Fifth Day of Christmas - December 30

During these Twelve Days, I look back on the old year and ask myself, “What has changed?  In which direction has my pilgrim’s path shifted? And what new road will I be taking with the New Year?” 

This was the year when my live storytelling performances came to an end. And so I have indeed become the “Silent Storyteller”, no longer telling stories in churches, at festivals, nor on travel tours. But I have discovered a turn in the road that has led me to a different kind of story.  Drawing on my memories of the cities I have lived in and loved (Manhattan, San Francisco, and Cambridge, England) I now weave personal memories with folklore, history and literary traditions into written tales.  Not to tell, but to write.

Let me start with Manhattan.

Every Christmas my mother would walk with me to Herald Square to view the window displays at Macy’s and Gimbel’s.  Before there were television and video images of Christmas displays, there was the crowding together in front of the department store windows to soak in the fantasy of one window, followed by another, and still another.  We were are crowd of pilgrims…

At night, my parents and my little brother Steve would go to Rockefeller Center to marvel at the Christmas trees, the lights, and the ice-skaters.

And during the day, if we walked along the neighborhood street near our home on 78th Street and Second Avenue, there would be the roasted chestnuts in brown paper bags -- to warm our cold hands before we peeled them and plopped them hot into our mouths.

Now, I take these memories and mix them with myths, legends, and folktales.  In this past year I wrote my first story of Manhattan mixing in characters like my Jewish friends, my Hungarian neighbors, Revolutionary War patriots, Wall Street financiers, and even a Catholic saint. The tales itself follows a pilgrim’s path from Greenwich Village down "The Broadway" to The Battery where the first Dutch settlers founded a little village named Nieuw Amsterdam. 

In the coming new year I will also bring my Master Classes to and end, as I have already done with my online tutorials.  

A time for centering & praying. 

A time for writing short stories

A time for imaging & dreaming. 

A time for painting sacred icons.  

A time for an inward pilgrimage.

Here is the soundfile of the written text below: 

Sam Rabinowitz had lived with his parents above the Palisades in North Jersey far too long.  There he was, almost 28 years old, sleeping in the same upstairs bedroom since he turned 9.   And that is why Sam decided to rent an apartment near his new job — his first job, really — in the East Village, right in the heart of Manhattan.

Determined to establish his independence, Sam walked the four miles each way between work on Wall Street and his new home just a block away from Washington Square. He could have taken a cab. That was what his father suggested, at least when the weather turned bad.  Or, he could take the bus.  His mother said that it would acquaint himself with ordinary people who lived far away from their estate on the Palisades  But, no, Sam said he would walk Broadway, Monday through Friday, rain or shine.

And so Samuel Rabinowitz, Junior, slim and trim, briskly walked the eight miles each workday.  He even walked at lunch hour:  Just a quick jaunt down to the Fraunces Tavern where he had a bite to eat while reading his second book on the life of George Washington. The ancient building now housed an ordinary bar with beer on tap and some thin sandwiches on the menu. He always asked that his order be brought quickly, and then slipped into a dark wooden booth hidden in the shadows. Here, Sam felt he was in a mythical time, a sacred space, along with the young Revolutionary officers who wept in the Fraunces Tavern as General Washington hugged each of them and bade each young man a farewell.

His mother told friends how her Sammy was working in the world of high finance near the Stock Exchange, but never mentioned the exact location.  His father proudly spoke of how Junior was following in his own footsteps in the world of banking.  Sam himself quietly worked in an old bank building that was now the Museum of American Finance.  

Sam had been hired as a researcher, and even given his own private office:  a bank vault whose heavy door always remained open.  But Sam had the key to the iron bar gate that opened and closed, locked and unlocked, at the twist of his wrist. 

Walking down Broadway towards work on a rainy Friday morning, Sam saw a notice in the doorway of an old brownstone building.  It caught his eye, and he folded his umbrella as he stepped into the dry space leading to the doorway entrance.  The notice read:

Freedom & Liberty Today!

