The Artist was coming to town.
Our department was arranging it all: the airport welcome, the red carpet rollout at the college club, the public meet & greet; refreshments, parking, audio-visual aids, seating, all the fanfare. For one festive week he’d be on center stage, showing videos and telling stories of his past performances and the luminaries who worked with him over the years.
No wonder people liked him so much. He made a name for himself by doing 3 things well:
1. He mastered one traditional art form, as apprentice to the elders of a remote and insular culture;
2. He preserved that culture in new media and genres to form a fusion product that no one else thought to mix together; and
3. He popularized the result, making it understandable and accessible for everyone to enjoy.
That’s what gifted artists often do.
Michael Flatley mastered Irish dance, and sparked in flamenco and country-western and his signature 28 foot taps per second. Paul Pena forged through adversity to write blues songs that made money for other musicians, then taught himself throat singing (!) and put the two together to win the national singing competition in Tuva. (If you haven’t watched his work, here he is with Mr. Kongar-ol Ondar in documentary “Genghis Blues.”)
No wonder people were excited about meeting our guest. I was too, the first time he came along. So I created a little tribute: a quote from one of his own books on technique. I wrote the calligraphy on parchment-looking paper, with ornamental trim that looked like gold leaf but was really the inside wrapping from 3 Dove Bars. It looked swell mounted on a foam backing and shrink-wrapped at the copy shop. I offered it to him with a little speech. “…and so in appreciation, this is for you. I made it myself.”
He brushed my drawing out of his way and walked past me. But first, ace performer that he was, he answered back in a pitch-perfect imitation of my eager little voice: “And I could not care less.”
I stood there blinking, holding the picture to my chest. After that I kept to my place and stayed out of his way. I went on registering participants and confirming performance space and working with the caterers.
But then, between events, he seemed to find novelty and amusement in learning just what kind of assistant was handling his arrangements. He began asking me questions like these:
What is your alma mater?
What is the size of your alumni association’s endowment fund?
What performance hall events have you patronized this year? To what seasonal memberships do you subscribe?
What interesting local grants have been awarded lately to talented young performers? For what amounts of money?
Just how much do you know about my career?
He figured out soon enough that my participation in the fine arts ran to cutting up Dove Bar wrappers and playing Irish whistle tunes out on the office park bridge at lunch. The response he got from me was a bunny-in-a-headlight gaze that really means “Hoo boy, did I remember to give Eddie the Bagel Guy my cell phone number for when he shows up with our dozen dozen doughnuts at the loading dock?”
At a staff meeting in front of our upper-level colleagues, he asked me about the business management of the local sports team. To me it called to mind the scene in Remains of the Day, when Lord Darlington’s dinner guests liven up their evening by calling Butler Stevens on the carpet to answer questions about politics. The Artist and the upper brass enjoyed a good laugh. I just sat blushing and tongue-tied and thinking back on the words of a very good Orthodox priest, who told me “You wear a terrible mantle of self-consciousness. In interactions with people, it weighs you down.” I believed in Father’s point of view, but right then I just took my terrible mantle out of the meeting to go back to the office park and sit with the egrets.
Now the Artist was coming back to town. He was looking forward to his airport welcome, a comfortable car to the hotel, and fascinating shop talk with informed colleagues over dinner with a nice bottle of wine. But at the last minute, with his plane already on its way, the welcoming committee came apart. Everybody had something to tend to: sick child sent home from day care, car troubles, flooding pipes. None of the right people could go. That left the one with no kids or car or house to fix.
So in the early morning I set out to meet our guest, to escort him and his luggage on a crowded airport bus to his hotel, then to take him out on the town all day to cultural events. That is, if I could figure out where the culture was.
On the pre-sunrise bus, wedged in with airport workers and a passenger or two, I cradled my bag lunch and gazed at my anxious reflection in the window. How was all this going to pan out? How would our Artist feel about this personnel change? And how much was my alumni association’s endowment, anyway?
