She directed traffic. I didn't know her name, but I often saw her motioning to cars, trucks, bike messengers and other vehicles that passed through the intersection of New York City's Ninth Avenue and 55th Street. The worn, blue toboggan covering her straggly gray, shoulder-length hair, and her multiple layers of clothingóshirt upon shirt beneath an unbuttoned secondhand trench coatódistinguished her from the city's official traffic cops, whose brown uniforms earned them the snide nickname of "turd." I knew by the woman's attire and by the bulging plastic bags crammed into a small, pull-behind grocery cart that she was homeless. She carried her worldly possessions on her back and in a chrome cart, but she commanded the corner of 55th and Ninth as if she owned the universe.
I first saw the traffic lady on a sunny fall afternoon on my way to a new neighborhood laundromat. I walked down the street with a full drawstring bag slung over one shoulder, stopping at intervals during the two-block trip to catch my breath or switch my cargo to the other shoulder. The sidewalk was moderately crowded, typical of the side streets bordering the residential Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan just north of the Broadway theatre district. This part of West 55th Street was lined with old brownstone apartment buildings and storefront businesses.
As I approached Ninth Avenue, I noticed a tall woman standing in the street at the corner. She didn't cross with the other pedestrians. Instead, she stood in a small area a few feet off the curb, her left arm aiming southward while her right arm revolved in rapid circles to urge vehicles on the westbound side street onto the busy avenue. She looked fiftyish or thereabouts. Her frame appeared lean and lanky, and her bare ankles were visible under a pair of boldly patterned but tattered plaid slacks. I saw the familiar dryness and red patchy skin on her ankles that I'd seen on other homeless folks in the six years I'd lived in New York. It comes from exposure to weather and filth. Sometimes the condition lent itself to open sores, but this woman's skin wasn't at that stage. A pair of old, laceless blue sneakers, like Keds, covered her feet. She wore a dingy beige trench coat, opened to expose several untucked flannel shirts. Atop her head was the blue wool ski cap. She was slightly overdressed for the mild temperature, but I knew she was acting as her own closet.
The woman was talking to vehicles as they turned the corner to head downtown. The expression on her face was excited and her arms waved wildly. Cars and trucks came within inches of her, but she never flinched. She appeared to give orders to them, her voice deliberate and sometimes audible above the sounds of the engines. As I got closer, I heard her directives more clearly.
"Come on, come on! Let's go! Round the corner, round the corner! Step on it! Let's GO!" She waved both arms simultaneously in large, sweeping motions and moved her body in the direction in which she wanted the cars to go.
The vehicles rolled by with no acknowledgement. To them, she was just another pedestrian who'd better watch her step. So much action happens on the New York streets that residents become jaded, and homeless people tend to be particularly invisible to the city's hurried population. People step over them as they sleep in subway stairwells or huddle on church steps. People ignore them as they walk the streets with their meager belongings or rant to passersby. However, having moved to New York to pursue an acting career, I observed everything. This city offered much for actors to watch, people of various occupations, ethnic backgrounds, appearances and behaviors. Actors never know when they may be able to use what they'd seen. The traffic lady struck me as a real character study. I set my heavy laundry down onto the sidewalk while waiting for the light to change and watched her.
"Hurry up! Keep it movin'! Move it, move it, move it, people!" The traffic lady shifted on her feet from side to side, then walked up to a slow-turning delivery truck as if to usher it around the corner. She shook her fist at the driver, yelling, "That's right, mister! Clear the roadway."
Once the truck made its turn, she retreated to her position, approaching oncoming traffic with a blur of hand signals. She began muttering at the cars, and I couldn't make out what she said. The stoplight turned yellow, then red. Cars stopped. Taking a break, the traffic lady stepped back onto the sidewalk. She was still muttering as she squatted against the brick building beside her pile of belongings. Pedestrians noticed the traffic lady as they passed her corner. Some shook their heads at her street antics and kept walking. Others just glanced at her and continued. For the moment, her show was in intermission. I hoisted my laundry bag over my shoulder and crossed the street, leaving the southeast corner of 55th and Ninth under the traffic lady's care.
Over the next several months I saw the traffic lady whenever I happened to pass that corner during the day. Sometimes I'd stop and watch, unafraid of insulting her because she never seemed to be aware of my presence. She never seemed to be aware of anything around her except the passing cars and trucks. I never saw her there at night. I didn't know where she slept. But I wondered where she came from and what compelled her to stand at that corner and direct traffic.
