First Impression 1.
The subway is packed. The wind chill is -5. That girl in the back is still talking. Is she going to keep it up to the end of the line?
Yes. The girl in the back is all about her makeup counter bargains (crinkle paper crinkle paper). Rub some on! Sniff this! Look how pretty! Take some home! We all get to hear about the pamper evening she has planned. Scented candles. Bubble bath. Spray sachet.
Now she wants to tell us what kind of day she’s had. Today at noon she left her desk and went out for the usual cup of coffee and passed the usual construction site and stopped to watch the wrecking ball swing back. As it hit, she screamed Nooooooooooo and busted in through the barricades, no hard-hat, no business being there, shrieking all the way not even knowing why. She got the crew to listen and to check the premises just one more time. And there in an upstairs closet was some elderly couple with no place to live, too cold and sick and dazed to get up and leave, lying there listening to the walls fall in. She tucked her two older folks in to an ambulance and found a shelter to take them in. Then she headed to Macy’s for a little makeup and another cup of coffee.
But what fixes this in memory is the other tenants in the building. They weren’t dazed or hiding; they were rats, and at the first sign of trouble they charged down the stairs in a wave and washed up against the girl and her doomed beverage, and even they couldn’t stop her while she batted them out of the way and kept going. Now on the train, we’re turned in our seats watching her chat away. She’s happy to be handing out dollops and shpritzes to everyone in reach: Look how pretty. It’s on sale! Here, sweetie: sniff.
First Impression 2.
The new student slipped in to a back seat and took a seat, hands braced on his knees, frowning at the lab instructor’s calculations on the blackboard. He has a shaved head, permanent squint, immobile face, black sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. He doesn’t talk to any of us.
This is Classical Mechanics, 1 lecture professor for 435 students and labs every week. The labs use a pendulum and an oscilloscope and falling weights and an air track. The air track is little coaster cars that zip along at zero friction on a carpet of air blown from tiny jets, and as they slide along on an overhead wire they burn sparks into a long roll of paper, and then we unroll the paper and count all the spark holes and measure the distance between them and plot them on charts and graphs to figure out velocity and acceleration and momentum and all. I’m 17, a freshman with no idea of physics at all. No one wants me for their lab partner, so during lab I drift around listening in as the other students work together. Every day I do my homework at 8:00 at night sometimes until 4:00 in the morning, and still can’t figure this out. I keep failing the labs and have to go to lab make-up day on Thanksgiving. Early that morning I pack some bananas and a loaf of my home-baked pumpernickel bread, and walk the three miles to campus.
The Physics building’s empty. Well, except for the new guy in the street-punk sweatshirt. He took apart both air tracks! They’re in pieces all over the counter. He’s frowning over some of the parts, cleaning them with one of those rolling erasers with the little attached brush. Then he swaps a couple of the coaster cars from one track to the other, snaps the whole show back together, rethreads the tracking paper and flips the closest ON switch. I walk in and ask him “Are you waiting for your partner to show up?” He stares at me and then leaps out of his chair. “Wang,” he says, sweeping his notebook and graph paper out of the way to make room at the counter. Then he opens the textbook to study the sample formulas. He runs the air track ten times. At one point I make some mistake with the equipment and accidentally shock him with however many volts of electricity. But he just laughs and goes on unwinding the long paper spools to measure the spark holes, and charts the figures with engineering pencil in flowery perfect columns. Then he looks over at my notebook and studies my own lopsided graphs. Shaking his head he whispers some syllables in through his teeth, and flips backwards to my raw data. Scanning the numbers he makes three delicate corrections in my calculations, flips to the graph paper, draws my graphs again, and hands me his figures to copy down. Then we take turns with the pendulum, writing down speeds or trajectories or whatever the assignment was. He adds up the columns of numbers by glancing at them, works some figures on a slide rule, and draws the graphs. We’re done. In two hours he’s worked through half a semester of physics. That was just the right amount of help; it let me rewrite my whole lab notebook and turn it in and keep plodding through the rest of the semester on my own, enough to pass the course with a D.
Maybe for him this lab was just some graduation formality, because he never came back. I asked around, but the lab instructors said he wasn’t on the roster. Nobody knew who he was.
