The hidden pleasures of listening to other people’s conversations
The last time we were in New York, Renato and I decided that we should walk rather than take a cab from our hotel in Herald Square to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's a distance of two and a half miles, and we thought it would be an amusing way to meet our tedious daily goal of ten thousand steps. Renato asked one of the porters how best to get to our destination.
"Where are you going?" says the porter.
"86th and 5th," answers Renato.
"And you want to go by foot? That's crazy. It's practically the other side of the world. Are you sure you want to walk that far, sir? I can get you a cab easy."
He tells us the best route and warns us to avoid 34th Street. "It's full of panhandlers and real rough guys, and you want to avoid that area at all cost. Take 36th Street instead, then go up 5th the whole way. Easy peasy, except you'll wear out your shoes." New Yorkers love giving directions and making predictions. As we left, I heard him say to one of his buddies, "Tourists."
In retrospect, I think the porter may have been right about the distance. It took us more than an hour to make our way to the museum. By the time we arrived, I was drenched in sweat and feeling worn out. "I desperately need some coffee," I said in exhaustion to Renato. “The museum has a cafeteria in the basement, but it doesn’t open until ten-thirty. Let’s go there now, sit on a bench until the shop opens, and rest our aching feet.”
We were not the only ones to come up with this idea. A small crowd had gathered by the cafeteria, waiting for the gates to lift. These were not tourists like us, but true and blue locals determined to spend a leisurely morning meandering over a cup of good java. They were armed with the Sunday edition of the New York Times, well-worn paperbacks, electronic tablets, and cellphones. Most of them were alone, but some gathered in groups of two or three. The loners kept to themselves but smiled at each other in recognition. I could identify them as locals because they were dressed in a mixture of Annie Hall chic and street-bum cheap. Worn-out jeans paired with Prada tops, inexpensive bracelets on their wrists, and Italian leather shoes on their feet. Many of the women were skeletally thin, middle-aged or older, with an apparent vow to let no food pass their lips. Some wore their grey hair in a long and dangling style that probably reminded them of when they were flower children, but that seemed erratic against their un-powdered faces.
"Don't be fooled," I mumbled to myself. "At night, these bone-thin women put on a ton of makeup, pull their hair into a neat and tight bun, slip into the perennial little black dress with diamonds, and go to a fancy party."
"Who are you judging now?" asked Renato. He overheard what was meant to be my very private mumbling. I chose to ignore him.
Among the loners, one who I will call April, was standing perfectly straight with her back against a column. She seemed to be chanting, closing her eyes intermittently and mumbling a few words. "Look at her," I said to Renato. "I think she's talking to herself." He replied, "You always mumble to yourself, so mind your own business."
After a few minutes, another woman joined April. I will call her Barbara.
"Are you meditating?" asked Barbara.
"No," replied April, while stretching her aching back. "I'm reciting old prayers that I learned in elementary school with the little nuns. It's a habit I rely on to help me pass the time whenever I'm waiting. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. That sort of stuff."
A third woman, Cagney, who was overhearing the conversation, joins the little group. "Those nuns were monsters," she interjects. "So dark and dire. What gloomy killjoys."
"Not my nuns," replies April. "For me, they were sweet and comforting. In fact, they were the joy of my life growing up. I'm still friends with Sister Dolores, who I visit every month at the Harbor of Grace Convent in Flushing. She's eighty-five years old now, and she spends her days reading, napping, and giving pep talks to the novices. She's nothing but a joyful optimist."
"Bless her little nun heart," answers Cagney. Her voice tells me she is unconvinced of Sister Dolores' supposed optimism. She fervently believes all nuns are monsters.
"This has been a rough year for dear Dolores," April continues. "In January, they had to remove her colon due to diverticulitis. In March, they removed her gallbladder. In June, they removed a tumor from her stomach. Fortunately, it was all benign, no malignant tissue."
"Poor dear," responds Barbara. "Some people have the worst luck."
"I agree. From the outside looking in, it's been a wave of tragedies followed by an avalanche of misfortune. But that's not the way she sees it. Dolores will tell you that this has been a year of blessings. According to her, it's marvelous they fixed her stomach; it's thrilling they could pull out her rotten gallbladder; it's a miracle they removed the tumor and found no cancer. Dolores has concluded that there is no organ or malady left in her frail body to be taken out, so she's happy as a clam." April pushes her hair back and smiles as she tells this story. I can see her grey eyes and the bags and wrinkles beneath them. I see the sorrow in her heavy eyes and the sparkle of lightheartedness that remains.
"What an optimist," remarks Cagney, still feeling sarcastic. She fixes the pile of newspapers and paperbacks that she is carrying in her bag. "I wish my neighbors were more like your little nun. All my rotten neighbors do is complain. Yesterday the building lost internet for a while, and Bobby next door went bat crazy. He started yelling 'Mother This' and 'Mother That' and other obscenities that a decent woman won't repeat. At one point, I know he broke all his dishes because I heard a loud crash, like ten sheets of glass cracking against concrete. I went to his door and said, 'Bobby, take it easy. It will come back soon. It always does.' But he yelled back at me, saying I should mind my blasted business. Then he called me an 'angry B,' and I yelled back at him as best I could. 'Bobby, don't you talk to me that way! I may look like a frail old woman to you, but I can still knock you out if I need to!' No one is allowed to call me ugly names. Not anymore."
