There is tiny statue of Buddha on my desk—just to the right of my computer monitor, made from brass or some cheap composite metal and no more than two inches high. This tarnished Buddha, whose facial features are indistinct, is sitting straight-backed in the lotus position on a raised platform. The statue in itself is pretty unremarkable. But there’s a story to it…
In the mid-Eighties I had been on the radio (WBAI-FM in New York City) for about five years. Back in those days I often told stories about my life—tales of my complicated childhood, the various jobs and relationships I’d had, and present-day stories, about marriage, children, work, and any other experiences I had that I thought would be interesting. Essentially what I did was turn on the microphone and think out loud about everything. I knew a good number of people were listening because I got a lot of calls on the air and letters sent to the station.
The stories I told—in fact most of what I talked about on my shows—had a common theme: an almost constant, sometimes desperate, attempt to reconcile the conflicts of my past and my present—even to try to reconcile the contradictions of the world itself. I was much younger then and thought that if I found the right words, my past and even present suffering would be healed—and more, that anyone listening to me would also be healed. This was very much a carry-over from my childhood, when it seemed to me that the entire point of my existence was to cure my parents of all their many problems; to use all my imagination and energy to break them out of the their prison of fear and rage. I read a lot of mythology when I was a kid and I think I pictured myself as some kind of classical hero, who, by virtue of telling such passionate and personal tales, could slay monsters and rescue all who were in distress.
I was sometimes encouraged, unwittingly, in these grandiose fantasies by the communications I got from listeners; people telling me they had had similar difficult experiences in their lives, that something I said on the air had inspired them or helped them resolve some complicated problem. Yet, even with the evidence of all these positive responses, there was a feeling I never quite cured myself of: the deep sense that though I was talking with every bit of energy I had, no-one was really listening. Maybe I can explain the aching emptiness of this feeling by telling you about a waking vision I once had…
…I’m a major league baseball player. It’s the seventh game of the World Series, and the series is tied 3-3. The stadium—my home team’s stadium—is packed, sixty thousand fans screaming their heads off… It’s the bottom of the 9th and my team is down by three runs. The bases are loaded but there are already two outs when I come up to bat. The first pitch I get I hit a line-drive home run into the left field bleachers. I round the bases, bursting with pride and exultation… I come around third headed for home, and then, just as I’m about to touch home plate, I look up in the stands and— nobody is there—they’re completely deserted, not one single soul. My game winning, record-setting home run added up to exactly nothing.
All-in-all, the content and form of my radio show made for a very strange emotional and physical landscape, really an extreme contradiction. There I was on the air every week, telling stories, appealing for more personal connection in the world, for more humanity, and at the same time I was safely shielded from that humanity by the walled-in seclusion of the radio studio. So, every Sunday morning, snug in my little radio cave, I broadcast my heartfelt message of hoped-for freedom and love out into the world. And not ever quite believing that anybody was really receiving this message just drove me to try even harder each week.
Since WBAI was a nonprofit radio station, and always broke, it saved money by not paying its broadcasters. So, although I was something of a (very) minor radio star in the city, I still had to have a job if I intended to help pay the household bills.
…In January, 1985, I was working as a paralegal at a very old, conservative, mid-sized law firm in midtown Manhattan. The firm took up the 25th and 26th floor of a forty-story skyscraper, which was clad in dark gray, almost black granite. This huge, dark tower made me think of Darth Vader; this is where he would certainly live, I thought, if he took up residence in Manhattan. This law firm, which was founded in the 1890’s, specialized in trademarks and patents. They filed patent applications for original inventions and processes and defended the interests of their clients when a trademark was being infringed.
Even though the firm had recently moved to its modern skyscraper home, the general conservative tone was maintained. There was much dark-wood paneling in the partners’ offices; the gray cloth-covered walls of the firm were lined with gold-framed English hunting prints and overlarge, somewhat gruesome, oil portraits of the founding partners and retired senior partners. On days when I was feeling more than usually down or irritated, the portraits seemed particularly ominous and grotesque, like multiple pictures of Dorian Gray.
