He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
-- Genesis 28:12 (NRSV)
. . . Someone to watch over me.
-- Ira Gershwin
The sixty-fourth floor of the Chrysler Building (the floor with the gargoyles) is an unexpectedly intimate place. As the elevator opened, a round receptionist with wings blessed me silently from behind his desk, smiling. There were others: a wounded angel on the floor of a corridor, trying every few minutes to get up; a pensive angel in the window-casing of the kitchenette, looking over the East River and the place from which my journey had started – the open ground in front of a derelict asylum on Roosevelt Island.
This was the last stage of a processional,* nine “scenes” of angelic presence – or absence – across midtown Manhattan. There was the back room of a peep-show with bins of books about angelic manifestations. There was the third floor of an office building, now the locker-room of angels. There was an apartment on Forty-First Street, their recently abandoned barracks. On the fifth floor of the arrow-shaped old New York Times Building, I walked on a landscape of sand from which lilies, great white feathers and Gabriel’s horn had sprouted. In a tiny top floor office, a teletype machine banged out repeated warnings of time’s end, curling its paper onto the floor like ribbon candy. In an abandoned theatre behind Applebee’s, I saw from the stage, by work light, that angels were ascending and descending between mezzanine and balcony, while Jacob dreamed from a chair in the bare orchestra.
And here in the Chrysler Building, a messenger stood by the window in a glass-walled office, in my world and not. I approached. He turned. Through the glass, he looked me in the face. I could not bear his gaze. He saw beyond me. I did not doubt his concern, but he knew much more than I.
Several years later, I met Alice. She had been a fashion designer, and beautiful. She left nothing to chance. She was very “private,” had never married. Choosy about whom she loved, she loved those people well. Not a mother, but an unforgettable auntie.
She didn’t feel well, and went to the doctor, and learned that day she had inoperable cancer. The “progress of disease” – strange term we use – was swift. I met her a few weeks later, when she could no longer get out of her daybed in the capacious parlor. Her ceiling was so high that light from the big front window did not reach it.
For a “private” person, a person who draws a veil decisively on the holy of holies and presents herself as an artifact, the intimacies of care at the end of life are excruciating. All is now revealed. There’s no backstage any more. Every bodily process is someone else’s business. She could no longer self-produce; her appearance now depended on people who knew everything there was to know, who in every cover-up must be co-conspirators. Before she was sick, Alice never appeared anywhere without her wig. Her contest with terror: how to give away her secrets without losing herself. From the wreck of her show, could she recover soul? Could she let others love her in this way, and with grace?
She looked into the shadowed ceiling one evening, and a figure hovered there. The figure saw her. She let the figure see her. When she looked back, the figure was not there any more.
As people approach their end, it’s not uncommon for them to have experiences that we must call (because our experience does not confirm them) hallucinations. In dreams or in waking life they see persons who have died, or they may see messengers. Some are comforted, and some are terrified.
“How did you feel about it?” I asked.
“I felt all right about it.”
“It’s as if the angel were watching over you.”
“It seems that way.”
I had gone to the sixty-fourth floor of the Chrysler Building less than two years after the twin towers became pillars of flame. The fire had gone out by then, and the smoke no longer blew over Brooklyn, but the city still felt apocalyptic. The messenger looked me in the face, and I looked away. I let him see me, and I let him see whatever it was that he saw through me. When I looked back, he was turning toward the window again, gazing at the city with compassion too great for intervention. Is there anything you can do? I thought. And then again, Never mind; just keep watching, I think I’ll be all right if I know you’re watching.
For Alice and me, it’s almost enough.
*The Angel Project, a site-specific installation directed and conceived by Deborah Warner, Lincoln Center Festival 2003.