Coming into the coolness of the cathedral, from the heat and the loud glare of the city streets, was always an exhilarating experience for Hawthorne. The pungent smell of incense and the vast interior spaces ebbing and flowing with colored light, and also the silence, filled Hawthorne with awe.
It was a silence that was vast, so vast, but was only an inkling of the greater vastness of God. It was an oceanic silence, penetrating the soul…
The stained glass, in particular, continually dazzled Hawthorne. Hawthorne had always come to the cathedral when his mind was greatly troubled. Lately, Hawthorne had his mind unsettled more than ever. As a banking specialist, who currently dealt in home equity loans for new home buyers, Hawthorne was a man who hated his job. Though in recent years, he had come to feel tired and used up. Hawthorne had not resigned himself to the earthy, and often froward, ways of the business world. He still (despite considerable angst), maintained strong ethical and aesthetic standards, despite the climate of the dreary, ever so mercantile workplace in which he whiled away his days and occasional evenings.
With waning fortitude, but still the same commitment, Hawthorne tried to restrain the buzzing flies of the marketplace. On better days, he could try to be, if not a full-fledged Lancelot of the plexiglass tower, then at least a Lancelot in a minor key. Oh how short the leash was!
Hawthorne had once an avocation before him: one which had almost delivered the promise of a splendid niche that would have been far more than just a “job”. Hawthorne studied many years (decades even) to be a professor of humanities, specializing in the philosophical analysis of the arts, crafts, and folkways of various civilizations and historical epochs.
Hawthorne, at that time, had also been in love with a young woman named Jethryn, who had turned out to be a far more fickle gal than he had bargained for. Academia had its sirens and the rocks on to which Jethryn had invited him were particularly sharp and jagged. Jethryn, whom Hawthorne loved intensely, began to (without warning) date another man. Not only did she begin dating another man, she was seen (by Hawthorne himself) kissing and holding hands with the chap. Lest this present narrative should seem more and more like a soap opera, let us sum up the matter by taking hold of the long and the short of it. The long and the short of it was that Hawthorne inquired of his ladylove and she, then, responded in a manner most insipid, when she said,
“I just wanted to see other people. I just wanted some variety.”
Hawthorne was flabbergasted and crestfallen. He was so flabbergasted that he did not present the doctoral thesis he had been scheduled to present that month. He spent the next two years in a sort of emotional limbo travelling from town to town and finally going to live with a cousin in New York city (Manhattan, to be precise).
It was while living with his cousin: Nestor, that Hawthorne, (having met Nestor’s ladyfriend Myrna: who was a banker), then decided that working in banking, in the nearby town of Hillsbrook, on the outskirts of the Bronx, might not be a bad stepping stone to somewhere else. Well, that “stepping stone” remained Hawthorne’s workplace and livelihood for 14 long, lonely years.
Hawthorne became well acquainted with the traffic, the sidewalks, the asphalt, the taxicabs,the buses, and the skyscrapers. Hawthorne had come to know the streets and sidewalks. He had known their bustle and hustle and walked among the seemingly endless ocean of faces without number: their ebbing and flowing with dim expectation; they borne aloft by the tides of fortune like driftwood carved into a thousand different expressions: some hopeful, some confused, some sanguine, some too vague to be described. City of endless faces and endless lives on a concrete highway to Nowhere. Lately, the streets felt like a place unfamiliar to him, though it was not as if he had developed a sudden amnesia. Of late, he, more than ever, longed for the solace of the cathedral. After all, it had always been a place of great beauty and that was consoling.
Such a longing, which welled up from some great depths, was far greater than any mere need. The cathedral was a place where Hawthorne could find what T. S. Elliot called: ‘The still center of the turning world’. Now, when the world seemed to spin around him like a maelstrom, finding a fixed center seemed more than ever a tantalizing affair.
