Yearning to Breathe: A New York story of a serendipitous encounter
My first night in New York was not what I had planned. My plans began unravelling before I left Montreal. “DELAYED” announced the Departure Board. I was already anxious, and DELAYED meant that instead of landing in New York in the daylight hours, my DC-9-32 flight took off into the darkness of night. Tightness in my chest worsened throughout the flight. By the time we began circling in a holding pattern over the Atlantic my pulse was racing.
From time to time the sky gave up glimpses of strobing lights and I knew other planes were criss-crossing our airspace. At one stage a red flash pierced my window. The DC-9-32’s engines surged and we quickly gained altitude. From my window I could see the silhouette of another aircraft falling away, and further below I caught my first glimpse of New York. I could make out Yankee Stadium, Times Square and darkness in between that included my West 123rd hostel.
My breathing had become shallow gasping breaths. This might be my first time in New York, but I’d grown up on a diet of Hill Street Blues, then NYPD Blue, Law and Order, and most recently CSI: New York. I’d need every ounce of my wits to keep safe.
My airport shuttle emerged from Queens Midtown Tunnel into bright lights of Manhattan. But once other passengers checked in to safe hotels, I became the sole traveller watching Midtown lights fade as my shuttle headed north. By the time it stopped outside West 123rd I was too breathless to instruct the driver to return me to Midtown, regardless of cost. The driver placed my bag in the middle of the avenue, got back in his van, and drove away.
I was alone, illuminated by weak glows from a 24 hour drugstore. I checked for signs on a building that was lit by cigarette embers of a crew of usual suspects, and a rhythmic flickering Zippo. My watch said 12:03am. Using crime-drama as my point of reference, I began choking. I couldn’t outrun the suspects. My only hope was the drugstore behind me.
“Hey! You want the hostel? What’s your name?” The suspect’s voice belonged to a male. Black. At least 6’3.
“Hostel?” asked a female. Latino. 5’½. “Over here.”
“You’ll be killed on the road!” said a female. French accent. White. 5’10. “There’ll be an envelope on the desk with your passport number, a locker key, a bed number. I’m Yvette. What’s your name?” Smiling and nodding, I cautiously began moving.
“Craig?” a new suspect called out. “Are you Craig?” I turned to see two men, one white, about six foot, with a goatee; the second, Latino, 5’8, crossing the road from the drugstore.
The man with the goatee was smoking. “I’m Andreas, the night-manager. There’s an envelope on the desk with a locker key. You’re in bed #209. Second floor. Top bunk.” Then to the Zippo flicker,
“Marino, you’re #210 aren’t you?”
“Yes” agreed the Zippo flicker. “I’ll help with your backpack?” I declined.
“Well drop your luggage and come back down. Do you smoke?” asked Andreas. I declined again.
“Well come back down anyway. The drugstore’s open all hours. Anything in pre-sealed packets is safe. And you can get beers or a coke if you like.”
My suspicion still aroused, I wondered if the gig was to have someone go through my luggage while I was having a beer or a coke. But, managing to draw breath, I agreed.
A lifted lamp
I headed back downstairs and felt my breathing deepen, drawing in passive smoke of someone at the front desk who was talking to himself. It was Andreas.
“.... Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath...” I recognised the words; Vincent’s monologue from Sheperd’s Buried Child, a favourite of my Senior High School Drama students. I’d never felt Vincent’s imagery so clearly, until an unusual pause. Andreas ran into the line again, “... Everything dissolved. Just like that.” Another pause.
“And that two bucks kept right on flapping on the seat beside me,” I prompted.
Andreas stubbed out his cigarette, waved erroneous smoke, and hid his ashtray behind the counter.
“No smoking in the hostel.” I nodded.
“Buried Child? Know it well. I teach Drama at home.”
“Drama teacher. Man, that’s art. My mother teaches. It’s a real art.”
I shrugged agreement. “You’re in a play?”
“This is my night job. But I’m training at The Actors’ Studio. Hey, have you read Dream of Passion?” I hadn’t.
“You’ve got to. Man, if you’re a Drama teacher... here,” he gave me his well thumbed copy, “borrow mine. I’ve read it eight times. Anyway, come on outside.”
We returned to the stoop. The Zippo flicking rhythms paused. “You are Au-zee?”
“I know Au-zees.” The rhythms resumed.
“Cool,” I said.
“Marino’s from Greece. He’s a percussionist and works sessions in a studio uptown. Who were you playing for today?” asked Andreas.
“Some tracks for Keith Urban’s producer. Do you know him?” asked Marino.
“No,” I conceded.
“I tell him you said ‘Hi’ anyway. What’s your name?”
“Craig,” I said, shaking hands amidst the rhythms.
“You are Craig,” said the man, black, 6’3.
“I am Ayomide, it means happiness is coming.” Ayomide took my right hand and kissed me on both cheeks. “Where are you from?”
“No! Where did you come from?”
“Today,” prompted Andreas.
“I go to Montreal tomorrow,” said Ayomide, “I’m a gymnast.”
“Cool,” I said.
Andreas added that Ayomide was not just a gymnast, but a “Supreme acrobat with divine skills.”
“Cool,” I said.
“I go to the circus in Montreal.”
“Wow!” My vocabulary extended.
