There has been a proliferation of plazas in the past twenty years, here in New York City but also elsewhere in America, even in Minnesota, where I’m from. Maybe in the zoning laws there is provision for the apportionment of sunshine, or maybe it’s just leftover space waiting to be developed, but here it is, an open plaza where people can mingle freely, enjoy face-to-face encounters, take a break from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram—the national unconscious with its fevers of conspiracy and ancient hatreds and malignity—and walk out into the fresh air of democracy, where the general looseness—no security personnel, no ropes, no questions—testifies to the inherent good manners of one’s fellow citizens. There is no sign reading: your consideration of your neighbors is appreciated. thank you for not engaging in abusive talk or elaborate paranoia. People just behave without being told, as if their mothers were watching them.
My mother told me to be polite to strangers as a matter of self-respect and also because they may be enduring some personal tragedy you will never be aware of, so be kind. Civility is based on empathy, and it is at the heart of democracy. Even the panhandler who asks me for change, when I shake my head, says, “God bless you, have a good day.” So I reach down and pull out a bill, a ten, more than I wanted to give, but there it is. He sees it. I give it to him. He says, “Thank you very much.”
The idea of plazas is as old as cities, and I’m glad to be in this one, looking up at that skinny historic building on 23rd Street in Manhattan, grateful not to be in a cubicle on the fifteenth floor but to be sitting down here in the land of the free. The preachers and buskers and rappers and guys in superhero costumes go elsewhere: this is a quiet plaza, its quiet enforced by its occupants, using the power of the New York stare that can stifle interruptions and kill small flowering plants.
The woman with auburn hair is writing what appears to be a poem on her iPad, and she looks like she’s new in town. If this were a novel, I’d say she’s waiting for an interview about a job she dreads being hired for, writing content for an electronics website for $700 a week, perhaps, and the poem is about the guy she lived with for too long who assumed the two of them would marry, but marriage is not an assumption, it’s an assertion, and she asserted herself one day and packed up and left him, though he was okay to her and she’s thirty-five and all her friends have married, some of them twice, so here she is, thinking about the time she wasted waiting for the music to start, but still she feels a lyrical urge: I sit in the midst of the city and think, Thank you for cheap plane tickets and for my aunt’s college classmate’s apartment on Columbus Avenue and the cat who needs my care while the classmate is away on sabbatical. Thank you that nobody is asking me, “What’s wrong?” I have a right to be sad but all I can say is, Thank you, thank you that I am on the brink of something. Make it good. Surprise me. A person who begins a poem has her eye on the future. It’s not a good poem, but its existence is sufficient.
This is what you do in a plaza: look at the people and imagine their stories. The man leaning over the table glancing at a newspaper looks like someone who’s been charged with tax fraud hoping not to find his picture on the front page. The men in dark glasses at the table beyond hardly speak to each other, and I imagine they are brothers and their wives have gone off to an art gallery and a hair salon and the men are waiting to get back to Utah tomorrow and resume their lives in direct-mail advertising. They look at me in my jeans and white shirt and herringbone jacket and imagine that I’m a retired, defrocked priest who lives alone in a tiny walk-up. They hope I won’t come over and try to befriend them. I won’t. Even if God told me to, I wouldn’t. Sometimes He tests his servants by sending them on ridiculous errands, but I’m retired.
The truth is I’m a writer, a Minnesotan who loves the city because I’ve been lucky here. I came with my dad in 1953 when I was eleven during a heat wave and saw hundreds of families sleeping on blankets spread out in a park in Brooklyn. I came back in 1966 for a job interview at 25 West 43rd Street. Every building in New York has seen the likes of me every day, riding up on the elevator, hoping to make it in law or banking, to publish a book or sing on Broadway, and they get wised up and ride back down. I was lucky to be passed over. “Thank you for letting us see your stories,” she said, “and I hope you’ll keep in touch.” So I went home and got into radio and switched from writing agonized fiction to doing a show called A Prairie Home Companion. And in 1992 I met a woman from my hometown for lunch at a fish restaurant on Broadway and 90th and lunch went on for three hours and we are still married. A city that discourages you from going down the wrong career path and also introduces you to the love of your life who happens to be from your hometown is a city you feel attached to forever.
The radio show was done live in front of an audience, sometimes outdoors on a plaza, and when you stood facing the audience, you tended toward lightheartedness because that’s what people wanted. Had I done the show from a studio it would have been brooding, ironic, literary, self-conscious, Anglican, but when you look directly at people, it helps you drop your pretensions. I often asked the audience to sing a cappella. I knew they wanted to, so I sang the first line, “My country, ’tis of thee” and they would jump right in with the rest. Every Christmas they sang “Silent Night,” and once the N.Y.P.D. closed the street in front of Town Hall so the crowd could stand in the falling snow and sing about the Son of God who loves pure light. After a broadcast, at Tanglewood or the Hollywood Bowl or Wolf Trap, we would do audience encores, with thousands of people singing “Amazing Grace,” “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” “She was just seventeen / You know what I mean,” “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day” (I saw kids googling the lyrics on their phones). The sweet chariot swung low, we worked on the railroad, Old Man River rolled, we sang good night to the ladies and the old acquaintance that should not be forgot.
