by Rise Keller
In early July of 1976, on a six-week road trip around the northeastern U.S. with my father, stepmother, and little sister, we stayed with my stepmother’s relatives in Pennsylvania. I went roller-skating with the kids at their local rink. Someone crashed in front of me, I tripped over them, and my ankle hurt like crazy.
The X-ray revealed a broken leg. I got a cast and crutches. The next leg of our trip: New York City. At that time NYC had a rough reputation, and we feared rudeness and difficulty.
A friend’s mom hosted us at her tidy, bright Brooklyn apartment for three days and nights. “Call me Aunt Mary,” she insisted, though she’d never seen us before.
Aunt Mary worked in a publishing house and went to work early every morning, leaving us with directions, tips for public transportation and which routes to avoid. We cooked dinners, ate and laughed together in the evenings after she got home.
My parents had the brilliant idea that sightseeing in the Big Apple would be far easier if we had a wheelchair. They rented one, and at subway stations, if anyone was around, they always came to help my father maneuver my wheelchair up or down the steps.
One of my dreams for our Manhattan visit had been to see Fifth Avenue’s shops with my own eyes, and maybe go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But we had three strikes against us, we learned as we got into the city: The museum was closed on Mondays, most shops and businesses were closed for the Fourth of July holiday, and it was raining.
By now we were drenched, so we ducked under the awning of the Gotham Hotel to decide what to do next. A man had emerged from the hotel and was about to get into a cab. He saw us and stopped.
“Wait right here!” he said to us. Curious, we waited under the awning, watching the taxis come and go, picking up and dropping off men in raincoats with their briefcases and umbrellas.
Two minutes later, he reemerged from the hotel carrying an exotic item: a collapsible umbrella. He showed my father how to operate it, and handed it to him.
“For you. Enjoy your visit!” he said, as he hailed a cab.
“We can send it back to you….”
“No, just keep it!”
We thanked the man as he stepped into his taxi and rode off with a wave. We never saw him again, but his elegance and generosity ended any remaining fears that we wouldn’t be treated gently in New York City.
Even now, every time I see a collapsible umbrella, I think of that glamorous fellow outside the Gotham Hotel who took the time to do a small favor — that made a big difference to us. I’m reminded how the compassion of people can surprise you, no matter where you are.