After a day of rain, the sky cleared and a light breeze picked up. A cool and inviting morning beckoned me outdoors. I hopped down the steps and turned to walk east, thinking today would be a great day to visit Central Park. Every trip I have made here has involved little pieces of the park, but I have always wanted to spend an entire day exploring. Besides, I needed to give out my dollars!
As I pass the elementary school, teachers are setting up for Field Day. I am tempted to stay and watch… but…Central Park.
I cross 8th Avenue and as I walk the length of the block, I pay attention to all the flowers, bushes and trees. There is so much GREEN here! I recently had a conversation with a friend who thought of New York City as a “concrete jungle”, which I think many people do. Anyone who has visited the touristy spots may never have realized how many parks exist here and just how lush certain areas of this city are. I want to pull out my phone and take pictures…video…Live-Stream on Facebook. I reach for my pocket and then change my mind. I am enjoying it so much that I decide to be selfish.
There is a community garage sale (no, wait, yard sale? Nope. Street sale!) happening along the north side of the block. There are signs everywhere gently reminding people to keep their voices down so they won’t disturb the neighbors in the surrounding buildings. Nice touch.
Between 8th and 7th Avenues, I listen to people’s conversations as we pass each other. I count sixteen separate conversations, and not one was in English. I recognized Spanish, Italian and French. The other languages sounded familiar (I could pick the continent they came from) but couldn’t tell you what they were. I love being the minority. I love that I can move in and out of these people’s lives as if I were a ghost. I’m an observer. A sponge. I begin to mentally write about what I am seeing and hearing.
As I travel further east, the trees begin to shrink and the tourists begin to bloom. Sidewalks become more crowded and conversations are more often in English and decidedly more agitated. This is the price to pay for visiting the giants. The icons. The architectural gems. I am almost to where I turn north to visit the library, Grand Central Station, the buildings that demand attention, and of course Central Park. But I don’t particularly enjoy the walk north of 34th or east of 5th. I feel so at home in the west villages. It amazes me that there can be such different areas on an island this small.
I reach Madison Square Park, and give a little nod to the Flatiron Building, which now feels like an old friend. I cross the street toward the park. There are tables with umbrellas set up on the side of 5th Avenue between the street and the park. Free shade/seating/WiFi. I am adrenalized by the words in my head, so I decide to stop for a few minutes and download my brain into an email to myself.
As I scan the tables, I notice there are many available, but none with shade. As much as I would like to bask in the sun, I need to see my phone screen (I also am trying to protect a new tattoo), so when I spy a vacant chair next to a woman sitting alone, I ask if I can join her. She happily says yes and gestures toward the chair.
I pull out my phone and begin to tap away. I have so much to get down before I forget. And then she spoke. “I’m Poochy”, she said. “What’s your name?” She made quick business of the niceties… the weather, the surprising lack of a crowd, the attendant who kept trying to close the umbrellas because he thought the breeze was too strong… and then I realized she was not going to stop talking. I put my phone away. I figured that listening to what a woman named “Poochy” had to say, in her strong accent (Jamaican? I really need to sort these out) was probably more interesting than what I was typing anyway.
I looked across at her. She was dressed in shades of brown and adorned with multiple pieces of Tiger Eye jewelry. She wore a cape and large sunglasses. She told me animated stories of living in Canada and Italy. She loved children, but was not able to have any of her own. She had chosen to care for other women’s children all her life, which was what had brought her, ultimately, to New York City. After those children had grown, she took a job in a daycare, with dreams of opening up her own some day. She was probably my age, and I loved that she was currently mid-dream. She was not able to do much on her daycare salary, so she cooked for people and took catering jobs on the side. She spoke of these jobs in hushed tones, so I assumed it was money under the table. Good for her!
I wasn’t able to get many words in edgewise, so when I told her that I had also lived in Italy (for a summer) and had picked up the language in Sicily, she brightened and began to speak to me in Italian! I understood much of it, but I had not retained enough to tell her (in Italian) that I did not speak it any more. She admonished me and told me I should always keep up with any languages learned. She was right, of course.
After more stories about her sisters, and a friend who had a baby by a man who was married to someone else (that was a longer story than you would think, and it had an interesting and depressing ending which I won’t share here. But it was the reason she was in, and eventually left Italy) and her love of cooking, she sat back in her chair and asked if I had been to Italy. I was confused, because I had just told her that I had. Before I could answer, she began to yell at the attendant who insisted on putting down the umbrellas because of the breeze. He didn’t dare approach our table, but a forlorn young man stood up from his suddenly-sunny table and began to look around. “Come here!” Poochy called out to the man, “We have plenty of shade to share!” I shifted my chair to the left as he dragged his over. We were now a threesome.
