Maybe it’s because I dislike them so. They are disruptive and bizarre. On a computer, I love to play. I’m more than comfortable when I build a website, fiddle with plugins, or muck around in code. But put someone’s name in my cell phone? Disaster.
I’d like to blame this entire story on my cousin, who started it all the other night, when he joked, in my preparation for visiting my Aunt in Chicago a few days later, “The only gift you need is a dirty joke. She’s so naughty.” She’s 87.
This much I knew. Quite frankly, all the women in my paternal line are quite, well, perverted. Once I’d asked my mother if she thought I was like my dad, and she said, “No, I think you are like your Aunt (his sister).” Interesting.
Back to my cousin. “Yes,” I said, “Thanks for the confirmation on that. I’ve been trying to remember if it was her or Granma who instructed, ‘The only way to get over a man is to get under another one.’ (It was Granma.) But does she still like chocolates?”
“Yes, but you might have to hear that they make her go to the bathroom,” he replied.
Fair enough. She is 87.
“Take her lemon curd. She loves it.”
Great. I can do that. At some point the next day I’d make my way towards Fairway or Williams & Sonoma and find her some lemon curd. And I asked a few friends for some jokes, as the only good one I have is pro-lesbian and I’d have to test the waters with her to decide if it’d go over well. (It did.)
So, the day before I left, I got everything in order. I couldn’t get downtown, so I planned to check out all the nearby stores on Broadway for lemon curd after I taught my last class. I also had to pick up a bottle of wine because I was en route to a party. My path was marked: the party was 6 blocks south, 4 blocks east, with errand stops in air conditioned stores on the way. Though it was still sweltering in the city and I was dressed for the party, it was well planned and would be no problem. A nice stroll, even.
Until the voicemail. After I taught, I chatted it up with students for awhile, then went back to change. I then noticed the VM message on my mobile.
“Anastasia! I have a favor to ask! There was a mess-up and we had to run to downtown catering and didn’t have time to get the cake. Could you get it? It’s at Make My Cake on 116th and St Nicholas. They close at 8. Text if you can or can’t.”
It was 7:30. Of course I could get the cake, though I’d have to run, as I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get there. As I took off east across campus, I called and left a message, “Yes! Just got your message. I’m running to get the cake. Just let me know if someone else got it. This isn’t a text ’cause it takes me about 10 minutes to write one!”
Skipping down the steps of the park headed toward St Nicholas, I considered the lemon curd and wine and wondered if there was any way I could pick them up over there, as it’s a good twenty minute walk to and from Broadway. No calls or texts came in, so I kept going, wondering if I had the time and stamina to go back to Broadway for the goods. I knew I didn’t want to leave it for the morning before my flight because it’d be too rushed. Maybe I could find a cab. Hmmm. Then I ran into Jon, a friend from the neighborhood, crossing Frederick Douglass with a cane in one hand and cigarette in the other, and told him, among other things, to cut out the smoking. He ignored me and asked what kind of cake I was picking up.
“Dunno,” I answered, running off.
7:50p.m. Cake shop.
“Hi. I’m here for a cake. The name, I think is…. No? What does it say? Ah…I have the order number. I’m sorry, one second,” I said, and listened to my VM messages. “Okay. 7253. Red Velvet cake.”
There was some calling back and forth and some upstairs downstairs before a young guy came out, looked at me slightly disparagingly, and said, “Someone just picked that up.”
“Okay, thanks. Sorry for the trouble. I got a message, but it wasn’t clear if they’d sent someone else.”
“Hey, is there anywhere around here I can get lemon curd?” I asked the first woman. Working in a cake shop, I figured if anyone would know, she would.
She looked at me with raised-browed amusement and said, “No, you’re going to have to go down to Fairway or farther for that. There’s an organic food store, but it closes at 8.”
“Okay, thanks.” I said, and figured I’d go back to Broadway and try my luck. I passed the still-open organic food store, but no lemon curd. And no cabs. So I walked the 20 minutes back to Broadway, figuring that with the surprise party in full swing now, they just didn’t notice my VM about the cake.
I texted to make sure someone had gotten the cake. “Someone got it!” I wrote.
A few minutes later, the phone chimed, announcing a new text. “Hon, I think you sent a text to the wrong person.”
By now I was almost back to Broadway, hot, frizzy-haired, sweaty, and kind of annoyed. “‘Someone got it!’ was not clear enough?” I thought. I snapped the phone shut, then, frustrated, reopened it to write another, as it chimed in another text:
Joke 1: A woman goes to her doc and asks, “How many calories are in cum?” The doc replies, “Sweetheart, if you swallow, no one cares if ur fat.”
The auntie jokes were coming in. The moment felt incredibly absurd. I typed a reply to the previous message. “The cake? Someone….” As I raced toward Broadway, half-looking, half-typing, I realized that I was the person I deplored—the joker racing down the street fussing with a gadget. I was an ugly pedestrian. A bad citizen. Oh, the shame.
