Don Quixote de la Manhattan
Was I crazy? Had I gone completely nuts? Most of the people in my life had already reached their conclusion and answered in the affirmative. It seemed that I alone had reservations about whether or not I was a certifiable lunatic. After all, if someone has lost all sense of reason and is operating in a delusional state, how can they judge for themselves if they had or had not gone over the edge? Add to this the fact that defining what constitutes insanity is relative to the culture, societal norms, and subjective opinions of those doing the judging, and not by the subjects themselves—and what have you then?
For example, consider street life on the island of Manhattan. Compare it to the average lifestyles of those who live in quiet, leafy suburban hamlets not far from the city, such as Long Island, Westchester or North Jersey—places where many commuters live in nice houses and only come to the city for work. Behavior and appearances that are commonplace here in New York would attract negative attention from the locals in the small towns surrounding the Big City; they might even bring out the police. By the same token, those same persons wandering the city streets in their own private Eden might be labeled crazy and brought to the nuthouse for their own good or for the perceived safety of others.
You might be asking yourself, “What the hell is he talking about?” That’s a good question which I’ll try to answer. Let me tell you a story that may help you, as it helped me, decide who is crazy and who is not in this admittedly always-a-bit-crazy world of ours, as seen in microcosm on the streets of “the city that never sleeps.”
My story, which actually happened, begins with a chance meeting I had with a woman I encountered while sitting on a park bench in Manhattan. I call her the “Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle”—and it was a meeting that transformed my life.
I had just turned fifty, a milestone in life and often celebrated as such. Some say making it to the half a century mark is a significant achievement. Others say it’s the last stop before the downward slide into decrepitude. But everyone agrees that it’s the time to begin considering slowing down.
I’m married and my wife and I have three grown daughters in their twenties. I own my own business. I have employees and a house in the suburbs. I also own a modest pied-a-tier in Manhattan that I purchased ten years ago. When my wife and I first acquired it, we used to use it together. We would come to town, attend Broadway shows, and do other “city things” in an attempt to add some pizzazz to our rather routine (often humdrum) existence. It was our place to escape.
When two of our daughters graduated from college and took jobs in Manhattan, they lived in that conveniently located Midtown studio co-op apartment, until such time as their careers took off and they could move to bigger digs elsewhere in the city. After they both had their turn with the place, I began to spend more and more time there. I liked being away from the ‘burbs, away from everything that was familiar.
This is when the first whispering of “craziness” started in my life.
I always liked taking photographs and long walks, so to pass the time I began exploring the city with my camera, snapping away while venturing further and deeper into the city’s landscape. I began absorbing diverse neighborhoods, from Harlem to The Battery and every place in between. The vibrations of Manhattan were a far cry from the serene, uneventful life I had been living a mere fifty miles away.
One day, while on one of my walks to nowhere special, I realized I had forgotten my camera. Feeling at a loss, I began to record images and observations in my mind, and on returning to my small apartment took out my laptop and began to write them in the form of poems, essays and short stories. A new life of daily adventures had begun for me and writing about these adventures had set me on an irreversible course—destination unknown.
Those inclined to shun the artistic lifestyle I seemed to be venturing towards were puzzled, and in some cases felt threatened, by what they could not understand and the craziness label began growing deeper roots. But my artist friends, who were longtime city dwellers, encouraged my venture into the new world of words, images and urban adventure. They saw it not as a so-called “midlife crisis” but as the awakening and blossoming of a dormant spirit.
Unbeknownst to me at that point was that walking with no particular plan in mind had pointed my rudderless ship on a course that would lead me to a fellow writer who took pen to paper in Spain over 600 years ago, and to his fictitious hero whose adventures would rearrange the world for me, as it had for so many others. I was about to meet a fascinating woman on a park bench who would introduce me to one of the greatest writers in history, Miguel Cervantes, and to his fictional Knight errant Don Quixote de la Mancha!
Before we meet The Lady, let me tie together some loose historical threads.
Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 and discovered America in 1492. He died in 1506 in the Spanish Villa of Valladolid, which was founded in the 11th century. During the next two centuries Valladolid become the seat of the Castilian crown. It was here in the Palace of Los Valero that Ferdinand and Isabel, the “Catholic Monarchs,” got engaged, thereby uniting the two largest kingdoms of the time. Columbus attended Salamanca University, which is one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded by Spanish King Alfonse IX in 1218. Thirty-six years later Pope Alexander IV acknowledged it as one of the four greatest universities of the world.
