Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stranger in a strange land

After a night of showers, a big blue sky hung overhead as I walked Honey up Bennett Avenue. At 192nd Street, I was stopped by an old man who appeared to be lost. He looked a hundred years old--the kind of old not brought on by time, but by a hard life. In a tattered but clean black cable-knit sweater, shining eyes and silver teeth, he was beautiful. He held out a piece of paper wedged inside his worn leather wallet.

"Please," he said. "Is this address I find?"

He spoke in a thick Eastern European accent--the paper was covered in writing, including the number 606060.

"This doesn't look correct," I said. "Do you know what street you're looking for?"

He didn't reply.

"Do you speak English?" I asked.

"No English," he said. "I Ukraine!"

I took the paper from his hand. No street name, but there was a phone number at the top.

"Is this the phone for the address?" I asked.

He looked at me, again confused, and then said, "Yes! This is number!"

I pulled out my cell phone and dialed--and a woman, also with a thick accent, answered. I handed the phone to the old man, but he didn't want to take it.

"Hello?" I said. 'Do you speak English?"

"Oh yes!" said the woman. "I speak!"

"Well," I continued, "I'm standing on the corner of Bennett Avenue and 192nd Street with a Ukrainian man. Is he your friend?"

"Oh yes!" she exclaim. "I'm happy, so thank you if you bring him to me--please, you bring him now."

She gave me the address, but I hesitated for a moment. Her building, number 60 (not 606060), was a mile out of my way and I was headed to meet Annie after school. But I hung up the phone and told the old man to follow me--we would walk together to find his friend.

We were silent for some time--not much to discuss when you don't speak the same language. We approached a flock of pigeons drinking from a puddle of rain water and Honey shot forward, sending them flying. The dog appeared pleased with herself as she watched the birds take to the sky, and the old man laughed.

"How long have you been in the United States?" I asked.

"Four days!" He said. "I come from Ukraine four days! I never was before New York!"

I laughed.

"I have 89 years!" he said proudly.

"89 years? That's incredible!" I said, and I meant it.

He moved quickly, fluidly--I watched his feet hit the ground, each step strategically missing the holes and cracks in the street that would cause a much younger person to fall.

Honey spotted a squirrel and ran ahead on the leash. The old man laughed again and slapped his leg.

"In Ukraine, I have big park!" he said.

I smiled.

"My dog is Chinese," I said.

The old man stared.

"My dog is from China," I said.

The man smiled, "Oh! China! Good!"

I laughed.

"I speak Russia!" said the old man.

"My grandmother was Russian," I replied. "She used to say to me, 'Te Kratsavitsa. Ya lu butbya."

"I understand!" said the old man, and I hoped he understood the part about my grandmother because if not, I just told him he was beautiful and declared my undying love.

As we crossed streets and turned corners, I imagined how everything so familiar to me must look so unfamiliar to him. I began to pretend I was in a foreign country, seeing with new eyes the old bodega, the brown-skinned boys shooting hoops, the deep red of a New York firetruck.

We arrived at our destination--I told the old man what button to press on the elevator and what floor to exit. But he looked at me as if I were speaking, well, English, so I slipped Honey under my arm and boarded the elevator with him.

When the front door opened of the old woman's apartment, the friends laughed and embraced. I made my introduction then said goodbye, but already the door was closing and the two were escorting me inside.

"You stay! Said the woman, her round body wrapped tightly in a floral apron. You have tea, we thank you now!"

"I really have to get going," I started to say, but I could see that not celebrating with them would be a sign of disrespect.

The familiar blue sky was right outside the window as we all sat down at the kitchen table. We drank hot tea with sugar and ice, and ate powdered cookies from an ornate tin can. I held Honey in my lap, and as the old man and woman talked, I listened to the sounds of their language and tasted the sweetness of their tea. I imagined I was the stranger in a strange land--just down the street from where I lived, and a million miles from home.


shawn said...

Do you see the amazing and life affirming juxtaposition between the last two posts ??

When you truly let go and simply stay present to the moment you are no longer bound by worries and concerns, but are overwhelmed with a deep cosmic JOY that transcends language and opens our entire being up to the kind of experience you've just shared ...

You were no stranger in a strange land ...

and you were not merely surviving ...

you were intimately involved in the creation of a moment where the three most important elements of creation were being affirmed:

& LOVE ...

thank you Katie ... I appreciate this story MORE than you know ...

runnerfrog said...

Lovely encounter, kind of melancholic somehow. I wonder what happened to Annie after school.

itzktb said...

Shawn--I was intimately involved in the creation of life, laughter and LOVE? Hell, and I just thought I was late picking up my kid!

Glad you like the post.

itzktb said...

RF--Annie and I were eventually reunited at the playground.