My great-aunt Ethel said I could stay with her when I moved to New York. Her apartment was in one of the large brick cooperatives on Grand Street, a place with Shabbat elevator service—a “naturally occurring retirement community,” as she called it.
She came to meet me in the morning at the subway station on Grand. I carried my duffel bag and was, after the ten-hour overnight bus ride, too worn out to appreciate the Lower East Side: the glove store, the leather-coat store, the former glove store that was now a bar, the soapy, mineral streets.
I hadn’t seen her since I was ten years old. She had a withered, impassive face that could have been carved in granite, pink rings around her pale eyes, and white curly hair cut short as a man’s. She wore a loose tunic with red flowers woven into it, and her arms emerging from it were thin and spotty. We walked past the plaque for the Hillman Cooperative Houses.
“Read it, Cathy,” she said.
I squinted at the engraved words.
“Are you reading it? Read it aloud,” she said.
I read to her: “We want a better America, an America that will give its citizens, first of all, a higher and higher standard of living so that no child will cry for food in the midst of plenty.”
“That’s right,” she said at the end. “What do you think of that?”
My duffel bag was heavy on my shoulder was my main thought. In truth, it was hard for me to have any feelings at all about its soaring idealism. Anyone could have a plaque made featuring any kind of utopian scenario; just because it was there didn’t mean it was impressive, and much less, that it figured into anyone’s lives. As I read it, a hundred people may have passed by on the street, and none of them looked at it. It was duller than a stone obelisk or a statue of a historic man.
“Yeah, very cool,” I said.
I lay in the twin bed in her spare room for most of the day, pumping myself up to look online for jobs, listening to her move around her apartment. She was eighty-four, with a lightweight, irritable step. She had yellow-varnished parquet floors, baskets from all over the world, and mourning doves that came by in little friend-groups for the seed she left on her balcony.
The largest furniture in my room was her cedar chest. I shifted the papers off the chest and opened it and found embroidered cloths. I opened some of the files and boxes and found mostly receipts, forms, the guide to setting up the TV, and the guide to setting up the vacuum cleaner, but also ballet programs, Spanish-language guides to Mexican cooking, my great-grandfather’s datebook with records of the hats he’d sold, and a few photos of Ethel with my grandmother, sitting astride a horse in boy’s trousers, holding her sister in front of her like a little sweetheart.
I found job openings online and emailed about barista jobs, bakery jobs. I got an immediate response to interview for an ice cream job. Ten dollars an hour in the West Village.
“Is a ten-dollar-an-hour job stupid?” I texted three different friends in sequence. Each of them said yes. The friend advice was that I ought to try to find a job that related to what I’d studied, which even then I could barely remember, or to at least try being a waiter or a bartender, which would pay better because of tips. But how was I supposed to find a job that was in demand? Those wouldn’t be listed on Craigslist. I felt overestimated. Better to be decisive in an inferior direction, I thought, than to dither around optimistically, hoping for luck.
I could hear Ethel turn on her TV, a boxy cathode ray set in a big metal-tone plastic box.
She returned slowly to her kitchen to get her ginseng, then walked slowly back to the TV. She talked to it. “Morons,” she said. “For shame.”
Around five in the afternoon, Ethel knocked on my door. “Would you like to go out for dinner with me, Cathy?”
The honest answer would have been no. But she was paying my rent.
We took the elevator one floor down. She scratched at both her arms. Her skin pleated under her fingers. She asked me stiffly how my day had gone. I knew she hadn’t lived with anyone for a long time, or perhaps ever.
“Is it stupid to have a ten-dollar-an-hour job?” I said.
“No,” she said.