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serendip

Standing in line at the French bistro, I glance nonchalantly over the employees ringing up the register, warming up croissants, making lattes. Among them, a new face – an Asian man walks to the foreground from within the kitchen, pulls at a hot tray of freshly baked breads, winces and drops it back. Clearly he is not familiar with the minutae of the work, but he acts as if he belongs there. He is probably the owner.  Nothing is predictable anymore.

I make my way towards a corner table with my chocolate croissant, pull out Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and the latest letter from grandma Larisa, and prepare to disappear into my private literary world. A man plops at a nearby table, his back to me, setting out on the table “Moscow! All You Wanted to Know” and Gramophone, the world’s authority on classical music. Devouring my croissant and gulping down the tea, I contemplate the self-sentencing isolation in which most of us live. It is time to put an end to it, I say (to myself, in my head), stop it today. So I take a last swig of Earl Grey, stand up and come towards the man with Moscow.

“Hi. I couldn’t help notice your Moscow tour book. I’m actually from Russia – are you planning to visit soon?” The man responds politely, and a pleasant, genuine conversation begins. We talk for a while, about St.Petersburg and Russian politics, about music and the love thereof, about literature, even, at which point I mention that I should probably return to my reading. As I stand up, he’s beaming and I say, “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. I’ve actually made it a point to meet interesting-looking strangers, and you’ve been the first today. I’m so glad I came up to you…” Actually, I didn’t. But wouldn’t it have been neat if I did?

Instead, I am still sitting, finishing up my tea, when the Asian man from behind the counter walks up to Moscow man, sits down facing him, and places between them a topless container with a yellowish hazy liquid.

“Do you see them? The little guys in the corner,” Asian man points, “See all the way at the bottom? They’re not so bad now, but they grow up to be pretty ugly creatures…” Moscow man responds with statistics on their growth from the internet, Asian man mentions that you can never trust those forums anyway – people’ll say anything. They start discussing water quality, stagnant vs. flowing , necessary aeration, plants inside to provide enough CO2. “…but in any case, they’re supposed to live up to 8-10 years.” Asian man concludes.

Curiosity overcoming self-consiousness, I walk up to their table and, smiling awkwardly, say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, I just couldn’t help but overhear you talking about something alive in that container, and I’ve been trying to guess what it is….” I trail off. They look at me. I look at them. It’s a freeze-frame. I back away and decide not to try that. Instead, I bury my eyes in grandma’s letter and attempt not to miss a single word.

She writes about living alone. Flowing organically from one sentence into the next, her prose talks of walking: “…which I prefer to do usually at about 1pm, after I have had my breakfast, cleaned up and gotten ready to pick up some things for dinner.  Usually when I come out, at about the same hour every day, most of the people out around me are also retirees. We stroll leisurely down the wide boulevards, understanding that at this time, the streets are ours. But several days ago I woke up late, my entire schedule had shifted and so it was past 3pm when I went outside. Everything was different. I noticed people around that are never there at 1 – young people, business people – rushing places, determined, focused. It wasn’t our place, cozy and familiar. I finished my shopping quickly and returned home. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to go out later than usual…”

Distracted by my merciless curiosity and jarred to action by an idea, I bolt out of my chair, pick up empty plate and cup, and head towards the counter as if to drop them off. On the way back, I peer with all of the laser vision I have in me to see what is in that container!! But I see nothing, and return to the letter.

The men are talking about Confucianism now: the importance of respecting your elders, the wisdom of doing all that you can while you still can. And in marriage, you cannot always hope for that perfect match, you have to find someone who is good enough, and value that. The other man replies, “I think, if you really love someone, you have to let them live to the fullest. You have to have the strength to give them the space they need. But we have that bond in common, and that part is ours, and we share it fully, together.”

Grandma continues, “I do often wonder, waking up alone, eating along, walking alone, every day alone, whether I’ve made the right decision. It is difficult, being on your own all the time…”

Moscow man picks up, “I want to overwhelm them with my generosity…”

At this point Borges chimes in, “In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almightly is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End – or better yet, the Endlessness – of Time. Or perhaps cyclically.” He, of course, is talking about the imaginary writer Mir Bahadur’ Ali’s imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.

I am distracted again by the mystery creatures in the container. These people will up and leave, and I will never know who was in there. A young employee comes up to the Asian man and reminds him about her paycheck. That proves my conjecture about him. Moscow man gets up, wishes his friend luck with them, and heads out. Asian man picks up the container and empty coffee cup and returns behind the counter.

