By Joan Tornow
It was a hot August afternoon in NYC. My husband John and I were sitting back comfortably in a sort of rickshaw, being transported through Central Park by a young man pedaling a sturdy bike attached to our small carriage. We normally refrain from touristy things like this. But, the young man needed customers, and he won us over. As we settled into the cushioned seat, our driver began pedaling vigorously. Then, twisting his wiry body and speaking in broken English, he told us his name was Yuri and that he was from a small town in Turkey. He was here on a student visa, and this job enabled him to work on his English.
This special journey of ours started at the Southern end of the park where we told Yuri we just wanted to go in the general direction of our hotel on the upper west side. “And we definitely want to visit ‘Strawberry Fields,’” said John.
“Have you seen ‘Strawberry Fields’ before?” he asked.
“No, but we’re big John Lennon fans,” we responded.
We had not been to New York since 1984, and then only passing through. I had lived there in the late 60s and early 70s – attending graduate school and then working in the Head Start Program. Being back after all these years had elements of déjà vu. So much the same, yet so much had changed.
Back to the rickshaw. John and I leaned forward to better hear Yuri’s spiel: “‘Strawberry Fields’ was dedicated in 1985 by Yoko Ono, five years after the death of John Lennon. There is a mosaic there made of marble tiles, a gift from Lisbon. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is a Lennon song he wrote when remembering an orphanage by that name near his childhood home in Liverpool. The ‘Strawberry Fields’ here has no strawberries, but it has161 plant species — gifts from many nations of the United Nations.”
As we absorbed this information, Yuri returned his full attention to pedaling. We leaned back and let the summer breeze flow over us as we jounced along. Starting the next day, I would be secluded in classrooms at Columbia, attending an educational conference. So, John and I had already spent much of this day – a Sunday – taking in as much of New York as we could. Tired, we settled into our enclosure, gazing at the canopy of green branches above.
As we headed up a hill, the rickshaw slowed to a crawl. Yuri said, “Very steep, sorry.” He began traversing to reduce the grade, standing up as he pedaled, panting, swerving. John said, “If you want, we can get out. And even push.” We were just about to do that when suddenly we felt the rickshaw rocket forward with some mysterious new energy. We saw that a large hand off to our left had grabbed the side of our cabin and was pushing, propelling us up the hill. Enclosed as we were, we couldn’t yet see the owner of this hand, but it was a person whose dark skin was made even darker by tattoos. We were amazed and delighted to be the recipients of this sudden and well-timed helping hand.
Soon, we could see handlebars and a bicycle wheel off to our left and discern that another rickshaw driver was lending his strength to the task of getting our vehicle up the hill.
“Thank you,” said Yuri, gratefully.
“No problem,” said the other young man. Now we could see our helper, as he had pulled up a little closer. “This hill can be tough,” he said with a friendly smile.
And so, in this manner, the two bicyclists – the Turkish student and the Good Samaritan — carried us – two aging hippies – up the hill to “Strawberry Fields.”
The memorial plaza could be reached only by foot, so at a certain point, we disembarked, and made our way up a quiet path, arriving at the special mosaic created to honor the memory of John Lennon. We joined others quietly gazing at the simple black and white tiles which, in the center, spelled the single word “Imagine” – a word immortalized in song and now in stone. This song had always been a favorite of mine: “Imagine all the people, Living life in peace.” I later learned that candlelight vigils were held here in the days following 9/11.
Walking on, we encountered a group of older musicians singing the Lennon/McCartney song “In My Life”: “There are places I remember, All my life, though some have changed, All these places had their moments.” The lyrics brought tears to my eyes and prompted me to place a few bills in the guitar case sitting open on the pavement. The musicians – grey-haired and balding – nodded and smiled. I had a sense that we were acknowledging a shared past – not just living through the 60s, but remembering that era with fondness – especially the idealism that helped shape our values.
Yuri was waiting for us at the edge of the park. As we climbed back into our little carriage, he pointed across the street to the Dakota, the building where Yoko and John had lived and where Yoko still lives part of the year. My eyes fell on the entryway where Lennon had been shot. Yuri pointed out the windows on the penthouse apartment facing the park – including a high window belonging to the room where the white piano was, where Lennon had composed “Imagine” in 1971.
