I awoke on Saturday morning at 9:45 a.m. or so. I was due to meet Casey (my editor) and Jonathan (my agent) for brunch at Cafe d’Alsace at 11:45, so I had plenty of time to shower, dress, pack and check out of the hotel before heading out to hail a cab. Given that it was Saturday morning instead of the Friday rush hour, I assumed I would have no trouble finding a cab.
I was wrong.
I came out the revolving door of the Omni, dragging my suitcase behind me, and saw that the entire length of 52nd street was lined with barricades, separating the sidewalk from the street. Pedestrians could move along the sidewalk, and traffic — what little there was of it — could move along the street, but no one could cross. I backtracked toward Fifth Avenue and ran into the same thing: the entire street was effectively blocked off.
I had completely forgotten the Pope was coming. New York City — or at least a good portion of it — was shut down.
I called Casey’s cellphone and left her a grumbly message, telling her the situation and letting her know I would do my best to get to the restaurant on time. Then I headed back down 52nd and crossed over to Park Avenue, planning to start a hike up the island toward 88th. Here I found things were moving just fine — apparently the police barricade didn’t extend this far. The roads and sidewalks were open, and cabbies were freely plying their trade up and down the streets. I hailed one easily, and stepped out of the cab only 10 minutes later on the corner of 88th Street and 2nd Avenue (did you see that? I just gave you an intersection rather than a street address. Drinks all around!)
Jonathan was standing outside waiting for me. While he may have been jetlagged — he had just come back from the London Book Fair the night before — he looked super cool and relaxed, with his sunglasses and a suit that struck just the right balance between business and casual (it was a “casual business” look, rather than the more stilted “business casual”…) We shook hands warmly — I hadn’t seen him in person in more than two years, either — and headed inside to grab a table while we waited for Casey, who came gliding in a few moments later.
We had a terrific conversation over omelettes, salmon benedict, and strawberry Belgian waffles (“But hold the strawberries,” Casey specified) and believe it or not, I actually did more listening than talking. No, really. It was fascinating to hear Casey explain how a project gets pitched in editorial meetings, to learn just how many queries Jonathan works his way through in a week, and to hear their mutually strong opinions on New Yorker magazine (the consensus: every New Yorker reads the magazine, and nearly every one of them yells back at it. Sort of like we in DC do to The McLaughlin Group).
It was only a little after 1:00 when we finished, so we decided to walk the twelve blocks over to the New York Society Library, where I was scheduled to speak at 2:15. The weather was beautiful, the Pope Barriers had been removed, and New Yorkers were bustling up and down the streets to find somewhere to enjoy their first real weekend of Spring sunshine. In no time, we were under the blue and white awning in front of the New York Society Library — a dignified but otherwise unassuming white brick building just east of Central Park. Head Librarian Mark Bartlett greeted us warmly and escorted us up to the newly-renovated Member’s Room where I’d be speaking.
Mark generously offered to store my suitcase and briefcase in his office, so I followed him up an elevator to one of the upper floors where we stowed my bags. But then, instead of taking me back to the elevator, Mark opened one of the low doors to the stacks and asked me to follow him.
Well, sure. I’m a sucker for stacks. When I was a Senate staffer, one of the real perks of my U.S. Senate badge was that (at that time, at least) I could get into the stacks of the Library of Congress — a dark, cool, bibliophile’s paradise. And now Mark was leading me back among the Society Library’s collection of old books. There was that great Old Book smell that I wish they could somehow bottle so I could spray it in my own house. Heck, I’d even wear it as cologne.
“I thought you might want to see this,” Mark said, steering me toward an enormous old leather-bound ledger lying open on a low table. “We just found it this morning.”
At the top of the ledger’s right-hand page, written in perfect cursive script, was the name WASHINGTON IRVING. Just below it, in pencil, was the date 1836. Running in neat rows down the page were the titles of books Irving had checked out, along with the dates he had checked them out and returned them. This was, in effect, Washington Irving’s library card.
I swallowed hard. “Can I touch it?” I asked, and Mark nodded, smiling.
I’ve thumbed through Irving’s own letters, held an 1819 original of The Sketch Book in my hands, and, thanks to friends at Historic Hudson Valley, even walked through his private rooms. Compared with those, the document before me was nothing special — it was merely Irving doing one of those mundane, day-to-day activities we all do: going to the library and checking out a book. Yet, for that very reason, it was one of those remarkable moments where your subject comes suddenly to life.
I took a deep breath, inhaling that wonderful leathery old smell. Then I rested my hand gently on the 170-year-old page.
To be concluded.