Bag in the Breeze

Photo by Kate Ter Haar (via Flickr).

Bag in the Breeze

Thursday morning, 9:47 a.m.
White airy clouds
painted against a pale blue sky.
Whipping sounds like
baseball cards spinning in bicycle spokes
call out to pedestrians
moving on the salt-crusted sidewalk.
A medical helicopter zips overhead.
You look up as it flies out of sight.
And with your head still raised,
you spot a plastic shopping bag
tangled on a leafless branch,
stuck at the top of a tree,
flapping in the breeze.
The bag waves its white flag
in an overture of surrender,
hinting at submission to the chill of winter,
while struggling to break loose,
straining to be released,
and waiting for a new wind to set it free.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

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Winter Walk

Winter Walk

It takes one fall
on the icy sidewalk
for your life to be ruined.
That’s right, just one tumble—
arms flailing,
legs scissoring in the air,
back parallel to the ground,
eyes looking up at a gray sky
unable to intervene—
in a brief suspended
moment before wham—
skull meets ground and blackness ensues.
Traumatic brain injury follows,
and you slip into a coma.
Your family huddles bedside,
waiting for you to rouse,
to wake up and rejoin the living,
like a grizzly bear stepping out
of its den after hibernation.
If you do come out of it
with some brain activity intact,
you may be a shell—withering
in a long-term nursing home.
And while you exist inside,
the costs mount for your family,
and the world outside your window
drags on, unaware of your predicament.
All this because some ice tripped you up.
So don’t be surprised if you see me
walking gingerly on the
glassy surface of the sidewalk,
digging my heels into a
pile of rock salt near the curb,
spreading it around on my soles,
strapping on a pair of
Yaktrax over my boots,
or cutting across the snow-covered lawns.
I guess I don’t mind dying,
or being knocked unconscious,
but I would feel awfully foolish
if a patch of frozen moisture does me in.

Sidewalk Stories (Kelsay Books, 2017)

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Woman on the Sidewalk

I’ve been lax with blogging lately, as I’ve been busy with video work and a couple of large-scale, long-term writing projects. But certain incidents in life make me stop and recognize the fragility of our existence, which, in turn, leads to deep rumination. And my ensuing thoughts, once processed, seem suited for this blogging space.

Something happened to me recently that disrupted my daily routine and forced me to pay attention to a person in peril.

While walking home from work Thursday night, heading down South Crouse Avenue between Harrison and Madison streets, I came across an African-American woman in her thirties sprawled out on the sidewalk in front of me, with her iPhone lying next her to body and a plastic Dunkin’ Donuts cup and ice cubes scattered nearby.

Dunkin’ Donuts cup and straw on the sidewalk (not staged or rearranged).

When I first noticed her figure in the distance, I thought it was a dummy or some type of debris, like a cardboard box. But her details sharpened as I approached her. She was dressed in a Dunkin’ Donuts uniform with a name tag that read “Natasha,” and she was positioned on her back, looking up at the darkening sky dotted with crows swooping overhead. Rush hour traffic sped along Harrison Street toward downtown and the onramp to I-81.

While it’s not usual to encounter people asking for money in the area surrounding Syracuse University, something about the woman told me she was not a panhandler or someone faking an illness to get attention. I surmised she had just finished her shift at Dunkin’ Donuts and was walking down the hill to catch a bus or continue on foot the rest of the way home. I bent over her body as I surveyed the scene. The woman’s glazed eyes stared back at me, and she appeared disoriented.

I said, “Mam are you OK? Did you fall? Are you hurt?” She was unable to respond with a complete sentence. “What?” she asked.

“Mam, why are you on the sidewalk?” She continued to hold a frightened expression on her face, but she did not say anything else. I said, “I’m gonna call someone for you.” I started to dial 911 as a man with a mustache and wearing a tan coat and an orange baseball cap walked across South Crouse Avenue toward us. “Are you calling an ambulance?” he asked as I pressed my cellphone to my ear so I could hear the operator above the traffic noise.

A female 911 operator took my call. “Nine-one-one, what’s your location?” she asked.

“South Crouse between Harrison and Madison.”

“OK, what’s going on?”

I relayed the details of my encounter with the woman on the sidewalk.

And the woman asked me a flurry of questions. “Does she appear injured? Is she breathing? Is she conscious? Is she intoxicated? Can you ask her her name and whether she has a medical condition?”

I did my best to get the answers the operator sought. The other man also tried to talk to Natasha. “Mam, what happened? Why are you on the sidewalk?” he asked.

Natasha could not vocalize any responses, and she just looked at us with her dark, glassy eyes. I don’t think she was aware of the situation or knew what had happened to her.

