It had been seven years, and a little more, since I’d been in New York City and oh how I’d missed it. It’s a city that’s festooned with surprises. Living there, you sometimes grow tired and forget to look for them. Visiting, especially when so many streets are covered with memories, is something else again. In a way it’s the way it was before I moved to Manhattan in the late sixties—exciting because something is always about to happen. Because it frequently does.
I walked into a Washington Square blossoming with cherry trees and tulips, past the perpetual chess players. Nannies pushed prams with adorable charges; a pigeon-feeding gentleman murmured to the cooing birds perched on his shoulders and arms and taking turns to perch atop his head; NYU students consulted their cellphones and poured over their Cliff’s Notes; tourists posed for each other by the arch. There’s always been music in Washington Square—drummers, guitars, horns, dancers, choirs and choruses. On this day—it was hard to believe—there was a piano and a fellow playing it. Because it was New York, no one but me seemed surprised.
The piano player was busy, pounding out melodies with a flourish on a small beat-up looking instrument with most of its innards showing. A dolly was near the donation bucket. It was a perfect place for a piano—Washington Square between the fountain and the snack cart. But how did it get there? Even small pianos weigh at least 250 pounds.
I had time to listen before I met an old friend for lunch, and so I did and then I talked to him, not something I would usually do, but he was playing a piano after all, and doing it well. The piano needed improvement, I suggested to pianist Colin Huggins. He gave me his business card and advised me to look at his website: he only needed a thousand dollars more to buy a baby grand for the Square.
Colin Huggins, by his own admission, is “the crazy piano guy” and the “World’s Happiest Man.” A look at the Internet reveals that he has pianos at Manhattan Mini Storage in storage units around the city. He wanted an audience so he left his day job playing for the Joffrey Ballet, and began rolling out pianos to several subway stations, Times Square,Washington Square…. He’s on YouTube. Look him up, but if you’re able, go to Washington Square. He may already have that baby grand.
The surprises didn’t end with the crazy piano guy. I found a Mexican vanilla beer and a splendid Sauvignon Blanc from Australia. I ate Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian, Italian, Turkish, and the best of American; I even wandered around Zabar’s. I discovered the largest, grandest white tulip I’ve ever seen in the Riverside Park garden. Found a bookstore on Broadway that should have disappeared in a digital age, but hadn’t. Went to concerts and museums and galleries. Remembered whole lifetimes of people and events with old friends.
Then there was Maira Kalman’s show: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World). I’d never heard of her, much less seen any of her books or art. I wish I knew her. I wish we had drunk tea together, and known the same gardens and dogs. I think I would have learned a lot about life from her. She knows how to ask questions.
As I went from picture to picture, place to place, I was accompanied by a woman I’d only just met. A talker, a story-teller. And somehow, amazingly, her stories, which started one place and ended at another that was utterly other, were the perfect accompaniment to the exhibit. Like music.
Two days later I bought a book by Kalman, one with a title that promised all sorts of surprises: The Principles of Uncertainty. A two-page sample:
The other day I happened to hear an interview with Betty White. “Are you afraid of dying?” asked the interviewer. “Oh, no,” she responded, and explained that her mother told her when she was a child that death was a surprise, in fact, the greatest surprise of all. Death was like the most remarkable of birthday gifts.