Frankly, I felt like damaged goods. I had fallen from grace and it was out in the open for everyone in my disciple-centered world to see.
Whatever status I had been afforded in the eyes of my brother and sister disciples as a consequence of having come to the Center young, having been one of Guru's ball boys at the tennis court, having helped with Guru's musical instruments, having associated with the "inner circle" of Guru's closest disciples, or my personal mythology -- all of that was shot.
Surprisingly, however, the loss of my spiritual bona fides -- my disciple street cred as it were -- was liberating. True, I was back in New York -- back in the Center -- out of a sense of obligation to Guru rather than a personal desire to be there. But I was much more free than I had been before. For one thing, I no longer worked at the Smile, where for the previous three years I had had just two days off each month. Now, I was happily unemployed.
Nor did I any longer feel obligated "to be available" -- whether to throw tennis balls for Guru at the court on weekends or to receive calls inviting me to Guru's house during the week. I was only obligated to show up to the public meditation on Wednesday nights and my Center meeting on Sunday nights. Other than that -- and helping Vinaya transport Guru's instruments to and from concerts -- I didn't have to be around.
I was also freed of any false sense of friendship. While I received no overt snubs from anyone, I sensed -- perhaps wrongly -- a general feeling of aversion to me from many in my former circle of friends. Like I was contagious. Conversely, a small group of guys really stepped up and embraced me, forging instant bonds of friendship that remain with me today.
First among them was Sudhir.
I knew about Sudhir before I actually knew him. In the wee hours one fall night in my early years as a New Yorker, Databir had told me a story about Sudhir. It was past midnight and we -- Databir, Bipin, Ketan and I -- were way out Union Turnpike touching up the paint on one of Guru's many running routes throughout the borough. We were the latest incarnation of Guru's "road crew."
Guru had running courses all over Queens. In the late 1970s, after taking up long distance running, he had the original road crew measure out numerous running routes of various lengths with a measuring wheel. Guru not only wanted the mile markers painted visibly on the street, he also wanted markers every hundred yards! So, the road crew painted "100", "200", "300", and so on, from the beginning of each course to the end. And these courses could be ten miles long or more.
It could be brutal work, particularly in the winter. The hundred yard intervals, for example, were painted in white with the numerals measuring about a foot in length. Then the whole number would be circled in white paint. Running down the street, it would be difficult to miss these huge, hand-painted numbers every hundred yards on both the street and adjacent sidewalk. And that was the point.
The actual mile markers were painted even larger than the hundred yard markers. There were also stride marks to paint. From time to time, Guru would want to work on lengthening his running stride, so he'd have the road crew paint stride marks on the sidewalk every 36 inches or so (I don't remember the exact measurement).
Obviously, the road crew had no authorization or permit from the City to be painting up the borough's sidewalks and streets, but trouble was rare. Aside from a few irate homeowners, nobody seemed to care. Once, for example, a police car pulled up behind us as we were painting a street in the middle of the night. Because I had always felt comfortable talking to cops (having been raised by one), I walked right up to them and explained that we were marking a 10K course for an upcoming race. One of the cops asked me what outfit we were with. "Alley Pond Striders," I responded instinctively. That was it. They got back into their squad car and let us have at it.
That was road crew. It was fun to be out with the guys doing something for Guru, but it was always done very late at night. Since I usually had to be at work by 8:00 a.m. -- unlike the other guys -- I sometimes got a little cranky. That's when Databir told me about Sudhir.
Back in the day, before I'd come to New York, Sudhir had been part of Guru's original road crew. While he had once worked at the Smile -- one of my predecessors there -- Sudhir spent the rest of his time serving Guru. During one stressful period of time, however, Guru began firing members of the road crew, one-by-one, until the road crew consisted only of Sudhir.
In the early morning hours of a cold winter night, Sudhir found himself on 150th Street chipping away ice by himself so that he could then paint an interval marker. It was then that Sudhir broke down, unable to go on. At that moment, Guru walked up and told Sudhir to go home. That's the story as Databir told it.
Up until that point, Suhdir had been a made man. In the days before Guru owned his own tennis court (which was called "Aspiration Ground" and which now serves as Guru's burial spot and "samadhi"), Sudhir was in charge of taking Guru's tennis net to Jamaica High School and setting it up at Guru's request. After his "fall," however, Sudhir was damaged goods, just as I felt I had become after returning to New York from my unsuccessful escape attempt.
Sudhir -- perhaps recognizing my predicament -- suggested that I come work at Victory Factory, where he was the shop foreman. Victory Factory was owned by Abedan and it produced silk screen frames for commercial and industrial use. It was perhaps the only disciple-run enterprise in the United States that paid its employees a decent wage.
With Abedan's generous approval, I worked at Victory Factory for the rest of my time in New York (which as it turned out would be something just short of another year). During that time, I grew to appreciate Sudhir's dry wit and cynical -- one might say realistic -- sense of humor.
Because Victory Factory paid so much more than the Smile, I found that I only had to work half-days to pay my meager bills. Stressed from the emotional roller coaster I had been riding for the past couple of months, I took advantage of this situation and slept in every morning. As my boss -- and at a time when I needed it most -- Sudhir was solicitous of my need to keep irregular hours (as was Abedan).
As I'll discuss in a later post, in the years after my final departure from the Center, Sudhir became the only person -- outside my brother and sister -- with whom I could discuss spiritual matters in a consequential way.
What a great shot of Sudhir taken by Unmesh. Check out some of Unmesh's other fine work here.