By Carol Tannenhauser
Back in the good and bad old days, in the early 1970s — when the Upper West Side was considered both a community in the best sense of the word and a place to get drugs or mugged — yellow-and-black “Safe Haven” decals began appearing in the windows of local shops. The stickers identified them as places where people, particularly schoolchildren, could duck into and get help if they felt threatened or lost in the streets.
John Lennon seemed to feel neither, according to Dr. Gary Tracy, the Upper West Side optometrist who provided him with his iconic, eponymous “John Lennon glasses” from 1974 to 1979. “Back then, there were a lot of John and Yoko sightings all over the neighborhood,” Dr. Tracy said. “They used to walk up and down the streets.”
Dr. Tracy, who turns 70 in January, was fresh out of optometry school in 1974, when he rented a “tiny” store on Columbus Avenue and 74th Street for $600 a month, with a five-year lease.
“One winter night,” he began, as if he had told the story many times before, “I saw a couple of faces peeking in the window. Then, they left. My friend from the flower store two doors down came running in and said, ‘That was John and Yoko peeking in your window.’ I was the closest optometrist to the Dakota at the time. I was, like, ‘Wow.’
“The next night, I was doing an exam around closing time and I heard somebody come in, and then, that voice: ‘Can I get my eyes examined?’ I knew right away. My receptionist was a middle-aged lady and she didn’t know who he was. She said, “You can make an appointment.” I heard that and I just ran and said, ‘Excuse me, I’m finishing up an exam. I’ll examine you in a few minutes.’ And that was the start of it.”
John Lennon found a safe haven at Dr. Gary Tracy’s Optometry and Eyewear.
“He liked glasses,” Dr. Tracy said. “I sold him a lot of pairs. I don’t think three months went by without him coming in for some sort of transaction. He didn’t take much time picking stuff out: ‘I want this, I want that.’
“He came at closing time on purpose,” Dr. Tracy explained. “We’d lock the door and he and Yoko would enjoy just sitting and relaxing and chatting about local things: what’s going on in the neighborhood, the Japanese market where they liked to shop, Café La Fortuna off of 72nd Street, where they liked to hang out.”
One thing they never talked about was The Beatles. “My friend from the plant store said, once John and Yoko went in there and he asked him about The Beatles. They never went back again. Whether there’s a connection or not, I don’t know,” Dr. Tracy said.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood was changing, gentrifying. “When my lease was up, my rent was going to go from $600 to $1,600. In 1979, I moved to 351 Amsterdam at West 77th Street. John never made it to the second store. He was shot in 1980. I had patients the next day who heard the shots. I was numb. I couldn’t process it. Now, when I think about it, there’s such a sadness for Yoko, too. They were very tight. I liked her a lot. She’s a very charming person.”
Dr. Tracy moved again three-and-a-half years ago, to his current location at 210 West 79th Street, between Amsterdam and Broadway. The store is a bit like a shrine to John Lennon, with photographs and articles everywhere about “The Man with Kaleidescope Eyes.” If you call the store and are put on hold, you’ll wait to the sound of The Beatles singing “Blackbird.” Dr. Tracy laughed. “I keep meaning to change it to “Norwegian Wood.”
Today is the 37th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. He was killed on December 8, 1980. He was 40 years old.
Photos by Carol Tannenhauser.