Back when I lived in NY, the city had been rocked by the issues of the day – especially the Viet Nam war and the struggle for civil rights. I remember in particular the peace march just hours after those students were shot at Kent State. So much has happened in NY, in the country, and in the world since then. But seeing NY again, after all these years, I had a sense that the city had emerged from its many challenges – even 9/11 – with more resilience and a sense that “we’re all in this together.”
Earlier on this day, this rickshaw day, our first in the city, we headed for Ground Zero – the site of the former World Trade Center. En route to the subway, while crossing Broadway, we were temporarily stranded on the median strip and admired the lush garden growing right there on the median. A sign credited this garden to a nearby store. This landscaping was certainly an improvement over the bare-dirt median strips I remembered from my earlier days in the city.
Throughout this trip, we noticed hundreds of little flower gardens, nestled in nooks and crannies. Often they were enclosed by short decorative fences – pragmatic, but mostly symbolic – as if to say, “Someone is tending to this little plot of earth. Please enjoy and respect it.” Those who tended these petite gardens had clearly cast aside cynicism – putting their faith in the good will of the people who shared their communities.
The subway tunnels were still noisy and, at this time of year, hot. But they were now free of graffiti. As a crowded train pulled into the station, we were among the last to board, and we faced the closing door dilemma – to push our way in or just wait for the next train. But a passenger already on board held the closing door open – just a moment – till we were safely inside. Again, like the Good Samaritan in the park, a helping hand just when we needed one.
When we got to our stop, we were surprised to see almost everyone getting off here, too. We climbed the stairs up to the street, noting that we had apparently joined a pilgrimage of people making their way down the sidewalk toward that place – that empty space where once the twin towers had stood. When I first caught site of the vast open area, encircled by a tall fence, my throat tightened and tears welled up. Everyone fell silent in this strange zone – a place seen on TV and now right before our eyes. Beyond the huge fence, we could see the towering orange cranes, a few of them doing some sort of weekend catch-up in the daunting, complex task of building something new here, something that would honor the memory of those who died, and give hope to those left behind.
On one side of the street was a very old cemetery – one with those thin, flat stones, standing crookedly like dominoes about to topple. Near the entrance, several vendors were selling photograph books about 9/11. I bought one, and John and I retreated into the cemetery to look at the photos and to just hold still and take in the enormity of ground zero – right across this narrow street. John pointed out that we were standing at the very spot where one of the photos was taken. There was that gravestone, there was that tree. They appeared identical in both the photo and in the reality of where we stood. But in the photo, the ground was littered with debris, and the tree was enveloped in dust from the newly-collapsed buildings. Now, today, the cemetery grass was green and the tree – so close we could reach out and touch it – sported shiny new leaves.
In a way it was fortuitous that our tourist itinerary that first day in NY happened to begin at Ground Zero and end up at “Strawberry Fields.” At Ground Zero, we were confronted with the stark reality of man’s inhumanity to man. At “Strawberry Fields” we were reminded – albeit via a still small voice – of something stronger – the human imagination and its longing for peace and love.
One hot afternoon, heading back to the hotel after the conference, I was overcome by thirst and stopped at a street kiosk that sold snacks, newspapers, and water. I spotted the proprietor, an elderly man, looking wilted from the heat. He pointed to the cooler, and when I had the icy bottle in hand, he signaled for me to give the cooler door an extra push to make sure it was closed all the way. He grinned a toothless grin when my extra push did the trick, saving him the trouble of leaving his shady enclosure. Well, of course, I was happy to give the heavy cooler door that extra push. It seemed that these little acts somehow characterized present-day NY. Nothing extraordinary, just small moments of caring – whether pushing a rickshaw up a hill, pushing a subway door open, or pushing a refrigerator door closed on a sweltering summer day. We’ve all heard of death by a thousand cuts. What seemed to be at work in NYC now was life by a thousand acts of random kindness. No one act heroic – yet all these little acts adding up to something good – a sense of civic community, of caring for other people, other creatures, and the environment.
