[In which I meet “Sarah” the medium]
On our road trip Rose and I talked in ways we hadn’t always been able to over the years; the driving expanded the space around us, made us expansive as we moved along, eyes mostly on the road ahead, as if we spoke to the future about the past. And, since Rose was never one to pass up an antique shop, we found plenty of opportunities along the way to feel nostalgic. Rose had a house to fill, after all, and an eye for bargains; consequently we included a few detours to sift through vintage debris and conjure the past in the process. On the road our soundtrack was an impromptu mix tape of public radio stations as they rose and fell away out of range and CDs of off-Broadway musicals from a time when Rose was still working on her stage career, back in New York, back when we first met, back when we were so much younger and hopeful and life had not yet spun out of control. “Just when it seemed as if we were getting somewhere,” Rose mused. “Changing the world, creating a better place, somewhere you’d be able to love the people you loved without it being a crime. Without being a criminal.”
“You were never a criminal, Rose.”
“Don’t be so sure. And technically speaking you still are, in certain states.”
“You make it sound like we were out robbing banks or – okay Patty Hearst robbed a bank but that doesn’t count, it wasn’t her idea.”
We were only gently, lightly touching the past in a shop crowded with stuff, a mix of junk and forgotten treasures, dark and musty on a bright day, the two of us side by side inspecting a jewelry case jumbled full of odds and ends, a red flannel ball shaped like a tomato bristling with fancy faux jewel-headed hatpins next to a handful of cloudy cherry and lime green colored dice of various sizes, tobacco and bubble gum trading cards of long dead baseball and basketball players, cufflinks, china thimbles, charms for bracelets, political buttons, watch fobs, tiny Made in Occupied Japan figurines.
“I admit,” I continued, “I might have dated a felon once or twice but – what?”
Rose is pointing and I lean in for a better look. A tarnished brass Roosevelt – Fairbanks 1904 watch fob tag. Next to it, a scuffed metal button, black with a pink triangle emblazoned on it and the words Silence = Death. Rose was one of the first people I knew to join ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), one of the first to demonstrate, to get arrested. Actress to Activist, activist to lawyer.
There is this part of our lives, in the 1980s in New York, symbolized in a button, when death was everywhere, in the noise and in the silence, in visits to friends dying in St. Vincent’s, and at funerals at St. Luke’s, St. John the Divine, Holy Rest, in the anecdotes we’d share of surreal engagements with the relatives of the dead and dying, in cocktail party conversation of half-serious hypotheticals about what we’d do when they did round us up and put us in quarantine camps as William F. Buckley had suggested, and where we’d go, and what to tell our families if/when it happened to us, and whether we would really want balloons released at our memorials (And get stuck in the tree branches and power lines? Please, no), and where the next demonstration was going to be, and at the end of the decade and the beginning of a new one did ACT UP really put a giant condom on Jesse Helms’ house (They did, yes).
For me and Rose, the occasional silence between us now may equal death, but only ironically, on this journey to a town where everyone who lives there talks to the dead and the dead are everywhere even if the word is never used, (the dead have “passed over”) but for us it is death remembered, death seen and lived through and survived, and only referenced obliquely as in, “after Skip got tested, before Bill got sick, after Eddie’s memorial, the summer before Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the year after Tomas met Elizabeth Taylor, before Rock Hudson, after Larry Kramer, before Queer Nation…”
“Is William here?” Rose asks in the antique shop, looking about us as if she could see him if he were. I don’t answer. “Well, he has a sense of humor, doesn’t he,” she observes. “You should get that Roosevelt 1904 thing for your collection.”
“You know, William could tell you a thing or two about criminals,” Rose says in the car as we resume our drive.
“My dear,” Rose explains in her Stella Adler voice, “he was a young man when Oscar Wilde went to prison. And he still chose to be an actor. Back when sodomy laws really meant something.”
“Back when life was really dangerous.”
“Oh, Life is always dangerous. Not what meant. I worked in the theater, darling. It’s not a reputable business.”
“Maybe he felt safer there.”
“Oh yes,” Rose replies, “I imagine he did.”
“I’m aware,” says Sarah (not her real name), a medium in Lily Dale, “of someone – I’m getting a connection with someone coming forward who was, well, he was a criminal, I’m sorry, but that’s – what was the name? May I hear the name? William? Yes, but he went by another as well, a nickname, another – or something about his name, a middle name, he used a middle name sometimes…”
I don’t know what she means about the name but it doesn’t matter. Our paths are crossing.
“He says you will understand – he has the character of a criminal – he is showing himself in a bar – he liked to drink, he had personal power, he wasn’t controlled – self-will run riot, and he could care less about other people, he has a reddish tint to his hair, worn longish, sometimes a mustache – he had the most beautiful eyes – he had a lot of charisma, he’s showing me – in fact the crimes he committed – people voluntarily gave him what he wanted. He didn’t even have to ask, do you understand that? It’s like someone else goes and robs the bank for him, he didn’t even have to ask…. I’m feeling like – he’s whistling, doing a what, a sort of Charlie Chaplin walk?”
We are speaking in code, I tihnk. Or, William is, and Sarah doesn’t know it. She’s just the channel, after all. The conduit.
