There are certain aspects of life in the city that New Yorkers seems to tacitly agree about. Taxi drivers are out to destroy you in one way or another. You never walk through Times Square if you can avoid it. And you never make eye contact with the guy in Union Square who holds a sign offering “free hugs.”
I’ve always wondered why we universally avoid that guy, but thousands of New Yorkers will line up to hug Amma – often known as “the hugging saint” – when she visits the city. She came to town this weekend. They had to use the Javits Center – a massive airplane hanger of a place – to host her. She’s considered by many people of the Hindu Faith to be a living saint. Alice Walker, who seems like a pretty sane person claims that “Amma presents the kind of leadership we need for our planet to survive. This is the most heroic person I’ve probably ever met. Because she is sitting there hugging people.”
She hugs people for hours. She hugs anyone who needs a hug.
But so would the other guy, and we just think he spreads bedbugs.
The articles about Amma always talk about how when people are hugged by Amma they experience a feeling of free flowing love. That may be, but I also read those articles and think, “Well, what else are you going to say as a reporter? Are you going to be the kind of jerk reporter who says, ‘I got hugged by a saint. It was okay?” No. No, you’re not, because this is probably some kind of Emperor’s New Clothes situation in which you’re going to seem unobservant or soul-dead if you don’t lie.
I went anyway.
First, because I had a friend in town who was going. She’s generally an intelligent person with good ideas, rather like Alice Walker. Second, because I figured that hugging Amma was one of those New York things I would eventually end up doing, just as I imagine one day I will go see The Empire State Building or Fuerza Bruta. I feel no enthusiasm about either of these things, I just imagine they will happen to me, somehow.
And mostly, and most embarrassingly for me to admit, because I’d been feeling rather lonely and disconnected from people around me. I wanted to feel a connection to someone. Most of the reports talked about people crying freely in Amma’s arms. I have a strange time crying. I’ve always thought it might be good for me to be held by someone and cry for an hour or two, though, unlike The Empire State Building or Fuerza Bruta, I do not see that as an inevitability. I suppose I hoped that receiving a hug from Amma might dispel my loneliness. I wanted that. Moreover, I wanted it dispelled instantly, like one of those gray days in February, where the clouds suddenly part, and everything is so immediately illuminated.
Basically, I wanted to be made happy, and filled with love, and connected to my fellow human beings immediately, as if by magic, with no negative consequences and entirely for free.
So, normal reasons.
I also figured it would take, what, two hours? Three? Tops.
I got in line around six in the evening. It was the longest line I had ever seen. If I saw a line like that in an airport, I would not merely change my reservation to travel by train. I would buy a train, so I would never need to go to an airport and risking standing in such a line again. I would become a robber baron and buy several trains. I would build a new empire.
For those of you who love train travel, it is really a shame that I have never encountered such a line at an airport.
That was just a line to get a token, so you could get into the center, where you would wait in line again to hug Amma.
There was a man selling quinoa sandwiches to the people in that line. I asked at what point I might receive my hug. He told me that he imagined it would be around 2:00 in the morning. 2:00 in the morning. He politely said that he would pray I got in earlier. I did not say, “Fuck you and your made-up insubstantial sandwiches”, because, clouds parting. Connectedness. Free flowing love.
But, honestly. Quinoa.
Ultimately I did get a token with a number on it, which indicated when I would get up to go see Amma. Rather as though I were in a deli, but a spiritual deli.
I did marvel at how well it was organized. The Javits center always makes me vaguely uncomfortable, because I imagine if a plague ever hits New York, that’s where they will hold us in quarantine. Still. It was about as joyful as such a place – with its massive fluorescent lights and freakish high ceilings can be. Amma was on a small stage in front embracing people, at the front of the room. There were fold out chairs facing the stage. There was an area for meditation. There were regular lines to go up and see Amma (grouped by your token). There were little tiny booths selling dolls that looked like Amma that you are supposed to hug when Amma is not around to hug. Rolling Stone rather ruthlessly described them as inspired by Cabbage Patch dolls.
They did not look like cabbage patch dolls. Cabbage patch dolls don’t look so scary.
Still, it was exceptionally well organized. I found myself wondering who did the PR for the event.
