by Wenlan Chia
December 19th, 2008
Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems — but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems incredible.
- Salman Rushdie
I passed the corner of University Place at Washington Square last week and went into the building where I used to live when I first came to New York to study at NYU.Â I thought I might be able to say hello to Tony, the doorman who worked there then.Â I did not recognize the doorman that greeted me, and when he informed me that the doorman before him was not Tony either, I was not surprised but a bit disappointed.Â I thought it would have been nice to catch up with him about our friend Sally after Obama was elected.
In Obamaâ€™s election speech, he touched upon this significant election result by referencing an elderly lady, who lived through the time when there were no airplanes, witnessed two world wars, experienced the tumultuous civil rights movement, saw the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and watched the Berlin Wall come down.Â While listening to the speech, I thought of an old friend of mine, Sally, if alive today, would have a lot to say about these memorable times as well.
I shared a big one bedroom with Sally during my two year study at NYUâ€™s graduate school.Â I was 23, she was 78.Â She was born and raised in Ohio and I was away from home, Taipei, Taiwan, for the first time in my life.Â With very little in common, we had developed a rare friendship that lasted after I graduated and moved out.Â We had a lot to talk about, mainly because we both can be easily shocked - usually me - by learning about a completely different world from one another.Â For example, she had joked that if her grandfather had invested in the Wright brothers instead of some bicycle company, she would have been rich and thus able to afford one of the townhouses on Washington Square North - we could see this one row of prime property from our 3rd floor window.Â The Wright brothers had approached her grandfather for initial investment on the greatest invention of the century but were turned down.Â It took me a few seconds to figure out this incredible time capsule and still longer to relate todayâ€™s aviation industry in this way to someone I know.
Our regular chat time was around 5PM when I came home from school and she had just finished her afternoon bridge game.Â She would have a glass of Vodka and soda and me an apple, and we would talk.Â Once in awhile, when we both had no plans for the night, the conversation could last for hours through dinner.Â She never went out except for an occasional dinner or to a play with friends, yet she had a very active social circle.Â Her various friends came by to chat and to play bridge 3 or 4 times a week in the afternoon.Â Once we were talking about old Hollywood movies and I mentioned my mom liked Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.Â A few days later, Sally introduced me to one of her gentleman friends, a man that was much younger compared to her other friends.Â After they all left, she told me the man I talked to was Vivien Leighâ€™s last boyfriend - Ms. Leigh had dated a younger man way before Demi Moore did.Â I called my mom and told her the story.Â Her reaction was very much like when I heard the Wright brothers story.
Sally and her friends were some of the first friends I made outside of school since I came to New York.Â Each one of them had an amazing life story to share with a young girl not knowing too much of this country then.Â Sally herself was a great listener as well as a story teller with a very individual sense of humor.Â Some of my close friends from school developed friendships with her too.Â One Thanksgiving night I had Shabu Shabu in my room with friends from NYU and Sally joined us.Â We shorted the electricityÂ and spent a memorable candlelight Thanksgiving together without a turkey.Â One of my favorite stories from her that night was how she had an argument with her husband and all of sudden he poured a cup of coffee onto her head.Â Her whole face brown and dripping, yet she laughed so hard they stopped arguing.Â Her husband died by her side one night when they were talking.Â She sat next to him on a sofa and then he stopped talking.Â She turned her head and found he had passed away.Â She was in her early 50s then.
After I moved out, Sally and I would phone each other to chat and I also went to see her every couple of months.Â One night before Christmas, I called her to make plans to see her, but there was no answer.Â I felt something was wrong.Â It was very late when I was able to get out of office the next day.Â I remember it was snowing like the previous night.Â I walked eagerly into the lobby, but before I could get a word out, Tony ran toward me and told me Sally had passed away two nights ago in her sleep.Â They found out the morning that I tried to call her.
There is a part of New York that is very personal to me.Â It is the New York I knew and heard from that Washington Square Park apartment and Sally was an important part of it.Â Her stories never failed to inspire awe and wonder in me, about the life she lived and my own future.Â There were countless moments in the first two years where I looked out window to the park, and I began to know this city and know myself.Â One night I was stuck in a term paper and it started to snow.Â I watched the whiteness blanket the park and decided to get out for a walk.Â In the middle of night, in the stillness of the present, I could hear my every footstep cracking the perfect snow. The surreal tranquility filled up my body and mind.Â It was one of the rare times when I felt the simplest happiness.