The Plucking Woman of New York

Alex Vadukul meets one of New York’s colourful characters, whose small, personal acts of discomfort remind the city’s residents that she’s still there…
New York has unwritten rules. Among them is the one governing personal space – those few cherished inches that despite the city’s bustle constitute a small protective bubble around you.

The other day, I witnessed a puzzling desecration of the rule. I was walking near Times Square when I noticed a woman pluck at a man’s arm through his jacket. His friend laughed in disbelief. I thought she was a playful friend or co-worker, but further down the street she plucked another pedestrian’s arm, and then another, and another. Down the length of the street people stopped in their tracks, turning around in shock as though this had been one of the biggest violations of their lives.

Heading up Ninth Avenue, she plucked at a short man wearing a yarmulke. He turned around, snapped from his chain of thought and followed her for a while, seemingly mixed between shock and flattery. Further up, a tall man pursued her, demanding an explanation before dismissing her with a profane comment. She kept walking, hardly acknowledging him.

Near the Port Authority, a woman ran in front of her. “Why did you just touch me?” she said in a foreign accent, seeming more baffled than upset. “Did I just touch you?” asked the plucker. She aggressively plucked the woman’s arm again and recommenced her stride up Ninth.

I kept apace with her for some dozen blocks, trying to figure out who she was and what she was doing. Finally, I broke into her personal space and spoke. I told her I wrote about interesting New Yorkers and asked if we could stop to talk. She said she had a fast beating heart and would be in jeopardy if she stopped walking. “I can’t stop,” she said. “I have to gradually slow it down.”

“I’m doing this to show the city that I’m still here,” she said as she walked. “That I’m still surviving. I’ve been surviving here all my life, and I still am”

We walked together. She said her name was Trisha. She looked to be in her late 40s, wearing a black coat, jeans and running sneakers. Her face had a frazzled look, and her right cheek held a large boil caked with some dried cream. I asked if she was an artist, and if this was a piece of performance art. “I was an artist when I was three years old,” she replied seriously. I asked why she was plucking people. “I like to experience new things,” was the clearest explanation she would offer. She said she’d experimented with drugs in her past. “Are you heading to work?” I asked. “I’m working right now,” she said, plucking another bystander.

The plucks were not soft, but firm and direct. Almost like a snap. Farther uptown she plucked the arm of a woman sitting against a car. The woman, taken aback, called out after her: “Don’t you touch me! Don’t ever touch me!” Trisha stopped, turned, and screamed into her victim’s face.I can only speculate what was going on in her head, but she offered a few moments of poignant wisdom. “I’m doing this to show the city that I’m still here,” she said as she walked. “That I’m still surviving. I’ve been surviving here all my life, and I still am.”

Towards the end of our walk I said I was curious to hear her story in a more formal setting; I might want to write about her. “If you write an article about me I’ll beat you down into the ground,” she said. She finally stopped walking near the end of a street, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She refused to shake my hand when I departed. In the course of our short encounter she plucked around 15 people, and I expect that she kept heading uptown plucking many more. I don’t know the trajectory of her entire walk, but it’s possible that through the course of the day she plucked hundreds of New Yorkers, prompting them to shock, surprise and maybe even reflection.

Words Alex Vadukul
Illustration Flora Wong