The man said he had to leave to “go to a founders dinner.” He crossed the street and I lost sight of his figure. The 911 operator said the ambulance was on the way, and a short time later, with sirens blaring, it pulled to the curb along Madison Street. Two young EMTs, one male and one female, hopped out of the ambulance and wheeled a gurney up South Crouse Avenue toward the woman.

“What happened?” the man asked. I told him I had found the woman on the sidewalk. “OK,” he said, “we got it.”

And with that, I left. I said a Hail Mary for Natasha, praying the paramedics would get her to the hospital quickly and doctors would determine what was wrong with her.

A passing thought also tickled my brain. I thought it would be nice to work in some capacity where I could help people on a daily basis, as opposed to simply pursuing my own career goals of a higher salary and a more prestigious position.

I also felt proud of myself for interceding on Natasha’s behalf. I say this not because I consider myself a humanitarian or a Good Samaritan, but because the incident made me realize how vulnerable humans are and how easy it would have been for me to turn away from the figure on the sidewalk and walk by the woman, deciding not to get involved.

I believe we are only as capable as our bodies allow us to be. And as someone who suffers from hypopituitarism, hypokalemia (low potassium), diabetes insipidus and hyponatremia (low sodium), I decided to stop and render aid to Natasha because other people have helped me in the past when my potassium dropped or my sodium level plummeted to a dangerous mark, below 120 (normal range 133-145). I’ve passed out before and also became weak, dazed and disoriented. And people could have perceived that I was drunk or high on drugs. Instead they helped me and I got the medical treatment I needed.

Dunkin' Donuts cup on the sidewalk (not staged or rearranged).

Dunkin’ Donuts cup on the sidewalk (not staged or rearranged).

The following morning I walked to work up South Crouse Avenue toward the SU campus. Natasha’s Dunkin’ Donuts cup was still lying on the sidewalk, and I hoped by now she had been given some intravenous fluids at Upstate or at another area hospital and was either resting comfortably in a hospital bed or had been discharged. I also hoped I would see her on her feet behind the counter the next time I stopped to get coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.

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Notes from New York City

I’ve been busy lately with video productions and haven’t had a chance to blog in a while. But after making two recent work-related trips to New York, I came away with these observations. I thought I would share them in one post, since they seem linked. The photos are from a previous trip.

Photo by Francis DiClemente

Table for One

The thin brunette hostess at Serafina on 61st Street in New York City shows my colleague Bob and I to a small table along a brick wall inside the restaurant. It is about 5:30 on a sunny Wednesday evening and we’re tired after finishing video production shoots in Connecticut and Manhattan.

We are seated next to a small, sandy-haired Italian woman in her late fifties or early sixties. Her thin lips are formed into a smile and her working-class hands are folded together and resting on top of the table.

It’s obvious she’s been here several times. She talks intimately with the bald Italian waiter. She orders a Riesling and the Branzino Al Forno; the dish is a Northern Italian sea bass baked with lemon and rosemary and served with roasted potatoes and broccoli.

The woman looks up and her eyes scan the restaurant, taking in the surroundings. She comments about the U.S. Open tennis match on the wall-mounted HD television. “It looks really nice there,” she says. She mentions to her waiter that one of the Hispanic waiters looks just like Yankee second baseman Robinson Cano.

It’s not long before she starts chatting with us. She asks if we come here often. Bob explains that we work for Syracuse University and when we travel to New York on business we usually stay at the university’s Joseph I. Lubin House, located about a block away on 61st Street.

The woman says she works as a maid near 69th Street and Park Avenue. “I have a good job,” she says. She smiles and adds, “And I got some compliments from my boss today, so I’m celebrating.”

As I listen to the woman, I realize she looks familiar to me. Of course I have never met her, but her appearance and personality remind me of Thelma Ritter’s character in the 1953 film noir movie Pickup on South Street, directed by Samuel Fuller. Both women seem to possess an indomitable spirit, a grittiness needed to survive life in the city.

And I love hearing her story, even though I’m surprised that a woman in New York City sitting at a table for one would give away so many details about her life to two strangers. She says, “I like eating out. I’m single, you know, and I work all day. I don’t want to go home and have to cook.” She adds, “Let someone else prepare the dinner.”

Bob laughs and says, “There you go.”

“Yeah,” the woman says, “and I can go grocery shopping just once a month.”

She tells us she lives in Astoria, Queens and it takes about a half-hour to get there from Manhattan. She says she has a small apartment near the subway station and she likes taking the train.

Bob and I order two appetizers, bruschetta and carpaccio (thin slices of beef), and the waiter takes our dinner order. I select the same meal as the woman.

Her food arrives and she starts eating quickly. She looks over at us and says she wants to get home in time to watch the Yankees-White Sox game on TV. “They’re starting to play better,” she says, “but they can’t lose many more games.”

