NYC, part 3

A rainy Thursday afternoon in New York City, and Jimmy Toner is happy. Here I am on the second floor of the New York City Public Library, surrounded by books and marble and the hush of a IMG_4420holy place. I’m sitting in a cozy upholstered chair next to the window, and there beneath me is the steady passage of life on Amsterdam between 81st and 82nd: the cabs, the flutter of a library flag, the umbrellas that from this vantage point appear like giant mushrooms on a moving sidewalk,.


There is no sound of horns out there, and that amazes me. Just about everything amazes me about this city, especially since my history stretches back to the late 1970s and  1980s, an era when you walked with your hand on your wallet, when my mother gave me the advice to “never look up at those buildings or you’ll look like a tourist and then they gotcha.” Graffitti, horns blaring, cabs running red lights, fires, gutted out buildings, a menace in the gray air—that’s my memory of NYC. Today, there’s an amiable attitude here in this city where buses run on time, where there is no graffiti to blot out the elegant tile work in the subways, where we can leave a concert in Central Park at 11pm and stroll our way homeward without glancing over our shoulders. Cabs aren’t running lights or laying on their horns. There isn’t a single boarded-up building, and the facades of the apartments are clean and painted.


David, a lifelong resident of the city, confirmed that last night at the dinner table some time around 3am. It was a magnificent night with my longtime friends—Theresa and David and at times their twin daughters, Michael and Colleen from San Francisco whom I haven’t seen in many years, and Dolora and myself and Liam until midnight—at times discussing the state of education in America, at times the reasons we all love Obama, at times our disgust with all things Republican that opposed any ban on assault weapons after the tragedy in Newtown. Serious stuff, but more often laughing so hard that I’d slap the table and lose my breath.


Michael, the headmaster of a private elementary school in San Francisco, told the story of one of his first days on the job and reading a book with a character named Mr. Pickles. “I’d made a Mr. Pickle out of felt and put it in a little boy’s cubbie, and they got all thrilled when I read the book IMG_4412and then had them go search for Mr. Pickle. Well, one boy was absent that day and was all upset that he missed seeing the felt Mr. Pickle. ‘Oh, don’t worry, Justin,’ I told him in front of other teachers, ‘you can come to my office and look at Mr. Pickle any time you want.’”


Wild laughter, another bottle of wine, the triggering of my own memory when I too was principal of a Catholic girls high school in San Francisco. “First day on the job and I had a meeting with all these adults to decide the fate of a delinquent student. A lawyer, a cop, the parents, a social worker—they all crowded into my office, me a 27-year-old kid myself from Cleveland, Ohio, trying to appear like a mature adult. I sat down on my chair with casters and rolled forward into the circle of Serious Humans when the chair suddenly flipped over, pinning me down on the ground. They all stood and looked down on me, shaking their heads and not helping me up.”


More stories of summer camp, of bad jobs—“Should I open another bottle of wine?”—of traveling stories with Theresa in Morocco and getting lost in the Kasbah, of David relating how he bribed the traffic cops in Mozambique, and on and on until that clock above the stove told a time that none of us had seen for a long, long time.


This is New York, a town that gets together for very long dinners where the content of the conversation is literate, is progressive, is quick witted, is hilarious. And may I add at this point that Dolora, who was new to this crowd, blended right in with her sharp questions and insights and well-told stories. She’s pretty hot, I thought. Maybe I’ll ask her out on a date—or better yet, ask if she wants to travel the world with me for a year.


This marathon night came after yet another glorious day in the city. It began around noon—we start late, thanks to staying up to 2 and 3 the night before—and took the subway down to the United Nations to meet Theresa for a tour and then lunch in the cafeteria. I felt so uplifted just being near the United Nations, with all its flags of the world fluttering out front, and then being IMG_4358inside, with all the nationalities and languages and dress. Theresa led us into a couple of vast rooms where all the nations meet. “All the translators sit over there,” she said, pointing behind glass. How preposterous, this notion that the world could overcome all its challenges of customs and communication, and still nudge this world toward peace. Here, for example, is some of the press release that was distributed that day:


“Today the United Nations joins with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other officials to launch the United Nations Free and Equal Campaign. This initiative aims to raise awareness of homophobic violence and discrimination, and to promote greater respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people everywhere.”


