Sometimes it doesn't matter who says it, as long as you hear the words. They can even be spoken by a stranger. An angel dressed up like a man who was sprinting up the subway steps like the man I saw yesterday.
First, a little background. I live in the city. I walk everywhere. Even if I take the bus or the subway there's still a lot of walking. As a life-long city dweller I am a sidewalk veteran. When I'm walking fast and paying attention to my surroundings, I don't even have to look at people in order to navigate my way around them. I have built-in radar that let's me keep to a certain speed without bumping into anyone. The only place this doesn't work is around Times Square and Rockefeller Center and other tourist sites where people wander unhurriedly and often don't know where they are going. But still, even in those places, I've noticed that if I walk with an air of determination, my eyes straight ahead not looking at anyone, people make way for me.
However, none of this holds sway if there is a man barreling down the sidewalk, running perhaps. When that happens I get out of the way, and fast, as if he was a huge snowball hurtling down a hill in my direction. It's the motion combined with his weight. The thud of his weight hitting the pavement. The force of a heavy object moving through space. In the interests of self-preservation I get out of the way as quickly as possible.
I think it must be wonderful to know one has tremendous physical power. Those that have it must know it gives them an edge to take up space that way, making people step aside for them. Then there are those like me, light-weight with small bones, treading lightly, taking up little room, and rarely if ever, barreling down sidewalks.
I've never been very sturdy on my feet, and can be knocked off balance quite easily. I laughingly call myself a "pushover," because the physical truth often becomes the psychological one as well. In other words, I am easily moved, easily swayed. I am more like a sea plant wafting about in the waves than a sturdy tree. Yet when I am focused and set on a goal, I usually get where I'm going.
Yesterday morning my goal was the subway. The day was bright and sunny and my head was down. I was completely focused on the shopping I had to do and how I was going to get there. Then, just as I was making a sharp turn to go down the subway stairs, I became aware of a man lunging up the steps. I quickly stepped back. My head was still down, focusing on the staircase as he flew by me, a man in running clothes and a black watch-cap. As he flashed by me he said, "Excuse me." Just those two words sounding right above my head, and my whole being felt altered. Excuse me, in the voice of an angel.
Well, who knows what angels actually sound like? But we know when we hear one, just like I knew yesterday morning. How shall I describe his voice? Soft, caressing, sweet and resonate? Yes, all those things, and beautiful, too. His voice with those words had the quality of Beauty. I never saw his face. I was so focused on getting to the train that I couldn't switch gears so quickly. And something told me not to look up, just to keep going and not look up. There was no time to look up. It happened so fast I think if I had looked up all I would have seen was the back of his head. So he passed, and I continued down the subway stairs, his voice reverberating in my head. I replayed it over and over as I rode the train into Manhattan. Those words, excuse me, suddenly seemed to make everything all right. Things I hadn't even been aware that were not all right. But more than that, his asking to be excused, this stranger I had passed for the briefest moment in time, seemed to be speaking for the entire race of men. Certainly perhaps, for those men who had barreled through my own life, unaware or unconscious of my fragility. For how easy it is to suppose that others are like ourselves, whatever we may be like. If we are strong, why are others not? If we are achingly sensitive, why are others not as well? Can't they see us?
The answer is they don't, usually. So, on this one morning, a few days after the magic of a snowfall, that great equalizer, when the city was covered in white, blotting out sore spots and any rust and dirt or grime, and a few days before Christmas, when the thoughts of unjaded spirits waft towards the miraculous, the divine, I received my gift. The gift of an apology I didn't know I was looking for, but one that I must have needed, because that was what I got. A passing body, a being going in the opposite direction to me that I made way for, who thanked me by asking me to excuse him. Which of course I did, instantaneously, joyously, gratefully.