Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Encounters in New York City

I’ve lived in New York City for 25 years. I’ve seen some strange things in public -- things that would make you do a double take or make your skin crawl.

Don’t worry.

I promise not to detail the “skin crawl” ones here. I’ll keep it vague. Let’s just say I've witnessed things usually done in private -- sex, taking a bath, various states of undress, use of city streets as bathrooms. You get my drift.

Oh, and, then, there are the rats…the stories that I could tell you about rats.

I’m also keeping it vague, because I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about my beloved city. As bad as it gets, there’s always some sublime example of humanity that makes up for the amount of crawling skin that you endure in NYC.

Take my favorite park in the neighborhood. Many of my mom friends won’t go there, because of the shady “element” that frequents the park (Translation: homeless people sleeping on benches).

I like the park; it's beautiful canopy of trees on a tranquil block of the city. My feeling about the homeless people is that they are usually equally tranquil (sleeping). I think that they are like us without homes. I know some of them have mental health issues and/or drug problems. Again, they are like us without homes.

I do understand the wariness of the moms I know, though. Now that I have Claire, I wonder if I should be more careful. I wonder if I’m putting my daughter at risk by holding onto my idealistic notion that you should give all people a chance. I wonder if going to this park is worth it.

But there’s the sublime humanity in New York City…

The old lady is on the same park bench as always, her fingers nimbly knitting. Deep fissures line her face, but her alert blue eyes reveal a quick, ageless mind. It’s clear she’s not American. Old people who are American don’t look like her. She’s old, but timeless she could have been sitting on that park bench and knitting that same sweater since 1940. Her outfits tend towards a haphazard quality. When we see her, she’s likely to have something like a smock over pants and tube socks peeking out of shoes that look like slippers. The babushka on her head looks contemplated though. I imagine her smoothing down her hair first, then, meticulously tying it under her chin, before she heads to the park with her bag of yarn and a sweater in different stages of completion. She smiles like she has a secret. I think it’s a good one, and she’s not telling.

One day, it started pouring unexpectedly. Claire, the old lady and I took refuge under the jungle gym like a secret hiding place to sit out the rain. Our companion continued knitting and smiling, as if she were thinking about her secret from 1940. We watched the rain together. Claire went up to her tentatively, curious about her endeavors. The woman leaned in to show Claire her expert handiwork. She spoke about the sweater in a far-off Eastern European dialect.

I think she is a gypsy.

Then, she started singing. The tune had the quality of a children’s song, yet the words were a mystery.

Maybe, the song held her secret. I’ll never know.

The rain and her singing drowned out the surrounding city and took us to a place outside of time. She kept on singing her secret, smiling and knitting. And Claire was absolutely transfixed.

My daughter is probably too young to remember this strange, wonderful experience. But I like to think it’s embedded in her soul somewhere. It certainly is in mine.

The sublime humanity in New York City is.

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Photo Source: Johntex, Wikipedia Commons

Linking up with Finish The Sentence Friday. Come join in: "Once in public, I saw..."

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  1. Having grew up in Queens and frequenting the city quite often and even attending NYU for some of my graduate work, I will say NYC is definitely an interesting place where you will find all sorts of people from all walks of life. I loved your experience with this older woman and do so very much hope it is tucked away deep down in Claire's mind, too! Thanks Rachel for sharing this with us and truly beautiful story :)

  2. Wow. Your experience is now embedded in my soul too. I was transfixed. There. She touched me, too, through your words. I'v got goosebumps.

  3. Okay, you've hit me with this one. You are truly a beautiful person. Where so many see evil and darkness, you see love and beauty. Danger doesn't lurk around every corner, only a new experience and something to treasure. You have a soul filled with love for mankind. Your family is extremely lucky to have you!

  4. I haven't lived in NYC for 13 years and you brought it back to me. I would have loved to delve into a rodent conversation with you but I suppose you're right, speaking to the unique human element there gives the place a better impression (which is more deserved)

  5. Lovely story. I too love living in a city. At this point I can't imagine moving to the suburbs. While I used to live in Boston until a couple years ago, we moved to Buffalo and decided to buy a house in the city. Buffalo is -- shall we say -- a bit gritty in parts. But I love the diversity. I love people watching on busy streets and the parks.

  6. What a beautiful story - you are bringing Claire up to have so many wonderful memories and experiences - lucky girl!

    Kate x
    Kate at Home

  7. Beautifully written! You completely transported me. Great post.

  8. Beautifully written! You completely transported me. Great post.

  9. First off, thanks a lot! :( The mention of the city and rats gave me a flashback to my first year out of college working in Boston. I was at a 7-11 on Beacon Hill getting a BIG GULP on my way home from work, and as I stepped out of the store and headed for the crosswalk, a ginormous rat came flying out of the storm drain and ran right over my foot. I nearly fainted. The thing was the size of a cat!! Ewwwwwwwwwwwww

    Love the story of the gypsy woman. Very curious about that secret of hers ...

  10. It's a magical place, this NYC! What a life-changing experience! Thank you so much for sharing!

  11. What a beautiful story! I grew up and have lived in small town North Carolina, so NYC is both fascinating and overwhelming to me. It is definitely a different culture all its own - as I suppose most any city is. I love that you see the humanity in it and focus on the positive and the potential. :-)

  12. Absolutely, utterly beautiful. What a wonderful experience, and what great perspective.

    I wrote on a similar subject, but the opposite side. I love how you had your shared moment with this woman. That's amazing :D

  13. I cannot even begin to fathom how it is in NYC. I live in a small city in Canada...we are in a bubble.
    I love that you are exposing her to the many facets of life. Good, bad, everything in between and teaching her to embrace it.

  14. there is a lot to be learned about humanity in a big city that can't be gleaned from a small town. we have a huge homeless problem in SF and while i try to keep my distance (since a few of them are aggressive), every time i encounter them, it gives me an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what i have. i always think, i've been so blessed.

  15. You never know when you're going to come across awesome. :)

  16. I love the specific parts of the city that become embedded in our souls. I know that I will always have those places from Philly -- and from California. I'm excited to see what I find in Arizona~

    (¸¤ Lanaya | xoxo

  17. Wow, this really good writing, so descriptive. I felt like I was in the park. Lovely post!

  18. What a beautiful interpretation on the topic! I love how you painted the picture of the old lady in a way that made me feel present. Also loved this astute observation: "I know some of them have mental health issues and/or drug problems. Again, they are like us without homes."

  19. This is a beautiful post! I love that you are still able to see the light behind the darkness and the description of the older woman and your daughter's encounter with her is touching. I am sure this moment is embedded in her soul as well.


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