Buddha in January

(January 22nd, 2014)


…This mass-produced brass Buddha is about one-and-a-half inches from the base to the top of his head and the base is about an inch long. If I laid a pencil along side it, you could see how small it is.
There is as story to it…

In 1984 I had been on the air (WBAI in New York) for about five years. In those days I told stories about my life, wondered out loud about the world–was, by turns, whimsical, searching, funny and passionate about talking to the unseen people on the other side of the radio signal. I knew people were listening because I got calls and letters (this was pre-internet) at the station.

The stories I told or the wondering out loud was my attempt to reconcile my past and present–even to try to reconcile the contradictions of the world itself. I was young then and thought that if I found the right words, my past and even present suffering would be healed and anyone listening to me would also be healed. I read a lot of mythology when I was a kid and maybe I pictured myself as some kind of hero, who, by telling such passionate and personal tales, could kill monsters and rescue…whoever needed rescuing.

Though this feeling of being responsible for the world’s ills was something I brought with me from childhood, I was also encouraged in this belief by the letters and calls I got from people who said they had experienced the same difficult or beautiful things in their lives and something I said on the air inspired them or had helped them heal in some way. In fact, I couldn’t then–and can’t think now–of a better use for the radio–which I see as kind of gift from heaven.

…It was January, 1984—a cold, windy day, just like today—temperature no more than 20 degrees. I was working as a paralegal at a very old, conservative law firm; a fairly large place that was founded in 1889. The walls were lined with slightly gruesome, overlarge  portraits (in oils) of the founding partners and other senior partners up to the present time.
In this place there was a right way to do everything and, as much as they could—while making adjustments to modern technology (I had one of the first legal research computers)—they tried to stick to the principles and practices of the dusty old founding fathers of the place. In the hallways and offices, the furniture was either old or dark or some facsimile of the kind of furnishings you’d see in some old University or Gentlemen’s club.

And they weren’t joking about their rectitude and old-fashioned morality.
One secretary, a very sexy girl from Staten Island, used to wear tight, bright dresses. She was warned once by the office manager to dress more soberly. In fact, a general memo was issued to all personnel to respect the decency of the firm and dress appropriately.
But this girl had the looks and had no intention of dressing like a nun or an old librarian. She came in the next day, dressed to kill, and was fired on the spot.

A cold January day—the snow blowing outside…The phone in my cubicle rang. It was the receptionist announcing that I had a guest.
This was not something that was expected or encouraged. I was low on the totem pole and people in my position did not receive visitors. Also, I was surprised because I wasn’t expecting anyone—no one except my family even knew the address of this place, which was on the twentieth floor of an old New York office building.
The receptionist, Alice—who had been there about twenty years—made the announcement with a kind of amused and bewildered tone in her voice.

All so mysterious…   I told her to send the guest into the company cafeteria where I could have a little space to talk. All the tables were empty—it was about ten in the morning.

I sat there and in walked a tall, thin black man in his late twenties. He was dressed in beat-up cotton slacks and a simple, plum colored rayon shirt. He had no coat. He had no hat. He was wearing loafers and no socks. Outside the wind hissed and the snow blew…
This man was covered in sweat. The sweat stood out on his face and had soaked right through his shirt. This was—let me say it again—a most extraordinary sight at a place like my firm. He was most obviously NOT a client. So why he was there to see me? I couldn’t possibly imagine.

He shook my hand. He had long, thin, almost saint-like fingers and his hand was burning and damp. In fact he radiated heat—clearly had a very high fever.
He told me his name. Was it Sam or George, I don’t remember anymore.
He sat across from me at the formica-topped cafeteria table, maybe two feet away, his big eyes glowing and a radiant smile on his face. He told me that he had been a listener of mine for three years now and my talks on the radio had inspired and uplifted him—gotten him through some really hard times. Then he said: “I want to give you something”—and took this Buddha out of his pants pocket.
I’ll tell you the truth. I was afraid to take it from him. Sam, or was it George, seemed gay to me. This was the time that AIDS was becoming big news and I decided that he was in some advanced stage of the disease. I had no real way of knowing but the fear took me and I worried (back then) that I might catch it.
“I want to give you something in return for everything you’ve given me”, he said. I reached out and took it from him. He stood up, shook my hand, then walked straight out of the cafeteria—me standing there amazed, watching him go.

I never heard from him again, but this Buddha has never left my sight. Wherever I’ve gone. Whatever I’ve gone through, it’s always with me. Right now, it’s sitting right next to this computer screen as I type.
I can never look at it without remembering that moment. This Buddha seems infused with a small portion of something eternal. There are times I look at it and it brings tears to my eyes when I remember how it came to me—and sometimes I feel joy knowing how much it meant and still means to this day.


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