FIRST CAME THE COP. He came up from down where the airplanes were and walked up to the ticket agent at LaGuardia and he said that he had the commissioner out back. The agent lifted the phone and then more agents came and down below you could see a black car and then a woman and then a man who walked with a cane. He was old, 89 to be precise, and when they finally seated him the plane and everyone had inquired after the commissioner there was something he did that no one else did when the plane took off for Washington. Robert Moses looked out of the window.
It was hard, sitting across the aisle, to see what he saw. Whatever he saw, though, he probably built. He built on such a massive an unbelieveable scale that it would take a paragraph or two just to list it all and it is not too much to say that how he built and the way he built influenced the way things were built all over this country. Especially highways. Robert Moses loved highways.
Now we are sitting together, Robert Mosses and I, and I tell him all this is a ruse - this business of an interview. You can list all he built and how he changed the way things are done in this country, but it is not the same as saying that for years his name came at you from the front seat of the family car - always a curse and then the name Moses.
There are politicans who make a difference and government officals who count, but there was none who could affect you like Moses. You played in his parks and swam at his beaches and drove on his highways. If the car passed an exit on the highway or there was no room on the parking lot at the beach, the kid in the back of the 1939 Plymouth and later the name Moses with the Moses of the Bible. It was understandable his name was Moses but he built like a Pharoah.
Moses smiled. He asked if I had been to Jones Beach,which he built, and I said yes and then he asked if I had been to see his power plant in upstate New York and I said no and then he talked about his grandson. He was wearing a blue, summer-weight suit and a blue cardigan sweater and there was a hearing aide plugged into his left ear. He smiled often, changing the subject abruptly, sometimes not hearing what was said, sometimes zinging home a question that startled: "What do you want your son to be when he grows up?" "Happy," I said, mouthing a cliche. "Yes, Yes." He smiled patiently. "But what?" "something creative," I said, refusing to part with my private dream. "Maybe something to do with music."
I tried to take command. This was my interview, after all, and there were some questions I wanted to ask. I wanted to know about history, about what it does to a man who lives long enough to be inducted into it. I wanted to know about what it's like to be around when the critics say you have been wrong - that you worshipped the automobile, built highways for it and that it, in the end, destroyed neighborhoods and uprooted the poor and took people to the suburbs for good. Does history stop you from dreaming?
But there was an aide traveling with Moses and he asked me not to bring up one critical book in particular. Moses is old now, so I simply probed, wondering but asking directly, talking about favorite projects and that sort of thing. He talked about John Kennedy, which was nice, and about old Joe Kennedy, which was interesting, and about what has gone wrong with New York - John Lindsay, is the answer, in case you want to know.
Still, there was no answer. He talked of immigrants and what they had done for New York and be quoted from the poem in the base of the statue of Liberty and he talked of the ambition of the poor as if it were something you could bank. "There's colossal ambition there," he said. He talked about Europe after the war where he went as a rebuilding expert and how there were Cohens in his family, too. Nice, but still no answer.
Then the floor of the plane dipped and the stewardess said we were coming into Washington and the plane plunged into the clouds. When it came out, Washington was below, the Potomac River and the highways bordering it, and Robert Moses was up against the window again. He was looking down in an intense fashion, staring, measuring with his eye, building - I swear building it all the way he wanted it. It was on his face and when I asked if that was what he was doing, he beamed. He saw something, he said.
"It's a comprehensive view," he said. "It's a long-range view. It's not the immediate thing."
I had my answer.