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10 October 2005
"Ma'am can I have a banana?” a raspy voice said, and I stopped, and realized I actually had two bananas, just purchased at the deli and hanging from my wrist in a semi-translucent bag. “Of course,” I said, and handed her one. She took the banana and then clasped her chest and keeled against the nearby brick wall, gasping for air, dropping both the banana and her half-eaten bag of pork rinds, which fell into a puddle of dirty water. She was a slight creature, in an oversized black nylon jacket and dirty jeans, cornrows with bald patches here and there, and a red baseball cap pulled down over her forehead. She had no teeth, and her mouth hung wide open, gaping and cavernous, the top of her mouth receding, the bottom opening and closing around a glob of pale yellow mush that she was trying to spit out, with a look of wild panic in her eyes. I took a firm grip on her arm and said: “Spit it out. Can you breathe?” She nodded, spitting globs of chewed pork rinds onto the street.
“Press my wrist,” she gasped, and I did. “I got asthma,” she said between gasps.
“Asthma.” She pulled out a dingy small metal inhaler from her jacket pocket.
Then she caught sight of the pork rinds on the street and started to kneel down.
“Forget that,” I said, sternly, tightening my grip on her. “Put the inhaler in your mouth.”
She nodded, took a breath and with all of her might tried to clamp her mouth down on the inhaler. She pressed down firmly, twice, and the chemical mist circled around inside her mouth, and wafted out.
“Breathe it in,” I said, being a former asthmatic myself, in childhood. She couldn’t close her mouth, but she inhaled as best she could and she stopped choking, and leaned on my shoulder. I was still holding her in a tight grip, and tears were running down her face.
“My banana,” she gasped, and bent down to pick it up. “I got HIV, AIDS, and they tell me I’m gonna die but I take those pills and they didn’t want us no more, that’s why they moved Gristedes to get us out of here. All the HIV/AIDS people.”
“Don’t talk,” I said, pressing her wrist, with my other arm holding her in a firm grip.
“What’s your name,” I asked.
“Dolores,” she said, and smiled faintly. I thought she was cheering up a bit but then all of a sudden, she put her forehead against the brick wall and her baseball cap fell into the puddle with the pork rinds. Her mouth hung open and she sobbed, circling her arm into mine and holding on tight, like a child.
“They tell me I’m gonna die and my...grandfather told me I was gonna live to see the first...woman...president and I was going to be...” Her words went into the brick wall and got garbled. “I’m afraid...I’m not going to...live that long,” she said, sobbing.
“What did you say?” I asked, leaning in close to her face. “Who? Who was going to be the first woman president?”
She looked at me with wide, innocent, incredulous eyes and began crying more loudly. Between sobs I heard her say, with great effort, and an edge of indignation: Hillary...Rodham...Clinton!”
I stroked her arm. “OK. Take it easy. Don’t worry about that virus Dolores. And don’t worry about the stuff you dropped either. We’ll go to the store and get some new stuff. Just breathe and relax.”
“I can’t go to the store, they just call the cops if they see me there,” she snapped.
“The Dominicans and the Koreans and the Caucasians...”
“I’ll go in then, don’t worry,” I said.
“What’s your name? Miss Teresa? You don’t understand. I got the AIDS virus and I have to take all these pills,” she said. “My husband died in 1994. My children died in 1978 and my grandfather died in 1996. They tell me I got to take them. But I need potassium. I’m allergic to bananas but I eat 'em anyway because I need the potassium, and I’m anemic too. They tell me I’m anemic. And they want to give me a hysterectomy because they say...” Her mouth fell open again and she crunched up her eyes and tears splashed down, and fell onto my wrist.
“They say what?”
“They say Dolores, you know you can’t afford the sanitary napkins. Why you want to bleed like that? So they want to give me a...hysterectomy.” She suddenly straightened up a bit and looked at me, puzzled.
“Should I let 'em?”
“Jesus,” I whispered. “No you shouldn’t let them.”
