The Coin Collector

A woman approached me recently while I walked home on Genesee Street between South Crouse and University avenues. She was a tall, thin African-American woman, and she wore a puffy black winter coat, blue-gray sweatpants and brown-rimmed glasses. She also carried a brown leather purse in the crook of her right arm.

I saw her asking people for money and she had asked me for change on at least one other occasion.

As I came to the intersection at Genesee and University, the woman lost a coin and it fell in the street near the curb. She bent down to pick it up and then she turned to me and waved.

Photo by Francis DiClemente

Photo by Francis DiClemente

I was listening to music on my iPod and I took off my headphones. “Excuse me,” she said. “Do you have 95 cents for the bus?”

I said, “no,” but I pulled out a dollar bill from my wallet and handed it to her; I remember being aggravated because it was cold and I had to remove my gloves. “Thanks honey,” she said as she accepted the money. And then she took off, walking along Genesee Street.

She approached a small group of people gathered on the sidewalk and praying outside Planned Parenthood. I admired her persistence and the swiftness of her routine.

She would either receive some change or get brushed off. Either way, she didn’t waste any time. It was a quick exchange and then she marched away, heading for the next person.

Photo by Francis DiClemente

Photo by Francis DiClemente

After I went inside my apartment building, I reflected on the incident and took into consideration the following information. You can decide for yourself what parts may be true.

A. The woman scammed me and everyone else and had no intention of using the money she received for bus fare.

B. Her request for bus fare was legitimate and she just needed some help getting home.

C. I know nothing about her life, so who am I to judge?

D. If Christ had been there, what would he have done? That’s an easy answer. I thought about two Bible verses. “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:30; New International Version)

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” (Matthew 25:40; New International Version)

E. I accept the fact that the woman probably scammed me. But it was only a dollar and I considered it my gift to her; she could do whatever she wanted with the money.

F. I wonder how I will respond the next time she comes up to me asking for change. Will I reach into my pocket or keep on walking? I’ll let you know if I find out.

Have a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving everyone. I wish for you a day of relaxation and fun with your families.


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.