Who Is My Neighbor?

My driver from the airport to the hotel Saturday was an older Romanian man who welcomed me to New York four times over, showed me a cell-phone photo of Jane Fonda at LaGuardia from earlier in the afternoon, talked about a movie he’d seen her in as a young man (called “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”), then about another movie, which led to a conversation about the war and his views on U.S. politics as an East European immigrant from a long-suffering nation. He combined a great love for America with high expectations, a heavy dose of skepticism, and no illusions about the potential for political leaders to disappoint. Fascinating.

I told him that one of the things I love about getting into a car outside an airport is the roll of the dice: you never know who you’re going to cross paths with. He smiled and said, “You get in with an open mind – not everyone does that.”

* * * * *

I walked from the hotel through a crush of humanity to the intersection of 50th Street and 5th Avenue, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Mass this evening. It’s amazing what you pass along the way: the destitute and the fantastically wealthy, posh restaurants and corner hot-dog stands, fashion-forward boutiques and knock-off handbags.

Yesterday the cathedral was bustling with tourists (and a scattering of prayerful, mournful, and presumably faithful). I lit a candle and said a prayer for the folks back home, made a lap around the church, then left. Hard to find peace with so many people milling around.

I arrived tonight about five minute before the service. The ushers were stationed at each aisle, asking people if they were here for Mass. If yes, they were given a program and allowed down the aisle to find a pew; if no, they were directed to the outside aisles to observe and take photos. I wound up three-quarters of the way back, just right of center, and when the massive pipe organ started, you could tell how big the space was to fill – it sounded surprisingly soft, almost muffled. It took several minutes for the church to reach some semblance of quiet, and even then, there was a constant influx of church-goers and tourists. Between the priest and me were hundreds, maybe thousands, of worshipers of every nationality you could imagine.

The readings, of course, were the same ones many of you heard. Monsignor Ritchie, however, said (in a voice equal parts joyous preacher and wizened New Yorker) that he would speak about the readings from Tuesday’s Mass – in part because the cathedral clearly held so many visitors, many of whom he feared may not realize that the Church doesn’t just celebrate the Mass on Sunday.

So he preached what he described as a second set of commandments in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Ch. 12), and ended with a verse from the next chapter: “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not give false testimony,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Romans 13:9)

The procession to the altar for Communion was slow going, not unlike the sidewalks outside, except without the cell phones and exasperation. People were patient; people were kind …

* * * * *

I filed out with everyone else, back into the neon whirlwind outside. I walked past 30 Rockefeller Plaza, past Radio City Music Hall, where the annual Christmas Spectacular (featuring those leggy Rockettes) is the only show in town due to the writer’s strike, past Lindy’s New York Cheesecake and back to hotel, not hungry enough to eat dinner. I stopped at the little lobby store to get a Coke and peanuts (curse you, Bob!), smiled and thanked the woman at register, wishing her a good night.

I got snack-hungry later and ran back down to get some popcorn. She recognized me, and we talked about the weather, here versus Minnesota, then about her love of the City. “I’m more of a country boy,” I said. “I couldn’t live here, but I do like to visit.”

She smiled and said something I didn’t understand about my education showing through; after a few moments, I realized she was talking about my upbringing. She said, “Where I come from in Cuba is a town, but not big. It is country. I like it, too. People come here; they say, ‘Hello,’ like you. They are nice, friendly people. That’s their education.”

We talk a bit more, then I start back toward the elevators. “You have a great night,” I say.

“Good night,” she says. “You say, ‘Buenos noches.'”

“Buenos noches,” I reply.

“God bless you,” she says, and waves.

2 thoughts on “Who Is My Neighbor?

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