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my glamorous life

episodes & recollections

#69 from the forest

A bracing Sunday afternoon in New York City, the sidewalks crusted here and there with small patches of dirty snow.

On any given Sunday in New York, Baby and I are likely to perambulate crosstown to the 26th Street Flea Market, where we always end up chatting with Gary, who finds and restores mid–century modern furniture.

“Eight coats of polyurethane,” Gary said once, explaining how his Heywood Wakefields get that shine. I have never forgotten those four words, a verbal epistle to a craftsman’s pride.

But today there is no Gary because there is no Baby. She’s away and I’m working obsessively to complete three projects in a compressed subsection of time, and to fill the hours without turning in upon myself like a wounded forest creature that suddenly, in death, understands its separateness from the forest that had sustained it.

I wear green shoes with no socks, the cool air waking my ankles as I quickly seek necessities before returning to my endless list of professional tasks.

In the 24 hour market, an old woman sips bad coffee from a paper cup, apparently having no warmer place to go in the immediate neighborhood. I smile at her as the manager rings me up, forgiving me seven cents that he fishes from a penny cup on the counter.

Exiting, I smile goodbye to both the woman and the manager, as though we were friends, parting after a chance encounter in the square of a small town.

In a magazine store where I repair to sustain my tobacco addiction, I step deferentially aside for a shaking man who seeks Lotto tickets but has only one dollar—insufficient funds.

The man shivvers from age or illness, not from gambler’s dementia. He is a black American, and I sometimes sense that this particular clerk (who is also dark skinned but Central Asian) has a slight and unfortunate prejudice toward black folks.

I usually hit the store later in the day, during the shift of a different clerk (who also happens to be Central Asian but does not appear to be prejudiced against anyone). I tend to time these rituals according to who’s working when, as if I lived in a small town and knew everybody’s business, including who covers which shift where.

I probably read too much into everything, but I once noticed the day clerk tensing as a black teenager from the nearby vocational high school entered the shop. The clerk’s reaction disturbed me, though I said nothing as I observed his cold politeness toward the kid and contrasted it with his warmth toward me.

Maybe the muted incident had nothing to do with race, but I thought it did, and the whole thing was so subtle I could do nothing about it but witness it. The boy also looked hostile, either in reaction to the clerk or as a mode of being, and my heart broke for him.

But that was then. Today there was no teenager. Today there was a shaking old man, and I walked out after buying what I needed.

In the lobby I spotted Humberto, a Chilean doorman who works Sunday afternoons, who knew, and loved, and enjoyed teasing my ex, and who now knows and loves and enjoys teasing my Baby and me when we return from the flea market bearing 1950s lamps or chairs. (But not today.)

A white man in his 20s was allowing the doors to close before an old female resident of the building could reach the elevator. I said, “Hold, please.” So he held.

When we were both securely inside the elevator, going up, the old woman smiled secretly at me, with a look that I’m sure once broke one or more hearts.

Also in the elevator was a mother whose toddler was trying to reach the elevator buttons in the tradition of all young children raised in cities. The tot was as adorable as a cartoon character. I sighed when he and his mother got off on the sixth floor, and the old woman rewarded me with another of her penetratingly insightful smiles. I got off on Eight, feeling naked.

The entire excursion had taken less than ten minutes, yet I felt, as I turned back to the pile of web assigments, that I had met people and exchanged information, and that I was not separate from the forest.

20 January 2002

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