NYC is not unique in this respect. These kindnesses occur everywhere. I think it’s just that when traveling, one is especially dependent on the kindness of strangers. And, the traveler has special opportunities to honor and participate in these affirming rituals. This particular trip, too, had happy coincidences. For example, one afternoon we returned to the park and visited the wide shady path called the literary mall, honoring America’s authors. We sat on a bench to rest, and I turned to read the inscription on the back. It said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” –Theodore Parker, Unitarian Minister, 1853.” One of my favorite quotes.
One night in our hotel, we watched a TV documentary called “The Human Spark.” It chronicled research on helpfulness. In one experiment, they showed how a toddler will spontaneously help another person trying to reach something out of immediate reach. They showed chimpanzees doing likewise. It seems that evolution has resulted in an instinctive impulse – built into our DNA – to reach out and help.
I believe that these acts – these helping hands – do more than just brighten our days. On a grand scale, they help us survive. And, in everyday life, they weave the fabric of community, of what John Dewey refers to as conjoined living.
This spirit characterized our visit everywhere we went – A heavily tattooed fellow-passenger on the subway telling us our stop was next, a taxi driver, in broken English, asking which train we were taking from Penn Station, so he could take us to the best possible door. Someone at the Museum of Modern Art telling us which café had the shortest lines. We rarely had to even ask for help because it was so forthcoming!
One morning, we had breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant on the upper west side – my coffee shop from 40 years ago, when my office was nearby. The waitress who refilled our coffee cups was singing. I smiled and said, “Ah, you’re singing!”
“Yes, every day,” she said with a grin. Walking away with the steaming pot, she added in her Greek accent, “Every day! Every day I sing!”
All this good will came to a crescendo on our last night there. We had gone to see Jersey Boys, a feel-good musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. We emerged on Broadway with the music still ringing in our ears: “Oh, what a night, late December back in ’63, What a special time for me, hypnotizing, mesmerizing me,” and “Sherry, Sherry baby, Sherry can you come out tonight.”
Well, it was quite a night! And Sherry baby probably was out – along with everyone else in New York City. The streets were filled, everyone enjoying the gentle breeze and easy camaraderie. We headed toward Times Square and saw a panoply of huge digital displays stacked high into the sky like children’s blocks. They bathed a spacious walking mall with warm light.
Families of tourists posed and took photos of each other with tiny cameras or cell phones. Some were enjoying hot dogs, pretzels, or ice cream from food carts. Young couples walked hand in hand. A little girl rode high on her father’s shoulders. A little boy shared fist bumps with a police officer. A family of tourists, speaking Spanish, took pictures of each other. I offered to take their photo together and they smiled, handed me their camera, and assembled themselves: “Uno, dos, tres, whiskey!”
Being here in Times Square, I felt something in the air – a sense of unity, community, and hope. And the LCD screens added a celebratory feeling – as if fireworks were suspended in mid-air, brilliant in the night sky.
We noticed a set of bleachers where tourists perched to take in the panoramic view. We, too, climbed up and sat awhile, drinking in the atmosphere. I said to my husband, “It’s so peaceful!” Then, my eye was drawn to a huge LCD screen depicting people of all ages and ethnicities dancing – sometimes comically – always with exuberance and joy.
Below each clip the name of the location appeared: Mumbai, India; Stone Town, Zanzibar; Teotihuacan, Mexico, Madagascar, Figi, Morocco, Brazil, Japan. Every cluster of dancers includes Matt Harding – now famous for, as he says, “dancing badly around the world.” I later learned that he set the conditions for these spontaneous dances, resulting in the U-Tube video called “Where the Hell is Matt.” It was the perfect video for that moment because it so captured and celebrated our common humanity.
I know problems still exist and that if we had stayed in NYC longer, we would have experienced some disappointments as well as what I’ve described here. Still, the fact remains that we humans are still working things out on a global scale. In NY, I was reminded that we can imagine peace, create it, and experience it – even if just in pockets of time and space.
(“Where the Hell is Matt” may be accessed at http://www.wherethehellismatt.com/videos.shtml)
Note: This essay was originally delivered as a sermon at Saltwater Unitarian Church in Des Moines, Washington. It was later delivered, by invitation, at several other Unitarian churches in Washington State. At the close of each sermon, the video clip above, “Where the Hell is Matt” Dancing, was projected at the front of the sanctuary. This musical video seemed very appropriate in a church setting.