In the year 2005, I was fifty-one, and entering my first semester of grad school at Tisch School of the Arts as a composer/lyricist. I hadn’t been to any kind of a class since high school some 35 years earlier. But by the grace of God, I was accepted into this program, and quickly understood I’d have to get use to the brutal pace and hustle of NYC, or I’d go up in smoke before the first Christmas break.
Every morning I’d board the LIRR into Penn Station, walk the avenue to Herald Square, then pick up the N, R, or W to 8th Street. Once there, it was about a ten-minute walk to my class. Only I was never walking. Usually, I made the trip at a half trot, dragging my roller bag full of homework, laptop, manuscript paper, and books, desperately going over in my head what I was presenting that day. Rehearsing lyrics, remembering stuff I should have done but forgot about, questioning whether I even did the right assignment. This was still early on in my time there, and my body hadn’t yet acclimated to the high-intensity buzz of the city. It didn’t help that no matter how hard I worked, I still only barely kept up.
One of these awful mornings everything went wrong. I’d missed the first train, dropped my wallet stepping off the second, and I almost had a heart attack running for my class, already fifteen minutes late. I was sprinting past the cube at Astor Place when an old woman in a wheelchair waved her arms and yelled out in a thin, reedy voice, “Help me!”
How do you keep running when that happens? Right?
Something in me recalibrated on the fly. I’m already late anyway, what’s a few extra minutes? I approached the woman. (Jesus. No teeth. And a subtle bouquet of piss, sweat and I don’t even want to know what else.)
“Can you push me over there?” she asked, motioning toward the Chase Bank door.
“Sure!” I said, relieved it was so simple. It’s only about a half a block away. I turned her wheelchair toward the door, then took off as briskly as I dared, just short of an all-out run.
“Slower!” she yelled. Oops. Okay. That’s fair. I slowed down a bit.
“Slower. Not so fast!” Really? I slowed down even more. But every time I started up again, going slower than the last time, she wanted me to go slower still — so slow that, conceptually, we might never actually arrive at the destination.
As the tension reached a breaking point, I broke through to the lesson. This was a classic downtown New York City Godwink. A stinky angel, not completely right in the head and wheelchair bound, was redirecting my bomb run. She helped me remember kindness, human interaction, and most of all, how to both literally and figuratively just slow my ass down.