Column: Renewing the New York Spirit at a Surreal Moment


Theo Dixon, ‘The Mayor of the Upper West Side’.

By Charles Lyons

This is not the sixtieth birthday I had in mind. Maybe that’s not the worst thing. The pandemic is far worse. But one positive side-effect is we’re starting to be warmer to each other again.

Case in point: As I waited on a long line in front of the Upper West Side Trader Joe’s this morning, an employee of the supermarket chain inquired whether anyone was 60 or over. I asked if it counted that I was a few days shy. A woman in front of me, a proper distance away, wearing an N95 mask tightly around her face, interceded on my behalf. “Let him, he’s so close,” she pleaded. She looked me over and added that I didn’t look my age. I offered to show the Trader Joe’s fellow my driver’s license but he smiled and waved me ahead. The woman called out, “Happy birthday!” I thanked her.

Later, at the Muffin Café on Columbus Avenue, another woman, impromptu, started singing from The Mikado, the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. “If you want to know who we are!” she intoned. I told her I know where that comes from. “Are you a singer?” she wanted to know. “Hardly,” I confessed. I told her I had been in a production of the opera in High School. As we collected our coffees and quickly exited the cafe, we waved and smiled.

It’s not that these incidents couldn’t happen without the pandemic. New Yorkers always surprise me. But over the past decade, I’ve found the city increasingly loud, frenzied, and hostile. I’ve seen people blabbering on their cellphones with little sense of where they are. And when they bump shoulders with me, as many have, no apology is forthcoming. I get only the look of profound oblivion.

In the shadow of the pandemic, humanity has reasserted itself much like it did after 9/11. Eye contact is back, if only to make sure one is properly exercising “social distancing.” So, too, is politeness. We all know we need to keep a safe distance from each other, but now the body language of my neighbors is warm. And for those covering their faces, I sense the smile behind the mask.

During my short walk to the grocery story, I ran into the 94-year-old “Mayor” of the Upper West Side Theo Dixon and asked him about his health. “The way I’m staying safe,” he said, beaming, “is keeping love alive, and keeping a positive state of mind.” He continued, “You realize that you are just the dust in the universe, that the stars and the earth have been formed into flesh, and the flesh will decay, and you’re only passing through on borrowed time.” He added. “You’re suppose to enjoy, be happy, keep love alive and keep conversation alive.”

After days of self-isolating in our apartments, starring at our computer screens, we’re hungering for the kind of connection that “The Mayor” alludes to, that one can only get in the presence of another human being. My upstairs neighborhood, Christian, put it this way. After we chatted for a few minutes, I leaning out of the door to my apartment, he on the staircase, he said, “I miss this – just chatting with others.”

I don’t think these feelings are confined to New Yorkers. I’ve been hearing from friends around the country who I haven’t heard from in years. One wrote via Facebook instant messenger, “Hey Charlie, long time! Saw your name here on Facebook and thought I’d say hi.” Another wrote, “I was in the city recently and thought of you. How are you?”

This isn’t just happening because we have more time on our hands. The pandemic is forcing us to take stock in what matters most, and one of those things is other people, the thing we too often take for granted when we operate at higher speed. What is it that Wordsworth says in his poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us”? “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

Weeks before the outbreak, I’d already been thinking about many of the important people in my life because of the upcoming big birthday. I usually scoff at the sentimentality of decadal birthdays, or any birthday for that matter, but when my father offered to throw a bash at his place, I accepted. I hatched a plan to bring together people from all periods of my life – elementary school, High School, college, graduate school, and, afterward, from my professional life in journalism, film, and as a professor. To my delight, many accepted the invitation, some booking flights from as far away as Brazil.

But when it became clear that the world as we knew it was racing headlong toward calamity, many out-of-town friends got back in touch. First came Volker, of Munich. Given current events, he simply couldn’t come. Then Tina, based in Boulder. She, too, would have to cancel her trip East. Next, Baron, from the Bay Area. Others followed. Finally, I sent the note I did not want to send. “For obvious reasons,” I wrote in an email to the forty or so friends who had confirmed, “I need to postpone the party.”

Whether socializing with dozens of friends or sheltering in my room, the pandemic offers an opportunity to reflect on the people in my life.  Everyone I invited (and many more) means a great deal to me. I wanted to see them in one room together, to introduce them to one another. I wanted to celebrate them even more than celebrating my five decades on the planet. I wanted to show my appreciation for them, for they are a crucial part of who I am. The virus helped me see that.

COLUMNS | 31 comments | permalink
    1. jerry says:

      Nicely done…actually began to appreciate today a little more…a fuzzy warm kind of feeling. Happy birthday…

    2. Bill Liberman says:

      Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to write about these issues. You’re clearly in an excellent state of mind and I envy you for it (from my 80-yearlong point of view.) “Keep on truckin'”, young man.

