An Optometrist Recalls Late-Night Chats With John Lennon, and That Awful Night Exactly 37 Years Ago

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.

NEWS | 41 comments | permalink
    1. James says:

      The Leopard at Hotel des Artistes still has an old Safe Haven decal in their window.

      Beautiful tribute, Ms. Tennenhauser!

    2. James says:

      Took me a minute to understand the comment regarding changing Blackbird to Norwegian Wood.

      Blackbird was written by Paul McCartney.

    3. Mark says:

      Good story, brought tears to my eyes.

      On 12/8/1980, I was 11 and living in San Antonio, Texas. I knew the Beatles music from watching Beatles cartoons on Saturday mornings. I think my favorite song was Paperback Writer, probably because at that time I thought I would be a writer – certainly writing is what I did (poems and fantasies).

      I remember talking to my fifth grade teacher about it – it seemed like none of my classmates knew who John Lennon was. But I did.

    4. Adam says:

      What was his presciption?

      • John's Girl says:

        That is private information that CANNOT BE RELEASED. why is that your business. I knew John for more thansix and a half years and have several pairs of his glasses. The last year and a half of his life his eyes were giving him trouble.

      • Marty says:

        Ironically the man had very poor eyesight, but could see way way way more than the rest of us.

    5. Bruce Bernstein says:

      thank you, Carol Tannenhauser. what a great piece.

      often when i read your articles i am reminded of the UWS that is now mostly lost, and why we old-timers loved it so much.

    6. Alan Slavin says:

      I lived on West 76 right off CPW and I heard the shot. They shopped in local businesses, again showing they had heart.

    7. Bronx Boy says:

      Nice piece.

    8. Doc Rich says:

      Great story – such cool memories to have.

    9. geoffrey george day says:

      well done Yoko I have allways thought you wonderfull. Love and peace be with you.

    10. Ron Patton says:

      Sad day for the entire world. I met all individually except for John. The circle was broken, I shall never see him as you did, so fortunate.

    11. yoyomama says:

      CORRECTION: Cafe La Fortuna was on West 71st Street (not 72nd). I miss it, too.

    12. Danny Steele says:

      You were a very lucky man Dr.Tracy. To have known John & Yoko and to have been able to have those talks.

    13. Bryan Ward says:

      SUCH A DAY OF SADNESS! 12/7 THY DAY OF INFAMY.12/8 A DAY TO HARD TO IMAGINE.

    14. Theresa Magee says:

      I was16 when Lennon was shot. I have never been the same. A lifetime Beatles lover and the back drop to my childhood I enjoyed the intimate details of a one on one conversation with the man who could imagine a peaceful world. We sure could use his words now.

    15. Regina Gallucci says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. That was very unselfish. And generous xo Regina gallucci

    16. Trudy says:

      I remember many times sitting next to them eating at Souen on Broadway and 92nd street. They seemed so into each other–it was lovely to see. They always smiled at me and i smiled back, never interrupting the peace and somewhat private space they shared on the upper west side until that dreadful day 37 years ago. –Trudy

    17. Steven says:

      Wow! He provided glasses to Gandhi and Rosa Parks too?

    18. Proud Daughter of the author says:

      Great article mom!!!

    19. John Rosemsn says:

      I was living in Philly. Just got into the car to take my date home. Turned on the radio at 10:55 pm and immediately heard the news. Absolute shock. I remember taking the radio broadcast of the news , interviews and Lennon’s history. I remembered thinking, you can record albums , tapes CD’s and videos. But nobody ever came up with a way to effectively record radio/ audio?

      • Stan Nuremburg says:

        Sure there was/is, if you have/had an open-reel tape recorder or (more likely) a cassette deck. I used to tape live classical concerts on WQXR, WNCN and live rock ‘n’ roll on WNEW-FM, but you had to know what would be on, and when.