Learn the Proper Place of Money in Your Life

a talk by financier Imre Kovacs

Saturday, September 11, 2010

1:00 pm to 2:00 pm

Free Admission

Sam spoke in a whisper “Freedom… Liberty?  Aren’t they the same? Hmmm…” He was already planning to be at the Twin Towers memorial for services at 9:00 am.  He would have plenty of time to come back to Broadway for the talk.

Saturday morning, September 11, was bright and sunny, as beautiful an autumn day as it had been nine years earlier.  After the ceremonies, Sam walked along Liberty Street and then turned right onto Broadway.  A few blocks down Broadway he stopped for a sandwich and a coffee thinking about the ceremony. He checked his watch every few minutes to see if it was time to discover the difference between Freedom and Liberty.

He arrived within a New York minute of the unlocking of the door for the talk.  Three people were waiting before Sam, and in another five minutes they were joined by a few others.  Sam sat in a folding chair, with empty seats on either side of him. He looked around, turning slowly and counting faces.  

“The Biblical Twelve” Sam half-smiled. They seemed to him faces of ordinary people, like the people on public buses that his mother spoke about.  Sammy wondered if his face was any different. Or was he also an ordinary person?

A short middle-aged man with a very round face and a bald head stepped into the room.  As he smiled the tips of his long mustache seemed to turn upwards. Sam thought the double-breasted silk suit had an Italian cut to it.  And the shoes with fancy leatherwork were definitely Italian. But the name?  Sam thought, “Must be some kind of Czech or Pole or maybe a Russian.”

A dark-haired young woman, in a very simple dress, followed Mr. Kovacs carrying a stack of literature.  She passed each packet out to everyone, reaching Sam last. He smiled at her, taking the packet, but she did not acknowledge him.

Kovacs did not sit, but began speaking as he moved back and forth, as if on stage, in front of the room. His voice was strong, but his accent was soft.

“I wish you a good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  Today is a sad day, as you know.  But I have not come to speak of sorrow or despair,  Instead, I come to tell you about Hope, about Freedom, about Liberty…”

Sam’s eyes shot from the printed page in his hands, up towards the speaker.  Kovacs was looking straight at Sam.  Embarrassed, Sam smiled again.  Kovacs nodded slightly in recognition, and continued to speak.

“…I did not come here to promise you will be rich.  I did not come to take your money.  I have plenty of my own, and don’t need yours.” And with that he ran his hands down from his coat’s flared lapels, and down the double row of buttons across his silk suit.  Then Kovacs extended his arms wide and held them outstretched for a moment.

“…I came here to tell you how to regard money, and the materials in your hands give you twelve principles that will shape a healthy attitude towards money… whether you have money or not.  Read the literature carefully.  Memorize each of the twelve principles.  Apply them to your daily life.  Then you will have Freedom.  Freedom to use the money you have wisely.  And you will then be free from money.  That is what Freedom is about…”

Sam was both excited and skeptical.  He expected a more subtle sales pitch from Kovacs.  But the little man was so blunt and direct.  Sam was confused.  But most of all, he was caught by Kovacs’ quick reference to Freedom.  If that is what Freedom was, then what about Liberty?  Was it just another word for Freedom, or was it something else?

Imre Kovacs ran his fingers down his red silken necktie, he fingered a button on his coat, and then he extended both hands outward and spoke some more:

“…Once you have Freedom FROM… you will have Liberty TO…”  Kovacs pursed the fingers of his left hand as if he were holding a baton.  Like a orchestral conductor, he moved his hand across from right to left as he repeated on his right “FROM…” all the way to his left “TO…”  He held the imaginary baton still for a moment and Sam could feel himself hold his breath.  Then Kovacs moved his hand across the stage in the opposite direction.  He emphasized “FREEDOM…FROM…” moved his raised hand slowly and finished his gesture for his orchestra with “LIBERTY…TO…”

Sam half expected the Maestro to bow down to his audience.  No, not his audience, but his orchestra.  Kovacs was cleverly playing them in some kind of a scam. Sam wanted to rise and leave the room, but wanted more to know what Kovacs would say about Liberty.

