A Generous Cup of Coffee

Rosy Abelson Isak saved my life. Correction, not my life, my mental health.

I met Rosy at the beginning of the 1970s, while we were both working at the Public Health Research Institute of New York. It was there that I spent the more complex and sad days of my life. It was nobody’s fault but my own. I was doing a kind of research for which I wasn’t well prepared. I wasn’t particularly interested in the research subject and felt like a fish out of water (a small fish). Then, why did I stay there? Because that was the only place that seemed to offer me some professional security. I came from a culture in my native Argentina, and particularly in Tucumán, my hometown in the North, where a change in one line’s of work isn’t easy.

I was able to overcome those difficult times thanks to two people: Paul Margolin, my boss at the institute where I was doing research in microbial genetics, and Rosy. I felt culturally isolated from my colleagues since our interests didn’t coincide. Rosy had been born in Bulgaria, far away from Argentina both geographically and culturally. That her background was Jewish and mine Arab wasn’t an obstacle for becoming close friends. Any chance we had to be together and exchange opinion on books and films was a learning opportunity for me. She had one of the sharpest minds I have ever known and was an encyclopedia of information. Those talks with her saved my mental sanity.

Once, talking about the characters one meets in New York, she told me the following story. Among the many people who lived in her neighborhood, on 14th St and 7th avenue in downtown Manhattan, there was a homeless woman living in the street. She had a huge metal cart where she kept all her possessions, a frequent sight in some areas of New York, home to people from every stratum of society.

“She sat on the sidewalk and collected coins that people threw at her, and because she had a round face and red cheeks I called her ‘Apple’ Rosy told me.” The homeless woman never talked to anybody or displayed any emotion. On an extremely cold winter morning, Rosy saw her standing on line in front of a coffee cart on the street. When her turn came, she pushed a handful of pennies and told the vendor, “Coffee with milk and 2 sugars.” The vendor counted her pennies and said, “Not enough, come back when you have more money. Don’t bother me anymore.”

“Next to her stood Manny, an elevator operator in one of the buildings on 14th St. He was a tall, kind black man with whom I occasionally exchanged a few words,” Rosy said. “Looking at him angrily, Manny screamed at the vendor, ‘Cut the shit and give her a coffee.’ He then put a quarter on the counter while the woman looked at him gratefully. The vendor gave ‘Apple’ her coffee, which she drunk happily, smacking her lips as she did it. When she half-finished drinking she handed it to Manny and said, ‘It’s good. Have some. It is hot and sweet.’ Stunned, Manny accepted her offering and ‘Apple’ smiled. I will never forget this beautiful gesture of mutual generosity coming from the depth of human misery. Yes, there are great treasures in the kaleidoscope that is New York,” concluded Rosy.

At the end of the seventies, Rosy went to live in Israel with her husband David, a physician and artist. And I lost my soul-mate. Rosy and David’s friendship had made mine and my wife’s lives happier.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”