My father went to New York City in his twenties. He was the ninth and final child of a dirt-poor country butcher, the sixth child of the butcher’s second wife. He’d grown up in rural Ohio, before the big roads were paved, when one side of State Route 585 was brick and the other side was dirt, and you just drove along on the brick side until you saw a car coming the other way and bumped down onto the dirt side again until they’d passed. New York City may as well have been on a different planet. But he piled into a car with three of his buddies, and they drove east, toward Manhattan and adventure.
The farm boys who took on the Big Apple are all gone now. They were all fifty, or almost, when I was born. I remember them as old men who wore warm hats and sensible shoes. No trace of the young men, arms slung over one another’s shoulders, grins too wide for their faces. I wonder if my father felt then like I do now, like I’m not old, but maybe my knees are.
I never asked my father what he thought about New York. I never asked him what he thought about a lot of things. I was eighteen when he died, and I didn’t know yet how much stories matter. I knew he went to New York. There’s a picture, he said, of three of them sitting on a bench in Central Park. His hand is behind his back, an awkward angle. He didn’t want the cigarette in the picture.
“A cigarette?” I always wanted to ask when he told that one. “Who even are you?”
My friend Marsha was going through her husband’s family pictures a couple of years ago. Her father-in-law Chet wasn’t in any of the ones she sent me, but it was his camera, and there were no selfie sticks then. There they were, my father, Jim, and Jeff. Standing in grass somewhere, and then later high in the air with one spire of St. Patrick’s in the background. The rooftop gardens at Rockefeller Center, I think.
And then one of just my father, standing in a patch of construction dirt somewhere in front of a big, fancy building. He’d been around for a quarter century, and the building had him beat on that front for sure. But where was it? I posted it on Facebook. The main library near Bryant Park, most people guessed. But no one was certain. In the end, it was the fifteen year old German exchange student who said, a little hesitant, “I think maybe it’s the Met.”
By that time, we were standing in Bryant Park, looking at the back of the library building. It wasn’t right. The front hadn’t been right, either, though I did snag a picture with one of the famous lions. I was there with a friend, her daughter, and the teenage architecture detective. I googled. My friend googled. I pulled up the shot of my dad on my phone, and we compared. Maybe. Possibly.
“Oh!” I said. “Let me ask someone.” My high school biology teacher’s daughter. Thirty years ago when her mother was supervising my frog dissection, she was a little girl who lived a few houses down and across the road. She’s not a little girl anymore. I messaged her the picture of my dad.
Moments later, we had an answer. Yes, it was the Met. The front, beside the big, famous staircase. The light fixtures we saw behind my dad are inside the building now, she said. Seventy years bring lots of changes.
We went the next morning. A subway ride, a bus transfer, and a three-minute walk. This time, we knew it was right. So my friend took pictures.
I don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe my father’s spirit is in that place, or his essence lingers, or he saw me there. A million people have been in that spot since he was. It felt silly, the grandeur of the main staircase of the Met behind me, where everyone was taking pictures, and we were off in a corner with some shrubbery that was new since Dad’s time. But it felt like it mattered somehow. So I stood there, hoping my chin didn’t look too bad in that angle and smiling at the people slinking past just out of the frame, and I thought, well, here I am.
It doesn’t feel like a time for magic. It feels like a time for hunkering down and getting by, and making the best of things. But maybe, somehow, it’s important to have expectations. Maybe it’s important to show up.
I don’t believe in magic. But I want to. So, here I am.
(We couldn’t get the angle exactly right. Currently, right in the spot where Dad was standing, there is a large fountain. I elected to keep the only pair of shoes I had with me dry.)