In writing a biography of a former New York mayor — George McClellan Jr., son of the Civil War general — there was no way I could do all my research from home. I took a number of trips during the course of three years to research centers that held his papers. Most of my trips brought me back home to New York City.
My sister, who has always been good at connecting people, told her sister-in-law, Joyce, I would treat her to lunch when I was in town. I called Joyce to arrange the date and we agreed on a day when I would be at the midtown library. I wasn't sure how much I could possibly get done before having to run downtown to meet her, but Joyce seemed excited about the lunch date and it really wasn't too much to ask of me.
As it turned out, I had barely an hour and a half to go through reels of old newspapers, hardly enough time, before heading downtown. Joyce was on time, and she suggested we eat at a restaurant she liked in Chinatown.
The food was good, and I gorged on the most delicious soft shell crabs, my favorite food. It was almost 3 when we ran out of small talk, and there was no sense in trying to return to the library. Joyce decided to walk over to Seventh Avenue with me to get the subway.
Although pushcarts have not been seen in New York in more than 60 years, vendors still sell their wares on city streets. On that hot day, sidewalk vendors were set up along the curb on Canal Street, and some store merchants had displays that spilled out onto the street. I was soon to discover that Joyce, a veteran shopper, knew almost every vendor we encountered.
We had no sooner turned onto Canal when she pulled me over to see a guy demonstrating a kitchen peeler. "Buy it," Joyce said. "I have one at home and it's so much better than the old type."
"I already have one, Joyce."
"Buy it for your sister," she urged.
"She already has one, too."
"Buy it for your girlfriend," meaning the friend I was staying with that week.
"I'm pretty sure I saw her with one, too," I said, and pulled myself out of the small crowd and headed west. Joyce looked a bit aggravated that I had not patronized her friend who hawked potato peelers.
Before her recent retirement, Joyce had worked as a saleswoman for some of the big fashion houses and was in the habit of closing a deal. I could see my unwillingness to spend money annoyed her.
I don't think we walked more than 50 feet when we encountered a Korean fishmonger's store, which had soft shell crabs on ice in the window. "Oh, buy the crabs!" Joyce exclaimed.
I was at a loss for words and Joyce filled the void, "Why not? You love the crabs. Bring them to the friends you're staying with; they'd love them."
"Well, Joyce," I said, "it would be a bad idea to buy the crabs for several reasons."
"Like?" she inquired.
"Like the crabs would be blowing bubbles by the time I got to Penn Station. I don't know if they'd survive the trip to Westbury."
"He (presumably meaning the fishmonger) could give you some ice with them, and they'd be okay."
"But Chris has stuff she's cooking tonight."
"So, she can save them for leftovers."
"I think not, Joyce," I said.
I kept my nose pointed toward the Hudson River and didn't look at the vendors, but I noticed Joyce turn her head and look longingly at the goods displayed by one vendor after another. She pulled me over at a table that was selling woolen scarves and gloves.
"Why would I need a woolen scarf or gloves, Joyce?"
"They'd keep you warm in winter."
"I live in Florida. We don't really need woolens there."
"But you may come back to New York in the winter," she countered.
"Not if I can help it," I replied.
We finally got to the subway, and Joyce settled into a seat and chattered on about something, and it was then that it hit me. I was so wrapped up in myself that I never thought to offer to buy Joyce anything. I never asked her if there was something she would like. I was appalled — and still am — that I could be so focused on my needs that I had not given Joyce's needs one thought. That may have made me human, but it did not make me a particularly nice one.
M. Barbara Mulrine, a graduate of Eckerd College and Florida State University, is the school librarian at Manatee School for the Arts, a grades 6-12 charter school in Palmetto.