by Abigail Pesta

I met Emma at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston, and we sat for a few minutes on a bench outside the deserted basketball court. It felt like the coldest day of the year. The black city sludge in the gutter was frozen rock solid. Overhead, the branches of a tree -- hopelessly tangled with plastic bags -- were whipped by the bitter wind.

But none of this mattered to Emma, because she was in love and wanted to spend the afternoon telling me about it.

She looked radiant and pixie-like, wearing a striped knit cap with a fuzzy ball swinging on the end of a piece of yarn. "I am so in love!" she declared.

I, on the other hand, had spent the morning composing angry mental letters to an old boyfriend. Perhaps it made me a less-than-ideal sounding board for Emma. But here we were.

We started walking south on Sixth. The idea was to visit a few galleries together while she gave me an earful about her magnificent new lover.

But soon, the afternoon took an unexpected twist. As we passed an elderly woman with a walker struggling to climb the steps of an apartment building, Emma impulsively rushed to help. Emma is always getting involved in little dramas on the street. Once, when she saw a homeless man holding an old rotary phone, she sat down beside him and pretended to talk with him on the other end of the line. Another time, when a woman tripped and fell, Emma -- who had just bought a Mr. Softee ice-cream cone -- kneeled down and offered her the cone. Astonishingly, she took it.

The lady with the walker glanced up hopefully as Emma approached. "Could you help me?" she inquired. Emma offered her arm for support. I followed, carrying the walker.

"Can we ring a buzzer for you?" Emma asked.

The woman seemed to answer a different question altogether. "Someone gave me these gloves," she said. "I don't know whose they are. They're not mine."

Then she added as an afterthought, "And this is not my hat."

"Well, it's a great hat," Emma said.

Emma was so good at this sort of thing, she didn't miss a beat. "Now, are you coming to see someone?"

The lady turned to me and said, "Could you ring the bell for me? It's Diorio."

I scanned the list of names and found "Diorio." Maybe this lady wasn't nuts after all. I pressed the button.

No one answered. So I pushed it again, this time longer, in case Diorio was hard of hearing. Still no answer.

"Is someone expecting you?" Emma prompted.

The woman didn't answer, but instead stared at her hands with a look of puzzlement. She was still lost in the glove mystery. I reached over and gave the buzzer one more nice long try.

Suddenly an old man came hobbling across the building's lobby, fumbling with his pants. "What the hell are you coming out in this cold weather for? Are you crazy?" he yelled. "You ring once! You ring twice! But you don't go away, you ring again!" Opening the door, he added, "I was on the toilet!"

The man grabbed the lady by the arm, and the two of them disappeared into an apartment on the first floor. But we could still hear his tirade. "For God's sake! You're ringing the bell and I'm sitting on the hopper!"

Emma and I stood, frozen, in the lobby. We heard the lady say, "All right then, I'm going. I'm leaving now. I'm going right back home."

This was Emma's call to action. She marched over to the apartment and knocked on the door, pushing it open. "Excuse me, ma'am, we'll take you home," she said. "Come on."

Obediently, the lady emerged. "My brother-in-law isn't very cordial," she said matter-of-factly.

I rolled my eyes at Emma.

We backtracked down the front steps. Down went the walker, followed by Emma, supporting the old lady. Safely reinstalled into the walker, the woman began heading toward Spring Street.

"This is not my hat! Did you give me this hat?" she said. "And these are not my gloves."

Where is this going? I thought to myself. I should have known that there was no way to have an ordinary afternoon with Emma. She was such a do-gooder. She'd even chastise strangers on the subway for dropping a gum-wrapper. No that I advocate littering, but, like many New Yorkers, I try to not to interact with anyone at all if I can avoid it -- especially if there's nutcase potential. Oh well, at least we weren't trapped in a subway car.

We began a very slow walk down the block, pausing to rest every few steps. Flakes began whirling in the gray sky. The lady's name was Maria, we learned. Her hat-and-gloves refrain continued, interspersed with occasional questions like, "My brother-in-law was impolite, wasn't he?"

A couple rushed by us on the street, hands jammed into pockets and collars raised against the wind. They shot us a curious look.

Finally we made it to Maria's building. Emma wanted to make sure Maria made it into her apartment, so we brought her all the way inside.

Along the way, the questions about the hat and gloves became more intense. "This is NOT my HAT," she said. "Did you give it to me?"

I was losing patience with this fast. Did she think the hat fell out of the sky and landed on her head? Had someone dropped it from an airplane? Of course it was her hat -- whose else could it possibly be?

Even Emma's seemingly limitless reservoir of empathy seemed to be all tapped out. "But it's such a pretty hat," she said weakly.

Maria cared deeply about the hat mystery, but we were clearly not bent on solving it. Once in her apartment, however, she calmed down. Back in familiar surroundings, it seemed as if she regained a little equilibrium. "Who are you?" she asked me. "How did I meet you? Why are you so nice to me?"

She sat down in a faded orange wingback chair, next to a lampshade with a lot of fringe, and held her head in her hands. Around the apartment, her houseplants looked in desperate need of watering. Emma paused to look at a pile of religious magazines on the table, which reminded me of yet another previous episode on the street: Walking past a booth on Broadway where a guy was advertising free advice, Emma had said, "I'll take some advice!" But the man turned out to be recruiting for a church, and Emma got into a fight with him over false advertising.

Maria looked up at us, and in what appeared to be a moment of lucidity, she said, "I didn't used to be like this. Look at my hair. It's all gray." It seemed as if she was going to cry.

For the first time, my urge to escape evaporated. "Maria, is it okay if we sit down for a moment?" I asked. "It feels so good to be in from the cold."

She nodded "yes," so Emma and I settled onto a stiff brown loveseat. We talked mainly about our brief visit with the brother-in-law, answering and re-answering a stream of questions from Maria: "Was he unpleasant? What did he say? And what did I say?"

"He was having quite the busy day," Emma replied. "Now, let's have some tea!"

She stood up to go to the kitchen.

Just then, the doorbell rang. "Hello, Maria, are you there?" crackled a voice on the intercom.

Maria told us to let her in. But I wondered if she had any idea who her visitor would be.

A minute or so later, a young woman in a puffy black coat showed up at the door. "Hi," she said to Maria. "Can I have my hat and gloves back?"

Maria looked startled. "Is this your hat?" she said.

Emma and I burst out laughing. Maria stared at us blankly.

"Yes, sweetie, don't you remember? I let you borrow it an hour ago when you walked by my shop. It's too chilly to be out there without a hat and gloves!"

"Well, I'm glad that's finally straightened out," I said, still smiling.

Then I spotted our chance to make a graceful exit. "Emma, don't you think we should be moving along now? I need to hear about your boyfriend."

We stepped back out into the cold. By now it was dusk, and the lights of the city were starting to twinkle on, giving the streets a shimmering glow of promise that was absent in the gray light of the afternoon. The early evening air carried the warm smell of a wood-burning fireplace somewhere nearby. Emma and I walked together in silence. We were young and free, and at least one of us was in love. And maybe someday, if we needed a hat, someone would lend us one.