Sorry, I Don't Speak Mandarin

The New York Public Library. (1864).  New York City, County, and vicinity.  Retrieved from

The New York Public Library. (1864). New York City, County, and vicinity. Retrieved from

Ah, New York: Sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin.

Several years ago, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street. I am on my way to the writing space, Paragraph, on 14th, a half block away. An elderly (my age?) Chinese couple stands looking at an envelope and looking at the street signs. I offer, and they seem, silently, glad of my help. But there are three return addresses they point to on the well-folded, well-creased envelope they thrust in my direction. One in Queens, one in Brooklyn, and one on Lafayette Street. I direct them to the latter. It’s closer. But they don’t want that.  

They keep saying something in very heavily accented English, words that sound like “Seventh Avenue.” I say “No,” and shake my head back and forth for emphasis, remembering as I do so that if they were Greek, the head shake would mean “Yes.” I’m hopeful that Chinese people shake their heads when they mean “No.” 

The couple point to a phone number hand written on the envelope in the middle of many Chinese characters. I have my cell phone; I call the number, which turns out to be for a doctor in the O’Toole Building. (This is back before St. Vincent’s Hospital went away, and that building was an annex with doctor’s offices.) Ah! The building is only two blocks away—down to 13th Street, then along 13th to Seventh Avenue. Easy-peasy. Except …

I think about trying to direct them there. I speak no Mandarin and they speak no English. No amount of sign language is going to give me any assurance they will not wander down Sixth Avenue to City Hall. I give up and sign for them to follow me. They do. 

Mr. walks directly behind me, and Mrs. walks easily twelve paces behind Mr. 

At the halfway point I stop, thinking I can point to the O’Toole Building. But I can’t. The Voice kicks in: “If you’re going to do this at all, Robert, then do it the whole way. No half measures. If you were in China wouldn’t you want the same kind of help?”  

Yes Yes Yes Yes. Shut up! 

So, I take them to the corner, point to the O’Toole building, signal 4th floor in as many different ways as I can possibly sign. Mr. is very grateful, shakes my hand. Missus is also very grateful, looks as if she might hug me, which I don’t want—who knows why they are going to the doctor; I can’t wait to wash my hands—she insists finally on shaking my hand, and I am amazed and dismayed to discover that she is trying to press a folded bill into my palm. No, I say.  

No No No No. Thank you, but No.  

I smile, I wave, I walk east down 13th Street, eager to get to Paragraph and wash my hands, very glad to have been of service, sure there will be payback, like the Czech engineer who directed me to the train station on my way out of Prague. It all comes around.  

But I did wash my hands. Twice.