During my first year in New York, I packed my lunches in plastic grocery bags from Morton Williams. That is where I purchased cartons of frozen Shop Rite veggies, picked through Cortland apples, saw packages for matzoh ball soup, and overheard elderly women bicker with cashiers over the price of the deli pasta salad.
My lunches were simple: thin sandwiches, leftover pasta and vegetables, string cheese, fruit, nuts. If I wanted a treat, I’d slip in a few cookies.
Upon sitting down at the round table in the office next to the large windows overlooking the East River, I unwrapped my lunch. Several of the attending psychiatrists showed great interest in my food.[1. I have never before nor since experienced so much fascination from others about my lunches.]
“So… what did Dr. Yang bring for lunch today?
“What homemade goodness are you having?”
Sometimes they stood over me; sometimes they pulled a chair out and sat down, leaning forward to inspect the contents of my lunch.
“What’s in that? Eggplants? Tomatoes? I smell garlic.”
“What kind of apple is that?”
“Leftover pizza, right?”
As I confirmed or otherwise explained the ingredients in my lunch, sometimes they congratulated each other for their discernment. I nodded and resumed eating. They wandered away towards the door.
“It’ll be crowded. How about the cart out front?”
“The diner is always crowded, but they make good fries.”
“Okay, the diner it is.”
The team nurse often entered the office after the psychiatrists had left. She spoke with a Brooklyn accent, dressed with class, and carried herself with confidence. Though the wrinkles around her eyes and on her hands revealed her age, she argued with vigor when she disagreed with the director of the service. He would persist, though knew to relent: She was a strong woman.
Sometimes, upon finding me eating alone, she would sit down at the table. She shared history about the department, interesting developments in other parts of the hospital, and updates about patients I had seen.
She also shared her sadness about her son. He was killed while serving in the military a few years prior and the anniversary of his death had just passed. Though she was smiling, her eyes were already full of tears. Her voice cracked as she apologized for crying.
“I miss him so much,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a ball of tissue. As she pulled apart the ball, she murmured, “My mascara is starting to run, isn’t it.” More sad than annoyed, she motioned me to walk with her to her desk. Her computer wallpaper was a photo of her son in his military uniform.
She pulled out a compact and examined her eyes, wiping away the trails of diluted mascara on her cheeks. She was still crying.
The sky was dark. A storm was coming. The arcs of the grey clouds were descending upon the lines of the housing projects and warehouses across the river. Her screensaver began flashing photos of her dead son.
The office door opened; the psychiatrists were back from lunch. The nurse quickly wiped her nose and forced a smile.
“Time to get back to work,” she said, standing up.