They also had a dining area with all manner of booths selling vegan treats at the dining area. “That is really, really enterprising of them,” I pointed out to my friend, “they’ve figured out exactly where people who would buy vegan food would congregate.” I was very excited about this, because while I am unsure about living saints, I do believe in capitalism.
“Those are volunteers,” my friend explained, “the proceeds go to feed orphans in Africa.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” said my friend, “I’m sure one of the cashiers is ruthlessly pocketing some of the money.”
Lest I sound completely callous, it does go to excellent causes. Proceeds from Amma’s work has built a hospital in India that has treated almost a million people for free, as well as benefiting AIDS victims, and victims of other disasters like Katrina.
I bought a hot chocolate.
We still went out for Ethiopian food. Queen of Sheba. 46th and 10th. It was excellent. There was meat.
We returned around ten, and we waited. We waited for a very long time. Finally, it came time to get into the single file line of people about to go onstage. They make you take off your shoes before going up to meet Amma.
There were a lot of Crocs in that shoe pile.
And then, just as I was about to go onstage, the music, which has been, I believe, Sanskrit chants for the entire evening, switched over to English. Now, I think there are songs in English that could have worked for such an event. If the Theme Song from Mary Tyler Moore had come on, I’d figure, “yeah, sure, that makes sense.” Or, really, hundreds of songs. But the song that they sang was “Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About.”
Why they chose to go with a song about a woman attempting to initiate an affair mostly at the behest of small town gossips eludes me. “Maybe this is a spiritual thing,” I thought, “maybe my soul cried out for this song. I think this is a song from a Julia Roberts movie that I did not like. Maybe I secretly love this song.”
I am pretty sure I do not secretly love that song.
Then I knelt, and one of her attendants asked what language I spoke. I presumed it was so Amma could whisper something into my ear in my native tongue. I told them English. Amma took me in her arms and she whispered something that was definitely not in English. I thought it would be impolite to pause the proceedings and ask for a translation.
She smelt excellent, though.
I hoped I would cry, but I didn’t.
All the same, I did feel a bit shaken afterwards. However, I think if you knelt and hugged a stranger onstage in the middle of the night while “Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About” blared on a loudspeaker in front of hundreds of people, so would you. I was glad I’d gone. It was certainly interesting, and who am I to turn down a free hug and Hershey’s kiss? I’m not a monster. The Union Square guy could probably change his whole game around if he kept a bag of chocolates with him.
We’d still think he was covered in bedbugs.
Suffice to say, though, it was okay.
I thought that perhaps if I had been Hindu I might have felt more strongly. In much the same way, I imagine someone who was Hindu kissing the Pope’s ring would probably think, “Well, that was an interesting ceremony and that elderly man seemed very pleasant.”
I’m not Catholic, either, so maybe what I should get out of that is that Episcopalians have Jack diddly when it comes to living saints.
After I finished, I realized that I would go home and tell people about this. Since I had invested a good eight hours on it, I would have to do so in a way that made it sound like a worthy investment. I would have to tell about it in such a way where I would make it sound as though I was less cynical than I was. I would have to act as though I was enlightened. And moreover, that I felt connected to my fellow man.
It was 2:00 in the morning, so mostly I just felt sleepy.
I went out into the night. It smelt like garbage, because New York in July is perfumed with garbage. I stood on the corner, and waited behind some elderly woman with a cane who had come out of the center, presumably after getting her hug. She looked calm. She looked enlightened. She was wearing sandals. I felt disheartened. A cab with its “available” light on pulled up to the curb, and the woman stepped forward to get in, and the cab kept on driving. “Son of a bitch!” she exclaimed and reached out to see if she could hit it with her cane.
She couldn’t, but she came admirably close.
We turned to one another and both shrugged our shoulders as if to say, “Taxi cabs are just life ruiners. What can you do?”
I felt free flowing love towards that woman.
And then I remembered the time during Hurricane Sandy I got in a taxi – the bill was massive, the roads were awful – and when I reached to pay it, the cab driver shook his head and he said “Nah, we’re New Yorkers. We help each other.”
And I felt free flowing love towards him, too.
No clouds parted or anything. Or if they did, I couldn’t tell. It was the middle of the night. Emotional states do not work that way. There are no magic spells. I just got in a cab, but you know? I sobbed like a baby all the way home.
Picture via Amma.org