At this place there was a right (and a wrong) way to do everything and, as much as they could—while making the necessary adjustments to modern technology—they tried to stick to the principles and practices of the fusty old founding fathers. And the firm wasn’t joking about their strict moral rectitude. One secretary, a sexy young woman from Staten Island, used to wear tight, bright dresses. She was warned once by the office manager to dress more soberly. In fact, one day a general memo was issued to all personnel to respect the traditions of the firm and dress appropriately. But this woman had youth and looks and exuberance; she 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.
One cold winter’s day I was ensconced in my little paralegal’s den, laboring away at one of my routine tasks. I was bored and depressed that I wasn’t doing something more creative and interesting, but of course I was too passive to go out and look for something better. Still, I was grateful that I had this job which I got through the good offices of a listener who was a lawyer at the firm. The pay, especially the overtime pay, was good, and once in a while some of the work—researching or helping to write briefs—could be very interesting. At the very least I was grateful, on a day like this, to be inside, safe and warm; it was brutally cold outside, the temperature in the teens—the kind of day where you lean into the biting wind, spending all your energy just trying to get where you’re going.
Sometime in the mid-afternoon, with me checking my watch every five minutes and already feeling like I’d been there for years, the phone on my desk rang; it was Alice, the receptionist, telling me I had a guest… A guest? This was very strange. First of all, paralegals, down the totem pole from lawyers, didn’t usually have guests. Guests—either clients or lawyers coming in for conferences—were for the lawyers. Secondly, I don’t think any of my friends even knew where I worked. Embarrassed as I was that I, the radio “personality,” had such a routine, boring job, I never mentioned anything about it. Finally, my wife wasn’t the type to drop in on anybody and even if she felt like it, she was too busy uptown seeing patients at her office (she was a psychologist). Considering all this, an unexpected visitor was something bordering on the supernatural. Still, it was a break from my drudgery. I went out to meet my guest…
Standing in the reception area was a thin, intense-looking black man, probably in his late twenties. He was dressed in worn jeans and a thin, dark-colored shirt, beat-up loafers and no socks. He had no coat. He had no hat. He wasn’t even wearing an undershirt—I could see his bony, bare chest beneath his shirt. Freezing cold and windy outside and he’s dressed like this? Very strange. And another odd thing—he was covered in sweat. It stood out on his face and soaked right through his shirt. I was amazed to see this guy standing there, and I wasn’t the only one. There were several people waiting in reception or coming in and out of adjoining offices and they couldn’t take their eyes off him.
He appeared like a sudden, unwelcome apparition. It wasn’t just the fact that he was dressed for summer in the depths of winter and sweating all over. It was also, simply, that he was black and just as obviously, poor—a combination of categories which was essentially invisible where I worked. Such a person as this was not meant to be in such a place as this. In fact, a person like this was meant to stay outside this place, in the street, along with all the other common, unaffiliated people. But somehow this guy had passed right through all the visible and invisible barriers erected by a hundred years of senior partners. He was like a foreign bacterium that had slipped through the body’s defenses.
As soon as he saw me walk into the reception area, he smiled—a big, radiant smile—then leaned forward and shook my hand. He had long, thin fingers which reminded me of the hands of saints in old paintings. His hand was warm—almost hot—and damp as it gripped mine. Standing so close, I could feel the heat coming off him. He must have had a high fever. We stood there for a minute, taking each other in, then I heard Alice, the receptionist, talking to me… “Mike,” she said, “I think you need to take your guest to the lunchroom.”
As I passed by her desk on the way to the lunchroom, she gave me her little, cynical half-smile. Alice was late-fiftyish—short, graying hair, pale blue eyes, a wise-guy Irish woman from Staten Island… She and I were buddies of a sort. She hadn’t much use for the lawyers—thought they were a bunch of inflated egos in suits. This was a class thing for sure. She was probably married to, or the widow of, a cop or a fireman—earning her living by connecting phone calls and announcing the arrivals of men (and a few women) who made ten times as much as she did.
