It wasn’t a big deal. Certainly nothing that deserved a place of prominence in my overstuffed head. Just one of those moments when something hits the trigger in your bank of memories and, if you don’t push your thought thread into some other direction, the memory rises up to the top of the brain like a bubble in a glass of soda pop. I’m really rather curious as to why I retain certain memories.
Dave and I went shopping today, walked seven short blocks and one long block over to Macy’s in downtown
Manhattan. We swam with
the river of people through the heavy doors, down the hallway under
construction and up the escalator to floor 1 ½. We decided to divide and
conquer, with a plan to meet in an hour outside the elevator in the men’s shoe
department. Let me say right off that
shopping for clothing and shoes without one’s sister or at least a friend is
not nearly so fun. I mean, who’s gonna tell you if your arms really look like polyester
sausages in that 2% spandex top, or be frank about the brightness of the color
for a woman of a certain age? I wish my sisters were here. But I am in new York, and we had an
hour to spare, so I muddled through solo shopping with as much dignity as
There are something like 100 floors of goods for sale in Macys New York! Acres and acres. I wove through the racks, like a kid in a cornfield maze, trusting instinct to direct me, since I wear new sizes these days and I’m not quite sure what works and what doesn’t. Women’s wear takes about half the space in that massive building, so I worked my way up a series of escalators checking out the different collections. The higher the floor, it seemed, the older the escalator. Eventually the escalators were all wood: wooden sides, wooden slats in wooden beds that rose out of each other as they lifted heavenward, then folded tidily back into their slots and disappeared altogether. As I stood looking down at the patina on the wood, a memory of a shopping trip in this very store, probably 20 or so years ago, pushed its way to the front of my brain.
I had been shopping in the women’s department, up on the top floor. The store was closing and I had just checked out. People were rushing the escalator to beat the closing of the doors downstairs, I guess. We clustered, then single filed down one floor, streamed around the corner to the next down escalator, and were stopped short by a crowd bottlenecked at the next set of moving stairs. Irritated at the loss of momentum, and by the unexpected impasse, people hissed unkind words and ignorant sighs as one by one they pushed past a little old woman standing stone still at the top of the escalator. I stepped out of the stream and observed for a moment. A dark haired fellow in a leather jacket grunted “move aside if you’re not going down”. Another woman turned her back against the woman and squeezed past sideways. The rest of the people followed suit until all that was left was the old woman with her bag in her hands like a shield in front of her, her thick wool coat buttoned to the neck, a large hemmed scarf covering her hair and tied in a tight knot under her chin. And me. Her eyes were focused on the wooden slats of the escalator.
“Can I help you? I asked, wondering if maybe she had trouble walking. She raised her eyebrows as looked up at me without lifting her head, like her body was frozen. She didn’t speak, and didn’t move. I spoke again, asking if I could help her. She raised her hands in front of her, her hands quivering with the fingers gripping the handle of her red shopping bag. Her eyes finally met mine and I could see right away that she was afraid. She tried to lift her foot and set it down on the moving stair, but couldn’t do it. It soon became apparent to me that she didn’t speak English. I smiled, a gentle kind of smile meant to reassure. I lifted my hand toward hers, palm up, looking at her hand then mine. She lifted her foot again then put it back down on the solid floor, like the hoof of a horse waiting for a feedbag. All the while her chin quivered over the knot of her scarf. I whispered a quick prayer that I would know how to help, and that she would know how to be helped. Timing in these circumstances is as important as choosing the correct actions. I kept my eyes safely focused on hers, and again offered my hand. She released her grip on the handle of her bag and gave me her mottled tiny hand. I lifted my foot, then nodded my head, indicating she should follow. With her little old body tucked against mine we stepped together onto the top step, two feet, then the other two, her hand under mine against the handrail. I felt her shallow breath rise and fall it little fits against my belly as she huddled close. I spoke reassuring words, the kind of words I spoke to my children; the kind of words I speak to my grandson Calvin now when he is tired and needs to settle down for his nap. It’s not the words; it’s the tone that matters.
By the time we reached the bottom floor she was more relaxed, and really sort of just walked away without much fanfare, though I think she probably did shyly nod her thanks as we parted.
I don’t know why today, in that store I’ve visited numerous times in my life, I chose to recall an obscure encounter on a wooden escalator. There is so much more about
that should be memorable. Maybe it’s the
rhythmic rumble of stairs rising and falling in and out of the floor, those old
wooden stairs, less steady and slick than the new metal escalators of today’s
shopping malls, with that distinct aroma of engine grease rising in certain
spots, the lurching pace giving it charm mixed with a bit of concern that finally,
after all these decades, the thing is going to crumble with me on it!. Or
maybe the small plump woman is just a representation of the vast ethnicity that
is so familiar on the streets of New
York and less common in our white bread city in the
west. I guess all the sights and sounds and flavors of this city shake things up
in my brain and take me to places I forgot I knew. For whatever reason, I’m glad I
remembered. And I’m glad I was not in
such a hurry back then that I could not pause long enough to see a pair of
quivering hands gripping the handles of a Macy’s shopping bag, because, honestly,
one day that woman might be me, trying to step onto a plane, or closing the top
on a casket. I suppose it already has been me.
And I am so grateful for hands that come toward me, palms up, ready to
show me how to move forward.