Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rilke in SoHo

Who are my angels, you ask? That’s quite a question to ask a stranger at a train station bar, but I have some time to kill and you seem like a sincere person. So sure, why not?

Y’see, my life has taken some interesting twists and turns over the years, and angels come in a variety of guises. What I’ve found in my life is that we often don’t recognize an angel until long after they’ve moved on from our presence. Hey, you might be one, too. Who knows?

So, here I am, sitting at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia in the middle of a snowstorm, and I choose to sit in this bar and have a beer. All the trains are delayed, so there’s nothing else to do. And two minutes after the bartender serves me my cold Bass Ale, you sit down and ask me a few simple questions. I could wonder where you came from, where you’re going, and why you sat next to me, but it’s OK. I don’t really need to know. I’m just being rhetorical.

Speaking of angels, have you seen that enormous sculpture of the angel out there in the center of the station? The one where the angel’s holding a dead soldier in her arms? That sculpture’s almost 40 feet tall, and it was sculpted by Walker Hancock. I knew him. I actually modeled for his apprentice, Daniel Altschuler, who’s probably famous himself by now. Look ‘em up.

Their studio was near Gloucester, Massachusetts, and it was as if an angel sent me there about twenty years ago to talk to Daniel, meet Walker, and then model in that drafty studio for more than two years. I’d strike a pose on the modeling stand and Dan would work on clay figures. I had nothing else to do, so I would meditate on the dozens of sculptures in that old dusty studio. And do you know what was there? A small-scale bronze replica of the angel sculpture that’s right out there in this station. I would stare at that thing for hours. Hours! And it truly was a glorious thing to behold. Dan was so determined and serious, and sometimes we chatted as he worked and I stood, frozen in time. Walker himself was like an elf, a friendly shadow who kept out of Dan’s way when we were working.

Wow, I’m digressing. Sorry, you asked about angels and just the thought of it brought me back to that studio. It’s that sculpture out there. It’s mesmerizing to me.

So, yes, there have been angels in my life. So many. And devils, too, mind you, but even when we perceive people to be devils, they’re probably just angels on a bender.

Once, in New York City, I was wandering through SoHo, looking at galleries and writing in cafes off an on throughout a long weekend. I was staying in a cheap hotel in the East Village, giving myself the gift of doing whatever I wanted to do in New York for three days. I still have my notebook from that time, somewhere in my attic.

Anyway, there I was on Spring Street, walking along, daydreaming and thinking about art and writing, and I suddenly heard this sound. It was as if I wasn’t even in my body at that moment. You see, I had walked directly into the street. I was so absorbed in my thoughts, I’d stepped right in front of a delivery truck that was doing---oh, I don’t know---35 miles per hour. Certainly enough to kill me twice.

So, there I am, stepping directly into the path of this truck and I don’t even realize it. Suddenly, I hear this sound and it’s like a mixture of a siren, a roaring gun, and a “whoosh!”---like air shot through a cannon. I also felt, amidst the strangeness and ferocity of that moment---the lightest touch against my face, like a feather drawn across my left cheek. It was as if---even in that moment when my death was a distinct possibility amidst the noise and piss and trash of SoHo in the 70’s---it was as if all time had stopped, and I was caught in a moment of non-time, a space where all eternity could be experienced at once. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah, so there was this moment, and a “whoosh!” sound, and somewhere in the very distant background, a woman screaming and a horn blowing and I’m suddenly, without knowing how or why, crashing back onto the sidewalk from where I had just so carelessly stepped into traffic. Shocked back into my body, I realize that, from out of nowhere, a man—about thirty or so, dark hair, beige London Fog overcoat, sunglasses, briefcase---had leaped into the street, grabbed me and tackled me onto the sidewalk, the truck, its brakes screeching and horn blowing, missing us both by an inch at best. The man’s briefcase had broken open from the impact of him dropping it as he rushed to save me, and there were papers flying everywhere in the aftermath of the near-accident.

As I regained my composure and noticed the crowd gathered around me, I suddenly realized that my savior was nowhere to be seen. I asked the person leaning over me if she’d seen the person who saved me. She said yes, and that he’d appeared suddenly, jumped in front of the truck, tackled me to the ground, and then just as suddenly disappeared. She couldn’t even say where he’d gone or what direction he had taken. His briefcase was still in the gutter, and the street and sidewalk were littered with pieces of notebook paper that were released like a bomb when the briefcase had exploded on the pavement. His beige overcoat also lay on the edge of the sidewalk, one sleeve hanging over the curb in a small oily puddle.

I was helped to my feet by a few people, offered an ambulance by a police officer who arrived on the scene---which I refused, of course---and was tended to by a kind retired nurse who borrowed some paper towels and a few band-aids from a nearby restaurant. She cleaned my face, covered the scratches with the band-aids and helped me to pick up my notebook and other effects that had been scattered in the fray.

A few passersby had picked up some of the papers that had been released from the abandoned and broken briefcase. The nurse showed me a few sheets that she’d picked up. There were quotes by Herman Hesse, Lao Tzu, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Baudelaire. She said that all of the papers seemed to be collections of quotes by famous people, mostly spiritual leaders, poets and writers. Other people seemed to have picked up some as well, stuffing them in their bags or pockets to read later. Only in New York, I thought.

Looking down at my now dirty shirt, I saw a piece of paper tucked in my breast pocket. I took it out and unfolded it. It was the same type of notebook paper that was scattered all over the street. On the piece of paper was a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke, a quote that, from that day forward, changed my life forever. I had no recollection of anyone putting that piece of paper in my pocket, but there it was, folded neatly, the edges creased as if with great patience and thoughtfulness. The quote? Oh yeah, the quote---it’s forever burned in my mind and my dreams and I’ve never been the same since first seeing it that day when I almost died on the streets of SoHo:

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.”

(c) 2009 NurseKeith