As my guest and I walked down the long, gray, expensive hallways, I imagined the founding partners’ eyes bulging out in disbelief as they followed us. As we passed people in the hallway, they suddenly stopped talking and stared, some of them visibly alarmed. I was hoping not to run into the office manager—she probably would have told me to immediately escort my guest out of the office.
It was about 3 in the afternoon and the room was empty. He and I sat at one of the small square tables. My guest—I was still trying to get used to the idea of me being a “host”—sat across from me, maybe two feet away, his big eyes glowing like burning coals in his sharp, hollowed-out face. He introduced himself, his name was Edward. It was hard to keep from gaping at him; something was clearly eating away at him from the inside. He was down to bare muscle and gristle—just skin and bones and eyes and soul. He was being sculpted in the sharpest relief by whatever was consuming him.
Edward launched into a feverish, heartfelt monologue. He told me he’d been a listener of mine for a couple of years and that my talks on the radio had inspired and uplifted him—gotten him through some really hard times… I tried to say something but he just waved me off. I could feel the deadline I was sure he was approaching—he was close to the end of things and needed to tell me what he had to say right now.
He had come here to thank me for all the stories I had told on the radio about all the difficulties I’d had experienced earlier in my life and how I’d endured or overcome them; that these stories had made him laugh, inspired him, taught him about the meaning of courage. This was strange for me to hear… courage. He might have been talking about somebody else entirely. What did I have to do with courage, hiding inside my cubicle at this law firm, afraid to really throw myself into the swirl and smoke of life; afraid to try to find a more interesting job, afraid of making something more of my radio show, afraid, in fact, to take even the smallest risk. Courage? Man, I thought, have you ever got the wrong number…
I tried to ask him some questions about himself, but he just kept on talking, telling me more about specific shows I’d done that helped him—the words coming out in a rush.
This passionate speech of his was making me nervous. After all, I was the one who did the monologues—other people listened. To be in the opposite position was, to say the least, uncomfortable for me. And besides, I was used to speaking to my listeners on the phone, not in person. A glassed-in radio studio with a microphone was, for better or for worse, the perfect way for a social misfit like me to speak to other people. Growing up the way I did in a very crazy household, I learned early that in order to survive I had to build fortress-like walls—both mentally and physically—to keep out unwanted intruders; that, or, confronted with possible invasion, talk as much as possible to stay in control. Now here, sitting two feet away from me, with his laser eyes and ten-thousand-watt smile, was Edward. He had breached the walls of the law firm, and now he was passing right through my own carefully constructed defenses.
After several minutes he paused for a moment to catch his breath and I was finally able to ask him a question: “How did you ever track me down here?”
He smiled, “I heard you say a few times that you were a paralegal and that you worked in a big new building near Times Square.
“There’s a lot of new buildings near Times Square,” I said.
“Well, there’s not much you don’t say about your life,” he explained, “and once you mentioned something about dealing with patents and trademarks. So I just looked up patent and trademark law firms located in midtown and called a few asking for you…”
I was overwhelmed by this man; the concentration he had, the focus, the way he’d listened so closely to the things I’d been saying on my shows. Here was that problem again—the one with my radio audience—where I was never sure that anybody was really listening. And it wasn’t just that I wondered if anybody heard what I was saying, I also never believed that my words had any actual effect on anyone. Well, here was somebody who actually was listening—and more, who’d clearly been affected by what I was saying.
Sitting there in the lunchroom, just the two of us, was making me jumpier by the minute. It wasn’t just the terrible urgency in Edward’s voice and the troubling effect his story was having on me. On the most mundane level, I was worried because I was having a conversation in the middle of the day when I was supposed to be working. After all, I wasn’t a managing partner at this firm; I was a lowly paralegal and was not expected to be lounging around the lunchroom, entertaining guests.