But for that Thanksgiving we pack our things and turn out the lights. Mr. Wang doesn’t seem interested in the bananas, but we eat the pumpernickel bread outside on the steps. I tell him “I hope I wasn’t a real nuisance slowing you down.” He answers “Fine, thank you very much,” and holds out some bread crumbs for a passing squirrel. I braid a little chain from the last red-maple leaves and hand it to him. He nods and winds it around his wrist like a bracelet. As we stand up I head out for my three miles home, saying goodbye and thanking him for all his help. He puts his palms together and bows. A sleet storm is starting in; he ties his hood and turns back toward the dormitories, loping away over the fields.
First Impression 3.
Subway again, crowded Friday night, 10:30 p.m. Cold cold December night. A strong-looking man, about six feet eight inches tall, comes down the aisle and leans on the handbar over my seat, swaying with the train car. He’s whispering to himself, eyes closed, bouncing a little, rocking his head back and forth. The other passengers edge away and give him space. I’m feeling edgy myself, just about to slide out and move away; maybe he needs the seat more than I do. But then I somehow gather that he’s imagining a piece of music. It’s a base line, a finger-snappy beatbox syncopated rhythm, and he starts vocalizing some impossibly low notes. So I sit back and listen.
Here’s his stop. Before he goes bounding down the steps and hits the street I look up at him. “You’re a singer.” He opens his eyes and beams at me. “Black Nativity.” Wow! That’s the big holiday musical downtown. I wish him good luck and a good night. “Every night, Miss,” he assures me. “Every night’s a good and holy night. Every day. Merry Christmas.”
First Impression 4.
National Cathedral, Washington DC. Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Tourists don’t know about this tiny underground room carved from stone and tucked behind a staircase. It holds 7 people. The altar holds a shepherd statue cradling a pink marble lamb with a burnished little nose petted shiny, and a jade plant in a dish of white quartz stones.
Crash. Someone’s staggering down the staircase between the exit and me, gasping and grunting, muttering in annoyance. The steps come closer, uneven and reeling; the voice is slack and loud, the words are slurred. In those days the Chapel was open 24/7, and I never felt unsafe here. But now I leap up to hide with my back to the doorway wall, hoping that whoever it is just goes away.
“HEEEEEY!” the whoever shouts. “WHERE THE HECK AM I?” I peer a cautious eye around the corner.
It’s a girl. Or is it? She could be 14 or 40. She’s under five feet tall, with a broad round face and heavy super magnifying glasses. She’s on crutches, wearing stretch pants and a big orthopedic boot and a quilted coat with a fleece hood. “YOU. CHIEF.” She waves me over. “HOW DO I GET OUT? WHERE’S A PAY PHONE?” I tell her, but she’s looking around instead of paying attention. Finally I set out with her toward the front. Along the way I’m trying to make conversation. She doesn’t answer. She just forges on with the crutches, breathing hard.
At the phone she drops in her dime and dials and counts to twenty. A little buzz inside the receiver says “Hello?” But the girl finishes counting. “EIGHTEEN, NINETEEN, TWENTY HULLO MA THE GOOD NEWS IS YER KID’S ALIVE. THE OTHER NEWS IS MY LEG BROKE AGAIN. BUT THEY FIXED IT SO I’M GONNA FINISH MY TRIP WITH THE GANG. Y’OUGHTA SEE THIS BIG CHURCH. THEY GOT A PICTURE WINDOW WITH A MOON ROCK IN IT. CALL YA LATER. LOVE YA MA.” Three kisses. Hang up.
Out in the driveway we wrap up tighter in the cold wind. I look way up at the carillon tower, remarking on how the bells in the wind are ringing themselves in soft long notes. “GIT THAT SCARF OFFA YOUR FACE,” she tells me, “OR I CAN’T HEAR A WORD YOU SAY.” She mentions a bone disease that makes them keep breaking, and how she’s here with The Gang from her nursing home, on a bus adventure to see the capital of the U.S. of A. Now she’s punching my arm. “HEY LOOK! YA DUMMY, YER MISSING EVERYTHING!” I turn around, and sure enough. A rainbow bursts through the first snowfall of the year. The Cathedral’s two red-tailed hawks come and hang right over us.
