After The Fire

“Hey!”

I heard a woman’s voice call out just as I got home from walking Cholula. I didn’t turn around (New York tip: don’t turn around when people yell “Hey!”). As I got to the stairs and was opening the door, I heard it again, “HEY!” Only this time it was closer. I had Lula in my arms and the door began to close behind us when I caught a glimpse of her coming up the stoop. I heard her call out my name just as the door closed in her face, “Sandi!”.

Well now I felt a little like a schmuck. I had recognized the face at the last minute. And now I was wondering if the door had actually hit her face as it slammed. I quickly set Lula down and reached for the knob.

I pushed open the door to greet my friend Magie. We had met about a month ago while sitting on the front stoop, watching the NYFD put out a fire on top of the building across the street. It was a very “New York” moment. She lived in the building next door to the fire, and so we had chatted about the fire, and the fire department. We discussed the neighborhood, real estate, New York. We had exchanged first names, but had never discussed anything more personal. Since then, we waved when we saw each other.

I had just returned from spending the day walking around the streets of the city, taking pictures of murals and buildings and generally enjoying the gorgeous weather. She seemed in a hurry as she held out a laminated card. “I’m having an art show.” Magie told me this in the same way someone from Texas might have mentioned their garage sale. “It’s going on for a month, but the opening reception is tonight and I would love for you to go.” (Wow!) “It’s pretty close by, so if you aren’t doing anything…”

I interrupted her, “No, I was just stopping by to feed the animals and then I was going to head out again to soak up the last of this weather. I would love to come by, thank you!”

She pointed to the card, “Well, it’s just up on 29th. The address is on there. I hope you can make it!” And she was off.

I turned to head into the apartment, staring down at the card in my hand. Magie Dominic. In my head, I had spelled it with two “g’s”. I fed the animals and then moved to the couch to do some quick research. I flipped open my laptop and googled her name. I was surprised how fast I found her. I was MORE surprised at what I was reading. My mild-mannered neighbor was an artist (duh), but she was also an actress, and… I caught my breath… an author! She had written two books! I pulled up one of the first articles about her. An interview she had given this past February. I wanted longer to read it all, but it was getting late. What I was looking for right now was some insight. I needed to know what to bring.

I’d been to a couple local art shows since coming to New York. Chelsea is an artsy kind of village, so it’s not uncommon. But I had never been personally invited. And never to an opening reception! It felt like a big deal, and I wanted to bring her something. Was it like a housewarming? I could swing by the wine store (there are four stores within a block of the apartment), but would that be appropriate? Did she drink wine? I remember reading part of the interview. She drinks tea. A lot of tea. Well damn. I would just have to find something on the way. There were 8 blocks of possible stores between here and the show. Surely I would find something.

I changed out of shorts and tennis shoes and put on a skirt and ballet flats. I hadn’t packed anything super dressy for this trip, because I wasn’t going to see any Broadway shows. I had managed to attend two book signings already, and my only “fancy” top was dirty. Ugh. I would just have to wear the casual (it’s cute, right?) top I already had on. I was beginning to feel some sort of social anxiety creep in. What the heck? That’s not my style at all!

I took the stoop carefully. I have found that the more excited or relaxed I am (which totally describes my top two emotions when I’m in New York), the more likely I am to trip and fall. I really didn’t want to show up with bloody knees and street poo on my clothes.

On the corner of 8th and 23rd there was a small flower shop. A quick note about flower shops: There are flower “markets” all over. These are usually quick-shops that just happen to have a vendor with about a hundred buckets filled with pre-wrapped bouquets of flowers. The flowers are always beautiful, and if nothing else, they jazz up the sidewalks. I love taking pictures of them. But… I am not a fan of pre-wrapped bouquets. I think they are a cheezy/lazy gift, and then they die.

Flower “shops” are usually little hole-in-the-wall stores with some overpriced arrangements and (what I was considering bringing Magie) plants. Nothing in this store screamed “Opening Reception”, so I exited.

Earlier in the day I had walked down 28th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and there was some sort of plant-a-palooza happening. There was, as there so often is, quite a bit of scaffolding and construction going on for most of the street, so pedestrian traffic was tight. Unless I have a scheduled stop, I do not pause or stop on streets like this. It’s a fast-pace, so I just try to keep up and not fall down. That’s the general theme at least. But I began to notice a lot of container plants out by the sidewalk. Packed in tight bunches. My first thought was that a building was about to put in their landscaping and it had all been delivered out front. But as I passed that building, I noticed the plants continued. I also noticed that there were men sitting and standing out among all the greenery. They were staring up the street as people continued to pass by. And finally I noticed price tags on the plants. Thousands of plants, trees and herbs lined the sidewalk. Tall, short, lush, creeping, flowered and… fragrant! In the cool weather, under the shade of the scaffolding, the breeze was picking up the scents of all of these wonderful plants and flowers and funneling it down the sidewalk. I wanted to stop, but instead made a mental note to come back. Meanwhile, I was inhaling as much of the lovely smell as I could (the one thing that’s in short supply in this city) before turning onto 6th Avenue.

So now I considered going back to see if they were still there. It was a little further, so I would be late. And then I pictured myself carried a container of petunias into an art show reception. Okay, new plan.

I popped into a Rite-Aid, thinking I would just get a card. That social anxiety was creeping in again. How weird. So, what kind of card? Do they make, “Thank you for inviting me to the opening reception of your art show” cards? How about an, “I’m not really cool – in fact, I’m kind of a nerd, but I hope you don’t find out” card? I searched. There was nothing.