In between mouthfuls she tells us that she’s Italian. I say, “I am too.”

“Nap-a-la-tan?” she asks.

I assume she means Neapolitan or Napoletano, even though the word she uses is one I have heard several times in reference to people from Naples. My grandfather used to say it all the time.

I tell her my maternal grandfather’s family originated from Naples several generations down the line. “My grandfather was born in the U.S. and we didn’t speak Italian,” I say.

She says she plans to order Rosetta Stone language software so she can learn Italian. She says she will be visiting Tuscany next year with her daughter and son and their families. “It’s a trip of a lifetime,” she says. “I can’t wait.”

Bob says since we stay at the Lubin House when we’re in town and eat at Serafina usually once a year, maybe we’ll run into her again. “You never know,” he says. “We may see you again sometime. You can tell us about the trip.”

The woman says, “That’s right.” She also says her daughter will be taking lots of pictures. She finishes her wine, pays the bill with a credit card and heads home, saying goodbye to us.

The conversation makes me think about New York as a city of possibilities, chance encounters and interactions that could alter your life in the course of an afternoon. As an outsider, it’s exciting to discover that despite New York’s congestion and frenzied pace, the potential exists to form intimate connections with people.

The next morning Bob and I are walking on the street toward a coffee shop and we spot the woman. She’s walking nearby and doesn’t notice us. She seems to be peering in a window, doing some browsing on her way to work. Bob and I look at each other and smile. I say, “That’s her, right?” He nods his head and I say, “What a great lady.”

I wish we had exchanged names and phone numbers. It would be nice to eat dinner with her again and resume our conversation the next time we are in Manhattan. And she could share some of the images from her trip to Italy.

I can see her pushing aside her glass of wine or appetizer, spreading out her photos on the table and asking us to move closer as she narrates the details of her journey to Tuscany.

Photo by Francis DiClemente

Smile on 61st Street

A black man wearing a Yankee hat
and a gray polo shirt
rests against a brick wall
on 61st Street in Manhattan.
He sits on milk crates wrapped in plastic
and covered with a dirty blanket.
The man nods his head and smiles at me
as I pass by him on the sidewalk.
His face beams in recognition
of a fellow human being,
and his smiles seems to say:
“Hey there. Here I am.
I exist. I am alive today.
Aren’t you glad to be here too?”

I nod and smile back at him,
and then stride toward my destination,
unsure whether the apparent homeless man
is just friendly or deranged.
But I carry with me the joy of living
he passes on this afternoon.
I’m sure he’ll concur that smiles are free
and goodwill contagious.
And so I’ll look to share what he gave away
to a stranger on a city block.

Woman on the Sidewalk

A woman with hooded eyelids and a skeleton frame huddles against the building unnoticed as pedestrians sidestep her, marching with purpose on the sidewalk toward the entrance to Central Park. She has thin wrists and fine tawny hair. Her eyes are closed and her lips pressed together. She wears a white long sleeve T-shirt and a pink visor encircles her head.

The afternoon light caresses her waxen cheeks as she sleeps or feigns sleep on the sidewalk. I look back at her as I walk by and she seems so frail, as if the slightest breeze could carry her away or the rays of sun melt her face or dissolve her body into a puddle of golden liquid.

This troubles me, but I continue walking, keeping pace with the other pedestrians on the block. But still I wonder if the woman is sound asleep or just faking it to get attention. What does she want from the people who pass her on the street? Money, food, a kind word or gesture? Or is she simply resting her eyes and legs for a few minutes? I guess I’ll never know the truth and this also bothers me; yet I do not stop to ask the woman to find out the answers.

Photo by Francis DiClemente

A New York City Night

The elevator carries the weight of my body upward as the metal box climbs toward heaven. I look up and watch the floor numbers advancing in red digital light. I gaze at the New York City inspection log and see that the car had been inspected in July (it’s now September).

And then my imagination runs wild as the elevator rises past the third and fourth floors. What if it gets stuck? I wonder. How long would the oxygen last? How quickly would I suffocate? What would be worse, suffocating or having the hydraulic system fail or a cable snap, causing the car to drop five flights to the ground, smashing into pieces with me inside? Neither scenario is appealing.

None of this happens, though. The doors part and I step out of the elevator. I walk to the door of my hotel room and go inside. I cross the room, lower the temperature on the air-conditioning unit and pull back the curtains to look at the NYC night. I grab the remote control, switch on the HD TV and find the YES Network.

The Yankees blow a three-run lead to the Orioles in the bottom of eighth inning. I shut off the television, convinced that Baltimore will get a walk-off win in the ninth.

I climb into bed, burrow under the covers and close my eyes as I listen to the combination of the traffic noise and A/C hum. I drift off to slip but wake up later in the night. I turn on the TV again and find out the Yankees won 6-5.

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