It just might be that we were the worst tourists in the history of New York City. And if not the worst, then for sure we were somewhere in the Bottom Ten.
We were the ones riding the S51 bus on almost a full loop because we boarded it on the wrong side of the street. We were the ones at 2 a.m. who wandered ourselves into a dead-end and had to escape over a chain-link fence somewhere in a Naval compound on Staten Island. The ones who showed up on Saturday to see Joshua Bell at the Lincoln Center, only to discover that the tickets were for the previous night? That was us too.
The most appropriate symbol of our week in New York would probably include an image of the four of us, standing on a street corner staring dumbly at my cellphone, trying to figure out if we were pointing uptown or down, heading someplace we couldn’t get to without making a connection somewhere else. Our feet ached all the time. We were edgy and cranky, usually disoriented and most always sweaty. When you go to a place like New York, you don’t ever want to be “those people.” Well, we were those people.
Which is why the afternoon we spent on the High Line stands out as a miraculous bit of Divine Intervention, a merciful gift from God to the undeserving. If you’re not familiar with the place, the High Line is a park built on what used to be an elevated train line. It’s mostly a stylized walkway—or maybe a strollway, to be more accurate. And it has a completely different vibe than the city below. It’s calm—calming. For us it offered a soothing break in the action after several days of trying somewhat futilely to get from wherever we were to somewhere else.
And that was even before we heard it, wafting through the air along the platform like a future memory. We had just finished a modest picnic of sandwiches from the Chelsea Market when we heard something beautiful, unmistakable, alluring—familiar and comforting in a way that only a favorite melody in an unexpected place can be. I grabbed my daughter’s arm. “Bryn,” I whispered, “do you hear that?” It was a single soprano saxophone, gently riffing on “Star Dust,” the old Hoagy Carmichael tune that Reader’s Digest once called (with good reason) “the best loved song of the 20th Century.”
The music pulled us down the path toward a lone musician. There was no audience, not so much as a small group of listeners. And yet it was so lovely! Now I’m not ordinarily the sort to do such things, but when we arrived at the place I couldn’t help myself. I reached for Bryn and we started to dance. I’m such a horrible lead and we were in such a public place that I soon lost my nerve, but the impulse was irresistible because the music was so beguiling. We swayed and let the music work its magic as Mitchell Parish’s lyrics slipped easily into mind: “Tho’ I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain: My Star Dust melody, the memory of love’s refrain.”
When the song ended I threw some money in the musician’s hat and thanked him. “That was wonderful,” I told him. “I love that song. Thank you.” He thanked me himself—get this—for blessing his day. Imagine. Remembering it now makes me want to go there again—right now—and simply sit and listen. As I think about it, I definitely should have left more money in that hat.
That experience reminds me of the pledge, learned first as a child but not fully embraced until I became an adult: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” That man and his music were all of those things. Which is as good a reason as I can think of to spend a little time strolling—and listening—and maybe even dancing—seeking something lovely on a Sunday afternoon.