I was relaxing at my favourite French restaurant when I saw them. Two charming old world European gentlemen sitting at a window table near mine, pre-dusk rays slanting down behind them. I longed to slip my camera out of my purse, but I didn’t want to intrude on the perfect scene.
Someone else did. A beeper rung, and one of them wandered off, disconcerted, to find a phone. I offered mine. Twice it happened, and the second time I took my chance. Turning to the gentleman still seated, I asked if I could take his photo. Surprised, he agreed. While I readied my camera, he studied me.
“We met in Auschwitz,” he said out of nowhere.
I looked up. I opened my mouth and shut it again. Then I spoke, saying the kind of thing, frankly, that makes one wonder about me. Especially if one is me. 🙂
“Not as guards, I hope.”
He smiled sadly. “No.” He turned his glass on the table. “Not as guards.”
Over tea, he told me their story. A Frenchman and a Pole who met in the camps, who survived the war there, and who even survived liberation and the long treks to their distant homes. They stayed in touch. Now, whenever they were in the same country, they met up. My French restaurant was theirs, too.
His friend returned to the table, and I took their photos and their addresses. A few days later, I developed the prints. The light had affected the quality of the shots, and I had them printed in sepia and black and white. I wrote a card and placed the photos in it, penning the address on the envelope. The photos stayed like that in my purse for two weeks. I never closed the envelope, and kept pulling out their photos to look at them. They captivated me, and I lingered before sending them off.
One drizzly evening I left work in a passionate anger over something or another. I wove through the rain-chastened crowds, ducking under an awning on Madison Avenue to escape the wet. I looked out, deliberating on the perfect time to leap back into the fray of the rush hour street.
And there, walking toward me through the slight mist–was one of my European gentleman, the Pole, seemingly right out of my own imagination. I gasped and stepped forward into the rain.
“Hello,” I stuttered. His eyebrows rose. “We met at–”
“I know where we met,” he said, and gestured for us to get out of the rain.
I followed him back under the awning. He looked around. “How did you know I work here?”
“You do?” I looked around disoriented, then shook my head and opened my purse. “These are for you,” I said as I handed the envelope over.
He laughed in surprise, and looked through them, thanking me. A few moments later and we had parted again, my mood altered to that lovely delighted kaleidoscope of surprise and awe that New York must always produce. A day later the Frenchman wrote me, asking me to send the photos when I could. I sent them off post-haste.
I returned to the French place. The owner was leaning over the bar, smiling at some photos. I looked closer. I’d given the European gentlemen some photos of the restaurant too, in order to remind them where we’d met. These were the shots he was looking at with glee. “My restaurant,” he said to me, pointing.
“I know,” I smiled. “I took the photos.”
Free champagne on the house. A few days later I looked up the two European gentlemen I’d met, and found one had written a book on his experiences during the war. It’s on my shelf now, together with my photos. And as for the memories of the dusking sun, the drily humorous stories and the mirage in the rain–well, they’re closer still.
Gotta love New York. City of a million stories…and a million more. 🙂