Lights on the Brooklyn Bridge trace graceful arcs above the East River
The New York Stock Exchange was closed for Memorial Day. I stood looking up at the building. A flag big as a tennis court draped its front.
Something glinted in the sidewalk seam, shining in the sunlight. I picked it up. Nothing much: A stainless steel sheet metal screw, inch and a half long, Phillips head. Nothing much, but odd in this location. I took a couple more steps. Something else shined on the sidewalk. A Roosevelt dime minted 2001, the year the twin towers came down. 2001. Of course.
I was walking around in Manhattan with two-dozen Sierra Club members. They drifted on while I stood studying the shiny objects. Finally I rushed along to catch up. I held my treasure out to Marianne, a quick thinking woman from Chicago.
“Look at the souvenirs I found back there at the Stock Exchange. I wonder what it means. There must be some symbolism…”
She glanced at the shiny objects in my palm and then pointed at the dime. “It means that if you invest this” —then pointed at the screw —“you get this.” Sierra Club humor.
I’d known her less than twenty-four hours, but I knew she was a quick thinker.
Cool forest glades, high-mountain meadows, lonely sun-blasted deserts, these are the usual haunts of the Sierra Club. So what were two dozen Sierra Club members doing hiking the concrete canyons of Gotham?
The above episode happened ten years ago. We were following our leader Jerry Balch, Brooklyn native, son of Ukrainian immigrants. His idea was simple—like any service trip. Come do some useful work, in the process see the sights. In this case the sights were in New York City, a place no less compelling than the starkest desert. Our work assignment was in Riverside Park. On Monday, the first full day, he led a walking tour of New York City. His Co-Leader Richard Grayson helped keep us all corralled on the busy walks.
The unusual and unexpected events, the events no one would even know to expect, are the ones you remember from a trip. This trip had many such moments. It stuck with me over the years, and each year I’d check to see if the trip was still offered. Finally, after ten years I decided I had to return.
Jerry and Richard were still leading the trip. The group had expanded to about three dozen, and they had added a couple of assistants, Margaret Stephens and George Gibbs. We lodged at Hostelling International, a youth hostel on the Upper West Side, just as we had 10 years earlier. During daytime, we worked on Riverside Park. At night, it was show time! We attended Broadway plays, ballet at Lincoln Center, and such. Some attended baseball games and visited jazz clubs.
Each day, we gathered on the patio in front of the hostel for our instructions. Riverside Park stretches some six miles along the bank of the Hudson. Although we were an easy walk from the 103rd Street Entrance, we usually needed to travel uptown or downtown via bus or subway to our work site.
Once there, Kristen Meade, volunteer manager for Riverside Park Conservancy, met us each day to explain the work that needed doing. The Park encompasses some 400 acres. Its annual operating budget is around five million dollars, nearly half of which is raised by the Conservancy. The Sierra Club is just one of several organizations that cooperate with the Conservancy to help with maintenance, restoration and improvement.
Burdock, one of the evil invasive plants we removed
We did jobs like removing the invasive plants mugwort and burdock, spreading mulch, and building a butterfly garden. The work is important, essential even. We worked rain or shine; it was strenuous. It was astonishing to see the transformation the group brought to an area, and how quickly they brought it. An Amtrak embankment covered in mugwort, vines and hawthorn quickly became bare ground covered by jute burlap, the invasive brush and weeds bagged for delivery to a landfill—all accomplished under pouring rain.
After digging up the weeds, we spread mulch
Digging mugwort on an Amtrak embankment in pouring rain
It was a messy business
We spread jute burlap on the embankment
Assistant Leader Richard Grayson recalled an incident from my first service trip there, 10 years earlier. As we assembled before work on the hostel patio one morning, he asked me to tell the story to the group.
The story tells itself. It’s based on a coincident that seems too remote to be possible. Members listened raptly. Traffic on Amsterdam Avenue played a sound track. Here’s the story:
We’d gone to the play “Inherit the Wind,” a story based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which John Scopes was convicted of illegally teaching evolution in his biology class. The trial took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, a small town not two hours from my Tennessee home. The two well-known film actors Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer played the clashing lawyers.
The play was riveting and deeply affecting. It was especially revelatory to me. Despite being a Tennessee native, I had never seen either the movie or the play. I realized I’d never learned as much about the historic trial as I should have.
Next morning we showed up at Riverside Park, near 86th Street. Our job was to clear the leaves and weeds from a flower garden. There, we met Charlotte Mayerson, a park volunteer who maintained the garden. The garden was large, making cleaning it a huge task for a lone person. We fell to work. Charlotte was enough pleased with our work and happy chatter that she mentioned she was going to look into becoming a Sierra member herself. She expressed her appreciation for our work, a satisfying sentiment we heard from other New Yorkers often.
Something about the woman’s outgoing presence intrigued me. I asked her a few questions about herself. I learned that she was a writer and that she had served as an executive editor at Random House. As such, she had reigned at the top of the publishing world. I was awed. As a book writer myself I’ve had the experience of sending out 75-page proposals, and waiting weeks for a reply.
This I know: You can maybe get an audience with The Pope quicker than a meeting with a New York editor! Yet, there I stood there talking with one. Although she’d retired from that particular job, she was still very much a part of that forbidding world. This was enough to stamp her on my memory. I didn’t mention the book I’d recently published; I thought that would be rude.
As we worked Richard Grayson and I were talking about “Inherit the Wind,” and the Scopes Monkey trial. Charlotte overheard. What she said next struck like thunder.
“John Scopes was a friend of mine. He wrote an autobiography…and I published it.”
Working on the book, they had become friends. Then Charlotte Mayerson told us this: “He said, ‘if you were 20 years older I’d marry you.’”
It was a history lesson. I’d never seen “Inherit the Wind” until the night before. Now I stood talking to John Scopes’ friend and publisher, a living link to what had only been a dry name in a history textbook.
I’ve been lucky to meet impressive and important people. Meeting Charlotte Mayerson remains singular.
I made several photos of Charlotte’s garden. The iris, Tennessee State Flower, was in stately bloom. I tried to get low angles and interesting compositions. Charlotte asked me to make a special picture, a picture of a bench. It was a bench with a plague. She had donated it to the park in memory of her son, a gifted journalist who died of AIDS at the age of 35. She wrote an acclaimed volume of poems about the experience, The Death Cycle Machine.
Once I returned home, I mailed Charlotte a CD of the pictures I’d made. We became e-mail pals. Once again she befriended a Tennessee man. She said my photos of the flower garden were the best she’d seen.
That was the story I told my 35 Sierra colleagues a few day ago on the patio of the hostel. We were preparing to depart for the park, just as I had on that day 10 years earlier. They listened with attention, grasping the sheer improbability and spiritual significance of the story. I finished by telling them you never know what might happen.
Coincidence happens all the time. Such an unusual and significant coincident does not. It would be a mistake to expect so much from a service trip. But The City That Never Sleeps is a vast stirring cauldron. It brings many chances for serendipity, for the unusual, the unexpected—even the transcendent.
That’s why I returned.