There is a quality of person that 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 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 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’ . . . Little Nell? Although there are men among my forebears who, minus the depth of education and prosperity of refined confidence, 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, the one where the gruff porter used his secret key to let me into the carriage from the wrong side of the platform, and 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.
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 seems to admire, and takes the opportunity, as those with time on their hands do, to ask me what I am doing in Chappaqua.
His gentle manner is that of educated wealth, the antithesis of the affected English, the result of an acquired state in this land of once limitless opportunity.
I tell him I am here for an event at the library, that I am an author with a book newly released.
He is in the book trade, he answers. He is in ‘indexing’, has sold his business and now works only on selected books.
I have no idea what he means.
But I am pleased to have his company, my first brush with a ‘New Yorker’, even if just for those few seconds we ride from the platform to the street.
We part 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 has a standing arrangement with one of the men, because he summonses 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 can look out over the meadows that are now the Chappaqua golf course, I google Sydney Wolfe Cohen. I do this for two reasons – now I’m in publishing it might be in my interests to discover what indexing is, and I want 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 meet the grace and beauty of old, educated New York as I have imagined it to be. I also meet, on a separate blog, a former employee of Sydney’s, Enid. I thought her piece elevated him, even if somewhat candidly, but I sense, from his comments, she has displeased him.
(As for indexing – of course I know what indexing is; it’s the art of putting together the index. Doh!)
The following morning, I arrive back at the Kittlehouse to find a message from Sydney has been slipped under my door. I call him. We chat and smile. I can tell I have pleased him when I say that it is a pleasure to meet the best New York has to offer the rest of the world, a representative of a society that set standards so high.
Sydney suggests we meet for coffee; we agree we may meet in New York, as I have only tomorrow in Chappaqua and that is committed to the library. I am 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 and place. I may even return to Chappaqua for that coffee.
As it turns out, Sydney rides 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, is the subway rush that marks New York City’s workday’s 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 take our places in air above, and over delicious pasta and, for me, tiramisu, we roam through the life and times of Sydney Wolfe Cohen.
Occasionally, he attempts to divert the spotlight my way, but I am 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 ask Sydney why we read.
He says: ‘we need a companion for our lonely minds.’
The truth of this rings like a tuning fork in my bones.
He adds: ‘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.’