07/22/2013 11:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Penélope: New York City, August 2005


The summer city night is so muggy that it can't help but rain. I duck into Duane Reade, the only store there seems more of than even Starbucks in this town. In line with my items, I feel good energy from behind the register. This bright-eyed young woman is the source. While making change for the person in front of me, she breaks into song: "These boots are made for walkin', and that's just what they'll do!... here you go hon, have yourself a great day... I mean a great night... whatever." She riffs, with a sparkling New York-ese, Latina lilt.

I step up and say "You could just play it safe and say 'have a great life' and you'd cover all the bases!"

"That's a good point!" smiles Penélope. Hard to believe, but she gets bashful when I ask to make a picture, so I invite her friends Evette and Jury to join in and promise to bring them prints. The next day I return with prints and at first don't see her -- she looks very different with her hair let down. I watch as she attends to a constant line of customers, including an older lady who questions everything on her receipt. Penélope takes care of her with equanimity and grace.

Finally I give her the prints, which she loves. She invites me back in an hour to join her for her break, which I do. She gets a Subway half-sandwich, with chips and drink, and we head over to the fountain at Columbus Circle. Originally from the Dominican Republic ("DR" as she says), one of 12 siblings (from multiple marriages) Penélope soon starts her third year of schooling in child education. She lives apart from her parents but stays in close contact with her mom -- her best friend -- back home.

She thinks about acting and modeling but sighs -- "I'm not tall enough."

"Don't let that stop you if that's your dream!" I encourage.

"I'm not sure -- I really love working with children... I don't smoke or drink and I barely go out with all my working. Tonight I might go dancing with my girlfriends. I love dancing! Mostly, I love the simple things in life. Sitting at this fountain, listening to the water, watching the children play. I was here with my boyfriend and he wanted to go and I said 'let's stay just a little longer."'

Our hour finished, her sandwich barely eaten, Penélope heads back to the store while I catch a northbound bus, thankful to the rain for introducing us.

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