Larry’s Bench

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09/25/2012

Neighborhood: Featured, Upper West Side

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Larry Polshansky, dead.

I cannot believe this. He wasn’t that much older than my husband, Gregory, who died of melanoma at age 56, five years ago. Larry chain-smoked, I remember. Maybe it was lung cancer that got him.

I am walking my two dogs, Sophie, an eager-to-please golden retriever, and Henry Longfellow, a less-than-eager-to-please piebald dachshund, in Central Park just inside the West 69th Street entrance when I see the plaque on the bench:

"Remembering With Love Our Friend, Larry Polshansky (1942-1996), Honorary Mayor of the Neighborhood."

I sit on the green wood bench, in need of fresh paint, and Henry jumps up to join me. I am in shock, finding it inconceivable that Larry, a self-effacing, kind man who harmed no one, could have died so young.

I remember the day in March 1982, thirty years – a lifetime – ago, when Gregory and I sat on this very bench with Larry and his girlfriend, Karen. We were moving to New York City after a decade in Philadelphia, and a classmate at the University of Pennsylvania suggested we call Larry, a local real estate broker, to find us a place on her block, West 70th Street.

We had our golden retriever, Zac with us, and Karen said, “Well behaved dog,” which was not true; we had given him a tranquilizer for the interview.

Larry was clearly a native New Yorker, with pock-marked skin, a scraggly mustache, and a quiet, slow-talking manner. Karen was more the flower child, in a long skirt and boots and Janis Joplin hat, from somewhere in the Midwest.

After Larry and Karen found us an apartment on West 70th Street, they became a vital part of our lives during our five years on the block, collecting our mail and watering our plants when we were away, and even walking Zac in a pinch.

Gregory and I left the city for Connecticut in 2002, and I recently moved back to my old neighborhood, the only place I have ever felt truly at home. And now, here I am, sitting on the bench where it all began, my Upper West Side life.»

Larry’s Bench
Photo by Liz Titus

I return to my apartment on West 67th Street and Google Larry. According to the Central Park Conservancy website, 122 people chipped in $6,230 to adopt a bench for Larry in the spot where he “held court and became a beloved figure on the Upper West Side.”

He did indeed die of lung cancer. He was 53.

Some more digging leads me to a 1996 article in The Daily News, describing Larry’s life and the speakers at the dedication of his bench.

Larry was a neglected, troubled Brooklyn boy with a learning disability who had spent his teenage years in a Westchester County institution. It was a long road that led him to the Upper West Side and the real estate business, but once there, he settled into his new life and relished his friendships in the neighborhood.

One speaker described Larry as “priest, rabbi, professor, therapist…and all this for a cup of coffee, which he bought.”

As I sit in my tiny apartment writing about a friend named Larry from a lifetime ago, I understand why, like Larry, I found my place in the world in a neighborhood near Central Park in the West 70s of New York City.

At last, I am home. I will sit on Larry’s Bench and reflect on his life, Gregory’s life, my own life. None of it makes much sense, but life never does. Larry’s Bench is just one example of how people try to give life – one man’s life – some meaning in a seemingly uncaring universe.

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