She was always there, perched on the gray, uneven stone steps, the ones leading up to the city’s library. No matter the time of day, no matter the type of weather, she was always there, sitting.
The first time I noticed her, I was rushing by, late to a meeting with my most important client––the president of that famous cosmetic company, the one with the big billboard looming over tenth avenue, two blocks away from here.
What caught my attention wasn’t the oversized, floral, canvas bag situated at her feet, but it was the way she hunched over it, rummaging through its contents, her head halfway down its enormous opening like it could swallow her whole if she peeked in any further. What could she be possibly looking for? I thought to myself as I rushed by, readjusting my bright red, Coach umbrella to shield the pelting rain from my freshly coiffed hair. Had I stopped to observe her for more than the one second that I did, I would’ve been two minutes late to my meeting––completely unacceptable to Ms. Fancy Face.
The next time I noticed her, I was on my way to brunch with my latest flame, that guy who claimed to be an actor. But if I’m being totally honest, that man could not deliver a line to save his life. Sitting on the same step as before, the one midway between the sidewalk and the landing, she wore an electric blue, (like the showy tail feathers of a peacock) wide brim bowler hat with a small, dried-out, crusty flower that at one point or another, had most likely been a daisy.
I slowed my pace because truthfully, it’s not like I was dying to meet that clown waiting for me in the back booth of the Big City Diner. Carefully, walking heel to toe, not to look suspicious, I glanced sideways, taking in her outfit. Her oversized frock, with its frayed hemline, draped around her, swallowing up her bunched legs as she pretended to knit. No straight needles. No double needles. No circular needles. And certainly, no yarn existed in her empty hands. Despite that, she spooled that imaginary yarn around her fingers, yanking it inch by inch from the bright floral bag resting near her tattered, high ankle boots. She lifted her head, nodding her round chin in my direction. I immediately picked up my pace and scurried along, feeling like a peeping Tom.
Over time, I found myself walking out my way, purposely taking the longer route, just to see her, each time lingering longer, drinking in the tiniest details, like the way her wiry, gray curls settled by her ears, framing her face like a set of spirally shaped curtains. Or how her long, dark lashes encased her brown eyes, golden like the afternoon sun shining through a glass of whiskey. I was a rubbernecker lurking in the shadows.
Whenever I walked by, I watched all kinds of people lumber up and down the stairs, never stopping, never paying her any attention. Instead, they went about their business as if she was just another fixture like the two oversized granite lions resting on their bellies by the grand entrance. I began to wonder how I hadn’t noticed her before. Had she been there all along, but with my hectic schedule I just hadn’t noticed her? Had I been too self-absorbed to see her? Or had she recently parked herself there?
Month after month, season after season, relationship after relationship, I passed by those stairs, watching, and like all the other people who had come and gone, I never bothered to stop and talk to her, never once acknowledging her presence. Rather, I observed her, wondering what could have happened to her. Wondering how she’d ended up here, on these uncomfortable steps. I wondered if she was missing anybody or more importantly, was anybody missing her. Was she a wife? A mother? A grandmother?
During the cold winter months, I noticed how the birds huddled at her feet for warmth, and how she bundled herself under a wool blanket, tucked up in the corner of the building, protecting herself from the biting wind. In the dog days of summer, she moved to the same spot, warding off the scorching rays from the midday sun. I wondered where she went at night. Did she stay there, or did she have a house to go home to? Did she spend the harsh winter nights in a shelter?
Something about her intrigued me. She was enchanting in an unexplainable way. I observed the way she smiled at the empty space around her like she was greeting a long-lost friend who had come to visit her after years of absence. I saw the faraway look in her eyes, as she stared straight ahead, looking right through me as if I were a ghost. Her sunken cheeks were hollowed out like her best memories had seeped from those once high cheek bones. Maybe she had been a showgirl back in the day. Or maybe she had been a glamorous actress. Perhaps she had been a well-loved teacher. No matter, whatever she’d been then, now, she was the lady from the library steps.
No one bothered her and she didn’t bother anybody in return. Every once in a while, someone would throw a dollar or two into her bag, the one that I assumed housed all her life’s belongings.
I don’t know why I never took the time to say hello, to sit by her, offer her up a moment of friendship. Perhaps it was my fear of the unknown––the fear of someone I didn’t understand, someone I couldn’t relate to. After all, I hadn’t been exposed to what my well-to-do parents would call, “her kind of people”. Maybe I was embarrassed by my Gucci pumps or my Prada purse, ashamed that I, somehow, had been lucky enough to win the wealthy lottery jackpot by being born into privilege while she sat exposed, in the elements, like an experiment in a petri dish for city folk to observe.
As much as my inner voice nagged at me, speaking directly to my heart, needling me to stop and interact, my logic overrode such emotion, my mother’s voice coaxing me to keep moving along. To mind my own business. But curiosity, or perhaps fascination kept me engaged, constantly walking by that woman, on that step, who perhaps was waiting for an old flame to return.
I wasn’t proud of myself or my behavior. Not at all. Sadly, I will never know who she was or why she was there. I’ll never learn of her life story or even her name. I will never have the chance to offer her a moment of companionship, a warm meal, or even a new blanket. And regretfully, I will have to live with that guilt, constantly wondering what that says about me as a person, because she was always there, until one day, she wasn’t.