The Other Side of 59th Street
by Diana Pollin
Jeane Stalton rushed off to the New York Public Library for that pile of books. The lending library window was about to shut; she was lucky to get there in the nick of time. Outside the Library, one of those luminous summer sunsets that enchant the city. Pure gold and vermilion over the granite towers of Fifth Avenue.
She was in the mood for a long dreamy stroll home, crossing over to the West Side on 59th and Central Park South keeping to the Plaza hotel side because, as everyone knows, all the attacks occur on the other side, the Park side, but the June evening was just too beautiful. A little dip into the Park wouldn’t hurt. There were lots of people around.
She walked wherever her feet wanted to take her and they took her to a merry little crossroads dominated by the statues of the March Hare and Alice with children in gay pandemonium, climbing over the outsized figures; their laughter, the music of summer. “God’s in His Heaven, All’s right with the world!” Except her feet were killing her. Damn those heels.
Finding a bench she took off one shoe then the other and started rubbing her soles. Above, an antiquated lamp post twisted into the most fantastic dolphin shape drew her gaze upward and she hadn’t noticed a very beautiful young Latina sitting at her side.
“Should never wear heels here, with the mud and all. And, ya look like ya gotta pair of sore feet.” Thus spake the rare tropical hibiscus of the black caressing eyes to the pug-nosed daisy.
“I’d give anything to be in flats like you. Unfortunately, it was not possible today. I should have taken the bus home, but it’s such a fine night. So rare in the year...’”
“Yeah, lez enjoy life while we’re still living. The name is Serena Juarez.” She held out her hand to Jeane, who accepted it and introduced herself although she did not really care to. “Being a teacher mus’ be like tough nowadays.”
“How did you know that I taught?”
“All those books yer carrying and everything. If yer not a teacher I am the President of the United States!”
Jeane said, “Actually I am a teacher.”
“Where yer teaching?”
“ I teach in a private school. What do you do?”
“Well, like I’m a sorta guardian in the Park.”
“We sorta guard people who might be in trouble. I saw you rubbing yer feet so...”
“Well, if that was all the day’s trouble, I suppose you had very little to do.”
“I teach French, but I also do research on a great French writer. Someone by the name of Saint-Exupéry.”
“If you don’t mind Miss Stalton, I’d like to hear about it.”
After an intensely studious day at the Library where a monkish silence reigned in the Reading Room, Jeane, under the spell of that beguiling June evening and the merriness of the children and the interest whether feigned or sincere of this young woman, obviously not of her social class but nonetheless the proverbial Someone to Talk to, Jeane plunged into a lengthy exposé not only of her day but also of her interest in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and her love for teaching and research. It was becoming a rambling interior monologue when Serena interrupted her.
“Ya know Miss Stalton...”
“Call me Jeane, after what I’ve put you through!”
“Not at all. It wuz a pleasure. Ya know, I studied French and really dug it. When I was in school. My aunt and uncle — we was livin’ on 183rd Street — pull’ me outta school an’ I really regretted it; but — and this is no hype — I was really like into French.”
True or false, these words went right to Jeane’s heart and she was suddenly inspired to do a good deed. “Listen, let’s make an appointment tomorrow here, at about this time at the lamp post. I am interested in a little experiment. Will you be a guinea pig to my Doctor Frankenstein?”
“Yeah, Jeane. No problem. Jus’ don’t forget your walkin’ shoes!”
Jeane forgot neither the walking shoes nor the appointment the next day. Serena had forsaken the cut-up jeans and mini-top for an ordinary light cotton dress, and her gesture did not go unnoticed by Jeane, touched by the girl’s effort to please her. She was growing fond of the young woman and began to toy with the idea that Serena might be cut out for greater things than guarding people in the Park.
The experiment of reading the intricate and difficult French language, even from a beginners’ text book, was successful beyond Jeane’s wildest dreams. They made an appointment the next day for more difficult testing. The results were equally astonishing.
Jeane thought she had come upon what every teacher from Aristotle on down dreams of: the rough uncut diamond. Her idea of helping Serena return to school, perhaps even of introducing her to the private school where she taught began to take root in Jeane’s enthusiastic teacher’s brain. But, she would have to be tactful.
At the end of their hour together, Jeane wondered out loud if Serena would not care to try for a scholarship in her school. But the young woman declined with her wise-beyond-her-years smile. “What use would that be to me where I am now?”
And that was the mystery of Serena, wanting nothing, asking for nothing, not even money. Why was she here with a plain-as-a-button, middle-aged school teacher when there were so many other more glamorous ways for a sixteen-year old to spend an afternoon?
Jeane, not ready to give up the ship, remarked, “Well, let’s say I haven’t finished with you yet. The Staltons are a stubborn old race. Let’s meet next Tuesday, right here. At five. You’ll have the whole week to think about it.”
“Okay by me. Just keep wearin’ yer flats. No high heels, remember!”
It was a week of feverish daydreaming for Jeane. The Henry Higgins notions teased her kind spirit. The “day of reckoning” finally came; but, it seemed an anti-climax as Serena, on time for the appointment, appeared to be brooding.
“Yer wearing high heels today. Why? Di’n’t I tell you to leave them home when we meet?
“Why? Well, I guess I just forgot. Alright. If it makes you happy, scout’s honor, won’t do it again! You seem to have something horribly dark on your mind. Out with it!”
“Jeane, what’s a banshee?”
“A banshee?” Jeane threw back her head in laughter and imagined that Serena had been looking at a cheap TV horror film. “Well, let me think. A banshee is a ghost. A female ghost attached to a family or a dear friend who is about to die. The banshee appears and wails.”
“Yeah! But, banshees don’t always gotta wail, do they?”
“Really! How should I know! Listen, I promise to tell you on my deathbed when something in a sheet appears and goes ‘BOO! that it’s a banshee. What time is it? I think I’ll be going. You are obviously in no mood to talk scholarships and testing”
“Jeane, lemme walk you to the other side of the Park. I’ll even leave you at your apartment building but don’t go the other way. Not tonight.”
The other side of the Park? The June light lingered but the way was long. Two women going through to the other side of the Park? Perfect bait for the hyenas. And frankly, walking in those heels...Misery!
“Serena, dear, maybe another night. You’re tired and these heels are killing me. OK brownie point for you. I think I’d rather just take the bus now. There’s plenty of time for the testing and let’s make a date, say, next Monday. No sorry. It would have to be Tuesday. Same time. And there’s a coffee shop near here. Would love to take you for a treat. We have plenty of time.”
“Yeah, Jeane. Plenty of time.” And the lovely hibiscus vanished into the echo.
Yesterday upon a stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there... bla bla bla.
She couldn’t remember the rest. Why was that silly little ditty going through her head and where did Serena disappear to? Not like her not to say goodbye. Oh well, next Tuesday... She was looking forward to it.
She rose from the bench and started for the exit. She walked quickly, very quickly. Her high heels gobbled up the neat little paving stones on Fifth Avenue as she neared the corner of 59th Street and the honking of horns trumpeted her return to the Swankies in their Plazas and Pierres.
All she had to do was cross over. The lights, my dear Jeannie, the lights they are a-changin.’ Hurry! Do the Knickerbocker rush across! Blithe as a blue jay jaywa... YAOW!!! High heel caught in a hole in the pavement. A rocket of pain from ankle to knee. Balance lost. A scream. Her scream. Screams all around. She fell flat on her face. The bus did not brake.
When she woke up, she saw that Serena was at her side, on the bench under the lamp post at 59th Street
“I tried to give you a last chance, Jeane,” Serena said. “Now you are one of us. It ain’t that bad, really, and we even save lives.”
“There is something I’m missing here. Am I alive or dead?”
“Dead. Very dead. No one can live after a bus going over ‘em. But we all do stupid things. But not as guardian angels. That’s what you are now.”
Jeane hid her face in her hands and started to cry. Serena stroked her hair and put her arms around her.
“You’ll get used to it. Lemme tell you how the system works. We have to guard people who are our opposites. Ya know, like a Latina bimbo and an egghead French teacher. That’s the hitch. We angels know what will happen, when and how. But we like to give people the chance to change their old ways of thinking and also their Fate. I’d bet you gonna be good at it. Much better than me. Yer a teacher. You got the words to convince people to walk over to the other side of the Park.”
Copyright © 2008 by Diana Pollin