There she sat each day, sometimes on an upturned bucket, sometimes right on the pavement, sometimes leaning against the hot dog or gyro stands, a rare non-moving object in the middle of my mornings several days each week. Most of the time she had a little portable radio with her, worn and held together with ragged bits of electrical tape, plugged directly into her brain with stringy little cords that resembled the tail of a subway rat. She had a pleasantly round face, with the evidence of decades worth of smiles left behind in the lines around her eyes and mouth. Everything about her was a bit round, especially her shiny cheeks that always were covered in a thick veneer of rouge. It seemed that her sole occupation in this world was to sit and exist on the corner of 31st street and 8th avenue, keeping watch over the commuters emerging from Pennsylvania Station.
I'd pass her by on my way to and from work. After noticing her there consistently for several weeks, I would start making a point to look for her each time I'd pass that particular street corner. Of all the mundane things I'd see each morning, she was the event I looked forward to most. Not knowing her actual story, I'd invent narratives about her in my head that were derived from my 45 second glimpses of her.
I decided with her enormous eyes and her colorful face, she must have a name like Gladys. It had to be a name with the same level of personality she exuded without even trying. I could imagine her in the Old West entertaining gentlemen of questionable morals in a smoky saloon, thick with the smell of whiskey and tobacco, accompanied by an out of tune piano played by a bald man in a straw hat. She’d come down a splintered staircase in a flashy gown with feathers and rhinestones. In my head, she would sound something like Mae West, but perhaps with a touch more sweetness. She would be "Lady Gladys:" a real classy dame. Of course her fame among cowboys and criminals would be known for miles around. I'd paint these little images in my head as she sat with her legs sprawled out in front of her on the dirty sidewalk, exposing a well-fed belly and a partiality to elastic waist bands attached to garishly colored knit leisure pants, or sometimes unfortunate leggings that made her look like she was trapped in sausage casings. Then the street light would change, and I'd be thrust back into to the race of getting to my office before 9:00, which has always been an immense challenge for me.
There would be days when Gladys didn't show up. I wondered where else she could possibly be. Was she homeless? Was she just some sort of eccentric? Was she a method actress getting into character, or perhaps someone conducting social research experiments? I could not figure out which seemed to be the most likely, for they all seemed to be equally plausible scenarios. She appeared to be clean, or at least recently bathed. She had all of her teeth which were sometimes very visible when she would fall asleep with her gaping mouth open, her head resting against the menu for lamb over rice and falafel on the side of the food cart. She could afford batteries for her hand held radio and as far as I could tell her wardrobe, although somewhat limited, did vary slightly from sighting to sighting. Gladys was a mystery to me, and I liked that.
There were weeks when she was there every day both in the morning and the evening, and then there were times when she would disappear for a week or two. Each time I'd pass her little corner, I'd anxiously search for her. She brought a strange sense of comfort and continuity into my life. If Gladys was there in the morning, the day had potential and possibility. If she was missing, it was as though she'd taken a necessary piece of my day with her.
I know it's probably not healthy to let a stranger with whom you've never even exchanged a single word become such a significant part of your life, but Gladys began to seem more than a stranger to me. There were some days when she would leave the saloon in my mind and be transported into a Parisian cabaret of the 1890's and take on the persona of one of Toulouse-Lautrec's colorful subjects. I could see her serving cognac behind a grand and beautifully decorated bar to dandy gentlemen in bowler hats and long jackets. She'd still sound like Mae West in this scenario, with dark maroon lips, perhaps an American expatriate beguiling foreigners across the sea, escaping some sort of disappointing life in the new world. In my mind, she was happy in these far off settings, but in real life, she also seemed quite content on her street corner, just existing and being in the middle of things. I often wondered if I was so content in my own life.
One morning a couple of months ago, I was hurrying along 8th avenue, trying to beat the clock as usual, and it occurred to me that Gladys hadn't been there in quite some time. She'd have her days and even weeks off every now and then, but she'd never been absent for this long. I began to worry and fret over her. From then on, I'd search for her in the morning crowds each time I'd pass her little corner, with frantic effort. I felt somehow abandoned. Even though I didn't know her, or even know her real name, Gladys had been with me for nearly 2 years. I wondered if perhaps she got into a disagreement with the man who ran the food cart and decided to move on to a new corner, maybe several blocks over, or perhaps she went to visit her cousin Pearl in Florida.
She had easy access to the Amtrak trains running under the ground beneath the busy streets that would take her to quiet sunny places, but somehow she didn't phase me as the type of gal who would choose Florida. She seemed more like an Atlantic City type of lady to me, I could see her spending days on end playing the slot machines, drinking pink cocktails and listening to her ancient little radio. She’d really be living, there in the casinos on the old New Jersey shore. I told myself that this must be where she went, as it seemed the happiest of all possible situations that my mind dreamed up for her. She definitely deserved a little vacation. Observing that street corner day after day probably wore her out. We all need a little respite every now and then, and I sincerely hoped that my unconventional friend was getting hers.
Even though I had half-heartedly convinced myself that Gladys was enjoying her days pulling golden levers and putting her silvery hair up behind a snappy yellow visor, I still searched for her each morning. That little street corner, although filled with hundreds of people running in every direction, seemed empty without her there.
Just when I nearly gave up hope, I was practically sprinting to work to clock in on time one gloomy Friday morning, and there was Gladys, with a new shade of pepto bismol pink lipstick (which had made it on to her teeth), beating her little radio with one hand, propping herself up against the soda menu of the silver food cart. She was yawning, and her full gaping mouth was back again, in all its glory. She even had acquired some eye shadow since last I saw her. I was so happy, I nearly cried. She didn't abandon me after all. Something compelled her to come back and fill the middle-aged lady shaped void that had been so heavy on my mind for quite some time. I was thrilled beyond belief. Even though I’ve never spoken to this woman, she means the world to me. I hope that Gladys and I have many more mornings together in times to come.