Today I thought about how little I know, and how I bank on a lot of unsure bets without quite enough reflection. The fact is: I used to know even less, was even more naked to chance. But I do know that sometimes life saves you, even when you are stupid, and then you must relish it.
Like: I was saved by Bernese mountain dogs in Greenwich Village when I was 19.
That September I showed up at JFK airport with two suitcases, each the size of a refrigerator, or at least they weighed that much. For three months I was to live in the coolest neighborhood in the whole world to work at one of the most successful magazines in the whole world. I’d never been to New York. I hailed my very first taxi; it smelled like cigarettes and vinyl inside, and I gave the driver my address. We talked about Pakistan where he was from and how I’d never been to New York City before, or Pakistan, and he’d never been to Buffalo, where I was from. We were bonding.
But when we got to Greenwich Ave. between sixth and seventh, I looked again at the scrap of paper where I’d written my new address. And I looked back out at the street, and then back at the piece of paper. The number I’d written didn’t exist. “I’m sure you will find,” the driver said, pulling over. “Just walk up and down the street.” He hauled my suitcases onto the sidewalk and drove away. I stood there. And stood there. In my stiff gray dress pants, black flats I’d originally bought for a college formal, and a carefully selected long-sleeved striped shirt, which now felt like a parka in the hot September sunshine. After a moment it became clear that I was in the country’s largest city with all of my worldly possessions on a public sidewalk. I had no idea where I lived, no phone, and no phone numbers anyway, for my new roommates, whom I’d never met.
So I left my suitcases on the sidewalk and tried the first door I saw. It opened, and I walked up a few stairs into a dark hallway and then into the open doorway of a gray room.
It could’ve been anywhere, the tastefully decorated personal lair of a serial killer, certainly. But instead two Bernese mountain dogs trotted out to greet me, calm and pretty as can be, with their long black fur and sweet white muzzles. And following them to the door, with a welcoming air like the dinner party was about to start, the Nicest Man Alive said hello. Mid-30s, bald in a hip way, t-shirt and jeans, quite gay, very calm. I asked to please borrow his telephone and explained what had happened. Oh, we’ll figure this out. He immediately began to brainstorm. Step one: Let’s get your suitcases off the sidewalk. Step two: Let’s call the magazine where your new roommate works. Step three: Let’s get your real address from her. Step four: Let’s messenger a key from her office to us. Step five: While you wait for the key, go ahead and sit on the front steps in the sunshine. It’s Greenwich Village. This is what we do. The dogs, who lounged around my ankles, calmed me instantly with their own peacefulness, glossy-furred incarnations of ancient yogis.
I learned that this was his artists’ studio; he was a framer. And when I asked why he was much more friendly than I’d imagined New Yorkers to be, he said he was from Maine.
We sat on the front stoop. The dogs sat with me, and the very rhythm of petting the calmest dogs slowed my heart rate. The Nicest Man Alive’s upstairs neighbors, an older couple who ran a law firm, came down and said hello. They sat with me for a bit. The mailman showed up. I asked if the Village was always like this. “This is a little chill even for the Village,” the mailman said, and petted the dogs too. The messenger showed up an hour later with the key. Turns out, I lived just down the street, on the other side of the playground.
These pockets of safety dissolve like everything, but while you have them, I say — sit in the sunshine, pet the dogs. When I rolled my suitcases out of the studio and said goodbye, it felt a little like leaving home again.