"Sounds lovely," I said. "When and what time? Jacket and tie necessary?"
The following evening I rode my bike to Vivian's house a few neighborhoods away. I was to be the assistant to the assistant to the Babalao. The Babalao is what a priest is called in the Ifa religion?a religion practiced by the Yoruba, a people indigenous to Nigeria. Certain aspects of Ifa, combined with practices and beliefs taken from others religions, including and primarily Christianity, help to make up the Vodun religion, which is more commonly referred to as Voodoo.
Vivian, who is a world traveler and first-class adventurer (she's been in the middle of warring soldiers' gunfire on the Amazon, survived a two-week episode of malaria in a hut in Nigeria, nearly died of a mysterious fever in a hospital in Bangkok, was tackled and French-kissed by a cannibal in the jungles of the Philippines, and is well-liked in London and Paris and Denmark), is a devotee and student of several different religions. She's always appealing to various gods to look after her soul, provide good lovers and keep an eye on her investments.
So this past August she had consulted with the Babalao, who was in New York for a few weeks, staying in Harlem, and he had prescribed for Vivian a sacrifice to help keep her in good standing with the spirit world. And that's where I enter the picture. The sacrifice was to take place on the second Saturday night of September, and I got to Vivian's on time, around 8:30, but she wasn't there. I knew she had to go to Harlem to pick up the Babalao and his assistant, which could account for her not being home?perhaps there was traffic. Also, when you travel as much as Vivian does, you're in several different time zones, so punctuality is not one of her strong points, but I wasn't put out?when you know a friend's weakness, it makes you much more tolerant.
Thus, ready for a long wait, I grabbed a Post from the corner deli and sat on the stoop of her building. I was prepared to lay siege for as long as two hours, since it's not every day that you get invited to a sacrifice, and I knew it was going to happen no matter how late she got back. Most friends I give half an hour grace period for tardiness before giving up, but with Vivian one has to make a much greater allowance. But it's worth it for the things she has exposed me to over the years, the adventures she's taken me on.
While I memorized the baseball box scores and statistics in the paper, a beautiful girl, early 20s, came out of the laundromat next door and for some odd reason stared right at me. I was instantaneously smitten. She was of the thin, waifish, small-hipped variety of female who nonetheless are gloriously adorned with medium-to-large succulent breasts. Furthermore, this girl had hair the color of wet sand, her skin was smooth and pale and her lips were swollen and all too kissable. She wore those bohemian-style pants that come to the hip bones and end tantalizingly just above the pubis. And she was in a small t-shirt, so her braless breasts in all their delectability were stunningly outlined, and, too, since the t-shirt didn't reach the pants?on purpose, siren!?I could see her tender, vulnerable belly. Oh, to kiss that belly! To press my face against it like a beggar.
I insanely wished, as I have millions of times in similar circumstances, that she would immediately and magically fall in love with me so I could then throw her over my shoulder and run to the woodsy, stygian park that was conveniently down the street, and then beneath some tree growing like an erection out of the ground, I'd peel away those nothing pants and nothing shirt and behold her in the starlight and the diffuse city light?this perfect beautiful girl?and kiss her and stroke her, be sweet to her and rough with her, then have her, which is the basic male-female equation?I am well aware that there are other possibilities?that I subscribe to: Man gets to take the woman because the woman wants to be taken.
So she looked at me for a lingering, languorous moment, then went back in to the laundromat. I returned to the baseball box scores?a numbing, safe haven away from the burden of sexual desire, which, by the way, despite all our romantic and erotic embroidering (see above), is simply a physiological call to arms to make babies. And this raises a problem for me. Since most sex thwarts procreation, I find the whole thing maddening and confusing. What's the point of sex if we're not making babies? When I finish making love and I peel off a condom it's like I climbed a mountain for no reason at all and my first thought is, Oh, I guess I better get back down. It is nice, of course, to bring happiness to another, to be close to them, but the whole thing feels so Herculean?all that mounting and thrusting?that there should be a greater end than the old peeling off of the condom.
