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I live in Bushwick, commonly known as that part of Brooklyn where people like me can both afford to live and survive a midnight walk down the street. The twenty-something writers who don’t mind where they live as long as it’s a short walk to a pizza place, a bar and a whole wheat bagel, aren’t the sole inhabitants of this area, however, because Bushwick is on the border between two worlds. One is the Hispanic community, whose loud music in the summertime and socialising on the stoop of their apartments make me feel as if I’m enjoying a carefree holiday. And there are the millennials, whose creativity and never-say-die party attitude make me glad to be part of such a vibrant generation. These traits are not mutually exclusive of course, and there are many areas of crossover in this Venn diagram of a community. One such crossing point I find myself honing in on now. That amorphous thing: spirituality.
Walking two blocks north and two blocks east of my apartment takes me down the ‘high-street’ of my neighbourhood, if it has such a thing. I go past as many traditional Puerto Rican eateries as I do iMac-infested coffee shops. My local coffee place (or at least the only place where a faint flicker of recognition comes over the baristas’ faces when they hear my accent) is along this road, and, today, having ordered my usual breakfast tea and taken the only free seat that wasn’t at a table that doubles as an arcade game, I relax and begin to read my book.
This peace lasts exactly three seconds.
A man next to me, sitting in front of some sort of Spirograph drawing of the solar system, loudly proclaims that he has always felt the sway of the planets in his life and that reading the celestial map was something he has always thought he could do.
“A lot of people just don’t realize how much work goes into it though,” the woman next to him, who I will later find out is the person training him to harness and unleash his god-like powers, says. “And I can definitely sense that you have the ability to interpret the celestial map.”
In a few minutes of pretending to read my book I have learnt that she has performed readings for the likes of Russell Brand and Noel Fielding; she’s seen into this man’s soul and recognised a supernatural ability; and that the universe has the ability to tell her about the rising fire in a person’s life. After ten minutes of his first lesson she confidently tells him that he seems ready to give a full reading a shot. She finally acknowledges the strange drawing in front of him and asks him what kind of person this represents. To me, it represents someone whose compass is broken, but I decide to play the game and continue listening.
“Because of this area of yellow in Libra,” he says, looking anxiously from the concentric circles to the woman, “I think that this person is going to have some financial success in the near future.” Pulling the paper in front of herself and tweaking her glasses, the woman says that that could be right, but it’s really more general luck than specifically financial. “Good job, though,” she says, and the look of pure pleasure on his face makes me almost believe in magic. I’ve started scribbling their conversation on a napkin now, and a few glances tell me that she might have sensed what I’m doing. Perhaps the celestial bodies ratted me out.
I want to tell the woman, and indeed anyone reading, that as a believer in nothing by mortality and the occasional lucky coincidence, I come to matters of the spirit, soul and religion as a fascinated outsider, and make the probable mistake of grouping all those things together. Some mockery may be intended, but with a healthy dose of what I hope is good humour. But she’s too busy telling him about how these powers grow over time to take any interest in me now, so instead I drain my mug of tea and leave.
Back on the high-street, I make my way east to catch the M train so I can travel across the bridge into Manhattan. It’s a sunny day and in New York one must take any opportunity to sit and watch the sunlight dazzle the Hudson River as Williamsburg gives way to the Lower East Side. Peace on a subway car is a rare thing though, and as I dip my head to catch sight of the Empire State Building through the bridge railings, I can’t help but miss the usual interruptions and unexpected characters. Today I remember one in particular, the memory spurred on by my earlier dealing with the psychic-in-training.
A few months ago a ghostly figure slipped onto an unusually busy L train and distracted me yet again from my book. Though there were people pressed up to the backs of each other, apologising after each unexpected sideways lurch, this woman managed to slide effortlessly through the throng. As she did so, she repeated that “God’s word is the only way to true happiness” to a crowd of New Yorkers well-practiced in ignoring people. Walking back and forth, her volume increased and decreased like the siren of a passing ambulance. “If your man makes you a good breakfast, don’t just think it, say it out loud! Spread happiness! Tell him, ‘That was a great breakfast,’” she said, which only served to make me realise I hadn’t had any breakfast. Sure as I was that no one else had reached a stage of enlightenment that didn’t also involve their breakfast, I was surprised to see, on stepping out of the doors onto the platform of Union Square, a man offer his head to the woman, who took it between her hands and treated it to an impromptu blessing. I say blessing, but all it seemed to involve was a vigorous shaking motion and some mumbled words that were lost to the announcement that the doors were closing.
I entertain myself with this memory until I step out of the M train doors onto Broadway-Lafayette. I walk north along blossom-filled streets and through ever-increasing crowds towards Washington Square Park, which, on this sunny day, is a rock pool of colourful, active and vocal organisms. Acrobatic yoga is being performed in the same space as accordion playing clowns. A man covered in pigeons shares the same space as a jazz band. As I sit down on a bench with a cup of tea to admire the scene, I notice amongst this mish-mash a large board that reads: ‘The Ugly Truth About Muslims’. Countless people hug and shake hands with the owners when they read the small print which reveals this ugly truth. Apparently Muslims have great frittata recipes.
What a testament to the beauty and personality of this great city, I think, breathing in the fresh air. The United States may have its problems, but right now, here in New York, there are people eager to bridge any gaps caused by differences in spirituality, religion, or whatever deeply-held beliefs a person may have.
That thought doesn’t last long though. I look over to the spot where a couple are playing banjos in support of Bernie Sanders and immediately remember another character I saw there a few weeks before. In a colourful enough sandwich board to camouflage himself in the sunshine, a large bearded man was telling the park-goers that they all qualified as sinners, destined for hell, in worse language than I can print here. As if this wasn’t enough, his sandwich board held a litany of what these qualifications were and the joy on his face as he read them out was something I can still picture vividly. Liars, Muslims, sex addicts, drunkards, thieves, money lovers, atheists, he shouted. Needless to say, I was filled with relief to see how over-qualified I was.
After an hour or so of watching the circus of entertainment around me, I stand up and see that I’ve been sitting on a flyer, which, in nice enough language, asks me whether I am one-hundred percent sure that if I died today I would go to heaven. As I’m forced to admit that the answer is a resounding no, I wonder again if the celestial bodies have been conspiring against me. I decide to call it a day and retreat to the safety of Bushwick, where the spiritual mind-sets are just as prevalent, but the desire to involve passers-by is not.
By happy coincidence, I get home to find a group of women on my doorstep holding leaflets that say ‘Eternal Life is a Free Gift’. On the cover is an appealing picture of a large gift tied with a bright red bow. Being an avid collector of all the street literature New York can offer me (as the phrases and indictments they use to frighten me with hellfire is really quite impressive in its creativity), I make a face of interest and linger as I walk past, but find I am ignored. The Latino gentleman walking the other way is handed one without hesitation, and I remember that I am not the target market for this kind of faith in Bushwick. To her, I am closer to the psychic trainee than I am to the local church-goers. She might even be right, but either way, I don’t mind. People can assume what they like of me as long as they don’t mind me scribbling on napkins about them. The mix of faiths, beliefs and spiritual conversations adds a great current of life and mystery to this city which, as a writer, I am thankful for. You don’t need to believe in anything in order to enjoy and be affected by the great and eye-opening things other-worldly matters push people to do.
As I lay back on my bed and read over the best lines from the earlier conversation in the coffee shop, I realise that perhaps the fire rising in Libra’s yellow circle might be the very thing I’m feeling inside. But it’s not the pesky celestial bodies that are causing it, but rather the unpredictable universe that is New York City.