"Are you a writer?" says the guy in the Mets hat. He's sitting with his mother at the table next to mine in the coffee shop, and when he gets up to bus the remains of their coffee-and-muffins, he comes to a halt beside my table.
'I am," I say. "I'm working on a birthday sonnet."
He smiles down at me. Then I realize he isn't smiling at me. He's smiling at my rhyming dictionary.
"That is the best rhyming dictionary in the world!" he cries, echoing my feelings about the book, which I have had since I was 12. The cover is dipped in Scotch tape the way prehistoric mosquitoes are dipped in amber. On the inner flyleaf is my twelve-year-old signature, a legible Palmer Method collection of 13 rigidly vertical letters. On the back flyleaf is Sheila Tagrin's home number in Randolph. Every time I see it, my heart twinges a little, like Sheila just reached into my chest and flicked it with her index finger.
For the next five minutes, as the guy (Adam) stands there with his tray and his mother looks at him with the words MY SON IS A CRAZY PERSON in her eyes, we talk about the virtues of this particular dictionary like two castaways who have just discovered they are not alone on a desert island. We don't talk about our work; we don't trade résumés. We talk Whitfield's.
"I keep mine in a plastic bag, it's so old" he says. "I use it all the time. The way it's set up is so logical. Nothing else out there does the same thing."
I agree with him. I've championed the Whitfield with other writers, and what I've discovered is that the rhyming dictionary you use is one which mirrors the way your mind works. Sondheim's mind works like the 1936 Clement Woods dictionary; mine works like the 1964 Whitfield.
As does Adam's. Which is tantamount to bumping into a long-lost friend in the middle of Times Square. Except that that's happened to me seven times since I've been in this city. This is the first time somebody has seen my rhyming dictionary and treated me like a long-lost friend.
"I love that dictionary," Adam says before he leaves. "Good luck with the sonnet."
"Thanks, " I say, thinking: "I love this city!" as I write down the words hyacinth and labyrinth, and ponder how I can map four lines to make them two of the destinations.