Irving, the sofa and the view up Sixth Ave.

BY DAVID FARRAR | So there I was, 11 years ago, living out a scene from one of those New York stories that are dreamt about by British people who’ve seen too many movies. To a local, it’s a coffee in Greenwich Village with an old friend. To me, it’s a chance to soak up sounds and smells and attitude: still a coffee in Greenwich Village with an old friend, but with more of the words in capital letters.

I met Holly and she told me about her new apartment on Downing St. It was tiny but kind of perfect, and so high up that she could see Uptown to the Empire State Building and she knew that I would love it. We walked across Father Demo Square, and headed for the sixth floor. I took in the view, gulped in my jealousy, and we turned to leave.

It was a right turn from the apartment to the elevator, and for some reason, I looked to my left. The hallway was dark but I found myself turning to Holly and saying, “Is that a body?” She followed my gaze and said, “Oh, my God, yes. It’s Irving.”

We rushed to the doorway of an apartment that I presumed was this man Irving’s home and we discovered he was alive and we helped him into a chair at his kitchen table and Holly rushed to go for medical assistance. I sat in silence, my head bowed, waiting for the old man sitting across from me to look up. Anything else would have felt like an intrusion.

It was minutes, but it felt like longer, before he looked up and saw me. I remember my heart beating unnaturally fast, as he said, softly yet with precision, “I want some soup. Get me some soup.” If that sounds like an order, then that’s how it felt. There was part of me that wanted to tell him to get his own soup, but another which realized that people who have lived that long have the right to talk to you exactly how they want. Words are all they’ve got, after all.

I walked to his kitchen and heard him bark, “In the fridge — Cream of Wheat,” and so I opened the fridge and looked for a sign. I don’t know what Cream of Wheat is. We don’t have it in England. But there was a container with a sticker that said Cream of Wheat, and so I took it out and poured it into a pan, and there I was, in an apartment in Greenwich Village, cooking “soup” I’d never heard of for a man I’d never met before. Careful about those New York dreams, buddy.

He seemed better once he had eaten, and we sat and looked at each other, both of us hoping that some help would arrive soon. He was happy in silence, I think. But I felt the need to move, and so I stood and walked around his apartment, looking for something to start a conversation. The room had a view of Sixth Ave., and you could look above the tree line, a perspective that gives a familiar city a long-ago feeling.

I looked at the walls of the apartment. There were photographs of a woman of my age — his niece, as it turned out — alongside major political figures. I think I remember Bill Clinton and Benazir Bhutto but I can’t be sure. I know that I saw photos of Woody Allen, all of them signed like a friend: “To Irving and Betty, love always,” “To Irving and Betty, thank you for everything.”

And then the help came. Holly was back, with news that the doctor would be here soon, and that the doorman would be coming to check on Irving.

I got up awkwardly, not knowing how to say goodbye, and then Irving looked up and said, “Thank you.” A small voice with an acknowledgment that our lives had briefly intertwined.

As we set about leaving, Irving grabbed out for me and said, “The sofa.” I leaned in closer and asked what he meant and he replied, “The sofa — can you put me on the sofa?” I realized that the sofa had the view of the street that he’d been looking at ever since I’d sat with him, and so I half-carried him and half-walked him to that faded green sofa and laid him down, so that he was facing that view. The treetops, the avenue, the infinite possibility of that part of town. I held his hand for a second and wished him luck, as that seemed like the right thing to do.

Holly and I parted, and I walked away feeling moved by the experience, unable to shake the image of a fragile old man looking at an uptown view, wondering what was next. It felt like he might need some company, and I was wondering whether I should visit him again before I left New York, whether that would be welcomed or intrusive.

Two hours later my phone rang and it was Holly.

“He died,” she said.

The sofa and the view. The soup that I had cooked him. The silence that we sat in. The fact that his final interactions were not with someone that he loved, but with a stranger. I imagine him on that sofa, lying and looking back up Sixth Ave., as he started to fade away, and how privileged I was to help him there.

So, I want to tell his story. For him, and for everyone who has been forgotten, for those who don’t get an obituary, for all of the people walking past us every day who live extraordinary lives and yet are never remembered. Like many of us, like any of us.

I’ve found out enough through my research to know that this was a life, an interesting life, and this was a man who had outlived his friends. He got old and weak, and so he lay with his memories and a view that he had cherished for 53 years.

I recently spent a week in that part of Greenwich Village knocking on doors and talking to people and trying to find out what I could learn about Irving. I was overwhelmed by the help that I received and the goodwill toward what I’m trying to do. I simply want to tell the story of his 93 years and breathe something back into the old man that I left on the sofa. If I don’t, then I feel that I’m letting him down, letting all of us down.

If you knew Irving Lowenthal, or think that you knew him, or knew his wife, Betty, or his niece who worked for the government and met those foreign leaders, or his friend Maurice Heidelberg, the piano teacher with whom he published a song, or know anyone that you think could help, then I’d be eternally grateful if you could get in touch with me.

I’ve steered clear of social media in my search so far, as more traditional methods seem to suit the integrity of the story, but I’ve reluctantly set up a Facebook page called “Irving’s Sofa,” and you can e-mail me at [email protected] Thanks for sticking with this tale until the end, thanks to The Villager for acknowledging it, and thanks in advance for your help. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Farrar is an English journalist who is working on a book project involving the above incident.

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