Are You Listening To Me?

August 24, 2012

I’ve only been there twice. Both times – I’ve considered never coming back.

I love New York.

I don’t love the humidity (it wreaked havoc on my hair). And I’m not so sure this California girl could survive the snow. But New York takes my breath away.

So did this afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art…

I missed the lunch hour (by miss, I mean I was only capable of digesting Diet Coke…YEAH for tying one on in Times Square!). Around 4 p.m., I was finally ready for solid food.

I walked over to the MoMa. Entrance into the museum was free that day. I knew it was meant to be.

I admittedly didn’t stop to appreciate the art. I went straight to the café. I know what you’re thinking. How could I? Right? At that point, I was just desperate for some noodles and a meatball (or five).

After about a 35 minute wait, I realized they “misplaced” my meal. While I was waiting, I drank a carafe of Sauvignon Blanc (I have no self control). The café staff felt so bad for making me wait, they gave me another carafe on the house. Obviously, this impromptu trip to the MoMa really was meant to be.

I took my time. I know it’s hard to believe – but I actually enjoyed the silence (and the Sauv Blanc).

After I finished my pasta, I started to pack up my stuff.

I noticed a new number (the kind they use to find you when your food is ready) had been set down in front of me.

There were nine empty seats at the table. Apparently, somebody felt like they MUST sit in the one directly across from me. They had to sit REALLY close to me. Weird.

Normally, I’m open to this type of adventure. But I was full, I was “sleepy” and I was perfectly content tweeting/texting (I do this a lot). I wanted a nap more than a new friend.

Whomever set their number down was nowhere to be found. So, the server delivered their cold glass of milk, pea gratin and seasonal fruit crisp to me. He just assumed we were together. Why wouldn’t he? It didn’t look like I was dining alone. It looked like I was on a date. I didn’t even try to explain.

I felt bad leaving the food unattended…so I waited, with my phone and bags in hand, for this person to come back.

He was too good to be true…

This little old man was slightly hunched over. He shuffled his feet when he walked. He wore thick, black-rimmed glasses (that gave him sort of an artistic edge). He was in an outfit that was perfectly put together. I bet he’d been wearing the same outfit for the better part of 80 (plus) years. And this outfit would always be in style…on him.

I smiled at him. It was impossible not to smile at him. I still wanted to leave – but he wanted to tell me why he walked away – and left me to receive his order.

He took the subway, from Brooklyn, to the MoMa – every Friday night. And every Friday night, he would order a glass of milk, the pea gratin and the seasonal fruit crisp. The seasonal fruit crisp was his favorite.

This Friday night, they had accidentally charged him for two seasonal fruit crisps. He went to see the cashier to explain – and to be reimbursed.

While he was talking (rather slowly), I glanced down at my phone. I had received a few texts. I responded to one of the text messages while he was mid-sentence. While my head was down, he barked at me.

“Are you listening to me?”

That was all he said.

It completely caught me off guard. He totally called me out. I couldn’t help but laugh. I still laugh every time I think about him putting me in my place.

I apologized profusely (and tried to hide my grin). I put my phone in my purse. I set down all of my things. And I sat back down.

Something told me I should not walk away.

He finished his story and dove into his dinner/dessert.

He continued to talk – with pea gratin in his mouth.

He told me he was married. I asked him why his wife had not joined him at the MoMa that Friday night. He said – you do some things together, and you do some things apart. That’s how you make it work. The MoMa was his thing. Not hers. Not theirs.

The MoMa was screening a film for free that Friday night. He asked me if I would join him for the show. I told him I was supposed to go dancing with some friends. He was disappointed but he understood – and did not want to interfere with my plans.

He asked me if I liked music. He LOVED music. He broke into song. He was hard of hearing…so he spoke…and sang…loudly. Her serenaded everyone around us. He/we didn’t care.

He asked me if I would go swing dancing with him the next time I was in New York. He was a member of the Swing Dancing Society. He had been alive for more than eight decades, but STILL loved to dance. His wife could not dance with him anymore, but he knew I could. I promised him, one day, we would dance.

