One warm winter evening on the Upper West Side, Thomas Fiffer reached out and touched a stranger’s life.
I came out of the subway station at 72nd and Amsterdam, on my way to meet someone at 71st and Columbus. I was a bit disoriented, as I am not a frequent visitor to New York’s Upper West Side, so as I ascended into the glorious, spring-like February night (we New Yorkers have waited so long this winter for a night like this), my first thought was to bring up Google Maps on my phone. And then I thought, that’s not how you write your own map. You don’t isolate yourself from the world around you and turn inward, you turn outward, embrace the world, let it be a part of you and you a part of it. So instead of pulling my iPhone out, I asked two ladies standing by the benches outside the station, “Would one of you two lovely ladies be able to tell me which way is Columbus Avenue?” I had my answer in an instant. In the space of another two minutes, one of the ladies (whose name I later learned was Jody), had her answer, too. Jody knew a thing or two about business, and she didn’t just want to part with information I valued free of charge. She said, “I’ll tell you how to get to Columbus Avenue if you’ll be kind enough to take our picture.” Which I did. Then I asked Jody and her friend if this was their first visit to New York, knowing full well from their posture and accents they were natives.
“No, we live here.” (Who is this guy?)
“Then why are you so excited about having your picture taken in front of the subway station?”
“Because we haven’t seen each other in a long time.” (A little more trusting now.)
“Wonderful. I’m so glad I can take your picture for you tonight.” (Letting their guard down.)
As I handed Jody her camera back, she looked at the picture I had taken and lamented, with a sense of humor about herself, that her face looked fat.
“This always happens.”
“You have a lovely face. It isn’t fat. But I will be happy to take another picture for you.” Which I did.
Jody liked the second picture better and began to tell me how she was always the one taking pictures, photographing everyone else, chronicling the events of her life and everyone else’s, the weddings and birthday parties, capturing the special meaningful moments, always behind the camera, never in the pictures herself.
I told Jody the way to get over her insecurity about her face was to post photos of it everywhere, on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, on flyers stapled to bulletin boards and lampposts, on leaflets handed out by eager graduate students procrastinating on their dissertations or dropped from airplanes onto the unsuspecting populace. I asked her if her camera, which was not also a phone, had WiFi and allowed her to post and share her photos directly to the Internet.
“No. I’ve been unemployed for a year and a half. When I get a job, I’ll be able to afford one of those phone cameras.”
“Jody, you already have a job.”
“You are a chronicler of events.”
“You’re the one who takes the pictures.”
“So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take some money out of your savings and have some business cards printed up. The business cards are going to say Jodi, then your last name, then your title, chronicler of events. And you are going to hand those cards to every effing person you meet.
“OK. I’m actually going to a job interview now. Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
“You’re already lucky.”
I wish she had said thank you for stopping to ask me for directions and giving them instead. She didn’t, but it’s too good a line to pass up.
If you read this carefully, you’ll notice that on Jodi’s new business cards, her first name ends in an i, not a y.
I changed that for her.
I changed Jodi from a person asking “y have I been unemployed for so long” to a person saying, maybe even shouting, “i have a job.”
At least I hope I did.
That was my intention, anyway.
This post was previously published on the Tom Aplomb blog.