Had Vivien Leigh lived into her eighties, she would have looked like my friend Carol*** does at eighty-five. Carol, who grew up in Manhattan, with an Irish mother and Scottish father, who ran a boarding house on the Upper West Side, met me today at my corner so that we could lunch together. She carries two cloth shopping bags, tells me they’re heavy, but – unfortunately – must keep them with her always since she can no longer leave anything of value in her apartment. “You see … they come in and look after I leave the building. I see the scratches they make on the floor. You understand, don’t you?” I put my arm around her thin shoulder and draw her close. She’s tied a cheery turquoise, cerise and white silk scarf that matches her windex-blue eyes around her neck, has put on a baseball hat, wears a dark blue jacket. She seems to get smaller and thinner every time I see her.We walk to the Greek (one of the last) coffee shop on 9th Avenue, find ourselves a booth. Carol orders a hamburger with avocado, also tea. I go with a fried egg sandwich on a roll, also coffee. This is the only sandwich on which I splat ketchup. As we await lunch her eyes moisten: “When I realized they’d stolen all my papers … my brother’s things … mine … bank things, I called the police. Right away the man came from the building … you know him … ” I don’t. “I overheard him telling the policeman, ‘We’ve had trouble with her before.’ Can you believe it?” I shake my head, No.
Our plates and mugs arrive. Carol oohs and ahh’s over the hearty, grilled hamburger. ‘Delicious, a whole meal.’ she smiles, then scoops a forkful of cold slaw from it’s little plastic cup, “Wonderful. They do make the best cold slaw.” She offers me a bite of hamburger. I say, “No thanks.” She offers some avocado. I say, “No thanks.” She offers another fork-full of hamburger. “No thanks.” I explain: “I only like one flavor at a time.” and hold my roll up in the air (ketchup squeezing out its sides) to show her, hoping she’ll stop asking. She nods, scoops up a dab of fresh avocado with her fork. “Delicious. A treat. I don’t cook at home anymore … I used to of course …” then breaks off a bite of meat.
It’s hard for me to eat slowly. Try as I might, I rarely succeed. Before I know it, I’m swallowing the last bite of eggy, ketchup-ie Kaiser roll though Carol has made almost no headway into her meal. She’s exchanged fork for knife, is slicing back and forth across the hamburger. I notice the serrated side of the knife is face up rather than down. “This cold slaw IS terrific ..” I concur, forking the small cup-full into my mouth.
I ask the waiter with the plaid shirt for a to-go cup for the remainder of my coffee; Carol requests he wrap her leftovers to take home. She’s eaten barely a quarter of her meal, so surely has a second meal from what remains. I request the bill. Today’s my turn to pay, her’s to provide the tip, so I take it when it’s written. Carol reaches into her pocketbook, pulls out and thumbs through an envelope fat with cash. “How much tip shall I give?” “Give me $5.” She hands over a crisp $5 and a $1. I put the money directly into our waiter’s hand when he returns with Carol’s doggy bag and my classic blue to-go cup. I pour my left-over coffee into it and press on its plastic top.
Walking toward my building Carol explains, “I’ve no family anymore. Once I had two brothers.” “What about the niece you told me about … the one from out of town who was going to be your executor?” “Oh ..” Carol sighs, “When she visited me last month or maybe it was last week, she kept asking questions about my things. What I have. How much. She wanted to see my papers … I didn’t really like it.” She’s downcast, but cheers up when a set of twins wrapped up for the Arctic are pushed toward us in their double carriage.
We embrace at my corner. She smiles her youthful, beguiling smile, her pale eyes again reminding me of Vivian Leigh, who died at age fifty-three not long after making her last film, “Ship of Fools” in which Leigh plays a bitter divorcée-has-been. That film, based on a favorite book of the same name by Catherine Anne Porter was described by reviewer Bosley Crowther in the NYTimes as an allegory of the ” … passage of foolish humanity into the maw of Nazism.” (Not unfamiliar to us here and now.)
Carol goes toward her building which is three blocks further north. I know that she had one son who died of an o.d. when he was twenty-four, many years ago. For the decade I’d known her, she’s been a walker in the city, sometimes walking all through an entire day, criss-crossing Manhattan from river-to-river, Wall Street to Columbia. Recently, though, she admitted, “I don’t walk as far or as much as I used to anymore …” and gestured at the heavy bags she protectively lugs everywhere.
I had just turned into my walkway when I hear my name and turn back. Carol scurries toward me waving an arm. She’s distraught.”Is something wrong?” “I think I forgot to give you money to tip our waiter?” “No. No. We tipped him.” I assure. “Are you sure?” “I’m sure. I promise. You gave me a $5 and a $1. I put it right into his hand.” She is relieved and resumes her journey home. How soon will it be, I wonder, before anguishes overcomes her again as to whether or not a tip was given? I shout after her to tell her she should phone me if she again forgets whether or not she gave a tip so I can reassure her once more that she has. She keeps walking North. I’ll never know whether or not she’s heard what I’ve said.
***[Carol is not her real name]