He put his backpack down and pulled out his phone. He told us (in perfect English…no accent) that he had a lunch meeting, and was hoping for a shady spot. He looked over toward the park and thought out loud, “Maybe I can find a bench over there?” It was approaching noon, and both Poochy and I told him that if he wanted one, he better move fast. He dialed a number and put the phone to his face. He then began talking in…Swedish? (Good lord, is that a language? I’m certain that if I ever become remotely famous with my writing, it will be due to offending a large number of people by my complete lack of geographical knowledge. I need to brush up… okay LEARN… nationalities and dialects pronto!) I half-expected Poochy to start speaking to him in his own language. She didn’t, but I wonder if it was just because she didn’t want to embarrass the stupid girl sitting across from her.
Our new friend made his way across to the park, and Poochy again focused her attention on me and asked if I had been to Italy. She gestured behind me. At this point, I assumed she was talking about Little Italy (even though she was gesturing the wrong direction) and I answered that no, I had not. I had walked by, but never really stopped to look around. She looked aghast. “Oh my!” she exclaimed loudly, “You MUST go to Italy! What are your plans right now?” I informed her that I was planning on heading uptown and was going to hang out in Central Park for the afternoon. So she countered with, “So you have TIME! I have a doctor’s appointment in a few minutes, and have to go to the bathroom anyway, so come with me and I will show you Italy now!” She was right. I did have time. So I figured what the hell? I’ll let her show me Italy.
The next 3 minutes were confusing ones. We stood up from our table and turned west toward 5th Avenue. She was on my left. Little Italy was to the south and east, so I instinctively turned to the left to head south on 5th. I slammed into her. She began to cross 5th, so I figured she wanted to walk on the opposite side of the avenue. When we crossed the street, I turned to the left again, and slammed into her again. She was really REALLY not wanting to head south. I started wondering how she was going to take me to Little Italy. I moved to her left side, assuming we would be turning at the end of the block, and she crashed into me this time. I gave up and just followed her. She was short and quick, so I almost had to jog to keep up. I had just reached pace with her when she came to an abrupt halt at the front of a store. For the third time, I smashed into her. I’m surprised she wanted to hang out with me at this point. As she turned to go inside the building, I assumed it was to use the bathroom before we walked across town. I began walking quickly through the store when she came to yet another dead stop. Yes, I ran into her. I can only hope no one was filming this. She was showing me something. I looked to my left and saw a gelato station. As I scanned the rest of the store, I realized we were inside a huge market. I glanced up and saw the sign. “EATALY”!!!! Because of her accent, I had assumed she was saying “Italy” all along. She was referring to Eataly NYC (Flatiron) an expansive Italian Marketplace featuring cafés, counters, restaurants, and so much delicious, fresh food, my stomach instantly began to growl. I had to rethink the last 20 minutes of conversation.
She was excited to show me every part of the store. She apparently shopped and ate here often. At each station, she would get the attention of whoever was there and introduce me. I met the deli man, the cheese man (who popped a small chunk of well-aged deliciousness into my mouth before I could say a word), the sandwich man, the gelato man, the pizza men, the bread girl, and finally Luka…the pasta man. Luka was so happy to see Poochy that he came out from behind the counter to give her a hug. She introduced us, and then he hugged me. She then peered into the case and asked about the daily offerings. He obliged, giving us detailed descriptions of each with sparkling eyes and a heavy Italian accent. I developed an instant crush and decided at that moment that pasta was the key to life and love.
We wandered around the store some more, Poochy narrating non-stop, and I was amazed at the size. She darted into the bathroom (as promised), and then popped her head out to yell in my direction, “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” I shook my head no. “Are you sure? You really should go!” People began to stare, and suddenly she was my 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Singleton, giving me very important instructions…so I dutifully marched in her direction.
When we emerged, I saw Luka walking toward us. He was holding a bag. He leaned over to kiss Poochy on the cheek, and then placed the bag in my hand. Inside was fresh pasta (and by fresh, I mean, “made while we were in the bathroom” fresh)… truffle ricotta and spinach ricotta. He grabbed my face and kissed my cheek. That was it. I was dead. I had been hit by a bus somewhere between 6th and 7th Avenues and the rest was a weird trip to heaven. Not that I deserve heaven. But maybe an Italian/fresh pasta heaven.
We made our way to the front of the store so Poochy could leave and make it to her doctor’s appointment. And Central Park was still beckoning. She grabbed my arm and said, “You should put my number in your phone. Then call me the next time you are coming this way and we can have lunch.” That sounded like a wonderful idea, so I opened my phone, and asked how to spell her name.
U T C H E.
(Pronounced “Oochie”. As in, “I’m Utche.” Not Poochy.)
That’s it. I don’t deserve to be out in public any more. I went home and put myself into a carb-induced Time-Out. Central Park will just have to wait until tomorrow. But I managed to make it back in time to witness an exciting end to PS11’s Field Day. And I made a new friend.