I was walking through Manhattan and I stopped by Pret a Manger for a quick sandwich on 32nd street. I sat at one of those counters stuck to the windows to see outside. On my right, a beautiful girl with curly and short hair, black as her skin. On my left, an African-American woman in her 70s and a little further, a man on his 50s, perhaps her son. The four of us were looking out, straight ahead, like children in punishment. The girl had a hot soup in her hands, the woman a dish of Mac and Cheese; I guess the man had eaten a baguette, but there were only crumbs to prove it.
As I was listening to the woman speaking, I realized that what I miss most here in New York is the contact with the elderly, those who when embrace you give you involuntarily some peace, that tranquility that whispers that everything is gonna be all right, that you can survive growth, detachment, fear, war, pain, loss, but also the steps forward, those backward, boredom, the joy. Those hugs given by those who have already lived all of that. Yeah, I miss this, because there are few elderly people here: this city is too noisy, too cold in winter and hot in summer. They go to Florida, or maybe somewhere in Connecticut, where they can have a big house surrounded by silence.
So I pretended that we were sitting together at that long table, like at Grandma’s on a Sunday. And I thought about how many ‘Sunday lunches in punishment’ I have done since I am here. Then, without even realizing it, I turned to my left and asked the woman for her name. What I really wanted to ask her was a hug, but it would have been too much. She looked at me for a few seconds, scanning my gaze to see if I was there to sell her something, to ask for money, or just ‘cause I’m crazy. “Binca”, she replies, “and this is Will”, pointing at the man on her left. She didn’t ask for my name, she didn’t ask why I asked for hers. She only asked me where I was from, and when I replied that I am from Italy she started talking about Venice sinking and imagining how harm it’s for such a beautiful city. She can only imagine it because she has never been there. Then Binca and Will get up and leave, and when I turn to see them going away, I notice that the beautiful girl is looking at me. “My name is Bethlem, like the city”. And we started talking: she is an Ethiopian model, she has lived in New York for a few years and has just come out of her church, where they not only pray, she explains to me, but they sing and dance. When I tell her my name is Stella, she says “Nice, like Stella McCartney”. Then, after following each other on Instagram, she asks me if we can pray together. She reminds me of a little girl who asks you to listen to her singing a song (you’d rather don’t you but you can’t say no). She tells me to repeat after her: ‘dear Lord’. “Dear Lord”… I misunderstand a few words and therefore imitated her as I used to do at the 6th-grade music classes when I used to pretend I was singing. Then Bethlem hands me the card of her church and leaves.
I start to think about how annoying the faithful are sometimes. How annoying humans are, how nobody asks you what your name is if not to sell you a product, if not to ask you for money, if not to have your body, if not to sell faith. I got out and started walking heading South feeling proud of myself for being one of the last humans left to ask someone’s name without wanting anything in return. But not even after one block, I realize that me too … I actually wanted something from Binca. I wanted a taste of Sunday lunch, I wanted a little of her conscious look, a little of her calm voice, a little of her wrinkled hands, a little piece of her tranquility. I wanted a feeling, I wanted a little bit of her.
And I realized that we all want something in return, even if sometimes it’s just a hug.
Post written while listening to Bright Horses by Nick Cave.