(Author’s Note: I saw the homeless woman sitting in front of Saks Fifth Avenue holding her sign, interacting with the passers by, taunting some, flirting with others, cajoling the rest, So I gave her a name, created her back story and decided to tell it as I thought she might.)
A Yellow Cashmere Scarf
“She always wanted a yellow cashmere scarf fringed
all around the edge the color of melted butter.”
Nora saw the yellow scarf the day the seasons changed in New York City. Although it was still summer on the streets, with the weatherman’s promise of yet another week of temperatures in the nineties combined with insufferably high humidity, in a blink of an eye, as if by magic, in all the store windows on Fifth Avenue overnight it became fall. The womenequins, only yesterday posed suggestively in two-piece bathing suits and clingy summer dresses, turned into autumn-draped figures in high boots and wrap-around woolen skirts bracing for the cold. In the early morning light they stared out through windows dripping air conditioned moisture at the already building rush hour traffic, the passers by in shorts and flip flops who were oblivious to the mid-night wrinkle in time that had disrupted the continuum.
But it wasn’t lost on Nora sitting in the doorway across from Saks Fifth Avenue where she had spent the night. Unable to sleep because of the heat and the passing cars, she had watched the designers move into the windows after midnight like a precision military team, and before the first light of dawn summer had been replaced by fall.
She gathered her things together, everything she owned, and packed it into the U.S. Post Office crate she had appropriated and partitioned into compartments to hold her life, and she crossed the street for a closer look. Cutting across traffic in the middle of the block, she exchanged greetings on the way with taxi drivers in several unintelligible languages.
“Your mother is a whore and your father is a goat,” she said to one. “Your sister eats pork during Ramadan,” she called to another, flashing a one-fingered New York peace sign. “And just in case you don’t speak English, my friend–” She turned it into a two-fingered backhand victory salute. “Up yours!”
Nora laid the crate down on the sidewalk in front of Saks, carefully selecting the place that would be her base of operations for the day, or at least until store security or the police moved her along. She pressed her face against the window like a child peering into Santa’s workshop and she shaded the window glass with her hands to block the reflection of the passing traffic and the lightening sky behind her. Within, the display shimmered with twinkle lights and stars and streamers that moved slowly in the air conditioned breeze sparkling like the inside of a shaken snow globe. Outside was heading toward another sweltering day, but inside was a winter wonderland. Her eyes, jaded by the things they had seen during her life on the streets, passed from one new fashion to the other to another – dresses, coats, boots, hats – and when she saw the butter-yellow cashmere scarf draping the womanequin’s neck, she pressed so hard to get a better look she almost broke the glass. She could see its elegant richness, feel the softness of the cashmere against her skin, smell the clean fragrance of the wool. She had always wanted a yellow cashmere scarf fringed all around the color of melted butter. Nora sighed audibly.
Back at her station she rummaged through the hand-printed signs she carried in the crate. She considered one that said: “I CAN work, I just prefer NOT TO,” lettered in red magic marker. The “O” in the word “TO” she turned into a smiley face. It was good for a laugh and sometimes for a few extra dollars. But she passed over it and opted instead for something more serious. “Here but for the grace of God….” the unfinished statement said ominously. With the continuing downturn in the economy, the collapse of financial establishments once considered American institutions, the audible pop of the real estate bubble and rising unemployment, more and more people were realizing they just might be a paycheck or two away from taking up residence there on the sidewalk next to her. As if to illustrate, two passers by dropped handfuls of change into the Dunkin’ Donuts cup from the night before that still contained something like coffee. She fished them out, counted the amount, eighty-seven cents, and tucked it into her pocket. Then Nora drained the cup and the taste made her wince.
A black 7-series BMW with limo tinted windows rolled up silently to the curb and stopped. She watched as the driver, dressed in livery and wearing a cap, crossed around the front of the car passed in front of her and opened the back door, extending his other hand to a woman, tall and tan, and young and slender – and very clean, Nora thought, who emerged from the inside darkness into the late-summer light. Her hair and make up were perfect, even that early in the day. Well dressed to her shoes, she had to be a model, or should be, Nora decided. A man, every bit as elegant, engrossed in a cell phone conversation, closely followed the woman out of the car.
Nora studied the woman as she approached. The scent of perfume, something expensive, preceded her by a second and lingered in her slipstream as she passed without a glance, at Nora, totally unaware of her existence until she heard, “Good morning, Toots. Great outfit. Love your perfume.” The woman turned, looked down through her Jimmy Choo sunglasses at Nora’s sign before she walked into Saks through the door held open by the driver.
