Walking up E 52nd Street, I have a pair of buy-one-get-one-half off shoes in my bag that are red patent leather and mostly impractical. I bought this bag on a street corner. It’s a knock off with one strap that’s shorter than the other and the tag fell off yesterday, leaving an ugly glue spot. The spot is already starting to collect dirt, grime and stray hairs, but I don’t care; I still carry it. Next to the red shoes is a biography of Gandhi; I have read the first chapter only, six times. In the bag is also a tattered paperback of “The Poisonwood Bible”. I feel stiff from sleeping on a rollaway couch bed, but the loose falsetto and ukulele of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole are pouring across my ear buds.
I have never been to Maui, but I love the ukulele.
I pass under a scaffold littered with wild postings into a poorly ventilated urban tunnel. It goes dark for a moment and the smell of stale water wafts and quickly disappears. I re-enter the light and would you look at that? H&M has sensible fall basics on sale – two V-neck tees for 10 dollars each. I whisper to myself, “Get ‘em while they are hot.” Or cool, really.
I barely catch the Midtown 49/50 crosstown at E 50th Street and 2nd Avenue. As we pull away, I find a seat along the left side of the bus facing the bus shelter. I look out the window and see Nicolas Cage. Actually a picture of Nicolas Cage; looks like he is in a new summer movie called “Gone in Sixty Seconds”. I loved him in “Valley Girl”. Especially when he spots Julie for the first time while “Eyes of a Stranger” plays in the background. Oh, and then there is that beach scene.
As I settle into my seat, I decide that someday I will go to Maui because the sound of the ukulele is like honey on a stick and it makes me smile. I won’t get comfortable since I am only going one stop; I suppose I could have just walked.
Then I notice a woman sitting on the other side of the bus, just behind the door. I don’t remember seeing her when I boarded. She is Latina, probably Puerto Rican, with brown hair blunt-cut to the shoulders with recent highlights. As she adjusts her bag and fidgets, I notice she is wearing a long sweater in the middle of summer. I can see the stockings she wears underneath – black net and stretched like they are too small for her thick legs. Her black stiletto booties are neither designer nor made for walking. In sharp contrast, I see a box of broken crayons and wet naps inside her bag – perhaps a young mother doing what she has to do to get by. She is wearing day-old mascara and stares straight ahead with an empty expression. Appearing short on years and long on heartache, she gives me a feeling of profound loneliness.
I wonder where she is going, but mostly I wonder how she got here.
Damn, I love the ukulele.
Another woman is sitting right next to me now; I also don’t remember her being there before. She turns, looks straight at me and smiles. I smile back.
I pull out my ear buds and without thinking I ask, “What’s your name?”
“Shadi,” she replies.
“Is that Per…?”
She seems to read my mind, “It is Persian for ‘joy’.”
I tell her mine and turn to face her more directly.
“Do you know where you are headed?” she asks.
At first I am caught off guard by her directness, but feel completely at ease. “Right now I am getting off at the next stop,” I replied. But that really wasn’t what she was asking. She is young with short, smooth black hair pulled back from her face with a thin, silk headband. Her eyes are like smooth caramel and when I look at her, I sense a warm wisdom.
“Why do you ask?” I say.
She smiles and replies, “Because I have spent most of my life in the Valley of Knowledge and I think perhaps I have something to offer you and you to me.”
“What is the Valley of Knowledge?” I ask.
She explains that it is the third of the Seven Valleys, after the Valley of Search and the Valley of Love. She goes on to explain all the Valleys of the Baha’i and I listen intently to this unexpected spiritual explanation.
“Perhaps I inhabit the Valley of Search and have been there for quite sometime. Actually, as long as I can remember.”
“I know,” she says.
I look over at the woman sitting at the front of the bus and wonder which Valley she inhabits.
I turn back to the woman beside me, “Have you ever been to Maui?”
“No,” and she explains that since leaving Iran, her time has been dedicated to study and that she has never been to an island.
“Do you like the sound of the ukulele?” I ask.
She replies that she doesn’t know the sound, so I hit play and motion for her to listen to my ear buds.
She says, “I can already hear it. It is magical.” In that moment, the sounds of Maui begin to fill the bus. I open my bag, take out the red patent leather shoes, put them on my feet and toss aside my practical walking shoes.
At once we stand and begin to dance through the aisle of the bus. We dance together, but mostly with ourselves in our own unique ways. I begin to imagine us in Maui as we each move our arms about slowly and glide along the floor – turning and swaying from the front of the bus to the back. We invite the woman sitting in the front to join us. At first she resists, then relents with our gentle coaxing. She dances nervously at first, but soon begins to sway with confidence – her thick legs moving smoothly and gracefully through the bus. She slowly begins to smile. The sound of the ukulele gets louder and the tempo speeds up. Faster and faster, we all move our shoulders up and down in sync; up the aisle, down the aisle. Now the ukulele is joined by a disco beat – somewhat like Maui meets Donna Summer and it is 1980. We dance faster and faster, our arms outstretched.
The bus and the music stop suddenly; this is where I get off. 1st Avenue.
I look down at the red shoes and when I look up, both women are gone and I am standing alone with my arms outstretched. The subtle taste of coconut upon my lips.
I get off the bus and stand on the corner at E 50th Street, pausing for a moment to set my mind to the sound of the ukulele.
Then start walking with my red shoes on.