Late on Sunday night, 23rd Street, Chelsea. There aren’t many people on the street. I’m walking home, listening to my ipod, when I pass an old woman in a long dress, wearing several scarves and a head rag, quietly struggling with an old steamer trunk. The trunk is upright, on one end, and she’s slowly, laboriously pivoting it on its corners, moving incrementally down the dark sidewalk, the way you'd try to move a heavy piece of furniture across a room if you didn't have any help.
I make it a few paces past her before the image sinks in. I turn around, see her pivoting it first on one corner, then another. The back of her dress is smeared with various colors of vivid paint. She’s black, stooped and very old -- pushing 90, I'd say. She may be crazy. You see all kinds in New York City, but it’s rare to see anyone as old as her, alone. Why is she doing this? What journey is she on? I walk back to her, remove my earbuds, say, “Ma’am?” She looks up, lets the old trunk come to rest on its end. “I don’t know where you’re going, and I don’t know if I can go all the way, but can I help?”
She stares at me, not speaking at first. Her face is deeply grooved. Her eyes are sad but resolute. Her breathing is labored. I wonder how far she’s come. “No,” she says, “because I’ve got to go to 8th Avenue.”
8th Avenue is a little over a block back in the direction I’ve come.
“I can help you,” I say.
“No,” she says, “because it’s too heavy.”
“It’d be easier with two,” I say.
“No, no,” she says, and looks off down the street. “Thank you. God bless you.”
She resumes pivoting the steamer trunk, as if it’s the most important, monumental task of her life.
“All right,” I say. I replace my earbuds and move on.
I stop twice, look back to see her silhouette against the glare of the city lights, moving almost imperceptibly down the street. A part of me just wants to know the story. I wonder what’s in that trunk, why she’s compelled to transport it alone. I also feel guilty, thinking that I should have insisted on helping her. But she's on her own.
No one else seems to notice her. New York City is full of mysteries. It’s rich. It hardens you.