    20. Gina Stahlnecker says:

      I have lived right down the block from the Dakota for many years. I remember that evening very well. My son, then 11 years old was working on a school project, I had been visiting a neighbor, returning something. It was a warm evening and the windows were open a bit. As I returned to my apartment I heard the shots. I asked my son if he heard them and he said,
      “Yes.” We both ran to the 72nd Street windows and witnessed nothing. Then from Columbus Avenue we heard the sirens, police cars. Looking out the window we decreed that the police had pulled up near the Dakota. It was almost time for the 11 o’clock news and when it did come on the lead story was that John Lennon had been shot, eventually it was announced that John had died. The days following our block was turned into a meeting place from Beatles fans from the world over. NYPD closed the block for a number of weeks. I was a sad time for all.

      People still come to the Dakota corner, the Imagine memorial in Central Park and just the block during the days around the anniversary of the tragedy.

    21. Sylviia Franklin says:

      It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long ago since we’ve lost John.He was such a talented person and he was my favorite Beatle. I always loved his humor and his wonderful voice.Woman is my favorite song by John.

    22. Kindly Dr. Dave says:

      It was a great neighborhood. Let us all try to RE-create that atmosphere.

      • Sherman says:

        Huh? The UWS was grimy and dangerous when Lennon lived here.

        Stop looking at the past thru rose colored lenses. The neighborhood is infinitely better today.

        • Bruce Bernstein says:

          Sherman says:

          “The UWS was grimy and dangerous when Lennon lived here. Stop looking at the past thru rose colored lenses. The neighborhood is infinitely better today.”

          better for some, worse for others. you just don’t get it, and i feel sad for you.

          John and Yoko loved the old UWS, despite the grime. as for the danger… mark Chapman was going to kill Lennon, whether he lived on the UWS or UES.

    23. Pamela Hawthorne says:

      I still miss John. I met him August 19th 1966 in Memphis TN. I still cherish his autograph. George was kind that day too. He took the time to shake my hand. John was really special. He made a mark in time for all of us.

    24. Kym says:

      This was the first year it never entered my mind. That’s what time will do…or senility, depending on your point of view.

    25. Michael says:

      The Beatles got you to think…the Beatles got you to feel…the Beatles got you to act…so many of us grew up with the Beatles and so many is us grew because of the Beatles…

    26. David Ruggeri. says:

      Way cool!!!… wish I would have had a relationship like that with them also. Just to be able to sit around and just talk about life. I’m sure he was always pressured to talk about the Beatles.

    27. Sharon says:

      Wonderful story. Thank you.

    28. Louis says:

      Actually, Norwegian Wood was George Harrison’s song.

      • ADCNYC says:

        Harrison played sitar no the song, but Lennon wrote and sang it.

      • Marty says:

        No, it was John’s. He was attempting to hint at the fact that he had had an affair. Great song, but I loved “This Boy”, which is a vehicle for three part harmony at a time when almost nobody (I said, “Almost”) was even doing harmony. John’s high notes in that song were outstanding. There was a look on his face of total relief and pride when he got through the second break in the Ed Sullivan live performance of that song. What a fantastic performance!

    29. Ray Robles says:

      Thank you for sharing your short story on John. To this day, it is so easy to become emotional as this one reflects not only on the life, but the musical journey of John and the other Beatles. Wow! what a Magical Journey for all that can take the time to reflect on that portion of our life span.
      God speed to us all. Namaste ~

    30. Virgil says:

      I was born and raised in Newark new jersey and my uncle would take me into the city every weekend to shop,eat see shows ECT. Well I was 10 at the time and me and my uncle just left a diner a couple of blocks away from the Dakota when we heard a bunch of commotion coming from the next block over so we went to check it out. Didn’t get far before we were stopped by traffic cops directing us in another direction. So we walked away and went on about our business. Then we came up on a store front where everyone was peering into the window looking at a tv. The news was on and it was about John Lennon being shot. I knew who the Beatles were but I was to young to be the fan that I am today. I’ll never forget the atmosphere in the city that night and how it felt to be so close to such a tragedy at such a young age.i went home that night changed forever.

    31. Carla says:

      John Lennon tops my list of people I wish I could have met…

    32. Terry Wolfe says:

      Idky but this anniversary of John Lennon’s death is very emotional for me.

    33. Eugenio Dacayanan says:

      John Lennon forever”Imagine”