The secret of how to live a long life was revealed to me one day.
Not when I was in China, or Nepal, or some exotic village halfway around the world—where all the 115 year old people live —but when I was right here in the good ‘ole USA, visiting Brooklyn, New York. I was sitting at a table on a tree-lined sidewalk outside an Italian delicatessen.
The leaves were dancing back and forth in the sunny wind and I could hear someone practicing the piano through an open window around the corner. People were walking by importantly and while cars made a mini traffic jam on the narrow street, I happened to notice a tiny, old lady on the arm of a strong looking, big, black woman coming around the corner.
Each time the black woman took a step forward with one foot she’d wait a second before moving the other foot so the rest of her could catch up. The tiny, old lady on her arm shuffled her feet two or three times in quick short steps for each one of the big black woman’s forward rolling movements.
But they had their trajectory worked out and managed to stay side by side as they walked.
They were headed directly towards where I was sitting.
“Are you comin’ over here to have a glass of wine with me?” I playfully asked the tiny, old lady as they approached.
Big and strong as the black woman was, it was clear to me that she was not the one in charge. Never mind that the tiny, old lady was wearing a pink sweater that was buttoned out of sequence over a nylon blouse, the kind women wore in the forties that showed the bra and camisole from underneath.
“I don’t usually drink before noon,” the tiny old lady said in a heavy Brooklyn accent, the wrinkles on her thin face shaking with the vehemence of her words.
She knocked on one of the silly little chairs that were arranged around my table with her cane and I reached out to steady it while she very slowly sat down.
“Ah, hell,” she said, changing her mind. “Who cares what time it is?”
Once she was settled she looked me over and more or less commanded, “Well now, who are you?”
I told her my name and asked if since she sat down did that mean she wanted some wine after all? I was just going to order some with a sandwich.
“What the hell,” she said again and with her cane began to bang on the table where we were sitting.
“Guido! Guido!” she shouted, way louder than I ever thought she could.
“Come on out here and bring me and my friend a glass of wine,” pointing at me with a very crooked finger.
I asked the black woman if she wanted a glass of wine but the tiny old lady answered for her.
“Nah. She don’t want no wine,” she said. “She don’t drink. She’s saved.”
The saved black woman chuckled in a friendly way, causing all her rolls to roll while she walked away to sit on a nearby bench.
Guido came out with a whole bottle of wine and a couple of glasses suspended by the stems.
Holy Cow! I thought. A whole bottle! Who was going to pay for this?
But the old woman read my mind and told me not to worry about the wine.
“Honey,” she said, “I’m 102 years old. I could be dead before the bottle’s gone, in which case, you wouldn’t have to pay for it.”
“102-years-old!” I said, properly astonished. “We better hurry up and drink that wine,” and asked her if she was Italian.
No, she wasn’t Italian, she said. She was Mrs. Steinberg, as if that was all I needed to know and proceeded to talk and laugh and tell jokes and banter with me until I’d just about finished all my wine and she’d had about two sips of hers.
A half hour later Mrs. Steinberg announced that she had to go home for her nap.
“I have to have a nap every day,” she said. “Otherwise I fall asleep where I’m sitting and people can’t tell whether I’m alive or dead.
She stood up and I stood up and we kissed each other European style on each cheek and said good-bye and see you same time next year and laughed again.
I waved and she started to walk away. Midway however, she stopped and turned.
“You’re gonna’ live a long life, honey,” she said.
What an interesting thing for her to say out of the blue. It almost gave me chills.
“What makes you say that, Mrs. Steinberg?”
“You talk to strangers, honey. You have a sense of humor. You laugh, and you talk to strangers.”
She tapped me lightly on the shoulder with her cane to emphasize her words and with each tap I felt like she was giving me a blessing of some kind.
“Look at me,” she said, “I have a sense of humor. I laugh and I talk to strangers and I’m 102 years old.”
She put her arm on the arm of the big, saved, black woman.
“It’s the secret to a long life. Don’t forget I told you.”
With that she walked away and I stood there watching her shuffling three-step and her little pink sweater hanging crooked around her waist.
Guido came out to pick up the wine glasses.
“Wow,” I said. I think she just gave me the secret to a long life.”
“She would know,” Guido responded as I tried to give him my credit card.
“Don’t worry,” he said. Waving off the credit card. A friend of Mrs. Steinberg’s is a friend of the house.”
“Besides, now that you know the secret to long life, you’re probably gonna’ be comin’ here a long time, just like her.”
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock