Earlier this morning, my mother sent me a note through the interwebs. She said that the East Coast was in a deep freeze and that New York City was bracing for a monster snowstorm that might drop up to two feet around the Metro Area. I was telling a friend about the email and the impending storm as we were walking across town on our way to a meeting. We were running late, and, since I’m a New Yorker (and therefore genetically inclined to fast-walking even while holding hands on strolls through the park) I was practically at a jog. Being oblivious of so much in life, I was surprised when Ingi grabbed my wrist and indicated without words, “Hey, you’re walking too fast. Slow down!” She was right, of course. Who’s ever on time for a meeting down here anyway?
Charging around town like I’ve got a million things to do is the one part of my New York character that has been most resistant to change. But, intentionally, I slowed my stride and started talking again about the storm bearing down on New York and, for the first time in a long time, actually wishing I was up there. In general, I’ll take the 75 and sunny of Antigua six months a year. But there is something magical about a snowstorm, a storm so powerful, and so delicate, that it can take an entire city by the wrist and, without saying a word, convince it to slow down. And those days are important, because it’s tough to see the magic that’s everywhere around if you’re constantly in hurried, restless flight.
Einstein said it better; at least he did according to the bulletin board Ms. Alvarez from the math department posted outside her classroom back when we were colleagues in Brooklyn. It read:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Damn straight, Al, and anything that reminds us of that wisdom has a very special value. And snowstorms have a way of showing us the magic of it all.
After our meeting, as we were walking, more slowly, back across town, I found myself still lost in whited-out memories and I began telling Ingi about the last great snowstorm of the 20th century and how (as could only happen on such a day) I ended up sitting in a dark bar with a few old friends, listening to a leather-clad dominatrix sing a jazz improvisation off a 9th century Persian poem while sipping Irish Whiskey.
What can I tell ya? It was one hell of a storm.
In February of 1996 an enormous, cyclonic blizzard (a “crab-nebula of a storm,” wrote the New York Times) blew up the coast from the Caribbean where it met a wall of frozen air straight from the Arctic. The resulting cloud bank which stretched 1200 miles, from Maine to North Carolina, was 500 miles wide and, almost unheard of with winter storms, actually developed an eye, like a hurricane. By the time it had passed La Gran Manzana, 26.9 inches of snow had fallen in Central Park, the most since they started keeping records back in 1869. At the storm’s peak, over a foot of snow fell in under three hours and the skies lit up all night with silent flashes of high altitude lightning. If a band of ancient people were to have experienced it, virgins assuredly would have been sacrificed to appease the angered Gods of Winter. To the jaded romantics of The City nearing the end of the millennium, it seemed like a far more humanistic God maybe just wanted to remind his hipster children that he still had the keys to the magic store and the legerdemain to blow our minds with one of his simplest tricks, the ice crystal. Watch my hands.
When the snow started to fall, I was sitting at Flannery’s Pub on 14th and 7th with my friend, John Moynihan. The newsmen had said to expect some weather, but no one was talking about any meaningful accumulation, so we weren’t paying it much mind. As such, the storm slipped in stealthily. That, I’ve come to believe, is one of the first signs of a truly beautiful storm – it somehow arrives before it’s there. Before you know it, it’s slipped in your backdoor and is sitting at the table next to you. When you do finally see it, when you first notice the rate of accumulation and the strength of the storm itself, there’s a moment of hope – real, honest to Einstein hope. I’m sure it’s biological. The mind quiets down, the heart opens, and the possibility of a purpose in this life reasserts itself in even the bitterest amongst us. I’ve become more of a cynic in recent years, but still well remember the fervent prayers of an innocent childhood offered to the heavens from a frosted bedroom window on those nights when the snows began to fall. In rapture and sincerity I prayed, as I’m sure you did, too, for once to a God we actually believed in, “Please, God, please . . . Let this one be real . . . Don’t stop snowing all night long. Please please please please please let the snows cover it all . . . and give us a snow day. Amen. Please.”
Instinctively, as he looked out the wall-high windows at the front of the bar and saw the storm’s force, Fergal the Barman’s jaw dropped. John and I saw his face and turned around to look out at the street scene, too. This one was real and it had us by the wrist. The city was wearing white.