He wanted to know what I did for a living. I told him I planned parties, but I mostly loved to write. He said I brought joy to people’s lives (that’s debatable). Then he asked me if I’d write him a letter. He said he did not email. But he loved to write letters. He sang me another song. Love Letters I think.

He wrote his name and address on his receipt, and he gave it to me. I promised I would write.

His name was Robert Thomason.

Even his handwriting was irresistible.

He told me he had wanted to buy a home in Brooklyn, in a black neighborhood, when he got out of the military. He said even though the military guaranteed the loan, even though he was good for it – the banks wouldn’t lend him the money. He said the banks would have loaned him the dough if he wanted to live in a white neighborhood. But he didn’t want that. He believed in interracial neighborhoods. He wanted to build one. He was turned down ten or eleven times. He never gave up. Finally, a bank signed off on the loan. He still loves Brooklyn. And he still cares about equality. He loves his neighborhood and his neighbors. He was a good neighbor too. No, a great one. But he admitted they had heard him tell the same stories a handful of times. He thought they could be getting tired of his stories (he said his wife definitely was).

We talked about so much.

We only paused twice…

We paused once when he took his first bite of his seasonal fruit crisp.

He savored it.

And we paused once more, when he told me he had truly lived an amazing life. He believed life was the greatest gift. He grabbed my hand and told me how lucky he felt to be able to live life every day.

I cried. I cry every time I think about the look on his face when he said that to me. I swear there was a real twinkle in his eye.

It was nearly time for his movie to begin. I told him I’d walk him out.

He gave me the tightest squeeze goodbye. And he gave me a kiss on the cheek.

I tried to back out of his embrace to tell him (again) how much I enjoyed his company and promise (again) to write.

Before I could say a word, he gave me another kiss. On the lips.

There was no getting out of it.

Robert Thomason was relentless.

He knew what he wanted. And he got it.

I laughed all the way back to my hotel. I laughed so hard. I probably looked insane (which is no different than any other day I suppose).

I wondered how many times Robert Thomason had pulled that stunt – and gotten away with it.

I hope he gets away with it EVERY Friday night.

And I hope I have half as much gumption as that guy. I’d honestly settle for half. Scratch that. No I wouldn’t…




{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin August 24, 2012 at 1:52 pm

I heart Robert….and I heart you for telling us about him 😉


Kim August 24, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Awesome story and very well told.. you brought tears to my eyes and laughter out loud. Thank you…and Robert!


Natalie August 26, 2012 at 7:30 am

Thank you for reading Kim! I’ve been trying to put this memory into words for a while now. It was hard to do Robert Thomason justice. I sincerely hope I did.


Kady October 17, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Two years later and I just met the same Robert Thomason Last Night at the Brooklyn Museum! How weird? He is exactly as you described minus the sneak kiss.


Natalie October 18, 2014 at 11:37 am

Your comment made my day Kady. Did you really meet Robert?!?! Tell me more…


Kady Karean November 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Yea, The organization I work for has an exhibit at the museum, and part of that exhibit deals with “Human Energy” and Pedal power. We have two energy hubs set up outside the from of the museum. I was with a colleague learning more about the hubs when this adorable old man strolls up and starts asking questions about the bikes. He starts telling us about how he used to bike all around the world professionally. He’s biked in china, and France, and once he biked from NY to CA over 6 months. He told us about the people he ran into on his trip. Then he started telling us about how he doesn’t believe in separation of blacks and whites which is why he bought the house in BK in a black neighborhood. He said when he left in a bike trip once he missed his neighborhood and when he returned months later, he was surprised and happy to hear how much his new neighbors missed him as well.

Then he said something along the lines of ” you know, I believe that we are all african and we came from Africa. I think maybe someone should write a play about the birth of life in Africa…maybe it should be YOU!” I laughed awkwardly and he began to walk away. I stopped him to ask his name because I found him so awesome. He said Robert Thomason.

The next day my we googled him because we thought surely an accomplished rider like him has a record. Thats how we found this piece. You can imagine our delight!


Jill August 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I just laughed so hard picturing your face when he called you out for texting!! Love it! Awesome story, makes me teary!!


