In many respects, Jim Runsdorf was just a guy. A 41-year-old father of two daughters, living on the Upper East Side with his wife, Nina, going to work each day at Pantheon Financial, a real-estate-investment firm. Runsdorf was making money but was no tycoon. He was fun and gregarious, well known to colleagues, but was no celebrity. Except for four years of college in New Orleans, he’d spent his entire life in the city.
“Jim was New York,” says Elise Runsdorf Napack, his big sister. “He’d walk around the city with his friends and say, ‘Ah, this is where we carved our initials into the sidewalk when we were 11!’ You couldn’t walk four blocks without him bumping into somebody he knew. He was Everyman.”
New York is indeed a hard and impersonal megacity. It is also very much a city of small towns. These are communities without Zip Codes or identifiable borders, and their memberships cross economic, racial, and language barriers. They are founded on kindnesses. They are composed of people like Althea Neil, who stood for four hours on a freezing East Flatbush street in early December just to pay her respects to police officer Dillon Stewart, shot to death pursuing a car that had blown a red light. Before Stewart was killed, Neil hadn’t known his name; Stewart was the friendly guy who came into the corner restaurant every morning. New York’s small towns assert themselves during plenty of ordinary moments. But it’s during crises that the web of personal bonds and selfless deeds makes itself most visible.
And on a cold morning in October, one of the city’s small towns turned out to search for Jim Runsdorf. On Monday, October 24, Runsdorf, an experienced rower, was out for a 6 a.m. ride on the Harlem River with three buddies when their shell was rammed by a powerboat. Three men struggled out of the churning green water. Runsdorf disappeared.
When Napack arrived at the Peter Jay Sharp boathouse Tuesday, she found an amazing improvised hunt under way for her brother. The NYPD, Coast Guard, and Parks Department were scanning the river. Wednesday, more than 200 civilians, many of them strangers, would also pitch in. One friend became a press spokesman; another distributed maps of the Harlem; another arranged for buses to disperse searchers along the river; another organized the armada of kayaks, canoes, and fishing boats for the river patrol.
Yet what made the search special wasn’t the sheer number of volunteers tramping the muddy riverbanks in the middle of a nasty nor’easter. It was the spirit of the thing. Runsdorf had constantly been reaching out to people, mentoring a younger business associate or calling pals to come watch the Jets on TV. In his last moments, Runsdorf helped save one of his crewmates before he himself went under. Now the everyday love he’d extended came back to him, all his circles overlapping. A Police Department diver, for instance, realized he’d gone to high school with one of Runsdorf’s best friends.
After three days of painful, fruitless searching, his family decided it was time to hold a celebration of Jim Runsdorf’s life. As it began, with more than 2,000 heartbroken people inside Central Synagogue, divers found his body. A coincidence? Probably. But Runsdorf’s family can’t help thinking it was a sign, that a man who had delighted in bringing people together would have wanted to relieve some of the pain while everyone was gathered in one place. Even if it wasn’t the way they’d prayed he’d come back, Jim Runsdorf rejoined his small town.
Because people get so grumpy. Today I had a fight with a cab driver. It was awesome.
—Michael J. Fox
Because I’ll never eat McDonald’s again, but I love a good burger. I go to Cozy Soup ’n’ Burger on Broadway and Waverly.