Harmony is at the heart of plaza life, the communal ties between tables, the whole mishmash crowd in this shifting encampment, taking the sun, contemplatives in the land of commerce. In Prague to see friends, I once sat alone in the city’s main square, drinking coffee, trying hard to look like a native, and indeed an old man approached and addressed me in Czech, and I said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” “You’re welcome,” he said. I couldn’t explain, even in English, the triumph I felt to be taken for one of them, even superficially.
In New York you get to encounter thousands of people a day, in a plaza or on the train or walking down the street and tripping on the curb and crashing down on the sidewalk. That was last November on 82nd and Columbus. In five seconds, no lie, four persons were bending over me, two women—one young, one matronly—a construction worker in an orange vest, and a teenage kid, all of them asking, “Are you okay?” I sprang to my feet and said, “Yes. Thank you.” I don’t want to be assisted by strangers until I’m eighty-eight and in the Home. But a person cannot understand this city until he or she has fallen to the pavement in full public view. It is a city of powerful empathy.
In Minnesota you sit with others looking out at the peaceful lakes of Minneapolis, or join the throng at the county fair, the walkathon, or the school picnic, and you are refreshed in your Midwestern culture: Make Yourself Useful, Do Your Part, Look Out for Others, and Cheer Up, It Could Be Worse. We are not complainers. So your niece has joined an online group, Wounded Daughters of Emotionally Distant Fathers. Let it be, no need to comment, that’s not your business. Life is complicated enough without looking for more problems. The urge to control does not make for the good life. Leave domination to the raccoons. Stick with the group. Enjoy your portion, know when to keep your mouth shut. Don’t push.
You sit in a plaza and it occurs to you that other people have been in your situation, whatever it is, and this knowledge is at the heart of civility. There are no answers, only stories—the answers keep changing, the stories stay the same for centuries. I ride the B train to the public library on 42nd Street. I stand in the front of the first car as we come through the tunnel, past rows of beams, the sharp curve below 53rd Street to the 7th Avenue station, where, one summer day long ago, a young man from Utah was stabbed to death on the platform, defending his parents against muggers. I think of him every time I go that way. I walk by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s building on 86th and Broadway and think of the Holocaust survivor Herman Broder, married to his Polish wife, having an affair with Masha, when it turns out that his first wife didn’t die in the Holocaust and here she is. This is not far from the pond in Central Park where Holden Caulfield fed the ducks and wondered where they go when it freezes and the building on 78th near Amsterdam where Sister Carrie lived with Hurstwood, her sugar daddy, before she rose in society and he fell and wound up a bum on the street.
I once got on the downtown 1 train at 96th and Broadway and sat across from a black woman in a gray wool suit reading a book of mine about a small town in Minnesota where the women are strong, the men good-looking, and all the children above average. I watched, trying to be unobtrusive. Young black professional women are not considered to be my primary readership. She didn’t laugh but she kept reading, turning the pages through Times Square, and I stayed on the train through 34th Street and 14th and Canal, way past my stop, and then she smiled. Her teeth flashed. She got the joke, whatever it might’ve been. An invisible thread connected us. If she had slapped the book shut, I would have felt it as a physical blow, but she didn’t. The book had gotten good reviews, but damn, I wanted her to like it. I got up to get off and then could not resist saying hello, I’m from Minnesota. I stuck out my hand and said, “That’s my book. I mean, I wrote it.” And she gave me a long look and stood up and said, with a slight accent, “I learned English listening to your radio show.” She was from Ethiopia, going to grad school in New York. She liked my show because I spoke slowly and clearly in whole sentences, and have good diction, which is all on account of my aunts, who complimented me when I recited my Bible verses in Sunday school. “I could understand every word,” said Elsie and Margaret.
My wife came to the city as a freelance violinist, so she understood how it felt to live on the edge of poverty. I came here when I could afford extravagance and wanted to shake off the dust of having grown up frugal, the memory of the hand-me-down clothes, the home haircuts, the picking and canning of vegetables every fall.