Anyway, I sat on that stoop for about half an hour, having moved on from the sports section to the front of the paper, and then that girl came out again and stood in front of the laundromat and stared at me for the second time. Why? Why did she look at me so? Was she lonely on a Saturday night doing laundry? Could this be an opportunity for a miraculous pick-up? I decided to take action. At that time, I was one week into my training for my upcoming boxing match and was already feeling quite virile. Despite my whining, I continually yearn to climb lots of mountains, to mount lots of girls. I have repetitive amnesia when it comes to remembering that mildly pointless feeling one has after the act. So I made my move.
"Doing laundry on a Saturday night?" I said to her, which is perhaps one of the all-time worst pick-up lines. And its stupidity was compounded by the fact that I immediately, upon uttering those words, discovered why she was staring at me. She wasn't. She was looking over my shoulder to see if her 6-foot-3, handsome dredlocked Jamaican?at least by appearance?boyfriend was coming to rescue her from the laundromat, which he was, exactly at the precise moment that I delivered the above line that he heard just as well as she did. He then slowed down his stride as he passed me and he glared at me. How dare I even speak to his girl? said his angry?and justified?gaze. He then put his arm around the girl and stared me down some more. I was hardly a threat or a rival?if we were caveman she would have been his by virtue of his superior size?but he was giving me the prolonged hairy eyeball anyway.
"Sorry," I said, and shrugged my shoulders in a gesture of conciliation, having to do something to break the tension, and which was my way of saying to him?which was perhaps insulting to the girl, but maybe not?"Can you blame me? She's beautiful. You've got a great girl there." He stared at me a few more milliseconds, and the whole thing, to my politically correct sensitized mind, seemed to have some kind of weird racial undercurrent: Here I was a white man in a primarily black neighborhood trying to pick up a white girl who was in a biracial relationship.
Finally, the stare-down ended?I was getting ready to fight or run?and they went inside. I kept reading my paper and wished that Vivian would show up so we could get on with the sacrifice and I could avoid another confrontation with the girl's boyfriend. But Vivian didn't show up and a few minutes later, the couple came out of the laundromat and walked past me and the guy stared at me the whole time. I felt like some weird creep who sits on a stoop and tries to pick up girls with terrible lines.
So I sat there about another half hour, and then to help pass the time I went to the deli and bought a Haagen-Dazs chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar and a banana. Once I was back in position on the stoop, I began to eat both things simultaneously to create the effect of a banana split, which was something I had loved as a child. And then into this happy scene that damn couple returned to collect their laundry?including, I imagined, her sweet panties and bras; I should have gone in there and clutched them to my face when I had the chance?and again the boyfriend stared me down. This was getting ridiculous. And I must have looked even more creepy now that I had a half-eaten ice cream bar in one fist and a half-eaten banana in the other. I wished I could explain to them that I was trying to recapture my youth and that I was crazy with boredom waiting for a friend who was late for an animal sacrifice that she herself had organized.
Then they came out of the laundromat with him carrying two large bags and he glared at me one more time for good measure. At this point, I could have sacrificed Vivian?it was almost 10 o'clock and I had nearly been involved in a racial incident with a very attractive couple.
Finally, a few minutes later, Vivian did pull up in her old street-ravaged Chevy and she and the two Yoruban men got out. And all was forgiven as soon as I saw her. She smiled at me with happiness and affection?she is like a sister to me?and the way she looked at me made me feel loved; her feelings are not easily hidden or obscured. She has a naive, almost innocent quality at times, which is why I guess she likes adventures, she's still so curious about everything. So I didn't care that I had sat on her stoop for almost two hours and had almost provoked a race riot. Her friendship was more than worth it.
I shook hands with the Babalao and his assistant?they were both dressed in comfortable, brightly colored pajama-like outfits, and Vivian was dressed completely in white, including a white handkerchief around her hair, for reasons of purity?and we went into Vivian's place and then out to her backyard where the ceremony was to occur.
