Tag Archives: strangers

Smiling During The Times

23 Apr

Just so we’re all on the same page, I am calling this current period of our communal lives “The Times.” There were “The Before Times,” there will be “The After Times” but The After Times won’t be the same as The Before Times because of what we are living through right now. The Times. With me? Great.

I know that there is this idea that people in New York City don’t make eye contact, that we don’t smile at each other. But that is simply not true. That might partially be the story of those of us who, over the years, have tired of the throngs of tourists making the city so crowded that we cannot enjoy some of the amazing things it has to offer. Try walking, running, cycling or driving across the Brooklyn Bridge at any time that isn’t a pandemic and you’ll see what I mean. But more than that it is the story told by the many visitors to this city who have, over their lifetimes, been told countless stories about the coldness that will greet them when they visit here. The people who have not realized that New York City is one of the safest big cities in the country. Those who somehow don’t understand that there is a symbiotic relationship between a city and the people who live within it. People visit New York because the city is amazing. The city is amazing because the people who live here have made it so.

In The Before Times, I would walk around the city and make eye contact with people and then I would smile at them. Not a smile that would invite conversation, mind you. I didn’t have time for that because I was for sure running 5 minutes late for something. But a small smile that said,

Hey, I see you.

In a crowded place sometimes we struggle to be seen.

But now it is The Times. And during The Times people are wearing all manner of face coverings. Surgical masks, N95s, scarves, bandanas, homemade things, those creepy ones that I think maybe are gas masks – Eric says respirators – but either way they make people look like they are either underwater explorers or serial killers. I hate the masks. I hate all of them. I hate wearing them and I hate seeing them. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they are needed and I wear one because it is the only option if you give a shit about anyone other than yourself, but I still don’t like them. They make it hard to breath, they make it look like we are at war (which I suppose we are) and, perhaps most troubling for me, they make it hard to smile at people.

Today, for example, Eric and I took Goose for a walk and got the things we need for the next few days at the store. Eric did the shopping and I stood outside on the sidewalk with Goose, mask firmly in place. For those of you who are making all the wrong choices and have never met Goose, here is her Instagram page. You’re welcome. Point being, Goose is very cute. People LOVE Goose. Usually, in The Before Times they would smile at her when they walked by and then I’d smile at them and then Goose would wag her tail and everyone would be happy. But now they walk by and I look at them and try to figure out if they are smiling and in the meantime I smile behind my mask and then maybe they are trying to figure out if I am smiling and maybe they also are smiling behind their mask and so there we are, blankly staring at each other, smiles completely obscured, not knowing what the fuck to do. We just make a lot of really intense and confused eye contact. So I wonder, Should we all just print out pictures of ourselves smiling in The Before Times, laminate them, wear them around our necks and then hold them up in front of ourselves at the time when we normally would be smiling? And maybe actually are smiling but no one can tell? Do we force everyone to watch America’s Next Top Model and spend their time standing in front of a mirror practicing their smize? Do we use the Defense Production Act to force companies to create see-through masks so that we can be safe out in public and also be able to communicate nonverbally? Do we walk by people and just say “I am smiling at you right now?” I don’t know. I am truly at a loss.

Yesterday, I went for a drive in my car. I was the only person in the car so I wasn’t wearing my mask. When I stopped at stop signs and people crossed in front of me, I would smile at them and they would know. And even though they were wearing masks, I believe they were smiling at me because they could see my smile and read my nonverbal message of

Hey! I see you!

Honestly, I felt so free just being able to interact with the world in a way I was accustomed. I was able to speak the language of facial expressions that involved more than my overly expressive eyebrows for which I currently am more grateful for than ever before. And it was weird because never in my life, in all the time I have spent thinking about the privilege I have, did it ever occur to me that smiling is a privilege. That smiling at someone, and being smiled at in return, is a gift to be treasured. I have caught myself a few times, while wearing the mask, not smiling when normally I would. I have caught myself wondering what the point is. But there is a point. Because there will be The After Times. And even though The After Times will be so different than The Before Times, at least we will be able to smile at one another on the street and in the store.  I am really looking forward to that. Because for all the things I feel sad about, I feel most sad when I smile at someone and they don’t know. I feel sad for the smiles I haven’t knowingly exchanged. The ones I haven’t received and returned in kind. Or the ones I just didn’t know I was given because I couldn’t read what was happening underneath the mask. I deeply feel the loss of those random moments of brightness. I miss strangers. But more than that, I miss their smiles. I can’t wait to see them again.

If you are enjoying my writing, and since a lot of the cafes are currently closed, consider buying me a coffee on ko-fi! It only costs $3 (or a multiple of 3 if you’re feeling frisky!) and would make my house-bound, under-socialized heart sing. To those of you who caffeinated me, I send you so much gratitude. And I send gratitude to all of you who took the time to read this piece and helped me hold some of these thoughts. 