Then it hit me. Tea! She had mentioned she drank lots of tea. The universally “nice” thing to give anyone. So I picked up the world’s tiniest gift bag, bought a box of Celestial Seasonings herbal tea “variety sampler”, and opened it up in the store to put into the gift bag. I tried to regain something that resembled composure, and left the store.

I made my way up the next four blocks, clutching that tiny bag like King Kong carrying Fay Wray through the streets of New York. I was on the wrong side of 29th Street, and managed to jay-walk, past barricades, through traffic, and around scaffolding without getting hit by a car, splashed by a puddle or falling down. No matter how the rest of the evening went, I was going to consider this a win.

I was standing in front of the glass door leading into the tiny art gallery. I took a deep breath and pushed it open. Coming from the cool street (gee that seems so strange to type – it’s August in New York!), it was warm and sweaty inside. The walls were painted a bright white, with the exception of black block-style letters which read, “SEX CRIMES”, and although there was a tiny staircase leading to a loft, the entire exhibit was on the first level. There were unusually tall men wearing black shirts unbuttoned to their belts. They had pointy shoes and smelled very good. Lots of hair product. There were all sorts of women. And there were the “usual suspects”. I say this because if you’ve ever watched a movie where a character visits an art show, these are the people you find there. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if there might be an “art show” fashion clothing store. I think I want to go there and have them make me look like one of these people for Halloween. In New York, no one would notice. In Texas, it would be a costume. More to love about this city! But, I digress…

There was a bar with red and white wine offered in tiny plastic cups. A man dressed in white pants and a white blazer, with a white beard, expensive shoes, a panama straw hat and dark sunglasses stood waiting for his drink to be poured. I paused just long enough to notice he chose the red. Oh boy.

From across the room, I spied Magie. She was surrounded by admirers, so I didn’t want to intrude. She caught my eye, left the group and began to head my way. Here was a woman who shared time with me on a stoop. Who waved at me across the sidewalk. And now I was suddenly very concerned that there was, in all likelihood, a glob of grape jelly somewhere on my shirt from breakfast. I began to sweat.

She lit up and grabbed my hand with both of hers. They were cool and dry. Mine were clammy. “Oh, I’m SO glad you made it!” She seemed genuinely excited to see me. I looked down at her and said, “I didn’t know what to wear, and there’s probably grape jelly on my shirt somewhere.” She laughed and said, “You look beautiful!”

I held out the tiny gift bag and whispered, “I read somewhere that you liked tea.” She looked a little shocked, and I tried to read her expression. Was she pleasantly surprised? Or was she concerned that her neighbor might be a stalker?

She put an arm around me and turned me toward the wall. “There are three things in here…” she began, but was abruptly interrupted by a woman who wanted a selfie. I moved aside. Next was a man who was delighted to see her and wanted to ask about a certain piece. She held onto my arm as we moved through the gallery. She answered everyone’s questions and told stories about pieces.

The opportunity to chat privately was over, so I took a moment to walk down a hall and look at some other works. A framed picture with five tiny handwritten notes was at one end. I began to read it. Halfway through the first card I took a breath. The words were horrible and beautiful at the same time. An adult, describing a childhood of terror. I should have stopped and saved it for another day. A day when I could come in and read this without being surrounded by people. Without being steps away from the author. But I couldn’t stop. By the second card, I was weeping. There was no stopping it.

When I finished, I moved over to the bar to snag a bar napkin and attempt to clean my face. This is where Magie found me. She poined to the frame and said, “This one is mine.” “I know”, I answered. And she began to tell me how that was the original poem. After she wrote that, someone read it and insisted she write a book about it. So she did. And from that book came the second.

“It’s a beautiful poem, and it needed to be a book, ” I agreed, and I choked a bit on the words. She looked at my face, surprised, and asked, “You read that? Just now?” I nodded. I told her I was going to read the books. She laughed and mentioned that they happened to be on sale at the show. But she trailed off and looked away as soon as she said it. She was modest. I liked her.

She took me to the back of the gallery and pointed to a gossamer gown hanging on the wall. “This is also mine,” she said. I already knew. And then she told me the story of the piece. 25 years ago, she had an idea of creating something to express peace. She put the word out that she wanted pieces of material. She asked that people send her material that represented “stillness” to them. Over the next decade, she received over 110 pieces of material from 18 countries. She had not been specific, but ended up receiving almost exclusively pieces of lace. There were stories, of course, behind each piece. I mentioned that she should write a book about the creation of the piece. She agreed with me so quickly that I knew she had been thinking about it. At some point, she received a bodice, so the idea of turning her piece into a garment materialized (see what I did there? Sorry, it’s early and I’m sans-coffee). She visited some nuns in a hospital where she got the final idea for the gown, as well as some advice. The idea came as she walked past a row of hospital gowns. She stopped and looked at the white gowns and realized they represented stillness and healing. She took one and created the rest of the piece around it. The advice she got from the nuns was that, while working on the piece, she needed to not think of the individual stories or she would get lost in them. She needed to look at it as a whole. A collective. The result was this moving, beautiful work of art.

I took a quick selfie with her and we giggled. She reminded me to email her so we could communicate. I told her I would be back to the gallery next week to wander through when it wasn’t so busy. I wanted to learn more about this interesting woman. Who I met, during a fire, on a New York City stoop.

2 thoughts on “After The Fire

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