Saturday, February 4, 2012
Yesterday I got on the Brooklyn-bound L train close to rush hour, and was surprised that there were a bunch of empty seats. Took me about one breath to figure it out–the car reeked, the terrible stench of a human badly in need of bathing. Extreme body odor, urine, dirty clothes, feces; it was a relentless aroma, and only a handful of people could endure it. The source was a middle-aged African American guy sitting mid-car, on the edge of the seat, back very straight, legs planted firmly on the floor. Both hands were resting on this knees, one palm down, the other holding a large beer bottle, almost full. His head was upright, and he stared straight ahead, with composure and dignity. He looked like a buddha. His clothes were torn, his shoes had blown, and his heels were painfully swollen. He still looked like a buddha. He seemed to be performing a sacred ritual, which looked like this:
Staring straight ahead, he'd relax his shoulders a little, close his eyes, raise the beer bottle to face level with an outstretched arm, then bring the bottle to his mouth and take a very long drink. Outstretch his arm, then return bottle to knee, where it rested. He'd then open his eyes and stare straight ahead for a minute or so, then casually look around at other passengers, until he was ready to do the whole ritual again.
I watched him for a few subway stops. He had intelligent eyes, a regal appearance, and seemed to know exactly what he was doing. He was going somewhere, not in a great hurry, but intent on getting there in his own time. I fancied him a shaman, enacting his self-styled ritual, connecting with the sacred, finding a place in his body and soul that was comforting. It's what we all do–search for comfort, and take it where we can. This guy looked like he knew a lot more about life than all of us put together.
Finally, I couldn't stand the stench any longer, and switched cars. On the way home I stopped and had a beer, in honor of the guy. I hope he got where he was going.
Above: Amazing Grace, letters cut from the Bhagavad Gita, 7" x 6", 2009