To shore up my spirits I took out my rosary and prayed through the sorrowful mysteries, hoping for inspiration.
Then, something happened.
In the dark rocking bus, to my tired vision and troubled mind, an overhead image flashed of the feet of Jesus crucified. To be clear, this was not the kind of spiritual illumination experienced by, say, the anonymous Lady living in the church of Julian of Norwich. This was only a plain picture of plain everyday reality, at least to a Catholic mind: that Jesus’s feet walked a path of service, and then were trampled and spat on and nailed to a cross.
Why did the image show only feet? Probably that was as much of the crucifixion as I could handle in that startling moment. (The cosmic joke of course is that after a lifetime of prayer before crucifixes in plaster, wood, paint, and brocade, the Catholic was surprised when all that contemplation actually started to work.)
But startling it was, to glimpse the physical implication of a sacrifice that I’d always taken for granted. It was like another revelation moment with some Muslim grad student neighbors who invited me over for supper. During the meal, one of the guys arrived home. He wanted to tell us his distress about a picture he had seen that day: Jesus wearing a Statue of Liberty hat with points all around it. The men came from a cultural heritage that had no public churches, no religious portraits at all. They asked me what it all meant. I explained about the crown of thorns, and why the Roman soldiers made one and put it on Jesus as insult and injury. My Muslim neighbors were appalled. They believed with all their hearts that Allah had intervened, rescuing the most peaceful prophet from crucifixion and assuming him directly to heaven. To them, this crown of thorns idea was a dreadful shock. “How can those people even THINK to do this to Issah al-Messiah, peace be upon him??” they exclaimed. The one who saw the actual picture was seized by a splitting headache and went straight to his room to lie down. The reaction of those young Muslim men was very moving for me. Back at home, at bedtime, I thought back to the times I enjoyed a laugh at The Onion and its spoofs about the Catholic church, showing Jesus working out at the health club or shopping for groceries, thorns and all. “How come I’m not the one with the headache?” I wondered. “Where has my empathy been all this time?”
Now the image of those battered feet stayed right with me, like the moon in a rearview mirror, fitting right in with all the other feet on that bus. This was mostly people on the early shift, lunch boxes instead of luggage, sturdy dark uniforms, murmurs in soft Spanish and Haitian and Somali, with a few Anglo women of 50-plus in skirt suits, a few teens with tinted hair. They were the baggage handlers, security guards, leaf-blower operators, concession stand baristas, custodians, and hotel cleaning crews. These were quiet tired-looking people, sitting still before being on their feet toiling away all day. And chances are, they weren’t forking over their minimum wage on custom orthotics or foam sole liners or disposable moleskin bunion pads or podiatry appointments for their comfort either. In the whole footbound underpinning of laboring people who bear up the weight of the world one step at a time, those feet on the cross stayed with the bus, feet that stood for us when they were no longer in any shape to stand up at all.
We trooped off at our stop, and headed into our terminal. The plane touched down. There was the Artist, standing right out in the crowd in a black silk shirt and black tie and dark glasses, jacket over shoulder, head up, scanning the terminal in anticipation of his welcome committee. For a guy who’d been traveling all night, he looked terrific.
With a little sigh, I started walking toward him. My posture began to shrink and my tongue to tie in knots. For an instant I thought of escaping on some escalator or baggage carousel, and running back home.
But those feet! Their bleeding battered image didn’t go away. Instead, they arrested my attention with a new idea: This is the condition of my own Lord and Master; then how should I expect people to treat me any better? And at that, the feet changed from an image to a physical feeling, an actual presence that was walking a mile in my own shoes. Then in a flash, they spread out across the terminal to walk in everybody else’s shoes of all the working people in sight. In their endurance, the disrespect thrown at them, the tasks they did to keep these planes in the air — they were all sharing in the tracks broken in on Calvary. I spun around, staring at this whole airport Via Dolorosa. When I looked again at the Artist, even he looked different.
