jolie laide

jolie laide

I started this when I lived in Brooklyn and struggled for grace in a city that grants moments of beauty and ugliness breathtakingly close to one another. Now I live in a place where things are a different kind of ugly and the beauty is pedestrian. I struggle with that.


Half of her oversized bag has slopped off her lap and the handles are ticking me with every jerk of the train. He leans back and the mass of his shoulder is inches from the top of my head. This one loses control of her newspaper and it hits me in the face, oops, sorry. Another has drunk too much coffee, has a vicious case of the wiggle-foot that is translating through the subway bench.

That is to say, I'm not feeling very gracious as the sun slaps me at the top of the station's stairs. I'm on my way to a high school on the edge of the Bowery, to pick up a check for my agency. The school security guard has a tattoo on his forearm of Pooh with a honey pot, the words "Somethin Somethin" turning sweetness into lasciviousness. The stairwell smells like tater tots, and it's only 10.30AM. I am directed to room after room, turned around, unfamiliar, frustration rising in the dead air on the fourth floor walk-up.

I pick up the check and I think I can get my soured self out of there. But one of the teachers wants to meet me. She tells me the check is the proceeds from a penny harvest, the students voted on who to give the money to, and at the classroom door they call forward one of the council leaders. He cants his head towards his teacher, says something in dialect.

Jesus christ, he's fresh off the boat, unfamiliar with the words of my thanks, too humble, too unsure, to look the American woman in the eye. He clasps my hand and my heart is dropping through the floor with the sudden flash of what it means for him to be here. The grace of his gift is an acid burn for my ingratitude. A visceral stabbing need for penance makes me want to press my forehead to something but instead I am bade smiling goodbye, and now I am down the stairwell, out the door, onto the street, and eaten through with invisible shame.


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