(First posted on my blog on Feb 15, 2016.)
Yesterday, I took my friend Cherie to lunch at the local diner. I first met Cherie 3 or 4 years ago when she began to appear on the benches in the mezzanine level of my subway station. One morning I sat down beside her and instead of dropping a dollar into her palm, I decided to offer her a conversation. Over a few weeks, we became “subway buddies.” She’d comment on my clothes, I’d ask how she was doing, and from time to time, I offered her food I was carrying — until one day after leaving her with the remains of my (very spicy) Thai dinner, she let me know very defiantly that she no longer wanted my leftover food. Fair enough. From then on, I occasionally gave her money but mostly just smiled, chatted, and even shook her hand at times, being mindful that folks with no home rarely experience physical touch. Cherie tends to disappear in the spring, summer, and fall, and several winters ago, she dropped out of sight all together. Late last year, she re-appeared, in the same spot where I first met her.
Recently I began to think about trying to get to know her a bit better by having a meal with her. On Saturday night, as I was heading out for the evening, I gave her $5 and encouraged her to get some soup. It was the coldest day of the year and I was concerned for her, and wondered what she planned to do to keep warm in the sub terrain of the station. I should have known better. The hot soup idea seemed intriguing but I could tell she had no intention of going to a diner. And since she had nowhere else to go, she planned to stay right there on her bench. I shuddered thinking about that, but as I ran for my train, I decided that if she was there when I came home from church the next day, I’d invite her to lunch.
When I asked her, she immediately shot back, “What’s the occasion?” Without hesitating, I said, “It’s Valentine’s Day.” She put her just-lit cigarette out, grabbed her bag, and declared, “OK, let’s go.”
We settled ourselves into a corner table @ the Hudson View Diner. She chose french toast, scrambled eggs, bacon and cheese. I had a farmer’s omelette with home fries. At first I asked her questions about her family and learned a few interesting facts: she was born in Cypress Hills, Queens, the 4th of 8 children; she doesn’t get along with her mother who now lives in East New York; her father’s birthday is Feb 15 (today); and she has a 37-year-old son who has a restaurant in Harlem which we talked about going to check out. “On me,” she insisted, “On me.” But she didn’t seem to want to continue making conversation so I stopped the questions and we ate the rest of our meal in silence.
When she finished eating, she looked around and said, “It’s really cozy in here. If I had a job and worked in here, it’s so cozy, I’d just want to go to sleep.” We laughed about that. She also thanked me heartily for lunch. After she’d ordered a second cup of coffee – as much to warm her up as to heat up her hands I suspect – we headed back out into the frigid afternoon. She tried unsuccessfully at two stores to buy loose filter cigarettes (“lucies”), and then I walked down back into the subway with her. She was heading to 42nd street to take care of something there — I couldn’t quite catch what and gave up after asking her 3 times. As I swiped her in, she slid up toward the turnstile, turned and kissed me (!), and then hurried off to catch her train.
Still stunned by her affection, I walked 10 brisk blocks home, musing about my most unexpected valentine’s day gift…