After more than 1,000 Urban Gardner columns, this is my final one.
I was planning to write about Mary Arnold Toys, an Upper East Side toy store that dates back to 1931. Then I realized a toy store is an apt metaphor for the pleasures of composing this column four days a week for the past six years.
When I visited last week, Judy Ishayik, who runs the store with her father, Ezra, told me she started out as a teacher but decided to work at Mary Arnold Toys after trying it out for a couple of months.
“What’s great about this place,” she said, “is that everybody leaves happy. The kids have something new. A grandma has a perfect present.”
Likewise, this column has been a gift from day one, April 26, 2010, when I wrote about perfecting one’s MetroCard swiping technique.
For the record, I have yet to do so.
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Some of the columns that stand out in my mind involve achieving great heights—physical if not necessarily literary ones.
Hovering high over Central Park in an NYPD helicopter piloted by the department’s first woman qualified to command one of its bigger helicopters.
Climbing to the top of the George Washington Bridge to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its aviation beacon.
Clinging to the side of the Empire State Building on a visit to its 103rd floor catwalk, where nothing separates you from the hereafter but a modest railing.
While those experiences put me at little physical risk, others did, or at least felt that way. Rock-climbing in the Shawangunks, though I doubt I ever got more than 10 feet off the ground. Flying over the Coney Island boardwalk on a Scream Zone ride. Facing off against tennis great Rafael Nadal across a Ping-Pong table.
I also appreciated being invited, though it sometimes required a little persuasion, to tell the stories of fellow New Yorkers.
Ezra Ishayik, who bought Mary Arnold Toys in 1982, said he fled Iran in the 1960s. “We were Jewish,” he said. “We couldn’t get passports, couldn’t get jobs. We had to get away. Thank God we did.”
James Fucile, a shoe repairman, told me upon his retirement, after 60 years on the Upper East Side, that his job had been “a gift from God.”
He loved his customers. He loved giving away shoes to the needy.
“God gave everybody a gift to love one another,” he said, beginning to choke up, “and once you learn to love each other as brother and sister, it is great. You can’t explain.”
I’m often asked which was my favorite column. I have no favorites. The best part of this job has been the opportunity to wake up each morning, pound out a story, turn it in around 2 p.m., and then head out across the five boroughs to do more reporting.
Another frequent question is where my story ideas come from. When New York City is your terrain, you don’t have to look very hard.
It’s rare in any medium but especially journalism these days, given the challenging economics, to be granted the privilege to wax poetic about the pleasures of a perfectly fresh Mallomar; to share the terror of the Taconic State Parkway; to write perhaps one too manycolumns about bird-watching.
I’m indebted to The Wall Street Journal for indulging me, I suspect occasionally against its better judgment.
Mr. Ishayik told me a prominent lawyer asked him if he was interested in selling his store.
“I said, ‘You’re on TV all the time,’” Mr. Ishayik recalled. “He said, ‘People come to me crying: “I’m going to prison. My wife is divorcing me.” I can have fun here.’”
This column has been immense fun. Proof, at least to myself, that middle age can feel closer to the beginning of one’s career than the end.
The Ishayiks are right. Stepping into their store produces a gentle euphoria, but it has little, if anything, to do with reliving one’s childhood.
It’s all about the present.
Perhaps that’s been the greatest joy of writing Urban Gardner. I got to live in the moment five and sometimes seven days a week.
The challenge now, and one I’m cautiously optimistic about, is finding ways to perpetuate that daily delight. This job has certainly provided enough momentum.