Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Washington's Margery Kempe

From yesterday's Washington Post, a well composed little essay by Michael E. Ruane about a homeless woman who walks the sidewalks and subway tunnels of Friendship Heights (very close to where I live). Because she dressses in white and often sings gospel-like music in a loud voice, I have always thought of her as a modern Margery Kempe. When she is in full throat, her often wordless songs of praise echo through the subterranean chambers of the Metro as Kempe's sonic volleys once blasted through cathedrals. The article doesn't mention it, but the "Lady in White" is African American, so the thick shoe polish on her face is not as historically loaded as it would be were she pale skinned. The polish is all the same quite striking, especially because she frames her head with a white hood.

The woman is very sweet. She has been a regular in Friendship Heights for at least twelve years. Last Saturday she was standing in front of the Borders bookstore when I passed with Kid #1. She told us she was cutting trans-fats out of her diet and wished us a blessed day.

Perhaps you've seen her. She's a plump middle-aged woman who wears what appears to be shoe polish on her face and who garbs herself from head to foot in white clothing tinged with the ash-colored grime of life on the street.

When I got on, she was standing in the doorway of the Metro car with her stuff piled on a shopping cart that was also shrouded in white. She was wearing white sneakers, white pants rolled up at the cuffs and a dirty white winter coat.

I see her now and then. She's kind of a ghostly figure. She'll turn up at a Metro station or in the shadows on L Street. If you give her money, she says, "God bless you."

This was the first I'd seen her on the train.

She was surrounded by startled-looking commuters. There were no seats, so I moved to the center of the car as instructed. I could hear her talking amiably to nobody in particular. I looked around to see if people seemed alarmed. "Don't worry," I thought I might say, "it's only the Lady in White."

Then I heard her harmonica. It was faint at first, but its strains gradually drifted through our end of the car. I remembered seeing her play the harmonica on the street, but rushing past, you don't catch more than a fragment of the music.

Here she was, playing for us on the Metro on a middling Thursday morning in December.

The harmonica may be the sweetest musical instrument ever invented. It can make the saddest, and happiest, of sounds. It has the rhythms of breathing, and if you stick one out the window of a moving car, it'll play a long, beautiful chord all by itself.

That morning on the Red Line I listened closely for the melody.

There was none. Up and down the notes went, wandering, searching for a tune. Once in a while, the Lady would stop and talk a little about how she wished she played better. She said something about growing up in New Jersey and something about the "holy church." At one stop, she welcomed aboard new riders squeezing by, then wished everybody a Merry Christmas.

Stations passed. Van Ness. Woodley. Dupont. People read or stared. The Lady in White played on. The music was aimless and peaceful. After one break, someone applauded. The Lady acknowledged the admirer.

At Farragut North, many of us got off. She did, too. As she stood on the platform off to one side, several people came up to tell her how nice her playing had been and to give her a buck or two. She smiled and looked sheepish, like a kid after the school recital, and she repeated that she really wished she played a little better.


JKW said...

The Upper West Side has its own combination of town crier and walking evangelist. A tall, very dapper African-American gentelman wanders the streets of the uppermost part of the Upper West Side, shouting, "Glory, glory, God, God, God!" and "I love you, I love you, I love you!" whilst holding aloft a Bible in his right hand. When I am at home in my apartment I can hear him, from time to time, shouting from a few blocks away. Usually I wish that these sorts of people (such as Brother Steve, who used to scream about hellfire and brimstone in front of the Marvin Center) would shut up and go away, but our own neighbourhood crier I don't mind and even find comforting.

I'd also like to know where he lives and how much he pays. Rent control is great in theory, but it also keeps Manhattan full of crazies.

Eileen Joy said...

Wow--you usually don't see writing this lyrical in the Washington Post. A wonderful story--no reason to make anyone sad. I was a member of a Catholic church a while back that had a member suffering from schrizophenia who, when the mood hit him, would cry out loudly [a kind of moaning, really] during certain moments in the service. You can imagine how this disconcerted a lot of congregants who thought he should either be barred or made to sit in the glassed-in room at the back of the church where parents took screaming babies. No one really "gets" church, do they? But he did. Bar him, or "enclose" him, indeed. Which raises the really important question for me viz. JJC's mention of Margery Kempe: do we ever really learn anything in church?