“Hellooooooo!“ Zachary says before he’s even opened his door. You know how your dog greets you when you come home, tail wagging so hard it looks about to break off? Zachary greets you with just as much verve, but more Ethel Merman than Labrador.
And today, he’s even dressed to go, so I don’t have my typical 45 minute wait while he gets ready. It’s the first real day of spring and he wants out of his dark little cave of an apartment.
His 81-year-old legs have trapped him inside during the cold weather. Zachary needs to be around people and inspiring things he can absorb and talk about. He needs connection, and he finds that everywhere he goes, sometimes to my great embarrassment.
But I also like that feeling of connection, I just often don’t know how to open myself up to it. So I put up with embarrassing moments to live vicariously through Zach.
Outside we blink in the sunlight like the other million vitamin D deficient New Yorkers emerging from hibernation. I have at least two winter layers I need to shed before bikini season. No I don’t own a bikini, and I probably won’t shed the layers either.
“Let’s take the M2 bus up Madison,” Zachary says.
I’ve spent most of my life in New York in a monogamous relationship with the subway. I don’t do buses. They stop every other block. You feel like you’re getting nowhere. But the bus is right outside his 58th Street building and the subway is three blocks away.
I think the exercise would do him good. Zach’s a retired dancer, used to have calves like oak trees, all this gnarled muscle. These days they look like twigs, and how do you get that muscle back if you’re not going to walk?
We get on the bus at 58th and as Zach pays his fare he asks the driver, “Does this bus stop at 103rd?”
“101st,” the driver answers.
I want to be grumpy about losing the bus-subway battle, but right away I notice how nice it is. There’s daylight on the bus, almost feels airy. Might have to have an affair with the bus.
We’ve only gone 10 blocks when Zachary shouts up to the driver, “Can you stop at 103rd Street?”
“This bus stops at 101st.” Not even a smile from the guy.
Zachary starts to sing. I’d say the bus is 70 percent full, and 50 percent can hear him, and I’m looking around to see who’s amused and who’s annoyed.
Then this older woman with white hair and soft, smiling eyes leans in, “My husband used to sing that song to me. He loved going to the Loews movie palace on 175th St.”
“That song was a big hit with the German and Jewish vaudeville crowd in the 1930s,” Zachary says. We reach 90th St.
“Can you stop at 103rd?” Zachary shouts up to the driver, and you can see the driver shift his focus forward.
“Come on, driver, stop at 103rd,” someone else shouts, but the driver is having none of this.
The older woman stands and puts her hand on Zachary’s shoulder, “I wish you all the best, even though I haven’t figured out who you are.”
I don’t tell her Zachary used to dance for Balanchine, that he used to be the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera House, that in the 1930s he was a childhood radio star on the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour. I don’t say anything, I just watch and wonder how he does it.
When we reach 100th St., Zachary asks one last time, “Do you stop at 103rd?”
This time the driver turns around and stares. “This bus doesn’t stop there.”
We get out at 101st and walk the rest of the way to the Museum of the City of New York. We’re going to see the Automat exhibit, Horn and Hardart, the restaurant that used to sponsor the radio show Zachary did.
You know that feeling when you step off the street and into a museum? All the chaos and the noise disappears and everything is quieter and cooler. The exhibit is right on the first floor and you can see people moving through it. They’re silent, isolated even though there’s a crowd, each one trying to take it all in without disturbing anyone else. One step in Zachary plants his feet, takes a deep breath and belts out a song:
Less work for mother
And she’ll understand
Less work for mother
Just lend her a hand
She’s your greatest treasure
Just make her life a pleasure
Less work for mother dear
“I used to sing that on the radio!” he declares, standing a bit taller, planting his foot.
And now everyone in the exhibit is looking at me like I can’t control my toddler. They don’t understand, no one can stop Zachary from doing stuff like this.
Besides, for him, Horn and Hardart was all about making a racket. One of his acts was tap dancing. On the radio. In roller skates. Here’s a recoding to prove it:
As you can hear, it’s just as bad an idea as it sounded when you read it. Complain about the internet all you want, but this was what they had for entertainment in the 1930s.
And slowly, every person in that exhibit, except for one, lone, cranky woman off in a corner, has formed a circle around Zachary. One of them is even crying because she hasn’t heard that song since she was a little girl. And now Zachary has an audience. They want to know all about the Automat first hand.
They called the Automat because you got your food through an Art Deco, coin-operated wall, glass panels with little knobs you turn to open.
“After the radio show, they’d give you a stack of nickels and you could go get whatever you wanted,” Zachary says as they slowly walk through. “You’d walk right up, put your nickel in, and get your pumpkin pie. That’s helluva treat for a kid.”
But those 81-year-old legs start to fail him and he shoos people away, which never happens. Zachary loves his audiences, needs that connection that comes from telling his story.
Age wins this time so we sit on a bench until he feels better. He’s just not ready to go home yet. Not to the dark. Not to being alone.
“We should go to that famous coffee shop,” he says.
I can’t think of a famous coffee shop on the Upper East Side, but I’m excited at the idea of discovering some old New York treasure I’ve never known about. “What coffee shop?” I ask.
“You know,” he says. “The one with the donuts.”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”