Adrianna is what you might call a “bum”. Most days, you can find her sitting on a stoop outside the D’Agastino on York Avenue near East 79th Street, screaming at passersby, seemingly incoherently. But if you allow yourself to actually listen to her, you start to understand that she is simply shouting out greetings to the people she recognizes – the people who walk by her every day. Some people walk a little faster when they see Adrianna huddled on her stoop. Some will hand her a dollar or two. Occasionally, someone will bring her a sandwich, a box of doughnuts, a loaf of bread. Often, Adrianna throws these gifts of food to the pigeons, but not without first profusely blessing her benefactors.
Adrianna isn’t always on her stoop because she actually has a home of sorts. Somewhere in the neighborhood, a kindly elderly gentleman takes care of Adrianna – gives her a place to sleep, tries to get her to eat her food (rather than throwing it to the birds), and helps her to walk to her favorite stoop each morning. Adrianna has a cane (“I’m a cripple,” she’ll tell you), but a cane is not enough if she needs to walk more than a block or two. Bill stays with Adrianna until he is certain that she is settled in comfortably on her stoop. On Thanksgiving, he escorted her to a local soup-kitchen for a Thanksgiving meal. He’s not her boyfriend, her brother or her son. He doesn’t ask her for anything in return. Some people take stray animals into their homes. Bill has taken in Adrianna.
To Adrianna, the greatest pleasure in life is smoking. Not Marlboros, she says, because “they have marijuana in them.” Adrianna acknowledges that smoking has ravaged her looks and has ruined her voice. Her teeth are blackened, and her skin is wrinkled. She speaks of having been young and attractive once, having lived in Los Angeles, having been desired by men. “I used to have eyes that changed color in the light,” she says in a gravelly voice.
“Do you have eyes that change color too?” she asks me.
I have given her a can of Ensure, which I know she cannot give to the fat pigeons that crowd around her, waiting to be fed. She tells me that she can see my soul and that it is good. She asks me if I or my dog would like a cigarette. I tell her that both my dog and I are trying to quit. She tells me that life is too short to deprive onesself of smoking.
“You can’t smoke after you’re dead,” she admonishes me, waving her pack of cigarettes in front of me, ready to give me one for the asking.
“Not today,” I tell her, tugging on Lewis’ leash, “but thanks.” I begin making my way down the sidewalk. A young woman stops me and demands to know why I have been talking to “the crazy lady”. “She’s not so crazy…she’s just a little confused,” I explain, realizing that what I am saying may make me sound a bit crazy myself. “She really does mean well,” I say. With a furtive glance back at Adrianna, the young woman whispers to me, “You don’t understand…she’s scary. She always screams at me…she HATES me…I have no idea why….I can’t understand what she’s saying, other than that she hates me.”
As if on cue, Adrianna suddenly screams to me, “Noooooooooo!!! Don’t talk to that woman. I hate that woman!”
Later on, I’m walking Lewis around the block with just my coat on. No handbag, no wallet. Adrianna asks me if I might spare a dollar. I show her my empty pockets. A look of alarm mixed with pity transforms Adrianna’s face.
“Please,” she urges, producing a thick roll of dollar bills from the pile of belongings sitting beside her, “Please take this money! You need it more than I do!” She peels off several dollar bills and waves them at me. I hold up a hand and shake my head, no.
“I’m sorry, I can’t take that from you,” I tell her.
“But you are PENNILESS!” she protests, as I start to back away, “Penniless, with a dog to feed and kids at home!”
“No, really, that’s okay, but seriously, thanks.”
“Then at least take a cigarette,” she begs me, “take two, one for you and one for your dog…no, here, take four: one for you and one for your dog and one for each of your kids.” She is already pulling the cigarettes out of her pack.
“I really can’t do that..you keep them. You enjoy them,” I tell her.
But she insists. I take four cigarettes from Adrianna. I walk away, thanking her profusely. Of course, I don’t smoke. I contemplate saving the cigarettes for my next walk around the block with Lewis, and giving the cigarettes back to Adrianna, pretending like this never happened. Then I realize that she would know. And that would be worse.
I arrive back at my building, cigarettes clutched in my gloved hand. My doorman holds the door open for me, and I offer him the cigarettes that Adrianna gave me. But he doesn’t smoke either. Lewis sits patiently at my feet, waiting for the doorman to hand him a treat – a ritual that Lewis has come to count on like a promise. Graciously, Lewis licks the doorman’s hand.
I open my own hand, and for a moment, I contemplate the cigarettes. Then I toss them into the garbage can in the mailroom of my lobby. It’s not that Adrianna’s form of currency has no value. It’s just that being foreign currency, it can’t be used where I am going.
The elevator doors close behind me.