May 26, 2018 I have a long-standing acquaintanceship with New York City. As a young boy, I would shine up my black shoes and travel to the city with my father. His office was on Lexington Ave, next to Grand Central Station. A young boy was a small celebrity for a short while. Eventually, the secretaries returned to real work and boredom arrived. A pass was given for a visit to the station lobby. I would grant myself an additional liberty and explore the neighborhood. Here I was, a boy of twelve wandering Times Square, auditioning for prime coverage on a milk carton.
I rode the New Haven Railroad to high school. The train terminated at Grand Central Station. It was easy to cut school and head to NY. Now I was a seventeen-year-old wandering the city streets. I walked for hours, testing a thesis that New York was really a collection of villages. Heading west, towards the Hudson, I’d weave through neighborhoods all the way down to Greenwich Village. There were meat-cutters and garment workers. And hookers, drug dealers, zoned-out hippies, and shop-keepers. Indifferent looking cops were everywhere, hair hanging over their collars. This was an era when a scrubby teen could get a drink. Sitting on a bar stool, sipping a Miller, I felt invisible. Never having an interest in fitting in, drifting around these neighborhoods created a strangely comforting reality.
Gears shift and decades dissolve. Fifty years later and I pass again through Grand Central Station. I move slowly in a place where everyone moves fast. An old man with a cane brushing against baggy khakis is simply a small moving reef, otherwise unnoticed. I watch as people check devices, slurp drinks, and chat with friends. I have a single task. Grip tightening on my cane, I concentrate on my left foot. Toes up, toes up, toes up. I have two goals: 1. Get to the hotel; 2. Arrive uninjured.
And then I descend into the hell known as the 6 Train. It is always a jammed and lurches like a cat shaking a mouse. I carefully board and seek a solid hand hold. A young man with a handful of cookies offers his seat. No second thought on my part, it is a gift. A young woman next to me jumps up and offers her seat to the kind man. She smiles and implores him to enjoy the cookies. Two complete strangers wordlessly enacted a dance of quiet kindness.
The summer heat on Aster Place is a relief after the subway. Just four cross-town blocks to the hotel. An older woman in a walker deftly passes me. I pack so light that a dropped French fry will create a wardrobe crisis. Still, my bag weighs me down. The blocks are overcome and the final obstacle awaits. The hotel entrance has two steps with no railing. The tank is empty. The concierge takes notice and offers his hand. Another act of kindness.
I’m here to work, facilitating a leadership program at NYU. Five times a year, for the past five years, I have made this trip. The work is stunningly rewarding. The city is equally enjoyable. I had a daily practice. Hit the sidewalk at 5:00, grab some bodega coffee and then explore. In the past year, the explorations became short strolls in the neighborhood. Now? To the room with a good book. This is my last workshop and last trip. The NYU leadership program will fall into healthier hands. This curtain is coming down.
The workshop ends, time to reverse the journey. I’m heading home. The walk across Washington Square Park is vividly intense. Is it possible that every dog-walker, busker, gawker, juggler, and tourist in New York is right here, right now? Kids play in the fountain. Ice cream is everywhere. The trees are impossibly green, the squirrels improbably bold, and the scene is indelibly frozen. It is my last remembered view of the city. This part of my journey is over.