Hawthorne stared at the stained glass windows on the west wing of the cathedral. The windows depicted, in progression, scenes of Christ’s passion culminating in his crucifixion. Hawthorne had always seen in Christ’s passion: a panorama of the sadder aspects of the human condition. Staring into the face of Jesus on the glass was to see a glimpse of the long toil and labor of mankind to yield a pure flame of unfaltering light. It was a quality ineffable and ahistorical that seemed to disclose itself in that sad face crowned with thorns, upturned as if to say: “why?” to the wreckage, the loss, the wastage of fickle humanity that has squandered past and present. The face in the window seemed to disclose something essentially human, and yet touched with the radiance of something more.
Hawthorne, feeling a wee bit restless, picked up a hymn book from behind one of the pews and began sifting through the age- worn pages. For less than a minute, he even made a feeble attempt at singing the first stanzas in a self-conscious fashion, his voice trailing off in an echoing whisper. Suddenly, a verse seemed to leap out at him from the page. It leapt at him with a visual suddenness. The letters had a fixed gaze, like unto a stone statue seen face on. The letters distilled thought to a white- hot crest of knowing. The verse Hawthorne was transfixed by, read:
‘Time like a roaring river
bears all her sons away,
they fly forgotten as a dream
dies at the opening day.’
The verse seemed to capture the ephemerality of human experience. The verse conveyed to Hawthorne an ineffable mood perhaps, one better conveyed (in many cases) by music than words.
As Hawthorne reflected on such words, the light from the setting sun streamed through the colored glass, filling the room (or, to be more precise, The Nave) with streamers of tinted light. Hawthorne thought that he could hear the voice of a fountain, plashing away somewhere in the distance.
Hawthorne gazed at the ceiling and observed how the angels encircling Jesus, in the high mosaic, had the look of astronauts in suspended animation, spinning in infinite blue. Blue: it is the color of infant’s eyes, of turquoise, of the ocean,of robins’ eggs, and lapis lazuli.
The blue expanse of the ceiling seemed like a place unsullied by the bric-a-brac of names and titles. From time to time his own mind seemed laden with asymmetrical spirals, of names of people he knew or knew of. Some names, were names of people he had known in the recent past, others were of people he had known in the more distant past. Some were of people he had actually met. Others were of actors, actresses, writers (both of books and the occasional magazine article: read in passing) and names of occasional models. Though, Hawthorne hated the glitz and hype of the fashion industry, he fancied the female models of the dreamy, ingenue sort. There were yet other names: names of inventors, of photographers, etc. Not all the names had a tedious freight, mind you. A few were names that held secret joys, for they invoked moments of great significance, moments that had come and gone, and the scattered hints of moments yet to come. Many of the names were like so much clutter. The mental weight of such names was a weight that bound Hawthorne to a tedious cycle of paltry images. Many of the names would remain mere mentions, towards which he would remain a bystander at least thrice removed. Hawthorne, often lamented that, although he could recall many names, he could seldom these days visualize anything in his “mind’s eye”, with even a fourth of the vivid freshness that Hawthorne rightly desired. “Imagination”. . . Hawthorne knew how that aforementioned word was often overused. He was not one of those people who was satisfied with some *less than* perfect; paltry visualization so often settled for, when people use the word ‘imagination’ in a trite sort of way.
Hawthorne had an immense, voluminous memory. It was a faculty that he often strenuously cultivated and which he, moreover, tried to cultivate from day to day. Often, when he tried to memorize some item of knowledge, he found himself making copious notes as to possible factors which may have made that item of knowledge hard to memorize. In such cases, he found himself striving to not only commit the item to memory, but also striving to call to mind the factors which made that particular item hard to remember in the first place!
Hawthorne, thus again, returned to thinking that, although parts of the mind could be likened to an archive where records are stored, other parts of the mind could be likened to a garbage disposal which catches so much decrepit flotsam. Often, he would commit to memory some actress of the ingenue sort. Yet often the name of such a person is often fraught with a scattering of other names: names that collect in memory. If one remembers her name, sadly, one often remembers the name of her former boyfriend, the name of the man who directed the film she was in, etc. Yuck!