There is a Cat Stuck in this Box

18 Mar

A few years ago I was on the phone with my mom when we started discussing cats.  Or, more specifically, we started trying to figure out at which point one might go from being a lady with cats to a cat lady.  After a good amount of discussion we came to the conclusion that when you go from having 3 cats to 4 you have invariably crossed the line.  In hindsight, this was a rather convenient solution seeing as how at that moment my mother was the owner of exactly three felines and she certainly didn’t want to have to think of herself as a cat lady.  To be fair, though, I had found and lured the two younger cats, both of whom were adorable stray kittens, from different potentially dangerous situations and then dumped them at my parent’s house.  One of them, Chicory, had taken up residence in our front yard and driveway which sits just off of a relatively busy road with limited visibility and the other one, Chamomile, I had wrested from the arms of a drunken co-ed who was sitting weeping on the steps of a fraternity during my Sophomore year in college, squeezing the diminutive kitten to within inches of its life.  And then there was Sassafras, by far my favorite, a bitch of a cat who we adopted from the kennel when I was in Kindergarten who only lasted two years after I brought Cammy home and those two years, to be honest, were not her best.  She was very sick with liver failure and passed away on the very same day I went to a dress fitting for the bridesmaids dress I was to wear that coming summer to my brother and sister-in-law to be’s wedding.  At the end of the conversation I said to my mom, in as stern a voice as I could muster,

Mom, cut me off at three.

I am squarely in the safe zone, being a lady with only 2 cats, one full feline below the edge.  I go through my days proudly telling people about my cats, Clark and Grete, and not worrying about the judgement I would receive if I were to then rattle off an additional three names. It was with this calm attitude that I headed out for a run last Thursday afternoon before work.  As I was running past a train yard I heard a loud, shrill, kitten-sounding call for help coming from somewhere within the gated yards.  I stopped and looked around, following the sound, until I located the kitten stuck inside of a kelly green electrical box.  I looked around for help, but it was after 5 and everyone had gone home.  I retraced my steps and ended up at the entrance to some other MTA-owned property with a security guard who seemed relatively unconcerned about the fate of the cat, although he did assure me that he would “send some fellas to check it out.”  I looked around and didn’t see anyone.  What fellas, I wondered to myself, was he talking about?  I figured he must be a dog person.

I headed back in the direction of the cat, saying to myself over and over again that I had to be at work soon, that there was nothing I could do about the cat in the box, that I simply had to trust in the existence of these invisible fellas and that everything would be okay.  As I approached the box I heard the desperate cries of the trapped kitten.  I simply could not pass it by.  So I crouched there and I started talking to the kitten in the box.  Now, mind you, I was on a busy road and cars and people were passing by and the kitten was invisible to everyone but me and, wouldn’t you know it, as long as I was cooing at it the poor little thing stayed calm.  What this meant for me was that it appeared to those passing me by that I was a crazy person in full running get-up talking to a green metal box and frantically looking at every passer-by with panic in my eyes.  Finally, after 1/2 hour of crouching alone by the box in 25 degree weather, a lady, who had just walked past and not given me a second glance, heard the meow and stopped.  I looked at her and to her stationary back said

There is a cat stuck in this box.

She quickly approached and we started trying to come up with plans.  I had noticed a few minutes earlier that the gate to the yard was open but my law-abiding self was afraid to enter and get yelled at by an approaching fella that I had neglected to notice.  She seconded my concerns (minus the fella) and added that she was pretty sure the gate had an automatic lock mechanism and if someone closed it while I was in there I could get stuck and she didn’t care how official my running clothes looked, there was no way I would be able to scale that fence AND the razor wire at the top without (1) getting arrested, (2) falling or (3) ruining my clothes that she was sure were pretty expensive.*  Just then I realized that a car that had glided to a stop was still idling about 20 feet away and I hadn’t noticed anyone get out.  When I looked up at the car, it approached, and the tinted window of the passenger’s side slowly rolled down.  A man in a baseball cap looked out at me and I said to him

There is a cat stuck in this box.

The man looked shocked and quickly came out of the car.  So there we all were, standing on the sidewalk shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, staring at a stationary electrical box and gesticulating wildly.  The man shrugged off our warnings about the possibility of an automatic lock mechanism and entered the yard, with me closely behind him and the lady standing in the entrance to the yard so just in case the doors started closing she could stop them with her body.  He started moving the lid of the box around, I kept an eye out for fellas, and then, just like that, the whole top and side disconnected from the rest of the box.  We peered in and there it was, the cutest, smallest, scaredest little beige kitty.  It wouldn’t come out of the box but, wouldn’t you know it, the man happened to have cat food in his car so he opened a little can and left it propping the box open so the kitty could eat and escape.  Each of us, we discovered, would love to take the kitty home but both the lady and the man already had 4 kittys and I, as I mentioned before, had 2.  So, we left the kitty to its own devices and went off in our different directions, all of us feeling good about having released the kitty and me, with my comparatively small number of cats at home, feeling even more secure in my status as a lady with cats.

*In actuality I bought them on sale, but I still would have been sad if I ripped them.