By:  | 

Columbus, Sandy, and the Enduring Power of Coincidence

I walked back to Columbus Circle from an interview on the Upper East Side. As I approached the circle, I noticed a colossal skeletal frame surrounding what I knew was the famous statue of Christopher Columbus. On the top of the scaffolding sat a rather large box with two staircases and an elevator leading up to it. It was in a word, intriguing.

I suddenly remembered what the odd contraption was all about; Tatzu Nishi captivated the city when he unveiled plans for “Discovering Columbus.” He wanted to build what looked like a suburban living room around the 1892 marble statue. In essence, he wanted the statue to take the place of the coffee table.

Needless to say, I ran up to an attendant standing near a staircase and asked if I could go up. “Ha,” he said, “This is the exit and you’re gonna need to find yourself a ticket. Oh, and there are no more tickets. Not for today, and not till the thing closes for good on three days.” Ouch.

I walked around the scaffolding to find a monstrous line of people. I looked at the zig-zagging line of what must have been seventy people and lost hope of just “sneaking in for a peak.” I turned to leave.

“Gabriel!” I heard someone shout. “Gabriel! Over hear!” I scanned the crowd expecting to perhaps find a friend from YU need inside the line. “Gabriel!” Then I saw her. It was Tahilia, a 28-year old petite Canadian-Indian neuroscientist on her lunch break.

I walked over to the corner of the line. “What are you doing here?” she asked me with a big smile. “Same thing your are, except you clearly knew what you were doing!” I said after seeing the ticket and camera she was holding. Without missing a beat, the woman in front of Tahilia popped out an earbud from her ear, turned around and asked me if I wanted the extra ticket she had. “Of course! And um, thanks!” I snuck under the velvet rope with a giddy grin.

“So have you done any volunteering after we last saw each other?” She enquired, anticipating the very same question I was about to ask. “Oh, unfortunately no, I was just swamped with work, work and more work.” “You?” “Same.”

I met Tahilia volunteering in an evacuation center after super storm Sandy. We met on the graveyard shift watching over a room of sleeping evacuees. We sat for what must have been two hours at two in the morning talking about religion, politics, and relationships—everything you are not supposed to talk about with a stranger. I found myself fielding questions about kashrut, tzniut, feminism, my choice for president of the United States, and my failed relationships: She, a post-doc neuroscientist, and me, a junior English major with an interest in education.

The line for Columbus reached the ticket collector. We climbed up a somewhat rickety staircase, pausing for the spectacular views of Broadway and Central Park West in the North and 8th Avenue south. Then we got to what looked like the foyer of a home, complete with a side-table, flowers and a Turkish carpet. “Hi,” said the attendant. “Welcome and please don’t touch the statue.”

We walked down the short hallway and turned. The scene was jarringly surreal and amusing. People sat on plush brown couches, read the morning newspapers, and mingled about taking pictures. A TV in one corner showed CNN and the bookshelf beside it held some great books. The pink and yellow cartoon patter of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, hot dogs, Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe and the Empire State building was unbelievably hideous, wonderfully charming and rather thought provoking all, at the same time.  All the while, the 13-foot statue, which indeed rose out of a coffee table, seemed, well, a little out of place.

Tahilia and I sat down on one of the inviting couches and reminisced. We continued to bump into each other at the shelter after that long Friday night. On Saturday night, we sat in the family gym and talked about our individual futures and our fairly different pasts. On Tuesday, we celebrated the election. On Thursday, we talked about ethnic cooking. When the shelter finally closed on Shabbat, we said goodbye and I didn’t think I would ever see her again. And yet here we were on a Thursday afternoon, in a living room opposite a statue of Columbus—70 feet off the ground— staring at ugly wallpaper and people-watching people’s faces as they turned the hallway corner and took their first look at the odd room. It was a cosmic coincidence.

“Discovering Columbus” closed on December 2nd.  The scaffolding will be removed, exposing the statue to sunlight again. The circle will return to normal. But for me Christopher Columbus, who accidentally discovered and misidentified America, will forever stand as an enduring legacy of the power of happenstance.