Sunday evening, I was returning home to Brooklyn from Washington Heights. As I walked down the 181st Street A-train platform, I saw an elderly woman on the uptown side rapping at the wall with her white-tipped cane. She was moving at a snail’s pace toward a row of benches, which I figured was her goal.
“Ma’am, are you looking for something?” I yelled across the tracks. I couldn’t hear her answer, so I dashed up the stairs to the other side.
“I’m trying to get to the 184th Street exit,” she told me when I reached her. I took her hand and we trudged north alongside the tracks.
I began asking her the usual icebreaker questions. Yes, she lives up here. All her life. Current apartment since 1973: rent-stabilized, 2 bedrooms, big space, $900 per month. Back from visiting her husband in hospice care on the Upper West Side.
We reached the top of the stairs – 17 in all, she knew by heart – and exited the turnstiles. I gave a glance to the booth agent so as to let him know I’d want to be let back in. (Extenuating circumstances. I’m sure he’d understand.)
But my 18-minute MetroCard window would lapse: when I offered to keep her company, she gratefully accepted. We strolled up the long ramp to the back side of the station. It had begun to rain. Heavily.
We took out our umbrellas, and I opened hers first. It was covered in musical staffs and lyrics. She was once a cellist, and still has a baby grand in her apartment. Ah, space. Water running off her umbrella began to soak through my jacket’s right elbow to the dress shirt underneath, but there was nothing to be done.
As we sauntered down the out-of-the-way streets of Washington Heights to the Key Food at 187th and Broadway, I tried an approach from one of my favorite movies, Amélie: I described to her everything I was seeing.
When I did so, I got a portrait of a bygone neighborhood through the eyes of someone who had never seen it.
That building has some funny graffiti on it – it looks like three ice cream cones next to each other. “This was a bad, bad area in the 80s and 90s,” she responded. “It’s cleaned up since but it’s still violent at times.”
There’s a school on stilts! “I love walking by here when the students are playing basketball,” she told me. Sure enough, what I thought was an area for parking had hoops on either end – a clever vertical solution for recreation.
Here’s another school. It’s really big and beautiful, with walls that look like sandstone. “My kids didn’t go there because it wasn’t built yet,” she replied. “They had to go up to Fort Tryon every day.”
Over those 20 minutes, I learned much about the past – mostly her own – and some about the present. When we reached the supermarket, I closed both of our umbrellas, gathered a cart, summoned a cashier to help my new friend, and said goodbye.
Back at the station, as I pulled out my MetroCard, I once again made eye contact with the booth agent. We exchanged smiles. Surely he has seen her many times – but has he heard her stories? I hope so.