Thursday, June 4, 2015

What was I thinking? Christmas Eve with a Statue

    (Dec. 23, 2011) When I moved to New York City, people were friendly, garrulous and charmingly meddlesome on the street or in the neighborhood shops. Subway protocol, I quickly intuited, was entirely different: If you didn't want to be accosted, humiliated, assaulted or propositioned, you kept your head down and your eyes to yourself.
    But when I stumbled and sort of crashed my way into a train headed uptown on Christmas Eve day -- carrying a five-by-nine foot cardboard-backed photo of The Thinker -- a consensus seemed to materialize pretty fast among the other passengers: The rules should be temporarily suspended.

Sculptor Auguste Rodin
     I was thrilled to have obtained my cumbersome treasure, despite the spectacle I would have to make to get it home.
    The statue of The Thinker had a special significance for me. When I was growing up, I had no interest in embracing any particular religion, but I envied all the kids who had Saint Christopher medallions, or Job's Daughters bracelets, or Mormon "Choose The Right" rings, or crucifix necklaces.  
    I thought that my lack of faith was just as worthy of something symbolic as their faith was. It seems silly now that it meant so much to me, but it did. 
To me, it stands for "Celebrate the Rebel." 
     I was about 13 years old when I adopted The Thinker as the symbol of my proud, or perhaps defensive, agnosticism (I have since made the Great Leap Forward to atheism). 
    My parents were very supportive, and encouraged me to discuss, with the minister at the Unitarian Church, the idea of making The Thinker an emblem of our denomination's open-minded, humanistic philosophy. 
    Dr. Scott was a sweet and learned old man, but it was clear that he had no interest in spending his time peddling my idea. He was a scholar, not a lobbyist.
    My mother, who has always been positively overflowing with beautiful gestures, found a stunning, 18-inch replica of the iconic Rodin statue for me. It was very substantial and had a handsome bronze-like finish. I was ecstatic. I even loved dusting it. When I moved to New York and got settled in, she shipped it to me, well-cushioned amongst a bunch of old towels. 
He ain't heavy -- he's my Thinker.
     Nevertheless, by the time it reached me, it was little more than a heap of powdery plaster. Not one identifiable part of it remained.
    I had been missing my inspiring, comforting companion ever since. 
    On Christmas Eve day, the deputy commissioner had let us all leave work at lunchtime, so everyone could finish their shopping, wrapping, decorating and cooking.
    (Thank god I had bagged the whole Christmas racket while I was still in junior high school. I loved it then and I love it even more now that while everyone else is exhausting themselves in terrible traffic and slow-moving lines and all the other arrhythmia-inducing freakouts of the season, I stay home by myself drinking something or other and reading a good book. I respect whatever enjoyment everyone else derives from Christmas and other holidays. It's just not my thing.)
I'll drink to that!
     After I left the office, I was walking past a shoe store that had, for several months, used a very large photo of  "The Thinker" as the backdrop for its window display. Today I saw that it had been replaced by holiday decorations. I went inside and asked the manager if I could buy it, and he said, "Hell, you can have it! It never made sense anyway. I don't even know where it came from."
    Getting something for free has always thrilled me more than it probably should. For me, it actually adds value to the object -- I love it more than I would have if I'd paid $50 for it, which I was willing to do. 
The Thinker never belonged here. He's barefoot.
     It hadn't occurred to me how hard it would be to haul the ungainly monstrosity all the way up to my apartment at 102nd Street and Riverside Drive.
   The subway, as awkward and kind of embarrassing as that would be, was really my only option, since at that time I didn't have a boyfriend with a Dodge Ram truck.
    It was hard and perilous getting my load down the steep stairs and over the turnstile, but the drama didn't really begin until I clumsily insinuated myself  into the moderately crowded subway car, which for some reason was idling.
    How can absolute quiet become quieter? How can a hush descend upon a gathering of very diverse human beings in which no one is saying a word to begin with? 
    I slipped against the back wall of the car, clutching my Big Man possessively around the waist, and faced all those people. 
    A pattern emerged. Each one seemed to look up at me, and then -- as is the norm -- looked away.
Whatever you do, don't draw attention to yourself!
     But then, they couldn't resist looking up again. And then they looked away again, some openly smiling and others trying not to. A slight twitter materialized in the air as people elbowed each other. There were whispers and murmurs and faint chuckles flying about.
    As the doors closed and the train finally began to move, those sitting closest to me looked up, grinning, and asked questions. Was it scenery for a stage production? Was it a gift for someone? Where did I get it? Didn't I feel that Rodin's other work was superior? Was I equally responsive to abstract sculptures, such as those by Henry Moore?
Henry Moore's statue may depict thinking, but in a more laid-back way.
    I could palpably feel the audience expanding as people farther and farther down the car began looking at me directly and listening to the dialogue. They were smiling quite broadly by then. They were even laughing as they talked among themselves.
    Finally, a big black man in a knit cap at the other end of the car yelled out, "What the hell you gon' do with that thing?" He had a beautiful face -- a sculpture in itself -- and a full white beard.
     "I'm sick and tired of thinking for myself," I replied, which actually was a big fat lie. I kind of enjoyed thinking back then.
      At that point, it seemed that everyone was engaged in what was going on. The interest in my odd parcel died down, but the passengers continued to interact.  
    I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to soften subway culture, even just for a few minutes. 
    In New York, I found -- over and over again -- that people were ready and waiting for excuses to connect, and were exhilarated to be involved in some little drama -- or comedy -- that reminded everyone that we were all in this together.
    When we reached my stop and I made my way out the door, the old black man called out, "Treat him good, sugar." I laughed and waved. If he'd been wearing a different hat, he would have made an appealing Santa Claus. 
    Unfortunately, when I was young enough to sit in Santa's lap, they were all white. Other than that, I'm glad I was born when I was. 
Can he say "ho" without being politically  incorrect?
     I had more help than I needed getting my hunk of man through the station and up the stairs.
    I should have known that when I finally got home, there would be a big box from my mother waiting at my door.
    Even though she knew I had no interest in Christmas, she couldn't abide the thought that I would be sitting there -- her baby, all alone in the Big City -- bereft of festivity. So she had overnighted a bunch of fresh pine boughs, some tinsel, ornaments, tiny lights and peppermint-scented candles, for me to put on the massive old wooden table that a friend had given me. 
    And then, of course, she knew I'd be starving, so there were peanut-butter sesame balls, carob brownies, Franklin pecan cake and cranberry banana bread.
Thank you Mama, but please stop! I despise "happy holidays."
    I lifted The Thinker up and placed him on the mantel. It was a good thing that I had 15-foot ceilings. He was a stunning addition to a room that I already loved.
    After I arranged my mother's charming and fragrant Christmas display, I sat down in one of two antique highback chairs the previous tenant had left behind (she was a self-described Jewish-American Princess who married a dashing Saudi sheik. It was so romantic! His name was Mahboob.). I put my feet up on the coffee table and plunged into a platter of  holiday desserts.
My mother couldn't resist doing beautiful things.
     I gazed contentedly up at The Thinker, and he struck me as a religious icon, just as he had when I was a kid. He was an inspiration, akin to having a picture of Jesus in your house. Like me, though, instead of getting up and putting into action his ideas for changing the world, he just sat there, thinking. Or, in my case, eating.
    When everyone went back to work on Monday, people were sure to say, "So you made it through the holidays!"
    I didn't have to make it through anything. My thoughtful Thinker and I had all sorts of fun, in our heads.
Being my mother's daughter, I had to offer him some refreshment, but he remained lost in thought.

GREAT GOD ALMIGHTY: New Year's Eve was so much stranger!