Miguel Cervantes, author of the epic novel Don Quixote, was born in the same Castilian region of Spain as Columbus 41 years after the great explorer died. Cervantes also spent his later years in The Villa of Valladolid. Just as Columbus did in his day, Cervantes also walked the hallowed halls of Salamanca University. Some scholars speculate that Columbus may have even been the inspiration for Cervantes fictional hero Don Quixote de la Mancha, as an abiding prototype of human folly, delusion and greatness.
In 1892, to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas, New York City placed a monument created by the great Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo at the center of Columbus Circle. As I approached the statue after a long, exhausting hike through the streets of Manhattan, there stood the mighty landmark, commanding attention on the southwest corner of Central Park. It was Christopher Columbus, a towering legend sometimes called “The Don Quixote of the Seas.”
I was feeling somewhat unhinged at the time. I had to figure out a sensible way to navigate through this challenging period. When it came to business, if I could imagine it I could make it real. In this case, however, it was easier said than done. This was my life, after all, and my life’s experiences to date had always been geared towards building, not dismantling. I had responsibilities, but at the same time I needed to write, to take pictures, to think in a new way—to allow the lava in my heated inner core to rise to the surface and flow. But…how to make it work, and not destroy all that I had worked for and built to date? It was a conundrum, an enigma wrapped in a paradox.
Instead of extending my uptown walk into Central Park, as I often do, I felt needed to sit down, quiet my mind, and stop worrying. As I approached Columbus Circle I noticed an attractive, shady spot with granite benches just outside one of the entrances to Central Park. Ambling across Broadway, I got a large coffee and then returned to that inviting spot. There was a lot of people traffic in front of me, vendors selling food and other vendors selling tourist art. I soon realized that I had positioned myself smack dab in the middle of a bicycle renting bazaar of sorts, where pedicab drivers were relentlessly soliciting tourists and passersby who were traveling through the busy paths leading to and from the park, the Circle and all the shops and sights of this historic area of the city. The park was behind me, the statue was before me. Trump International Tower and the buildings of the Time Warner Center complex loomed to my right, with Central Park South and its lined up horse-drawn carriages to my left. The sights, sounds and smells were abundant, to say the least.
I had been hanging onto bromides of late such as “Don’t worry, be happy,” “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” “One day at a time,” “When there’s no change there’s no chance,” “It’s none of my business what other people think about me” and so on. With all this in mind I sat and pondered. I never placed much stock in television self-help gurus such as Oprah and Dr. Phil. Nevertheless there I sat, surrounded by the headquarters of America’s major TV networks. The impressive CNN blue glass tower, ABC, CBS, NBC and the Time Warner Center were all within blocks of where Christopher Columbus stood watch and I sat sipping coffee.
Despite my fiercely independent “I can take on the world alone” approach to life’s challenges, personal or business, I suddenly felt very alone. Isolated and helpless to come up with a solution to this conflict between the two worlds I was straddling, I was on the fence, as they say, which is never a great place to be.
Fortunately, help was the on the way—in the form of a slender, attractive, mid-60ish woman, dressed in jogging clothes and sipping fresh orange juice from a container. She had just finished a jog through Central Park and sat next me to cool down. As she settled in, I glanced over, nodded and said, “Hi, nice day for a jog.”
She finished her sip, got her breathing under control and responded, “Sure is. It’s beautiful.” After a pause she began. “What do you think of these pedicab guys out here? Aren’t they amazing?”
“Yes!” I replied. “I’ve been studying them. They are incredible salesmen. They just don’t give up. Here,” I pointed, “watch this guy in action. The stories they tell to make a sale!”
“They sure are persistent,” she agreed. “They remind me of characters in my favorite novel of all time!”
“What novel is that?”
“Oh, Don Quixote,” she said. “Have you ever read it?”
“I’ve heard of it of course, but no, I’ve never actually read it.”
“You should! There’s everything in life in it; even the meaning of what these bike guys are doing.”
“Everything?” I said, in astonishment.
“EEEEEE-Va-Re-Thing.” She was emphatic.
“Please tell me more,” I was all ears, “if you have the time.”