“I’m 49 years old,” she yelled. “I’m 49 years old and they say I’m gonna die and I best off having a hyserectomy. They don’t want me having no babies. They say they can do the operation real quick.”
“What happened to your children?” I asked, and immediately regretted it.
“They died,” she said. “They died in a drive-by shooting in Queens in 1978, both of them. And my brother he survived but my husband he died but he wasn’t driving and that was a long time ago and now they saying they want to do this to me cause I’m causing trouble wherever I go. They say, 'That’s Dolores,' and they call the cops. I live at the Marion Hotel, right over there” She pointed across the street. “It’s HIV, AIDS and tuberculosis. That’s who they got in there.”
I had bought myself a bouquet of pink roses that were lying at our feet, absurdly, along with my grocery bag, the bananas, and the pork rinds. I picked up the roses and the grocery bag, and Dolores started peeling her banana. “I’m allergic to bananas but I eat them anyway because I need the potassium,” she said, chomping down on her banana with terrific life force. I realized that I was bound to her and had forgotten all about going home or whatever I was thinking of before I met her.
We went to McDonalds but they would not serve her, so I ordered a cheeseburger for her, and she exploded out the door cursing. We then went to Gristedes and she bolted in and out of the store, telling me what to buy – eggs, orange juice, bread, etc. – and then she would vanish, only to return a few minutes later. She stayed next to me on line and a woman in front of us whipped around and barked: “Stop it.”
“Stop what?” I said.
Dolores ran out and waited for me outside. Then she bolted straight out into Broadway traffic, yelling something I could not decipher. I finally caught up with her in the doorway of The Marion hotel, and we said goodbye, in some kind of language that was halfway to madness. We were in her world and I didn’t speak her language, but I tried to say something to her about some kind of promise I was not sure I could keep. Something I knew in childhood and couldn’t quite translate. I was trying to tell her no, it’s not like that, but yes it is like that. She ruffled my hair and pushed me away.
I saw her again tonight, as soon as I came out on Broadway. She was rummaging through the trash near the bus stop. "Dolores?" I said. She looked up and reached for my hand. She sat down inside the glass barrier of the bus stop, and started talking very fast, and I had a hard time understanding her at first. "Do you remember me?" I said.
"Yes, from yesterday," she said.
Then she started talking rapid fire again and I finally deciphered she was saying that I could have made a "citizen's arrest" yesterday.
"You thought I was going to have you arrested?" I asked, slightly hurt.
She scrunched up her eyes. She was crying again.
"Dolores, please don't cry."
I sat down on the sidewalk under the bus stop next to her. Three cops appeared almost immediately and one of them asked: "Is there a problem here?"
"No," I said. "We're fine, thanks, we're just talking."
They nodded and went on their way.
Now Dolores was telling me about the people who came and washed her yesterday, by force. She showed me her clean feet. She had leather backless sandals. Something about how she cooked the eggs but got chased out because it was a weekend. Slept in Grand Central Station.
Then she was talking about Hillary Clinton again, and her anxiety that they would never let her become President, because she is not from New York.
I asked her if she had anybody that she trusted in her life, and she said: "God."
"But no person?" I said, and she shook her head.
Layered within sheets of delusional rants, pieces of her story emerged.
"I was in college," she said. "And I got pregnant so I had to drop out. I had a job. I worked in Bloomingdales. I met Bloomberg. I have to tell you a secret."
She smiled and jutted out her lower lip for emphasis.
"I am a Pataki Democrat!"
I laughed and gave her $10.
She wanted cigarettes so I got her a pack of Kool menthols, and then when I came out she said she wanted a newspaper. I asked which newspaper she wanted and she made me laugh again. "I want the Wall Street Journal," she said defiantly.
"You got it," I said, and bought it for her.
I didn't say that I had spent the entire time since we met writing about her. But I did say I wanted to open a tiny file in her mind that maybe things could change, get better.
"I have been telling people about you," I said. "Do you know what your name means?"
Her answer came back like a shot.
"Pain!" she yelled.