Thursday, September 4, 2008


"I'm a smoker as you can see. I have to apologize. I really shouldn't be smoking."

The middle aged woman with the awkwardly arranged gray bun in her hair started to fidget with pieces of her kitchen.

"Here c'mon we'll try it right here." She left the room to find cloth and thread so I could test out the machine.

"As you can see, it's brand new!" she yelled from the next room, unnecessary in such a small apartment.

"You can just unplug the vacuum cleaner to get that thing going!"

In searching for the vacuum cleaner plug, I surveyed the kitchen, a hodgepodge of colorful dishes and imported goods from India. There were some posters indicative of her religious persuasion, having converted from Judaism to Sikhism, which I already knew because she told me in the car as part of the explanation for why she moved from the upper west side to Far Rockaway.
I can't remember how it fit into her story or why she felt she needed me to approve of her life choices.

"Not a big deal," I said. "Some of us live here, some of us live there." It sounded vaguely like something she might say. Safe choice of words.

"...but it was all we could afford at the time and you know even with this crazy economy I'm still paying less for this apartment than I was over in Manhattan."

Looking around the apartment, it wasn't hard to understand why, although she had made it cozy with oversized cats for insulation and paisley bedsheets nailed to the walls like tapestries.

"Here we go. I use this just to clean things up sometimes, no big deal if there are a few stitches in it."

She handed me a white, blood-stained handkerchief.
I waited for her to explain that it was actually ketchup but she didn’t, and I was too impatient to leave to insist on a less cryptic scrap of cloth.

The machine itself did seem brand new, without so much as a fingerprint on it. It was more of less like the one I share with my mother in Buffalo, so I knew how to thread it. I slid the non-bloody side of the cloth under the presser foot as the woman explained to me that her mother could “sew like a horse.”
I told her my mother could sew like a seamstress.
She replied, “Well, yeah, my mother was a seamstress.” I backed down.

“But I just don’t have the knack for it. Or maybe the time, or space, or…” I listened and added appropriate comments and questions where they fit. She asked me to repeat everything I said. I would switch to a tone someone might use to read a children's book, to encourage her to reply to my questions with something relevant to the topic. Sometimes it worked.

Her head was almost resting on my shoulder. My right shoe searched for the plastic pedal and was greeted by the sound an elephant makes when it bleeds.

“What the…” The woman eyed the machine with a furrowed brow. “Try it again try it again.”

I re-threaded both top and bottom and tried maneuvering the bloody cloth once more, but no-budge.

The next ten minutes consisted of her saying “now, what the…” in different tones and at various speeds. She would probably also be really good at reading children’s books.

Eventually she gave in. Speaking slowly, “you know, I re-mem-ber having this problem once before. I think it’s why I gave up on my sewing!” She let out a hearty laugh. I even more slowly suggested that I leave. She suggested we continue looking at the machine saying “now what the…” and so we did. It was her house I had to follow the rules.

“The thing is (I tried to use all of my favorite phrases to keep me entertained), the teeth aren’t rising up to the cloth. See how it’s buried? It’s supposed to rise up to meet the foot and nudge the cloth forward. Instead the needle is just sewing in the same spot over and over. Nothing is moving forward.”
I quietly enjoyed the metaphor and wondered to which of us it was relevant as she switched her repetitions to “awww Iiiii seee.” I hummed in agreement after each time until I felt it was encouraging her to keep saying it.

Once our song was done she insisted we best be getting to the station.
“Well, at least you don’t have to walk!”
“Yeah, thanks for driving me.”
“You know, it actually all worked out for the best I think because I never would have known what was wrong!”
“Yeah.” I tried not to think about the two hour subway ride ahead of me as we both climbed through the passenger door of her sea-green Buick.
“Can you believe this only cost me $300?”
“Wow.” Actually I couldn’t. It was an okay looking car. My favorite color. Same color as my ipod. Which also cost $300.
“Same price as a sewing machine,” I offered, and wondered if it was inappropriate.
“I know! And it drives, to boot.”
“To where?”
“…to boot.”

We passed an African-American couple on the street, and here she found an opportunity to share her expertise about Far Rockaway. “You know, the Blacks are actually very friendly here. The Spanish, no, but the Blacks, oh yes. Very ‘yes ma’am no ma’am.’ I can’t say anything about the Jews though!” Then muttered something. She laughed because I was supposed to know what she meant.

At Mott St. she thanked me again as I tripped out of the old Buick. “May you have… the best life. The best of life.” She was moving her head back and forth and enunciating her words like it was a poem.
I smiled. “Oh, thanks. Good luck with the machine.”
She sort of winced as I mentioned it- the thorny issue tainting our otherwise pleasant relationship- and winced again as a crowd of teenagers called out to me as I entered the station. “Sugarbuuuutt!” 

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