New Yorkers are a tribe like no other. The city gives them character, and they give the city character. Their stories are wonderfully rich, and none is richer than one I heard last fall while visiting the city.
I was browsing the jewelry display in the gift shop of the American Folk Art Museum. An elderly woman stood beside me. She was clear eyed, well dressed and spoke comfortably with the sales clerk, inquiring about a necklace she’d seen the week before. The clerk looked around but couldn’t find it. Undeterred, the old woman asked for a pen and paper so she could draw the one she wanted. Perhaps they would recognize it or find another.
Intrigued by what I’d heard, I turned to the woman and said, “After you’ve settled the necklace business, perhaps you could sign the drawing so I could buy it.” I was half-joking, but I felt invested in her search for this particular object of beauty. I didn’t expect much in the way of a reply — a smile maybe. What I got was a full-blown story about another drawing.
“We lived in the Village when my kids were young,” the old woman began. “We had a cat. Do you remember Meow Mix?” She meant Greenwich Village, and yes, I remembered Meow Mix. Dry cat food. I placed her story in the 1970s.
“They ran promotions where they would send you a gift if you mailed in enough box tops, which we did. One day, the gift arrived in the mail. It was a small pad of yellow notepaper with the Meow Mix logo at the top. My son, who was six or seven at the time, thought it was grand, so he brought it with him as we went out on our errands that day.
“One of our stops was a bookstore where there was a big lineup at the checkout counter. It was Andy Warhol signing autographs. My son handed him the Meow Mix paper, and Andy Warhol drew a kitty-cat face and signed his name in the middle.” When her son got home, the woman said, he tacked it up on his bulletin board.
Years passed. One day the woman noticed the drawing was gone. When she asked about it, her son replied that he was bigger now and no longer liked kitty-cats. He had thrown it out. The woman didn’t tell me how she felt about it, but said her daughter was really angry that her little brother had cast aside an Andy Warhol original.
I said it was too bad it was gone, but what a great story. As I gathered my things to leave, she said flatly, “That boy died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.”
I froze, at a loss for words. The woman looked at me with those clear eyes and continued. “My daughter grieves for her brother every day. That lost kitty-cat picture helps with her grief. It brings her a memory of real anger at a real person. It makes her brother real again.”
There was nothing to say, other than “I am sorry.” I glanced down at her drawing, then up at her kindly face. We held each other’s eyes for a moment. And then I carried on, out into the city that never sleeps because it’s always making stories.
Lorna Day is an urban designer in Toronto.
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