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The Cracker Barrel: New York, New York

Every sixty years or so I get around to visiting New York.

The first time was back in 1953. The second time was last week.

Both times I happened to visit several interesting places, and cross paths with celebrities. And both times I was glad to get back home.

In ’53 my dad, a salesman, earned a trip to Game Three of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and knowing I was whoppingly in love with the game of baseball, he took me along. We flew from Chicago in a four-motor TWA Constellation and had a fine adventure. The trip was sponsored by the Gillette Company, which put us up in a fancy hotel, provided tickets to the game, and paid for limousine service to and from the Dodgers’ home in Ebbets Field.

The day before the game we made it a point to see the sights. We walked to the south end of Central Park and marveled at the beauty, took an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building and peered out over the city, rode a ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and climbed up inside to her crown, ate lunch in a Horn and Hardart cafeteria, where you put coins in a slot to open the glass doors behind which sat your soup, sandwich, or dessert of choice, and wandered around Manhattan all the way down to Wall Street. By the end of the day I could barely stand upright.

On game day we were chauffeured to Ebbets Field in a limousine along with half a dozen other salesmen from around the country. Our driver was a Puerto Rican fellow named Ramon who pulled us up to a side entrance of the park and said he was certain the Yankees would win. As it turned out, he was wrong about that, and the Dodgers triumphed, though they later lost the Series. But after the game, just as I’d settled down on the jump seat for the ride back to the hotel, he clapped me on the shoulder and told me to go tap on the rear window of the limo in front of ours. “It’s Humphrey Bogart!” he said. “See if he’ll say hello!”

A little embarrassed, I walked to the adjacent limo and rapped on the glass. The window opened, revealing a gruff-looking man with kindly eyes. It was definitely Humphrey Bogart. “Whaddya want, kid?” he asked, his voice deep and gravelly.

“Mister Bogart, may I shake your hand?” I didn’t know what else to say.

“Sure, kid,” he rumbled, his lined face breaking into a smile. He extended his arm. We shook. I thanked him and he smiled again. The window went up, and I walked back to where Ramon stood holding the door and returned to my perch on the jump seat. That was back in 1953. But the events of last week, though not nearly as dramatic, form a rough parallel. Instead of the Statue of Liberty, I visited The Cloisters, the magnificent complex built of five medieval stone buildings brought over from Europe and assembled as a museum on the banks of the Hudson River. In place of the Empire State Building, I saw the Riverside Church, the landmark site of much modern social activism and sporting America’s tallest steeple. I ate lunch in a pleasant Italian place in an old brick warehouse, wandered around looking at some of the many parts of Columbia University and afterward walked several blocks to tour Grant’s tomb, where Ulysses and his wife Julia lie at rest.

Then it was time for another celebrity encounter—this time with Ben Stiller, standing on the street corner wearing shorts and a scraggy tee shirt, surrounded by several assistants, evidently getting ready to direct a new film. Our eyes caught, I waved, he nodded, and I walked on by.

Just another day in New York City.

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel