I received a holiday card this week sent all the way from New York City.
It was from my friend Billy. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t meet Billy until my last few days in Manhattan, but we’ve kept in touch since I moved to Mt. Pleasant.
It was a warm July afternoon when we met. I was sitting on a bench in Union Square Park. Benches lined each side of the cobblestone sidewalk, wrapping around a fenced-in grassy area, where pedestrians laid underneath trees in the midday sun. In my hand was a bag of mangoes that I bought from a woman off the street. They were sliced and peeled and ready to be eaten. In my lap was a book, untouched as I watched all of the commotion around me.
A very jittery man, probably in his late 20s, possibly homeless, approached me and asked if his friend could have the spot on the bench next to me. I complied. An older gentleman, surprisingly well-dressed, sat down beside me.
Bored and incredibly lonely, I turned to him. “What brings you to the park today?” I asked. This question sparked a three-hour conversation and a friendship I hope to continue with Billy until he is no longer on this earth.
Billy lives in New Jersey now, taking the train into Manhattan during the week to enjoy his favorite spots in the city. He’s retired, a former Wall Street investor. The man who asked me if Billy could sit next to me — he was taking that man to dinner. They had just met and Billy offered to share a meal with him.
His daughter works as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is perpetually late when they brunch together. He raised her on his own when his wife passed away when his daughter was just nine years old. Cancer. He never remarried, although he spoke fondly of friends he loved deeply — just never any who he was in love with.
Billy asked me what I was doing in the city. It was my last day of work as a barista and a week later I was moving here, to Mt. Pleasant. He listened to my frustrations, excitement, fears and anxiety. He said he could tell I was smart. That I would make it alright.
He asked me about my nonexistent love life.
As the sun was setting, I asked for his phone number. He gave me that, his home address and offered to take me to lunch later that week. I happily agreed. Sometimes kindred souls find each other.
When I met Billy in Washington Square Park later that week, he was already engrossed in conversation with someone slightly younger than me with a nose ring and hair dyed jet black. He invited that young man to lunch with us as well. Unfortunately, he was unable to join, but that was when I realize this is who Billy is. He loves people and he loves bringing them joy. It brings him joy.
Billy took me to an Italian restaurant — Volare — which he said he had been going to for 50 years. He greeted the waiters and manager by name, asking them to bring out their favorite dishes for us to sample over the two-hour lunch. Billy pointed out the famous author writing furiously in the corner of the dimly-lit restaurant.
“He comes here every day to write,” Billy told me.
Later, in Central Park, he and I sat listening to a woman sing opera. She had placed herself underneath a bridge to get just the right sound. In between songs, Billy chatted with her, requesting she sing this or that, applauding when she finished, and of course throwing a few dollars her way before we continued walking.
Maybe Billy is just looking for companionship. Maybe he has a heart of gold. Maybe he has an eye for talent. Or perhaps he enjoys encouraging anyone he sees has a passion for what they do.
I’ve begun taking notes when I talk to Billy on the phone. He celebrated his 79th birthday on Oct. 28. His life and philosophy on living could fill several books. To me, he is some sort of guru — spilling truth into my life without me even sharing much of anything personal. Either he has a knack for hearing the uncertainty in someone’s voice or he just remembers very clearly what it is like to be in your early 20s.
I sent him a copy of The Mt. Pleasant News, the first newspaper that had my byline on the front page. In a letter, Billy complimented my writing. He gave me advice on how to have a successful career. He said, as he has said many times to me before, “You are young, you are intelligent, you have a good image and you are healthy.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, I am grateful there are people like Billy in this world. Lonely, yet generous souls inspired to share their blessings with perfect strangers. I’m grateful there are people who inspire others. And I will try to do more of the same.