Stranger in a strange land

After a night of showers, a big blue sky hung overhead as I walked my dog, Honey up Bennett Avenue. At 192nd Street, I was stopped by an old man who appeared to be lost. He looked a hundred years old-the kind of old not brought on by time, but by a hard life. In a tattered but clean black cable-knit sweater, shining eyes and silver teeth, he was beautiful. He held out a piece of paper wedged inside his worn leather wallet.

"Please," he said. "Is this address I find?"

He spoke in a thick Eastern European accent, and the paper was covered in writing, including the number 606060.

"This doesn't look correct," I said. "Do you know what street you're looking for?"

He didn't reply.

"Do you speak English?" I asked.

"No English," he said. "I Ukraine!"

I took the paper from his hand. No street name, but there was a phone number at the top.

"Is this the phone for the address?" I asked.

He looked at me, again confused, and then said, "Yes! This is number!"

I pulled out my cell phone and dialed, and a woman, also with a thick accent, answered. I handed the phone to the old man, but he didn't want to take it.

"Hello?" I said. 'Do you speak English?"

"Oh yes!" said the woman. "I speak!"

"Well," I continued, "I'm standing on the corner of Bennett Avenue and 192nd Street with a Ukrainian man. Is he your friend?"

"Oh yes!" she exclaim. "I'm happy, so thank you if you bring him to me, please you bring him now."

She gave me the address, but I hesitated for a moment. Her building, number 60 (not 606060), was a mile out of my way and I was headed to meet my daughter after school. But I hung up the phone and told the old man to follow me; I would take him to find his friend.

We walked together in silence for some time, and when we approached a flock of pigeons drinking from a puddle of rain water, Honey shot forward, sending them into flight. The dog appeared pleased with herself as she watched the birds take to the sky, and the old man laughed.

"How long have you been in the United States?" I asked.

"Four days!" He said. "I come from Ukraine four days! I never was before New York!"

I laughed.

"I have 89 years!" he said proudly.

"89 years? That's incredible!" I said, and it was.

He moved quickly, fluidly; I watched his feet hit the ground, each step strategically missing the holes and cracks that would cause a much younger person to trip, or fall.

Honey spotted a squirrel and ran ahead on the leash. The old man laughed again and slapped his leg.

"In Ukraine, I have big park!" he said.

I smiled.

"My dog is Chinese," I said.

The old man didn't understand.

"My dog is from China," I said.

The man smiled, "Oh! China! Good!"

I laughed.

"I speak Russia!" said the old man.

"My grandmother was Russian," I replied. "She used to say to me, 'Te Kratsavitsa. Ya lu butbya."

"I understand!" said the old man, and I hoped he also understood the part about my grandmother because if not, I just called him beautiful and declared to him my undying love.

As we crossed streets and turned corners, I imagined how everything so familiar to me must look so unfamiliar to him. I began pretending I was in a foreign country, seeing with new eyes the old bodega, the brown-skinned boys shooting hoops, the deep red of a New York City firetruck.

When we arrived at our destination, I told the old man what button to press on the elevator and what floor to exit. But he looked at me as if I were speaking, well, English, so I slipped Honey under my arm and boarded the elevator with him.

When the front door opened of the old woman's apartment, the friends laughed and embraced. I made my introduction then said goodbye, but already the door was closing and the two were escorting me inside.

"You stay! Said the woman, her round body wrapped tightly in a floral apron. You have tea, we thank you now!"

"I really have to get going," I started to say, but I could see that not celebrating with them would be a sign of disrespect.

The familiar blue sky was right outside the window as we all sat down at the kitchen table. We drank hot tea with sugar and ice, and ate powdered cookies from an ornate tin can. I held Honey in my lap, and as the old man and woman talked, I listened to the sounds of their language and tasted the sweetness of their tea. I imagined I was the stranger in a strange land, just down the street from where I lived, and a million miles from home.

March 31, 2012