Hawthorne’s gaze returned to the ceiling. Here there were no names.
Hawthorne, not long after, turned to gaze at the watch he wore on a chain, which he kept in his hip pocket. He considered the number of minutes in which he had to hurry to the corner of 4th Street and Central, if he were to try to board the Eastbound Metro Bus. If he left now, he would have to hurry ( perhaps even run), for the connection point was three blocks from the cathedral. He did not feel like running for the bus today. Cab fare from near the cathedral back to his flat would be a little steep, but what the heck, you only live once, and it was not often that he could savor moments of untrammelled contemplation in a place of such secret beauty. Hawthorne could sometimes have moments of untrammelled contemplation in his apartment, provided the phone was not ringing and the neighbor was not playing some CD of droning contemporary pop music. Yet contemplation, in some vague looking place (such as an apartment), even if the place offered such contemplation untrammelled by distractions, was, at best, a second- rate experience. At worst, with some measure of figurative speech, it could be called a sort of mental fishing by the harbor side, compared to the sublimity of ruminating on great thoughts alone in the cathedral.
If one encounters a moment of contemplation in a bookstore, that is all well and good, provided the place does not have the rancid smell of latte, or other dismal smells, but in a bookstore, one is often beset by the names of either important or merely famous people. Here the only names were to be found in the hymn books and bibles that adorned the well varnished spaces in back of the pews.
The hymn books, by the way, had a curious smell; it was not the dreary, somber smell that hymn books had in many churches. Instead, the hymn books in the cathedral had the faint odor of cinnamon.
Since it had been awhile since Hawthorne had eaten breakfast, he pulled out a small health bar of the high carbohydrate and high protein variety. A bite was taken and Hawthorne savored the flavor of dark chocolate.
He then turned the attention to wondering which cabbie he would be riding with this evening. There was Phillip: a driver of Ethiopian descent. Originally from Thousand Oaks, California, he had worked as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco, before moving to Hillsbrook to live (for a while) with his brother- in- law and help him various affairs. A quite interesting man we might say he was (though the word ‘interesting’ was quite an understated term). Philip smoked a pipe and was a collector of old sailors’ maps. Often he would offer a strange proverb and the analects and observations he would make about “living life” were yet more exotic.
Then there was Gladys: a lady in her mid-sixties originally from Alabama (a small mountain town, whose name he could never quite remember, though he tried). She was a very nice lady who was sent to Hillsbrook to look after her cousin: Howard.
A recent graduate of the Cooper Union School Of The Performing Arts, Howard had trouble managing his financial affairs. So, Gladys was sent by Howard’s mother (the latter whom had remained in Dothan, Alabama, not far from the town in which Howard had come of age ), to look after Howard, after he had moved into a very off campus flat in the town of Hillsbrook. Gladys, was sent by Howard’s mother to “help Howard with his finances.” Howard was, according to Gladys, an amazing painter who could “make a canvas look like it could talk to you.” Gladys says, “This here city is too fast for me ” and adds, “it always was too fast for me.” She drives slowly and plays bluegrass over the cab radio.
Then there was Indigo: a Vietnam veteran and former merchant marine, from East Lansing, Michigan, who had been driving cab down these scattering streets for 17 years. Indigo could be very quiet and withdrawn, but when he did speak it was often something profound that one heard. Profound indeed. Indigo was tall and slightly fat, with sandy colored, bushy hair and a mustache of the same color. Hawthorne began struggling to recall what Indigo has said the day before.
Scraps of words, phrases, were coming back to him piecemeal, like unto bit of paraphrase from some memo book. A sparkle of mind was there to be gotten at, if only he could be sure that the missing words that he found were coming back were the exact missing words for the particular moment he was trying to call to mind. Which were those words that rightly filled the gaps? Hawthorne did not like to paraphrase. There was often the sense of a numinous something- rather which lingered on the threshold of being retrieved. Was it _______?