“… train tracks, I’m seeing a train track, but you and the friend who’s helping you, neither of you is on the right track… New York is important… but there’s another town, also important. A town with an ancient name. Not Rome, not Athens. Cairo? No…
“Bazooka bubble gum, he’s showing me – you know how they used to collect bazooka bubble gum cards? He’s showing me that…he’s throwing the wrapper down by the train tracks. He says you’re looking for all kinds of evidence but the people who would actually know he’s showing me in and around these train tracks, he’s showing me trash, things you throw away, you’re giving him too much credit: many of the important things in life happen in places you fear to go – would be afraid to go, everyday things, you’re looking in the wrong places. Where the people who really know are, they’re the common folk, the ‘uncommon common folk’ he’s saying, they’re the ones who know the truth, is what he’s saying, and again what I’m seeing, this would be back in the day when there’d be hobos, or what today we’d call homeless people down on the tracks, you know, the people you’d talk to, they’re the people who aren’t going to judge you. These people are going to let you be yourself.
“He’s also showing me a gravestone, as being significant to you – you found his mother’s gravestone? But you can’t find the others, the family wasn’t buried together… Olive, Mount Olive, there was another cemetery. … He’s showing me a card, a notebook, a journal? – you’re taking notes? Item 3 is no. It’s a redirect …
“Bank robbery is what he keeps telling me.” She shrugs. Her eyes have been focused to the left, to the right, up and down, not in my direction. Now in a rare instance Sarah looks at me.
What must it be like, speaking through someone like Sarah? I try to imagine. Being translated, having to use images she will understand to let me know what he’s trying to tell me. Speaking through an interpreter. Bank robbery indeed. Criminals, talking to each other through a go-between who has no idea. She is recording our session; later, when I am home again, I will listen to the CD, and I will think, I am listening to a translator interpreting someone speaking a language I can’t hear. The silence when she pauses. The silence equals…
Does he know I met his family? I ask.
“He’s showing me a woman in the living. He’s saying you met his mom and his sister but they have passed so -”
“I found their graves,” I explain.
“Yes, and then you met a woman in the living, related to them? Yes, it was good for them to think about him. And likewise for him. The family can be in peace now. They were worried about him in a number of ways. And now he’s lighting a cigarette or a – oh, maybe it’s a joint? One for him and one for you. Come visit him any time, he’s saying.”
Another pause as she listens.
“He’s saying say hello to his dad. Did you trace him? My sense is – he seems to think you have more knowledge of his father than he does, although he’s saying in the spirit world he’s there as well, and there’s still distance between them.”
I wonder if I understand what he’s saying. I think I do. I think we had the same father, is what he’s saying. The same kind of man and the same kind of relationship. Except his father did end up with more sons, sons who worked with him in the mills, sons who saw the world the way their father did, who understood the world the way their father did.
“Thank you. He says he’ll light a candle for you. Reformation is always available to us, here and in the hereafter, those we pray for, he’s saying let the healing begin, he wasn’t someone who would champion himself, he’s thanking you for that, he’s showing me, ‘call me,’ indicating spirit communication.”
I leave Sarah and go to find Rose, at the Healing Temple, a nondescript cinder block edifice like a small town VFW Hall. It is a short walk. The service is already in progress. The congregation is standing and they are singing a hymn. I find my place next to Rose, I look at the page of the open book she is holding, that she is offering to share. “GOD WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU,” is the title, words by Civilla Martin, music by W. Stillman Martin, 1904. They are on the second verse.
Oh, I wonder. I wonder who is taking care of you.
It takes two of us, I realize. The thought comes like that: simple and clear in the silence. That I am not doing this on my own. I am here with Rose, I am here to listen, to speak to someone else, to be present for someone else. I am not alone. It takes two.
An interviewer and subject, a transmitter and receiver, a healer and patient; a connection established, believed in, an exchange of energy. The believing is critical, of course, and probably why studies of this sort of thing don’t work, a proper scientific investigation would uncover contamination, prejudice, a cross-over effect, the observer influencing the subject. Which is exactly the point. If you don’t believe, it won’t work.
What is art if not communication, the beholder and the work, the reader and the story teller, the musician and the listener. Why am I surprised by that? Because I don’t want to believe? No, I believe, but I want to believe I will be better off on my own. I don’t want to connect. Because I don’t want to be reminded. Leave me alone, I think. Leave me alone, let me go.
But the Healing Temple service doesn’t leave me alone or let me go. Members of the congregation are called and come to the front of the chapel to demonstrate the power of Spirit. “May I come to you?” they ask, each of them, to various members of the seated audience. Please let it not be me each time I think, not me, please.
And then it is. “A woman not your mother, to the side of your mother,” says a short one, a Ruth Gordon type shaking from side to side as if practicing a half-hearted epileptic fit for a stage production, not really having one but practicing, trying it out. “A woman, older, an aunt?” she asks me, wringing her hands, wagging her head in rhythm. “She is coming down a staircase, she’s descending, she’s – de-boarding a plane, she’s waving, she’s wearing a hat and a fur coat and she says buy new luggage, you are going on a trip, you are free now, you can travel, I see a lot of books, shelves and shelves of books.”
“Do you understand?” the medium asks, turning her attention to Rose, wringing her hands hopefully.
“I sure do,” says Rose with a tip of her head in my direction. “He’s got a lot of books.”
“Your friend understands,” says the medium to me, swaying from foot to foot.
I admit that I have a large library.
“You will be traveling soon,” says the medium.
“I’m traveling now,” I say.
“There’s more. She’s telling me there’s more. I see a suitcase. She’s holding – it’s what we used to call a train case.” The medium holds up an invisible piece of luggage. “She says, get ready. You’re free now.”
Free of what? I wonder. I’m a criminal.
How do I get free of that?