We rode in a plane, a taxi, a train and a ferryboat, all in the first few hours. The plane landed with a bump and a screech at LaGuardia, the taxi was driven by a dark-skinned man in a turban, on the train we heard Spanish, Korean, Arabic and English, and the ferryboat cruised close by the Statue of Liberty, as we tourists took pictures of each other, the Manhattan skyline for backdrop, and the Staten Islanders sat glumly, enduring the boredom.
It’s a man’s duty to take his grandson to New York. Minnesota is an excellent place to live, but New York is New York, so we planned a big week, the Yankees, the Cloisters, the Whitney, a Broadway show, and lunch with a couple of New York pals so he could hear the authentic accent.
A 15-year-old boy can be very cool. A person might almost think he is unimpressed, but you know it’s not so. I was cool when I was 11 and my dad showed me the city. I stared, didn’t say much. Sixty-some years later, it’s still vivid in my mind, the ferry, the trains, the towers, the peddlers. A boy was more of a blank slate back then, there being no Google, no YouTube, just Barney Google and inner tubes. And toothpaste, of course. And pneumatic tubes at the department store: The money went up in a hollow brass canister and the change came back.
Now you take your grandson around and you’re fighting against video games. In the taxi, the iPhone comes out, he is engrossed in the little screen. But I have my obsessions too. And I believe that actual reality beats fake reality.
Yankee Stadium was blissful, video couldn’t touch it. Bright sun, high clouds, a cool breeze out of center field, a raucous crowd, dramatic moments, and the outcome hung in the balance until the last out. The Yanks’ big man Aaron Judge struck out three times and they lost and there was no joy in Mudville, as we filed out to Frank singing “New York, New York,” that godawful solipsistic hymn to grandiosity, and let me say, a small-town Midwesterner feels smirky in a crowd of crestfallen New Yorkers who don’t look like the king of the hill, A-No. 1, or the top of the heap, but are overweight, sunburned, smell sweaty and have spent two hundred bucks to be defeated by (wait for it) Mil-WAUK-ee.
The beautiful thing about New York is not that it confers success, but that it teaches civility. We boarded a packed downtown D train outside the stadium and rode along standing a few inches from about six other people while not touching or making eye contact, swaying along in dignified silence. A woman two feet from me smiled at me, her arm around her boyfriend, whose left ear was six inches from my nose. I could’ve bitten his earlobe but did not.
We rode to 59th Street and hiked down toward Times Square and at 52nd ran into a crowd pouring out of a theater dizzy with happiness at having seen the musical “Groundhog Day,” a tide of grinning bright-eyed faces. At 50th we caught the downtown No. 1 to the ferry and waited in a crowd, standing next to a Latina woman, her two young daughters, her American boyfriend. The mother speaks Spanish to the girls, they understand her but reply in English, the boyfriend mutters in English. It’s a very old story. The mother wants her girls to have good English and soon theirs will be worlds better than hers. She needs to keep their Spanish alive. The boyfriend is a convenience compared with her desperate love for her girls, and Spanish is her loving tongue. This moves you. You want to tell the mama that everything will be all right. You’re in a city of romantic liberals who still believe, “in spite of everything,” as Anne Frank said, “that people are truly good at heart.” Naive it may be, but you venture out every day expecting goodness and you find it, along with the other stuff.
We took a train back to Columbus Circle, bought two bags of groceries, some loaded with animal fats and glutens, and caught an uptown cab. Another car pulls up alongside our taxi and a man yells, “How do you get to Columbia?” The driver tells him. The man says, “Thanks, bud!” And off he goes. I tell our driver that the correct answer is, “Study!” And he got it, though he is not from here. You don’t get that joke unless you have a good heart.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.