Further down on the press release: “The Secretary General once again urges all sides in Egypt to act with maximum restraint.” Elsewhere they condemn the assassination of an opposition leader in Tunisia. In Korea the UN is helping people cope with the floods. The cholera epidemic in Haiti is being addressed. An investigation has begun into the downing of a Russian helicopter in the Sudan.


Let the great world spin.


Later in the cafeteria with our table overlooking the East River, I said to Theresa, “I’m proud of you. I’ve known you since you were a teenager and here you are in the United Nations—the United Nations!—doing your part to diminish violence to children and women throughout the world.” I scanned the cafeteria and hoped that a small portion of my admiration for all these people was registering with Liam. Probably not. He’s only ten, and he really liked his veggie burger from the United Nations cafeteria.


After the UN we three went to REI for any last-minute items we felt were needed for our trip. I bought a shirt, Liam some new flip flops—and that was it. We’re all set to go, and the going begins in 28 hours. Gulp: In 28 hours we’ll be outside of the English language for 11 months, outside of the easy understanding of how to pay for an ice cream and how to buy a subway pass for a week and how to recharge our phones. This thing is really happening, isn’t it? This theoretical sentence we’ve been uttering for many months—“After New York we’ll head to Sweden and then Italy and then….”—will be as concrete as a jet’s engine on the side of our Air Norwegian flight to Stockholm.


But really, we’re in the midst of the world trip already—partially in Cleveland, primarily here in New York. For Liam this is all so amazing and worldly: sitting in a delegate’s seat in the United Nations, riding a subway where a Hassidic Jew sits shoulder to shoulder with a Muslim woman in a head scarf, sleeping on a pull out couch where we can hear out on the sidewalk all the Spanish from the Puerto Rican immigrants.


Okay, let me finish off the day: After the UN and REI we strolled through SOHO and NOHO ( south of and north of Houston Street) where all the beautiful young people have gathered. I told Dolora, “Don’t take this the wrong way but these women are… gorgeous.” She was too busy ogling the men’s lean cut jaws and the women’s shoes to hear me. The people watching continued in a different way in Washington Square Park, where boys on scooters pushed themselves in a circle IMG_4378through the water in the central fountain; where a man on one corner played the music from Amelie on a grand piano and a jazz quartet played in another corner. A man in a black suit standing tall on the fountain wall played his guitar and sang for Jesus, then hopped down and shouted with Bible in hand, “I woke up happy today because Jesus is alive in my heart and he told me to bring you sinners to his Kingdom in Heaven.” Groans all around, this bastion of atheism.


I separated from the clan to stroll in my aimless way through Soho. One fascinating store was dedicated entirely to The Big Lebowski, complete with a rug “that really ties the whole room together” and a bowling alley and a toilet and action figures of all the IMG_4393major roles. A hilarious place run by an eccentric guy with broken glasses taped in the center with black electrical tape. From there I walked past all these hip restaurants open to the warm summer night with hip young diners eating hip entrees. I felt very Cleveland, Ohio, me in my clunky Keen sandals. Meanwhile, Dolora and Liam walked uptown and settled into a Starbux with a clear view of the Empire State Building, which Liam sketched for his classmates.


Okay, time to leave my cozy perch in the library. The rain has stopped, a good thing because I’ll be going to see free Shakespeare in the Park tonight at 8:30pm. The culture, the fun, the world—it all goes on, it all keeps spinning.



  1. Dolora

    I was not ogling men with square jaws. If Jon Hamm were to walk by, yes. I was ogling the impossibly taut, thin, super-model hopefuls who seemed to be everywhere.

  2. Allen


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