertop.  A worn rabbit’s foot keychain falls among the metal pieces. Its fur is rubbed off, its sharp nails prominent. It reminds me of a horror movie I’d once seen. From the other pocket, he pulls a worn paperback book. I’m surprised. It’s a copy of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He lays it on the counter.

“Damn,” Jack says. “I had another five here somewhere.” He continues to reach into various pockets as the cashier removes a ‘closed’ sign from the other side of the register and  motions the next customer to bypass Jack.

The man who was behind Jack sets his Red Bull and a bag of pork rinds down, reaches into the back pocket of his khakis for his wallet and pays with a twenty. The cashier counts his change back to him.  He slips the ten and four ones into his billfold and lets the handful of coins drop into the plastic take-a-penny cup on the counter.

Jack keeps looking.

The whole line detours to the now open spot, and no one pays attention to Jack as he searches for more funds.  The woman in a smart navy business suit and low heeled pumps swipes her credit card to pay for gas, a candy bar, and a pack of Marlboro Lights. She signs the receipt and hurries out the door to the jangle of a bell.

I look at Jack. “A damn drunk,” I hear my father’s voice say inside my head.

When I was a little girl, we took walks on the downtown pedestrian mall close to my grandmother’s house.  Disheveled men leaned in doorways, sat with their backs against the walls of the tall brick buildings, and held their hands out for money. They had long hair and long fingernails.  Most were quiet, but some spoke up, asking for change. Some said, “God Bless” when a passerby handed them coins.

I remember feeling a little scared of those men, their smell, slurred words, and whiskered faces, but mostly I felt bad for them. They looked sad.

“Never give bums money,” Daddy said.  “You can buy them a sandwich if you want, but if you give them money, they’ll drink it away.”  My Daddy was a smart man. He knew what he was talking about.  Before I was born, his father had been one of those men hunkered in a doorway, drunk, trying to keep warm.

Sometimes on those walks, I’d find pennies. “Take that home and put it in your bank,” my Daddy said. “Pennies make dollars.” Once, I found a quarter. I picked it up, excited about my luck, jumping up and down, showing off the shiny coin. Half a block away, I wanted to give the quarter to one of those old men. I held the treasure over his cupped palm only to have my Daddy jerk my hand away.

“Put that in your pocket,” he said, pulling me away from the man. Daddy kept walking, tugging me with him. I looked back to the man and he smiled at me. I smiled back and mouthed “I’m sorry.”  He shrugged his shoulders, palms up, still smiling.  I turned back and that’s when my Daddy told me about buying and giving a sandwich.

We didn’t buy that man a sandwich though; we walked on to the drug store where we sat at the counter and I picked at a grilled cheese sandwich.  “I thought you were hungry,” my Daddy said.

“Not enough for both Jack,” I hear the cashier say, bringing me back to present. “Which do you want to put back?”

“Cigarettes I guess,” Jack says. “I thought I had another five.” Jack pats his pockets again, frowning.

“You ready?” the cashier says to me.

“Oh yeah,” I say, placing my soda on the counter. “I need twenty in gas too.”

She rings up the sale on the register. “Twenty-one, sixty-six,” she says.

I hand her thirty in cash and she counts the eight thirty-four in change back to me. I stand with my wallet open, deposit the coins in the change purse and slide the bills behind my driver’s license. I look at my picture. I look stern. They won’t let you smile at the DMV anymore. I go to zip my wallet and stop. Opening it back up, I pull out the five dollar bill and hand it to Jack.

He takes the five, looks down at me, and says, “God Bless,” just like the old men I remembered, only Jack is young. He pats my shoulder and smiles, showing even white teeth amidst more than a week’s stubble of whiskers.  “You’re a good woman,” he says.

“No problem,” I say, pointing to his paperback on the counter. “I like Mark Twain too. Tom Sawyer was my favorite.”

Jack picks up Huck Finn and thumbs through the pages. “Twain was a smart man,” he says. Then he stops three quarters through the book and pulls out a five dollar bill. “Well I’ll be damned,” he says, smiling. “There it is. Must be my lucky day.”

He looks at the two fives, then looks back at me.  He offers the one I gave him back to me.

“No, you keep it,” I say. “You need a bookmark.”

“Thanks he says, placing the five back into his book.

I turn and walk toward the door.

“Give me back those cigarettes Shirley, and while you’re at it, a computer pick mega millions ticket too,” I hear him say as the bell jangles behind me.  

 

 

 

 

Eyes at the Elevator

January 29, 2011

Their eyes caught and held me, all four pairs of those eyes, big, round, searching, and scared. Maybe I was reading into them, maybe not.  The four children stood with their parents at the elevator in the nursing home, waiting for the doors to open.  As I met their gazes, each of the children looked down, as did their mother. The father didn’t. He glared, stern-faced, like he was daring me to continue eye contact.