There we sat, a man drinking coffee, desperately searching for answers, next to a woman sipping juice after her Central Park jog who had just mentioned a book she swore possessed the answers to “everything in life.”
I stared at the statue Christopher Columbus, wondering where this conversation was going. I wanted to know more, and this chance encounter seemed almost too good to be true.
“So this book Don Quixote, uh, it’s your favorite?”
“Oh by far. As a matter of fact, I’ve spent half my life studying it!”
“Really! Half a lifetime? Incredible!”
She nodded her head. “Actually, I teach a class on Don Quixote, part-time at NYU. Before that I was a full-time Professor of Spanish Literature at Harvard University. I’m retired now but still enjoy teaching Quixote here in New York, which is my home.”
One of the reasons I love this city is that you never know who might be sitting beside you—sinner or saint, celebrity or genius, billionaire or pauper. No matter who and what they are, everybody has a story. I wasn’t sure I believed her but said, “Wow, that is fascinating.”
Just then a tall man, his wife and two daughters stopped walking and stood directly in front of us, taking a moment to take in the sights. One of the pedicab peddlers saw an opportunity and pounced:
“Good afternoon Sir, ladies! What a perfect day it is to take a leisurely bicycle-driven cab ride and see all the sights in our beautiful Central Park. Don’t you agree?”
The man and his family ignored the sales pitch. Undeterred, the bike man persisted.
“Since there are four of you I’ll give you an extra-special price. Normally we get twenty dollars an hour, but for you and your wife and lovely daughters I can let you keep the bikes for two hours for the same price! But we must keep this a secret. If the boss finds out, I’ll have to pay him the difference, and I can’t afford that.”
The tourist’s wife and daughters were looking towards the father. Feeling pressured he said, in a European accent I couldn’t identify, “I give you fifteen US dollars for two hours. Deal?”
“Oh man! Girls, your father is a good businessman. You guys are lucky to have him for a dad.”
“Good,” said the father proudly, believing he had assumed control of the negotiations in front of his family.
“Oh man, oh man! All right I’ll do it. You win. But remember, don’t talk about this price to anyone. This is very important. Deal?”
“Deal!” snapped the father as he reached for his wallet. The tension broke. The family was all smiles. The bike man led them towards a tangle of shabby looking pedicabs under a tree where all the grass had been worn down to dirt and not to the newer cabs neatly lined up in a row across the street from Trump International Tower.
The fledging conversation between The Professor and I paused while the drama unfolded before us. The process was to repeat itself time and time again, not always with success, but the bike peddler hunters were hungry, relentless in pursuit of their prey.
“Did you catch that?” I asked the lady sitting to my right.
“I most certainly did,” she said. “These guys are great.” We were both impressed.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to work the conversation back to Don Quixote.
“So, there are guys like that in Don Quixote?”
“No kidding? In what way?”
“Well, here we sit,” she said, “surrounded by the greatest wealth in the world while these young men work and maybe even live on these same streets, flogging tourists all day every day for a few dollars per trip. I would bet they are even indentured to some boss who’s watching every move they make. What a paradox.”
She pointed out a building under construction rising up into the Manhattan skyline behind CNN and the penthouses overlooking Central Park South.
“Someone just purchased an entire floor for 100 million dollars! Hah—when they look down this will all be going on right here under their noses, from dawn to dusk.”
“Maybe some will see where they came from,” I said.
She looked me and nodded. Then she did something unexpected. She reached into the pocket of her jogging suit top and pulled out a piece of paper. “This is one of my favorite quotes,” she said, and began reading…
“We shall find that in poverty itself there is no one poorer; for he is dependent on his miserable pay, which comes late or never, or else on what he can plunder, seriously imperiling his life and conscience so great that a slashed doublet serves him for uniform and shirt, and in the depth of winter he has to defend himself against the inclemency of the weather in the open field with nothing better than the breath of his mouth.”
I had just gotten my first formal introduction to Don Quixote and began feeling less incredulous, that maybe it was as she said, that maybe everything in life is in that book. If it indeed offered insights into both the pedicab guys on the street and billionaires in penthouses, maybe it could help me put my own sorry plight in perspective.
Continuing my park bench education into all things Quixote, she said in a professional tone, “Sancho’s disorientation engrosses us directly in the story and emphasizes the question of sanity that arises throughout the novel. If someone as mad as Don Quixote can write his own story, create his own reality, as it were, we wonder what would prevent us from doing the same.”
