One morning, I stopped by a Greenwich Village kiosk to buy a newspaper for my commute. When I would’ve walked away, the vendor’s voice stopped me, and I looked up to meet merry, twinkling eyes. “You,” he said roguishly, “are the most beautiful customer I have had all day!”
This seemed unlikely. True, the day was young. But I was looking particularly awful: the night before I’d attempted an “extraction” on a pore that, in a magnifying mirror, I had deemed clogged, and now it looked like I was suffering from either a bad allergic reaction or from some kind of strange bug bite. I hadn’t bothered with makeup. I was also wearing a cavernous sweater of my boyfriend’s. But what did I know? Maybe this guy’s other customers were a real bunch of dogs.
“Uh, thanks,” I said, not wanting to be ungracious in the face of such gallantry.
“Where are you from?” he asked me.
I figured he was asking because sometimes my arcane mode of speech and slight lisp lead people to think I’m from somewhere else—maybe some remote Canadian province or something. I was about to tell him I was from here in New York, but he interrupted:
“ … Paradise?”
I didn’t really know how to answer. I smiled and started to walk away. “Do you promise to always buy your papers from me?” he asked.
“Sure!” I said. I guess I was feeling reckless.
“Oh, yeah, that guy’s really charming,” my boyfriend said when I informed him of the exchange. “He’s even kind of flirtatious with me.”
“Oh, I figured that,” I said. “I mean, obviously it wasn’t personal. He has to make his life fun. And bring sunshine to others, too, I guess.”
The next time life took me past this particular news vendor, I was looking my best. I was wearing a dress and heels, I was coiffed and maquillaged, I was even carrying a small briefcase—which gave me a highly legitimate air.
He was chatting to another woman as I approached, giving her the old magoo, no doubt. (An expression I’ve never heard outside of Christmas in Connecticut, but have always wanted to use.) His face registered nothing when he saw me. I handed over my money with great efficiency. But when I opened my hand for the change, he held it fast.
“Where are you from?” he asked slyly.
“Paradise,” I snapped, and withdrew my hand.
At once, I regretted it. He looked crushed. I was put in mind of that scene from Salinger’s “For Esmé” where the narrator attempts to banter with the little boy.
I felt Charles pinching me, hard, on my arm. I turned to him, wincing slightly. He was standing right next to me. “What did one wall say to the other wall?” he asked, not unfamiliarly.
“You asked him that,” Esmé said. “Now, stop it.”
Ignoring his sister, and stepping up on one of my feet, Charles repeated the key question. I noticed that his necktie knot wasn’t adjusted properly. I slid it up into place, then, looking him straight in the eye, suggested, “Meetcha at the corner?”
The instant I’d said it, I wished I hadn’t. Charles’ mouth fell open. I felt as if I’d struck it open. He stepped down off my foot and, with white-hot dignity, walked over to his own table, without looking back.
“He’s furious,” Esmé said. “He has a violent temper. My mother had a propensity to spoil him. My father was the only one who didn’t spoil him.”
I kept looking over at Charles, who had sat down and started to drink his tea, using both hands on the cup. I hoped he’d turn around, but he didn’t.
“I mean … ” I said hastily. “I mean, I’m so happy talking to you, that it’s … kind of like paradise.” It was lame, but his features relaxed. “Will you promise not to buy your newspaper anywhere else?” he said, ardent and insinuating beyond all need. What energy he must expend in a day! What commitment!
“I do,” I said, meeting his eyes meaningfully.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.