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Ben, a 42-year-old theater manager, lives alone in a Brooklyn apartment. He never realized quite how alone until he is forced to shelter in place.
Naomi, 38, a red-haired classical violinist, is also furloughed because of the coronavirus. She lives on the floor below him. They had never met, until the pandemic brought them together.
“Ben and Naomi” is one of 15 stories in “Unexpected Encounters,” Yvonne Boxerman’s debut collection published on June 29. Half were written in the past few months. In an unaffected, accessible style, the Palo Alto resident, 73, presents the human experiences of ordinary people living in these extraordinary times.
Some of the stories, such as “A Chance Encounter,” are based on Boxerman’s own experiences. In that story, Rena (a Jewish woman) and Michelle (a young African American doctor) have a dialogue while each is visiting a former slave-holding plantation in South Carolina. In part because of Rena’s public upbraiding of a white museum volunteer’s clueless comments, which Michelle had overheard, their conversation is anything but conflictive and they find common ground in their respective legacies of discrimination.
“Do you think,” Rena asks in the story, “if we were all required to visit a slave plantation, a crematorium, the Holocaust museum, or something showing man’s incredible inhumanity to man, we’d all be more compassionate?”
Rena’s yearning for real communication with the doctor matches the milieu in which Boxerman lives. Shortly after she retired professionally, she was recruited as executive director of her synagogue, Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, where she served for eight years. Prior to that, she and her husband, David, each had served as president of the board.
In contrast to the accounts based on personal experiences, many of the stories were sparked by an item in a daily news report.
“I’m a real news junkie. I watch and listen to the news all the time,” said the retired librarian and human resources professional. “When the pandemic started, I listened anxiously for hours each day, and imagined what it was like for the people being affected.”
And because of New York’s prominence in the early stages of the pandemic, a number of the stories are set in the Brooklyn apartment building where neighbors Ben and Naomi meet.
The first story she wrote in this series was “Divorce in the Time of Covid19,” which responds to reports of the interpersonal stresses among families and couples enduring lockdown together.
Of all the ways I could have filled my time, this was the one thing I really wanted to do.
An English major at McGill University in Montreal who did not pursue literature as a career, Boxerman shared the story with both of her book clubs — one of which has met for 33 years — and her reader friends eagerly called for more.
“They really encouraged me to keep writing these stories,” she said. “All of us were being stretched by having to stay home day after day. But of all the ways I could have filled my time, this was the one thing I really wanted to do.”
Other Covid-related stories quickly flowed forth. One involves three young men who move to New York City from a meat-packing town in Iowa; another is about the owner of a bridal shop who finds a child sleeping on the doorstep of her closed salon.
“Whatever I was hearing, I wove in,” Boxerman said.
In “Ben and Naomi,” we read how Naomi organizes the Jewish families on the fourth floor to conduct their respective Passover seders with their apartment doors open so they can all hear one another and combine their songs and prayers. She invites the loner, Ben, to join her on the second night, taking a certain health risk that leads to their eventual marriage.
Winding through all these stories is the building superintendent, Darrell Robinson, a 60-something Black man who appears briefly in each tale and contributes something to each of his tenants’ lives. In the final story, which Boxerman rather bravely tells in his voice, Robinson gets to paint the wider picture of his life, a life that most of his tenants scarcely know. He is deeply impacted by the pandemic, which leaves him physically vulnerable and socially isolated even as he cares for the tenants. Nevertheless, when the protests of police violence against Black citizens erupt around the country, Robinson steps up.
“I wrote it just after the George Floyd killing,” Boxerman said. “[Darrell] is conflicted about going on his first protest march ever, and must make some decisions that have a profound effect on the rest of his life.”
Born to a Jewish family in Dublin, Ireland, Boxerman and her family moved to Canada when she was 11. She met her American Jewish husband at McGill, and they have been married ever since. She has applied her master’s degree in library science to work in public libraries, special collections, and scientific and hospital libraries, then had a second career as the head of human resources for a biotech company. Following the stint at Kol Emeth, she fully retired, in 2015.
As soon as she had a substantial collection of stories, she showed them to Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, who is, among other things, an author of children’s books. The former Kol Emeth leader recommended a publisher, and the rest is history.
“I’ve always worked, and I’ve loved my careers, and now this,” she said, referring to her unexpected blooming as an author. “I’ve been very lucky.”