I can’t speak for the Professor—who I’d already began to characterize in my mind as The Don Quixote Lady—but a sudden lull in our conversation began making me uneasy. I searched for sensible questions or comments to keep our talk going, but my mind had gone blank. I was afraid that if the silence continued any longer she would pick herself up and leave, even though we had just begun to scratch the surface of this Don Quixote thing.
I was enormously relieved when she began to speak again.
“Are you a reader?” she asked.
“Oh yes, I love to read. I read all the time.”
“What kind of books do you like to read?”
A former Harvard professor and renowned Don Quixote expert asked me what kind of books I read.
Was I up to this?
“Well,” I answered vaguely, “I like many kinds of books and stories.”
“I like history—mostly military history, especially World War II and Vietnam. I just finished an excellent book about the Korean War that was the basis for the movie Pork Chop Hill starring Gregory Peck.”
“I see,” she said noncommittally.
“Oh, and I also like crime books—the mafia and things like that.”
For some reason my mind had skipped over the fact that in the past few years I had been reading such classic and influential authors as Henry Miller, Celine, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Kerouac, and a slew of poets such as E.E. Cummings, Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg, along with short stories by Billy Collins and Studs Terkel.
“Oh,” I added, “I like Jack London’s adventure stories too.”
I still did not know my bench-mate’s name, but I cared about what she thought and watched as she tipped her juice container for a last sip. I expected her to speak, but there was another long pause.
“Okay, okay,” she said blandly. “I get it.” I felt like such a fool.
She began to stir. She was looking for a trashcan.
“Damn it Mike,” I chastised myself. “You should have mentioned Dostoevsky and the others—in place of various wars and Call of the Wild. Maybe then the conversation would have lasted.”
“Well, it was very nice talking with you,” she said. “I have to get on with my day now.”
“Oh sure,” I replied. “It’s a beautiful day. Enjoy it! It was nice meeting you too, and thanks for telling me about Don Quixote.”
As I watched her walk off into the distance, becoming smaller and smaller, I felt as if a joust of the intellect had just transpired, and I had been—deservedly—knocked off my horse.
Nowadays the number of bookstores in Manhattan has become increasingly sparse—as it has everywhere else. For this reason among others I am grateful that Posman Books is still thriving in Grand Central, a mere 10-block walk from my apartment.
I strode into Posman Books, red of face and full of purpose.
“Good afternoon,” said the sales clerk. “May I help you find something in particular?”
“Quixote,” I blurted. “Uh, sorry—I mean Don Quixote!”
“Of course,” she said. “Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. That’s in Literature. Follow me please. I’ll help you find a copy. I’m sure we have a few different translations. Do you have a particular one in mind?”
Different translations?!? I thought, What the…
“No, not really, maybe just the most popular one. That will do, I think.”
“I have a good edition in mind. It’s the one I studied in college when I was getting my Masters. It’s by Tobias Smollett. It’s a wonderful translation—easy on the eyes, if you know what I mean.”
She handed me the book. It was heavy. I said, “Oh my God, look at the size of that book. It must be more than 1,000 pages long!”
“Excuse me Sir. Did you say something.”
“No. No, it’s okay, nothing important.”
I felt as intimidated as I’d felt back at Columbus Circle with the professor.
“Would you like to buy that one?”
“Sure. Yes. Why not? I mean…absolutely!”
I bought Don Quixote and walked from the store. The moment I turned the key in the lock and entered my apartment I wanted to dive right into the oversized book. But before I started, a cool shower was definitely called for. I set Mr. Coffee on brew and jumped into the shower.
As I stood under the refreshing spray, the words of The Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle ricocheted inside my head. “Everything in life is in there. Everything is life is there.”
Could this be possible? I had not yet even read page one but still felt more alive, more optimistic, than I had in some time. What was with this book? What kind of journey would it take me on? Was I really prepared for a 900-plus page read? Or would I truly prefer to remain the central character in the ongoing pity party I kept throwing for myself?
After drying off I made my way to the couch, hot coffee in front of me on the table, book held steady in both hands.
Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote got down to business from the get-go!
(Page 1) Our gentlemen, who bordered upon fifty, were of a tough constitution, extremely thin and hard-featured, an early riser, and in point of exercise another Nimrod (like a mighty hunter).
