Opening my datebook to mark something down today, I found a note to myself written in June of this year which said:
Today in the grocery store I saw the very ancient lady I sometimes see there with her pushchair. She’s so old and so fragile looking and bent at the middle, and she’s the most adorable old lady. I always wonder about her. Today I stood right next to her while she very painstakingly counted out yogurts. She read everything written on each container. I felt a huge swell of love for her. She looks about 100. Everything about her looks to be made of bird’s bones. She might be Chinese but I’ve never heard her speak so I don’t know. I hope this won’t be the last time I ever see her.
I hope I did not, by writing that last sentence, make it come true because since that day I haven’t seen her and I would like to see her again, even if I never say anything to her. I was away from the city for a lot of the summer and whenever I come back from having been gone, the first thing I do is try to see the people I know and like, even by chance in the street. For a few weeks before I left, I’d been meeting my friend Agosto Machado every so often on a bench in a little park on the West Side. It was always the same bench, and Agosto was letting me interview him for my little magazine called Housedeer. After each little interview session on the bench, we went for a walk together and to at least one art gallery to look at pictures.
I like Agosto very much, and he’s someone I’ve seen all around town forever. I’ve seen him onstage in plays and waiting in theater lobbies and walking in the streets, and nothing is nicer than to mark down in my book a certain day at a certain time when Agosto will be waiting on a certain bench. He has a magical way of telling what he remembers about New York and when he described standing on the street and looking through the windows of Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue, long ago, to watch the ladies with their shopping bags having lunch—taking off their gloves to eat their sandwiches and afterwards having, with their coffee, a cigarette—and the feeling it gave him, looking in, I felt that I had been standing there with him. And I think quite a lot of people would feel that way, because he tells his memories like movies. I remember my friend Debbie talking about Schrafft’s, and going there in the 1950s with her grandmother for lunch as a special treat, having come into old Penn Station on the train from New Jersey. Agosto remembers old Penn Station too, and he and Debbie both described the particular atmospheric charm of the great station—in the echoes of cups and saucers from the coffee shops and the voices announcing trains coming and going—as the marvelous entry to the city itself.
This afternoon I met my friend Hank O’Neal in the Malibu diner on 23rd Street. The Malibu never seems to change and it's always full of people. When Hank ordered a dish of ice cream the waiter asked, “One scoop or two?” and when he brought me a cup of coffee I thought of Old Penn Station. Certain New York diners just feel the way they always have, and I think part of it is the sound of the cups and saucers. Hank entertained me with stories about personal things that you can say to certain people if you’ve known them long enough, and he told me that the reason he never gets sick is because he grew up playing in mud puddles and eating the mud.
Last night I met my friend Susie for a lecture on West 13th Street, all about how to cleanse oneself of impurities in the body. Afterwards we stood on the sidewalk and chatted, the way people have forever here, pausing for fire engines to pass and watching the world go by. I thought of Susie’s mother, who is very old now and lives in Chinatown, telling me how it felt to her when she first came to New York long, long ago, coming out of one of the stations in the snow and finding her way downtown. Was it Penn Station or Grand Central? She was a famous star of the Chinese Opera, Sui Fong Wong, and a few times I had lunch with her and Susie both in Chinese restaurants on little streets, where Madame Wong ordered all kinds of delicacies that weren’t on the menu and told stories. She loved going to the movies in the big theaters of Times Square, and she remembered the billboard advertising Camel Cigarettes with a man blowing what looked like real smoke.
During one such lunch, an old lady passed our table using a walker, and after she had left, Madame Wong told us that the lady was herself an old actress (Who used to be gorgeous! You’d never guess it now, but she was gorgeous! She had love affairs with this one and that one, and it was scandalous!) I wished I’d taken a better look at the old lady before she disappeared out the door, but by the time I looked again, she had been swallowed into the crowds of people outside. Walking home after saying goodbye to Susie on 7th Avenue, I realized that I would very much like to see her mother again. Once home, I made myself a note to ask Susie about visiting Madame Wong. Because she is soon to be ninety, and the thought occurred to me that when someone one likes is in their nineties it’s probably good to not put off visits. Actually, putting off visits to people one likes of any age is just stupid.
September 28, 2014