He was still at the gate, but he had no way of knowing which direction his committee would come from. So he wore his best demeanor: photogenic from all angles, poised to take over and start entertaining. But behind his winning smile and knowing eyes, he looked (for just that moment) like a tired timid elderly man, one who without an audience didn’t really know what to do.
At that, some weight shucked right off my back.
Was it the terrible mantle of self-consciousness? Was it the chip on shoulder of my reverse class attitude? Whatever it was, I sidled up to the Artist with a soft unobtrusive greeting and a brief apology for the absence of his usual cohort. He tossed his head and gave me a droll dressing-down for not doing a better job of mustering the troops. But his verbal derring-do didn’t get a grip on me. With the new heft and centering inside my shoes (our shoes, really) his opinion of me really wasn’t my concern. I was there to serve, not to impress.
So I took the carry-on bag out of his hand, leaving him to grab the suitcase and follow me. We scrambled into the bus with the other passengers. The driver suddenly lowered the coach; before I knew it, my arm flew out and braced my companion’s back to continue on up the steps. As the bus set out through some poor neighborhoods toward downtown, we settled in with people just getting off the night shift.
At first he was all curiosity, taking in the view, critiquing the layout of the city. He mentioned a particularly large construction contract, asking me about a conflict of interest with stakeholders in the local government. I felt some regret that the upper colleagues weren’t here to answer him. All I could do was break out my box lunch, the raw vegetables and dried fruit and nuts and hummus sandwiches. “You ought to eat,” I told him; “we’ll be on the bus a while.”
As we sat there eating our apricots, something about him changed. He laid aside his usual verve and wit, and instead shared an open vulnerable fact: one of his best collaborators had cancelled his appearances and checked in to an alcohol detox center and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. “He told us he’d been depressed for years. How can a person who achieved so much be depressed? He’s at the peak of his career!”
So that’s how it went.
Stuck on the bus, we worked through our snacks and talked it over. He asked me question after question. But these questions didn’t put me on the spot and shut me down; they opened me right up. He wanted to know all about these AA meetings, about addictions, about how people get depressed, how they get over it, how he could help. Then it was questions about what keeps people going, and how they create meaning, and what they live for, and what they leave behind.
After that, we just sat there. Just sitting, just wedged in. And somehow the things I knew about him settled in like snowflakes to form a whole new picture. It showed a man working well past retirement age; a champion insomniac who wore out his staff and almost never went home to rest in his stately house; one who started out poor, and spent his life honing and honoring a craft. Most of all, he didn’t forget young artists, but shared his time and advice with them now, and his wealth in trust for them in the future. (Sure, his response to my gift was a little eccentric; but maybe instead of acting like a fan that first day I should have asked him for a scholarship instead.) He worked harder than I ever did, for long years. In terms of sacrifice, the real Underfoot servant here was him.
At our stop, we headed for his hotel to drop off the luggage. But halfway there he put down his suitcase and turned to me.
“You know,” he confided, “Honestly, I’d like to go lie down and rest. Would you let the office know that I’ll call them later this afternoon?”
“Sure,” I told him. “Air travel is tiring. You have a big week ahead; a rest is a wise idea.”
“I do hope you don’t mind. Thank you for coming to meet me.”
We both took a step forward at the same time and stood there in a big hug for a long minute.
“Good bye, Dear,” he said. “Take good care of yourself.”
Walking away, we both turned back at the same time to wave goodbye. He went to rest, and I went to the office and sat for a while at the bridge with the egrets and thought Well, you never know about people. They can surprise you.
After that, it was still chop wood carry water.
The Artist’s visits went along same as ever. I still met Eddie on the loading dock for our doughnut orders, still printed up registration slips, still ran to the copy shop to proofread invitations. I still couldn’t keep up with all the enlightened conversation whenever the Artist was in the room.
But from then on whenever we crossed paths, no matter who was lining up to have him answer questions or autograph his book, he’d always break away to collect a big hug from Dear before going back to his public, and on with the show.