No, that was close to it, but that wasn’t the statement. Was it that _________other statement? No. That statement was interesting, but it wasn’t the particular statement he was trying to recall. He must keep groping until he finds it again. It was all too easy, in a profound discussion, to get lost in the swirl, to lose specific insights, to be content with the great onrush of it all. Hawthorne knew full well that such a partway approach was just wasn’t good enough. He wanted to hang on every word, to recall every observation in the most vivid detail. Right that he should want to do that. Very right indeed!
The line from the hymn loomed large, “Time like a roaring river”. (Well, such a “river” must be slowed down. How to do it? Such remained the question ).
Hawthorne thought he heard a sound outside the cathedral. It was a sudden whirring sound. Could it be the wind? For a briefest of instants, Hawthorne had the fleeting imagine in mind of leaves blown against the outside walls of the cathedral. Just then there was a strange taste in his mouth like unto saltwater taffy. Hawthorne soon decided that it was time to take a walk.
As the warm sunlight revealed again the vaguely familiar vista of sidewalks and buildings with their hat-box squareness, Hawthorne immediately took notice of a lady watching a small, off- white dog. The dog looked like a miniature Keeshond. One of Hawthorne’s favorite pastimes was guessing breeds of dogs.
Soon, Hawthorne was momentarily diverted from the dog guessing exercise by the plangent tones of music in the distance. The music was apparently coming from a trombone, or a trumpet, playing melodies which faded into the muffled roar of city sounds at the onset of evening. Just then a man in a plain white t-shirt and short black hair, who smelled of strong, yet cheap cologne, came onto a portion of sidewalk nearest Hawthorne and asked him, “Do you have a light?”. The man’s voice sounded vaguely midwestern. Hawthorne responded succinctly, yet without any curtness, “sorry I don’t smoke cigarettes”. Hawthorne added, “I wish I could help you partner. If I had a light I would certainly give it to you, though “.
The man, who had shuffled further down the sidewalk by about 4 feet, turned about and with a diagonal glance replied, “Thanks”, and, then, in a voice barely above a mutter then added, “Maybe I’ll find one”. Such a turn of phrase seemed to have an unusual quality which was subtle; not easily noticed at first glance. It seemed to suggest a tacit confession as to the vulnerability of the venture, and the venture would be small indeed, if the man were only looking to ignite a cigarette.
But was the man looking to light a cigarette? Was that what he meant by, “do you have a light?” An unusual question, but one worth asking, to encounter a somewhat down and out looking fellow on the sidewalk that walks by and asks, “do you have a light?”, seems often to induce the sort of humdrum presupposition that a cigarette is what is looked for. Could it be. . . ? Could it be he was looking, for another kind of light?
In the wake of such thought, perhaps the native rejoinder was: where would the man find the other light? Such, of course, was followed by questions that were deeper still, such as: what would that other light be?, and, what would that man find in such a light when he found that light? What, moreover, would that other light find in him?
It would be difficult for Hawthorne to verify whether or not the man was looking for a light of a more exotic sort, or simply wanted to smoke a cigarette, unless perhaps Hawthorne ran after the guy and then asked him, but Hawthorne was simply not going to do that. There were only three possibilities, Hawthorne had initially thought: either the guy was referring to some other light than the burning of a cigarette involves, or simply wanted to ignite a cigarette, or the man did not know what he was saying. Alright, there was a fourth possibility: the fellow said something other than what he meant for some inner goal that Hawthorne would have been too puzzled to even guess at. Hawthorne wanted to be sure what the guy meant.
Hawthorne hated any equivocation, and rightly so. Thus, he did not want to interpret what the sidewalk fellow said, as meaning anything other than what the sidewalk fellow intended the statement to mean, merely because the other interpretation was interesting. In art, as well as in life, Hawthorne refused to take such license. After all, perhaps the guy was merely trying to sate some nicotine cravings. Who knows?