Delores Paulsen August 24, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Maybe I could learn something from this very smart Robert! Loved it:)


Natalie August 26, 2012 at 7:29 am

He was so cute Dee. You would have adored him. And I can only imagine how much he would have loved you…


Jack Schulz August 25, 2012 at 10:42 am

Mr. Robert seems to have lived a full filling life and does not have a problem sharing it. I love people like that.


Natalie August 26, 2012 at 7:29 am

I finally dropped a letter in the mail to Robert yesterday. I REALLY hope he writes back so I can share more of his stories (and I REALLY hope he sends me the photo I asked for…hee hee).


FFW August 26, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I cannot wait to be a little old lady, so I can be the kind of Grandma everyone says is outrageous. My behavior, right now, is unfitting a woman of my stature. I’m in between a cute little college co-ed, and dirty old lady. 🙁


PL August 26, 2012 at 10:08 pm

I love this story. 🙂


Raquel August 26, 2012 at 10:37 pm

What an awesome story! He kinda reminds me of Squints from The Sandlot. 😉


Natalie September 22, 2012 at 2:28 am

Ah! I’ve been meaning to tell everyone that I wrote Robert a letter and he already wrote me back. I’ve just been so busy I haven’t had a chance to publish it on the blog yet. I can’t wait to share it with everyone (it is RIDICULOUSLY cute) and write him back…


Raquel May 12, 2013 at 9:01 pm

That is so awesome! Can you share the link where you posted it?


Shiloh August 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Now I want to write a letter to Robert 🙂


Ashley September 28, 2012 at 8:29 am

love so much i just read this twice and cried happy tears twice!


Amanda October 18, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Got to snooping around your blog and caught this one. It’s perfect. I read it three times. I want to be as fearless and Mr. Thomason. Its so beautifully written I felt like I was in the corner watching it all happen.
(Keep it up, Nat)


Katherine M. Thomason May 12, 2013 at 6:55 pm

LOL I knew that this was my father you were writing about, way before you said his name or i recognized his handwriting. Small and precise. He is a real charmer and we can’t go 10 minutes without a song ~ for example, “every time you smell a rose, aren’t you glad you have a nose?” :D) and he loves to swing jazz dance. Not too long ago he went to St Peter’s All Night Soul (a truly great happening if you ever get the chance), I’m 49 and can’t keep up with his 86 yrs lol.

Daddy was a Baptist Minister when I was born in 1963 in Hartford, Ct. We moved to Brooklyn, NY when I was 2 weeks old o.o lol ~ They tell me I didn’t sleep for my entire first year of life. They took me camping and I was good from then on. I needed to feel that earth~connection that only a tent can bring ; ) Daddy’s paternal grandmother was Native Cree Indian and we have a deep, deep love for life and all our brothers and sisters and all our relations in the Sacred Circle Of Life.

Love and Joy are the highest vibrations and my Daddy’s brought me tons in my life. I feel so blessed to have him for a father. I am way different than most people i know. i climbed Grand Canyon with my dad AND lol Mt. Whitney with Dad and Mom, and my sister, Carolyn, who was 9. when I was 12 and my sister, Carolyn was 9 . We went on week long canoe trips and bicycle trips (doing between 20 to 30 miles a day)…Daddy biked to work 20 miles from Brooklyn to Hewlett for many, many years. He retired in 1986.

“Love is Music, and Music is Love in Perfect Harmony” as B. B. King says in “I’m gonna live the life I sing about in my song.” That song really sums up my beloved father best, I think. Thank you so much for sharing this story. It is such a sweet portrait of him. I love you Robert Hume Thomason!

Forever Your Loving Offspring,
Katherine Mathers Thomason

Aho Mitakuye Oyasin


Raquel May 12, 2013 at 9:02 pm

You’re a lucky lady! But you already know that. =)


Natalie December 19, 2014 at 10:31 am

For some reason Kady, I missed your last comment. Reading it just made my day. That guy…LOL. If I can find his last two letters, I’ll email you some snippets. You and your colleague would get a SERIOUS kick out of the content.


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