the lost man chronicles
the daily chronicle

communing with the humane: doing the thing you fear

"All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature,
and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws."
~ John Coltrane

Friday evening ended with a run-in into Rafael. “Rafa” is the crotchety old next-door neighbor who likes greets me with a wry, almost wicked, smile that bares a grin of chipped teeth as yellow as the dead grass on his front lawn.

Coming upon him as I came up to the bus line I resigned to saying hello. He beat me to the punch by jetting out his hand and baring his fangs. “Well, hello friend,” he offered with the tone of the wily insurance salesman who also somehow became a good “family friend.”

His grip, as always, was like a vice, a token gesture of might and some relic of an ancient rite of manhood.

As we got into line he leaned into me as he usually does, and I had to brace myself, for an overwhelming waft of last night’s homemade Hungarian goulash and this morning’s Taster’s Choice overcame me like a fog in a Saturday morning b-movie horror flick.

Regardless of how uneasy these run-ins with Rafa made me, I remained polite and feigned attention. Besides, circumstantial coincidence only brought us together once a month or so, and even then enduring was just a matter of affected interest and holding my breath for half-an-hour during our bus ride and the slow walk home.

On the bus we began talking music—his profession, his passion, his life.

He’s a concert pianist and a music history professor by trade with a fetish-like fascination for musical genius and a penchant for regaling the biographies of the pantheon of classical composers to whoever will listen.

The lecture began with Johannes Bach, flipped into Mozart, skipped onto Stravinsky, continued with Schubert, tripped into Vivaldi—“the Red Priest,” and only began to delve into Beethoven when the bus stuttered into a sudden stop at the corner of our street.

Fortunately, for me, artistic prodigy and prodigious opera are also of avid intellectual interest to me, so it was easy to listen to the professor rattle off a litany of dates from the seventeenth century and an impressive accounting of all their respective repertoires: countless symphonies, as many concertos, ninety-four operas, and a myriad of other works that these mavens manifested in their short lifetimes. “Bach alone produced over 1,200 musical works! Hardly any of his music was ever published during his lifetime! And only a genius like him could produce forty-six pieces while he spent a month in jail! Amazing I tell you.”

There were several points during his vigorous recollections that I thought he was going to begin foaming at the mouth. I was especially afraid of this when he started upon “Amadeus.” “Wolfgang was all but normal until the old age of three when he began playing the clavier. At four he took up the violin, as well as composing his own works. By the time when he was thirty-five when he died, he had written 202 hours of music, all of which he always wrote verbatim, never a corrected note, apparently rarely a blip of erroneous thought that transitioned mystically from this ethereal mind into the point of his quill.”


"There is a healthful hardiness about real dignity that never dreads
contact and communion with others, however humble"
~ Washington Irving

Prior to reaching the bus station Friday evening I had made a round of Curry Hill.

I first stopped by one of the two Indian general stores that offer a long wall replete with several dozen kinds of incense. I stood there for about ten minutes getting high and giddy by inhaling everything from jasmine, Egyptian musk, patchouli, cannabis, rose musk, nag champa, night queen, ylang ylang, clove, frankincense, and a handful of other wonderfully intoxicating fragrances.

I ended up buying a few boxes of them, along with three boxes of Yogi Tea including Egyptian Licorice, Redbush Chai and India Spice Tea—a tonic combining cinnamon, cardamom and ginger.

Next I walked up half a block to Kalustian’s bazaar of international foodstuffs and spices for a bag of their addicting “New York Aphrodisiac Mix,” a magic blend of nuts and dried fruits consisting of dried cherries and cranberries, black and golden raisins, roasted almonds, walnuts, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds. As usual, I supplemented it with blanched, lemon and some sort of musty almonds, pecans and some more walnuts. The resulting combination is incredible and it is quite difficult not to resist finishing half a pound in a single sitting.