When we pulled up stumps at the bar and headed home for the night there was half a foot on the ground and no sign yet of the plows. A few hours later I peeled my ears open just long enough to hear Howard Stern, himself, tell me that it was fine to go back to dreamland. There were 16 inches out there and the city was frozen to still-life.
At three in the afternoon my phone rang. Twenty inches had fallen and it was still coming down. Moynihan had risen earlier that day and said he’d just discovered a bar on Chambers St. that had a working fireplace. He was with our buddy, Cliff Mott, and he told me that my attendance was required under “His Majesty’s Rules of the Snowy Dawn.” With John I knew better than to ask. He would have had an answer.
I bundled up in a sweater underneath my leather jacket, and half an hour later found myself climbing the stairs at the Chambers Street stop. At which point, of course, I became the only target in a fusillade of snowballs being hurled by a team of city kids under the field command of Majors Moynihan and Mott.
Though surrounded, and poorly equipped for the field of battle (mittens . . . what was I thinking?) I did comport myself bravely until I was hit, simultaneously, in the back of the head, the right thigh and square in the guts while running for cover behind a Volvo. I fell. They cheered.
With promises of beers purchased for them when they turned of age the kids scattered to go assault the next unwilling victim, while John, Cliff and I made our way to the bar with the fireplace, where we did some damage to a bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey and told stories of snow days past.
After an hour or so, we decided that, no matter how endearing was the bar with the fireplace, we actually belonged at our headquarters – Flannery’s – back up on 14th and 7th. So, once again bundled up and a bit tipsy, we made our way back to the station for the ride to the neighborhood bar we all called home.
The three of us pushed through the door and entered to find the joint empty but for Fergal the Barman perched on the cooler, reading a newspaper and sipping a tea. The bar, while not being one of Manhattan’s best known night spots, was NEVER this empty. Fergal put down the paper, started pulling our usuals, and said, “I shoulda known that if anyone was going to make it out on a day like this it would have been you lot.”
There was a quick recap of the day’s events followed by new conversation about how beautifully silent the city was under its blanket of snow. All the cars were buried and wouldn’t be moving for days. Fergal said he’d seen a few cross-country skiers swooshing down the middle of Broadway, and earlier in the day had served a guy who had ridden his snowmobile all the way down to Greenwich Village from his home in the Hudson River Valley.
Then each one of us became quite contentedly quiet, staring out the window at the gathering snow. We took long slow pulls off our pints. There was simply nothing else to do. New York, the city that never sleeps, was taking a nap, and if you had looked closely enough, you would have seen that it had begun to dream. Maybe that’s what was on John’s mind when he turned to me and said, “Do you still have that copy of Khayyam I gave you last year?”
Sometimes at the bar John and I would recite a bit of poetry, and he’d given me a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam a few months before. Beautiful book, fabric bound from 1906, all five FitzGerald translations. I nodded, bundled up for the block and a half walk to my apartment and returned with the tome before my next Guinness had the chance to fully settle.
While I was gone, John and Cliff had pulled four chairs into a circle. I was just about to start reading when the door flew open with a blast of cold air – and into the bar walked two of the most unexpected bearers of truth, beauty and light you could possibly imagine.
It went beyond an “only in New York” moment. It was an “only in New York on a snow day” moment. The first words we heard were a shrieked, “Sheeee-iiiit, it’s cold out there.” Then a laugh from our new guests. Both were inappropriately dressed for the weather. Both wanted whiskey, which John, ever the gentleman, provided by offering them the bottle Fergal had left on the corner of the bar.
The two women (I remember Darlene’s name, the other escapes me) were, delicately put, sex-workers, though clearly from different levels of success in their chosen profession. Darlene, with hair weaves that touched the backs of her thighs and wearing nothing but black leather and turquoise, was, as it turns out, a dominatrix. Her friend, huge thighs and a micro-mini leather skirt, was a street walker and not the most attractive one, I’d imagine, though her gap-toothed smile took off at least a few years. And they both seemed thoroughly at peace with the thought of having a day off work.
