*my internet at home is not working - perhaps one day I will spill all the fabulous details - so this was written on Monday, November 30*
I am back, now, at the Starbucks on 125th – the one at 125th and Adam Clayton, not the one at 125th and Malcolm X – and the sneaker lady is here again. In fact, this is the third time I have seen her here in the past couple of weeks. From the very beginning, I had suspected that she might be some flavor of homeless/destitute/troubled. Her raft of bags is the most telling detail: three large, fully stuffed bags of that woven plastic material, the kind that you can buy for a buck or two at the supermarket in order to save the earth. Indeed, one of the bags bears the Pathmark logo, as well as the slogan “There’s only one earth.” Another of the bags is black, printed with fanciful, pink, vaguely Asian flowers, and the third is a super-hip Jolinda bag from Montgomery, bright blue with red straps, printed boldly with blackface Kewpie dolls. Besides these bags, there is her purse, a small canvas-and-leather hobo with a panda on it.
The first time I saw her, the day my son peed on the floor, she was sitting over by the napkin-and-sugar table, but this time and last time, she has been sitting on a stool at the counter in the window. Today, she is wearing the same brilliant sneakers, denim leggings with yellow jeans stitching, and a striped hooded sweater. Draped over the back of her chair is another striped hooded sweater as well as the chunky-rib turtleneck from the first time I saw her, and spilling out of the Pathmark bag is an imitation (I assume) Missoni cardigan that is cut just like the cardigan that I happen to be wearing right now as I write: an oblong shape with sleeves set in, so you can wrap the tails about yourself and tie them in back to look like a ballerina or instead let them hang down and look luxuriously slouchy though not, perhaps, as warm. I know how the cardigan looks, because I saw it on her last time I was here. In fact, last time I was here, she was in the middle of an elaborate sweater procession, in which certain sweaters were coming out of her bags and onto her body while other sweaters were coming off her body and going into her bags. There seemed, at the time, no rhyme or reason to the activity, other than to showcase the unbelievable number of layers that she was wearing – four T-shirts and three sweaters at the very least - but she did end up looking just as hip as she had when she started – just as hip as she seems to always look. Every time I have seen her, she has been wearing a black knee brace on her right knee, and even this somehow looks effortlessly stylish and cool.
Last time I was here, another woman walked in the door and greeted her, and though it was clear that the meeting wasn’t planned, they also didn’t seem to be particularly surprised to see each other. I assumed, at first, that the other woman might also be homeless/destitute/troubled, both because of her acquaintance with my lady and because her hair was odd, in an unkempt wedge-shaped Afro. Upon closer examination, however, I decided that she was some sort of social worker. As a former public school teacher, I know from social workers, and this woman’s burgundy mock turtleneck, black chinos, and black clogs – and, indeed, her unfortunate hairdo – were a dead giveaway. After purchasing her coffee, the social worker sat down next to her and they chatted for awhile. I listened as closely as I could, desperate to learn more.
I picked up from the conversation that sneaker lady was having some sort of difficulty with identification. She apparently did not have identification for some reason, and this was making all kinds of trouble, and she had been in and out of various offices, having very little luck straightening things out. “It’s so crazy,” she kept saying, “because I was born right here in New York! And they say I can’t prove who I am. I was born here!” Then, a little later, the social worker, glancing at the bag flotilla, said something like, “So do you have to carry your food with you now?” And the sneaker lady answered something like, “No, but I’m carrying my clothes.” And then, a little later, the sneaker lady’s phone rang (I had noticed that her phone was an elaborate Blackberry-iPhone-type affair), and it was apparently someone in a car coming to pick her up. She gave the person instructions, and a few minutes later, her phone rang again, she answered with, “I’m coming across the street now,” and she gathered her things and left.
Today, she is sitting at the counter in the window, crocheting something beautiful and green and – again – Missoni-like, and she does not have her phone with her. I know that she does not have her phone with her, because she told me so. The man sitting next to me asked me, rather loudly, if it was going to rain today (this is a chatty Starbucks), and I told him that I thought it might, and she turned and said, “Oh, is it really? I didn’t know. I left my phone at home, and my phone is also my internet and my watch, too, so I’m out here today without compass or rudder.” Emboldened by her chattiness, I offered that I thought her crocheting was beautiful. “Thank you,” she said, “It’s going to be a scarf. And if I really get ambitious, a matching sweater too.” And then she began to get ready to leave. First, she put her crocheting in a Ziploc baggie, and then she lifted the bottom of her striped hooded sweater and began to straighten the three or four T-shirts underneath. After the T-shirts were straightened, she zipped her second striped hooded sweater on over the first, tucked the first hood into the second, and put both hoods up. Next, she took the Missoni-style cardigan out of the Pathmark bag and put the chunky-rib turtleneck into the Pathmark bag, along with her crocheting. After putting on the Missoni-style cardigan, she pulled a gold lame sash and a black mesh sash out of the Jolinda bag. She tied the gold lame sash around her waist, belting the cardigan closed, and she wrapped the black mesh sash around her neck as a scarf. Thus outfitted, she slung her panda purse over her shoulder, grabbed her three mismatched shopping bags, and walked out the door, still looking, against all reason, fabulous.