As I left the shop and sauntered about aimlessly, passing a dozen or so Indian and Pakistani restaurants along the way, I began to feel a bit hungry.

Close to the corner where I had begun this whirlwind of a sensuously piquing tour, I decide to stop by Fresh Tortillas for a quick bite to eat. There are dozens of these fast food joints run all over the city by Chinese immigrants, and they offer some of the best-tasting, cheapest Mexican food in Manhattan.

Prior to turning from Lexington Avenue onto 28th I passed a transient holding a sign that simply read:

I’m hungry.
Please help.

The earnest simplicity of his plea immediately got to me and I staggered a few steps past him. I stopped to pause and ponder how I might help and decidedly walked backwards five strides until I was in front of him. I said, “Hi, I’m about to get myself some tacos, would you care to join me?”

He smiled and said, “Yes, thank you.”

Typically beggars in Manhattan are grimy, wearing scruffy clothes and scuffed-up shoes with their toes sticking through, and seemingly haven’t shaved or showered for a while. This guy actually seemed simply temporarily out of luck, a man in his early forties, with clean blue jeans, and well-groomed straight black hair that reached to his shoulders. Most comforting of all though was the fact that he did not smell bad.

Bad body odor was the one thing that would have nullified my offer immediately. In fact, when we sat down I noticed that he actually had a nice subtle—almost faint and feminine—scent about him. Eventually, after we had conversed a bit and the wafts had further beguiled my curiosity, I had asked him point-blank what he was wearing. “Oh that? Its Salvatore Ferragamo, Subtil something or other. I found it in a box of discarded samples in front of the shops over there on Sixth Avenue,” pointing toward Perfume Alley, which runs from 30 to 26th or so.

Wondering to myself who I had obligated myself to I shyly asked, “So, what would you like (to eat)?,” hoping he would not order one of everything on the menu.

“Oh, I’m not a big eater actually – I’m just hungry,” he coyly replied. Being that I was also not feeling much the glutton myself I suggested we begin by splitting an Al Carbon for starters.

He softly exclaimed, “Sounds great,” with a sincere smile, which might have brought tears to my eyes if it had not looked like he was about to begin drooling.

And to drink?,” I inquired as I pointed to the cooler full of cans of soda.

“Water will be fine, thank you.” I subsequently reached in and pulled out two bottles of water and set them upon the sole table in the joint.

A few minutes later I was slicing the savory meal we were about to share in half, careful to balance out the onions and peppers along with the grilled steak. He said, “Yum, looks good,” and I agreed, adding, “Smells good too.”

His earnest appreciation of the meal we were about to share gave my goose bumps, because it made me feel as if I was gaining twice as much in gratitude as I had given in petty magnanimity.

We both grabbed a small plastic cup of Red People’s salsa, popped the cap and poured the entire contents out over the steamy charcoaled meat. It was feeling more and more like a true communion, one perhaps quite true to the spirit of what Jesus Christ might have sought amongst all the strangers he had unhesitatingly sat down to chew and chat with, simply because he realized that they were just as human as him.

With each bite I became more comfortable because both of us moaned shamelessly and chewed at a savoring rate that could rival any Tuscan meal on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The entire time we sat together my grateful guest talked incessantly, surprisingly with uncommon finesse and an existential knowledge of the world that made me envious. In half an hour we traveled extensively, going everywhere from Korea to Japan to Ethiopia and Tehran.

He made amusing sweeping generalizations of each culture, charmingly conveying these broad assessments without prejudice and disdain for anyone. And he spoke most impressively with the authority and tone of an economist at some IFI like the International Monetary Fund.

He also liked to talk about the food he found and ate in each place in particular—“As much as I like to eat, I could easily forgo some of the local culinary customs, like fish in the morning in Tokyo and wet sour bread all the time in Addis Ababa—not for me.”

