My birthday rolled around last week and I was alone, if you can call being on the Coney Island Boardwalk alone. I was in NYC, and since I couldn’t be with family, I decided to visit the iconic landmark.

Coney IslandI was a bit self-conscious sitting by myself at a picnic table eating a world-famous Nathan’s hotdog, but a ice-cold Corona helped wash down my lunch and my angst.

As I ambled along the boardwalk, I couldn’t help but note the similarities to Key West. There was the kooky guy with all the parrots. There was the kooky guy with all the snakes. There were lovers strolling hand-in-hand. Requisite loafers lounged outside of the bars, and hawkers cajoled customers into the arcade. Loud music, a repetitive synthesizer, encouraged me to walk a bit faster and further.

The sun beat mercilessly on my head and made the shoreline shimmer.

I turned away from the crowd and the noise and lost myself in a vision. There, a couple miles offshore, a single sloop with white sails bobbed on the ocean. Oh, how I wished I could be on that sailboat, enjoying the breeze and the refreshing smell of salt spray.

Then, a sign for the New York Aquarium caught my eye. Despite the fact that Hurricane Sandy (oops, I mean “Superstorm Sandy”) nearly wiped out the attraction in 2012, it remained in business. I plunked down a $10 bill (told the cashier to keep the nickel change) and went into the main building. Other than the large aquarium exhibit, Glovers Reef, and the Sea Cliffs animal feedings, the aquarium did not have much going on. The Aquatheater was closed, the Conservation Hall was off-limits, and the large “Recovery Wall” kept the curious from seeing the renovations.

But I’m easy to please, so I spent some time watching the animals on display. These included Black-footed Penguins, a couple of Pacific Walruses, two Sea Otters and a California Sea Lion. Plus, the bathrooms were clean! That alone was worth the admission price. I visited the gift shop and purchased a baseball cap with a penguin logo, then headed back for the boardwalk.

Outside the attraction, I sat on a bench, my goal to stare at the sea. It’s a noisy, busy city and I’m a bit of a hermit. I tried to focus on the horizon and ignore the crowd.

Amelia at Coney Island

Amelia at Coney Island

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small figure approach. I looked to my right and there stood a tiny, wizened woman. She must have been four-feet tall and weighed about 80 pounds. She was dressed in a tweed suit and wore a floppy hat. She tugged a shopping cart behind her. She must have been in her late 70s, and several of her front teeth were missing.

All of these attributes made me wary. Did she want money? Did she need assistance?

She nodded at my new cap and asked if I’d been to the aquarium. I looked into bright, dark eyes wreathed in a face filled with sun-kissed wrinkles and she smiled. So began the most delightful hour of my visit to New York City.

Amelia, a Russian immigrant, spoke excellent English with a thick Ukrainian accent. We spoke about her friends, her friend’s children, my friends, my children, my plans for the week, travel, art, history, 9-11, the Internet, and even archaeology. She waited, a discreet 10 feet away, as I took a call from my husband wishing me a “Happy Birthday.” (“I can’t talk now, I’m in the middle of a great conversation,” I told him, brushing off his salutation.) When I disconnected, I motioned for her and we launched back into our discussion.

I don’t know what really attracted her to me, what prompted her to approach and use the aquarium as a topic of introduction, but I’m glad. Meeting Amelia and spending time with her on the boardwalk was a highlight of my trip.

How often do we brush off passersby, especially older women, bent and busy with their shopping carts? Looking back, it is a delightful memory. She was so interested in me and it was flattering that she wanted to spend time with me on a hot afternoon, chatting by the seaside.

It was a sociable birthday, despite my solitariness. I spoke with many people in many places that day, thanks to the Internet and cell phone, but it is the conversation I shared with Amelia, on the historic Coney Island Boardwalk, that I’ll recall. It’s not often I look at other people, in particular a tiny, old woman, and think, “I want to be just like her.”

But that’s exactly how I feel. I only hope that I will grow old with the grace, dignity, and humor that Amelia possesses, not to mention her spunk and confidence.