My faith in humanity took a serious blow the other day. A little old lady did it. She done me good, too. She got me in the kind of way where one moment you are lifted up and feel this great, all-encompassing love for all people and the next moment you feel nothing but contempt and a need to keep yourself as isolated as possible from them.
Set ’em up and knock ’em down. Took about one full minute.
I was walking to the E train in Forest Gardens when it happened. A weekday at around 11am, sunny with a breeze. I saw a number of elderly men and women walking that morning, some pushing those little metal shopping baskets with the wheels on the bottom. They would amble towards each other and stop to chat when they met up.
I was feeling very, well, nice. I almost crossed myself when I passed the local church. I
looked at trees. I noticed people’s landscaping and what color they had painted their houses. I saw mothers with their children, walking them home from the morning session of pre-school or kindergarten. People stopped their cars at stop signs and didn’t look really annoyed as you crossed in front of them.
I even saw my mailman for the first time.
All these sights were somewhat uncommon to me. I am used to a commuter’s grim scenery and a commuter’s mode of thinking. “Out of my way, I have to get where I am going in as little time as possible. I have a routine. Stay out of it.” I see business men and women, laborers, deliverymen and student’s in Catholic school uniforms.
Heads down, fast-paced and intent.
As I was in no real hurry, I consciously slowed my pace a bit (not easy to do) and took a
little more notice of the change in atmosphere. At this time of day the sounds were noticably different, the exchanges between people had more of a conversational rather than a business tone to them. I thought I could detect more sincerity in what I saw and less of the superficiality that becomes standard during the barrage of people and activity in a busy commute.
I felt for a moment like I had an inkling of what retirement might be like, the way you get to think “Hey, I think I’ll go over there and sit in the sun for a while”.
It just seemed to me like there was something a little less mean and a little less ugly than I
was used to going on around me. I liked it. I felt like giving the next person who passed my way some kind of small town greeting “Good morning! Lovely day isn’t it?”
As it happened, this sentiment had a very short existence in my mind.
She was tiny, frail and stooped over one of those carts. Faded yellow sweater and a long gray skirt. I caught sight of her walking towards me on the same side of the street, about 30 yds ahead. I was maybe 15 yds away when she suddenly slowed, turned and sat down on a low brick wall at the edge of someone’s garden.
I thought to myself “Oh, that sweet old lady is tired and needs a break, the poor dear” or something like that.
As I passed her I looked down and smiled but she didn’t look up. I took about ten more steps and then that whole wave of good feeling and “the world ain’t so bad” I had been having inspired me to turn around. The way she was hanging her head, I thought she must be really beat. I was going to offer my assistance and push her basket to her home. I could already see her smiling and saying things like “People so rarely take the time to help one another these days, how very noble of you to help a poor old woman like me” or some shit like that. Offering me a few dollars and me refusing, smiling, saying “It was my pleasure” and admonishing her to dress warmer.
When I turned, I could see that she was looking over her shoulder into the small garden which the brick wall she was sitting on bordered. “Ah, admiring the late summer blooms”, I thought.
Then I saw her reach down in to the flower bed and pull out a handful of flowers. I hesistated, but the good karma thing I had going led me see things differently than perhaps I might have.
I began to picture a small, plain apartment. Faded photographs and plastic-covered furniture, a small kitchen table with a simple vase containing a handful of yellow flowers in the middle. A little color in an otherwise drab and lonely existence. “Aw…”
It was quite touching to me until she stuffed the blooms into a bag and reached for her second fistful. Then her third. Then her fourth–each time stuffing them in to this carry-all she had.
I snapped. All that happy bullshit I had been filling my head with and catering to with my senses came out like a shot of Tullamore Dew at the wrong end of the night. I got pissed.
But what could I do ? Kick her ass? Run over and grab the flowers out of her hand? Knock on the people’s door and tell them Grandma Barker was pilfering from their flower garden?
I stood there for a few seconds and then came up with this witty remark
“Hey! That’s not NICE!”
Believe me, I am sitting here now shaking my head with a wry grin.
“That’s not NICE!” I repeated.
I don’t know if she didn’t hear me or was ignoring me, because she never looked up. Then she either finished or stopped, stood up, put her bag in the basket and started to wobble away.
For a moment, I was tempted to walk after her. Then I came up with this beauty–I shouted “God sees you.”
Repeat, “God sees you” (and see “shaking head/wry grin from above). And I am an atheist, so in hindsight it’s even more ridiculous to me now. Oh, well done, lad. Well done. That’ll learn her.
So I’m left standing there, not only feeling like a complete fool but also like I have been robbed of that warm sensation I had carried with me up to that point. Bitch.
But I had to wonder to myself, is she the cause or the effect? Barring senility or some other
mental defect that would explain her behavior, what made this seemingly benign and endearing old lady behave with such a wanton disregard for property, propriety and human decency? What made it ok in her mind to not give a shit, not only that she was ripping up someone’s garden, but that someone else was watching her and saying things to her (assuming she heard me) about it?
Is she an immigrant (a strong possibility in my neighborhood) who came to America from some kinder, more polite “olde country”, and was then made bitter and hard through exposure to NYC culture? Is she perhaps a former schoolteacher, soured on life and humanity through years of students growing more and more disrespectful and unmanageable? Is she the forgotten grandmother of ungrateful young professionals, wrapped up in their careers and social lives? Is she just a mean old bitch?
I’ll never know. I have been toying with the idea of leaving this little story in the mailbox
of the house that got violated. Maybe it would spare some kids in the area some scrutiny and suspicion. Maybe it would at least let the person who planted and nurtured those flowers know what their fate was and give them some kind of closure.
Maybe that person never even noticed the transgression. Or maybe it would just give me some kind of revenge against this senior citizen who ruined my day.