I had that classic shot of Manhattan from the airplane window as I flew up the Hudson on the way into LaGuardia, parallel to the City’s skyscraper grid, as if the flight pattern had been directed specially for Continental Airlines and the City of New York by Woody Allen or Nora Ephron. I swear I heard Gershwin playing, possibly on the crackly airplane headphones, but I can’t say for certain. As I watched the World Trade Towers, then the Woolworth, Con-Ed, Flatiron, Empire State, Pan Am, and Chrysler buildings rise and fold below me like a pop-up book, the words passed through my head: “I could meet someone there.”
The words did not come with the excitement of school-boy expectations, but rather cautiously, with a slight sense of foreboding. I was still a priest, after all. And this would no longer be the pastoral suburban hillsides of the enlightened Berkeley that I had just left. It was bigger, grimier, unreflecting, relentless. From above, its shining monoliths opened and closed to reveal deep sooted crevices well suited for contraband and anonymity. I could see myself getting lost in there, without anyone knowing. Lost, with all the connotations of disappearance, misdirection, intoxication, swept away.
Coming to New York in late August 1989, I was for the first time “off-grid” in my Jesuit studies. To that point I had dutifully completed my courses and assignments along side my classmates in preparation for our one shared goal of ordination—a goal which had now already passed. As much as doing therapy, coming out of the closet, or creating an art piece for my masters thesis in theology had all been in their own small ways “off-grid,” they had been completed within the requirements of my formation.
But now, for the first time since I was 18 years old, I was without a predictable course of study, or a landmark in Jesuit formation to accomplish, or the structure of classmates and seminary walls. I was purposefully, knowingly giving myself to the creative process, to unchartered exploration, intuition, and, yes, the streets and avenues that winked at me from below the airplane window.
Little did I know, that just two weeks later, on the morning after my first sculpture class, while trying to find my way around the sculpture studios in the basement of NYU’s Barney building on Stuyvesant Street (one of the oldest, off-grid streets in the City), that I’d spot the tall handsome teddy bear of a graduate assistant helping someone unload particle board. After about a half hour of catching each other’s eye, his big smiling face popped out from around a doorway to me and asked, “so what’s your name anyway?”
Mine was Jim. His was Bob. And I have been off-grid with him in New York City ever since. And I have no intention of being found again anytime soon.
Happy Anniversary to my beloved Robert Loncar, and New York City.