      • charles r lyons says:

        Thank you, Bill. That you took a minute to write is a good sign! Sending you best of spirits!

    3. Felix says:

      This is just beautiful. Thank you Charlie.

    4. citygirl57 says:

      I miss all of you! Thank you for this…

    5. Big Fan says:

      Sinatra’s “New York, New York” is what they play at the Stadium after Yankees games, a bittersweet reminder that today was supposed to be Opening Day of the baseball season. Ah, well.

    6. Gaynor says:

      Thank you for the article. Sending love to UWS friends, and to all New York residents whose courage is so amazingly strong no matter what life brings. Keep on loving and stay safe. Also a Happy birthday to you.

    7. Will says:

      Beautifully done and written. Thank you for sharing and be well.

    8. Loretta Worters says:

      Terrific piece. I am staying at my Mom’s place on LI. After seeing your video, it really made me homesick for Manhattan. Let’s hope we can continue to appreciate our fellow man and when this is over, a greater appreciation and gratitude for our lives. Happy birthday!

      • Nevets K says:

        A fine piece. Accurately reflects the warm feelings all around. Many humans have begun turning into human beings and away from “human doings.”
        Still, I have to ask and wonder, how much of this goodness will remain after the crisis? By how much will people have changed? My guess? Once the circus starts up again, I’d say by just a little, a few percent, maybe 3 to 5 percent – which would be something, true, but not that great.
        Case in point: On Tuesday and Thursday I had to drive out of the city. On Tuesday, no one was speeding on the West Side Highway when I was on it. Today, three or four cars sped by, including two with those hateful ear shattering “mufflers,” to let the other drivers know WHO’S BOSS!
        So when it starts back up, which it will, many, so many, will return to “their old accustomed ways.”

    9. What a beautiful article—and the video made me miss NYC…sigh. Thank you for being my friend! We will raise a toast in person soon, but until then, we’ll visit virtually. Happy birthday—and much love to your family.

      • charles lyons says:

        Dear Tina,
        Thank you so much for the comment.
        I look forward to the virtual toast, Dr. T!
        Best to you and Tony,
        Charles

    10. M. K. Douglas says:

      I’ve also noticed that there’s a very fine line between exercising social distancing and crudely giving your neighbors disdainful distancing.
      This is taking a mental toll on people.

    11. Diane says:

      Thank you so much for featuring Theo Dixon in this uplifting article. I’ve been chatting with him, as I walk by the bakery where he sits, for several years. He is always upbeat, positive and inspiring. Mr. Dixon was named “Citizen of the Week” by NY One back in 2013 and he earns his title every single day. So great that you spoke with and highlighted this UWS treasure. Thank you!

      • charles lyons says:

        Thanks so much, Diane.
        You’re right: Theo is remarkably positive, every single time I see him. I didn’t know about his “Citizen of the Week” recognition; he deserves the honor, “Citizen of the Pandemic,” for helping us all keep things in perspective.
        Very best to you,
        Charlie

      • maureen crilly says:

        Charlie,
        As you live only one floor up from me
        on West 69th, will make sure you receive a
        special present outside your door on your special day and
        wishing you Happy Birthday!!
        xxxMaureen

    12. Heidi says:

      Thank you Charlie for the timely and inspiring article about Theo Dixon. We all need reminders during these challenging days to keep the love alive!
      If you go to http://www.impactmovies.org you can see a short story my husband and his production team made which highlights Theo. It is called “Love Gangster”. On the site you can also find other uplifting movie shorts. They are also on Instagram as: Impact Movies

    13. dc says:

      I’ve been saying hello to Mr. Dixon since I moved to my place a couple years ago, without knowing who he was. Thanks for letting me know.

    14. Caroline says:

      This was a deeply moving post, and your video brought tears to my eyes. Happy, happy birthday to you – and many more!

    15. Leslie says:

      Theo is the neighborhood jewel
      Pure Elegance

    16. Aly says:

      I’m so glad to see Theo finally up on the rag.

      He is our Mister Rogers, we are lucky to have him in our neighborhood!

    17. Pete Webb says:

      Wonderful Article – Mr. Dixon is a true neighborhood treasure. Thank you for sharing the words of wisdom & hope!

    18. Baseballbeauty says:

      Happy 60th Charlie! Beautifully written. I have been wondering about Theo, thank you for posting his words of wisdom. Thank you, Heidi, for posting the link to your video.

    19. Seamus says:

      Lovely piece Charlie. These moments are what life is made of.

    20. Carolina says:

      Thank you for a beautiful post and thank you for an update on Theo. I used to live on 69 and would see him regularly. Gave me great dating advice and always showed love to my dog and me. He is such a neighborhood gem and I’m happy to see him well.