I can’t walk along South Ferry without looking for the green umbrella. I picture it lying in the street, awkwardly bent, the rain beading like opals on the torn nylon. It had been pouring that day; one of those humid August downpours occurring precisely at morning rush hour when people were hurrying from subways, over bridges, and down ferry gangplanks to their jobs in the city. I, too, was on my way to work, walking the few blocks to the South Ferry subway station.
I was a reverse commuter. This was pre-9/11, pre-Battery Park City. Living at the southernmost tip of Manhattan meant going uptown to work. Augmenting my meager singer-songwriter income I was a free-lance sign painter; that morning, on my way to a new sign shop. I leaned into the wind, gripping a yellow toolbox which held brushes and gear. Disdaining using umbrellas, which turn inside-out in windy Downtown, I would dry off in the subway. My “Les Mis” t-shirt, bearing the character Cosette’s image, clung wetly, stretched across my chest by my backpack’s straps. I bore an uncanny resemblance to Cosette. My own curled hair was already escaping the clip pinning it back and was sticking to my neck.
Cursing the rain, I trudged determinedly down Water Street in my old leather work boots and paint-stained jeans. Steam rose from the sidewalk. Odors of old urine, cigarette smoke, tar, and diesel fuel from the New York harbor mingled with salt air. Road work had been going on all summer, (water mains or something,) adding to the confusion of the traffic skirting the potholes. Masses of workers from Staten Islanders exiting the ferry terminal dodged the cars, taxis, and buses as they crossed Water Street.
I was approaching a news stand; its roof lined with pigeons. Farther ahead, Battery Park’s trees swayed with each rainy gust. Cabs honking, waves crashing against pilings, the ferry horn’s mournful blue note were all but drowned out by the rain squalls. A nicely-dressed business woman passing the news stand was coming towards me when I heard a shout at my back.
“Hey…Hey!!!” a man’s voice pierced the din. I slowed slightly (not enough to stick out; a mistake no New Yorker wants to make.) The business woman had stopped, startled.
“Hey!!!…HEY!!!” the man yelled again. Turning slightly, I saw, just behind me, a man in a Yankees cap facing the street, frantically waving his arms. Subconsciously, I had been noting my surroundings: “squirrel…pothole…watch the taxi…car radio…” Suddenly my conscious mind was warning, “crazy man shouting… RIGHT BEHIND ME!”
Instantly, I assumed a “duck and cover”. The business woman’s face registered terror. The man in the Yankees cap kept hollering. His teeth and eyes looked very white against his dark wet skin. He was gesturing wildly, jumping up and down. Involuntarily I followed his gaze. In that second I saw the body of a woman who had fallen in the street’s rubble get run over and decapitated by the rear wheels of a bus. Her green umbrella lay in the middle of the road.
The world of noise that had existed shrank into sudden stillness. We three strangers, the business woman, the Yankee fan and I regarded each other, eyes round with horror. We froze in our positions: the woman with her hands protectively held in front of her face, the man’s arms stretching outwards with fingers spread towards the street, and me, head tucked, shoulders rounded. My mind raced.
“Should I cross Water Street and try to find a priest…run after the bus to let the driver know he has just killed someone… stop the traffic?”
For a long minute we searched each other’s anguished faces, hoping for an alternate explanation of what we had shared; a different outcome, guidance…comfort. We could do nothing to help the woman. We knew the police would come. Soon, the air would be thick with sirens. They would rope off the pothole in which she probably caught her heel. In a few hours even the blood would have washed away.
Then, my heartbeat sounded; the rain, noise and odors returned. I was wet; shivering. We three strangers looked away from each other’s faces and walked on. Reflexively, I turned and saw the green umbrella broken, lying in the traffic. I considered retrieving it for the dead woman’s family but realized the futility of the gesture.
All I could do was go on to work and get through the day. Later, I could call my loved ones and tell them how precious their lives were to me. At the subway entrance, I glanced back at the traffic’s blur, then hurried downstairs out of the rain.
Bobbie Wayne has a BA (music) and an MFA (Art.) She was a painter, music therapist, singer/songwriter, Nashville songwriter and plays Celtic harp. She studied writing at Grub Street. Boston. She has often been published in The Ravens Perch online magazine. She is also published in Intrinsick, SLAB, Blueline Literary Journal, and Colere.