Even if we couldn’t have guessed their vocations (and, for the record, it was pretty easy) Darlene, wanting to get it out there, offered by way of introduction that she was “an appointment-only dominatrix.” She did it with such assertion that I half expected her to give us her card. Her friend walked 10th Avenue. No appointments necessary. Darlene had a full day booked, but the snows kept her clients trapped in their Upper West Side apartments or Long Island McMansions, so she figured she’d call up her friend, who was pretty hard up for cash and with nothing better to do was trying to corner the corner market for the day. She had not met with success and when Darlene called she decided to forgo any further risk of frostbite. They agreed to meet and walk into the first bar they found.
Darlene started in Stuyvesant Town on the East Side. Her friend was over by the West Side highway and the bar they found in the middle was Flannery’s. Fate, my friends, fate.
Cliff pulled up two more chairs to our circle, Fergal grabbed a few more rocks glasses. John explained what we were up to: recite a poem, read a bit from the Rubaiyat or another poem from one of the other books that were laying around, tell a joke, sing a song, whatever. Without hesitation, they said they were in.
I started off by reciting one of my favorite stanzas from Khayyam, the most commonly quoted of the bunch:
“The Moving Finger writes; and having writ / Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, / Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.”
As I finished Darlene reached out to take the book. I gave it to her as John quoted his favorite lines from MacBeth. Cliff told a joke. Fergal slipped out when it was his turn and gave us a buy-back round. Next up was Darlene and she opened the Rubaiyat, but she didn’t read – she sang.
It wasn’t the voice of an angel – at least not one before the fall. It was smoky, dark, sensual, jazzy, erotic – somewhere in the world between Etta and Ella. And it was utterly absorbing. This woman was a pro.
She sang slow and low, spreading the vowels and rounding the consonants, making it her own story:
“You know . . . my Friends, with what a brave Carouse / I made a second marriage in my House; / Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed / And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.”
She sang with a touch of taunt in her inflection, teasing and tempting her boys:
“Come…, fill your cup in the fires of Spring / Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling: / The Bird of Time has but a little way / To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.”
She sang like your lover’s breath on the pillow:
“A Book of Verse underneath the Bough, / A jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou / Beside me singing . . . in the Wilderness – / Oh, Wilderness . . . were Paradise . . . en’ow!
And she kept singing. Maybe it was 20 minutes. Maybe less. Maybe time stopped as she caressed and comforted words first written in Persian by a Sufi Mystic almost 1000 years ago and translated by a British romantic in the middle of the 19th century. And in that time outside of time she brought us all into that safe, warm place that was something more than a bar on 14th Street in the middle of a 100 year storm. And as she did, she unlocked for us that last clasp that held us to our New Yorkness, releasing us into ourselves and one another. Only six human beings, out of the whole six billion of us, were there that evening, but somehow we shared a universal secret about the vibration of common love. And the secret is this: unity lives always underneath the angst and activity we misunderstand as reason and propriety. Always, between the flashes in the sky that show us the magic, it’s there. And here it was, in a woman’s voice. In a lullaby. Nothing more. Nothing less. We were at peace. We were one.
She finished to tears and in tears. She finished in silence and to silence. She finished her incantation of Khayyam and I knew I’d never hear that poem in another voice for the rest of my days. I wish you all were there. Maybe you were, somehow.
She handed the Rubaiyat back to me, and said, “I love that book.” Or maybe it was, “I love you, Mick.”
At the moment they meant the same thing. All words meant the same thing. Everything was holy. Everything was a miracle. Everything was white.
Her friend looked out the big picture window at the front of the bar and said, with the finality of ritual, the benediction that ends the baptism, “Look, baby. It stopped snowin’.”
And it had. And within an hour the spirit of the day was beginning to dissipate and dissolve into the illusion of separation that we perceive as life. But someday the cumulous will meet the cold front, and it will all start again – the falling, the praying, the resting, the playing, the singing, the tears and the visions. Our job, and one I do poorly, rushing like a fool down cobblestoned streets, failing to see the mountains for the madness, is to keep the hint of her song alive until the next big storm takes us by the wrist and, once again, slows us down.