There was time to spare and so Hawthorne would think on what the man had said, for thinking was an activity that Hawthorne thought long and hard about. Hawthorne, would take the highfalutin, deep thinking with its so-called “mumbo- jumbo” over the absurdities found in life’s middle- of- the- road any day of the week. Feet planted firmly on the ground of realistic, practical goals were often quite muddy feet. Of equal dismay to Hawthorne was the realization that the proverbial “feet on the ground” often supported a frame which whirled about in the same dull circles of getting and spending. How bizarre, Hawthorne, had noted, was the “well-adjusted” pragmatic man of suburbia! What was the well -adjusted man about?
Perhaps it could be summed up in the following observation:the well -adjusted man of suburbia was the sort of person who would not be so garish to tell a dirty joke, yet would be versatile enough to laugh at one, if it were told by a co-worker at an office party. Hawthorne had come to the conclusion that many people who embraced the conventional were skulking around in the dark.
Such persons were hiding from the light of knowledge, yet they were *not* hiding out of any fear. Hawthorne understood how weird and inaccurate it was for people to presume that fear and insecurity were somehow the motive for small-mindedness and/or lack of vision. More often than not, the more likely culprit was mental laziness. Such mental laziness was unwilling to slow down and follow the thin, fragile thread which leads from a more common insight, to a deeper insight, and, then, does not stop there but follows that thread with dogged, single- minded resolve to yet far deeper insights. Such laziness was unwilling to slow down.
Hawthorne noted that such fast thinking folks would indeed rather be fast and gloss over intricate distinctions for the sake of a first-glance, “Big Picture” approach. Such people were hiding from that which was meaningful. Many people, Hawthorne noted, give lip service to the meaningful, but all too often do what they can to avoid it, often going to great lengths to keep the meaningful at bay, filling their lives with the now time- honored distractions of sex, entertainment, chit chat about who in their hometown won the state lottery, etc. It was all so weird that they would want to fritter away a minute of time on such distractions. That such distractions were quite popular in many circles did not make the pursuit of such distractions any less weird.
Soon Hawthorne was yet again digging in the deep, long quarries of memory. He remembered a particularly long day from the time he was sixteen years of age and was riding the city bus home from high school. The town in which Hawthorne had lived at age sixteen (Inglewood Heights) was the beginnings of a bustling city, caught in the narcotic thrall of an early growth period. Public transportation had lately taken the town by storm, and so many grade school students, who had lived along the main routes, made use of it instead of riding a school bus to their respective homes and apartments. There was a partly cloudy afternoon that seemed to have an infinite drabness.
Hawthorne sat near the back of the city bus and listened, with patient boredom, to the noise of the passengers chattering amongst themselves (lost in chatter) and wished with all his might that he was somewhere else. There had been a gaggle of his fellow students seated in the near seats about him. The students were quite boisterously (and ever so tediously) cutting up and cussing at each other in banter of an adolescent sort. Hawthorne sat and stared out the window, trying to forget the unspeakable tedium that seemed to flow about him like a rancid juice of some sluggish, rotting sort. He listened on with an immaculate world-wearied disgust, which at age sixteen was already in full bloom, as torrent after torrent of paltry statements billowed forth from the bus passengers. Wave after wave of “your mama” and references to so and so having a big butt went by coupled with the occasional remark from one of the older bus passengers as to how “there is no money in that any more”, and, thus, lapped around him like eddies of some lifeless muddy substance.
As he stared out the plexiglass bus window, Hawthorne reflected back on an earlier memory, which dated back to the time shortly after he had turned thirteen. Thus, Hawthorne, as he sat on the cool varnished pew of the cathedral’s vast nave, thought about how he now, at age 39, was reflecting back at a memory of a day when he was 16, a day in which he was, in turn, reflecting, on an earlier memory that had taken place when he was 13. In the second memory, he remembered staring at the reflection of a tall, four-storied bed and breakfast inn, which was mirrored in a rain pond left over from a thunderstorm the night before. The day was clear and the waters were still and untroubled. The rain pond looked as if it were composed of liquid mercury rather than water. The reflection of the tall bed and breakfast inn looked like it was the first tower to be built, who knows when,(perhaps when the rest of the city had been a landscape of cinder block houses, wood shanties, and tin shacks. At age sixteen, looking back at the previous memory over a chasm three years, which seemed like they had been long, slow decades, Hawthorne noted that what was most astounding about the reflection of the building was the utter motionlessness of the image.
