Since mid-March, when my position at the Teachers College Gottesman Libraries shifted to work-from-home, I’ve been out of the apartment early most mornings to bike. To facilitate social distancing, I practice my routine close to dawn. If you also happened to be in the park at that time, you might not necessarily make out my face as you whizzed - or ran - past. But you could still distinguish me from most of the other early birds if I revealed but one fact about myself: I’m the one who waves. To indulge in my original play on a well-known expression, I would say: if you see someone, say something. Even if my gesture goes unacknowledged, I celebrate life.
It’s not that I was raised to be super friendly. I grew up right here in NYC, where the congestion of souls makes a virtue of avoiding eye contact. My father, a political refugee, loved the anonymity of New York. He moved downtown and away from sheltering relatives almost as soon as he arrived, in his late twenties. An artist, he lived a bohemian Manhattan life before settling down with my mother. He never knew, by name, more than a couple of our neighbors in the apartment building, even after nearly thirty years. He made no secret of his pride in that. I was more like my father than not. It was my mother who was our small family’s ambassador to the building. Half a lifetime later, and in the middle of a pandemic, I’ve discovered in myself an ambassador to the park. How did this come to be?
Two months ago, sunrise was so much later, by nearly an hour. It was not all that difficult for a morning insomniac like me to rise before the sun. I set off amazingly early, so strong was my desire for safety in solitude. I was surprised to see others. At first, there were very few. An individual who rises before dawn to walk, run, bike, or even scoot, felt like a kindred spirit to me. Maybe I also imagined I was biking on a solitary New England country road. Surely there, I thought, people acknowledge the presence of a kindred spirit. So why not here? It felt so easy to offer a simple good morning as we shared the sunrise.
Reflecting, I am hungry for connection. I am not alone in my wish for that. While some of my fellow New Yorkers pass me in the park without a glance, there are many more who nod or wave back. I recognize many of the same people, day after day. I enjoy the unfriendly regulars as well as those who express pleasure to see me again. Then there was the day that I saw an unassuming man, that I had passed many times, beat me to the greeting. This was enough for me to consider him a friend. Another time, a driver employed by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation mistook my friendly wave and stopped to ask if I needed help. I went on my way, so touched by this respite from my isolation that I was brought to tears. Then there are the days I oversleep. On those days, I exchange the safety of solitude for the kiss of sunlight. Quickly, there become too many passersby to wave to. It wouldn’t make as much sense. Connecting to others face-to-face is sometimes most effective one-on-one.
As many times as I have now biked the same route, I still sometimes imagine that I am far away from my still-congested city. I enjoy the quiet waterside view. I see a pair of geese, a family of ducks plus their new duckling, or a fishing cormorant enjoying breakfast. I appreciate the colors of the turning seasons. There were the yellow forsythia and daffodils, then the rainbow of tulips along with the cherry trees, then the azalea, and now, finally, the fragrant lilac, all within view along my way. I look forward to more. And I know different parts of my route by name - some given by the Department of Parks, others quietly given just by me: Cherry Walk, the Florida Keys, Atlantic City.
Today’s way of life is nothing, if not difficult. I miss my day-to-day immersion in the city that I love, the random contact with others in public places, and - especially - my face-to-face work at the Gottesman Libraries. I miss the library patrons. I remember their favorite spots and the times they would visit, the ones who need my help, and the ones who hardly ask for anything. In my mind’s eye, right now, I fondly remember something about each of them that brings them to mind. It allows me to see them. I wave in greeting. If you see someone, say something.
Consult TC Come Together for upcoming virtual events and inspiration for our TC community and friends. Watch the TC Convocation LIVE on Wednesday, May 20 at 8 p.m. EDT to celebrate our 2020 graduates!
Check Learning at the Library on the Library Blog for more from Gottesman Libraries.