Everything is Apparent

I was walking across 14th Street toward my office and noticed a man walking a few steps in front of me carrying a well-stuffed bag, the striped kind made from recycled soda bottles that you see a lot on 14th Street.  The man's gait and pace was far from the usual hurried New Yorker style. I could just see the top of a carving protruding from his bag so I concluded that he was a peddler. I was wrong about that.  But I was intrigued by what I could see of the carving.  I caught up with him to ask about it.

"Excuse me sir, how are you?"

"I am fine, how are you?"

"I am well also, thank you.  I am wondering if you are selling anything to-day?"

"Not really, well, I am, but only to a certain person"


"Oh, in that case I am sorry to bother you." 

"Not at all, you are welcome. I am making a delivery."

"Oh I see"

"Yes, I have just returned from a trip and I am bringing some artifacts I collected along the way to one of my dealers."

"A trip to Africa?" By his accent and features I realize he is West African.

"Yes, to Africa"

"So you collected all these things in the bag."

"Yes, I will show you if you like"

So far the conversation has been conducted while we walk. Now we stop and he puts the bag down and takes out a carving. Not the one I am interested in. He unwraps it from the newspaper and holds it up for me. It's figural, well-enough carved but not impressive. I shrug and smile, take it in my hand, turn it over.

"Where is this from?"

"From Guinea"

"Guinea Bissau?"

"Guinea Conakry"

"What is it for?"

"This one is for the woman who is pregnant, to make the baby come, or if she wants to be pregnant but is having a hard time this will help."

"Well, that's not for me then, I have two boys now. That's enough."

"Oh but only two! Your wife wants to have more babies!" he says, laughing comfortably, certain of his pronouncement.

"I don't think so. She just had our second son. What's this one?" I ask, pointing to the carving that caught my eye, the top of it's head protruding from the wrapping.

"Hmmmm, this one" he says, pulling the carving from his bag and unwrapping it.

"You like this one?"

He holds it out to me. It's exceptional. Alive.

I take it from his hands and hold it. I look at it, turning it up and down and around to see every facet of it as if it were a jewel, which it is to me.

I look at him. He says again "You like this one." It's not a question this time.

"Where does this come from?"

"From the Cross River" he says.

"Cross River?"


"Oh. Yes. The Cross River. What people are there?"

"Many people."

"And what people does this come from."

"I think from Efik. Probably from them."

"Did you travel there, in the Cross River area?"

"Oh yes, I go there a lot."

"Are you from Nigeria?"

"No, from Ghana"


We are squatting on the ground, on our hunkers, as we say in Ireland. It's late morning, an early summer day, enough of a breeze that you can feel it but the heat and dust and traffic, both foot and road, are pressing.  

"What people do you come from?"

"From Ewe"

"And you? Where do you come from?"

"From Ireland"

"Oh, not from America"


"What is your name?"

"My name is Joseph"

"I am John" we reach our hands toward each other and shake. His hand is thick, meaty, relaxed.

"Who is this Joseph?"

I'm still turning the carving over. Three Humphrey Bogart references flash through my head at once, The Africa Queen, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon. My heart is thumping.

"This one is a healer."

A breath leaves my body, forced out by something that has filled my chest cavity.

I take a long pause. I don't know if I can say this. But you have to stake your claim. There are certain moments when you have to. Own it. Go ahead.

"I am a healer"

I am looking at his eyes when I say this so I see the wrinkles form around them as he smiles.


"So you know."  


I 'huh', un-commitedly waiting to hear what I should know if I am to claim any attachment to the most ancient roots of my profession.  

Joseph takes the carving from me. It is of a beautiful, strong - featured African man, sitting cross-legged, his right hand cupping, not covering, his right ear. Joseph points to this and says:

"You see the healer, he has one ear for the person and one ear for the spirit. If you go to the healer it is because you need something from the spirit. Maybe you need a medicine, maybe not. If you already have the spirit then you get the medicine, the medicine will work. But if you do not have the spirit then nothing will work and you will need something else. Then the healer will listen to the spirit and the spirit will tell the healer what must happen if he will come back in to the person. This is why the healer has one ear for the spirit and one for the person. He is between them always.  This is his place."

I'm not expecting such an eloquent description.  I know I have one chance to take in what he is saying so I listen as if my life depends on it. But I realize I'll have to live with his words for a while, let them sink in.

Joseph tells me the healer places the carving outside his hut when he is available to listen to your problems. Sometimes the healer will make the carving himself.

"Do you know if the healer carved this one?".

"I do not know."


"It's a very good carving." 

"Yes, this work takes a lot of time. You see the hair? This is difficult. You must have a lot of skill."

The hair is chip-carved, each chip between an eighth and a sixteenth of an inch. difficult with a wood as hard as this.

"Are you a carver?"


"Do you know who carved this?"

"I do not know, but a lot of skill."

There is a pause. We are both silent, appreciating the work.

"Joseph, I would like to buy this. Will you sell it to me?"

"I get it for the dealer. But I think you must have it."

I ask his price, he tells me. I give him the money, exactly as much as I have in my pocket. He wraps the carving again in the newspaper and hands it to me. I put it in my back-pack, shake his hand. We talk a little longer. He has no regular place. He comes and goes, maybe next week California. He has a friend in BerkeIey. I give him my card, thank him and walk off toward my office.  When I get there I take out the carving, unwrap it and consider where to place it. I feel a sense of elation. I think I have found a connection between something that is deep in me and something deep in the world. Then I correct myself. The depth metaphor, is an illusion.  The ocean is deep. Life is not deep, it's apparent, it's right there on Fourteenth Street, right in front of you.  It's always there. Everything. You just have to pay attention.