Breakfast at the Victory

The Victory Luncheonette could be found in Manhattan’s East Village in a cramped, overlooked space, surrounded by small industrial buildings. The owner and sole employ of the establishment was a gentleman known to his regulars simply as Ernie. The name of the luncheonette identified Ernie as a veteran of the Last Good War–from which he returned with one leg. Ernie planned on winning the lottery. He would collect his check, sell the business, and visit “that place where the Heinies ruined my future with the Rockettes.”

I was a regular, which meant only that each morning I stopped in for coffee and bagel (with a shmear) on my way to a lecture on the Upanishads or The Enneads of Plotinus or Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments. One morning, I found myself at the counter of the Victory reflecting on the influence of Buddhism on Nietzsche who wrote, “there is no ‘being’ behind the  doing, acting, becoming; the doer has simply been added to the deed by the imagination–the doing is everything.” Almost without my noticing,

Ernie had my bagel in the toaster and was telling someone which horse not to back on the third at the Aqueduct. He cut the bagel right in front to me but I still found myself wondering, Did he do it or didn’t he? There was the slicing and the move to the toaster, and then the other hand back to the coffee spigot. Was this all one movement or was it many? Was he doing something? Was there someone doing it? Was there a being behind the act doing what was done?  Or was the doing everything? How could you ever tell?

How much of what I do is what I am not doing? It was at that moment that I remembered Growler Grashevski.

At the beginning of the wrestling season in my junior year of high school, Coach Weaver walked me over to the schedule attached to the wall of the wrestling room. He was pressing his fingers into my right bicep as though measuring it. This is an omen, I thought.

Stabbing the schedule with a thick forefinger, he drew my attention to a date seven weeks off. It was our annual match with a high school in Milwaukee, a wrestling powerhouse. His grip tightened and I could feel the blood in my fingertips.

“Growler Grashevski,” he said with an unmistakable note of warning in his voice.

I didn’t need the warning. Growler was already a legend as a football player. He got his name from the animal sounds he made while attacking the opposing team. Rising from all fours as the other team came to the line of scrimmage, he would paw the air with a guttural blast of sound. He was most famous for his diving leaps, which carried all 265 of his tightly muscled pounds over the blockers to seize the runner whom he would take to the ground with another roar of triumph. Growler’s appearance doubled attendance at high school sports events and rumors abounded that the pros already had their eyes on him.

In each of my wrestling matches during those seven weeks I had only one opponent in mind. Actually, he had taken residence in my daily consciousness. I exercised, drilled, and fought only against one person, no matter who was on the mat. My matches were taking on a dreamy quality that invited a strong response from Coach Weaver.

“Don’t think, Carse!” he would yell at me during practice. “This is wrestling, boy. Thinking is for philosophers.” During matches his “Don’t think!” was a mantra he tirelessly chanted at me.

Despite my wish for a disabling injury or one of those dreadful infections you get from a mat burn, I found myself sitting next to Coach Weaver as he drove us to our match in Milwaukee. It wasn’t a highway I found stretching out before us  but a shining ribbon of fear. Every few miles the coach would knuckle me and silently mouth the words, Don’t think.

I wrestled in the heavyweight, or unlimited, class. I weighed scarcely 190 and rarely wrestled anyone less than 250. Mostly they were clownish fat boys with accidental strength and little coordination. The high moment for the audience was when they first took off their warm-ups. As for me, the relative absence of both muscle and bulk made my sudden nakedness a subject of hilarity.

But all this was nothing compared to Growler. In the first place, he made his entrance into the gymnasium walking on his hands. When he reached the edge of the mat, he sprang to his feet in a graceful half flip, dropped to one knee and took a Charles Atlas pose, popping a bicep at a crowd now ecstatic with joy. I only elevated the din by retreating as quickly as I could to my end of our team bench.

Staring across at this marvelous specimen, I reflected on the genetic unfairness here. While my Celtic forbears were doing funny dances on their toes, probably drunk, his were pulling oak trees out of the forests of northern Europe with their bare hands, no doubt eating the bark as well. There was no comfort in the fact that our team had won most of the preceding bouts. As the referee slammed the mat with his hand, indicating the end of the bout just before mine, the crowd joined Growler in a cry for revenge. His fight with me would decide the meet.

I stood up, slipped off my jersey, and stepped to the edge of the mat. My joints were made of ice. I took the regular opening stance and looked over at Growler, who was on all fours, pawing the earth and beginning his famous roar.

At the starting whistle, Growler paused for a theatrical moment, then exploded in my direction. None of my imaginary matches with him included this move. So I quickly backed and turned. With Growler’s fingertips just grazing my shoulder blades, I bolted off the mat in the direction of our bench, I found myself looking down at Coach Weaver. His face was motionless even as he molded his lips to form two silent words. The crowd’s roar was deafening.

We took our places again on either side of the referee. This time, Growler stepped back, and came at me in a long, soaring arc. My memory of what happened in the next three of four seconds is frozen into a series of photographic stills. Growler is airborne, about six feet above the mat. My hands are on his shoulders. I am falling backward with his momentum but my feet are still square on the mat. His body does not resist the rotating pressure of my hands; it turns like a loose propeller. My feet leave the mat. He is now under me, my chest square one his. I ride him to the earth. When he hits, he takes my full weight on his rib cage. There is an inhuman sound as all the air blows out of his lungs. The referee’s face is inches away as he tries to see whether Growler’s back is pressed to the mat. The referee slams down his hand. There is a resounding crack. The match is over. It lasted barely seventeen seconds. Someone is lifting me by the shoulder.

“Let’s get out of here,” Coach Weaver said as he dropped my warm-ups over me. I looked up. The crowd was emotionless and silent. 

I turned as we left the gymnasium. Growler was now standing, though still sucking wildly for air, holding his hands up and though begging for an explanation of what happened. 

During the ride home, no one said a word for miles. I finally looked over at the coach and asked, “Well, I did win, didn’t I?”

Without taking his eyes off the road, he said in a tired and solemn voice, “Don’t think, boy. Don’t think win, don’t think lose. Just don’t think. Thinking’s for philosophers.

The book is subtitled, The Mysticism of Everyday Life. Studying the mystics of the Middle Ages–Jews, Christians, and Muslims–I was struck by their assumption that mysticism is not a certain kind of experience as such, but an element of all experience. Given the subtlety and sophistication of their thinking, it was a challenge to understand, first, what they meant by mysticism and, second, how to examine our everyday lives to learn where the connections are between the ordinary and the extraordinary. I then chose a dozen or more quite unexceptional episodes from my personal life as a teacher, father, son, and student. Although each of these moments in my life can be related in simple narrative form, and none involves the supernatural as such, I was surprised on reflection how differently they come across when I step back and view them from the perspective of these ancient masters. The slicing of a bagel, the unexpected outcome of a high school wrestling match, finding a young mouse hanging from the shoestring of my sneaker after mowing the lawn, hitting a golf ball into the woods–these and similarly simple events are all that are necessary to open a door to astonishing and transforming insight.