A book landed under my Christmas tree last December, and I’ve only now gotten around to reading it.
There was no great shame in waiting, since none of the people in charge of such things have declared my holiday gift a must-read. It was published in 1992 and was written by an author who died more than two decades ago.
But despite its age, Helene Hanff’s “Letter from New York” speaks well to the worries we’re having right now about how broken the world seems, which is why I feel moved to say a few words about it.
Hanff, who died in 1997, was a New York freelance writer who loved to read, which led to a funny exchange of letters with a London bookseller. Their correspondence, collected in a 1970 book called “84 Charing Cross Road,” was a big hit, adapted as a stage play, then a movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Hanff’s newfound prominence led the BBC to ask if she could file a monthly radio commentary about her daily life in Manhattan, explaining the Big Apple to listeners in Great Britain.
Hanff obliged, launching a series of broadcast vignettes that lasted from 1978 to 1984. She kept the transcripts, eventually collected in “Letter from New York.”
When Hanff started chronicling New York for her British audience, the city was in a mess. Struggling to pay the bills, the local government had cut back on basic services, and some landmark areas of Central Park were covered in weeds. Times Square was a slum, and there was a lot of anxiety about crime. Many thought Gotham’s best days were behind it. Hanff mentions some of these challenges in her reports, along with her own political engagement in her city and country.
But her real subject is the underlying goodness of the neighbors she sees each day — the folks who affirm an enduring sense of tolerance and generosity, even when the government of her day seems dysfunctional.
When an elderly neighbor gets lost, a young couple in Hanff’s apartment building finds him and brings him home. “Then there was the dinner hour when old Mrs. Miller, who lives across the hall from me, got her hands caught in the mail chute,” Hanff tells readers. “Murphy, the doorman on duty, borrowed my olive oil and poured a little bit of it over her fingers to work them loose.”
Hanff finds herself on the receiving end of this generosity, too. “The winter I had the flu,” she writes, “everybody on my floor offered to do my marketing and my laundry and pick up my mail.”
Hanff’s alertness to the kind of goodwill that rarely makes the headlines has prompted me to think of the kindnesses I witness each day, even at a time when we seem so divided.
That’s been a great Christmas gift, and I wish I hadn’t waited so long to enjoy it.