The Great One
After a short ride to Albany on Saturday, I stopped for coffee at the fancy new health food store cafeteria. It was warm inside and Brahms played softly overhead, but I was stranded without a seat. A woman with long upper teeth offered odorless soap for sale at a wide lonely table. Farther down, a tall, eager-faced young man, using an L-shaped pair of tables, sold crystals of various sizes. The crystals promised to improve moodiness and other mental disorders associated with the lack of seating. At the end of the last section, a tall man with a shaved head, wearing a dress jacket and jeans, paced near a table of books. He sat for a moment, then resumed pacing. When he wandered away to talk business with the cashier, I sat at the end of his table and moved a few of the books aside.
Few customers approached the odorless soap, but one woman seemed interested in the crystal man’s tricks. He held out his arm to her and asked that she try to pull it down. Using all her considerable strength, she managed to lower his arm. This impressed him. Then he reached for a small crystal on the table. Holding it at his side, he stretched out his opposite arm again. She couldn’t budge it, and he stared at her face, fascinated. She tried again, not able to believe that she couldn’t budge his darn arm, so she asked for the rock and examined it while the crystal man talked about philosophy and rock-holding. I looked outside at a squirrel chasing nothing at all around a tree next to the sidewalk.
Soon, this woman (I’ll call her Pam: she looked like a Pam) sat at the other end of my table and opened a laptop, and I reached for a stray community news pamphlet across the table. On its cover was an advertisement for a Watercolor Society exhibition not far away.
Years ago, on the balcony of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I sat at a table across from a woman during a Friday evening concert, and I said to her, “Nice Brahms, huh?” She stood immediately and walked away, so after that I hardly ever sat at a table where someone was already sitting, and if someone sat next to me, I often looked for a stray pamphlet or newspaper to read. I browsed through the Watercolor Society announcement and read a few “roommates wanted” boxes without feeling the temptation to speak.
The man with the shaved head sat down across from me and Pam and he asked her if it was all right. I didn’t look up.
“You know, these are my books,” he said to her.
“Oh yeah? Where are you from?” Pam asked.
“I’m from the Bronx,” he said. “It was bad news down there, very bad.” And when she didn’t respond he added, “I was in the gangs.”
“Yes, it was very bad growing up. 161st Street.”
“I’m from the city, too. I lived there for a while,” Pam said.
“Whereabouts in the city?”
“The West Side.”
“Whereabouts on the West Side?”
“Like 84th Street and Broadway, around there.”
“Not so bad there. I grew up in a bad area. The gang I was in was bad.”
“Was it the Mafia?”
There was extra silence before he answered. “No, I wasn’t in the Mafia, not really. Nothing like that. Just wild street kids, and I was one of them.”
“Sure, but now I’ve written all of these books. See?”
I shifted in my chair and stared at “Two bedroom apartment available. $800. No animals or pets.”
“Are these, like, self-help books?” Pam wanted to know.
“No, these are not self-help books in the commercial sense, per se,” he said. “They’re much more than self-help. This one, for instance…”
I didn’t look up, so I had no idea where he was pointing.
“This one is about finding the rhythms within your own particular self, within your own being and ego, and using them to advantage, if you will, and getting in touch with your own auras and your frequencies.”
“Great,” she said.
“It’s really about self-defense in all ways, and finding your possibilities and your rhythms.”
“Oh yeah? Like fighting?”
“Well, physical self-defense plays into it, of course. Like if someone comes at me or even looks threatening, I know exactly what to do. I have a long background in Aikido.”
“So I’m peaceful in nature, but I can crack someone’s skull if they’re not careful with me.”
“Wow. So this is all about…like, fighting then.”
“A little bit, sure. I mean if someone comes up behind me and grabs my arm, I can put a very quick and painful hurting on him. I may not look it, because of this jacket and tie, but I can do some serious damage. It’s all about using a person’s energy against him, just feeling his rhythms and his aura, and then sending him flying to the pavement, if need be.”
“Just say, for instance, that I tried to leave here with—well…with this guy’s coffee, for example.” I glanced up and pretended to look shocked. “Just say that he chased after me and he tried to pull his coffee out of my hand. Well, since he’s pulling his coffee, I’d push him to the ground. He’d fall, and the coffee would be all over him, too. It’s all very simple.”
I allowed a weak smile. “I’d have to buy another coffee then,” I said.
“Yes, but that’s only if you were able to get up.”
“So I’d buy one later, on my way to the hospital.”
“If you could stand up on your own, of course.”
“I’d ask the EMS guys to buy one for me.”
“If you were even conscious.”
“Wow,” said Pam.
I smirked and looked back at the pamphlet. In my mind, I was slow to get up. The coffee was on my chest, and my L.L. Bean sweatshirt was ruined. I was mad about the shirt, and mad about being made an example of in a health food store, and mad about having to buy another coffee, so as I rolled over onto my hands and knees, I had a flashback within the daydream…
Years ago, when I lived in Brooklyn, I tried my T’ai Chi Ch’uan in the park at 6:00 a.m. under the basketball rim in the open air. A stream of people walked along President Street on their way to the Smith Street F-Train; whether their eyes were really on me or not, I felt like a performer, conscious of my success or failure to grasp the bird’s tail, or beat the tiger, or demonstrate perfect cloud hands, or get the single whip just right. When it was all over, I was glad of it, and I never tried my T’ai Chi outdoors in public again.
More recently, at the gym near home, I found a back room and tried my T’ai Chi on their fancy wood floor. Halfway through the form, I glimpsed someone peeking in the window, and when I finished, he entered and told me it was the best T’ai Chi he’d ever seen, that he’d been a martial artist for 30 years and had never seen such great T’ai Chi.
