In a New York Minute

There was a chill wind blowing. I had turned my collar up and was doing my best to bury my head in my coat by hunching up my shoulders. I was feeling miserable, the red lights at the crosswalks annoying me even more than usual since all I wanted to do was seek warmth, get inside somewhere, as soon as I possibly could. But my office was still several blocks away.

This was an unseasonably cold fall. The wind made the red, gold and green leaves traipse around the pavement and subway stairwells.

Leaves have this funny way of scurrying across the sidewalks on windy days. They float horizontally for a few seconds then hop vertically on the stem then tumble across to another point, dancing and shimmying along, unhurried and playful on a coldly golden day, joyous in death, mocking the living and their perpetual frowns and creases of worry.

I glanced up from the sidewalk to see if the other rushed New Yorkers shared my misery that day. I glanced upon several bundled up faces, shivering dog walkers, and catatonic folks without a home sitting and staring from sidewalk benches or sleeping flush against the walls, comatose. The runners were running, dressed in shorts and sweating even on the blustery day, giving the distinct impression that weather wasn’t a concern when there was running to be done. In other words it was life as usual on a November morning in the city.

Then I saw her again. Every hair on her head was now grey. She seemed to have added several new wrinkles around her eyes and her constantly moving and chain smoking mouth.

I first saw her four years ago, the last time I was working at this Park Avenue office. She was startling then, always dressed in red and gold heavily brocaded saris; the kind worn by Indian brides. She found a reason to wear all her gold everyday: the maang tika, mangalsutra, gold bangles, payals, toe rings, rings. Never before had I seen an Indian woman of a certain age (there were a few flecks of grey in her hair then) so passionately enthusiastic about flaunting every bit of her bridal finery on her way from her apartment to the drug store where she bought her cigarettes for the day, two blocks away. I used to see her during my lunch hour, either walking to the Duane Reade pharmacy where I usually picked up my 16 oz Diet Cherry Coke or at the Duane Reade cashiers desk, smoking, chatting and laughing with the store personnel, explaining the significance of all things red or golden on her person.

I changed jobs and worked somewhere else for four years. I forgot about the bejeweled Indian woman of Park Avenue. Now I am back, working for a different company but in the same building as the one I was in four years ago. Things have changed in this part of the town, some stores have closed and some new ones have appeared. The streets have seen the animated dance of the red, gold, purple and brown dead leaves four times since I left.

But gone are her red saris, rings, necklaces and gold bangles. They’ve been replaced by a grungy and faded nightgown of indeterminate color and a big, battered and lumpy purse that she hugs close to her person. I recognized her instantly the first time I saw her again a few weeks ago. There is something unforgettable about her face and her carriage. She still smokes as she walks her beat, to and from her apartment to the drugstore, but now she is always engaged in an active dialogue with herself, she asks herself questions and answers them, as though she shares a body with her imaginary friend. I don’t think she has fallen on financial bad times. No one residing on Park Avenue can be in such dire straits. But it has only been four years since she appeared bright, bejeweled and full of life. And so I wonder about her.

I wonder about the things that can go wrong in four years. I wonder if things changed in her life, if her husband or family hurt her in some way or if she just fell into a dark and formidable place within, from which there is no escape. How can things change so fast, so irretrievably?

The fallen leaves do a dance in the wind, then decompose into stillness. Spring makes them green again, what becomes of our lives? No rejuvenation, no rebirths, just layers of brown, grey and black accumulating around us, making us strangers to ourselves and to each other.

Whether she knows it or not she will always be as much a part of my memories, my myriad recollections. She’ll remind me about the importance of living in the moment, cherishing it, nurturing it, letting it sink in because we never know what surprises lurk around the corner.

For instance I could be watching a dancing red and gold leaf one moment and then find myself with the next stride poised in mid air as the leaf I was about to step on morphed into the tiniest red and gold colored bird I had ever seen!

A single New York minute that day was a host to the Ophelia of Park Avenue, the homeless, the runners, the dog walkers, death and dancing leaves and finally a tiny bird morphing out of a sidewalk leaf that I almost stepped on.

My daughter, an ornithologist at 7, assures me it was a wren I saw.

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