I finished the text anyway, turned into West Side Market, headed for the jams, and searched out the lemon curd. Lime curd. They had lime curd. Hell. Does she like lime curd? I searched for my cousin’s number in my phone. Hmmm. Why don’t I put names in my phone?
Well, I do. I’d put the party host’s in just the weekend before, on July 4th. I do resist though, as it takes time and I like numbers. My grandmother (and namesake. Paternal line) had the numbers, addresses, and birthdays of the entire Lithuanian-American club memorized, and could recall them even at age 95. I’m old-fashioned in some ways. I will argue that my memory is fantastic. It’s just that hunting up numbers in a call log does not carve them into memory them same way fingering that rotary dial did.
I asked a guy stocking soups if they might have lemon curd. He took me to a guy who’s worked there longer than a day, and he led me back to the lime curd. Then he took me past the cheese, sushi, and lobsters to the barbeque sauce section and scoured the shelves for lemon curd. I gave up and went on to Milano. Not even lime curd. Frustration mounting, I went to the wine store. That, at least, would be easy.
Back out in the heat, I had to decide. Walk 6 more blocks to try Garden of Eatin’ for lemon curd? Or settle for lime? My phone chimed with another joke. Wanting to be a good guest, niece, goddaughter, I walked south. I popped into Samad’s just in case, like my auntie, they had a strange fondness for lemon curd, and stocked it. They did not. I went on. At the Garden, my fifth stop, I made a beeline to someone who worked there. “Do you have lemon curd?” He looked uncertain for a split second, then he took me to the jams, reached up to a row of fancily labeled goods, and handed me lemon curd. Lemon curd! Thank God! Relief! My sweat and newly-formed blister were not in vain.
Three nasty jokes had come in by this time, and I read them while waiting in line. Of course I was behind three people at the registers who took eons. One issue with the price of something, another remembered he needed yogurt mid-checkout and went to get it, and the last simply complained about nothing, and stalled the rest of us in her need for attention. This meant the bus, which would have taken me the ten-minute walk back east to the party in two minutes, was just pulling away from the curb as I rounded the corner. I refuse to take a cab four blocks—even if they’re avenues—so I walked.
I arrived. About two hours behind my original plan. Am I becoming part of that mobile crowd who finds this acceptable? Oh, I so hope not.
“Welcome!!” Big hug. “Did you get my super-paranoid message about the cake? Don’t worry. We got it!”
“I know. I went to get it. Didn’t you get my message?”
“No,” she said, confused. She checked her phone. “Nothing.”
“So weird,” I said as I walked to wash the grime off my hands, wondering to whom I’d sent all those messages. As I washed, I remembered a brief thought that flashed through my mind when I half-listened to the greeting when I’d left the VM message. “Strange. Her name sounded so much like ‘Sarah’ the way she said it.” But I was so concerned about leaving the message and getting the cake that I really didn’t listen to notice that I had called Sarah. This is what happens when people are rushing around on phones. No one is really saying or listening to anything. I’d pressed “Purva” when I made the call. I claim not to, but I’d trusted my little machine. I was certain I’d called Purva.
I had, in fact, saved the wrong number in my phone coming home from July 4th festivities last week. But until I got to the party, and later when Sarah left a message saying, “What the hell is wrong with you? My birthday isn’t until next week” (Just kidding. She left a very patient and polite message, very unlike my recent message to a friend whose phone dials me ten times a day—and leaves long background-chatter-filled messages—because my name is at the start of her phonebook) did I seriously consider that it wasn’t the right number.
You hoped this was the end of the story, but no.
The next day, I got to the airport without issue. I’ve never flown Delta, and have therefore never flown out of LaGuardia’s art deco Marine Air Terminal, which is just gorgeous. It wasn’t crowded. There were no lines. I was incredibly charmed until I stood barefoot on the cold, dirty floor of the security checkpoint and the TSA gal called, “bag check.”
I was patient and pleasant because I had nothing problematic with me. I remembered to take out all my lotions and such because I wasn’t certainly wasn’t checking a bag for a few days in Chicago. I had no gels or liquids.
They wanted, and took, my auntie’s lemon curd.
“Are you kidding me?” I said to a nice-enough, middle-aged bald guy just doing his job. “It’s not a liquid. It’s not a gel. It’s solid. It is for my 87-year old aunt. Do you know how many stores I went to for this last night?”
The guy said, “Not allowed. Substances like jams, preserves, almond butter (he actually said “almond” and not “peanut” as if he knew my diet. Creepy, but good to know) in sizes over three ounces are not allowed. You can check it if you want.”
“I can check a 20oz jar of lemon curd?”
“Ah, I don’t think so.”
“Well, I want you to know that we are not taking it from you, that you can check it, and that it is your choice to give it to us.”
I refrained from retorting that unlike jam, preserves, or almond butter, lemon curd is quite solid, and that it was his choice not to let me take it. I did say, “I went to five stores in the blistering heat to find this for my auntie last night. I find it incredible that I cannot take a jar of solid food product to my 87-year old auntie. Just incredible.”