A tour bus pulls up with a church name from down South painted on the side. It’s full of silver-haired people waving their hands and walking sticks. She props the crutches under her arms and Signs at them, great sweeping gestures. The driver leans out and Signs back, and she roars with laughter. Then she turns and hugs me.
I point down three fingers, tucking my thumb out next to my pinkie. Then curl my fingers back in a fist, tucking the thumb along my fingertips. Then cross the index and middle finger twice, holding them up. M, E, R, R —
“MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU TOO!” She hollers. She crutches away to the bus. “GUYS! YA MISSED THE RAINBOW AND PICTURE WINDOW. THEY GOT A MOON ROCK…”
First Impression 5.
Bus. Rush hour. Hot day. The pretty vivacious lady in the seat in front of me has a silvery laugh and a perfectly put together pink suit and pink shoes and and pink crystal jewelry. “I ordered the waffles,” she broadcasts into the cell phone. “And Royal here he ordered the pancakes & home fries. They brought our order with a choice of tomato, or orange juice. Now, which juice do you like better? You bet, I’m with you — I ordered the orange. Mm-mm, those waffles were good. Then we had a swim, and we went shopping. We bought you a t-shirt! How about you? What did they serve for lunch? Did you watch [insert TV talk show name here]? What’s the weather there now? I hear you’re getting rain.”
As she chats along I slide down in my bus seat, holding my head. She strokes her companion’s hair, gives him a little kiss, and raising her voice says to the phone, “What do you mean, ‘How is Darla’? This IS Darla talking!”
I sigh. How is it possible to call someone and talk for half an hour, and the other person still can’t figure out who you are?
“Oh Honey no,” she says. “This is not Daylene. Daylene came today to visit you. But I didn’t visit you today. That’s because Royal and I are on vacation here. I told you all about it. I send you those postcards every day. We’ll be home Saturday. No, you have a second daughter too. Her name is Darla, and that is me. And you are still my darling Daddy who raised us by himself, and this is Father’s Day, and I just… just…” She takes out a tissue and blots her eyelashes “called to say I love you so, Daddy. And tomorrow like every day I will call and say it to you all over again.” She says goodbye and puts the cell phone away, and her smile falls. Royal turns and gives her a hug.
Royal is a big lanky slow-talking man with twinkling eyes. He’s joshing around with the bus driver. The two of them joke with Darla and make her laugh. I lean forward and tell them “Excuse me, but you two young folks are having too good a time to be weary commuters. Clearly you are not from around here.”
Darla and Royal enjoy a good guffaw over that one. Darla tells me a little about herself. (“Classical piano, or counseling psych? I couldn’t decide! So I got a Ph.D in both. Now I’m a music therapist in N____ University, Psych Department.”) When she first showed up for work, she heard piano music coming from the lock-down ward. “Careful,” the doctors warned her. “When that patient plays those bizarre notes, stay away from him — if you interrupt, he’ll lash out.” She made them unlock the door, marched in, and called “WHERE DID YOU LEARN ATONAL MUSIC?” and before long she and the patient were playing duets.
Now, Darla and Royal are coming back from their holiday. What’s the occasion? Well, it’s their 30th anniversary and second honeymoon (“Hey wait!” Royal protests. “Are you telling me the first honeymoon is over???”). Besides, Darla’s doctor says she has arthritis of the spine, and it’s going to affect her mobility soon. So Darla followed her lifelong dream of seeing Alaska. “Why, just last week we went hiking with a guide. One climbing part was real rough. Royal said ‘Darla, you come down here! That is too risky, you’ll hurt yourself.’ But I hollered at him ‘Royal, I can’t give up now! Doctor says this time next year I’ll be in a wheelchair, it’s my LAST CHANCE TO CLIMB A GLACIER.'”
At their stop they wave goodbye and set out hand in hand on their next adventure. I feel sad to see them go. Something tells me that the doctor with his wheelchair prediction has a big surprise in store.
First impressions don’t always get me far. Sometimes that’s just as well.