For almost eight years I lived in New York City, and every time I would find myself on 34th Street, I would walk toward 9th Avenue and stand in front of the William Sloane YMCA and look up at a window on the sixth floor. It was at that window on a rainy August afternoon in 1985 that I spoke to a stranger who altered the course of my life.
I had spent a week in Connecticut working with silent film actress Patsy Ruth Miller on her autobiography. It had not gone well. She was not in a good mood and had been very critical of the writing I had done so far. She said rather bluntly that asking me to help her with the book had been a mistake. “I don’t think that you have the ability or the skill to take on this project,” she said. “I’m sorry, dear, but you just don’t have the talent.” My self esteem was at a low ebb and I had no confidence in myself. I was so discouraged and depressed that I had left her house a day earlier than planned and was spending a night in New York City before flying back to Tennessee the following afternoon.
It was my very first visit to the Big Apple and I was very nervous. I had never been in such a big city all by myself and after taking a cab from Grand Central to the YMCA, I was reluctant to go outside. I thought if I went out the front door, I might be mugged or accosted or caught in the crossfire of a gangland shooting. And hearing the constant sound of sirens was very disturbing.
I was assigned to a room on the sixth floor, and after settling in, I stepped out into the hallway and noticed a bright window at the end of the hall. As I got closer, I could see the silhouette of someone standing there. It had started raining, and little rivulets of water were running down the windowpane. As I got closer, I could see that it was a young man, gazing pensively out the window. I must admit that I was immediately attracted to him. He was young and tall and slim, with an athletic build. His hair was blonde and it had started to thin at his temples. I slowly approached the window, which looked down onto 34th Street, and said, “when did it start raining?”
When he turned to look at me, my heart skipped a beat. He had a handsome baby face, with bright blue eyes. I was still deep in the closet at that time, but I couldn’t help staring at him.
“A minute ago,” he said. “There is something very relaxing about watching rain. It is very soothing.”
I was immediately drawn to him. Not only did he have a gentle manner but he had an accent that caressed my ears. It made everything he said sound very mysterious and poetic. “Yes, I suppose so,” I managed to say in reply. “May I ask where you are from?”
He said he was from Hamburg, in Germany, and was visiting America for the first time. “I’ve been here for only one day,” he added. “Where did you come from?”
I told him that I was from Tennessee and that it was my first time to be in New York City. “I’ve been here for only one hour.” He laughed, and I was hooked.
We stood there at that window for a long time. The rain stopped, the sky cleared and we continued to talk, even as the sun sank lower in the sky, casting long shadows over the street below. We were so curious about each other. I learned that he would be in the US for two weeks and was spending his time in New York. He wanted to see some Broadway plays and visit the famous tourist attractions. He was especially looking forward to walking through Central Park. I told him all about my little hometown in Tennessee, the college in the north I had attended and about the book project with Patsy Ruth Miller that had come to an abrupt end.
Suddenly realizing that we were hungry, we went down to the little restaurant that adjoined the lobby and continued our conversation. I was particularly impressed by how well he spoke English. He said he had been studying the language for a few years and was also fluent in French and Latin, something he had in common with many of his German classmates. I assumed he was a college graduate, but he said no, that he would be enrolling in a college in Berlin that fall, to study computer science and economics. His worldliness and sophistication, knowledge and experience made me think he was several years older than me, probably around 28, but he surprised me by saying he had recently turned 21. We were less than a year apart. It was obvious to me that German students were certainly better educated than American students!
I admitted to him that I was very curious about New York City but did not feel comfortable going out exploring on my own. “I have only seen a little of the city so far,” he said, “so let’s go and explore together.”
It was an invitation that thrilled me, so when the meal was over and the bill was paid, we went out the front door and turned onto 34th street, heading east. We had walked several blocks when we spotted a movie theater. BACK TO THE FUTURE had just opened to rave reviews, and when we saw the title in big letters on the marquee, we quickly bought tickets! We loved it, and the film is still one of my most favorite movies. We later found ourselves on Broadway and walked up to Times Square, where we marveled at the stores, the crowds of people and the brightly lit marquees advertising such plays as THE ODD COUPLE, BILOXI BLUES and BIG RIVER. There was so much excitement and energy around that famous intersection that it was impossible not to be caught up in the mood, which was intoxicating. We walked into an arcade, which were so popular at the time, and spent all of our quarters playing Centipede, Space Invaders and Pac Man. As we were enjoying the sights and sounds of Times Square, I realized that all my fears and apprehensions had disappeared. It was after 2 AM when we finally returned to the YMCA, and despite the late hour, I felt so happy that it took me a very long time to fall asleep.