Imre Kovacs continued, “Once you have Freedom, what will you have the Liberty to do?  I can tell you a story, I can explain what Liberty is.  But then you would confuse it with Freedom.  So I will show you.  The action will speak for itself.  When it is done, you may leave. But take my packet with you and read it.  Or, you may stay and we will have a conversation. An interesting conversation.  It is up to you and nobody else.”

Kovacs then reached inside his double-breasted suit and pulled a wallet from the inside pocket.  He deftly removed four or five greenbacks, slipped the wallet into a front pocket with one hand, and waved the fifty dollar bills at his audience with his other hand, as if he were displaying a hand of five poker cards.

“General Ulysses S. Grant,” said Kovacs, “He is buried right here in Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River. Believe me, this is not play money.  These are genuine Federal Reserve Notes.”  He flashed them to those sitting directly in front of him.  Towards the back Sam calculated $250 and wondered if they were real or fake. 

And older gentlemen in front reached up and Kovacs began to hand the greenbacks to him.  But then the man shook his head and pulled his hand back. “I trust you”.  And Kovacs nodded his head ever so slightly in appreciation.

“A plant, the old guy is a plant” thought Sam.

And with that Kovacs reached into the same pocket where he placed his wallet and pulled out a lighter.  He flicked it and it sparked but did not light.  Kovacs flicked it again and a flame shot up.  Without hesitation, he moved the flame across the top of the five cards he was holding.  Each U.S. Grant caught fire, and in a moment a single huge flame was dancing in the Maestro’s hand.  As fire approached his hand, Kovacs blew it out, shook the burnt greenbacks so that some of the ashes fell to the floor.  

And then held out the end stubs for everyone to see.  He moved his hand from right to left, and then from left to right, slowing saying:

“From Freedom… to Liberty… When you are free from money,,, you will have the liberty to finally live your life… I wish you a good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.”

The young woman stepped up with a plate, and Kovacs dropped the burnt-out bills upon it.  The smell of the burning paper now drifted to Sam.  He was the first to stand, but intentionally dropped the packet on the empty chair next to him.  Then Sam turned around and walked out of the room. He walked quickly down the dark hallway, opened the door, and stepped out into the autumn breeze and the bright light of the sky above Broadway.

“A fake.  A charlatan.  All he needed was one of the twelve of us to be duped. Then clean out his bank account and bilk him out of home and fortune!  Damned fraud…”

Sam needed to walk off his anger. At first he wanted to walk back to Ground Zero and recapture what he had experienced early that morning.  But it was too close.  He had to walk a long walk before he flushed the anger out of himself.  Maybe back to Washington Square?  No, Sam needed a really long walk:  all the way down Broadway to The Battery on the southern tip of this island. There he could stand and look across the water to the Statue of Liberty, and maybe board a ferry to Liberty Island, Ellis Island or even Staten Island.  Anywhere!  Anywhere to refreshed by sea breezes and cleansed with salt air.

When Sam reached Bowling Green at the end of Broadway he stood for awhile in front of the huge bronze sculpture of the Raging Bull. It was an icon for Wall Street and its love of Bull Markets and soaring stock prices.  For a moment Sam thought he was on a medieval street in Spain with a fierce bull, with lowered head and twisted horns, plowing straight for his belly.  He gripped his stomach, wobbled, and then fell back on a park bench in Bowling Green City Park.  The Raging Bull, frozen in bronze, remained still. Sam breathed deeply and closed his eyes for a moment.

When he opened his eyes, he saw an old man feeding pigeons, children riding bicycles, and he heard impatient drivers honking their car horns. “Car horns.  Not bull horns” Sam mumbled.  Just across from him, on the opposite bench, he saw a woman open her purse and give a few dollar bills to a girl who spun quickly around and skipped to the nearby ice-cream vendor.  Sam absent-mindedly reached into his coat’s inside pocket and pulled out his wallet.  Slowly unfolding it he saw three singles, a ten, and a fifty.  He glanced about nervously and the pulled out a one.  The wallet went back into his pocket.

