Broadway and Ord

I'm returning from a run through Chinatown when she stops me at the corner of Broadway and Ord. She's a few inches shorter than me, with dark, plaintive eyes and a thick braid that coils past her shoulders. Her dress is gauzy and richly patterned; the folds of it twist and layer lightly around her body. Her accent is heavy and I miss some of the details, but she makes me understand the broad strokes. She needs to make a phone call; will I help her use the pay phone anchored to the deli behind us?

She holds a small scrap of lined paper in one hand and a fistful of change in the other. It's been years since I've used a public telephone, but as best I can tell, we'll only need a quarter to dial the local number written in a wide, looping script. She reads the digits to me slowly and I punch the silver buttons, handing the phone over to her once I hear ringing on the other end.

The woman lifts the reciever to her ear but keeps her eyes on me questioningly. I don't know what she's hearing on the line but I get the impression she's confused, possibly unsure of how to respond to the voicemail greeting. I watch her while she listens, realizing I have no idea how old she is. She could be twenty or she could be forty; I cannot get a handle on her age. The woman's face betrays nothing; the only clue it bears as to her identity is the bindi on her smooth forehead.

She leaves a short message, and I gather from what she says that she's speaking for a group. They're here in Los Angeles. They're in Chinatown where they were dropped off. They'll wait here to be picked back up. When she's finished, she hands the receiver back to me to hang up, shrugging. It's clear she doesn't know whether she left the message correctly, or whether it will get through to its intended recipient. She explains to me that she and her companions have just emigrated from India. That a woman from San Francisco will be picking them up, and helping them get settled in the US. That she and the others will wait at the grocery store adjacent to where we stand, until their ride arrives. She points across the street to a busy corner, but I can't make out individuals in the crowd.

I've been frowning since I heard her say San Francisco. I'm having difficulty understanding the exact details of the situation, and the idea of this woman and her family sitting at a cold bus stop in Chinatown long into the night, waiting on a driver coming from Northern California, makes me uneasy.

Not wishing to abandon her without assurance that she's made her connection, going to be safe, and not going to be waiting around in a foreign country for several hours, I offer to make the call again, but on my cell phone. She agrees. After a few rings, I reach a voicemail box. I leave as clear a message as I can, encouraging a return call if there are any questions, or if there is any information I can convey back.

The woman thanks me profusely, a smile of relief lighting up her face. Definitely closer to twenty, I think. I call her by the name she's had to repeat twice for me already, and which I'll forget within a day, and wish her well as warmly as I can. I walk away slowly, still nervous about leaving her.

I'm three blocks closer to home when my phone rings. Before answering, I duck into a store doorway to escape the noise of street traffic. With one finger plugging my ear, I say hello. It's the driver from San Francisco. She's here in LA. She's about thirty minutes away. After making sure that she knows the precise cross streets in Chinatown to go to, I thank her for returning the call and hang up. Then I turn around and jog back to Broadway and Ord, to find my new fellow American and let her know her ride is on the way.