The plane to Tennessee was departing LaGuardia the following day about 4 pm, so I invited my young German friend to join me in exploring more of the city before I had to leave. We met in the lobby the next morning, had some breakfast at a diner, and walked to the Empire State Building. We purchased our tickets and took the elevator to the very top, the observation deck on the 102nd floor, where we walked out into the open air and looked out over the city and the world beyond, almost able to see the curvature of the earth! I’ve been to the top of that building twice since then, but nothing can compare to the exhilaration I felt on that warm August morning in 1985. When our feet were back on the firm pavement of 5th Avenue, we took the subway all the way down to lower Manhattan, to Wall Street, and walked over to the World Trade Center. I’ll never forget that magnificent lobby with its enormous floor-to-ceiling windows and the bright red carpeting. We went to the highest floor of Tower One, to the observatory. I think it may also have been floor 102, but unlike the Empire State Building, visitors could not feel the wind rushing around their heads as they looked down at the city. It was an enclosed space, and we had to peer through thick-paned windows. But it was just as thrilling, and the windows were tilted slightly outward, so you could lean against them and look almost straight down.
A quick subway ride took us back to midtown Manhattan and we emerged at Grand Central Station, where we grabbed a quick lunch at a deli on Lexington Avenue. It was close to 2 pm already and there was just enough time to walk back to the YMCA, past the famous New York City Public Library with its two enormous lion statues in front. I picked up my suitcase at the front desk and waited for the airport shuttle. I had grown to feel very close to my young friend, and I was delighted when he climbed onto the shuttle and sat with me until it was ready to leave.
“I’ve just realized that I don’t even know your name,” I grinned. “My name is Jeff, Jeff Carrier, and it has been a great pleasure to spend time with you.” He shook my hand and said his name was Christian Pless. “It has been a pleasure for me, also,” he added.
A plan suddenly took shape in my mind and without even thinking it through, I blurted out, “come to Mountain City, Tennessee!” As he looked at me with wide-eyed surprise, I continued, “don’t base your idea of the United States on New York City. You should also get to know people who live in the rural areas. That’s where you’ll find true American values.”
As the shuttle driver announced that we were ready to depart, I scribbled my phone number on the torn half of my Empire State Building ticket and handed it to him. I’ll be home tonight. Call me and we can talk about it.
There was just enough time for him shake my hand again, put the number in his pocket and leave the shuttle before the doors closed and we drove off. I could see him on the sidewalk, watching as we were swallowed by the traffic.
As the plane made its way to Tennessee, I wandered if I would ever see Christian again, if I would ever hear that interesting accent or look into his sparkling blue eyes. But to my delight, he did call me at home later that night. He said he had been to the Port Authority and purchased a bus ticket. “I could not buy a ticket to Mountain City,” he said, “but I did buy a ticket to Abingdon, Virginia. I was told that it is very close to Mountain City. Is that right?” I assured him that it was indeed close, about 30 miles away. He was calling from a payphone and had run out of change, but before he was cut off, he did manage to tell me that he would be getting to Abingdon at 10 am in two days.
At 10 am on that morning, I was waiting at the bus station, my heart beating fast as I watched for the Greyhound to pull into the lot. It was a few minutes late, but when it arrived and I saw him get off, I could not control my excitement and I ran to him with my arms out-stretched. It was a wonderful reunion. He had been on the bus all night and was tired and hungry, so we drove down the highway to Bristol, where we had a hearty breakfast. The road from Bristol to Mountain City winds its way through hills and mountains, and Christian marveled at the scenery. He said it reminded him of Bavaria.
He stayed several days with me in Mountain City. I don’t remember how many exactly, perhaps four or five, and every day was like a dream. By the time I had to drive him back to Abingdon to catch the return bus to New York, I’m sure that I was in love with him, but it was something that I did not dare discuss or allow myself to show. I think he preferred women to men, or at least that was my impression, especially after he told me about having a passionate encounter with a young woman in a Paris phone booth.
