BY PHILLYGRRL The first time I met her, we were both standing inside the Walgreen’s on JFK Boulevard waiting for the 38 bus to come by. It was one of the coldest nights of the winter and the bus was running late. It was the kind of cold that creeps inside any number of layers and leaves you hopping from one foot to the other, hoping you can crush some warmth into your toes. The man beside me had already run across the street to get a pocket-sized bottle of vodka from the Wine & Spirits store. He’d mixed it with a bottle of cranberry juice he’d gotten from theWalgreens and chugged it down. “It’s the only way to get warm,” he told me, “Wanna sip?” I shook my head and went inside the Walgreen’s get some chocolate and the feeling back into my fingers. That’s when I saw her – my SEPTA mom.
She was standing against the window, waiting for the bus. Her silver hair was neatly pinned into into a chignon. She didn’t just wear one coat, she wore two. A purple one on top of a black one on top of at least three sweaters. She’d topped it off with a heavy printed shawl. “You waiting for the 38, honey?” she asked me. I nodded. “I’ll tell you when it’s coming, don’t worry.” After I got my chocolate, we began talking. She has worked as a cleaning lady at a hospital outside of Philadelphia for the past 30 years. Every day, she takes two buses and the train to and from work.
In the months following, we settled into a routine. Once a week, we’d meet at the corner of JFK and 18th, and commence chatting through the wait for the bus. Her favorite topics? Education and men. First, the education. “What are you doing with your life?” And she’d be off. About her son and her daughters who’d she coaxed and cajoled into finishing school. About how she’d quit school when she was 16 to marry her high school sweetheart, a man she described as “perfect.” And then she’d start with marriage. “Young people aren’t getting married enough nowadays,” she’d say. And she’d pull out picture of her daughter’s wedding and show me how her granddaughters looked in their flower dresses. My love life was a constant source of fascination. “You should just find a nice Indian boy and get married,” she’d tell me. “You can’t be taking the bus all your life! When are you going to settle down?”
She slipped into tears often and easily. The first time she cried was when she found out I’d gotten into grad school. She didn’t make a commotion, there was just a softening of the voice, a glistening in her eyes. Her hands shook as she clutched at my shoulder and pulled me into a hug. The second time she cried was right after inauguration day. “You don’t know what this means to me,” she whispered. “You don’t know what this means for you.”
The last time she cried was the last time I saw her, when she told me about the recent death of her husband, the love of her life. “We’d been married for 40 years,” she said, “and I woke up one morning, and he just wasn’t breathing anymore. He was my best friend. What am I going to do now?” She can’t sleep anymore, she spends her nights crying. That’s one of the reasons why she works the late shift. It makes the nights shorter and more bearable. She hugged me again as she got off the bus to walk to her West Philly row house. “You take care now,” she told me sternly, “and be careful. It’s dark outside.”
As she left, I realized I didn’t even know her name.