I was on the line at the customer service counter of a Gristede’s on Second Avenue. An older woman in front of me had 16 jars of spaghetti sauce in her basket. She was asking the clerk to adjust the price because it was not scanned correctly at checkout.
As the adjustment was made, I patted the woman’s shoulder.
“I guess your family thought your spaghetti sauce was homemade,” I said as she turned around.
“They’ll never know my secret,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. “I put spices, onions and garlic and hide the jars under my bed. I will take this secret to my grave.
She started to leave, then turned around.
“And you too,” she said.
Called as a juror in Manhattan, I found myself among a group of people questioned about our backgrounds by a judge trying to determine if we were qualified to serve.
When it was my turn, I explained that I was a theater producer.
The judge eventually excused several of us, but as I was leaving, the clerk asked me if I would be waiting in an adjoining room. The judge wanted to see me.
I was angry. What had I done?
Half an hour later, the judge appeared with a thick manila envelope. There was a script he had written. He asked me to read it and give him my comments.
One rainy afternoon, I was finishing physical therapy when a fire alarm went off. Everyone ignored it at first, but then we saw smoke.
People started heading for the door. It’s a big practice, and there were about 40 people there. We soon realized it was just burnt popcorn, but we had to evacuate anyway.
I grabbed my coat and put on my sneakers, without bothering to tie them. I just wanted to get away from the smoke. We all went down the stairs and out into the street.
Ideally, there is a fire station next door. Someone rounded up a firefighter who went inside to deactivate the alarm.
Several other firefighters were busy, including one who caught my attention. He looked like he was sent by casting central. He was tall and stout in his uniform, with a shaved head and a handsome face.
“So you’re not rushing to the popcorn fire?” I say in passing.
“Oh, is that it?” he said with a small laugh.
“Yes, they made us leave,” I replied.
“It’s protocol,” he said, then looked down. “Your sneakers are not tied.”
I was about to enter a store.
“I’ll take care of it when I get inside,” I said.
Before I knew it, he was on his knees.
“Let me tie them for you,” he said.
So this fat firefighter was tying my shoes. I put my hand on his back.
“I’m going to tie them twice,” he said.
Tears came to my eyes.
“That’s what my mother did,” I said.
” There is a reason for this. Let me take the other.
“Is this part of your training?” I teased.
“Absolutely,” he said, then gave me a big smile as I walked towards me.
I was at brunch with my family and we were seated near the front door.
A man with gray hair, a mustache and a friendly disposition walked past us on the way out. Then he stopped in the doorway, turned to the table behind ours, and addressed the couple seated there.
“You know,” he said, “I just retired after 30 years with the MTA, I was a conductor on the subway.”
“Congratulations!” said one of the people at the table.
“And you know, you look really familiar to me,” the man said. “I think I closed the doors for you once as you ran to catch the train and left you outside in the rain.”
The couple looked at each other in disbelief then turned back to the man.
“Oh, just kidding,” he said. “I say that to everyone. Enjoying your lunch.”
When I moved to New York, I looked for traces of my home. I carried my binoculars and the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America almost everywhere.
When I spotted a bird I didn’t know I looked up its genus and thought about birds in my home that shared the same taxonomy. American birds fascinated me: the robin that hunted earthworms by listening to their tunnels; black warbler and its mammoth migration.
On weekends, I walked around the Ramble in Central Park. Observed a juvenile red-tailed hawk hunting near bird feeders. Not far from Park Avenue, I spotted a barred owl sleeping high in a tree.
I’m settled now, and I’m leaving my binoculars at home. I listen to the birdsong of blue jays and northern cardinals and think only of them. I become shocked when I forget the names of birds from my home country, as if I somehow betrayed them.
But the reverence I have for birds remains the same. I still marvel every time I see a little god in the middle of Manhattan.
— Benn Jeffries
Illustrations by Agnes Lee