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Starting Point

Manhattan memories float in cloister


For many years I lived close to Manhattan and went there often. No matter what the season, New York City was and is beautiful. In the summer I sat on the steps of the New York Library, on the corner of Fifth Ave. and 42nd St.

I people watched. I can still remember the faces of some of the people I saw, even though I only saw them pass by once. In the winter when I met my brother for lunch at CBS on West 57th St., the cold and bitter wind never bothered me. We met for lunch or dinner in all seasons, and in the winter I liked to stop at a bar near Times Square.

The name of the place is Moran’s, and it’s a friendly place. I would take my time with my Scotch and watch “Wheel of Fortune” on the TV set high above the front window. I could see the people walking on Eighth Ave. and used to wonder about their fortunes.

There was frequently an old man sitting next to me at the bar, stacking his few coins in various heights and designs. He was not much of a talker. He wore the same hat every time I saw him. He fingered his coins and drank his beers, with his head hanging low but one eye raised on Vanna White and her spins of the wheel.

Autumn is beautiful in Manhattan. A welcome chill fills the air, and a wonderful breeze finds its way through the skyscrapers and down the streets and avenues.

I can remember the sound of the cab wheels as they rode over the many manhole covers. There is a sound to Manhattan that is a blend of everything: horns and voices, traffic and the low roar of the subways beneath the pavement, the flutter of pigeons’ wings, the wheeze and rasp of a thousand buses. The city is never silent. Human life in all its wonder can be heard day and night.

I miss Manhattan and think of it a lot. Scenes pass through my mind: rain-slicked streets that shine at night with the reflections of neon lights. Rockefeller Center at Christmastime, decorated so beautifully and filled with people, people filled with hope and a longing for something good and wonderful. The majestic towers of the World Trade Center and the cavernous depths of the same building through which so many thousands of people go every day to catch their trains home after work.

There were vendors and street people and rich and poor, limousines and carriages drawn by horses, museums and galleries that housed beautiful works of art.

All that art: Was it any more beautiful than the mystery taking place on any given moment on any Manhattan street? Music played from a million open windows on warm days.

When I lived near Manhattan, I did not think about these things. They were just there, and I went and saw and listened and loved. But I instinctively knew that it was simply there and huge and a part of me just for the going and seeing. Now it is far from me, and the memories come with such fullness and beauty.

If I were to be there right now, I would want it all, for it is no longer mine for the taking. I would be on a street or in a bar or in a restaurant, living it and experiencing it bit by bit, second by second, by the limited measure and beat of my heart, my eyes, my ears. Such is life: given a bit at a time. The fullness of it all, or at least a growing sense of all that is, goes with us as the people and places we love recede into the past.

But something remains. I love Manhattan and all that is there. The wonder of it all lives in me. I sit here in our cloister and take it to me and pray for the good fortune of all, in whatever their seasons and on whatever streets they may walk. Life is a city we pass through.

As we pass and look and listen, the city seeps into our hearts and deepens them with memory and a longing for a city yet to come -- a city of good fortune for all, a city as near in its mystery as your willingness to love, hope and walk this day in peace.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000