Cagney pulls on her sweater. She is straitening herself out to emphasize the events and to give weight to her words. Her words speak courage, her features speak fear.
"Bobby looked at me in my robe and stocking feet and started laughing. Finally, he tells me he's sorry, and he knows he shouldn't have lost his temper, but the idea of me whooping his six-foot frame tickles him. He tells me to go back to my apartment, and promises to keep it down. I told him he better, or I would come back to beat his behind." Cagney cracks a broad smile and Barbara and April laugh.
In between chuckles, Barbara shakes her head. "I understand Bobby's anger issues," she says. "Sometimes I get so angry that I can't control myself. But I always find something to do to distract me from the anger, like coming to this museum. Lately, I've gotten into the habit of visiting the new exhibition on Gustave Caillebotte on the ground floor. I like to study each painting individually, one or two a day. That way, I get a real sense of what the painting is about, which clears my lingering anger."
"That's an unusual way to study the paintings in an art show, one painting at a time," says April.
"I agree, but it was a recommendation from the curator himself—a chubby, jovial fellow with piercing blue eyes whom I met on opening night. I didn't know who he was, so I asked him if he thought the Caillebotte exhibition was any good. He said he certainly hoped so since he's the principal curator. Oh goodness, I laughed! I told him, in that case, he should give me some hints on what I should be looking for.”
"He told me to come visit the exhibit more than once. On your first visit, he explained that you should absorb everything quickly without focusing on anything in particular. Let the collection of paintings infiltrate your subconscious, and let yourself drown in the sense and feel of the exhibition. Treat it like a living fabric. Then come back the next day, and the day after that, and the following day too, and each day study one or two paintings in depth. See what each painting says to you, and interpret its meaning."
"I told him I wouldn't know how to interpret the paintings. After all, I'm not an art connoisseur. But he was very gentle with me. He said there's no right or wrong interpretation. Focus on the colors, the subject, or the mood of the painting. Let your subconscious guide your appreciation. Any meaning you come up with, as long as it is generated with honesty and sincerity, is valid because it reflects how the paintings have marked you."
"And have you been returning often to see the show?" asked April, stretching her painful back.
"Every day over the past two weeks," Barbara replied, "I've been pouring myself into the paintings, meticulously examining every inch. I make it a point to seek out the hidden figures tucked away in the corners, the delicate details that often go unnoticed by others. For instance, I'll focus on how Caillebotte blends broad Parisian boulevards and grand architecture with minuscule figures engaged in mundane, everyday activities. I am captivated by their dress, postures, and gestures as they go about with their daily business. Sometimes I find comfort in his depictions of sunlit living rooms adorned with exquisite furnishings, where I can carefully observe the choice of flowers or the arrangement of knickknacks that reveal the character of the person who owns the apartment. It's almost as though I'm peering into the lives of strangers through Caillebotte's paintings, momentarily stepping out of my own reality."
After that, I could see that the women were still chatting, but I couldn't hear them anymore as the room had gotten too loud. Their voices and their conversation were lost in the noise of the crowd.
I inherited my habit of eavesdropping on conversations from my grandmother. She delighted listening to people chit-chatting on buses, parks or stores. She would draw grandiose conclusions from the tiniest bits of information. Like when she overheard a man talking about his unemployed son at the local mercado and confidently declared, "That family is headed straight to the poor line and nothing but distress!" Or the time she caught wind of a woman discussing her daughter's love for makeup and frilly things, and promptly proclaimed, "That young girl will be nothing but trouble someday!" My father hated her observations on other people's lives and called it gossip-mongering. But as a child, I was fascinated by what seemed to be a clairvoyance ability, to sum up someone's history, making up stories based on trivial snippets.
Renato dislikes my habit of listening in. "It's a morbid form of escapism," he warns me. "Focus on the real and known, and concentrate on your own life, not someone else's." He sounds just like my father sometimes. He sees that I'm straining my neck, trying to listen to the three ladies, and he pulls me away with a gentle hug. He whispers in my ear. "Stop listening to other people's conversations, Caro. Get ready. They are opening the café now."
He always calls me Caro. It means dear in Italian.
Once inside the cafeteria, we each get coffee and a bagel with cream cheese. The bagels were average, but the coffee was remarkably good.
"I like this coffee," says Renato.
"I don't like the price, though," I add. "Coffee should not cost more per ounce than gas costs per gallon."
"Caro, learn to enjoy."
We sit at a table hidden from the others to give ourselves privacy. I am being quiet and reflective, and I'm not saying anything.
"Caro, what are you thinking now? I can hear the wheels spinning in your head."
I tell him about the three women. How they had gathered. How they dressed and looked. How they quickly shared intimate stories. "Renato, they each bore an uncanny resemblance to one another, as if they belonged together. I had not expected that they would bond so quickly. The way they came about, one by one, to form their chummy little circle was magical. It’s as if the fates decided these three needed to meet and share secrets. I'm debating whether they are real, made of flesh and bone, or are they perhaps ethereal muses who have wandered from an enchanted forest into our mundane reality."
