I’m getting used to seeing her on the north corner of 84th Street and 37th Avenue, smiling. Or touching her nose.
She has a nice face, youthful, plump, and a little bit pretty. Her long hair is just starting to streak with grey. She’s the kind of person that’s easy to pass every day without noticing that she’s there, always wearing the same dark purple jacket, black sweat pants, and heavy black sneakers. She doesn’t make eye contact, or speak to anyone. She doesn’t have a begging bowl, a hand out, or a cardboard sign asking for money.
She’s Indian (Jackson Heights shorthand for any & all South Asian possibilities: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka), with dark skin that glistens, always looking just slightly sweaty. Now and then she smiles, as if someone said something nice, or someone she’d been waiting for finally showed up. She has perfect, spectacularly white teeth.
Today she stands on the south side of the street, and I wonder, as I do every time I pass her, if she is okay. She doesn’t look bewildered, or crazy, or drunk, just a little lost, a bit out of step. She stands, looking around, sometimes tentatively extending one foot, then bringing it back a moment later.
Am I the only one walking by as if she isn’t there? Is it a cultural thing I don’t understand? Do her own people stop and talk? Do they see her? I watch from across the street partially hidden by construction scaffolding for five minutes, maybe ten. Dozens of people walk by, the mix of South Asia, South and Central America, old and young, Jewish and Catholic and Hindu that makes up Jackson Heights. I think if I wait long enough, there will be eye contact, or conversation, or something.
An Asian man stands by the van parked right next to her. I wonder if he is her pimp. Then he opens the back door of the van and the guys from the construction site pile their tools in and drive away. A middle-aged Latin woman with electric red hair and flashy clothes, just this side of too tight, rifles through her purse on my lost lady’s corner, as if she’s looking for a dollar to offer up. She pulls out a Band-Aid, puts it on her foot, and goes on her way. A gold Cadillac is parked on the street in front of her. An overweight Latin man in the driver’s seat watches me as I stand across the street watching her, and I wonder if maybe he is her pimp, or thinking of doing her harm. His buddies show up, pile in, and they drive away, too.
My lost lady just stands. She smiles, and touches her nose.
She doesn’t seem underfed, or bruised, or drunk, just somewhat lost, inappropriately dressed for the weather, and oddly still for a city and a neighborhood that can only be described as bustling.
I walk back across the street. “Hello,” I say. “Do you need any help?”
She smiles–brilliant white teeth–and makes eye contact for a moment. “No. I’m waiting for someone.”
I believe her. I’m just not sure that the person she’s waiting for will ever come. Next time, I’ll tell her my name, and ask her for hers.