Last week, as I was helping my dog out of the car after a vet appointment, I noticed an older woman trying to flag down a city bus idling at a stop sign.
The driver waved her away and sped off, nearly clipping her. As a typical New Yorker, I assumed she was homeless and begging. I secretly hoped she would wander away.
“Excuse me, do you know where Ditmars is?” I look up and it’s her, shuffling toward me. She’s tiny, wearing a clean brown coat and white sneakers, and carrying a little purse. She doesn’t look homeless. And she looks too frail to walk much beyond Ditmars, but I had a hunch she had done just that.
I explain that it’s a simple straight walk to Ditmars Avenue, two avenues away. Then she says she actually wants to go to Upper Ditmars some 40 blocks further, near LaGuardia. So I tell her where to catch the Q69 bus, which will get her there. She looks at me blankly and asks again where Ditmars is.
Uh oh, I realize.
So I pepper her with questions. “Do you have a MetroCard? Or someone you can call? Where did you just come from? Do you want me to hail a cab? Do you have any problems with memory?” I receive only unclear answers from her. At that point, I’m either dealing with a lost, senile woman, or a potential scam artist. Which is an absurd thought, but hey, I live in New York. Weird things happen all the time.
After more confusing going-nowhere-meaningful conversation, she sighs and says “I guess I’m lost.”
“Yes,” I say. “And I’m worried you’re not going to make it home.”
That scares her. “Don’t say that!” she gasps, grabbing my arm.
I can’t leave her there, and not knowing what else to do, I ask her to walk with me to my apartment. Only after we stop to let my dog pee does she notice I have a dog (maybe because typically-cranky Charlie was perfectly behaved and not barking, for once).
She then asks me if I also have children and I say yes, a daughter named Adela.
“Adela! That’s my mother’s name,” she says. “She lives in Brownwood. She refuses to stop driving.”
Considering how old this woman looks, I’m skeptical her mother is still alive, much less driving. The name coincidence is jarring. I’ll never know if it’s true, but it tugged at my heartstrings, somehow making her even more vulnerable.
I called Brendan to alert him, and he met me downstairs with our Adela. I ask the woman if she has an ID, and if she could let me see it. She sifts clumsily through her small purse to find her wallet, and hands it over to me without hesitation. It felt creepy rifling through it — OK, so here’s her Medicare card, a debit card, some cash. Then, finally, her ID. With a local address near 77th St. And her name. Cidia.
Whew. Had Cidia been missing that ID, we would have had to call the police. But an address we could at least investigate first.
I drop the dog off, say goodbye to Brendan and Adela, and Cidia and I slowly shuffle back to my car. I have to help her put her seat belt on, reaching across her to grab it and buckle it. “Are you taking me to Ditmars?”
“No, I’m driving you home.”
“Oh. God bless you,” she said “and your whole family. Do you have children?”
To pass time, and in case we arrive to a house she doesn’t actually inhabit, I return to more questioning. “Did you see a doctor recently? How is your vision? Do you take insulin? What are your children’s names? Where do they live? Cidia is an unusual name, no? Has this happened before?”
She still gives unclear partial answers and is now struggling to even complete words, much less whole thoughts. I piece together a few tidbits: She grew up in Queens, but is from Puerto Rico. Her adult children live upstate, and they’ve gotten frustrated at her before: She’s supposed to stay at home. She repeatedly asks me if I’m from Queens, if I have a baby boy, and discusses how she likes to drive everywhere (an interesting preference for a woman who couldn’t figure out the seat belt).
As we got closer to her street, I hoped she would recognize landmarks, but no.
“What street is this?” Throngs of commuters are making their way home in the early winter darkness.
“Oh, I live off Ditmars,” she told me again.
We pull up near her block. “Is this it?” Cidia asks, not registering any sense of home.
“I think so,” I tell her. “Let’s get out and look.” She doesn’t move. So, I open the car door for her, unbuckle her seat belt and get her untangled from it, then hold her hand and lift her up.
“Is this it?” she asks as I somewhat frantically scan for the apartment number on her ID.
“Ma!” I hear shouted from an open door.
“Bill?” Cidia asks in reply. He runs out to us.
“Ma! What did you do?” He turns to me, relieved. “Where did you find her?”
I explain she was wandering near my home, about 40 blocks away. He says his train was two hours late and thanks me. I ask, in a whispered tone, if she has dementia. He shakes his head yes. I can tell he doesn’t want to chat, and I don’t blame him, so I leave it at that.
“Ma,” he says, “we need to go inside and call the police so I can tell them to stop looking for you.”
I put my hand on Cidia’s shoulder. “Cidia, it was nice meeting you,” I tell her, sincerely meaning it. “Have a good night.”
She doesn’t answer, she’s completely bewildered.