Jewish World Review Nov. 14, 2003 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
A grand act of nature brings out the best in New York: Its people
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Friends, colleagues and readers sometimes ask if I miss New York after working and living there for 10 years. Here's what I miss:
Last Saturday night, after the second of three long days at Columbia University judging a national journalism competition, I was walking down Broadway in my old neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At all but the wee-est hours of the morning, the sidewalks of Broadway vibrate with human energy: 20- and 30-somethings trying to look busy and important; couples (whatever the gender combination) of all ages immersed in each other; old folks choosing their steps carefully; cranky kids in strollers; observant Jews; domestic and international tourists; Africans, Europeans, Asians, and South and Latin Americans in every shade of skin color; rich women with tight hair and tight faces and sturdy, shabby homeless men - all jumbled together.
Crossing 75th Street in front of Citarella's, one of the boulevard's many wondrous food shops, I saw a crowd of 15 or 20 people standing and staring into the cloudless eastern sky at ... the lunar eclipse. And what an elegant, delicate display it was, the curved shadow of the Earth creeping left to right, sliver by sliver covering more and more of the luminous white face of the full moon.
Here these people were, stopped in the chilly night air in the middle of this relentlessly frenetic city - strangers to each other, people who had been doing something else, who had been headed somewhere or another on a Saturday night - watching a grand act of nature together. I found a spot where I could see the moon framed between two tall buildings across the street, and joined them.
Conversations sprang up spontaneously. A trio of women with British accents asked a guy standing next to me what was going on. He casually explained the basics of celestial rotation, revolution and interposition. He said something about it being a relatively rare event, and I volunteered that I'd seen one last May in St. Louis. The women seemed excited, watched for a while, then walked off, happy.
The guy and I began chatting, keeping our eyes on the sky. He said he was a principal at a public elementary school and feared that kids no longer seem to be taught the science, much less the magic, of eclipses. He marveled at the reflected glory of a full moon and told me its illumination showed him the way home the night of the electrical blackout.
Our conversation shifted to politics of education. I said I was worried that the federal No Child Left Behind Law was undermining public education by creating impossible testing standards and draconian penalties. He said, essentially, that I should chill out. Politicians are always coming up with such schemes, he said, and they never work. At some point, they're modified or thrown out. Then another scheme comes along.
Meanwhile, the sidewalk parade proceeded. A middle-age couple loaded with groceries looked puzzled when they noticed the crowd, but then the man turned and saw the moon. He stopped dead in his tracks and called to his companion, who'd kept walking, to come back. They set their bags down on the pavement, turned east and just stared. After a few minutes, they turned around toward the rest of us and smiled a smile of such delight, you'd think someone had handed them a winning lottery ticket.
Another woman, walking really fast, spun her head around to follow our gaze, noticed the eclipse and glided to a stop. She whipped out a cell phone, punched in a speed-dial sequence, waited a second and then began chattering. In Russian.
When people talk about New York moments, this is what they mean: people in public places having unexpected encounters with strangers, then moving on. Geography, architecture, landmarks and the sheer visual beauty of so much of the city aside, that's what I miss about New York.
And it is what's so hard - with so little concentrated foot traffic to generate on-the-street energy - to find here at home.
On the plane back to St. Louis on Sunday night, a Clayton, Mo., mom who'd flown to New York for a whirlwind weekend with her pre-teen daughter and a gaggle of other local moms and daughters told me how a woman - unmistakably a New Yorker - had helped them achieve the impossible: snagging a cab in the rain. In fact, what the New Yorker had done was wangle a taxi for herself and then give it up to the mom and daughter.
The Clayton mom wasn't exactly shocked by the experience, but she was surprised and asked if such friendliness were some new post-Sept. 11 phenomenon.
"It's not new," I said, "and it happens all the time."