I bought an apartment on Central Park West, took friends to the Rainbow Room, flew to London, stayed at Claridge’s, rode the Orient Express, sailed home on the Queen Mary, and, when I turned sixty-five, I celebrated by buying a bottle of French Bordeaux from 1942, the year of my birth, at a price that briefly made my brain go dark. The sommelier pried out the ancient cork in one piece and a few fragments and poured a splash in my glass. It was not a bad wine. I nodded, and he filled our glasses. We drank a toast to the valiant French who made wine in the midst of the horrors of war, their country occupied by the enemy, which may be why the wine was unremarkable—they thought the Germans would get it anyway.
I think it was on that trip to London that my brother Philip and I sat in Trafalgar Square and tried to recall who James II was whose statue stands there (not the Bible one but the one who was deposed—but for what?), and I recalled the bronze statue of the Unknown Norwegian in Lake Wobegon, a bespectacled man in a suit, whose name didn’t need to be put on the base because he’d been so famous and now nobody could remember who he was. “Kings never get to sit in a square like this,” Philip said. “They can parade through them, but they never get to sit all alone and enjoy the anonymity. A king is a prisoner.” We sat and thought about that. At the time I did not crave anonymity.
What brought me back down to earth was an event a few years later when suddenly my mouth went numb and my head felt as if a balloon were expanding inside it. I took a cab to a hospital and they ran me through the MRI Space-Time Cyclotron for fifty minutes of banging and whanging, buzzing and dinging, and found that I’d been dealt a simple thromboembolic stroke likely due to atrial fibrillation.
They put me in the stroke ward among elderly persons lying speechless, crumpled, like lobsters trying to claw their way out of the tank at a restaurant. I was still walking around, like a veteran of Iwo Jima who had suffered a sprained ankle. The neurologist showed me a map of my brain and pointed to a dark spot: “That’s where your embolism hit.” What he called a “silent” part of the brain. Sort of the Wyoming of the brain. And if it had hit Chicago, a couple of millimeters away, my brain might’ve become an electrified cheese omelet.
A tall nurse named Sarah brought me a hypodermic to coach me on self-administered shots of heparin, and without hesitation I plunged it into my belly fat. No man is a coward in the presence of a young woman. I shuffled around in a faded cotton gown like Granma in The Grapes of Wrath, and the neurologist brought in a train of disciples who observed me as he said, “This is the guy with the funicula of the esplanade, complicated by deviated nobiscus linguini in the odessa.” Or words to that effect.
I was truly grateful and still am. I wrote a limerick about it.
An old man suffered a stroke
And grateful that he didn’t croak,
He flew to Oaxaca
And a yellow mocca-
Sin bit him. He died. That’s no joke
Out here on the sunny plaza, behind the woman with auburn hair writing her poem about gratitude, I feel cured. I’m lucky. I got to do comedy and sing duets, a stone-faced baritone next to a vivid mezzo, and tell stories about Minnesota relatives and teach English as a second language without even knowing it.
Sit every day, all day, and eventually the woman with auburn hair would walk over and say, “Were you on television once?” I’d offer her a seat. I’d ask questions and get the whole story of how the job writing content is only temporary and how she’s thinking about doing stand-up comedy, she admires Sarah Silverman and Paula Poundstone and Erica Rhodes, she thinks she could do that. She and I agree: power is fearsome, laughter is triumphant. It’s all about timing and sticking with the habits of happiness. Do your stretches, take a brisk walk, let your spirit be lifted. But now that I’m thinking these profound thoughts, I notice that she’s gone. She was there a minute ago and now she’s gone, maybe never to be seen here again. This happens again and again in the city, people you want to know better keep disappearing. But at least I wrote it all down, and if she should someday do a search for “plaza” and “auburn hair,” it’ll pop right up. Good luck, kid. More people are cheering for you than you will ever know.
I look at the plaza and see the runners jouncing along, women in black tights, deliverymen whizzing down the bike lanes trailing the smell of oriental spices, dogs striking ballet poses as they walk their owners, the sun glinting on apartment buildings. You can simply watch it happen, no need to inveigh against the evils of man or the perils of the city.
Thoreau already did that. He came to New York, lived on Staten Island, walked miles and miles around town, felt there were simply too many people here, and his loathing of New York inspired him to go to the woods and writeWalden. I believe a person could write a better Walden sitting in this plaza. I sat in the plaza because I wished to deliberate humanity, to witness the essence of society, and learn what it had to teach, and not retreat to the woods and there discover only my own reflection in the pond. The mass of men lead lives of quiet resolution. What appears to be indifference is confirmed resolution. From the introspective country you go into the adventurous city, and inspire yourself with the bravery of cops and teachers and the ingenious games and amusements of mankind. Greet the day with joy, share your space with strangers, be astounded by the secret lives around you. Beware of all enterprises that involve sleeping on the ground. Breathe the air, drink plenty of water, taste the pastries, and resign yourself to the presence of pigeons.