Last summer, my boyfriend, Ian, and I visited his grandmother, Elaine, who’d been living in the same apartment on Amsterdam Avenue for forty years. Elaine let us stay in her spare bedroom, from which we spied down at the sun-soaked street from eight stories up, surrounded by her bookshelves full of coffee table books and old photos. A trip to New York City was perfect because neither Ian nor I had much money; we both still worked at the grocery store where we’d first met.
The morning after we arrived on Amtrak, Elaine took us around the neighborhood on the Upper West Side. We got bagels and coffee at Zabar’s, met cats at bookstores, and made it as far as Roosevelt Island; we must’ve walked twenty miles that day. It was hot for June, and even in cutoff shorts and a t-shirt, I was sweating profusely—nevermind Ian, who’d opted for black jeans. Elaine, though, remained cool and dry, ready to move on while we sat on park benches, panting, and saying, “We just need a minute,” or “maybe some water.”
As we traversed block to block, Elaine stopped us every ten feet or so to tell us to look up. Squinting in the sunlight, we’d gaze past her pointed finger to be met with the stoic, Medusa-like stares of cherubs carved into limestone, or ornate seals of olive branches and shields painted onto brick above a stoop. Gilded terracotta blue and gold glinted in the sun but was almost hidden behind the trees lining the sidewalk. How many cherubs had watched over the same people for years, like Elaine; how many gazed at passersby, at couples just married with a good job and a baby on the way? They all had one thing in common; they reflected the sunlight on their faces like shining mirrors, watching you, guarding you, daring you to stare back at them. How many people had looked back into the eyes of those cherubs before me?
People on cellphones huffed and walked around us in hurry as we stood along the curb with our mouths half-open. I couldn’t blame them; I knew it wasn’t good to stop on the sidewalk, especially in a big city.
“Don’t ever look up like a tourist,” my dad told me before I left for college in Boston, “because it invites people to mug you.”
I never dared inconvenience anybody with my pace in Boston, let alone block the sidewalk while I stared up at the eaves of apartment buildings. Elaine, though, remained unaffected. She walked slowly but confidently, stopping whenever and wherever she pleased. She was eighty then; her New York was a composite, a series of remembered photographs spanning four decades on the same block, unchanged except for the influx of even more people into the city.
Our trip together to New York City was my first-time meeting Elaine. Nothing could have prepared me for her quirky, albeit charming nature; she was extremely generous; she brought us to the best brunch spots and encouraged me to try the mimosa flight, even though I was still digesting last night’s gin and tonics. Our first brunch together as a group, Elaine began to shine on us her true, radiant colors. Elaine’s complaints were memorable; either the soup was too hot or the ice cream too cold, or—and this happened more than once—the music was too loud. This was ironic, considering that her preference for dining “al fresco” meant sitting on the sidewalk as cars rushed by as you tried to have another bite of hummus. Her complaints were more than just the peculiar idiosyncrasies of an old New Yorker—they were personal, a vendetta chiseled into Plymouth Rock against any and all busboys who dared to cross her path or bring her entrée at the wrong time.
I had no right to question her attention to detail though; her apartment alone was a work of art. She’d been married to an art dealer, and so—just as some invest in the stock market or collect silver coins—her collateral was displayed in gold frames, ornate in their stillness and silence, beautiful paintings of women, streets, landscapes, fruit; her life’s investments were cramped so tightly together that they practically reflected upon one another—you couldn’t turn your head without being met with a splash of color or a stroke of beauty. At night, we played cards—hearts—and drank Tanqueray gin; she drank dark rum and ginger beer. At some point one night, we decided to watch Grease on a small couch in the guest room. As we sat together, I put my head on Ian’s shoulder and tapped my finger on his arm to Olivia Newton-John singing “The One That I Want.”
I don’t think I could ever get used to New York City, but that trip did change me. Back in Boston, I now watch busy people and smile as they stream through the sidewalk like lost fish, buried in the lives of their emails or messages or news feeds. When I’m walking on a peculiarly hot day and I look up to wipe my brow, I find a face to greet me in the terracotta; I think of Elaine, the beauty she found, and I stand for a moment longer than I used to.
Jill Veader is a recent graduate of Emmanuel College in Boston where she studied writing and philosophy. When she is not writing, she is working at a wine shop north of Boston. She has work upcoming in the Evening Street Review and hopes to continue exploring the boundaries of poetry and prose in her work.