Ayomide bowed. From his bow, his right leg extended horizontally then his entire body rotated 540 degrees, became a forward roll across the pavement, into a handstand that Ayomide held perfectly, then his legs began a helicopter rotation until he had manoeuvred over the uneven handrail of the hostel stoop, he lowered himself onto the rail until his legs were doing the splits. He paused. Then, raising his hands above his head and using the power of his legs, he drew himself into a standing position, jumped, tumble-turned through the air, and landed perfectly on one knee in front of me.
Astonished I managed a second “Wow!!”
“No smoke,” said Marino, “but come, we’ll drink,” and gestured to follow him to the drugstore. Then turning back to the Latino man, 5’8, he asked, “Emilio, do you know The Boxer?” The Latino man, 5’8, picked up a guitar and began playing. By the time we had purchased a six pack and returned, the Latino woman was singing the second verse.
Seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places
Only they would know.
“She’s beautiful,” I observed.
Marino agreed, “Juanita is Emilio’s wife.”
“I meant her voice is beautiful,” I said.
“I know,” he replied.
Back on the stoop, as the song continued, I reached for a beer and realised we had bought capped bottles. I fumbled at the cap wishing I had a Swiss-army knife. Marino took the bottle in his right hand, lined the neck up on the cement of the stoop, looked at me, and winked.
“Whoa! Wait - ” His left hand hit at the exact angle and force to open the bottle.
“Yamas!” he said.
“Cheers!” I responded as he capped a bottle for himself.
Where the New York City winters
Aren’t bleeding me
Before Juanita could begin the last verse Emilio put the guitar down. “I’m thirtsy,” he said. I offered him a beer and looked to Juanita.
“We’ll share,” she said taking the bottle.
“You guys are amazing.”
“Thanks,” said Emilio. “We play to finance our honeymoon.”
“Yes,” agreed Juanita and kissed Emilio. “This is our eighth year of honeymooning.” She held the unopened bottle out to Marino, “Por favour, Senor?”
Yvette stepped forward and took the bottle. I began to apologise for neglecting her, then noticed she was wearing a red nose. Taking the bottle was the beginning of her act. “She’s trained at Lecoq. And under Gaulier,” Andreas noted.
Holding the bottle above her head, the clown looked to each member of her audience. Andreas shook his head and sighed, “Please don’t.”
“Open it,” urged Marino.
The clown was bewildered by the instruction, bought the bottle back to eye level, and examined the possibilities. She looked back to her audience and noticed me gulp from my bottle. The clown bought her capped bottle to her lips and made a slurping sound. Her audience laughed. She slurped again, her audience laughed again. She held the bottle to her lips, looked to her audience, slurped longer and louder than previously, and then retired the bottle. The clown looked at us again, cross-eyed; the game had shifted to the drunken clown.
Marino exposed the folly. “How can you be drunk? The bottle’s still capped.”
The clown returned the bottle to eye level, looked at the cap, looked to her audience, looked back to the bottle, and then abruptly raise the bottle above her head.
“Please don’t,” whispered Andreas.
Marino picked up the second last bottle and showed it to the clown. She looked at his bottle, back to her own, looked over her audience, looked to Marino, then moving close to Marino’s bottle poised over the stoop, observed as he struck the bottle, removing the cap. The clown showed her audience her amazement.
Marino skulled the contents of his bottle, belched loudly, placed the empty bottle at the clown’s feet, and gestured for her to try. The clown raised the bottle.
Yvette’s clown was impeccable. She drew the audience into her act, creating dramatic and comedic tension. Andreas repeated, “Please don’t, Yvette.” The clown froze, looked at Andreas, looked up to the raised bottle, looked at her audience, back to the bottle, and finished her gaze on Andreas. Her posture began to deflate. She looked to the bottle, back to Andreas and lowered the bottle. Then, with charming smile, she looked over her audience, back to Andreas, and with humility presented him with the unopened bottle.
“Thank you,” Andreas said and the clown hugged him.
Emilio picked up his guitar. “Craig, do you know this song? It’s how we finish some nights.” I recognised the cords of a Hunters and Collectors’ song and raised my bottle to Juanita and Emilio’s arrangement. By the time they reached the chorus I had joined arms with Andreas, Ayomide, Marino and Yvette. It was after 2am on West 123rd, but we all joined for a hearty rendition of the chorus.
We may never meet again
So shed your skin and let’s get started
You will throw
We kept repeating the final line until Andreas saw an NYPD squad car approach and dispatched us all to bed.
The golden door?
By the time I woke the next morning Andreas had left for The Actors’ Studio. Ayomide was half way to Montreal. Juanita’s and Emilio’s heads gave up their honeymoon embrace in Emilio’s sleeping bag. As I left the hostel Marino was on the stoop flicking rhythms with his Zippo.
“Yassou!” he greeted.
“G’day!” I replied.
“Yvette leaves today. Want to see her busking at Union Square?”
It sounded like too much of a plan. I’d given up on plans. If I’d followed my plans, I might have denied myself last night’s impromptu performances. I declined. Instead I wandered New York and found myself on a ferry to Ellis Island. I kept playing last night’s performances over in my mind and wondered how fortunate I had been to have shared that that one moment in time and place. I wondered about the artists’ generosity. I wondered what fortune bought such people together.
Then, standing at the Statue of Liberty I read,
“GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR
YOUR HUDDLED MASSES YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE.
THE WRETCHED REFUSE OF YOUR TEEMING SHORE.
SEND THESE. THE HOMELESS. TEMPEST-TOST TO ME.
I LIFT MY LAMP BESIDE THE GOLDEN DOOR!”