On Sundays in New York

Our ears are open in a way that our eyes are not.
Nicholas Spice @ London Review of Books

My romantic notions of what life would be like in this city are never more true than when I'm sitting alone in my apartment on a Sunday afternoon listening to Jonathan Schwartz listen to Nancy LaMott or Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald on WNYC. (You're not really alone when you listen to Jonathan Schwartz. Every show lasts the psychic equivalent of seven days, full of grand pauses and thought bubbles, and even in the middle of a number you're aware that he's out there swingin’ along and waiting to unreel with a kind of benevolent glee another Jonathan Schwartz-y koan about Ukulele Ike or Comden and Green. Occasionally he seems to forget he's on the radio, which might be an effect all great radio people convey but also reminds me of my father: you know the audience is not what keeps them talking. A small part of me fears Jonathan Schwartz will die on the air some day and 25 minutes will go by before anyone realizes he's not just ruminating over Barbara Cook.)

On these long afternoons I'm a freckled, Midwestern Helene Hanff, swilling black coffee and kicking back on the sofa with stacks of books and newspapers at my feet while showtunes, jazz, and the Great American Songbook ring out over publicly funded airwaves. Under the guiding baton of Jonathan Schwartz and his infinite playlist, life in this dusty matchbox studio is suddenly Music and Words and Art, something wider and impossibly glamorous, all shadow and spotlight and cigarette smoke, impromptu singalongs, rat-a-tat patter and blurry tales of yesteryear that make it sound just like yesterday.

What passes in these hours is a sense of communion, of something secret and precious being shared, not just the time and not just a song, but that specific and unnameable thing that happens to the air while that song is playing. The real gift is that the music speaks not to the past but to the life I'm living now, and while thousands of other people are listening and the program would sound exactly the same somewhere else, it's a distinct marker of my experience in this time and place. It's that feeling of nostalgia for the moment you're in, knowing it's going and missing it already, and knowing that years from now, when I'm old and gray and nodding by the fire, I'll be able to hear a song like this and put a name to it that once meant home.