Tuesday, November 30, 2010

At Large


Perfect cool sunny November day. As I near the church, I see a young, perhaps African-American, woman pacing back and forth near the 86th Street door. She’s watching me. As I begin to unlock the door, she says, with a heavy French accent. “Excuse me, do you work here?”

I tell her yes, that I am the pastor.

“I am looking for Tracy Dixon,” she says.

I invite her to come around front, to come into my office and talk. I ask her if this is part of her job. “No, it is because I am Christian,” she says. She too had found him on the steps and gotten to know him. She tells me she has located Tracy’s daughter in Indiana and wants to reconnect them. She tells me her name is Laila. “So you’re the one George told me about,” I say. And she smiles and says, “yes, George.” I tell her that Tracy was the first other person I ever heard George show concern for. She tells me how she had found Tracy’s former wife on Facebook and then just before Thanksgiving his daughter. She was very excited. Said that back in September, Tracy had a birthday and she and her siblings had wondered “if dad was still alive.” And Laila hasn’t been able to find him since.

I share with her the story of Tracy and our days together. And how the Common Cause reachout people had taken him away. I hope, we hope, he’s okay. I need to find out. I promise to stay in touch with Laila. I ask her where she’s from. And she tells me France. And that she’s a nanny on the Upper Westside.

While we’re talking Amanda comes in with Bill Tripp, an architect from Portland who will be speaking on ritual space on Thursday here. Amanda too has had her friendship with Tracy. I’m amazed at this network of friends he has established in this neighborhood. And the interesting variety of women.

As I see Laila out the door, there’s an older, distinguished woman with white hair looking in the church. She says that she’s been here 30 years and never seen inside before. Always wondered about it. She lives on 105th and West End. And she too, has a French accent. She tells me of her life. How there was a study of different nationalities and what their priorities were. Some wanted security. Others freedom, human rights. Others more social rights higher. “I am French,” she says. I grew up in a socialist regime. Human needs taken care of. Still, for us, we French, it is pleasure and esthetics.”

She tells me of her religious life, raised Catholic. But always questioning. “They called me mademoiselle pourquoi” she said. And how she eventually came to move away form an organized religion. Too many questions she had. “I have been at large now for many years,” she says in a construction I like very much. “I eventually became a humanitarian,”she says. Tells me that she is 81. A retired nurse.

“Pleasure, esthetics, humanitarianism..., I like that..I tell her that she’s missed another French woman just moments ago. And that the guys across the street are francophone.

“Ah yes, “she says, “the tree men from Quebec..” she smiles. “They are near me too..”She says she used to go to 5th Avenue Presbyterian for the preaching or to a Catholic church for the ritual, Episcopal for the choir. She says I might see her some Sunday. I smile back and say I hope so. “Yes, I am at large,” she says.

Amanda and I go through the church with Bill. It’s good to see it through his eyes. I look forward t hearing what he will say on Thursday night.

Back outside, we go across the street. I introduce Amanda to Francois. He is carving a little sleigh. It’s something the tree people do on slow days, carve from scrap wood. I ask if he does reindeer. “No,” he says, “my friend over on Broadway, no, everybody makes reindeer. I need a different idea.” I tell him another one I saw on Broadway had gotten into carving Hannukah menorah for both small and large candles. That is, as they say, knowing your territory. I promise to think of new ideas.

We say goodbye to Francois, head up the street.


A day that looks on the verge of rain. All clear on the steps. Take coffee to Francois, check on his carving progress. His sleigh project continues. He needs a new knife. On the way to the subway, Ji Young is concerned about her work come January but happy for her daughter Miranda’s school. We’re on our way downtown to the mayor’s office to talk about green issues and our project.

A guy with an SUV shopping cart nodding out on the steps. I ask if he’s ok. Eventually, he looks up, says, “I’m good.”


Meetings to plan the Columbia University Preservation Alumni work day coming up Saturday. Talking with folks from Landmarks West!, it’s hard to set aside hard feelings from the landmarks struggle. On the one hand, I’m touched by the appreciation by the smallest detail of historic design and its beauty. On the other, I want to know that the beauty of each human being on the steps, each person who worships here is recognized as equally beautiful and important. That’s our struggle, our call.

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