Remembering a stranger’s kindness
by Stephanie Piper
You can keep your Miracle on 34th Street.
Mine took place farther south on Manhattan Island, around 14th Street and Ninth Avenue. Once upon a long ago December, a man in a red scarf rescued me there. I think of him every year at this time, and wonder if he’s still roaming the city doing good deeds for hapless young women.
It was a steel gray Sunday afternoon a few days before Christmas when I left my husband and three small children at home and set out to buy a tree. It should have been a family outing, but the kids had bronchitis. A week indoors with them in our tiny apartment made a solo trek in Arctic weather sound like paradise to me.
I set out with $15 in my wallet. Ten was for the tree. Five was for the cab to bring it home. To save carfare, I walked the long cross-town blocks towards the Hudson River. There, under the West Side Highway, the tree merchants set up shop every December weekend. The dingy caverns beneath the highway ramps became a kind of urban forest, fragrant with pine and wood smoke from fires built in trashcans.
I prowled the rows of trees, looking for a bargain. The inventory was running low, but there were still plenty of candidates. I inspected Scotch pines and blue spruces from every angle, wheedling the sellers to untie them so I could get a full view.
And then, through the smoky air, I saw it. Propped against the side of a battered truck was a seven-foot tall balsam fir. The man in charge held it up, twirling it around in a dazzling circle. From every side, the tree was perfect: full, fresh, needles springy and silver green. Best one on the lot, girlie, he told me. And for you, 25 bucks.
I took a deep breath and said I would give him eight. Whaddaya, crazy, he asked. I said I could go to eight-fifty. He laughed. You gotta be kidding. Nine, I said. He turned away, lit a cigarette. Twenty, he said. Because it’s Christmas. I turned to go, walked a few steps, came back. Ten, I said. And that’s it. He shrugged. Can’t do it.
I wandered along the rows, pulling out the smaller trees I had passed on earlier. The balsam would fill the living room window and touch the ceiling. I went back and looked the seller in the eye. Fifteen dollars, I said. Take it or leave it.
He tied it up and asked me where my car was. I said I would take it from there and dragged the tree away. A freezing rain had started to fall.
I had staggered three blocks when I heard the voice behind me. I wonder, he said, if I might help you with that?
The man was tall and white-haired and wore an expensive overcoat and a red cashmere muffler. Before I could answer, he had the tree in hand. I cast my street smarts to the wind and walked along beside him. He chatted companionably about the neighborhood and the weather, reassuring me with his quiet voice and cultured manner that he was, in fact, what he appeared to be. When we reached my building, he put the tree and me in the elevator and waved away my thanks. We wished one another a Merry Christmas, and he was gone.
It was the tallest, prettiest tree we ever had. Hung with popcorn and cranberry garlands and topped with a homemade silver star, it filled the apartment with the smell of the forest and a feeling of abundance. I lit the lights and thought about the city I loved and feared, and how it seemed to turn on a dime. One minute it was freezing rain and no cab fare and eleven cross-town blocks. And then, out of nowhere, it was Mr. Red Scarf. He might have been a mugger, or worse. He might have grabbed the tree and taken off running. Instead, he opened his gloved hands to present me with the unexpected gift, the only one worth giving.