There is a quality of person who walks our Earth that can only be properly described as a New Yorker.
He – for he is surely a he – is not the brash cab driver of times past, nor the wise crackin’ nanny from Queens (who is surely a she).
This ‘he’, this man, stands for the educated best of the modern world, our learned selves put to good use; he is a man who values society deeply, thinks broadly and lives compassionately though his heart is committed to his own world; he lives the kind of life that, for me, would have required me to be a man to live well, because women are always outsiders in these realms, when the realm itself has risen to its element.
Sydney Wolfe Cohen is such a man.
He is the first, and only, such man to cross my path, daughter as I am of a newer, remote society that has never yet produced a ‘New Yorker’ – although there are men among my forebears who, minus the depth of education and prosperity of refined confidence, may come close with their finely attuned eyes, which in themselves trump the New Yorker.
I would like to say I met Sydney on the train, and I did, in a small way. I was sitting on the train to Chappaqua four years ago, the one where the gruff porter used his secret key to let me into the carriage from the wrong side of the platform. I had leaned across to a woman with her nose in a book to ask if she knew what time the train would arrive in Chappaqua, which, irrelevantly, is also where ‘the Clintons’ live.
She answered me, kindly enough, but I was sorry I hadn’t asked the elderly gentleman wearing a grey trench coat, a twinkle in his eye, sitting right behind her.
As it was, Sydney and I met when we alighted together at Chappaqua and rode the elevator up to the street from the dinky platform.
He glanced at my large, shiny orange suitcase, the one all the USA seemed to admire, and took the opportunity, as those with time on their hands do, to ask me what I was doing in Chappaqua.
His gentle manner was that of educated wealth, the antithesis of the affected English, the result of an acquired state in this land of once limitless opportunity.
I told him I was there for an event at the library, an author with a book newly released.
He was in the book trade, he said. He was in ‘indexing’, had sold his business and now worked only on selected books.
Embarrassingly, I had no idea what he meant by ‘indexing’.
But I was pleased to have his company, my first brush with a ‘New Yorker’ of my imagination, even if it was just for those few seconds we rode from the platform to the street.
We parted by way of a reverential nod (on my part), the shaking of hands and the exchanging of names, Sydney hailing me a cab from the row of black cars standing at the station. Clearly he had a standing arrangement with one of the men, because he summonsed him by name to take him home, leaving another with a small command to ferry me to the Kittlehouse Inn.
Once settled on my bed, from which I looked out over the meadows that are now the Chappaqua golf course, I Googled Sydney Wolfe Cohen. I did this for two reasons – now I was in publishing it might be in my interests to discover what indexing was – and I wanted to know more about my newly met, fiiiiiiiinally met, because at the deepest level of my being I have wanted to be one, New Yorker.
And there, online via Sydney’s blog, I met the grace and beauty of old, educated New York as I have imagined it to be. I also met, in a separate blog, a former employee of Sydney’s, Enid Stubin. I thought her piece elevated him, even if somewhat candidly, and I sensed, from his comments, she had displeased him.
(As for indexing – referenced by Enid as ‘an ancient kingdom’ (of which, according to the New York Times arts blog, Sydney was king) – of course I know what indexing is: it’s the art of putting together the index.)
The following morning, I arrived back at the Kittlehouse to find a message from Sydney had been slipped under my door. I called him. We chatted and smiled. Sydney suggested we meet for coffee; I would only be in Chappaqua the following day and that was committed to the library. We vaguely said ‘perhaps in the city’ in coming weeks … but I was drawn to the mystique of old New York, the best of New York, to an envoy of the life I might have loved had I been born to another time, place and gender. I might yet return to Chappaqua for that coffee.
As it turned out, Sydney rode the train all the way to New York City for an early dinner with me. We meet at an Italian restaurant on the west balcony of Grand Central Station, me fresh in from the second day of Book Expo America down at the Javits Centre.
Below us, in the golden light, was the subway rush that marked New York City’s workday end. If you blur your eyes, somewhat like the photo of Sydney and me taken by the waiter, the people of New York City are a wave, a great tidal flow that shimmers; they move quickly, fluidly, skirting each other with the grace of small fish in a very big pond.
Sydney and I took our places in air above, and over delicious pasta and, for me, tiramisu, we roamed through the life and times of Sydney Wolfe Cohen.
Occasionally, he attempted to divert the spotlight my way, but I was not interested in me; what can I, incorrigible product of a bland society, possibly add to this man’s life, other than simple human kindness and the presence of a smiling woman across the table.
Over dinner, I asked Sydney why we read.
He said: ‘we need a companion for our lonely minds.’
The truth of this rang like a tuning fork in my bones.
He added: ‘we read to feel connected to other minds – and at other times to read something that’s said with such enviable aptness.’
And then: ‘the proper answer is we haven’t anything better to do.’
And so it is that in the weeks leading up to my return to the city of my longing, four years later, I email Sydney.
The grace and humour of his reply revs the throttle of my soul: ‘I’m about to leave for NYC to see my dentist about a fallen crown. Richard II? When I return to Chappaqua I will write to you. The thought of seeing you down the road is beyond my morning supply of words.’
And then, later in the day, the kicker – an invitation to peach Bellinis at Cipriani’s, ‘that place in Grand Central where we dined together so long ago’.
Peach Bellinis. Ciprianis. Grand Central Station.
Sydney: envoy, old New York.