Samuel Rabinowitz Junior pulled the bill taut and stared at the picture of his hero.  “Yup, General Washington was right here on the Bowling Green when he read the Declaration of Independence to his soldiers in 1776.”

Sam then folded the bill in half lengthwise as he would a slice of New York pizza.  And he rubbed the v-shape edge across his chin a few times.

“What if I burned this dollar bill right here? If anyone noticed they would just move away.  After all, this is New York!  But what would I feel?  Probably nothing.  It’s just a buck.  No freedom from money with that.” And then he reached for his wallet, pulled it out, and stuffed the buck back in the billfold. 

Sam’s fingers pushed back the George Washingtons, hesitated with the one Alexander Hamilton, and then pinched the U.S. Grant.  He glanced around.  No one was watching.  But then he suddenly pinched the Hamilton instead, and pulled it out.  The wallet with U.S. Grant went safely back into his pocket.

It was a wrinkled ten, and he smoothed the portrait out as if he were combing Alexander’s long hair. Sam smiled and spoke aloud, “Now you were a New Yorker!  A true New Yorker. You loved the banks, and would be happy to see the Raging Bull here on Bowling Green.  But…” Sam hesitated “…would I burn you here and get my Freedom… and Liberty?”

The girl was eating her snow cone, and the woman was eating her ice cream from a cup. “I could buy a banana split, maybe two of them, with this ten spot.  Or a beer and a slice of pizza.  Burning Hamilton would mean nothing.”  And so he again reached for his wallet, deftly tucked Alexander into the billfold bed between George and Ulysses.  Sam looked about guardedly, thinking of the risk if he flashed a big bill in view of the strangers milling about.

But his fingers seemed to decide before his mind could act.  There it was, the fifty-dollar bill, clean and crisp.  Not a wrinkle in it. “Okay…” said Sam after a few moments, “…I would not be so quick to burn Ulysses. And probably would hesitate if I held a a hand of five-of-a-kind like Kovacs did.  Five Grants total 250.  Five Franklins total 500.  What the hell was that Kovacs doing? Would he toss a bar of gold into the Hudson to teach me about Freedom and Liberty?”

Sam stood up and crumpled the fifty into his pants pocket. It was late afternoon as he walked towards The Battery where he wandered about, hand still in his pocket, further crumpling Ulysses S. Grant.

“If I burned it, it would mean nothing. Spending it is the same: ‘Burning through your money’ as they say. But what if I gave it away and received nothing in return?”

Sam thought about his whole life:  Living in the Palisades, the only child of wealthy parents.  Going to private schools in Bergen County. Commuting to Columbia University.  Then further education at NYU.  Always living in the same upstairs room, lost deep in books, living in the past.

Now he had his own apartment in the East Village.  Truthfully, it was like a little prison cell, and so was the bank vault down on Wall Street. His only freedom was his long walk from home to work, from work to home.  An hour every morning, and hour every evening.  Buildings casting shadows and traffic spinning by his feet. But always an open sky high above.  Sometimes gray with rain, sometimes dripping with humidity, sometimes crackling with new fallen snow.  His money gave him the freedom to live comfortably, but what he loved was the liberty to walk along the broad way.  Sam smiled:

“Yes, it is the long and broad way. Broadway, that is.”

Sam continued his way across Bowling Green and away from Broadway. He stopped opposite the odd little church between Battery Park and the rest of the city.  The style was from the Federal period, about 200 years old and all around it towered the glass and steel of office buildings.  And the equally odd building next to the church — with its white columns and balcony atop — was a museum.  He had always planned to go in the museum, but never did.  But now the Church door was open and some people were entering. Of course, he thought, Saturday night and a Catholic Mass.  Maybe he would take a peek.

Sam crossed the busy street and climbed the few stone steps to enter the quaint white church.  He stood in a threshold of sorts:  Inside the building but in front of the door that led into the sanctuary.  On one side of this small passageway there was a pamphlet rack.  Each pamphlet proclaimed a religious message that was foreign to his eyes.  But one magazine, a bit larger than the religious propaganda surrounding it, stared at him.  On the cover was a young woman, dressed in black.  And she was looking straight at him.

