By Larry Peterson
“The president is dead.” For those of us who heard those words from more than 50 years ago, they were unforgettable. They seared into our brains like letters sand-blasted into a granite headstone forever: clear, concise, and unmistakable in meaning. How could this be? Things like this did not happen, especially in the America of 1963. But then, a few days later, John-John, wearing his little topcoat and short pants, saluted as the flag-covered caisson went by, holding his dad’s body. It was a moment that would never be forgotten.
I had a personal connection to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Just like when I heard of his death, those moment(s) are also seared into my brain, and their memories are as clear and vivid as if they happened ten minutes ago. The only difference is these are MY moments with JFK. No one else ever had these moments. They were unplanned and spontaneous, just the 35th President of the United States and me; at the time, age 15. And I do not care if you believe me or not. I just felt that I should share. Let us go back to November 5, 1960.
The most famous hotel in the Bronx was the Concourse Plaza Hotel located on 161st Street and the Grand Concourse. Opened in 1922, it was an elegant 12-story hotel three blocks from Yankee Stadium. Many of the Yankees had stayed there, including Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and others. The hotel had a grand ballroom and fancy dining rooms. On Saturday, November 5, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy delivered a campaign speech at the hotel. His fateful election to the presidency was now only four days away.
I had an after-school job delivering groceries and stocking shelves for Harry “the Grocer”. I worked for Harry every day after school until 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. One of my frequent delivery stops was the Concourse Plaza Hotel. Several elderly tenants lived there year round, and they always called Harry when they needed anything from bread to fruit to bologna to beer to Band-Aids or whatever else a customer might want. I would bag up the items, load them into a cart, and push it up the two hills to the hotel. I would go there at least twice a week, sometimes more.
I had made a delivery to a customer on the eighth floor on Friday, and she told me that Senator Kennedy was coming in the morning to give a speech. She was very excited about it and told me she would make sure she was down in the ballroom when he arrived. She said she thought he was going to be there at 10 o’clock. I had to start work at 10 o’clock, and I was quite disappointed that I might miss my chance to see the Senator. Then things changed.
That Friday night, I saw my friend ‘Sticks’ (real name Tommy) and told him about JFK coming to the hotel in the morning. He said we should go up there about 9 a.m. and see what happens. It made sense to me, so that is what we did. I do not remember why but we did not get up to the hotel until about 9:30. We came up to the hotel through the rear loading dock, which was off 162nd Street. That was where I always came in to make deliveries. I knew my way around the back and basement of the hotel like the back of my hand. It was a bit strange because there were no cars or trucks, or anything or anyone for that matter, at the rear of the hotel. The overhead doors for truck deliveries were closed, and the only way in was through a door up some stairs at the end of the loading dock.
‘Sticks’ hurried ahead of me and went through the door. I was not as quick, so it took me about an extra half minute to reach the door. By the time I did, ‘Sticks’ had disappeared. I hurriedly walked down a short corridor and made a left. I can remember that it was quite dark. I made the turn and bumped into someone. I froze dead in my tracks. Then I stepped back a bit.
The man I had walked into, who was now looking me in the eye, was Senator Kennedy. We were less than a foot apart. He had finished his speech and was leaving via the rear entrance. There was another man with him. That was it. No one else was there. Just me, John F. Kennedy, and some other guy. The other man stepped near me and said, “Excuse us, son.” I said nothing and stepped back some more. Senator Kennedy smiled at me and said, “Good to see you. Did you hear my speech?”
“Uh…uh…no, we just thought we might get to see you.”
The next President of the United States laughed a little and said, “Well, I think you were successful. Here I am, and now I have to leave. Nice seeing you.” Then he and his friend exited the door that led to 162nd Street.
The rear stairwell was right in front of me, so I ran up a half flight to a platform and opened the big window. I looked out, and below me and maybe 30 feet away, the next President of the United States was standing next to a limo, just talking to the man he had left the hotel with. There were no police, no guards in the street, no one else.
There I was, alone, staring out the window at John F. Kennedy. He was wearing a dark blue topcoat that had to be very expensive, and his face had a perfect tan, something you do not see in New York City in November. His thick, sandy hair was blowing slightly, and he ran his right hand up and across it. Then it happened. He looked up at me, smiled (I can still see his teeth) and held up his hand. He did not wave it. Instead, he just held it up with his fingers spread apart. He probably held it up for about two or three seconds.
He was saying goodbye to ME, a kid from the South Bronx who just happened to be there at that moment. I held up my right hand to him, and I guess I smiled. I don’t remember. Then he got into his limo and was gone. I watched as my new friend’s car turned onto the Grand Concourse. Talk about a “moment in time”.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I turned and ‘Sticks’ was at the bottom of the stairs. “I didn’t see him,” he said. “Did you?”
“Yes, I did.”