Most of my friends were climbing ladders to be a tough adult, while the only job I could find was a position teaching basic computer skills to the elderly at a community center in Huntington, NY I had grown up surrounded by seniors and enjoyed their business, so I figured I could overcome the generational differences with my new students. As a teenager, I fondly remember showing my grandmother how to browse YouTube, looking for old clips with her as she regaled me with stories of how she saw them in her youth.
In my computer class, I applied my knowledge of classic films to connect with my students. Every day, I would show one student how to search for photos of Sophia Loren while helping another download Dean Martin songs to an iPod.
An 80-year-old student needed help preparing a PowerPoint presentation for a library event she was hosting. “I need to collect materials for a film screening,” my new student Irene told me. “Could you come help me?” I’ll pay you on time. She looked nice enough and I needed more money.
A few days later, arriving at Irene’s on a cold January afternoon in 2011, I had no expectations beyond giving a lesson on Windows 7 and having some cash in my hand. Upon entering her house, she greeted me with the enthusiasm of a butler who expected a prized dinner. “Come in! Sit down, sit down! Warm up!” She said before I even closed the front door. “I have coffee and a plate of rainbow cookies waiting for us.” His kindness was endearing but a little confusing My friends never made me feel like this.
I sat down at her kitchen table as she poured coffee into a cup in front of me.
“How do you take it?” she asked.
“With a little milk and sugar,” I replied.
“You know, only real Italians drink it black, ”she replied.
“Is that true? Well, I’m an Italian quarterback,” I replied.
“I’m from italy!” she said. “My family came here from Ellis Island.”
I quickly realized that Irene telling me about her life was inevitable. What did I care if we weren’t sitting in front of a computer? I was paid by the hour anyway. Besides, his company didn’t bother me. And the taste of thick, strong black coffee wasn’t that bad once I dipped a rainbow cookie in it.
My first meeting with Irene was surprising. She wasn’t jaded and didn’t blame me for my youth. She treated me like an equal at her table, where she courted for two hours, sharing stories about her life.
A recently retired teacher, she had started a new path of showing classic films to local audiences in libraries and theaters, and she wanted to incorporate PowerPoint into her presentations.
“I suppose a young man like you hasn’t heard of ‘King Kong’ or ‘Citizen Kane’?” she asked.
“You mean Fay Wray and Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten?” I love them! ”I reassured her.
She was amazed that a young person knew the names of her Hollywood idols. “Well, could you help me find their pictures on the internet?”
In the months to come, Irene and I had computer sessions while I helped her compile footage and video clips of former movie stars for her local screenings. Coffee breaks were always vital as we talked about old Hollywood and its own history. Most of the time I would sip and listen.
I discovered that she was a world traveler, visiting most of Europe, as well as India and China during her years as a high school history teacher. She always wanted to see more countries, including Thailand and Mongolia (which she eventually did).
As a Half-Native American, I had always wanted to visit India, but I was too nervous to fly. “It’s a big, beautiful world out there, kid,” she told me. “Never be afraid to do it.”
She showed me pictures of her three children, all of whom she raised on their own after flying to Mexico in 1970 to get her husband’s 24-hour divorce, she said – “J ‘had enough of him!’ To his amazement, all three were married.
I heard about how she went to college in the 1950s behind the back of her Italian immigrant mother, who didn’t believe women should go to school, and how she paid for it herself by working the night as a waitress.
“I didn’t want to be told what to do,” she says. I admired his fearlessness.
Over the next few years, she invited me to attend her film screenings, asking me to create the PowerPoint presentations and even speak alongside her. I became both his student and his colleague. After each screening she would ask me, “Raj, how are you feeling? Tell them how you feel, “causing me to be vulnerable in front of strangers. Although shy at first, I learned to convey emotions without apprehension. It was liberating.
Irene’s self-confidence gave me the boost I needed as I pursued a career in communications and event planning for arts and culture organizations. Everywhere I worked, I helped organize and host community events and movie screenings. At almost every event I have produced, Irene has come forward to support me. Sometimes she was a fish out of the water among the hip young crowds. Other times I’ve hired it as the main attraction, showing classic films to audiences big and small. Sometimes we co-hosted.
Over the years, I got busier and coffee dates were less common, but our kinship never went away. At least one afternoon a month, I made sure to stop by Irene’s for a cup of black coffee and a rainbow cookie. I had stopped accepting his payment long before, after our business deal turned into a friendship.
When I started dating my wife now, Michelle, one of our first dates was at a local library screening that Irene was hosting. The film was “Sunflower” (1970), starring Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Irene loved Michelle, and when we got married eight years later, Irene sat at my family’s table. When her granddaughter got married, Irene asked my wife, “Can I borrow Raj for one night?” I need an appointment! I had the honor of accompanying him.
When the pandemic hit, I couldn’t see Irene for several months. She was in her 90s and was too at risk to see me in person. But in summer, we gathered from a distance in his garden, masks and the pot of rainbow coffee and cookies in the center of the table. We laughed and chatted on the deck.
We still chat on the phone every week. She said to me, “Your mind keeps me moving, kid.” I tell him, “I wouldn’t be who I am without you.” Our friendship is ten years old now – longer than most friendships in my life.
This 90-year-old strong Italian coffee maker taught me – a half Indian man six decades his junior – something I never believed until I met her: if your eyes are open you never know where you go find your best friend.
Raj tawney is an American fiction writer, focusing on family, food, and culture from his multiracial perspective.