After exiting a crowded subway car yesterday morning, I escaped from the land down under with a scratchy throat. Too many people in too small a place, tunnel dust, and the heat of June—which we’ve had very little of so far—were the culprits. While walking east on 18th Street in the sunlit morning air—through a hipster land of gluten-free pizza and Dim Sum—I coughed. As I covered my mouth, the cough sounded an awful lot like a sneeze. At least that’s what a passerby thought. He said, “God bless you, sir.” I replied, “Thank you.” I didn’t feel it necessary to explain to him that I had coughed and not sneezed. The man being a Latino awoke something me—a revelation of sorts. I had just experienced a “Mrs. Stern Moment.”
Some background on Mrs. Stern: She was a regular customer in a retail shop called Pet Nosh, where I toiled several decades ago. Mrs. Stern was a nice enough woman, but somewhat neurotic and in a constant state of high anxiety. She was a bona fide animal person who fed stray cats and contributed to others who adopted homeless pets. These noble acts nonetheless compounded her perpetual unease.
For years, the staff at Pet Nosh gave her bag loads of free samples from the various pet food manufacturers. “Do you have samples for the strays?” Mrs. Stern would always ask. “You know I feed them.” Yes, we know! As the years passed, however, fewer and fewer samples of pet foods came our way. Apparently, it had become apparent in the dog-eat-dog industry that free-flowing freebies weren’t paying dividends. Mrs. Stern’s strays enjoying their respective repasts wasn’t exactly what they had in mind when dispensing their sample products. She and other recipients of the free sample pet foods never accepted the fact that we no longer had a bottomless trove from which to tap. In the retail environs, we discovered, no good deed goes unpunished.
Actually, the “Mrs. Stern Moment” has nothing at all to do with her animal activism. It’s something much bigger and touches on universal harmony. One summer’s day approximately a quarter of a century ago, she came into Pet Nosh even more hyper than usual. Out of character, it was a gleeful strain of hyper. Mrs. Stern explained that her buoyant state of mind involved a sneeze—the genuine article—at a red light. Motionless with her driver’s side window down at the time, a motorist across from her at the light—with his windows down—heard the sneeze and loudly said, “God bless you.” What moved Mrs. Stern so much about this random act of kindness was that the driver was a black man. She read into this encounter something so much more than a ubiquitous societal courtesy. Mrs. Stern saw the big picture. How we’re all in this together—black, white, brown, yellow. After all, we all cough and we all sneeze. And so, now you know why I had a “Mrs. Stern Moment” yesterday.
A footnote: Mrs. Stern has since passed away. She was no youngster when she patronized Pet Nosh and regularly beseeched us for free samples. But—from where I sit—she’s left a legacy. Mrs. Stern’s been gone for fifteen years, but obviously not forgotten. A trivial cough on the not-so-mean streets of Manhattan set in motion a series of events that got me thinking about her. One little cough for man—one giant sneeze for mankind.
(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)