Before his mind could decide, his hand picked up the magazine.  Sam looked at her face for a long time. She seemed to look back, almost nodding in recognition.  He opened the cover and began to read what was inside. Sam read the whole thing, jostled now and then by someone passing from the outside world into the church.

He closed the magazine.  She was still holding him in her gaze.  His hands would not put the magazine back on the rack.  And then he heard everything he had just read.  He heard it recited in his head. But it was her voice.  She was speaking.

“I was born here in New York in 1774 and given the name Elizabeth.  My parents, the Bayleys, were wealthy and took loving care of me. There was nothing I enjoyed more than dancing.  If you go to the museum next door, Sam, you’ll see a pair of my dancing shoes.  And this church, which was built on the site of my home, is designed like a ballroom.  Imagine!  A church where I could dance.

“And if you walk back up Broadway you’ll pass Trinity Episcopal Church.  That was my church back then when President Washington lived in the house facing Bowling Green.  That is where my husband, William Seton, and I took our five children every Sunday.  I never danced there, but my good friend — her name was Elizabeth, too — and I founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.You know Sam, you have a picture of her husband, Alexander, on that ten dollar note tucked in your wallet.

“My husband William was a very successful merchant, with our ships coming and going from the harbor here.  William built us a home right next to my parents house.  The one that is now the museum.  He used ship masts for those stately columns, and he stood on the upper balcony every morning, watching for his ships to come into New York Harbor. The servants brought a pot of tea for him at dawn, he put his house coat on, and he took his spyglass out to the balcony.

“William died in Italy.  And I became a poor widow with five small children.  That is because I made some decisions that changed my social status, my life.   But I had my freedom even if I had no money.  No more ballroom dancing, just five small children to feed and clothe.

“What did I do, Sam?  I waited and waited. And my freedom from my past life became the liberty to make a new life.  We left New York, on a ferry right here at Battery Park.  We crossed over to Jersey, and traveled the post road down to Princeton, to Trenton, to Philadelphia, to Baltimore.  And from there on the rough and rolling roads to the hills of Western Maryland.”

Still holding her picture in one hand, Sam turned around and looked across Battery Park to the water beyond.  With his free hand he gestured.  Not from left to right, nor right to left, as Maestro Kovacs had done.  No, Sam gestured from his heart out to the wider world and softly said, “Freedom from… Liberty to…”

And he repeated the gesture again, as if he were waving a baton and said more loudly, “FREEDOM from… LIBERTY to…”

Samuel Rabinowitz Junior gently placed Elizabeth Ann Seton’s picture back on the rack.  And as he turned away from the pamphlets he saw a solid metal box on the opposite wall.  The brass plate just above the narrow slit read:  “Remember the Poor”.  Sam reached into his pocket, folded the bill carefully, and let U.S. Grant slip into the box.

As he walked up Broadway, Sam briefly stopped at Trinity Episcopal Church.  It was closed, but the church office had a mail slot.  Sam took out his wallet and pinched Alexander Hamilton out.  Putting his wallet safely inside his coat, Sam took a pen from his shirt pocket.  Across the face of Alexander Hamilton he wrote in ink:  ‘For your Elizabeth, and for the Poor.’

Sam stopped two more times: once along Broadway where he gave a George Washington to a homeless woman, and once in Washington Square where he was panhandled by an unshaven young man with a wild and desperate look in his eyes.  Sam gave him another George Washington.  

Now he walked the last block to his apartment, unlocked and opened the door. Sam sat exhausted on a chair by the little wooden table in front of the window.  It was night, the street was quiet, and the streetlamp cast a cold light on the empty street and sidewalks.  Sam look out his wallet and laid it on the table, and stared at it for the longest time.

Then Sam pulled out the last portrait, and placed it on the table. He smoothed its wrinkles as he caressingly moved his hand along the enigmatic face of His Excellency, George Washington.

— Robert Béla Wilhelm

a native son of Manhattan

Your comments are always welcome.  Email me here. 

© Robert Bela Wilhelm 2018