By Harry Keaney
These days, it’s not only the surrounding lower Manhattan skyscrapers that throw their shadows over North Moore Street. Ever since news of the disappearance of John Kennedy Jr.’s plane, a perceptible pall of sadness has loomed over the place where Kennedy and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, called home. And to it are drawn mourners in their hundreds, people who, in most instances, did not know Kennedy but merely knew about him.
They’ve left behind piles of floral tributes, messages, pictures and candles. For some, it’s an opportunity to share tearful thoughts. For others, a chance to stand in silence and gaze at what is becoming a shrine to one now dubbed the “people’s prince,” his wife, and sister-in-law Lauren.
The steps outside the doorway through which Kennedy and his wife so often hurried has now become a place of momentary contemplation, as much as the ruthless rhythms of New York life will allow. “Keep moving, say a prayer and keep moving,” shouted one of a number of police officers assigned not only to control the crowd but also to ensure the passage of traffic along the street.
By 2 p.m. Monday, about 500 people had filed past the entrance to Kennedy’s apartment building. Some wept. About 200 came during lunchtime alone, according to Sgt. Jeremiah O’Leary, a NYPD officer on duty.
But if many kept their feelings to themselves, others left their thoughts behind for the world to see, thanks to reporters and television camera crews from around the world. “May the angels by with you,” declared one handwritten message. “Dear John, thank you for being so kind to the regular guy,” said another.
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Having time for “the regular guy” is what Harry Lavin remembers too about Kennedy. The County Sligo-born concierge of the 21 Club, on West 52nd Street, knew him for about 10 years.
“He was here about four weeks ago,” Lavin told the Echo on Monday. “He was in with another gentleman for lunch.”
“He was a wonderful young man,” Lavin added. “It’s sad that he is gone. When he was coming in or leaving, he always took time to turn around and say hello or goodbye. I was always the first one to meet him when he came in. . . . He was very quiet, he seemed to be a little shy.”
Lavin recalled that about the time after Kennedy passed the bar exam, he often had lunch in the 21 Club with his mother, Jacqueline. “She would go upstairs and he would follow and go up and join her. At that time, he would come on a bike and leave it against the railings outside. There was one time when the O.J. case was on and I was watching it on TV. He came over and watched it and talked about it.”
John Mooney, an executive with the Manhattan public relations firm of M. Booth & Associates, recalls meeting Kennedy “for about 30 seconds” during an event marking the opening some years ago of the Sony building on 54th Street.
“All the things people said about him were true,” Mooney said. “He could light up a room and heads would turn, and he was as polite as could be, even if people were snapping pictures of him right in his face.”
Of course, for most, it was the pictures that made him familiar, one we felt we knew. Since his birth, we, the Irish, regarded him as one of our own. After his father, President Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, Taoiseach Eamonn de Valera sent him a Connemara pony. Earlier this year, Kennedy, with family adviser Arthur Schlesinger, attended a conference on Ireland hosted by the National Committee of American Foreign Policy in the Mutual of America building in Manhattan.
Last Saturday, as New York Fire Department Chaplain Fr. Mychal Judge drove to a memorial service at East Moriches, L.I., to commemorate the 230 people killed in the 1996 TWA crash, he heard on the radio that Kennedy’s plane had disappeared.
The news reminded Fr. Judge, from St. Francis Church, in Manhattan, of an occasion seven years ago when he had breakfast with Kennedy at Gracie Mansion before a St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“Mayor Dinkins had arranged a special breakfast for guests at the parade,” Fr. Judge explained. “Everyone had left for the liturgy at the cathedral when Dinkins brought in John to have a bite to eat. We chatted for about half an hour, just the two of us, and he was most gracious. I remember how enthused he was about taking his sister Caroline’s daughter to the parade and wanting to hold her on his shoulders so she could enjoy it.
“I know she’ll have a good time, but I’ll have more fun than she will,” Kennedy told Fr. Judge.