(Page 2) Be it known therefore that this said honest gentleman at his leisure hours, which engrossed the greatest part of the year, addicted himself to the reading of books of chivalry, which he perused with such rapture and application that he not only forgot the pleasures of the chase, but also utterly neglected the management of his estate.
(Page 3) And more than once inclined to seize the quill, with a view of performing what was left undone; nay, he would have actually accomplished the affair, and published it accordingly, had not reflections of greater moment employed his imagination, and diverted him from the execution of that design.
Dulcinea, I read, the unseen simple peasant woman, unknown inspiration for all of Don Quixote’s exploits, clearly has no knowledge of the valorous deeds that he performs in her name. Even though his vision clears enough to reveal that the inns he sees are just inns and not castles, and the windmills were not monsters as he previously believed, he never gives up on his absolute conviction that Dulcinea can save him from all misfortune. Similarly, could my own visions have been just as delusional?
As I continued to read, a stalled low-pressure weather system had positioned itself over the Northeastern part of the country. The jet stream was dipping down where it normally does not venture in June, stubbornly preventing the hot humid weather from traveling, as usual, either northward or out to sea. In New York City the temperature and humidity began to climb almost as fast as the pages I was turning. The streets had become too sauna-like for any more outdoor adventures, even for an all-weather wanderer like me—l of which made it the perfect time to burrow down with Don Quixote in my comfy apartment.
The first breakthrough, that first aha moment in my skepticism about the Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle’s claim, that “Everything in life is in there” became particularly significant where it reads, “…until death it is all life”.
I’ve learned a great deal about life from Don Quixote.
Reading Don Quixote dispelled the notion that my situation was unique and that no one else could possibly feel the pain I felt. If no one could ever understand how I felt, how was it that 407 years ago Miguel Cervantes, through his fictitious Don Quixote, who was coincidentally my exact same age, felt precisely what I was feeling! Our experiences were different, but we definitely felt the same pain. My Dulcenia was not a beloved woman worthy of chivalry but rather my chivalric adventures, wandering throughout my beloved city, “my right to write.”
“I know who I am…and who I may be, if I choose.”
My personal journey into the world of words is now in its tenth year, and I know I will never stop writing. My new hero, Don Quixote de la Mancha, had Rocinante, his faithful steed. I have my faithful Keds. Once they are on my feet l too, like Alonso Quijano, aka Don Quixote, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, am free to venture out into a world that this is both within my grasp and beyond my wildest imagination.
The lingering question “Was I really crazy?” finally had an answer. Thanks to The Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle, and to Miguel Cervantes and his Knight Errant Don Quixote de la Mancha, I have the answers—which are both Yes and No.
Yes, perhaps I am a bit crazy, paddling against the current of established norms and expectations of the society and culture in which my physical body exists. This can be dangerous, and isolating at times, which no sane person desires.
And No, I am not insane, because to live a life of quiet desperation, enthralled by material possessions while missing out on adventure, had become a kind of waking death. After much experimentation I realize that, for me, writing was the solution that could remove the emptiness that had grown unsustainable.
Later on, reading these passages reinforced my new confidence in the choices I had made.
DON QUIXOTE TO SANCHO PANZA: “Forgive me, friend,” said he, “for having been the cause of thy appearing in the eye of the world a madman like myself, by drawing thee into the eye of the world. A madman, like myself, by drawing thee into my own erroneous notions concerning the existence and adventures of knight–errant”.
SANCHO PANZA REPLIES: “Lack-a-day! dear Sir” (cried Sancho, blubbering), “do not die; take my advice and live many years upon the face of the earth; for the greatest madness a man can be guilty of in this life is to let himself die outright, without being slain by any person whatever, or destroyed by any other weapon than the hands of melancholy. Hark ye, senor, be not lazy; get up and let us take the field in shepherds’ apparel, according to our agreement. Who knows, but behind some bush we may find my lady Dulcinea disenchanted and a comely sight to see.”
These days, whenever I walk through Columbus Circle, I look around, past the pedicab drivers, past the horses and carriages, past the tourists that congregate in one tiny quadrangle on the island of Manhattan, in hope of seeing The Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle again. If and when I do, I will rush over to say, “Thank you, dear lady for changing my life; by taking away the confusion and guilt. I get it. I truly do get it now.”