We hadn’t been there very long when people started poking their heads in the door or coming in to get some coffee or something from the fridge. There was definitely a lot more traffic in the lunchroom than there usually was at this time of day. I nodded at a couple of them I knew, a secretary, one of the first-year associates. None of the established lawyers would deign to spy on me himself—they would only send someone else. What are secretaries for, anyway?
All of this was making me very anxious, but here’s what was truly bothering me: I was pretty sure that Edward was gay and there was no doubt that he was deathly ill. The mid-Eighties was the time of the plague—AIDs—and I was just plain scared. I knew almost nothing about the disease save for a vague understanding that it might travel from person to person through body liquids—blood, saliva, maybe sweat. I was gripped with the fear that I was going to be infected. He had shaken my hand and I was in such close contact with him. What I felt at that moment was an overwhelming desire to see him go—to have as much distance between myself and him as possible. But it didn’t seem right to just suddenly blurt out, “Well, thanks for dropping in but I’m very busy now”—especially as he was right in the middle of telling me how much my show meant to him.
Suddenly—and because I’m sure my discomfort, really, my fear, had become increasingly obvious—Edward said: “I want to give you something”. He took an object wrapped in tissue paper out of his pocket and held it out to me. I didn’t want to take it from him. When I hesitated, he gave me a sort of rueful smile and unwrapped the object. It was a tiny brass-colored Buddha. Smiling wider, he held it out to me again—staring straight into my eyes. Not wanting to seem like a complete, insensitive jerk, I swallowed my fear and took it from his hand. He explained that he’d had this Buddha for a couple of years; he always kept it at his bedside and it brought him comfort when he was troubled. Now he wanted me to have it.
The statue was warm from his body heat. I held it in my palm. “Thanks,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” he said and nodded. Then, as if his mission had been accomplished, he pushed his chair back and stood up. But he didn’t move to go—he just stood there looking at me. I didn’t know what to say. I really wanted him to leave but I was also afraid to let him go. What was I thinking—that there was something I could do to save him? He had tracked me down in the vast forest of midtown Manhattan and made his way into the law firm just to thank me for all I had done for him. Wasn’t there at least something else I could do to keep him from the darkness? In that instant it seemed to me that if I could summon up god-like powers, I could cure him—take away all his pain, even rescue him from death.
We stood there for a few more seconds. Finally, he sighed, then gave that me that beautiful smile again. I have never before—or since—seen a smile like that. He smiled like I imagined an angel might smile; somebody beyond the worries of mortality. Not that he wasn’t facing it—he was right there, right on the doorstep.
As I walked him out of the lunchroom I felt that pull again. I wanted him to be gone because I was afraid of getting sick, but, on the other hand, I didn’t want to let him go out alone into the cold. I probably could have told him how to get back to reception without my help but I felt a need to walk back with him because, however brief his visit had been, he and I were bound together now in some deep way I didn’t understand. I felt closer to him in those few minutes than I did to people I’d known for years.
I saw him right to the elevators. He held out his hand. I didn’t want to touch him—still afraid to catch whatever it was that was making him so sick. And maybe, in my unconscious—that place to which I generally consigned all my troubling emotions—I was more afraid of being infected by his passion and vitality, his complete and open bravery about facing life—and death. He was engaged in mortal combat and he was doing it with unflinching honesty and courage. Unflinching honesty and courage was definitely not my style. Life, living my life, is something that I have always found, at the very least difficult, if not out-and-out terrifying. There is so much possibility of disappointment—of pain, loss, and separation. Better, I had always concluded, to avoid the risk of being fully alive; as if by avoiding life, I could avoid the inevitable pain that comes with it—maybe even avoid death itself. Well, whatever my fears and doubts, I took his hand anyway—again felt the heat and the life flow from his hand to mine… We seemed to be standing there for hours before the elevator finally arrived. The door opened and he got in; he gave me one last, big smile and the doors closed. I stood there for a while, overcome by the whole experience, then I realized people were staring at me so I turned and headed back to my office.
