I met John Lennon in Washington Square Park. My friend Susan and I were returning home to the Village from our jobs as drug abuse counselors in the roughest schools in Brooklyn…when we spotted him. It was 1973, and his hat gave him away: a black Beatles’ cap that had become their trademark, a newsboy hat that has recently become a fashion statement again—among a generation that doesn’t see the irony when they hear Beatles tunes as Muzak.
John was with another guy. We inched closer to them, as star-struck as those legendary teenage girls who screamed whenever they heard the Beatles sing.
“Hullo,” John said, and it would be the first and last word I would hear him utter. He playfully popped his hat on top of my head.
“Where do you girls live?” asked John’s buddy.
Somehow the four of us started walking together, toward my fifth-floor walk-up on Eighth Street.
“Want to come up?” Susan asked them.
I stared at her in awe and shock. She lived back across the park, in a tiny studio on Sullivan Street, but I shared a two-bedroom with an NYU psychology student. In a half hour I was due at NYU, where I was studying for a Master’s Degree in the evenings.
The next thing I knew, I was unlocking the black gate to ascend above Eli Wilentz’s Eighth Street Bookshop—my landlord, the infamous bookstore where I converted checks into cash in the days before ATMs, the hip gathering place of poets and artists with a customer base of literary superstars: Auden, Cummings, Moore, Schwartz, Kerouac, Ginsberg.
We were actually climbing the creaky winding staircases to the top floor—with John Lennon! As soon as we were inside my apartment—which cost me a hundred and sixty-two dollars and fifty cents a month and had a working fireplace—John’s buddy was all over Susan. She was petite to the point of looking frail, but she was no pushover. Her liaisons with men, women, and combinations were far more brazen and widespread than mine, yet she kept pushing him away. I smiled wanly at John, sitting in my very own living room whose design scheme could only be described as Post-College Dorm. He was so stoned he was nodding off. He was devastated by his break-up with Yoko. How did I know this? I just did. Poor lonely John.
I was twenty years old and having problems with my own boyfriend, a college crush turned lover, who was in medical school in Guadalajara. Although I wanted to marry him, he’d rebuffed my offer to come live with him in Mexico, leaving me alone and lonely on Eighth Street. Most nights my roommate’s boyfriend stayed over, a drummer who earned his living selling cocaine and listened to Coltrane while I was trying to study Abnormal Psychology for grad school. Susan had an on-again off-again boyfriend who lived in Alphabet City in an era that made Rent look tame.
It would be years before Nixon would resign and the Vietnam War would end. The Beatles had once seemed counterculture, but their rebellious image waned in comparison to the groups that came after them. It’s hard to believe that their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was so revolutionary. They were wearing ties! And yes, I screamed into the TV when they sang, “All My Loving.”
Susan was still trying to fend off John’s aggressive buddy. There I was, at what seemed like a critical juncture in my young life. We were either going to sleep with John and his buddy (whose name we never knew), or we were going to throw them out.
Susan threw them out.
I stared at her incredulously. Even though I don’t know what I would have done if we’d allowed them to stay. Even though I doubted that John was capable of doing anything much that night—except passing out.
John’s buddy shrugged, and he guided a wobbly John out the door.
What were we thinking?
“Wait. Your hat,” I managed to say, and placed it back on his head.
What was I thinking?
John nodded, smiling.
Then they were gone.
“What’re we…crazy?” I said to Susan. “Do you know who we just asked to leave? John Lennon!”
Susan could have taught a Ph.D. level course in one-night stands, but why did she decide to be moral that night? “His friend was a pig,” she said, and then she suddenly started having misgivings.
We raced back down the five flights of stairs and into Washington Square Park…searching…searching. No John. No hat. Not on Sixth Avenue. Nowhere Man.
Despite the fact that I was a shy, unadventurous girl, I’ve had regrets about the way that evening turned out. John and Yoko would soon make up, but they would not live happily ever after. My boyfriend would dump me, catapulting me into an overwrought period of despair, where I often found solace in Beatles songs: I’ll pretend that I’m kissin’/The lips I am missin’….And when jobs took us in different directions, I would lose touch with Susan and never see her again.
In the years that passed, I enjoyed telling my John Lennon story repeatedly to friends and family. People loved hearing it, and I had my fifteen minutes of fame. You met John Lennon? they gawked. He was in your apartment…and you let him go?
Sometimes I even joked about my story, saying that if I hadn’t sent John on his way, I might have been Sean’s mother. I’ve even told the story to my teenage daughter, focusing on the hat part and editing out sections leading to the possibility of sex with strangers.
After John was killed, I stood alongside thousands of mourners in Central Park in what is now Strawberry Fields. I cried, and sang, “Imagine.” It took many years before I was able to re-enact my John Lennon story.
I’ve often wondered: if John had stayed that night, would my life have been different? Or would my John Lennon story have been better? I’m glad, even relieved, that our brief encounter ended in a pure, innocent way. Although I wish I’d kept his hat.
Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and many other publications.