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Did Spring Arrive in Time to Forgive Us Our Debts?

Garrison Keillor: New York gets a bad rap, much of it richly deserved, but spring is such a blessing you can almost forgive the rest.

It’s spring, the air is brisk, the forsythia is blooming, there’s widespread amiability afoot, and walking through Central Park you feel you could pull twenty pedestrians out of the flow and rehearse them in “New York, New York, it’s a heck of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people ride in a hole in the ground.” Winter tried to hang on, like a loud drunk at closing time who staggers around and takes a swing at you but eventually you heave him into a cab and it’s spring. “All the merry little birds are flying in the floating in the very spirits singing in are winging in the blossoming,” as E.E. Cummings down on 10th Street & Greenwich Avenue wrote. “And viva, sweet love.”

New York gets a bad rap, much of it richly deserved, but spring is such a blessing you can almost forgive the rest. You wend your way from the Trinity churchyard where Mr. Hamilton lies who got not one thin dime from the musical he inspired, through the Village where brilliant and bewildered people once lived, and visit Grand Central with its starry ceiling and the Rose Reading Room of the Public Library, hike past the schist outcroppings of Central Park and Teddy Roosevelt on his horse defending the Natural History museum, the apartment palaces of the Upper West Side, the cheese department at Zabar’s where you gain weight with every deep breath you take, Harlem, the Cloisters, the mighty Hudson — and did I mention the schist outcroppings? My family forbade dirty talk and so the word “schist” is a favorite of mine.

New York gets a bad rap, much of it richly deserved, but spring is such a blessing you can almost forgive the rest.

When spring is here, the city opens its doors and spills out onto the sidewalks, diners sit under awnings on the sunny side of the street, greenmarkets set their goods out on wooden pallets, elders perch on the brownstone steps and gaze on you and me with a judicious eye but they see little kids come trotting along and their hard hearts melt. On Sunday, I walked to 83rd Street to mail some letters and passed a little Victorian firehouse, one truck wide, wedged in the row of brownstones holding off the invasion of high-rise condos. A papa stood on the corner, embracing one tall daughter, then the other. Skateboarders swooped along the bike lane, helmeted kids on scooters. Brisk walkers passing us amblers, people walking their shaggy dogs who watch for other shaggy dogs to talk to. The sun was out and there was good feeling everywhere you looked.

There are prosperous writers in this neighborhood who are busy writing angsty memoirs or nonfiction about heinous acts by cruel men, so it’s up to me, a tourist of long standing, to pay witness to public happiness, the old couple feasting on fettucine in the sunshine, the proud papa, the gallant skateboarders.

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No alleys here so everything happens out on the street, goods are trucked in, garbage is trucked away, you’re walking along a busy loading dock with flower boxes.

At 81st, I went down into the subway and the downtown train rolled in just as I reached the platform, one of those transformative moments — every little thing you’ve done all day up to that moment feels perfectly timed — and squeezed into the car without actually touching anyone. I hung on to the overhead bar, feet nicely spread, as we rumbled south, six complete strangers within a few inches of me, everyone in his or her own space, avoiding eye contact, thinking their own thoughts.

I once saw John Updike on a downtown C train, the good gray man of letters grinning at the life around him, and once on the same train I saw the master trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Nobody bothered either one of them and they rode along with us commoners. Both times, I tried not to stare. “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” said E.B. White. “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

GARRISON KEILLOR

And that was the gift I found in Central Park, approaching the reservoir on Sunday. Thanks to my mask, my glasses fogged up but I could see the cherry tree blooming in the park and bystanders holding up their cellphones in case the tree decided to say something.

Garrison Keillor
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