Our Lady of Fifth Avenue
I have a morning meeting with my publisher. I don’t want to be late so I leave home early. I shouldn’t have worried. Every subway I need to get over to East 53rd Street pulls up to the platform the moment I arrive. As I step aboard my subway car I notice its almost empty. Very few people are riding the trains. For a few minutes I entertain the delusion that subways stopped being a conveyance for the masses and has transformed into my own personal rail service. The wealthy and powerful once moved beneath the city inside richly appointed rail cars. For a moment I imagine I’m one of them, traveling in style.
I remember watching a TV show about an abandoned train station underneath the Waldorf Astoria. Franklin Roosevelt used that station whenever he visited New York. The presidential train would pull up under the hotel, aides would transfer the paralyzed Roosevelt into an armor plated Pierce Arrow, and a freight elevator would whisk his car up to the street. The public never saw the image conscious president struggling with his crutches and leg braces. That man actually had his own personal rail service. I wonder what it must feel like to be that important.
My subway car lurches to a stop. I step off the train and head up to the street. I was so wrapped up in thinking about wealth and power that I’m almost annoyed my publisher didn’t send a Pierce Arrow to pick me up.
As I head over to the Harper Collins building I watch the people walking past me. They look like they’re peeking out from inside suits of armor, soft naked parts plated over with business clothes and attitude, personalities muted under layers of wary steel. I know real people are hiding beneath those hard surfaces and suspicious glances; I might even like some of them. Few of them, however, would take off their armor for me. People don’t want to be seen struggling with crutches and braces. For the millionth time I think of all the people I’ll never know.
I look at my watch. Because of my good transit fortune I’m half an hour early for my appointment. I walk past my publishers building, cross over Fifth Ave, and duck inside St. Thomas Church. St. Thomas is my favorite ecclesiastical stop in Manhattan. Its quieter than St. Patrick’s and not as busy as St. John the Divine. It is a parish church with a cathedral’s heart.
I settle into a pew and let the church’s Gothic architecture draw my eyes upwards. A stone convocation of apostles, prophets, and saints stare down from their perches inside the spectacular reredos above and behind the main altar. They silently watch over the people studiously praying, the office worker taking a nap, the woman who brought her child in from the cold. The sounds of the world outside are hushed, but not banished. Deep beneath the church a subway gently roars as it travels to its destination. As the vibrations travel up the wooden pew I think about the people riding on that train. I wonder if they realize what magnificence rests above them.
A couple sits in front of me. They look at each other and say a few words in French. The man kneels down to pray. The woman suddenly gets up and walks away. As I watch her pretend to be interested in statuary I notice she looks flustered, as if she’s impatient with her partner. The man finishes his prayers and gets up. He looks like a child who’s wandered into a room he shouldn’t be in. I wonder if the woman was aggravated that the man wanted to pray. It amazes me that people can look at each other naked, talk in detail about the psychiatric minutia of their lives, but when it comes to talking about God, Transcendence, the Big Picture, or whatever you want to call it, they get nervous. I could also be completely wrong about what I’m seeing. Maybe the couple had a fight before they walked inside. Maybe the man wanted to lay aside his armor for just a moment. I’ll never know. The couple leaves.
After a few minutes I look at my watch. Its time to be going. I get up and walk towards the back of the church. I stop at the statue of Our Lady of Fifth Avenue and say a silent prayer. The statue depicts Mary having a pleasant round maternal face. I like it. Some people think this woman was The Mother of God. Other people think shes a complex symbol, a representation of the feminine divine. It doesn’t matter. As I walk towards the exit I slip a dollar into the offertory box, a self reminder that, theological mumbo jumbo aside, faith without works is dead.
As I walk outside the main door a beautiful brunette woman wearing gold jewelry and a brilliant flashing smile fills my vision. She’s trapped inside the two dimensions of a gigantic billboard hanging in the store window across the street. It seems there’s another woman vying to be Our Lady of Fifth Avenue. I think about the thin line separating the sacred from the profane. Sometimes I want to erase that line.
A few hours later, editorial meeting over, I descend into the bowels of the earth and begin my journey home. This time my subway car’s packed with humanity. On my return trip, instead of fantasizing about privilege and power, I think about Our Lady of Fifth Avenue floating above me, riding on a cushion of asphalt, stone, and hope.
Now I’m traveling in style.