It was not until I was at the counter ordering our second taco (grilled chicken) that it occurred to me that this I was buying for a beggar that seemingly came from a life that was free of hunger or want of anything. I reminded myself not to ruin the moment by with unnecessary over-analysis. It was more important to accept the moment simply for what it was—I came across a man on my path who was hungry and I was trying to be a good Samaritan by sharing my meal with him. It was not necessary to know more than that and make it any less than a simple humane act otherwise.

Being fair-skinned, and free of any accent, I was admittedly surprised when he relayed to me that he was originally from Iran, “Before the Revolution of course—everything changed after that. A lot of us came here via Los Angeles back then.”

Suddenly, all the well-dressed, good-looking cliques of Persians that hung out around the coffee house on the campus of UCLA when I was an undergrad there almost twenty years ago, made sense to me, and I conveyed this to my ad-hoc companion.

He chuckled and said, “Yes, were all over the place there, and we have made it the second largest population of Persians in the world. It is better known as ‘Tehrangeles’ amongst…us.”

The hesitation to associate himself with the group made me wonder. Had he some sort of falling out amongst the elite? Was he the black sheep of one of the “families” of Iran that ran the country before the Revolution? The mystery in my mind was beguiling, so I decided not to defile it by inquiring much further.

Yet, almost as if he had detected this assuming curiosity on my part, he proclaimed, “Yeah, that whole part of the Middle East is clearly set to explode or ‘implode’ rather. With the Majlis (Parliament) in Tehran pushing for nuclear power, Iran is bound to be at the center of a major violent outbreak within the next decade or so.”

And then, as if he realized he was revealing too much, showing how well informed and perhaps tangentially involved he was with the politics of that region, he wiped his mouth with a napkin and said, “That was great.”

As I finished my last chew we rose simultaneously from our seats and stepped toward the door. On the sidewalk he extended his hand and said smiling, “Thank you once again.” “My pleasure,” I returned and then added, as I clung to the enigma about him,”…and good luck.” He smirked slightly, as if to indicate that my hunch was right somehow, and replied while looking me straight in the eye, “Thanks.”

I began walking home alone by gong north up Madison and then turning west at 30th Street. To my utter surprise I found Ravagh, a Persian food restaurant on the north side of the street. For some time at the start of this year I had criss-crossed practically every street running the square from PA at 40th and 8th to work at 26th and Park in search of new restaurants and curio shops, and I had somehow missed this slice in the pie. The coincidence was uncanny.

This charming evening was capped when I came to the corner of 6th Avenue and ran into the last half of the bike rat parade, a bohemian horde of bicyclists that rides once a month in protest the modern ways of life or something or other. I said to the stranger waiting next to me, “Looks like something I’d love to do, but realistically speaking, I know I never will.” She laughed in response and smiled, “Yeah, me too.” Dressed in pumps, a smart dark suit and holding a leather attaché, I readily understood her conciliatory empathy.

Subsequently, I read about this bicycle ride and discovered that it is universally known as Critical Mass, “an international event held in hundreds of cities (325 reportedly) on six continents.” Occurring on the last Friday of every month, it is a call for conscientious bicyclists, in-line skaters and pedestrians to reclaim the streets that are otherwise polluted and monopolized by vehicular traffic.

Eventually, the end of the whirling protest crossed our paths and I continued walking northwest.

As I scurried into Port Authority and got to my gate, I came upon Rafa. Crouched over while sitting on one side of the aisle, he smiled when he saw me, smiling almost as if he had been waiting for me.


"To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language."
~ William Cullen Bryant

Saturday passed quite uneventfully, but following day proved to be quite extraordinary in the subtlest of fall fashions.

For Sunday was a perfect (perfect) day for a Fall drive anywhere where there were streets lined with trees. At 65 degrees going on seventy, you could travel just about anywhere with your window rolled down and enjoy the colorful spectacle of millions of leaves falling gracefully everywhere. It was a gorgeous experience to behold—a sweeping, swirling display of seasonal portents and nature’s little omens whimsically whisking about the streets.

