“At the midpoint on the journey of life, I found myself in a dark forest, for the clear path was lost…” Dante Alighieri, Inferno. Canto I.
Although I hope to live longer than 50, I unmistakably found myself in a dark forest of concrete trees and, indeed, the clear path was lost.
Such was my experience of New York city, on a sunny Sunday at the end of September. Such was the spiritual journey I embarked on, to my own surprise, during what seemed like a year, rather than the mere 12 hours my clock suggested. Thus here, alive and much more aware of the multifaceted realities that coexist in a metropolis like New York, I want to tell you about this remarkable journey through the pain and desolation of hell, the remorse and hopes of purgatory and the bliss and joy of the heavens.
As many great stories do, mine begins in the public transport system.
As I lowered myself in the burning hot, moist, dark underground system of this monstrous metropolis, I should have listened to its whispering voice, warning me of the pain and suffering I was about to witness.
“Through me you go into a city of weeping; through me you go into eternal pain; through me you go amongst the lost people” Dante Alighieri, Inferno. Canto III.
With no guide, no map, no direction nor ambition, I wandered aimlessly, letting my feet guide me through the streets, without the slightest idea of what I was about to encounter. After a brief visit to Central Park, I walked out of the grass and onto the concrete floor, to find myself facing a sinister sign, with large letters written in fresh blood:
“Ye who enter, abandon all hope.” Dante Alighieri, Inferno. Canto III.
What would you do in a situation like this? Well, obviously, put on some reggae music, sunglasses, and enter the world of the damned.
The first circle of hell was 5th avenue, a place where you can smell the death of the human race. A rancid smell, lingering in the air, of the sort that sticks to your clothes and eyelids. Hundreds of shop windows displaying furs, leather, gold, sins, ice sculptures, blood, deadly mannequins, remorse and handbags, always too small and too big. Chaotic rivers of beautiful people, walking with purpose but no plan, polyurethane eyelashes, enamel nails, heels of steel, spider legs, ruby sapphires and diamonds, under lace, over skin, and an inexplicable number of Starbucks coffee shops. An ice shaker cream lactose free fat free life free caramel vanilla frappuccino, please. A bank, a church, Giorgio Armani, a bank, hot dogs. And all I can think of, repeating in my head like a mantra, is that we are all going to die, we will die together, I will die with you, and on that day we will all be naked. Why do you have to entertain yourself with such morbid thoughts, I asked myself? A meter, maybe two, under the ground. Stop it, it’s a beautiful Sunday, stop thinking about this. How would she look naked? How would he look naked? Maybe we’ll lie naked in a cemetery next to each other one day. I’d like to be able to choose who I’ll have to lie next to for eternity. Chains, earrings, fabrics, lipsticks. I need to get out of this place, it’s not good for me. Turn right, don’t get run over by a truck, turn right and keep walking, don’t look back, just keep walking, deeper into this hell.
The second circle was 6th avenue. A thick crowd, with a life of its own, is crawling through the whole street. Thirty meters wide, at least three hundred meters long, this organism has hundreds of thousands of legs and an equal number of eyes. And it has stomachs. Many, many hungry stomachs. Contorting, twisting, pulsating, screaming. Wallets, porchetta, hands, dumplings, coins, hot dogs, napkins, pretzels, children crying, crispy duck, bags of rubbish, piles of rubbish, mountains of rubbish, colossal mythical animals made of rubbish. I can barely walk, pushed by hips, bags, shoulders and expensive photographic equipment. Skyscrapers like space rockets, watching amused, with a smirk on their face. An ice cream van, singing a lonely song, out of tune, ignored by everyone, is parked on a corner. One lady, waiting for tourists with sugar cravings, is sitting bored at the wheel, face in her hands. The music goes on and on and on and on in an excruciatingly repetitive loop. What kind of torture is that, Virgilio? What has the poor woman done to deserve this?
“These have no hope of death… mercy and justice disdain them. Let us not speak of them, but do thou look and pass on.” Dante Alighieri, Inferno. Canto III
Even Dante had no answers for me. And so I carried on walking east, hands shaking, heart beating. Musicals, Broadway, always the same ones, over and over. Or is it just me thinking that? The perfect woman, the perfect love, the perfect husband, the perfect daughter, the perfect dog. Sugar coated, deceiving death, taking our minds off our miserable lives for an hour or two. That’s a business worth millions of dollars.
But fate and luck were not with me that day. The more I longed for peace, space and sky, the deeper I fell.
And so I reached the final circle of the damned, Times square.
Spiderman, Hulk, Minnie and Batman in spandex suits, a woman in a cage, a native-american wearing only a pair of Calvin Klein briefs and a few feathers on his head, a naked attractive woman getting paid to pose with elderly men in pictures, flash click flash, plasma screens the size of nightmares, billboards, sequins, and some interesting marketing strategies going on all around me. “Be successful, be beautiful, be happy” is one I can remember.
“I’ve calculated I’m not going to have a single day off until 2014” “Yeah, well, that’s life” I overheard two men say. A woman with ketchup stains on her shirt. A complete stranger asking me if I wanted to get a drink with him because he was lonely. Direct, to the point, no time to waste in Times square.
“…new torments and new tormented souls I see around me wherever I move, and howsoever I turn, and wherever I gaze.” Dante Alighieri, Inferno. Canto VI
(to be continued – Purgatory and Heaven in the next post)