“She may be pretty,” Nora said to the man when he paused in front of her, “but she’s not very nice.”
He stopped talking on his cell. “That seems to be the price of beauty,” he said fumbling for his wallet and looking inside for cash. But he changed his mind and instead, holding the phone between his shoulder and his ear, patted his pants pocket, reached inside and pulled out several folded bills that he dropped into Nora’s cup. Then he resumed the call. “You still there?” he asked.
In his haste to replace his wallet, the man was unaware that it had caught on the edge of his pocket and fell unnoticed into Nora’s Post Office carton where the rags inside muffled the sound. Nora threw one over the wallet to hide it, and the man, still in deep conversation, continued obliviously into the store.
Only Nora had seen it fall, or so she hoped. She turned to watch the driver until he was back behind the wheel of the car before she uncovered her prize. It was magnificent. Yves Saint Laurent. She traced her finger over the “Y” in the soft grain leather, keeping it out of sight as she weigh its heft in her hand. She opened it and looked at the contents – large denominations, fifties and hundreds in size order. She did a quick count. Apparently he kept the smaller bills, the fives, tens and twenties, in his pocket. She doubted he even wasted time with ones, wiping his ass with them and tossing them to the homeless like used toilet paper. There was an American Express Black Card issued to Sharpe Ingersol. She wondered what kind of first name Sharpe was, if that was his name. Maybe it was the name of his multi-national company. And there was also a Starbuck’s gift card – refillable.
When the driver suddenly opened the car door folding his cell phone, Nora knew she had been caught. Once Sharpe Ingersol was inside the store, she figured, he was sharp enough to realize he had dropped his wallet outside and called the driver to retrieve it. She stashed it under her blouse, fully expecting the driver’s hands come down on her and wrest it from her. But the driver hurried past and into the store without a look. Minutes later, weighed down under a pile of boxes, he was out again, followed by the woman talking on her cell, followed by not-as-Sharpe-as-she-thought Ingersol talking on his cell.
Nora smiled. “Nothing like early morning shopping, eh, Toots,” Nora called to her, sniffing her perfume as she passed, “to beat the crowds and scoop up all the bargains. What’s they say about early bird having worms? Di’ja pick up anything good?”
The woman barely looked down on Nora, snorted and continued to the car.
“Have a nice day–” she called, adding just under her breath as Sharpe Ingersol passed her holding the boxes the driver couldn’t handle, “–bitch.”
In just another minute they would be in the car and gone. Then Nora saw the folded bills in her coffee cup. They weren’t toilet paper singles as she had thought, but two twenties and a ten. Fifty bucks! She took a deep audible breath. ‘Hey, Sharpé,” she called sounding the “e” just as the man was ducking into the back seat of the car.
“Excuse me?” he asked coming back and facing her. “Do I know you? Do you know me?”
“Intimately,” she said, “but not very well. And certainly not in the Biblical sense. It’s been a long time since I’ve known anybody in that sense. I just wanted to say thanks.” She held up her cup with the money in it. “As my sign says, ‘Here but for the grace of God,’ Sharpé.”
“How do you know my name?” He stepped closer. “And it’s Sharpe, like a knife, not Sharpé.”
“You missing anything?” she asked. And when he was slow to respond she produced the wallet from under her blouse.
He patted his pocket. “That’s my wallet! How did you get that?”
“Don’t worry, handsome” she said. “I didn’t take anything.” She handed it to him. “You can check.”
He looked inside and then at her.
“It’s all there. Count it. Although I was tempted by that Starbuck’s card.”
He smiled. “It’s yours.” He handed her the card. “Thank you,” he said, and he went back to the car. In another minute he was back holding one of the Saks boxes. “This is for you too.” He handed it over. “And this.” He pressed two one hundred dollar bills into her hand.
“No, no,” she protested mildly, more for the effect than the principle as she took the money and the box. She stashed the bills in her carton and slipped the ribbon on the box with her thumb to look inside.
When the car pulled away Nora sat there. The September sun was warm on her face. Behind her she felt the solid security of Saks Fifth Avenue against her back. To those passing by, the ones who took the time to notice, she must have looked strange smiling with tears running down her cheeks, sitting there in the growing heat with a cashmere scarf, soft and fringed all around the edges the color of melted butter, wrapped around her neck.
© 2013 J. E. Scalia from Different Other Different Stories