In dim lighting (she didn't want the neighbors to be able to see too clearly what was happening?sacrifices are most likely illegal), I had to chase around her little backyard this thin white chicken, and I felt like Rocky improving his footwork. Once the chicken was caught, I held on to it and it was soft and nervous and I stroked its head. I knelt near the Babalao, who was chanting quite melodically. He was in a chair and so was Vivian who sat across from him. The assistant hovered nearby, holding one of Vivian's sharper kitchen knives. At the Babalao's feet, on a plate, was a softball-sized orb made up of cornmeal that Vivian had prepared, and in a cage, at Vivian's feet, was a pigeon. Vivian had bought the chicken and the pigeon at the local live-animal market.
At one point the Babalao yanked feathers out of the chicken and pigeon and stuck them in the cornmeal ball and both of them cried out when they were plucked. The Babalao kept up his chanting for quite some time and it was very soothing, but I wondered if I was going to scream when the chicken was killed (Vivian told me, though she hadn't yet explained why, that the pigeon was to be spared). After about 20 minutes the Babalao stopped praying and told Vivian to hold the chicken to her forehead, which she did. The assistant took the chicken from her and quickly cut its neck, severing the head, and the Babalao attached the head to the cornmeal orb, and the assistant squeezed the blood from the chicken's neck onto the orb. I didn't scream. More prayers were said for a minute or two and then we were done. We cleaned up. Everything was to be thrown away?the chicken was not to be eaten.
Then we all piled into the car and drove up to Harlem, and as we careened up the FDR, I felt sort of wonderful, as if I had been meditating or had sat for a little while in a cathedral. Watching that chicken be killed had not been a terrible thing at all, even though for years in a liberal, yoga-influenced way I've been hypocritically quasi-vegetarian. Vivian had told me that animal sacrifice was meant to show the highest respect for life and was not an uncaring dismissal of the animal's existence. And so while watching that chicken quickly cease to be with a few strokes of the knife, I had a sense of the utter fragility that every living thing shares, that my same-colored blood could flow as easily. Yet this made me feel keenly alive?I felt more aware of the blood in me, the life in me. I felt more grateful for it.
We dropped the men off in Harlem, there were handshakes and hugs all around, and then Vivian and I drove back to Brooklyn. Following the Babalao's instructions, we took the pigeon to an intersection of four corners where Vivian?after making sure no cars or passersby were coming?took the bird and held it to her forehead and spun in a circle in the middle of the road. After several spins, she let the bird go. It was supposed to fly away, taking Vivian's prayers upward, but sadly, tragically, the poor thing, tired from being caged all day, didn't fly and it came speedily down to earth with a frightening thud. Vivian and I both screamed, thinking that she had killed it. But the clean, elegant, gray bird (it wasn't a dirty pigeon at all), righted itself and waddled off, like a man in a good suit with his hands (its wings) crossed behind his back. It then went onto the sidewalk and just stood there.
"Will your prayers work if it didn't fly off?" I asked.
"I don't know. Let's get out of here," she said, afraid that we'd get arrested for abusing the pigeon.
We then quickly walked back to her place and since we were both tired, I didn't come in. We kissed goodnight and I got on my bike, feeling very guilty about the bird. I thought I should check on it. If it was still on the sidewalk?where some cat could get it?I would try to help it fly. So I cycled over there and as I approached I saw that it was still just standing there, looking rather stunned.
But then when I got nearer, two people walking hand in hand, coming from the other direction, approached the bird. It was the biracial couple! And they spotted me immediately! What were they doing out? Why weren't they in bed making love? The boyfriend was taken aback seeing me on my bike, but he also looked angry. A few hours had passed since our last encounter. He probably thought I was stalking them. The girl looked at me like I was a sex fiend?I had my ridiculous, pointy bike helmet on, which tends to give me a depraved look. And now how could I dismount and attend to the bird with them right there? Some kind of strange confrontation would occur. The boyfriend would misinterpret my getting off the bike. Who would believe I was stopping for a pigeon? I had to make a quick decision: I abandoned the bird and sped, like a maniac, past that good-looking couple.
What must they have thought of me? And what an odd moment it was. The two parts of my evening meeting up at that intersection. I could only hope that maybe the couple would help the bird; I didn't want it to die. It didn't seem fair. It wasn't the one supposed to die. It wasn't chosen for that, though, of course, maybe it was.
Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
Summer in the City