|The Artist Known As Thoth. Photo by Jennifer Leigh Sauer.|
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
These days, whenever a social conversation lags, usually in the lacuna between entrée and dessert, someone asks “What shows are you binging on?” This is the dessert topic, and thank god for it; otherwise people would lapse into embarrassed silence. In a recent era, the question was, “Did you see [insert movie title]?”; and once upon an ancient time they asked “Have you read [insert book title]?” Folks turn gratefully to the topics of art and entertainment, even if they disagree; they compare and argue but remain friends; the same cannot be said for mine-filled subjects like politics or religion; and money is just plain ill-mannered. Art performs the invaluable service of keeping people talking. Artists don’t merely communicate, they fertilize communication.
All the same, I view my profession as wankery. Mind you, I’ve never doubted that I was put on the planet to write. It felt like a perfect fit the moment I settled into that chair, the heart-shaped dent waiting for my ass, as if the cushion had been broken in by centuries of self-absorbed scribes before me. Nevertheless, over the years I felt I was enjoying myself too much, sitting alone and spinning stories and not contributing a jot toward world peace and understanding.
“Use me,” I urged the universe. Show me a good thing to do, that will help. I waited for a sign. Meanwhile I wrote and directed a movie that I hoped would empower young women. It went straight to video. I took a few assignments I thought would make a difference, including a biopic about Alfred Nobel and the genesis of his Peace Prize. The films didn’t get made; the universe, indecipherable as ever, withdrew its backing. So much for lofty intentions. I stopped waiting for a sign.
In 2000 I took on a project that had no redeeming value, yet would give good dessert topic. I pitched, sold, and wrote the script. It was fiction, based on the true experiences of a living individual, a madman who downloaded all his fury and psychosis on me, day after day, as I sat and took notes. At times I thought I was going crazy by osmosis, but I hung in there because it was too great a story. The studio agreed, and officially greenlit the picture. However, when they attempted to renew their rights agreement with the maniac, he refused. He’d read the script, and flew into a rage (his normal state). To placate him, I was fired off my own project. The green light went red, and remained red despite the efforts of many more writers. For the umpteenth time, my father said, “You should get out of that shitty business.” Now, this was odd advice, coming from a guy who taught entertainment law, and whose former students included several studio heads. But he had a point, namely “What’s the point?”
In the end, the only point was the luchre. Stuffing the fat script fee in my bank account, I felt both demoralized and relieved. Now I was free of that madman’s negative force field, and free to figure out how I’d lost my way as a writer. What did the universe want? I renewed the request: “Use me.”
On a Sunday autumn afternoon, when I was hurrying home from a quick walk in Central Park, I heard a distant strain of music on the air that intrigued me: a violin droning on open strings, serene and meditative, joined by a soaring soprano voice. There was no time to track down the source, but I paused anyway, turning my head to listen. Though unamplified, the violin-soprano duet cut through the chattering and noise of the park throngs, as if close to my ear.
It was then I sensed a pressure like a hand between my shoulder blades, urging me to move toward the music, and, as I complied, I felt somewhat weightless, a sensation of being conveyed without effort. The music drew me down a flight of stairs and into a tunnel, the Bethesda Arcade, which passes under the 72nd Street transverse. There I found the soprano: a small tawny man of uncertain ethnicity, with waist-length dreadlocks, gold loincloth, chains across his bare chest, body covered in twinkling gold glitter, eyes lined black like a sphinx, a red plume stuck in the back of his hair. Singing in a high countertenor register, he accompanied himself on the violin, kneeling as if in prayer before a gathering crowd of tourists.
Abruptly the man leapt to his feet and launched into a violent tarantella; his voice now a thundering baritone, he beat out the rhythm on a manhole cover with his sandals, the bells and shells tied to his ankles rattling for emphasis. And then he was dancing, twirling like a dervish – while playing and singing simultaneously. He had been soothing before; now he was fierce; the crowd recoiled a little. The music was both primitive and sophisticated, seeming to come from all cultures and none. The words gave no clue what language he was singing in; I couldn’t place his accent.
The dervish dropped to his knees, returning to the long droned notes of the prayer, his voice low and quiet. As he ended, the audience applauded. A few people dropped crumpled bills and loose change into his violin case, which was propped open for contributions. Some paused to pick up one of the yellow brochures beside the case before moving on. He nodded silently as they passed, but no one dared talk to him, so he busied himself biting off some horse hairs that hung loose from his bow; he’d sawed the strings so hard during the dance that the strands broke. He appeared resigned to having frightened people. They had witnessed a kind of controlled madness. Even if controlled, it was madness all the same.
Yet, madness wedded to extreme talent is spellbinding. And if this phenomenon was a busker, then he was the most extraordinary I’d ever seen.
I grabbed a brochure and rushed home. I tried to recreate what I’d seen to my husband but gave up in frustration. It was like trying to describe last night’s dream; the experience was yours alone, in a private reality, and fast fading in the daylight as you turned to your morning chores.
I glanced through the brochure before tossing it on my cluttered desk. The man called himself Thoth; he termed his act “solopera.” He didn’t perform, he “prayformed,” Tuesdays through Sundays in the Arcade. He was available for weddings and bar mitzvahs. He had a website. I had to make dinner.
In the weeks that followed, the yellow brochure disappeared under piles of books and papers while I prepared for another studio assignment. When the time came to clear my desk, I discovered the brochure I’d forgotten. On the verge of throwing it out, I remembered the ghostly hand at my back, and the peculiar energy that suffused me when I watched Thoth prayform. I took a moment to check out his website, in case it would answer some of my lingering questions: Where was he from? Foreign, of course, but what nationality? What culture’s indigenous songs was he singing?
The website was elegantly designed. The homepage invited visitors to click on a portal to enter the realm of Thoth. I went straight to his bio, where I found some surprises. He was born in the mid-50’s and raised in Queens, a biracial child back when mixed marriages were a lightning rod for hatred, even illegal in some states. His mother, Barbados-born, was a tympanist and the first black person to become a principal player in a major symphony orchestra. (This accounted for his classical training and foot percussion.) His father was a white Jewish doctor and civil rights activist. Their son eventually became a street musician in San Francisco, then moved to New York after changing his name to Thoth, after the ancient Egyptian messenger-god.
The bio offered no explanation of what had transpired to cause a child of relative privilege, now a man in his forties, to embrace life as a nearly-naked busker – for what gain?
His site did offer CDs for sale, of his self-composed three-act solo opera, “The Herma.” So the music was his own. What about the accent? The language? I read on.
He had based his opera on the legends of a place called Festad. I’d never heard of it. Then it became clear that the land, its map, its tribes, its myths, its melodies, its customs and costumes and mother tongue, were all invented. Thoth had created an entire world from top to bottom, in such confident detail that, at first encounter, one would not suspect that the unknown words, the unplaceable accent, the weird clothes and alluring songs were from no country but his own mind.
In a short statement Thoth claimed that, for him, “prayforming” was an essential spiritual practise that helped him to “be.” By helping himself, he hoped to help the universe.
Then I knew what I was meant to do. I was going to help him. The universe had a job for me at last.
But first, caution dictated that I must find out: was he a madman? I could not afford another one of those.
(To be continued.)