Hawthorne then had taken leave of the image he had witnessed at age thirteen and returned to thinking of the cityscape rolling by the bus window. He wondered could there be something unseen there amidst the seemingly endless ugly traffic and noise of a city, where people are lost in that familiar noise and speed; something of astonishing beauty? Just as the reflection of the inn, would be passed by unnoticed by all who were too in a hurry to stop and notice, so might there be yet another sight overlooked, unnoticed, passed by, and obscured by the traffic of all the noisy people coming and going?Might there be an object right there outside the bus window, perhaps right there on the open street or the sidewalk beyond, somewhere in plain sight, that would be so motionless (like a golden city seen faraway in a dream) compared to which stillness of the ordinary sort would seem like a hubbub of dizzy, jittery motion?
Moreover, could such an object be so motionless as to be unseeable? (Like an unknown miracle?) Unless, it so happened that one could finally see such an object by staring at it for hours, or perhaps even days, before one saw it. Perhaps the act of seeing such an object of great beauty would be itself a miracle of singular expectancy and waiting. Furthermore, if one saw such an object of rare beauty, would one laugh (both at oneself and at the world) for not having seen it long ago, and keep on laughing till the tears ran down one’s face?
Hawthorne, who was sitting at the cathedral some 23 years later, was distracted by this twofold retrospection by the sound of a payphone across the street suddenly ringing. Should he go out, cross the street and answer it out of mild curiosity? It was indeed, mild curiosity, quite mild. Hawthorne thought to himself that when he got to the payphone and picked up the receiver it would probably be some trivial sort of call. Probably, it was someone picking up their home phone and mis-dialing the number they had planned to dial. After all, a lot of payphone numbers weren’t too terribly different from residential numbers, so it wouldn’t be that astounding for someone to make that mistake. Hawthorne stepped out from the shade into the bright glare of the sidewalk, and decided to take a chance and cross the street to answer the ringing payphone. After a three- minute sojourn across the asphalt, (strangely enough, it was if the downtown traffic had stopped for blocks), Hawthorne reached the phone stand and picked up the throbbing receiver. “Hello”, Hawthorne said, adding, “May I help you?”. The voice of a younger woman made its way through Hawthorne’s listening ear, “Mom”. . . The young woman trailed off quickly, as if the caller had realized that she had spoken the word on reflex, after hearing second before that it was clearly a man’s voice which had answered the phone. Hawthorne had decided to try an experiment. Hawthorne decided to try an experiment. Hawthorne pretended not to notice that the young woman had spoken the word “Mom” into the phone. He, then asked, “Who are you looking for?” Then, Hawthorne added, “maybe I could help you”.
The young lady then replied, “oh, sorry, I was calling this payphone number. There is a lady I am trying to reach.” Hawthorne replied, “Well, ma’am, you *have* called a payphone.”
The woman then continued, “Uh, I guess I got the right number then. . . “After the briefest of pauses the woman continued, “Uh, yeah, could you please, sir, check around there and see if you see an old lady around that payphone with a little white dog? She called me from that payphone and I was supposed to call her back.”
Hawthorne was not usually given to prying into the personal affairs of people he knew, let alone strangers, decided to make an exception on the grounds that some cosmic secret might be discovered.
“Is this lady a friend of yours?” She had spoken again, and Hawthorne noticed that the woman had an accent such as a person might have if they came of age in rural Texas. It was a cadence unlike that of any of the women he had ever dated or worked with. “Not exactly. My name’s Jethryn “, the young woman replied. She then added, “I’m her daughter. If you see her, tell her to call Jethryn.”