New York City has held a special place in my heart ever since I became a Yankees fan as a young Tennessee farm boy. This was especially so as my dream of being the star pitcher who won the seventh game of the World Series before a delirious crowd in Yankee Stadium took form as I pitched to those two bricks on our chimney. Throughout my adulthood New York was and still is a special place to visit, whether on family vacations to the Northeast or on travel to professional conferences. My wife Ellen fell in love with New York on frequent visits there when she served for several years as a consultant to the Ford Foundation on school-improvement initiatives.
So it required little deliberation when a couple there asked us to consider doing over a month-long home exchange on New York’s Upper West Side in March-April, 2010. We knew this was an exceptionally rare opportunity that we would be foolish to decline. Their apartment is near Broadway and 72nd Street, three blocks from Central Park and a short walk to the constant goings on at Lincoln Center.
Previous trips to New York had been brief, but this time we got to know what it felt like to live there. We had no car, we walked to grocery stores, we had hundreds of restaurants within walking distance, and we were in the greatest melting pot of human aspirations and talent assembled from around the globe in one sleepless and electrifying city.
In the first week we took the train to the Bronx so I could pay homage to the new Yankee Stadium. As we walked up from the tunnel we stepped outside to a view of both the new stadium and the old one. I must confess that I had been upset by the news a few years earlier that the Yankees would build a new stadium because I felt the old one was hallowed ground. As we walked toward the new stadium to our right, I could see that demolition was underway on the old one to our left and a feeling of sadness came over me. Instead of paying homage to the new stadium, I paid homage to the old, beloved one of my youth. But as we walked around the concourse of the new stadium, I had to admit that it is an impressive shrine for the legendary Yankees, and a place where young boys could still focus their dreams if that is their bent.
We also visited Ground Zero in the first week to see steel structures rising from the previous rubble of September 11, 2001. The look and feel of the area was dramatically different from what we had experienced there three years earlier on our return trip from Sicily. The site now had the look of life and not death. When we returned to the site near the end of our stay, the buildings’ frameworks had risen another couple of stories and life was further symbolized by a young tree that had been nearly destroyed in the attack but that now was re-growing a canopy with an emerging crop of bright green leaves.
Being a short walk from our apartment to Lincoln Center made it easy to go to the Metropolitan Opera—for “La Traviata”—and Carnegie Hall—for the San Francisco Symphony—for the first time. It turns out I got to Carnegie Hall without practicing a bit.
For the first time we strolled through the restored Ellis Island immigrant processing facility and then toured the preserved tenements where throngs of them lived sometimes in squalor on the Lower East Side. We had pastrami sandwiches at famed Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street, shopped at Zabar’s for their incomparable rye bread, ate a hot dog or two at Nathan’s on Coney Island, and, yes, I’m a foodie. Later we sat in the warm spring sun at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village listening to musicians where the young Bob Dylan and Joan Baez had entertained decades earlier, before their names had become household words.
Closer to the end of our New York stay we went on an April Fool’s Day sojourn through Brooklyn that included the renowned Brooklyn Museum, a birthday porterhouse for lunch at Peter Luger’s, and a slow stroll through a blooming and bustling Brooklyn Botanic Garden. At dusk on my birthday we walked from Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge while the setting sun backlit the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan as lights came on. This slow, forty-minute walk that included pauses for gawking was the highlight of the trip for me. I called my two offspring Joy and Bob from in front of City Hall, after they had both called me earlier in the day, and told them about my birthday, explaining that I had a highly visible grease stain down the front of my shirt from the delectable porterhouse at Peter Luger’s. That grease stain was roughly the shape of a wide exclamation point, a fitting summary of the day I had on an unforgettable foray through Brooklyn.
Several times that day I thought of my late brother Nolen Robert’s love for the Brooklyn Dodgers in our youth, imagined that he was with me there, and wished we could have gone to pay homage to his beloved Ebbets Field that was no longer there either. Ebbets Field was demolished in 1960. I was sure that Nolen Robert had quietly grieved over that as I was now grieving over the demolition of the old Yankee Stadium of my dreams as I pitched to those two bricks in our chimney.
It’s true. I love New York. I heart New York. I feel forever privileged that Ellen and I got to “live” there for over a month. We are lucky ducks.