I spent the past weekend in New York City. I walked a lot around the city, which resulted in bruised calves and a sore Achilles tendon. While the body got tired, the eye got full of new and familiar images, and I felt surrounded by that special NYC vibe that I have become to love.
On Sunday, my last day there, I went to Staten Island. I took the Staten Island ferry from the Whitehall terminal in lower Manhattan. The ferry is free and quite big, it holds up to 4,450 passengers. It offers nice views of downtown and lower Manhattan, as well as the Statue of Liberty, all lovely. When we arrived at Staten Island, I got off the ferry and walked along the path by the water, and came to a memorial. It turned out it was Postcards, Staten Island’s 9/11 Memorial, honoring its residents who died that day. The vertical stones look like envelopes, and on the inside you could see the names of the honored. It was a bright, sunny day, the blue sky was decorated with white puffy clouds, and there was a nice breeze. The flags made nice contrast with the blue sky as they were blowing in the breeze. I kept walking until I reached the end of the path, and then decided to go back towards the terminal.
When I came to the Memorial again, I saw there were four or five people around. There are many benches around there, so I decided to sit for a little while and rest my tortured feet. I sat on one of the stone benches. I sat on one half of the bench, not exactly in the middle. All other benches were empty. A minute later a woman came and sat next to me. It was somewhat awkward, since she had to sit close to me to fit on the bench. And, of course, it was quite strange, since there were so many other benches around, empty. There was even an empty one right next to mine. I had the urge to stand up and go sit somewhere else. I kept thinking “seriously, lady, there are like 10 other empty benches around, and you come and sit right next to me? Why?”. Under normal conditions I would sigh, look at her irritated, and go sit somewhere else. But at that point, I was very tired, both emotionally and physically, so I just sat there. I didn’t move. I tried to be less annoyed. I looked out to the water, while wishing she wouldn’t talk to me, as I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I was enjoying the silence.
The precious silence was broken, when the woman started humming. My first reaction was disbelief, “Seriously?”, I thought to myself. “What is next?” Everything was getting annoying again. Then a little bit later, I realized her humming was not irritating me. It was actually soothing. I did not recognize the tune, if any, but it was agreeable. It was like my private soundtrack for a beautiful day at the Postcards memorial on Staten Island. I went along, I was willing to accept what was happening. It was all slightly absurd, but it turned out pleasant.
A couple of minutes later a man came over, and started talking to the woman. In French. I do not know if it was Canadian French or French, I cannot tell the difference in the accent. They both looked like tourists, cameras hanging from their necks. They looked to be in their mid 50s. The man asked a question. As I do not speak French, I didn’t understand what he had asked. The woman ignored him and kept humming. A minute later the man asked something again, and the woman gave an abrupt answer, or at least that’s how it sounded. Then the man lodged himself on our bench, putting the woman in the middle between him and me. I’m sure we looked absurdly entertaining: at least ten benches around us empty, and we three people sitting on one bench, looking cramped. I was occupying one half of the bench, and they, the other half. I made a slight move, one inch to my right to give them more room. The dialogue between them consisted of short sentences, then silence. Three minutes later they left. “Well, that was weird”, I thought to myself. I was glad I had the bench back to myself.
I looked at the path, and there was a woman pushing a stroller talking on her cellphone coming towards my direction. There was a little black poodle with a tennis ball in his mouth walking along with her. The dog came right up to me, and placed his tennis ball right next to my foot. I had my legs somewhat stretched out in front of me, so that my legs, the ground and the vertical surface of the bench were forming a triangle. The dog wedged itself in that triangle under my legs. He was moving his little body pressing against my legs, while wagging his tail. Was he asking to be petted? I didn’t pet him. I smiled. The woman called the dog, and in an instant he was gone.
I found both incidents slightly strange. A woman and a dog demonstrating something that looked like a need to be close to me, to be around me. I felt like some sort of magnet in that peculiar quiet setting. What had attracted them to me? Earlier someone had commented on my unwillingness to touch and be close. Did I look lonely? Did I send out come-close-to-me signals? I felt quite the opposite, I felt like I wanted to be on my own, alone and think. Perhaps I looked sad, because I felt sad.
There is a sense of irony in having strangers briefly cancel the alienation from people I was feeling that day. An abbreviated connection took place. For an instant it felt like a random woman and a random dog wanted to reassure me that there would always be someone around, I would not be alone. It was good to know.