Back in my little gopher hole, I realized I was still gripping the Buddha in my left hand. Quickly, I put it down on my desk. Was it tainted, poisoned? I was suddenly flooded with anger that this stranger, sick as he was, had intruded into my life and put me at risk of catching a fatal disease. I hurried into the bathroom and ran liquid soap and hot water over the statue, then ran more hot water over it and dried it with paper towels. Then I wrapped the statue in another paper towel and put it in my jacket pocket.
The rest of the day I couldn’t focus at all on my work. This was not unusual, since about three quarters of what I did was not exactly fascinating. But now I was completely preoccupied—no, haunted is the right word—by Edward’s visit. I could feel the little Buddha in its wrapping stuck down in my jacket pocket. It felt alive down there; pulsing, radiating, sending off powerful vibrations. I had the urge to get it out of my pocket and hide it in a desk drawer. At the same time, I didn’t want to disturb it. It seemed like a holy amulet—to move it would dissipate whatever special magic it had.
It seemed like days till five o’clock came…
Later that day, while my wife was putting our five-year daughter to bed, I was sitting in the living-room reading a book. It was something I’d read before, a historical novel—not exactly a challenge to the intellect, but for some reason I couldn’t make any sense of it. Suddenly, the image of the statue leaped into my mind. I realized then that it had been calling to me from down in my jacket pocket since I first got home. Obviously, I had blocked that afternoon’s experience from my consciousness because it was far too intense, choosing (as much as choosing ever seemed to be involved) instead to lapse into my default emotional position—an avoidant, self-absorbed haze. But now everything came crowding back into my mind—Edward and his burning eyes, his beautiful smile, his passionate intensity. How, I thought, could I have possibly forgotten this little Buddha for three minutes, let alone three hours?
I tossed the book down, jumped up and got the statue—still bundled in its paper-towel wrapping—out of my jacket pocket, and brought it into bedroom. I cleared away a small space on top of my dresser, then set it down. Amidst the other things there—a couple of framed photos, various objects and figures that I had collected over the years—the statue seemed very tiny, but it pulsed with such life and power that it seemed to dwarf everything around it. I stood looking at the statue but seeing Edward’s face instead. It seemed to me that I hadn’t been able to hold his gaze for more than a second, but at the same time I couldn’t look away from him. It was like staring straight at death while seeing its very opposite—the nascent, rising, I am of life.
That was more than thirty years ago…
I never heard from Edward again—no doubt he is long gone. Since that time I’ve been divorced, married again, had several different jobs, risen and fallen as a radio broadcaster, made and lost some good friends. I’ve wandered—am still wandering—in many dark and difficult places, but that little statue has always been with me. Sometimes, when I’m busy writing or preoccupied with the content of various emails, I just glance at it—not feeling anything in particular. Other times I’m caught and held by it. Miniscule as it is, it seems to be sending out a powerful signal—sometimes benevolent, other times unsettling, often both at the same time.
What was the gift Edward gave me that day, and what is this statue telling me now, all these years later? I think this little Buddha has one fundamental thing in common with all gifts; as beautiful or useful as they might be in themselves, no matter the depth (or relative lack) of feeling with which they are given, they are basically a medium that transmits the personality and the intent of the giver. To me Edward had originally been one of thousands of anonymous listeners—but he alone had broken through the wall I created to insulate myself from my audience. The gift he gave me was the knowledge—if only I would bring myself to take it to heart—that all that story-telling wasn’t in vain; that people had been listening and were moved by what I said on the radio.
And there was more to Edward’s gift. He showed me what it was like to live as intensely as possible in the face of death. We exist inside this incarnated frame—living and dying every day we breathe, but, for better or for worse, we spend most of our time trying to avoid knowing it. Edward had the capacity to understand this basic reality—it shaped him and his every action.
When he showed up at my office all those years ago, he told me that my stories had taught him about courage. But, of course, he was the one doing the teaching. So this too was his gift to me: that it is possible to face death—and life—with honesty and courage. It’s a gift that is always being offered to me and one that I will always be trying to receive.