It was the first week after I moved from Los Angeles to New York. I walked the streets to get a feel for my new home town. Twice as many people live here than in Los Angeles. Add the tourists and the number of people doubles to about 16 million people. I had spent a serene hour at Madison Square Park and was on my way home. It was a lovely sunny afternoon. A commotion and a few shouted words caught my attention. Crossing a side street, a young woman concerned herself with an elderly man who waved her away to leave him be. The young woman gave him some space but kept following what I discovered to be an elderly couple.
Dressed in a similar style, comfortable but not drab, tasteful but not flashy, they both where at an age when you can’t tell any age difference any longer. They were in their nineties going on hundred, both were thin and tall and a little bent by age. They had to be husband and wife. They walked on their own without a walking stick. She moved a lot slower than he though making her way across the street. The concerned woman still hovered in a distance watching the old lady. Lifting her foot and setting it down next to the other foot, she advanced a quarter step at a time. Until she reached the curb. This was a step too steep for her to make on her own and so she looked up at her partner. Her face was small and pretty, her eyes wide open as if posing a question.
Her husband had stepped on the curb first and turned around. His suit, worn but not torn, fit him in a way that I knew he had been in that shape for some years already. I heard that old people don’t eat much anymore. Yet he still had the strength to reach out for her hands. She held on to him and as she lifted her foot, he pulled her up onto the sidewalk. The young woman addressed the people around who had stopped to watch. „They shouldn’t be walking these streets by themselves,“ she said. „It’s not safe.“ But since the couple had reached the sidewalk and was safe, there was nothing the young woman could do. Shaking her head she lifted her arms at her sides, giving up.
The couple headed towards the traffic light where I was standing. I gasped. They wanted to cross Madison Avenue next. The stream of traffic dominated by yellow cabs seemed impossible for them to ford. I hadn’t moved since the moment I laid eyes on the couple. These two were a prime example of how to grow old in New York City. I wasn’t going to miss a beat.
As soon as the cars stopped and the pedestrian lights turned green, they were on the move. He stepped into the street, turned around and held up his hands. She held on to him to steady her step down from the curb and then she let go of him. I looked across Madison Avenue, past the cars lined up like horses at a race, and wondered if they would make it in time. Already the yellow numbers on the traffic light were counting down from 48. Knowing they needed to go faster, the husband grabbed her hand. But she didn’t like that. He was going too fast for her. She pulled her hand back from him. This, in turn, he didn’t like and as she reached the halfway point, he left her side in a huff. See how far you go without me, he seemed to say. I was witnessing a quarrel between husband and wife in the heart of New York and time was running out.
The wife kept moving in glacial fashion. We all know what happens when you rush. The yellow numbers kept counting down but moving at her own pace was the only safety she could count on. She would not make haste. Not in this rush hour, not pushed by her husband. The pedestrian light turned to red. The cars would get a green light and the right of way any moment now. She hadn’t cleared the street yet. Her husband had stopped on the other side and turned away. She didn’t want his help? He wasn’t going to watch this. He turned away and walked in serpentine lines. Looking back at her, huffing and puffing, he put more and more distance between them. How far would he go? Abandon her?
I worried that impatient drivers would honk her out of their way. Worse, I thought they might speed past her. But I wasn’t the only one frozen in place, staring at this old woman who might be a hundred years old. Not one car moved. Not one car honked. Everybody was watching this spectacle. Waiting for her to make it to the other side. And then she reached the curb and stopped. She didn’t call for him. She didn’t try to make the step by herself. She got as far as she could and waited for her husband to return. They were a rehearsed team. Nobody else could help her.
The husband had kept moving ahead but when she stopped at the curb he stopped as well. He lifted his arms, what now? A showdown. She didn’t move. I waited for him to get over his anger and come back. It didn’t take long. He returned and offered his hands. She grabbed them so he could pull her onto the sidewalk. That’s when I heard the first honk and that’s when the first cars moved.
Soon the traffic blocked my view on the couple. I wanted to follow them but I didn’t. What were they doing out here? He didn’t carry a shopping bag. She didn’t have a handbag. Then it dawned on me. They live here. They were out for a walk. Or a doctor’s appointment. Or getting their nails done in a spa. They have been walking the streets of New York all their life. Who’s going to stop them now? Seeing these two moving about their neighborhood I imagined my husband and me at that age. How he would be impatient with me, how I would feel rushed, how he would feel rejected when I don’t let him help me. This couple showed me what it would be like to grow old in New York.