while(self++) { #43 } // Judith

“Excuse me. Might you know of some place close by to get something to eat? Something light?” She was an elderly woman. Probably in her 90s. Gray hair. Holding a few bags. Asking questions of strangers about places to go eat at 9 in the evening. I was coming from Hale and Hearty — my soup & sandwich joint of choice — so I suggested it. She wanted directions, and I described them as best as I could. She was somewhat hard of hearing, so she kept requesting that I repeat them.

Perhaps it’s my jaded New York self, but I was half expecting her to ask me for something more. For money. For food. I wasn’t sure. But it became clear that all she wanted was a place to eat and a friendly chat. The conversation quickly turned from eating establishments to me. Who I was. What I did. It was difficult to explain what it meant to develop apps for smartphones to someone who didn’t have a smartphone. But the conversation went places.

Her name was Judith. Judith Engel. She was a sweet woman. Wise. Excited to talk about her life. Perhaps she liked to babble a bit, but you could see that she had a fruitful life and wasn’t yet done with it. “I’m on YouTube!” she said to me. That gave me a laugh. But she most certainly is on YouTube. She didn’t lie.

She’s a former math teacher at the Bronx High School of Science. She’s a “procrastinator, but working on it” and “a really good teacher.” She taught a Nobel Prize Laureate. She frequents citywide talks and national conferences, especially ones about education. She was coming from a talk about Bob Dylan at Roosevelt House. She expected him to be there. He was not. She graduated from Hunter College, back when “they only had women.”

We had much in common. We agreed about a lot of things—on the innate potential of children to solve problems and think critically, on the importance of art in culture, on the need to keep bettering oneself. She told me: “You’re one of the few people in the last month who has really listened, really focused on what I’m saying.” She called me polite. I’m guessing that does this thing often. Talking to strangers in the street, that is.

Our conversation must have lasted 45 minutes, maybe 50 minutes. But in a satisfying sort of way. We exchanged business cards. Hers had an apple on it. The kind you might give to teachers you like. Against my better judgment, I wrote my address on the card. It was probably because of her disarming charm. She promised to send me a 2002 New York Times article titled “Lecturing Out The Windows.” I can’t quite find it online. She said she would take me out to lunch one day. I believe her.

We parted ways. She — eager to fill her grumbling stomach — and I — eager to fill the void of the page. Both of us, happy to have come upon such a wonderful chance encounter.

When Judith stopped me in the street, the resulting events could have progressed in so many different ways. I could have answered her question very briefly and went on my way. I could have ignored her completely. Fate could have been exponentially unkind, as well. I could have crossed the street legally instead of jaywalking, thereby avoiding her altogether. I could have went home directly after today’s class instead of walking and talking with a former Hunter classmate. None of this could have happened.

But I'm glad that it did.

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