Wearing a uniform at work is not pretty. Foot messengers must wear red, reflective vests at my company. These machine-woven, half- plastic eye-catchers were not designed by Calvin Klein. Wearing them during the holiday season when there are so many tourists in New York make the men on the streets with cardboard boxes look like traffic guards. Because people know we are at work and “represent a company”, we have to act right, like McDonald’s employees must do when someone asks for more ketchup.
Delivering Barnes and Noble boxes from door to door is the hardest job I’ve ever held down, not because the boxes are heavy, but because every lost soul believes that handsome Lasership men in their red vests are about town not only to fulfill on-line orders, but to serve them, as human compasses of sorts.
“Excuse me sir,” an old English woman begged of me last Friday, “please tell me which way 39 East 41st Street is.” I was growing quite cranky along my route on Friday. Isaac, the floor manager at Lasership had given me more than twenty heavy boxes to deliver to the freight entrances of the skyscrapers along 3rd Avenue. I had not the energy to engage the old bag and her husband with free information conversation—especially since I work for minimum wage already. What was it worth to me to be giving away free information while already working like a slave moving stones for Ramses the First? I asked myself, before stopping the lady along her lost way to ask my own question—
“Excuse me, but are you from England?”
“Yes, we are from England,” she said, smiling like the Queen glaring down upon a peasant. My answering a question with a question seemed to stun the broad, and for a moment, I captured a frown from her fake smile. The truth was, before I had asked her where she was from, she seemed to silently imply, in the tone of her masterful voice, that her command of the same language I speak will always be better than my own, and that I will never be like Chaucer, no matter how hard I try.
“I thought so, I just love the accent,” I shared, “now listen, stay on this side of the street and head that way.” I pointed towards the Hudson River. The couple did not know I was sending them West and not North towards 41st, but I considered the rude trick as a way of stimulating a sagging economy.
Surely they must have known we were standing on 37th! There was a green street sign directly behind us. Perhaps they’ll buy something along their lost way, I thought. “Pay attention to the numbers as you stroll along, they will get smaller. As you get closer to the number 39, pay very close attention, because sometimes the buildings don’t have numbers on them. I never noticed that about the streets of New York before I took this job. I get lost every day. It’s very tricky. It’s absolutely maddening when buildings don’t have numbers. One must pay very close attention to where he is going, and not everyone else. This too is a little Island, but we are much more sophisticated here, as you plainly see.”
The couple knew that very instant that I was not the man to be asking directions from, and it seemed they never would again stop a busy Lasership Messenger in his tracks.
The woman’s husband looked at me with compassion, as if I were taking up my cross daily and following a dead end. He smiled like the wealthy in New York City do this time of the year to the little men who bring their boxes.
As they stood there trying to make sense of my directions, a thin beam of sunlight managed to squeeze between two tall buildings on 37th Street, missing the English man’s hunched over shoulder, and striking me in the eye as if to give me hope. The new age English aristocrat was wearing good dentures—wooden one’s I assumed for a moment as the sun seemed to strike the dissonant chords of my heart.
As the old couple walked away from my hand cart stacked high with Amazon.com boxes, I yelled to them, “Hey! Tell George Michael I send my love!”
They smiled with an air of English pride, not knowing who I am, or that John Steinbeck picked apples for a living, while writing, in his head, “The Grapes of Wrath”.
“Oh, and don’t forget to head uptown to 41st Street before you start searching for 39 East. Every Street in the city has a 39 East, including the one you are on” I shouted, before humming that tune by George Michael that I cannot get out of my head this time of year.