He sat down next to me on the bench. I was only aware because he said hello. I returned a miserable “hello” and took a sip of Coke. I put the cup down next my food and buried my nose back in my phone.
I had walked 6 miles through the city. Enjoying the weather. Recognizing buildings and streets, and finding new ones. Taking pictures. Chatting with strangers. Falling in love all over again.
I found myself back at Madison Square Park (not unusual since it’s fairly close to me, AND conveniently has a Shake Shack. Yum!), and realized I had skipped breakfast and hadn’t eaten since lunch. It was now 7:30 pm, and Shake Shack sounded perfect. I stood patiently in line like a good little New Yorker. I placed my order and took my buzzer. Then I moved to the other side of the building to wait with the hoard of Shack-Addicts.
I’ve done this before. Waited in line. Patiently. I glanced around for the man who had been standing in front of me in line. 15 minutes go by…he is still waiting. So I’m not concerned. But I am thirsty. And now I am tired. Where there were tables, there is now a large wedding party. They are having fun and I can’t be angry at them for stealing all the seats. There are benches in the park, but they are too far away.
30 minutes pass. I’ve lost sight of the man from the line. I hear them calling the name “Sammy!” repeatedly. No one ever responds, so I think maybe they misheard my name and I approach the window. In a very “No Soup For You!” fashion, the burger dude looks at me and asks, “Sammy?” I answer, “No. But my name is Sandi, and it’s been 35 minutes, so maybe the girl heard my name wrong.” He turns his back on me. Then he turns back around, looks over my head and yells, “Samuel?!!” I shit you not. So I turn around and head back into the crowd (who are now looking at me as if I ate a kitten).
45 minutes go by. I am certain Sammy’s order was for me. No one ever claimed it, and the burger dude refused to speak to me. Maybe it was that “Queens Guard” training he got in, where? Queens? Whatever. I was hitting a blood sugar low, and was getting dehydrated.
I changed my tack and went to the back of the order line. At least this way I knew I would be able to speak to someone. It took a full 15 minutes to get back to the window, and by this time, I had begun to cry. Damn the hormones and blood sugar. I stuck my fingers behind my glasses to wipe my eyes, and felt the mascara go everywhere. I knew I looked like a demented Norma Desmond, but I didn’t care.
That may have worked to my advantage, because the look I got from the man at the window was remarkable. I explained that it had been an hour, and that I didn’t even want a refund, but could I please just get a Coke, and could he please just hand it to me so I didn’t have to go to the other side and wait any longer because there weren’t any places to sit down, and I was old and hormonal, and my blood sugar was low…and then I started to cry…hard. Right there at the Shake Shack window. He leaned down and whispered, “I got you!” and turned to get my Coke. As he handed it to me, I looked around for a straw, and he put a hand on my arm and whispered again, “I got you!” and grabbed a straw from the other side and handed it to me.
I thanked him and turned and started to walk away when the girl who originally took my order yelled, “Hey! Aren’t you the person who wanted a bottle of water and I told you we were all out?” I told her I was. She asked, “And you haven’t gotten your food yet?!!” I told her I had not. She turned and screeched, “Tyrone! I KNOW this lady ain’t been waiting my WHOLE break to get her food!!! I’ve been on break an HOUR!” And the “I got you” man leaned down again and said, “We are going to get you your food now.” And I watched three people shove everyone out of the way to get my burger and cheese fries in under 30 seconds and hand it, gently, out the window. Full of apologies.
I appreciated what they did. I wasn’t even angry. But I had reached a point of no return physically. I walked over to a park bench and sank down. I put the food next to me and considered eating a fry. Instead, I just sipped the Coke and looked at my phone.
By now, the sun had gone down. I was wearing a t-shirt and was starting to shiver. A man started pacing and yelling profanities in the park. He had been there all along, but seemed to be more and more agitated. At some point, an ambulance was called for someone else nearby, and there were flashing lights and sirens. I was ready to be home, but not ready to walk. And now I had a box of (cold) food to carry. Still miserable, I stared down into my phone and began to cry again.
It’s funny. I’ve been alone in New York all along, but I’ve never felt lonely. There are people everywhere. And I’ve always been fine by myself. All my life really. But in that moment, I felt very small. Alone. Vulnerable. It was at that moment when I realized the man who was still sitting next to me was talking to me. Quietly, but not threatening. I had barely noticed him before, and now that it was dark, I could hardly see him. He was tall and young (25-35?) and black. His skin was so dark, he was actually hard to see. And he was asking if I was alright. What bizarre timing. I was not. And I found myself telling him so. He asked if he could help. Of course he couldn’t. But then he did. He stood up and asked, gently, if he could take the box of food. I nodded. He then walked to the end of the benches and motioned for me. By the time I reached the end, he was on the curb and had called a cab over. I never even saw him hail it. It was just there. And the cab was warm, and he was opening the door and handing me my sad little box of cold Shake Shack (don’t feel too sorry for me here…I ate it all later. Shake Shack is delicious in any form and at any temperature) and telling the driver to take care of me.
I gave my address, and the driver headed down the street, and as he got behind a bus, he turned toward me and asked, “Would you mind if I broke the law?” I was confused, but I honestly didn’t care if he drove me to Vegas at that point, so I answered, “no problem”. He then proceeded to do a U-turn (which I assume was against the law) and had me home in under 5 minutes. Then he waited while I walked up the stairs and went inside.
Who ARE these people? And how is it they show up at the perfect times?
I plopped down on the couch, and was greeted by a conversation from an old friend who was able to take my mind off all things yucky and down memory lane. Old jokes about oatmeal, and new tattoos and grandchildren. Where had the time gone? And what if Geddy Lee and Stevie Nicks had made a duet? I happily munched my cold burger and considered my day.
What hadn’t I noticed today? All those people who approached me for money in the park. I was too busy thinking of myself. What were their stories? I was almost too wrapped up in my own world to hear someone offering ME help. It was time to pay it forward.
I made a decision. I ran to the store and turned some money into a roll of dollar bills. I will keep them in my pocket and give one to EVERY person who asks for help in the park until they are gone. It’s not much. It’s hardly anything. But it’s better than nothing. And maybe it’s more than that.