Borges puts his finishing touch: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.”

I pick up the book, letters and pens, and exit stage left.

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by Liza Ezhevskaya of LizardArtWorks

Listening to our answering machine messages, I come across the recording of an older woman talking in a tight, concerned tone…

“Hi, it’s me. Listen, I was thinking, maybe we should give it another try. You know, just try again, maybe? Please call me back. Give me a call, okay? Please?”

She must have dialed the wrong number and the androgynous standard greeting on our phone didn’t tip her off. I scan through the call log and deduce her phone number. I call her. She answers:

– Hello?
– Hello m’am. My name is Anya. I just wanted to let you know that yesterday you called my phone and left a message…
– What? What do you mean?
– You left a message on my cell phone, the number is (485) 487-3876, you probably dialed the number by mistake and left a message about…
– Oh yes, I understand…
– Yeah. I just wanted to tell you that I got it. Which means…that probably the other person didn’t…
(She still seems a bit confused. Flustered, I continue…)
…which means you may want to check that number and call them again…
– Oh, ok. Thank you.

* * *

A while ago I came across this website, http://www.unclaimed.org. It links you to State Assessor websites where you can search to see if the state you live in (or lived in) is holding money that belongs to you, ie. unpaid insurance claims, last payment installments, etc. I was hooked.

I searched first my family, all of them, in all of the states where we lived. Found a last payment waiting my husband in California (since then we’ve contacted the assessor and got the payment). Then searched family friends – found some more money waiting for some of them. Then searched co-workers. Found a HUGE sum waiting one, joyously burst into his cubicle and announced, “You have $1200 waiting for you at the assessor’s office!” But it didn’t stop there.

Think about it: literally billions of dollars of unclaimed funds, waiting for their rightful owners, and the rightful owners not knowing that there is cash for them several forms away. Some of my family members’ last names are pretty common, and for one, Nayerman, there was actually several other “Nayermans” in California that also had money unclaimed. I had to do something. So, at the end of last year, I wrote letters.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Nayerman,
Recently I was doing a search to see if some of my family members had unclaimed funds. I searched for my grandpa’s last name (Nayerman) and though he didn’t have anything, I noticed that you did. I wanted to let you know, in case you didn’t already. I am attaching a print-out of your info from the official assessor’s website so that you can be assured it’s legitimate. I hope this comes as a pleasant surprise on the eve of the holiday season!

All my best,
Anya”

A couple of months later I checked up on my couple from California. Their record said: Funds claimed.

Score.

* * *

Sometimes I have to go to work really early, sometimes in the dead of night, escorting and interpreting for Russian engineers doing work for the International Space Station program. We worked out a system with my employer where the same driver that picks up these Russian specialists drives by the McDonalds next to our apartment complex and picks me up too. The driver’s name is Kevin. The story goes like this:

So I’m waiting for Kevin to pick me up at McDonald’s. It’s around 5am. He’s running late and so I call him on my cell and leave a message: “Hi Kevin. This is Anya. I am waiting for you at the McDonald’s, as planned, it’s almost 5:10am and you’re not here…Please give me a call. Thanks!”

Eventually I end up walking and he doesn’t mention the message the following day when he picks me up again. He drops me and the specialists off and tells me to call him once we’re done, so that he can drive them back to the hotel. Three hours later, we’re done and I call. Another message: “Hi Kevin. Well, we’re done here in Building 20, really enjoyed those breakfast burritos – thank you! We’re ready for you to pick us up…”

There minutes later I get a text message from Kevin: “You are contacting the wrong person”. Turns out, it was a different Kevin.

* * *

Car note left on our wind shield: “AWESOME PARKING!!!” with a pen-drawn sketch of the “Right way to park”, with the wheels facing straight into the parking spot, and “Wrong way to park” with the car diagonally wedged into the rectangular parking spot, wheels creating an imaginary hypotenuse between the opposite corners of the lot (the way we had parked).

* * *

Car Note left on a gray Ford Mustang: “I was backing out and accidentally grazed your car. I am sorry! Our car is insured – please call me at (***) ***-**** and we’ll figure out how to cover your damages (if there are any). Again, I apologize.”

There is damage. I find this out when the owner calls me the next day and says he only noticed the damage when he went to open the door and it was jammed. At the end of the conversation he says, “And I just want to tell you that I really, really appreciate that you left that note. Most people would have just driven away…” I reply, “Well, I just did what I hope someone else would do for me…” “Yeah,” he says, “me too”…

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