One afternoon I ran late for work and decided to take a cab downtown rather than wait for the subway. Since Ninth Avenue was a straight shot to the restaurant where I worked in the West Village, the cabbie headed west on 55th a couple of blocks. As we approached the intersection, I saw the traffic lady in her regular position, motioning vehicles onward. The cabbie slowed to make the left turn and stuck his arm out of the open car window. I saw the traffic lady reach for something the cabbie handed to her. It was a small wad of folded dollar bills.
"There you go, doll," the cabbie said with a Brooklynese accent that sounded charming and matter-of-fact.
"Thank you," replied the traffic lady, taking the money and putting it in her pants pocket.
We drove on. I looked curiously at the driver in his rearview mirror. His dark eyes intently watched the road ahead. His brown hair was combed back off his forehead. I could see its length brush the back collar of his light blue shirt. His skin was tanned, and what I could see of his face was handsome. "Do you know her?"
"Oh, she's been around here for years," he said. The cabbie looked to be in his forties or so. His voice had a friendly tone. I imagined he was Catholic because he had a small, plastic Mary Mother of Christ affixed to his dash.
"Really? I've been watching her direct traffic since I moved to this neighborhood last fall," I said. "I can't get over it."
"Me either," he said, looking at me in his rearview mirror briefly, then looking back at the road. "But she's a very interesting case."
"I had this passenger one time ask me to stop so he could give her some money. He told me he heard that she used to live in the neighborhood, right on that block, in fact. He said the story was that she left her apartment one day to run errands. When she came back, her building was on fire. The traffic was so heavy that the fire trucks couldn't get through in time, and the lady's kids ended up dying in the blaze." The cabbie shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
"Yeah. You know, only in New York," he continued, checking his side view mirrors to change lanes. "Apparently things got so crazy that the lady started directing traffic so the trucks could get through. But by the time they were able to put the fire out, it was too late. She lost her kids, everything. The guy told me that people in the neighborhood said the woman just snapped afterwards."
"Is that really true?" I asked.
"Hey, that's what he told me," he said, glancing at me in his rearview mirror. "I don't know where he got the story, but he believed it and had me stop for him so he could give her some cash. Ever since then, when I'm in this neighborhood, I stop and give her a few dollars. Makes you think about how people end up the way they do."
"Yes, it sure does," I nodded.
We continued down Ninth Avenue in silence, passing block after block of storefronts and apartment buildings, people coming in and out of them or simply walking along. The flavors of the neighborhoods changed as we went southward. I noticed the urban residential low 50s with old ladies pushing chrome grocery carts and young Hispanic mothers pushing toddlers in strollers. I saw the gritty edges of the theater district in the 40s, where small neighborhood eateries operated beside rundown peep-show palaces with blinking marquis. I saw native Africans, tall and ebony skinned, hurrying in and out of the numerous African grocery stores that line both sides of Ninth Avenue in the 30s. We passed through the family-oriented blocks of Chelsea in the 20s, heading towards the eclectic Village with its population of artsy folk, gays and beatniks.
I thought about the traffic lady and the cabbie's story. I didn't know whether it was true or not, but who was I to say? If it was true, how tragic for that woman. If it was just legend, it was no less thought provoking. The cabbie struck me as having a real heart. To think that he would stop and give her spare change when his fares took him past her corner was inspiring.
Some weeks later, I noticed the traffic lady was gone. I don't know what became of her. Perhaps she had moved to a shelter with winter coming. The cops may have given her the bum's rush and made her leave. Maybe she had found a different corner with different traffic to direct. Maybe she had gotten sick or died.
Wherever happened, I never forgot her or what the cabbie told me. In fact, I thought of it with every homeless person I encountered from then on, including the thin, black woman who lived under a blanket on the steps of a Catholic church on East 29th Street, her incessant mumbling often the only clue she was there; the chubby, red-bearded man who rummaged through garbage cans on the number six train platform in Grand Central Station; the frail, elderly white woman I saw sitting on flattened cardboard against the wall in the Port Authority bus station, whispering inaudibly while holding out her hand for spare change from passing commuters; and the black man of indeterminate age I once saw curled up on a discarded sofa bed on the Upper West Side, sound asleep while city life buzzed around him.
The traffic lady's story made me think twice about them all.
Copyright © Dee Dobson Harper 2006. Title graphic: "55th and Ninth" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2006.