I can see an entire series of these…my awkward white girl moments….
I was in New York City this past weekend with my daughters. We went just for fun, and to attend a fundraiser for fresh art, the non-profit organization I founded when I lived there, that supports artists with special needs. The current director, Suzanne, and Board did a fabulous job with the event–made me feel proud of all the great work still being done. One final plug–go to the site and check out the super hand-made sock monkey dolls for sale. Proceeds support arts workshops for fresh art artists who are homeless, in recovery from addiction, living with mental illness, or elderly.
Now, for the awkward moment….Right after the event, my girls and I headed down lower Broadway to Century 21, a big discount department store that apparently interested my girls more than what was across the street: the former site of the World Trade Center.
As we passed a big plate glass windowed cafe, I stopped outside of it, stunned that I thought I recognized the person sitting solo at one of the tables as a homeless man I used to work with. I was an Activities Therapist for the John Heuss House (JHH), a 24-hour drop-in center for homeless adults with mental illness in the late 1990’s. Ironically, the center was located right off Wall Street, in the Financial District, not far from where I now stood staring into the cafe window.
“Mom, what are you doing? Stop staring!” my older daughter Leni said, tugging at my jacket.
“What? I really think that’s someone I used to work with. It looks just like him–his mannerisms are just like his…” I said, as I continued to shamelessly stare.
Alan (not his real name) was one of my favorite “clients,” the term used for people who received services at JHH. He was in his 30’s, black, had a high forehead and short, fluffy, sometimes, clumpy afro. Alan spoke with a gentle voice, and dressed with flair–kind of like a rumpled Frank Sinatra, with a wrinkly trench coat, ankle-length dress pants, and loafers without socks. I liked that Alan had a gentle soul, and welcomed his frequent presence at the twice weekly Art Groups I ran at JHH.
I was sure this was Alan, and knew there was only one way to find out.
“Wait right here, girls, I’m going in to ask him if he is who I think he is,” I said.
“No, you’re going to embarrass us, and yourself,” Leni said. Darla, my younger daughter agreed, and added,”No, don’t do it!”
I broke free from my little detractors and went inside and stepped right up to the man at the table.
I gently leaned closer to him and asked, “Excuse me, I don’t want to bother you, but you look really familiar–did you used to go to the John Heuss House.”
The man, who sat with a blank notebook in front of him, was dressed like Alan used to dress, but, yes, perhaps, much less rumpled. He looked at me with narrow eyes, and cocked his head back.
‘Wha..no, what do I look like…” the man said, and this thought of it’s him/it’s not him flashed back and forth in my mind.
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean, I mean…I used to work there, and you just look like someone I used to work with there. I straightened myself back up, and, looking for something to do with my hands, smoothed my skirt out, as I searched for the next thing to say.
“I’m sorry, really sorry to bother you,” I said.
The man, broke a smile, checked me out from head to toe, and said, “Oh, you have nothing to be sorry about, honey.”
All of a sudden, I figured the man must think my tactic of asking strangers in an around about way if they’re homeless is really a pick-up line in disguise, and I quickly said good-bye and hurried back out the door.
“It’s not him,” I told the girls.
“We knew it wasn’t him. Can we go to Century 21 now?” Leni pleaded.
“Sure, let’s go..” I said, embarrassed by my case of mistaken identity.
So, maybe I forgot exactly what Alan looked like. But, I’ll never forget one of the drawings he made in Art Group. Alan’s drawings weren’t highly skilled, but they always were very personal. That day he had drawn with a purple color pencil, the faintest line drawing of a cascade of curved lines and dashes. Surrounding this was a box made of delicate dashes. In the center of the box was a giant bow.
When I asked Alan about his drawing, he explained it like this.”It’s a waterfall wrapped up in a present.”
I wanted to cry at the beauty, the poetry, the personal meaning of Alan’s work of art. Being able to witness Alan’s creativity, and to experience the waterfall present drawing with him,was a gift to me, one that I’ll never forget.
Sometimes our awkward moments still turn out pretty all right.