"Or," replies Renato with his wide smile, "maybe they are cunning sorceresses, stirring a cauldron, concocting spells that weave melancholy and mischief. Where are the three witches anyway?"
I look around and find them sitting at a booth right in back of us. They are still feverishly chatting while sipping their good, strong coffee. Of course, they didn't order anything to eat. Just coffee. Now I can hear the rest of their conversation.
"How is Sister Dolores doing now?" asks Cagney. "Is she still the eternal optimist?"
"To the very end, and spreading that optimism everywhere she goes," answers April. "I've recently been diagnosed with bone cancer in my back. I trust the advice of Sister Dolores, so I asked her whether I should have surgery to remove the tumors, opt for radiation instead, or do both. She convinced me to postpone radio for now. She was like a cheerleader, filling me with rah-rah optimism, like 'stay strong,' 'things will improve,' and 'never lose faith.' She urged me not to give in to fear and suggested that before any other treatment, I should allow the surgeons to cut into my back and see what’s going on in there. Perhaps, during the procedure, they will discover that it's not cancer after all. There is always hope."
Even though she's smiling, April is visibly shaken. Neither Barbara nor Cagney knows whether to hug and comfort or leave her alone.
Cagney offers her a tissue. "Good for you for being strong," she says. "Face the difficult news when it arrives, and don't try to anticipate the future." She sips her coffee and adjusts her blouse while April smiles in response.
"I'm going to grab myself another cup of coffee," Barbara interjects abruptly, leaving the table and heading to the counter without asking the others if they want anything.
April has composed herself, and she continues chatting with Cagney. "I think it was brave of you to stand up to your Robbie neighbor. I admire that."
"If truth be told, I was scared to death, but I had to confront his screaming with my bravado," explains Cagney. "I've known a lot of screamers in my life. My father was a screamer, and so were my two brothers. My poor mom put up with all the hollering, and never complained about it. I will always hit back. Always raise your voice to the screamers but do it with humor. That will shut them up. And if they don’t shut up, then don’t be afraid to use some physical force. It takes a bully to put a bully in his place.”
April sits quietly, attentive, absorbing Cagney's words without offering a response. I know what April is thinking; after all, I inherited my grandmother’s powers of clairvoyance. I’m convinced that, deep down, April disagrees with Cagney's viewpoint but chooses to remain silent. She does not want to be confrontational. I look at Renato, and I want to share this little turn of events with him, this riff between the ladies, but I don't dare. First, Renato is busy with his cell phone, as usual. Second, as much as I'm his "Caro," he does not caro-care about my snap analysis of people's moods and intentions. Such a gloomy killjoy.
Just as the awkward tension between April and Cagney starts to weigh on the scene, Barbara returns with her second cup of coffee, breaking the silence.
"That coffee looks good," April exclaims, directing her attention towards Barbara.
Barbara delicately places the cup on the table, but her hand trembles.
"Is everything all right?" asks April.
"Yes, thank you, dear. It's just that the service here could be better. Getting the server's attention to get me a cupper was so difficult. The server is twenty years old, so what can you expect. To them, the young ones, people like us are invisible. Hello, I want to scream; I'm still here! I'm not dead yet, you know! It makes me so angry. To be perceived as gone and forgotten."
April smiles, not knowing what to say. Cagney is busy putting on some lipstick and a bit of makeup.
"Never mind," continues Barbara. She sits down and starts to sip her second cup. "You should never hesitate to have another cup when the first one is so good! That's what my husband used to tell me when we were younger."
"Does he come to see the Caillebotte paintings with you?" April asks.
A wistful expression crosses Barbara's face as she responds, "No, dear. My husband passed away last month." She gives a small sob. "When he was sick, he anxiously awaited the Caillebotte exhibit and studied everything about it. When he died before the exhibit opened, I felt an obligation to come to the show in his place, even though I know nothing about art."
Now freshly powdered and rouged, Cagney interjects, "And what about the blue-eyed curator? Have you seen him again?"
"Yes, I saw him yesterday. Naturally, he didn't remember me but pretended that he did. I told him that his lessons on appreciating Caillebotte's work helped me overcome my anger and grief over my dear husband's death."
Silence. More sips of coffee.
"Then he gave me a big hug," Barbara concludes. “He told me that maybe my husband is with me when I’m studying my paintings.”
The women sip their coffee, and their conversation takes a pause.
Renato finally sets down his cell phone and pays attention to me, almost for the first time this morning. We chat for a while, and I lose track of the ladies. As I finish my coffee and we are ready to leave, I notice the three women bidding each other farewell, promising to meet more often and support one another. However, I predict they will not see each other again. Not one for the ages, is what my grandmother would opine.
While parting ways, I overhear April softly murmuring: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."
I explain to Renato, "That's the one that likes to mumble prayers when she is waiting.”
"Caro," he responds, "you've done enough eavesdropping for one day. Let's go see some art together."
June 22, 2023
© Ernesto Beckford 2023
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