I put on my best smile and gave a cheerful, “Hello, how are you today?”

“Fine,” he said, and looked away, dismissing me to frown up at the numbers above the elevator door.

Each of the children carried a package.  The boy, older and taller than the girls, held a bucket of fried chicken, the oldest girl, a sheet cake with “Happy Birthday Dad” written in grocery store script across it.  One of the girls clutched a Kroger bag, and the smallest one, about four, carried a plastic bag with plates, plastic utensils, napkins and cups. The mother carried a large black purse. The father gripped a French bread baguette.

I beamed, and clasped my hands together. “Wow, a traveling party,” I said, looking at the birthday cake.

The smallest girl looked up at me and said, “It’s Grandpa’s birthday. We brought Hazard.” She pointed at her mother’s purse.

“Hazard?” I asked.  

“Our dog,” she whispered, barely smiling .

“We called to make sure he could visit,” the father interjected. “We follow rules.”

“We love dogs here,” I said, smiling at the little girl. “Dogs and children.” I winked at her.

The mother unzipped the end of her purse and a small, black nose stuck out. “He’s a miniature Doberman Pinscher,” she said.

“He’s beautiful,” I said, reaching out to pet his head.

“Push the button,” the man barked at his wife.

“I did,” she said, pushing the button repeatedly and staring at it, like she was wishing her touch could make it work.

“Are there steps in this place?” The husband snapped.  

“Sure, right around the corner here,” I said leading the way, the man following me.

He stood over my shoulder as I punched the code into the alarm and opened the door for the family to pass through.  They descended the stairs one at a time as the man stood over the group, wielding his baguette.

I followed them downstairs, and when I passed Mr. Eldridge’s room, the smallest girl looked up from where she stood in a corner of the room. She smiled at me and gave a small wave before the door clicked shut.

The Corner of Angus and Emmet

March 27, 2010

The locals roll up their windows and stare straight ahead. Most ignore her presence. Some taunt or curse her. Catherine sits in a wheelchair on the corner of Angus and Emmet, on the same side of the street as the Kentucky Fried Chicken. She parks exactly fifteen feet from the bus stop, right there at the traffic light.  In summer, she wears a cotton duster. In winter, she wears a cotton duster.

Catherine  rolls out early on Tuesday morning, half a bucket of Saturday’s popcorn secured in her lap by a bungee cord stretched across the armrests of her wheelchair.  There’s a hill just at the end of Angus and she needs both hands to hold back the wheelchair from careening into southbound traffic.  Emmet is a busy highway.  She has mastered the incline that leads  to the sidewalk where she sits. Maneuvering is only difficult when someone at the beauty shop remembers to turn on the sprinklers the night before and the grass is wet. Even if she struggles, no one helps her.

Traffic picks up about 7:15.  Catherine  allows herself fifteen minutes to park and settle.  She adjusts her seating and the distance from the curb to the exact inch.  The 6:55 Blue Line bus heading downtown is on time.  Catherine smiles. She hates it when the bus is late and interrupts her start time.

Her schedule dictates she man her station Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 7:00 a.m. sharp until 2:30 in the afternoon. She takes a break, but it’s never during lunch hour. The traffic is heavy then. She would miss opportunities.  The movie theater manager allows her to use the bathroom, because she buys an extra large tub of popcorn and sometimes a drink if it’s hot. She never buys a ticket, only refreshments. The cost is budgeted into her monthly expenses.  Her disability check comes a few days after the third of the month, because her birthday is on the third of October.

She watches and waits for the first red light after 7:00.  The light is green. She waits. It turns yellow and she counts the five seconds until red.  Bingo.  There sitting before her is a blue station wagon.  She reaches into the tub and takes out one piece of popcorn, holding it between her thumb and index finger. She lifts it,  closes one eye, aims, and throws the kernel at the passenger window of the car.  She repeats this action until she hits the center of the window or until the light turns green. Sometimes the window is open and she scores points.  When she misses her mark, she curses loudly starting with “Damn!”   If she misses again, “Double Damn!”  Again, “Triple Damn!”  Then, on to, “Son of a Bitch!”  And on those days when the wind is blowing, she sometimes  finishes with a resounding, “Fuck!”

The locals know her.  Tourists don’t.  At 10:35,  a red BMW is the target.  The passenger is a boy. His father is driving.  Catherine aims and hits her mark.  The electric window slides down.  “Stop that,” the man says.

Catherine aims again, for points this time.  She throws and misses.  “Damn!” she says.

“Hey,” the man yells, “what’s wrong with you?”

