Sometimes you are having a horrible day. Like, you go to your first job and work straight through, then go straight to your second job. Then you have to go shopping at Target for an all-day job interview the next day. And you hate shopping, and it’s stressful, and you try on three different outfits and variations on those outfits and ruin your done-up hair, that you paid fifty dollars for so you can look professional at the interview.
And then you get home, back hurting, train delayed, exhausted. And you realize you forgot to print out something crucial, something you need for the interview. So off you go, at ten o’clock, to Staples all-night copy shop. And of course none of the machines are working. Your debit card gets eaten up and a manager has to be called. You spend thirty dollars on copies, of which you accidentally make too many.
You leave Staples at eleven-something. You feel just about ready to give up, and you know there is reading and preparing to do for the interview. Then your best friend FaceTimes you, so you sit down on the steps of Union Square, eyes tired, copies in hand, purse weighing heavily on your shoulder.
Your best friend’s big birthday dinner was yesterday, but you missed it. So you talk about the birthday dinner with her, and you watch people amble to and from bars and dates and work. You hear a coarse male voice in the background: “Damn, she FaceTimeing.” He likes the technology; he thinks it’s cool. You turn and he is about what you expected: a middle-aged Black man, an MTA track worker who has risen from the depths of the subway tunnels to have what amounts to lunch with his coworkers. Your back hurts, but you can’t imagine running around the tunnels all night with the rats, taking a lunch break at eleven-something. And yet, he’s so jolly. He smiles widely and peers at the FaceTime.
“Say hi!” you exclaim. He laughs. Your best friend gets embarrassed, but you turn the screen so that he can address her.
“Hi gorgeous,” he says to her, waving. She giggles. “Where is she?”
“Brooklyn,” you answer. “It’s her birthday.”
Your best friend is saying something like “Why would you tell them that?” in the background, but suddenly the whole construction crew, ten or fifteen men in their neon orange vests and plaid, are peering at the rectangle where she resides. They all wave and grin and laugh. “Can she hear us?” they ask. You turn an earbud toward them and they all serenade her with ‘Happy Birthdays.’
“She can see us?” one of them inquires, incredulous but delighted.
“Yeah!” you reply. Everyone in the square is laughing, and then you place the earbud back in and they gather a few feet away to eat. It’s just one of those moments—like the other day when you stopped to stare at a new Banksy, and strangers gathered around to discuss the additional tags, and what they would do if that was their wall, whether they would tear it down and sell it or leave it there, not for profit. One of those moments you only get in a city, when the different spheres—the MTA nightcrawlers, the students, the barhoppers—intersect, briefly lift one another. It’s just strangers making strangers smile, but there’s something powerful in that.
You hang up with your best friend, telling her you have to catch the train. As you walk toward the subway entrance, another group—a group of girls that had been sitting a few feet away the whole time—call out: “Tell her happy birthday!”