You Can’t Go Back

Phantoms of NYC

Recently I took a trip to NYC with an older friend, someone I have known since I was 18. He will be 82 this year. His shoulders droop now, and he walks with an uneven gait, as if one leg is shorter than the other. He struggles getting up even after sitting for only a brief time. He reminds me of a baby when first learning to walk — grabbing hold of anything in sight to pull up and start moving. Then, when he stands, he looks around at his new perspective and slowly begins to shuffle forward.

At the airport, many employees rushed to ask if he needed a wheelchair. They looked at him compassionately, offering help in the only way they knew how. Their eyes were filled with concern and a gentle pity. He politely declined help every time and lumbered on.

During the trip, this happened many times. Everywhere we went, people offered a hand or opened a car door or slowed down to allow him to move at his own pace — ordinary gestures that helped him along the way. With political protestors screaming loudly — “I’ll kill your ass if you come over here” — on either side of 5th Avenue in front of Trump Tower, these “random acts of compassion” stood out in stark contrast.

When we came out from seeing a Broadway play, something he had once loved to do with his wife, he immediately became disoriented from all the people and movement. Instinctively, he reached for my jacket and grabbed the back of it to balance and anchor himself. We pushed through the sea of people and found our way to a wall, where he heaved a sigh of relief as he leaned against it. I called for a car while he stared across the street. In fact, he became so distracted by the big sign stating “Phantom of the Opera,” I had to shake him to tell him the car had pulled up.

When I looked at him, he had tears in his eyes. He had been remembering his first trip to NYC many, many years ago on his wife’s 40th birthday. They had gone to see “Phantom of the Opera.” He hated it; she loved it. Such was the way of their marriage — two people on opposite sides of the street, yet bonded for 42 years. It seemed a lifetime ago.

I watched as he slowly shuffled toward the cab, stooping even more as he hunched down to get in. The ride back to the hotel was silent. I wanted him to enjoy his precious memories.

When we sat in the lobby later, his musings began again.

“You know,” he said a little wistfully. “I lived 12 years of my life here. I love this city. And I love the people. Now, all I am left with are my memories — they are the ‘phantoms.’”

He looked out the window and added, “And I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

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