I remember her well -- she lived in a residence for senior citizens a few blocks from the seafarers' center back in my waterfront days. I saw her every Wednesday evening at the meal we put on for our veteran mariners. Like the vessels on which they served during the war, the club was an overwhelmingly male environment. We needed some ladies, we thought, and then we remembered St Margaret's House, around the corner on Fulton Street. Like all such places, more women lived there than men. Perfect.
Those were lovely evenings. We prepared and served a meal, Mary and I and a fine team of cooks -- Tony, a veteran of years in the enormous kitchens of the great ships. Alfred, well into his eighties, whose skill with a carving knife was a wonder to behold -- that man could carve a turkey clean in ten minutes. Jenny, who had served on the ships as a young woman during the war -- a rarity-- and now amused herself teaching hula dancing when she wasn't at work taking tickets at a movie theater. Jenny looked about fifty-five, but I happen to know she was eighty if she was a day.
Mary and I provided an odd combination of priestly and culinary support, making sure all the ingredients were on hand, all the food ready at the same time, a blessing said before anybody ate and the kitchen spotless when we finished. Music was on tap, often -- Mary was to become an authority on sea chanties -- and sometimes a favorite movie from our guys' younger days was shown. "Action In the North Atlantic" with Humphrey Bogart was their favorite, a tale of the hazardous Murmansk Run, in which many American and British seafarers perished in the icy waters off the coast of Russia. A number of our guys survived that run, but many, many did not. If I had survived that, "Action In The North Atlantic " would be the very last film I would want to see: in it, seafarers drown, burn to death, vanish from on deck, swept over by a rogue wave. Torpedoed ships break apart like eggs, the seas climb high, the wind howls like a banshee. But maybe I am wrong about that. I may not be entitled to say how those who did survive it choose to remember. But our guys did watch that film, over and over, quiet in their seats.
For all that, and for the most part, they were gentle. Courtly, in their way, kind and grateful for the smallest of favors. They thought more highly of us than we deserved, and we loved them. That is why the lady I remember from across the corner stood out so: she lacked the patience all our old guys had cultivated over lifetime. Nothing was ever good; everything merited bitter complaint. The food wasn't cooked right, was too salty, too hot, to bland, not hot enough. She would stalk to the serving table, empty plate in hand, hoping for a second helping. This isn't cooked right, she said once, and the portions are too small,
Wait a minute, I said to myself. This is too good to be true. Did she just say that the food is terrible and there's not enough of it?
I knew she came to these events because she was lonely. But her constant complaining caused most of the guys to give her a wide berth. The fellowship of the weekly meals was not possible for her. She would have to find another way of being or resign herself to a permanently solitary life. Her unhappiness drove people away.
Well, this is how it is sometimes: nothing pleases us. There are times when it seems that what we really want is just to be disgruntled. Okay -- as long as "Disgruntled" is temporary. No one can be in a good mood all the time. It's important not to be too admiring of one's own bluntness, though. Surely, something is right. Start from there.
Travels this fall -- visit www.geraniumfarm.org to see details of Barbara's travels this fall and winter. She's visiting New Orleans, Virginia, Washington, DC, Connecticut, Colorado, Texas, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, Colorado and, of course, several places in and around around New York.