Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's Work?

She came in to the cafe with another woman, ordered her coffee to go. As she walked out, past a couple who had just come in and sat down, past me and a few others she did not know, she said loudly and aggressively to her friend, "I guess when people don't work, they drink coffee." I could sense rather than see her twisted glare. She was angry, but why? 'Cause she had to go to work? What did she know about the other people in the cafe with a few minutes to sit?

"She's making a lot of assumptions, isn't she?" I said to the girl next to me, who had turned around to look back at the woman after her comment and guffawed.

"She definitely is," she agreed, laughing and shaking her head. "And her words were meant for us, her friend was well ahead of her."

"People are angry, and it's amazing how that anger seeps out, isn't it?" I asked.

In this neighborhood as in so many others where a lot of people seem to have a lot, some people love to spend their time looking enviously at others, assuming their lives are easier, that they maybe don't have to work as hard if at all. But most everybody is working, on something, whatever it might be, whether or not they officially "go to work."

"What do you do?" I asked the girl.

"I'm a teacher," she said. "I teach creative writing at a college."

"Cool," I said. "I'm a writer, not always for money though these days," I was quick to explain, to defend.

She shook off the notion that I could be lumped into the category of non-working laze-about coffee drinkers though I probably could be. "Writing is hard work," she said.

"Yes, and sometimes it can feel like it's all for nothing," I said. "If it never gets published, does that mean it's not worth anything?"

She just nodded in understanding. I gave her and her boyfriend gold stars as I left, for all their work, for taking a few minutes to sit and chat and have coffee when they weren't at work, for not throwing stones enviously, angrily.

Later, working hard at the gym, I ran into an older Italian man, a dead ringer for Larry David, who was tanned from 17 days in Puerto Rico. I knew him only by his previous compliments on the tightness of my derriere and by various jokes he often told me at the expense of other people's religions and races.

"Thanks?!" I had said, laughing, when he spoke to me about my enjoying the view of my behind.

"I'm just being honest," he had said, gesturing to his heart.

"Well, I appreciate that then," I'd countered. "I expect that you'll tell me if you think I'm getting soft, if I slack off and need to work harder..."

Today, back from vacation, he was aggravated, annoyed to be back to the cold and rain of New York.

"But you get to see your buddies," I had said, referring to the gaggle of guys that lifted weights together, taking long slow turns on the machines as they gabbed.

"Yeah, I missed the abuse. Did you miss the abuse?" he asked, looking straight at me with a smirk.

"Yes," I said, "Especially your racist jokes."

He looked unusually glum as he moved off into the corner and sat in the windowsill, not his chipper trouble-making self, so I went to get him a gold star. When I gave it to him, "Just for trying, I know it's hard to be back," I said, he took it tentatively.

"Oh," he said, smiling, "I thought it was a Star of David. I thought you were trying to convert me..."

"Nope," I said. "Enjoy!Have a great day!"

I worked, after the gym, on my writing, furtive futile efforts to tell the story I want to tell honestly and engagingly, to begin it anew for the zillionth time for a new writing class. Frustrating. I was working so hard, I failed to notice the time and nearly missed an appointment. It was raining and I needed to be on the other side of Park Slope ten minutes ago. The thought crossed my mind that maybe, even in the rain, I could dare to dream that there might be a cab, though they hardly ever graced the area. I had laughed off the idea, figured I would be extremely lucky to get one of the buses that passes by every half hour or so, but assumed I'd probably end up running there, getting drenched and arriving later than late.

As I walked out of my building, prepared to be positive about my trek, a rarely-seen yellow taxi was approaching, empty, waiting for me.

I got in, laughing and enthusiastic about the gift I had just been given. "I have something for you," I said to the smiling driver, reaching into my bag and handing him a gold star through the plastic divider.

"Thank you!" he said, with a strong Indian accent. He thanked me again for the gold star as I got out. "No, thank YOU!" I said, jumping out dry and not nearly as late as I'd expected. I even had time to grab a cup of coffee. Nice. I love the way the world works sometimes.

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