This seemed to make him feel bad, which wasn’t my aim, but that “It is your choice to give it to us” nonsense is unacceptable. Shoes on, I gathered my things and huffed off. Gal #1 laughed. B – – – -.
I found a seat and flipped open my cell phone. I set off writing a red hot text, partly because I was annoyed, and partly because I knew he’d think it was hilarious. You would hope I’d learned my lesson the night before, but no. I sent the message off to the wrong person again, this time because the last four unsaved-but-in-the-log numbers of the needed phone number were markedly similar. (I’d actually made this specific mistake before, too.) The details of this faux pas are far too humiliating to relive here, so I’m just going to do you the favor of ducking out now.
I was able to find my Aunt another suitable gift, this one filed under her favorite subject: “Not for the puritanical.” She’s such good fun.
Last Monday morning at 5:43am, I had a few minutes spare before leaving for yoga. I didn’t intend to read the email that had arrived the night before. I’d planned to wait until I was fully awake, in the bright of day, and perfectly able to take in whatever came next. I would not chance any of the sorrows that so easily take over in the quiet hours of the day. But the sun was up, and I rashly decided I was being silly. Why not? So I read.
Previous caution aside, I didn’t fully expect what I read or the affect it would have on me. I teared. I looked at the time. I collected my stuff and myself and I left.
A friend of mine once said, after her father died, that you can’t schedule grief. You can’t plan it, you just have to take it when it comes. This has been my experience precisely. While anger is fairly accessible to me, sadness tends to hide itself, even when I know it should be there, and feel that it is, somewhere, there. Because it is difficult for me to reach, I try to respect it when it comes.
In the elevator down, the tears started rolling. I walked out of my building and up the street, feeling bittersweet memories and the sheer sadness of an ending, and crying harder. I’ve learned in the past that silent tears often go unnoticed, and New York is mostly asleep before six in the morning, so I didn’t care too much about my public display. When I was midway down the steps to the subway, an MTA guy headed up them looked at me with concern. I recognized him as a night-shift elevator operator, and remembered saying ‘Hi’ to him when I came home the night before, just after 10. He said something. I pulled out an earbud.
He asked, again, with kind eyes, “Are you okay? Is everything okay?”
“Yes, oh yes,” I answered, and he nodded. We kept going. The tears came a little harder, marveling at the beauty of New Yorkers. Marveling that someone who’d spent the last eight graveyard hours in an underground MTA elevator still has the capacity to be genuinely concerned about a stranger passing by.
A few nights before, I talked to a guy at in a club who claimed that Londoners are much more open and kind then New Yorkers. He complained that New Yorkers are entirely self-absorbed and unhelpful.
“Really? You think so?” I answered, amazed. I understand this might be true as far as superficial concerns go, but never have I found a New Yorker to turn on someone in real pain or need. Yes, there is a certain amount of numbing oneself to others’ pain that goes on here, to get through the daily realities of so many in such a small space. But if someone is truly out or ill or in need, someone steps up. No, not everyone, but someone. You know when it’s your turn. That’s how we work.
Last year, just after Andrea moved back to Australia, I was headed downtown on the train during rush hour to meet a friend for dinner. It was packed, and I was standing by a pole between the end seat and the doors. A particular song came on my player and all of the sudden I burst into tears. I’d kept sunglasses on, so I didn’t think it was terribly noticeable. I was silent. My eyes closed in search of privacy, pretending that anyone I could not see could not see me. Because rush hour on the train is so in-your-face, and I respect the right of New Yorkers to have as much space as possible on our confined and difficult commutes (i.e. no one needs extra drama two inches away after a long day’s work), I tried to dam the tears. Just when I thought I’d stifled them, someone tugged on my arm.
“Sit, sit, please sit,” said the man sitting in front of me.
Stubborn, I refused. “No. No thank you.” I shook my head, as accepting meant I acknowledged he was there. That anyone was there. That I was making a scene. His kindness toppled the dam and I cried harder, gulping for air as I tried to regain composure. The train stopped. The man got up. He looked and sounded Middle Eastern. “Sit!” he cried, as he grabbed my arm and forced me down in his seat, seemingly anguished by my pain, and then bolted from the car. The blond woman next to me turned and asked if I was okay.
“Yes, yes,” I answered, humbled by their kindness and totally unable to stop the flow of tears. I refused to make eye contact with anyone else in the crowded car, and refused to acknowledge how many might be taking me in. Finally, by 14th Street, I pulled it together, wiped my face, and prepared to get off the train. It was done. By the time I reached the restaurant, no one suspected a thing.
A friend of mine recently said that NYC is a refugee camp. It takes in everyone who, for whatever reason, can’t or doesn’t want to be where he began (and if not him, it took in his mother or grandmother, and he knows what that means). Given the number of cultural strangers here, it’s a miracle that so little violence takes place, especially considering the behavior and antics of many space-rich middle Americans.
In our own way, we take care of each other. No, we aren’t bubbly or disingenuous. We also know how to stay out of each other’s way, which can be seen by outsiders as rudeness. But on this tiny island of millions, that, too, is an act of kindness.