Everyone in my hometown who met Christian was totally charmed by him. My father grew very fond of him, particularly after learning that his grandfather had been a Lutheran minister. My step-mother was a bit suspicious at first, but she also succumbed to his charms and surprised him by including sauerkraut as a side dish one night at supper. The only person I knew who did not want to meet him was my dear friend, Bulah Vaught. I had planned to bring him to her house one afternoon, but when she learned that he was German, she cancelled. “I don’t want a German in my home,” she said. I had to accept the fact that some people of her generation, who had been born during the First World War and had lost friends and family in the Second World War, still harbored ill feelings toward the Germans. It made me feel sad and disappointed.
He made a big hit with my friend, Kay Adams. She was a local radio personality and invited him to spend an afternoon with her during her shift at WMCT, Mountain City’s country music station. She put him in front of a microphone and chatted with him between songs, asking him about his homeland and what he thought of Tennessee. It made him a celebrity for the afternoon! Several people called the station to ask him questions and he was invited to the high school to talk to the students who were learning German.
Kay planned something special for his last night in town and drove us to the Appalachian Fair near Johnson City. We had great fun looking at the livestock exhibits, sampling baked goods, riding the ferris wheel and taking in some of the side shows. I think Christian learned more about America at that fair than he could have by spending six months in New York City. I was a little jealous of Kay. She and Christian were very chummy and I noticed them occasionally holding hands. But I was glad that he was enjoying himself so thoroughly.
There was a popular song at the time by Phil Collins called “One More Night” and it played on the radio as we drove back to Mountain City. I would have to take Christian to the bus station the next day, and as I sat in the back seat as we drove along through the dark, the lyrics took on a new meaning. “One more night, one more night. I’ve been trying, oh so long to let you know, let you know how I feel.” I felt a tear run down my cheek.
The drive to Abingdon the next afternoon was a sad one for me. I did not want to see Christian leave, but all good things must come to an end. He told me how glad he was that he had made the journey, that I had made his trip to the States exciting and memorable, and that he would never forget his time in Tennessee. And then he his voice took on a more serious tone.
“I want you to promise me that you will search for your destiny,” he said. I gave him a quizzical glance and he continued. “Don’t spend your life in Mountain City. It is a beautiful town and the people are very friendly, but I think you need to spend time in other places. It is too small for you. You have a good brain. Use it to explore ideas and go on adventures. Meet new people and learn from them. And don’t give up on Patsy Ruth Miller. She needs you to help with that book. No one else wants to work with her, so don’t feel discouraged. Make it happen.”
And then he reached over and gently rubbed my shoulder. “I know you are searching for someone to love. You won’t find him until you move away. He waits for you somewhere else.” I could not say anything.
We had reached the Abingdon Greyhound station and the bus was already being loaded. We stood together near the bus for a few minutes, but I was too emotional to say anything. If I tried to speak I knew that my voice would break and I would cry. I think he understood, because he started to shake my hand, but hugged me instead and whispered in my ear “I will never forget you. To me, you are America.”
The drive back to Mountain City was a miserable one. I don’t think I have ever missed anyone as much before, or since. But by the time I reached home, I felt better. Meeting Christian had changed me. My confidence had returned and I could sense that something exciting was waiting for me. I felt a strong desire to go back to New York. He had inspired me to find my place in the sun. And I knew, as though it had been written in letters of fire, that what my heart had been longing for all of my life, was out there, just beyond the horizon.
And I did get back to that Big City, but it took me two years, first to attend graduate school at NYU and then to begin a career. I stayed in Mountain City for several months, working as a reporter for the local paper. The first story I wrote was about Christian, and when I sent the clipping to Patsy Ruth Miller she called me right away. “The story about the young German man was very good,” she said. “I think I was wrong about you. If you work with me on my book and write as well as you did for the newspaper, we’ll have one helluva book!” Her memoirs were published in 1988, and I wanted to tell Christian the good news, but I did not know how to find him. We kept in touch for a few months after he returned to Germany, but the last letter I sent to him was returned marked “Gerührt. Keine Weiterleitungsadresse.“ (Moved. No Forwarding Address). That was in early 1986, and there has been no word from him since then.
Hardly a day has gone by in the last 35 years that I have not thought of him, wondering where he is, what he is doing, what kind of a life he is living. Did he became a computer programmer? Did he marry and have children? Does he ever think of me?
The YMCA is no longer there, but the building still stands, and so the next time I am in New York City I will go to 356 West 34th Street and gaze up at a window on the sixth floor. I will be thinking of a young German who helped a kid from Tennessee with low self esteem to regain his confidence and find the courage to leave home and go out into the world.
I love you, Christian, and I hope that wherever you are, you are happy.