In spring 2010 we observed something real and practically unheard of in this modern era of portable electronics and online engagement, in one of the most modern places on the planet. Two well-dressed, handsome blonde boys sitting with their well-dressed, beautiful blonde mother at a restaurant table next to ours were enjoying a late lunch together while assiduously poring over sections of the New York Times.
The restaurant was Le Pain Quotidien (the daily bread), a Belgian place, at 50 W 72nd Street in New York City. Not at all typical of my experience growing up on a Tennessee farm, this restaurant in the esteemed Upper West Side sits less than a block from Central Park and is diagonally across the street from the building where John Lennon lived and died. Ellen and I were in the midst of an exceptional month-plus New York City visit while we lived about three blocks west of Le Pain Quotidien in the 12th-floor apartment of a couple who were living in our home in Austin in a home exchange. So we tried to live like locals in New York, walking to grocery stores, taking the subway various places, and eating unusual foods from around the world. How in the world a Tennessee farm boy got to do this, I really don’t understand.
Those two boys were in the range of about nine and twelve years old. They were slender and athletic looking. Something about their and their mother’s bearing suggested affluence, refinement, sophistication. As they ate casually, often engaging in brief conversation, the boys kept reading one section or another of the paper. Often they interrupted each other and their mother to talk in an animated way about something they were reading.
Our lunch was in early afternoon after the noon-hour rush. Most tables had cleared out, and there was no reason for any of us to hurry through our meals that particular day. As the boys and their mother finished their lunch, wait staff quietly took their dishes away and the boys had more room to spread the papers and dig into stories in a more concentrated way.
All this was simply astonishing to me! It was like looking at a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, like a bygone era come to life right in front of us. We never spoke to that young family, and they were so “together” and engaged at their table I doubt they were aware that we were observing them in quiet awe and admiration.
Now those boys are solidly teens, on their way to becoming young men. I imagine them attending elite schools, becoming Rhodes Scholars, international diplomats, corporate leaders, surgeons, or high-ranking government officials. I imagine that their father is now in such a position, that their mother is in a similar post, or that she’s a philanthropist, or a high society leader. I imagine that their family has a heritage of wealth and privilege.
Then there were Ellen and I sitting in their midst, in a rarefied part of New York City. Ellen’s family struggled to make it as she grew up on the South Side of Chicago. My family struggled to make it on a hardscrabble farm in Tennessee. And here we were within arms’ length of this young, likely privileged family with two studious, curious, garrulous boys. But I really know no more about them than the brief glimpses reported here. I do know we observed a rare modern-day sight.
I’m grateful for countless things in life. One of them is to have had the privilege of that lingering late lunch in a special place in the presence of a young family whose world is so far from my own. It makes me proud to be alive.