Thursday, May 19, 2011

My soul thy name would laud

This is how the mind works. I was walking through the tunnel underneath New York’s Grand Central Station that connects the Lexington Avenue subway with the Times Square shuttle. It was mobbed at three-thirty in the afternoon because of the downpour outside. Hot and humid. Close and gray. The mind closed off, tense, imperceptive of anything except its own discomfort.

Sitting at the end of the shuttle was an aged black man making music by drawing a bow across a saw held between his legs. He was bending the saw to achieve the melody, accompanied by the ethereal sounds of a synthesizer coming through a little Peavey amp. He was playing the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”

I didn’t stop walking -- the train was there, its doors open -- but something happened. I choked on my breath and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt the sweat in my armpits. I saw myself as a young boy, sitting on the living room rug, watching the black and white TV. The Billy Graham crusade was on. My mother and grandmother were sitting on the couch. It was raining then too. My wrinkled shirt, my open mouth. The dog’s blanket next to me.

The boyhood image faded. It came to me then, the effect of that hymn on my mother a few days before she died. She turned to the sunlight in the bay window and whispered, “I don’t understand how God could care about a little soul like me.” The sentence that has dogged me for years. Effect, not affect.

I turned my back to the other passengers on the train and stared straight ahead. I saw my face in the window, with its tears. I wiped them away with the back of my hand. Sentimental, superstitious fool. The old man was still playing on his saw. How great thou art. My reflection looked back at me and nodded. Lichtenberg’s quote in Auden’s commonplace book: “A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it...” What was it called? A Certain World. In an uncertain world, I far prefer the autumn to the spring with its hopeless rain. Oh this flood of tears. How great art thou?

The doors closed and the music ceased. A volume of ragged air pressed against my eardrums. Some big guy with curly hair wearing a black jacket loomed over me from behind. His pale face wore a beatific smile in the window above my left shoulder. Had he heard the music too? The sighing of the saw soloing above the celestial electronic meanderings of the synthesizer. The martial Billy Graham. Nixon likee Chinee food. There’s nothing wrong with faith even if it’s not my faith, a love benign that sustains life. My mind slowed down. I thought to myself, I can go now.

I left the train behind and walked through yet another tunnel, this one lined with preachers handing out leaflets proclaiming the impending Judgment Day. Haitians, Koreans, Dominicans, whites, old and young, one shouting in Creole. I thought to myself, this poverty, it will never end. All these people, including me, each one alone for the time being.

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