Matthew and I lived in New York for 7 years. When we told everyone that we had decided to move back to Colorado, there were many people who expressed their regrets. People said, “Why on earth would you want to leave the City?” or “We’ll be so sorry to see you go.” Irma cried. For many minutes. All three of us hugged and hugged and cried.
Irma cried because she understands the fragility of life. She knew that if we were to see each other again, it would be in the next world.
The first time I saw Irma, I was coming out of the Pacific Street subway stop in Brooklyn and she was asking people to give her a dollar so that she could go to the hospital. She had a needle (sewing, rather than heroine) through her hand and she needed to go to the doctor.
I was repulsed. A dirty, homeless woman with a strange, inexplicable wound was begging for money. It was odd, and dirty and I was scared. I don’t have any idea what I was scared of, but I ran home without offering any support or assistance.
I’ve always been a little ashamed of running away like that. I’m sure you’ve all had moments like that too. We don’t really like to talk about them. Perhaps we justify our actions by thoughts like, “she probably did it to herself to get me to give her money” and then we congratulate ourselves for being “wise to her game.” But the truth is, I was a coward.
Over the next few years, I saw Irma often. I don’t know when I learned her name or when we became friends. I would give her my condescending change and she would graciously accept it until, eventually, my gifts came with love rather than condescension. She gave me much more than a fiver here and there in return.
My favorite moment in my time with Irma was a day in the summer when I was coming home from work. She was at the bottom of the subway steps rather than at the top. This was common in the winter when it was so bitter cold, but not common at all in the summer time as the top of the staircase was shaded and smelled quite a lot less of urine.
She saw me and called out, coming toward me in excitement. “Margaret, Margaret. I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Waiting for me. “Why, waiting for me?” I wondered.
“The ice cream man won’t serve me.”
She described the encounter with this ice cream man, and I never did quite understand why he wouldn’t sell to her, but I was very aware of how much it hurt her feelings. She was indignant. “Would you buy me an ice cream cone? Don’t tell him it’s for me!”
Well, of course I would buy her an ice cream cone. I briefly wondered if she didn’t have the money for a cone, but that was clearly not the problem. She immediately counted out coins into my hand and sent me on my mission to procure the forbidden treat.
I was amused and charmed and saddened by this friend of mine who had, for whatever reason, not been allowed to buy her own ice cream cone.
I brought it to her, and she was satisfied. So was I. We fought “the man” together, and we won!
In one of the last encounters I had with Irma, she had been given a pack of cigarettes, but she didn’t really smoke much. She had seen me smoke and so as I came home from work one evening, she offered me one of her cigarettes. We sat at the top of the steps and smoked together and talked at length. I found out that she had worked for the INS for 20 years. They had let her go and she no longer had employment or lodging. She was very pleased with the shelter in the neighborhood because they had been so good to her. She was a sweet and sober lady who had worked a full career for the government and had to ask me to buy her ice cream.
When I got up to go home, she gave me the rest of the pack of cigarettes (an $8 gift in the New York market at the time) because she said, she didn’t really smoke all that much.
I still think of Irma often. I hope that she’s well. I hope that she has a nice place to sleep. I hope that she has many more joys than sorrows. And I hope that she still remembers me as someone who loves her.
If you are ever at the Pacific Street subway stop in Brooklyn, and you see my friend Irma, please give her my love. And if you see the ice cream truck, she likes just the plain vanilla cone.