Katherine Lanpher had left her wallet in a New York City cab.
It was a day before the Moline native was to start her new job as sidekick to Al Franken on his Air America radio talk show. She had moved from Minneapolis-St. Paul, her home of 22 years, to New York.
She was nervous enough as it was about starting a new job — and now her wallet was gone.
Or so she thought.
At the end of the day, she got back to her Greenwich Village apartment, and her doorman left a message that it had been found.
“Two students had gotten into the cab, found my wallet, Googled me, somehow figured out where I lived, called the doorman and was able to give me a message,” she still says with astonishment, some 21/2 years later.
“I was so blown away. I’ve had so many stories like that happen to me in New York.”
That’s part of the stuff of “Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Move,” Lanpher’s book of essays that was released in October. She made her move on Feb. 29, 2004 — Leap Day — and has never looked back.
That’s thanks to adventures like her keys falling down a subway grate, until a worker nearby, armed with a long stick with a hook and a magnet on the end, whisks in to retrieve them.
“My friends keep making fun of me because they say I keep having these ‘New York stories,’ where people go out of their way to help me,” she said in a phone interview. “I guess I just have that Midwestern face or something.”
Don’t expect a fish-out-of-water book, or a tale of an innocent Midwesterner alone in the big, cold city. Lanpher discovered New Yorkers who went out of their way to help her, from directing her to the right subway car to escorting her to the street where she needed to be.
“Having been marked as an out-of-towner isn’t a bad thing,” she said. “One of the things I love to celebrate is that this is a city of characters, a city of one little village linked to another. I feel like I’ve moved from one village to another in my life.
“In the Midwest, we have a smile on our face as a matter of course to help people. It doesn’t necessarily got that deep. In New York, they don’t have a smile on their face — but once you get their attention, they’re there. They are committed to helping you.”
The magnitude of the city was daunting at first, she said, but it was something from which she quickly recovered.
“The sheer number of people was really overwhelming,” she said. “You almost feel like you’re at the bottom of an ocean, swimming among schools of fish.”
Lanpher has taken to riding her bike to get where she needs to go, and she’s learned all the rules of being a pedestrian in New York.
“If you’re a real New Yorker, you never dawdle on the sidewalk or stop on the sidewalk to look at anything,” she said. “You keep moving. Otherwise, you impede the flow of traffic.”
Now 47, Lanpher said she was at a good point for her “midlife move.”
“When you’re in your mid-40s, you’re sort of used to being settled, and comfortable in your environment,” she said. “So to suddenly have to learn a subway system, and how a city’s laid out, was a little disconcerting. You sort of take it for granted you know where you’re going.”
The move is not something she would have attempted 20 years ago, she said.
“There is a certain advantage in being rooted to yourself when you move here,” she said. “It’s a pretty overwhelming place. I couldn’t have moved here when I was 22, and I’m impressed with the people who do it.”
“Leap Days” is as much about Lanpher’s chronology as geography.
“The book is a reflection on midlife,” she said. “My argument is that midlife is not necessarily a chronological point in your life, as much as it is a realization that our time on the planet is finite, and if there’s an adventure you want to pursue, there’s no time like the present.
“Because we don’t know how much present we actually have.”
Her midlife tale is one of the first on Time Warner’s new Springboard Press imprint. Deadlines for the book meant that she had to quit Franken’s show in October 2005 to concentrate on the book.
A former commercial and public radio talk-show host, Lanpher was a columnist and reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Now, she’s also a contributing editor to More magazine, targeted at women 40-plus, and may be hosting a show on the magazine’s planned channel on satellite radio.
Lanpher’s essays include writing about her childhood in Moline, taking elocution lessons from Mary Fluhrer Nighswander, and Lagomarcino’s candy shop.
“I love showing off Lagomarcino’s to my friends in New York,” said Lanpher, who thanked friends for watching her apartment with a gift of chocolate sponge candy.
She’s turned “Leap Days” into a one-woman show that she’s performed at the Fitzgerald Theatre (home of “A Prairie Home Companion”) in St. Paul, where she still owns a four-bedroom house.
Lanpher said there was no certain turning point where she realized she had acclamated herself to New York. She does remember riding in the back of a cab, talking on a cell phone and instructing the cabbie on the best way to get to 7th Avenue.
After listening to her phone conversation about fitting in, the driver turned around.
“You’re a New Yorker,” he told her. “You’re giving the cab driver directions.”
David Burke can be contacted at (563) 383-2400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.