A little over two years ago, as I was preparing for a 6 week stay in NYC for radiation treatment, I was in conversation with a bartender friend of mine about the plan. Apparently, anything said in a bar is fair game for comment- the peanut gallery around us began to chime in:
New York smells they said.
New Yorkers are rude they said.
New Yorkers are cold and callous they said.
New Yorkers are loud and obnoxious they said.
Maybe they knew something I didn’t.
A few days later I hopped a turnip truck and fell off in the borough of Manhattan. My experience wasn’t even close to what they said.
They never met my friend Patti who traveled to the hospital to sit with my son and best friend thru an eight-hour surgery. To this day she keeps notes on my treatment in her phone- just in case. Patti lost her husband almost two decades ago to cancer and was instrumental in raising money to build a satellite hospital in her community on Long Island. She stays busy helping others who battle cancer. Everyone needs a Patti in their life.
They didn’t know the panhandler who perched at my subway entrance every morning and afternoon holding a sign which read “hungry”. I refused to give him money but I bought him a meal on the first day I encountered him. From that day forward, he never asked me for anything, he greeted me with a question: “How are you?” And he meant it- I saw it in his eyes.
As radiation progressively took its toll, he watched me slowly make my way out of the subway every day. On my last day of treatment, I was beat, pausing every few stairs to refocus and collect my energy. As I turned to stumble up the street to my apartment, he jumped up, grabbed my elbow and guided me to my door. We didn’t speak until I thanked him. His last words to me were a simple “take care of yourself”. And he meant it- I saw it in his eyes.
They never met Sam or Dave or Walter or Laila- my treatment buddies. Sam, Dave and I shared contiguous treatment schedules. Laila and Walter were physical and moral support, accompanying Sam and Dave to the hospital ever day. I was “the kid”, the youngest, least educated and least intelligent one of the bunch.
They allowed me to get them coffee some mornings.
Laila is Sam’s wife- she fusses over him and Sam shoos her away as only a husband can. The love and concern they share for one another is beautiful- we should all be so lucky. Dave and Walter are brother in-laws and accountants- funny and interesting accountants- I liked them immediately.
There isn’t a lot of laughter in a radiation treatment waiting room but we did our best to change it up. For the most part, the people who shook their heads at us, would eventually smile or join in.
My Treatment Buddies have invited me into their homes, treated me to meals and check in with regularity- all of them are a blessing for a southern boy who found himself in the big city.
They never met Amy, Katy, Joyce, Sheila, Jesse or Carlos. Amy and Katy were bartenders in the bar below my apartment. Joyce, Sheila, Jesse and Carlos were bar regulars who welcomed me into the fold.
Despite the struggles of making a living in a service job in NYC, Amy was constantly sharing her tips with less fortunate regulars. Katy was an aspiring artist who openly struggled with addiction. Katy’s medium is trash- everyday items discarded by the rest of us. Her work is impressive, thought provoking and speaks to her demons. Joyce is a dog-walker, Sheila an esthetician and Jesse a crypto-currency pioneer. Carlos is a tall thin man who brings his bills and check book to the bar for one of the crew to help make sure his bills are paid properly and on time.
The bar has been written up in the New Yorker and is a yuppie destination in the evenings and late at night- by which time, the regulars are long gone. A visitor knows nothing about the care and concern shown by the regulars to one another, much less a sick stranger.
All in all, my experience confirms what I know to be true- treat everyone with respect and it will be returned. A smile works wonders and kindness knows no racial or socioeconomic boundaries.
By the way, they were wrong on all accounts and, if you walk past a pizzeria, New York smells like heaven.