I was privy to this wonderful play amongst the elements when I made my way to church. I thought it was a blessed segue, because it afforded me a transition from secular duty into a religious sanctuary by way of being in awe of the warming and iridescent change of the seasons, one that was playfully occurring all about us.

So while others enjoined in the hymn, joining together in song and praise, I paid homage in my own way by furiously writing all that I found amazing about the morning down upon an old Exxon receipt.

As I was scribbling I noticed that some of the chapel’s golden stained-glass windows were open, and the parishioners, along with the dark brown pews they were huddled in, were basked and bathed in a calming yellow light. It was a grand setting to begin the day that was about to unfold into All Hallows’ Eve.

It so happened that the minister’s sermon focused on the coming of another scary evening—Presidential Election Night, the American adult version of Halloween.

Being a “liberal religious community seeking transition…” the service was rife with humor about democracy in America balanced with somber words about the denial of life and death we face here in the States.

The minister began by talking about the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which celebrates the circle of life and enjoins the reverent remembrances of the dearly departed with the reveling rituals that allow children to participate in a colorful and festive means of memorializing their ancestors. “And regrettably it is an acceptance of the circle of life that we wholly deny here in our society, one which is fueled by the culture of fear, one in which we try to hide from death, and one which is mimicked by the current political campaign of denial we have endured all year long.”

He added with tongue in cheek, “Bush is quite like the Emperor with new clothes and the public is the court which acquiesces in awe of all his vacuous declarations. He and the current administration have clearly led us from a great economic boom—to bomb, that is the greatest economic debt this country has ever known.”

It was a sharp contrast to the little discussion I had overheard the prior night at a party. One of the men was blathering on about how great Bush has been—“He took care of things after 9.11 and has handled all the terrorist threats, like Sadam Hussein and Asama Bin Laden. And he has gotten this country back on its feet, after being subject to the devastating economic policies of the previous administration.” I tried to listen and learn something new in earnest, but I could not help entertain what I heard with chagrin and disbelief. For even I, as ignorant of a citizen as there can be, knew this guy was full of shit. His arrogant argument was vacuous and riddled with large loopholes, tax exempts that favored the elite and all those tied to the Bush family.

The minister pointed out that Tuesday happens to fall upon All Souls Night this year, and so it presents us with an unique opportunity. “For by punching the chad, pulling the lever of clicking on the right icon, we can reconnect ourselves to all souls. All the lost souls that are subject to the sad state of politics we are enduring. But there is hope! For the hope for improvement lies within us all. And to fulfill this hope we must face the reality of the world we have created via our acquiescence. For none of us are getting out of this alive.”

“So what is actually important while we are here? It is not comfort. No, it is embracing the value that compels us to celebrate and invigorate and usher along the continuity of life.”

At that moment, for some fey reason or other, I thought of my encounter with the transient from Tehran two nights before. I thought of his presumed courage, the gall to step outside of his norm, as well as my own sort of bravery—that droll ability to engage strangers and have humane experiences as a result, subsequently gaining existential wisdom that so many others are afraid of tendering because we are programmed to fear the unknown.

The minister ended his sermon by repeating the words he had begun his homily with. Quoting William Jennings Bryant, the longest running presidential candidate in our country he read, “The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you. Destiny is not a matter of chance, but of choice: it is not to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

The minister then asked for a moment of silence. And as we all closed our eyes and bowed our heads in respect, I suddenly became reacquainted with the breeze that scurried through the chapel and over the quiet congregation. The cool wind was refreshing and felt as if it was nature’s gracious way of reviving me from my mediation. I thought that even if I do not always play along with the chorus singing and group prayers when it comes to ritual, I felt as if I had reconnected to everyone in my own way, if only just be being there and experiencing this invigorating Fall waft together.

"Start at once a bedside library
and spend the last half hour of the day
in communion with the saints of humanity."
~ William Osler

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