In writing pieces for You Must Have Something on Your Mind I recently looked back at blog entrees written in the last several years, sometimes wanting to revise them. One such item was written in May of 2019 where I captured a bit of a street encounter on the Upper West Side. What’s interesting is that I know now that I am free to add more depth to the story – more of what I was feeling at the time, which I tended to think was implicit in the story but somehow remaining unexpressed. The point of the tale was not just the encounter but the mood that had been in place just before it. Here then is my revised recollection of a brief spring encounter in 2019.
On an Upper West Side grocery run, on a mid-Spring Day, I trudged up the northern steps of the 72nd Street Central Park West Subway station. A fellow delayed my path, very slowly climbing as he stared vacantly into his phone. I made a quick maneuver around him, partially in irritation, and proceeded up and out of the station.
To my right was the magnificent corner of the Dakota Apartments, built in 1884. The sidewalk in front of the building’s 72nd Street side was where the infamous shooting of John Lennon occurred in 1980. It was a shot that my old roommate in Hell’s Kitchen had claimed he heard, living with his mother two blocks North. I noted the presence of tourists amassing behind a velvet rope, all wishing to photograph “where it happened”. I even imagined someone asking if the blood stain was still on the sidewalk, some 39 years later. My mood hardly brightened, and I didn’t even bother to peer into the building’s courtyard as I passed, so much of a cliché this had become.
On an early December morning in 1980, many miles away, I had been dreaming of Lennon’s terrible fate, unaware that a bedside television clock radio had switched itself on and was reporting the same thing, pervading my subconscious. I awoke to the terrible reality that I had not been dreaming.
Candlelight vigils were staged the world over, and eventually Lennon’s widow Yoko Ohno created a mosaic in Central Park, just across the street with the tribute word “Imagine” emblazoned upon it in a newly formed area of the park called Strawberry Fields. As beautiful as the Dakota and its connected bucolic pasture beyond was, I always found the landmark deeply fascinating but now eternally brushed with pain and loss, despite all the great artists who had lived there.
Proceeding West on 72nd Street, I passed by the neighboring apartment building and noticed a silver-haired lady, smiling broadly, standing in its covered entrance just ahead. She seemed to be talking to someone while appearing that the cares of the world were far away. I thought about the money one might need to live there and kept moving.
I was about mid-block, within view of Columbus Avenue when I suddenly felt a caressing hand on my left sleeve. Somewhat alarmed at this play of intimacy, I turned around and saw the beaming smile of that same woman. She was looking up at me from a height of about five and a half feet, still radiating the same expression of joy. Little imagined index cards whirred in place in my head, trying to figure out where I might have known her.
“Hi,” I said in a quizzical but friendly manner. I had stopped walking and was now a captive audience. “You're beautiful. How tall are you?” she demanded. This question, which had been following me all my adult life would never stop, but 'beautiful' produced a certain dust mote of gratitude if not outright surprise.
“This tall,” I stated with mock pride, holding my open hand up to the top of my head – a joke I had employed many times.
Noting that this wasn’t exactly satisfactory I added “six foot five”.
Her response: “My father was six foot two and a half.”
I was momentarily rendered speechless by the compliment, then the comparison. I would have otherwise informed her that my father was a half inch taller. Nevertheless, I offered “Tall is wonderful, isn't it?”
Undaunted she continued. “Do you play basketball?” Again, I was met with a question I had been fielding since playing basketball at the JCC in Toledo when I was inches shorter.
“Piano.” (I made a playing gesture).
“Classical or jazz?”
“A little of both.”
“I studied a little when I was a child,” she said.
I changed the subject. “I saw you coming out of the apartment building back there.”
“The Mayfair,” she responded in an almost loving manner.
I thought it was odd that she uttered the building’s name, but she seemed proud of it. I decided to offer her a tale of musical connection, not knowing what else to add. For a moment I thought she might want to hire me to play for a party, but it now appeared to me that this woman, with notably beautiful teeth, was heading in a different direction – to a world of distant memory and ever-floating reality, destined for a slow and selective erasure of all that was present. Nevertheless, her happiness and sweetness seemed almost primordial.
I told her something I happened to know -- that her building used to be the home of a composer named Pia Gilbert (whose apartment I had once visited and whose classroom I had once sat in at Juilliard), who had been a friend of Gustav Mahler’s daughter Anna. Somehow, all this information seemed to interrupt the mood of the conversation.
I told her that it was nice to be offered her lovely smile and slowly moved away from her while her gaze now met the face of a merchant standing at his doorway, happy to greet her, thus releasing me from more reminiscing. I had nonetheless met with a momentary trusting gift of friendliness and even a compliment.
I continued West toward the grocery store.
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