In a Philadelphia café, a stranger’s unexpected gift: a drawing

Murals on a street in Philadelphia. Photo: Poppy Mookerjee.

NEW YORK – Encores of sunlight danced in front of my eyes in whirls of prismatic lights, the kind that dizzies the mind.

I walked with a young friend between corrugated metal frames, guarding football and playground fields, which were made all the more surreal with a sudden welter of shocking pink and blue morning glories peeping out of murals on the walls.

Old brick row houses from another century stood sentinel with a stock of pink bougainvillea and green fern wilting at the doorway.


My friend had broken off from a five-year-old relationship and was clearly distraught.

She kept repeating that she was thirsty for a tall glass of chilled lemonade. “Sugary sweet and clinking with ice. Like the one they make at home in the road-side cafe,” she said.

But where was home after five years of a live-in relationship with someone you had adored since the effervescent days of high school?

The slow years had quenched the music out of the dance.

Her wide-rimmed straw hat tilted over her eyes, threatening over with tears. She was wearing an over-sized spaghetti maxi dress with red with white striped diagonals. Her face was gaunt and thin, and an aura of utter hopelessness surrounded her tall, stooping frame.

She was battering her sadness into a memory.

What were those lines by the R&B singer, Justine Skye that my daughter keeps humming, I wondered?

“Riding on the A train, got you stuck on my brain, on the way to the city, wanna leave you but you with me, love on the wall like graffiti Oh running from you aint easy.”

Odd, that I should remember those lines out of the blue. The heat was clearly getting to me.

We stopped at a café to get some iced coffee. She sat down absent-mindedly, stirring her iced tea at a corner, festooned with bright yellow paint.

She uttered not a word, simply looking outside the window, with tears streaming down.  And from time to time she shivered.

Both of us sat in forlorn silence, lost in the treasures of the past.

Then the warm music of a deep voice interjected.

“Hello,” it said.

I looked up. A burly young man with long dreads had stopped by at our table. He had a large bound paper notepad, apparently with a drawing scribbled on it. I took a closer look at it since my friend was not in any mood for casual company.

I was taken in by the swift strokes of soft monochromes.

A luminous portrait of a radiant young girl with dark, gypsy eyes and face turned upwards to the heavens, spread out in front of my eyes.  It was glistening like moonstone in the shadows of darkness.

“Look, it’s you,” I called out to her.

She stared in complete disbelief and in tentative praise, stuttered, “Me?”

“Yes, yes,” the young man interrupted, “you can keep it. I made it for you,” He tossed it to her and left as quickly as he came.

Doors of the café swung open and the mysterious Lochinvar disappeared forever into the afternoon glare. The artist had salvaged a pearl from the merciless prison of a colorless world.

It was as if a butterfly had suddenly alighted on her drooping shoulder and a star had fallen into her arms.

A moment of epiphany that consoled her that someone out there in the cold was watching out for her.

It reminded me of the poem, First Meetings, by the Russian film director Arsemy Tarkovsky.

“Everything in the world was different, even the simplest things – the jug, the basin…we were led to who knows where, before us opened up in mirage, towns constructed in wonder, mint leaves spread themselves beneath our feet..”

I certainly could relate to my friend’s pain.

Years back while applying for a job and receiving a reply in the negative for the eleventh time, I was wandering the local nursery in search of solace and the courage to look again for employment.

In an ordinary conversation with the gardener in broken English about her home in Mexico, I learned about how hard the work was, with barely any holiday and the pay, well, just meager.  Not enough to travel home anyway.

As we stood there musing about our respective homelands, she said she wanted to give me two potted lavenders for free. I declined but she insisted.  Something had touched her spirit, she said.

So there they were. Tall stalks with lavender flowers waving at the tips.The scent of misty rain on a lonesome day.

Gifts from a stranger that upheld my faith and helped lighten a bit the heavy load of life

The little incident took me back to a marvelous story a professor had narrated from the Jewish Hasidic tradition, called “The Fragrance of Paradise.”

It concerned a wise rabbi who visited Paradise on a Sabbath afternoon and was struck by miraculous gusts of perfume, as intoxicating as they were liberating.

It was like nothing he had smelled on earth, so rich, profuse and singular was its scent.

When it was time to return home he asked the Seraphs if he could carry some of the scent with him. But the prophet Elijah told him, “Whatever you take now will be taken out of the portion in the world to come.”

So reluctantly, he returned home with just a memory of a whiff of heaven in the breadth of his being.

Yet no matter where he went the smell still lingered and stayed with him.

“What could it be?” he wondered at its enduring mystery.

Ah, he realized, a few flowers had got stuck onto his long robe and sleeves while walking past the flowers in Heaven’s garden.

With trembling hands, he carefully removed the dust of flowers and bound it to the Torah.

In his daily devotions, the broken rhythms of perfume gave him deep peace and courage, abiding hope and love for all things ephemeral on the earth.

The poor, the hungry, the sick and the desperate crowded to his cell to breathe in the deep draughts of the perfumed scrolls.  A breath of the divine and they were instantly healed, freed from the scourge of their relentless fight.

And so the scent of Paradise seeped imperceptibly into the world, the professor said.

And all it took was the fading glory of a dust of flowers for the wise rabbi to weave a golden arbor of iridescent refuge.

To my friends who are unbelievers, the context may indeed be religious, but the truth is echoed universally in poetry.

Oft-quoted lines that quickly come to mind are those by William Blake, “To see a world in a Grain of Sand,  and Heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an Hour.”

For hidden within the discord of life, is a wealth of symbols and visions that when we revisit expands into a language the universe.

And it is not always the inspiration that is evoked of a beautiful face, the promise of great wealth, tumult of a roaring passion, or an immense reservoir of intellectual erudition.

Not always the stars that shine the brightest in the night sky.

It is a small light that suddenly shines the way to unseen staircase on a lonesome day.

Maybe just the hint of a painting or a perfume and what we make of it.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)




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