I was stood up. Dressed up with no one to look pretty for I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge toward vegan ice cream on Ave. A. I admired the new Frank Gehry building, with its undulations and subtle ripples and decided that he really is a wonderful architect as I walked up Centre St., past Federal Plaza and the ugly monument that looks like a giant, cubist hand flipping everyone the bird (un-ironically called "Triumph of the Human Spirit".) I passed through the quiet, dark but heavily surveilled streets around the metropolitan jail and up to Canal St.
At close to 9pm the shops were closing but a few places still glittered with glass gems and florescent lights. I looked at rings and wandered through the hot night and, crossing Canal, headed north on Baxter. I passed a shop with a mishmash of junk so dense it was difficult to tell one item from the next- scarves printed with the words "I love New York" melted into yellowed cell phone cases, brass watches shared accumulated soot with scrunchies. I always assume these places are fronts for ma-jong parlors and typically they are manned by young Chinese kids. But this place had two young men who were decidedly not Chinese keeping an eye on the immobile wares. One was small and wiry with a lush black mustache, huge eyes, chocolatey skin and a slender neck. The other looked more north African: a flat button nose, broad cheeks, cinnamon skin, full mouth, a sprinkle of red freckles across his face. He wore a topi (the small white Muslim prayer cap) and was using a black marker to write something in Arabic on his forearm.
It is customary in New York to leave people alone. Is someone sobbing on the train? Leave him alone. Is that girl using a small hatchet to cut down a tree? Leave her alone. Is that elderly man asleep or dead on that bench? He's asleep... but there's dried vomit on his chest? Leave him alone. But this act, of a young Muslim man writing something that is surely religious on his forearm in a city acutely (and, in my opinion, foolishly) sensitive to such behavior and on a street which is conceivably the most American of all streets with it's density of capitalism and waste, seemed terribly ...daring. I couldn't leave this person alone.
I stopped and watched him for a moment, letting my presence be known. He looked up at me eventually and then immediately away. He was young, maybe 19. His marker moved with competence up his arm.
"Hi," I said. "Can I ask: what does that mean?"
"This?" He asked, pointing to his unfinished calligraphy. "It means 'start the thing Bismillah.'" He spoke abruptly but with a smile and he looked at me, but only for a moment.
"I don't understand," I said smiling. "What is 'bismillah' exactly?" The wiry man, with his arms crossed behind his back came over to us, interested in my interest.
"It means 'start from God.'" He said pointing at the entire phrase.
"Start what from God?" I asked.
"Everything," said the writer. "Everything start from bismillah. Bismillah is all things in Allah. All things from God."
"Everything start from Allah, everything start from god!" chimed in the wiry man, excited now.
"You mean, Allah created everything?" I asked.
"Yes! Allah creates everything! but...." the wiry man looked at me imploringly: I was clearly not understanding something important. "Everything! When you eat meal, when you go to bathroom, when you wake up at the morning! Everything start from god!"
"Ah!" I said. "You mean *begin* everything with god?"
"Yes!!" they both cried. "Begin all things with Allah!" They beamed at me broadly and I smiled back. I am dense sometimes.
The writer swiped some flourishes across his arm. I asked if I could take his picture. He was a good looking kid, and I would have liked to take a full picture of him, but he hid his face, the defiance gone out of him. I was embarrassed to see his fear.
"There's no need to cover your face. I'll only take a picture of your arm. Please don't cover your face like that." I said. The wiry man was smiling at the kid indulgently as if he thought he was being a bit dramatic, but I couldn't help noticing that he was being careful to keep his face out of the frame too.
"Thank you," I said when I finished taking my picture. "Your arm looks very beautiful."
"You like it?" the kid asked pleased and somewhat abashed.
"The script is very beautiful, and I like that you wrote it," I replied.
"Yes." He smiled.
"Goodnight!" I said.
They waved at me and I walked on: past a church and another jail- this one converted into super luxury condominiums (again, without a trace of irony), up through Soho, detouring through Little Italy to see about a guy who owes me money (a shady business that made me feel New York shrink back into itself a little), on to the East Village and over to Lula's. I got my vegan ice cream, and chatted about Texas swing and the new album from Grimes with the fellow behind the counter who has seen me try just about every flavor they have.
Bismillah, even when you go to the bathroom? Amid fat mid-westerners haggling over the price of a Hello Kitty wallet and pimply Chinese boys texting furiously as their mothers hustle and frown, bismillah? That's a pretty beautiful thought. I don't believe in anything: where many people would say they are "spiritual", but not "religious", I don't even say that. But there are things about religions that give me the slightest twinge, the barest hint, that I might be missing out on some seriously poetic ideas. The most base thing that we do, excreting waste that smells bad and looks ugly, even this begins with god and as such, is an act of god? I don't imagine that it was an accident that "going to the bathroom" was the wiry man's second example to me. It's a powerful notion. One worth inscribing on the body.