She aims again, throws, no points. “Double Damn!” She says.

“Lady, shut up and stop it,” the man yells, his face turning red. “Can’t you see a kid’s in here?”

The wind picks up.  Catherine aims again, throws and misses.  “Triple Damn!” She says.

The man turns on his flashers, puts the car in park, and gets out.  He stomps to the sidewalk and yells, “You crazy old bat. What kind of example are you setting for  children? Don’t you have anything better to do?”  He picks up her bucket of popcorn and dumps it on the sidewalk, slamming the empty tub back into Catherine’s lap.

“Son of a Bitch!”  Catherine says, as the man stomps back to his car and peels off.

She turns her wheelchair around and pulls the hill to the movie theater.  It opens every day at 11:00.  She enters the door with the empty bucket, a full bladder and $4.00 in crumpled bills.

If she hurries, she can make it back down the hill before the lunchtime rush.

The Parking Lot

February 13, 2010

The woman is running across the parking lot toward me.  I am standing there with the Administrator of the nursing home discussing some spring landscaping possibilities with a month’s worth of snow piled around us. The woman looks harried, her gray hair blowing back from her face. She is past middle age—and she’s at full sprint.

“You work here don’t you?” she asks as she runs to within inches of my face.

“Yes I do,” I respond. “Are you alright?”

“This parking lot is atrocious, simply awful. I am going to call your company. There’s just no excuse for it,” she says, her breath rasping from her. I look at her with confusion.

“They called me,” she says. “They called me to tell me that my father is dying. There’s not one damned parking spot in this lot. Who the hell plows here? It’s a travesty. I’m calling your company to report this. I had to park out on the street in front of that white house.  Do you think they’ll tow my car?”

“No,” I answer, “it’ll be OK there. It’s not a problem. They won’t tow it. If you’d like to leave me your keys, though, I can move it for you and find a space in the parking lot.”

“No, that’s alright, but if you can put a note on it for me, I would appreciate it,” she says as she turns and runs into the building.

“Who is that?” asks the Administrator.

“Mr. Johnson’s daughter,” I reply, my heart kicking up a beat, thinking of her pain.

~~~

It has snowed every weekend since December 19th.  We haven’t had snow like this ever. We broke the record on Tuesday, fifty-nine inches in one winter.  It has snowed so much that the plows can’t keep up with scraping. The city and county have run out of salt and chemicals. Snow shovels can’t be found in stores, and the roads get narrower as the latest white stuff gets pushed up against the last roadside mound. Our community comes together when crisis hits, but it seems we can only take so much.

Robert is our maintenance assistant. He is a farmer first, a maintenance man second. On snowy mornings, the cows get their breakfast before Robert comes to work to help feed old people. He is forty years old, has never married, and has worked at the nursing home since he was sixteen. The care facility is as much a part of him as the farm, but in his life, priorities have four legs and hooves.

“They can’t talk,” he says, “someone has to make sure they are alright. Daddy’s gone and so is Uncle Harold.  That someone is me now.  I’ll be in after I feed.”

Robert scrapes the nursing home driveway.  He uses a 1957 John Deere Tricycle Tractor with a yellow blade attached to the three point hitch. It was his Granddaddy’s tractor and he calls it “Putt-Putt.”  It used to live on the farm, but has traded in hay fields for city life. When he plows, staff and residents come outside just to watch Robert on the tractor. Old men remember.

When snow falls, Robert gets up early, feeds the cows and comes to town to plow the parking lot. It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekday or weekend, if it’s Robert’s day off, or if it’s the fourteenth day in a row that he’s worked. He gets in his truck and comes to the nursing home to plow the parking lot. He has been to work almost every day since December 19. He and Putt Putt have plowed snow and piled it out of the way the best way they can. With that, parking is at a premium.

I go in the nursing home and collect a piece of paper from  the front desk. In bold letters, I write on it:

Owner needed to park car here in an emergency.  If there is a problem, please come to the nursing home and inquire at front desk before towing. Thank you.

After placing the note on the car windshield, I go back inside, and walk downstairs to Mr. Johnson’s room. His daughter is sitting next to the bed with her father’s hand in hers. Her head was bowed. I knock quietly. She looks up, tears running.

“Can I get you something, a cup of coffee?” I offer.

“No, thank you,” she says. “This is so hard.”

“I know,” I offer, but can’t give her any other comfort. I feel helpless.

Turning away, I walk down the hall and see Robert coming toward me.

“Can you believe they’re calling for snow on Monday?” he asks me, smiling,  “like we haven’t had enough.  Where am I gonna put it?”

“I don’t know, Robert,” I say, “we’re running out of room. The parking lot’s full.”