I’m always on the lookout for people who are having a bad day. The kind of bad day that can be turned into a good one with a small gift. Today, I got lucky.
Louise and I flew to Boston last week to spend a few days with Elijah. We had a wonderful visit and yesterday the three of us got on a train to New York. (Aaron is home from Ireland for a few months and just started a new job, so he wasn’t with us.)
For the past dozen years or so, my cousin Mark and his wife Sheri have been hosting a family reunion every few years at their Brooklyn brownstone. Mark’s father Eddie Grashow and my father’s mother Mollie were brother and sister, which makes the two of us first cousins once removed. Never mind the fact that we’re related, Mark and Sheri are two of my favorite people in the world. They’re caring, smart, funny, generous and warm-hearted – everything you would want in a friend and more than you often get in a relative.
Aaron came with me to the first family reunion about 12 years ago and met many of the clan for the first time. I saw people I hadn’t seen since I was a child, and met a whole new generation of Grashows. This time was both different and the same. Neither Louise nor Elijah had ever been before. One young cousin survived an attack by a grizzly bear in Alaska this summer. Babies have been born and children have lost their parents. Those of us still here are all just a little older.
I’ve been carrying around a hundred since we left Portland last Wednesday. Actually, I had two hundreds and hoped to make one gift in Boston and another in New York. By this morning nothing had happened. I also had a Metrocard with a couple of unused trips on it and wanted to give that away. The three of us had breakfast, then walked together to Penn Station where Elijah would get on a train and Louise and I into a cab to the airport.
I grew up 40 minutes away in the New Jersey suburbs and went into the city as often as I could. When it came time to choose a college, New York City was the only place I wanted to be and I applied early decision to Barnard. My father died during my senior year of high school, and the last few months at home alone with my anxious and sorrowful mother felt like an eternity. I couldn’t wait to be set free.
I love my life in Portland, and will likely never leave, but there’s a part of my soul that lies dormant as the days pass in that soft green corner of the world. Whenever I’m back in New York I feel that thrill of freedom and possibility. Still, no matter how often I go back, or how recent my last visit, I am never prepared for the physical impact of stepping out onto the street for the first time. The horns, the sirens, the odors (even with a muted sense of smell), the flashing lights, the sheer volume of humanity at every crosswalk: it’s all both thrilling and just the slightest bit overwhelming.
Even on this Sunday morning, the streets were packed and Penn Station was a maelstrom of activity. Louise and I said goodbye to Elijah. I was determined to find a recipient for my next hundred before we headed to the airport.
My first order of business was the Metrocard. We found a spot for Louise to wait, and I made my way toward the subway platform.
Feet and legs were everywhere. A lot of people seemed to be in a real hurry (or what would pass for a real hurry in the Northwest). Then a gray-haired man walked by not seeming to be in a rush at all; he was carrying an instrument case and limping slightly.
I took a step out in front of him. “Excuse me, sir, are you getting on the subway?” He said he was and gave me a wide smile. I held the Metrocard out to him, explaining that it had a couple of trips left on it that I wasn’t going to use.
“That’s wonderful!” he cried, “Thank you so much!” He put his instrument case down and opened it. “I’m going to play you a song! This is just for you!” He was working fast, his hands swiftly assembling a battered old trombone.
“Just for you,” he repeated. He apologized that he wasn’t properly warmed up, then put the mouthpiece to his lips and played a smooth and soulful rendition of “Yesterday”. People hurried by with hardly a glance.
He had said I could take his picture, and I snapped a couple while he played. His eyes were closed, mostly, but he opened them every so often to take a peek at me. I was all smiles as he finished the song. He told me his name was Marvin and he’s been playing and teaching trombone for many years. I thanked him and said I had something else for him. “That is, if you’re in the mood to accept another gift.” He smiled and said, “Sure!”
He was bending down and putting away his horn while I said a few words about my mom. I explained that I was giving away a gift in her honor, and passing on something she had left to me. I held out the hundred. It was folded up so that the only thing showing was Benjamin Franklin’s face.
Marvin took in a sharp breath and said, “Oh, wow! Thank you so much!” He told me that he had just been to meet a student for a lesson but the student didn’t show up. “All the way to Trenton, I went,” he grumbled. “An hour and a half each way. The carfare alone made it hardly worthwhile. And then he didn’t even show up.” He shook his head. “He coulda called me. His mother shoulda called. Saved me a trip.”
I agreed it was a real shame that he had made the trip for nothing. He shook his head again sadly. Then his eyes lit up. “But this makes it all worth it! This makes it into a really great day!”
A guy walking by said he would take our picture. I handed him the camera and Marvin put his arm around me. “Real nice,” said the guy.
As we were saying goodbye, Marvin shook my hand and said, “The subway fare was great, but this is just amazing! You’ve been such a blessing.”
Then he was up the stairs, on his way to the rest of a very good day.
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