My teenage years in the suburbs of Philadelphia were filled with lone trips to the city to cruise South Street and ogle its unsophisticated riff-raff. Later, to help finance my Bachelor’s Degree at NYU, I worked at the counter of an Espresso Bar near Carnegie Hall. The neighborhood got some suprisingly rough traffic. There was the lady who wore a trash bag and the guy we called Jesus, who stole the tip jar. In New York, people were brighter and crazier than those in Philly, and I feared they would eat my fingers or toss me down the stairs of the B/Q subway station. Scared to find out, I kept my distance.
One day, the door of the Espresso Bar swung open and this wild-eyed older woman marched in, hauling an enormous cart behind her. She scanned the counter and shouted, “What do you do with all those muffins and bagels at the end of the day?”
“Throw them away,” I told her in a normal-sized voice.
“Do you mind if I take them? For the homeless people at the Times Square Church? That’s where I work.” She was still shouting.
“Okay,” I said, against my better judgment.
“When do you close?”
She checked her wrist. No watch. “It’s six-thirty,” I told her.
“Great!” she said. “Do you mind if I stay?”
I eyed her cart and shrugged. “Sure,” I said. She sat on a nearby stool with her cart and stared straight ahead into the rain. At eight, we bagged up all the half-stale bagels and muffins and gave them to her. She beamed, as if they were steaks.
That started it. At 6:30 every night she arrived and shyly waited for the extras. Once she got comfortable with us, she talked about everything. She was well-spoken, but I mostly tuned her out. Not asking her name, I called her the Church Lady.
She became an annoyance, following me around the store as I scrubbed the mirrors and refilled the Espresso machine. The other workers there called her my “shadow,” because she doted on me. She insisted that she was not homeless. She worked at the Church, she didn’t live there. She had a daughter. Yet every day she showed up in the same sour-smelling outfit and talked. I ignored her, trying to distance myself.
She became motherly, squinting at me one night as I cleaned. “I have some clothes that would fit you,” she said. “You’re always wearing the same thing.”
“This is the store’s uniform,” I sighed.
“Yes, but they always look so dirty.” She seemed genuinely concerned.
She started to bring me clothes. They were formal and outdated, pinstriped suits and jackets with shoulder pads. “Try them on!” she’d cry. They were hideous, ill-fitting, smelly. I would throw away the clammy clothes in the store’s big black trash bags when she wasn’t looking. The next day she’d bring new ‘80s businesswear for me, each outfit uglier than yesterday’s. Who knows where they’d been.
Weeks later she was sitting on her usual stool, giving me the eye. “You’re quite thin,” she said.
“Oh, not really,” I answered absent-mindedly.
“Can you eat in the store?”
“Yes,” I said, not adding that I smoked cigarettes more than I ate.
“Where do you live?” she followed me to the front door as I hauled some cardboard boxes out for the night.
“I go to NYU. I live in the Village.”
“NYU. The Village,” she said, as if it were a joke.
One day I saw her she brought me a blue scarf. It was much nicer than pinstriped jodphurs or boiled wool pants with pleats. It must have been cashmere. “I can’t take this,” I told her.
“You must!” she said happily. “You always listen to me. I’m very grateful.”
As soon as I bagged up the leftover food she pulled a bagel out and gave it to me. “Here, this one’s from me. Please eat it.”
I looked at her, confused. “No, they’re for you.”
She looked at me with disarming pity. “Really. I think you should have this bagel.”
I stared at her. She nodded, thrust it to me. I sighed, took it, and turned away. I picked it apart and threw it away in the trash can in the back room.
After that, she stopped coming in. We threw away the bagels and muffins again. I thought about her more after she left. After I quit, I stopped back in and saw my friend, Kevin, who still worked there. “I saw your Church Lady,” he told me. “She came in with this girl, looked like her daughter. I told her you got an internship. She was going to the theater, I think.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “She actually has a daughter?”
“She left these for you,” Kevin went to the corner and brought out a box of books, dusty and water-stained, but most of them pulpy paperbacks I’d meant to read. Modern fiction, essays, Sylvia Plath. “She said thanks for listening to her, and thought you’d like these better than clothes.”
So she did know I was in college. I gathered up the books. I realized I knew nothing about her. I hadn’t listened, just pretended. That may have been enough, but I wondered what she’d said that I missed. I felt a suburban fool, my nose pressed to New York’s glass, not knowing the way in.
I read all of the books in the box, even the bad ones. For years I wore my scarf every day, the cashmere warm against my nose. Whenever I bit into a bagel, an image of her would rise up, chattering, but I couldn’t make out the words.