“I just do this for exercise,” I said. “I don’t think of the martial aspect.” He was a nice person. He talked about knowing the police chief of our town, and we shook hands and told each other it was nice to meet and that we’d see each other around.
Back in my daydream, I was on my feet at last, with just that coffee on my chest, with its wet coolness, and I smelled like hazelnut. Inside the store, customers sniffed at me as I walked by. Then, I joined myself back at the table and out of the daydream, where the great one was relating to Pam another example of his considerable prowess. Meanwhile, the crystal man, bereft of suckers willing to try pushing down his extended arm, ambled over to listen.
“It’s really very simple,” said the great one. “It’s all about feeling your opponents’ vibrations—their auras, if you will—and taking advantage of their inner imbalances.”
I sketched a baseball field over a blank space in the Community News section.
“So…like,” Pam began, and she thought for a while. “Like it's—it's aggressive, but it's also not aggressive.”
“I’ve used others’ aggressiveness against them several times, actually. If anyone at all makes an aggressive move toward me, I can ward them off and pound them very, very forcefully.”
“They wouldn’t know what hit them,” added the crystal man to Pam.
“Yes,” the great one said gravely. “They wouldn’t know what hit them.”
“Wow,” said Pam.
“I’ve seen you do some serious damage,” said the crystal man.
“Serious damage—a few times, yes,” said the great one solemnly.
“Wow,” Pam said again, and I sat back in my chair and looked wide-eyed at the ceiling. Then—I couldn’t help it—I burst out laughing. They looked at me, wondering.
“Wow,” I said, getting up with my community news and my coffee. “Wow, oh wow. “Like…like—wow.” I laughed again and strode away while they gaped at me.
I passed the deli section and wound up near the cereal bins. I remembered Pam’s lips parting when I laughed at her, and I winced. I tried a scoopful of the cereal and waited for the Aikido expert and the crystal man to catch up with me and pound me with fists and crystals. If I tried to fight back, I wouldn’t be able to move the crystal man’s arm because he’d have a tiny crystal in his opposite hand, and the great one would take advantage of my disgust about people like him—for whom knowledge and skill equals permission to use force. He’d sense my rhythms and frequencies and auras and my bad vibes, and he’d push my head downward so I could throw up.
They didn’t come after me, though, so I tasted another scoopful of cereal and scolded myself again—for laughing at Pam and for eating cereal without buying.
When the great one had said he was from the Bronx, I’d wanted to say I was from the Lower East Side, but there would have been a “so there” attached to it, so I said nothing. When he’d mentioned growing up in a gang, I wanted to say, “Well, I don’t go around bragging about where I’m from,” but I didn’t say that either, because saying that would have been bragging, too. And when the great one said he could crack someone’s skull, I wanted to mention my own private peaceful years of T’ai Chi practice, but that would have been bragging, too. Twenty-eight years of practice, and I knew nothing compared with what there was to know. But the great one knew everything, somehow. He had written those books, and he could put a serious hurting on anyone who didn’t want his coffee taken away.
Back at the deli section, I remembered laughing at a girl in college, the same way I’d laughed at Pam. I was sitting next to her on the train, and she showed me her drawings and complained that the professor had no idea what she was trying to accomplish, that he was a pompous ass. She showed me one drawing, in particular, and I told her I liked it very much.
“That’s very nice, the way you have the colors there,” I said.
“Well, he told me that it’s lacking,” she said. “I’ve already won two art contests, you know, and he’s trying to tell me that my work lacks.”
That’s when I laughed at her. I couldn’t help it. I said, “So you’re one of the great ones, then,” and she was quiet for a second before abruptly changing her seat.
Now, deciding between a plain bagel and an asparagus, garlic, and feta cheese roll, I winced at my meanness. “I’m awful,” I said, then chose the asparagus roll and poured another coffee. At the register, I saw Pam still at the table, reading one of the great one’s books while the great one demonstrated a slow-motion reverse roundhouse kick to the crystal man’s head. The crystal man staggered backward in slow motion from the blow, and without thinking I called out “Boom!” and burst out laughing. The cashier, and the crystal man, and Pam, and the great one all stopped what they were doing to stare at me.
“Boom!” I shouted, louder this time, and I laughed again.
Outside, on the sidewalk, near the squirrel’s favorite tree, I hurriedly finished my roll and gulped my coffee for fear that the great one would amble outside and kick my head in—in slow motion.
Later, I went to the Albany Watercolor Society exhibit, but I didn’t enjoy it, at first. I liked some of the watercolors in the main gallery, but I couldn’t get my mind off being such a jerk. The watercolors all seemed to be products of artists still trying to get better. Maybe they knew they had a long way to go as artists. Maybe they knew that was okay. I liked that idea.
Farther into the exhibition, in other rooms, the crowd thinned, and I enjoyed it more. There was one watercolor of a Main Street in a little town with a red restaurant sign in the foreground corner. Another of my favorites was a beachfront with a mother and a little girl walking in the sand. None of the artists seemed to be at the exhibit to show off their work. I liked that too.
Near the end of the exhibit, alone in the center of a room, facing the exit, I enjoyed the watercolors of snowy main streets and beachfronts and rolling hills. I called myself a pompous ass and vowed never to laugh at another pompous ass again. Then, because it was so quiet and because I was so alone, I tried my “grasping the bird’s tail” form. My fingers stretched slowly downward until they lightly grasped around my thumb. And after making sure that no one was in the next room, I practiced a few more times, using my arms and legs and waist this time, too, trying to get the form just right, and happy that no one was around to witness my slow progress.