19 August 2020

Aaron Kuder and heart-doors that glide open on the wind

One day, more than twenty years ago, in a cafe named ‘Stella’s’ in a small town called Ithaca, located in upstate New York, I noticed a series of illustrations in several square pieces of ceiling. I asked someone who the artist was. My friend didn’t know the name, but said ‘I heard he committed suicide.’  

That’s a preamble of sorts.

I visited that cafe so often and indeed almost on a daily basis that by and by I got to know most of the waiters, waitresses and cooks as well as the more regular of the customers. That’s how I met Aaron Kuder. He worked at Stella’s. And when he was off work he hung out with his friends.

It was a place you could stay for hours, no questions asked, no hard ‘time-you-left-buddy’ looks. The clientele was mostly students. Some read. Some wrote. Some had meetings. Aaron drew.

By that time we were friends. One day I noticed him with a large drawing book and realized that he was sketching the scene at Stella’s.

‘I hope you are not drawing me too!’ I said.

‘That’s better than what most people tell me. They ask, “can you draw me?”’

We laughed. Aaron worked the night shift often. He finished at 2 am. I would stay until he was done. Then Aaron and his girlfriend Katy would take me for ‘dinner.’ There were a couple of all night diners. I always had trouble ordering food. People didn’t get my accent. Katy or Aaron knew what I wanted (mashed potatoes with gravy) and would order for me.

I once suggested that Stella’s should declare independence of the United States of America. It was then that I found that something of the sort had happened already in that some of the regulars had titles bestowed on them or else announced by themselves. There was a Duke. There was a Duchess. There was a Lady-in-Waiting. I called Aaron ‘The Gentle Giant’ but he was ‘The King.’ Katy, who found all these titles beneath her, named herself ‘The Supreme Goddess.’ And I named myself 'The Quote Jester.'

They were all beautiful people. To me, they were family, and although Aaron and Katy were very much younger, they were like foster parents.  

One day I asked Aaron about those sketches on the ceiling. I told him that I had heard the artist had committed suicide. He laughed. A resident of Ithaca, Aaron had indeed ‘gone missing’ for a while (I can’t remember now where he had been), hence the speculation of suicide.

‘I did that,’ he said, and laughed.

Sometime in June, 2000, I left Ithaca. Aaron was at work, but he had excused himself for a few minutes.

‘I wanted to finish that painting of Stella’s but I didn’t have the time,’ he confessed.

‘So I thought I will give you the entire sketch book.’

It had that sketch. It had all kind of sketches, mostly of ‘super heroes’ resident in Aaron’s imagination. Beautiful and detailed drawings. It’s the one ‘parting gift’ I received. Well, apart from the love, companionship, camaraderie and memories — Ithaca was the warmest place in all of the towns and cities I was resident in the USA. 

I met him once more. This was in 2004 when I was a member of a team of international election monitors (US Presidential Election, 2004, when George W Bush was ‘re-selected’). Our common and dear friend, Ayça Çubukçu, then a graduate student at Columbia University was spending some time in Ithaca. We met. We talked of times gone by.

‘You didn’t come to monitor any elections; you came because we had to meet each other,’ was Aaron’s take on that encounter.

I don't know where Katy is now. Time passes, things happen. Aaron was happy then, he's happy now. He works for Marvel Comics. He’s famous. We communicate off and on. A few days ago I posted a note on his Facebook wall.

‘So I remember Ithaca, now and then. And when I do, what I remember most is Stella's. There was such laughter, warmth and love. And there was you. What did I bring back from Ithaca, I sometimes ask myself. Not much, but then again, “a lot” is as truthful an answer. I brought you, Aaron Kuder. And you shall remain resident in Sri Lanka until I die. Happy birthday!

And Aaron painted something for me by way of thanks. 'A picture for you,' he titled it. 

‘The heart is an ocean and at the same time it is a castle. Moving through its hallways can be overwhelming. We must contain the tides of emotion in order to function. Our brains simplify our feelings into symbols…

‘There is a door in my heart. It has a picture of a woman making/repairing a shoe. She is a cobbler.

‘The symbol itself is not ornate. It is no more eye-friendly than your average bathroom door sign or crosswalk. The symbol, like the door, is made of wood and was obviously hand carved. And like all things in the heart, it was made with love.

‘Opening the door is an easy thing. You don’t even have to touch it. It does not squeak nor stick. It glides open on the wind.

‘Inside? Well, there are not words for everything the heart has to say. There are hills, endless hills that are both difficult and a joy to climb. There are songs. Songs sung in many languages. Songs about love, songs about family, songs about yellow submarines. There are smells of wonderful food.

‘Food made by friends for friends. Food made at diners. Food made to simply sustain. There are wonders big and small... paintings, rainbows, books of poetry (which are worlds unto themselves). There are waterfalls of tears. Healing tears for the pain of the world. Tears for us who just need a little attention. There are red balloons with children forever chasing them.

‘And... most importantly of all there are more doors. But these doors are not made by this heart. These are the doors that lead into the hearts of others. And they were made by those hearts inside your own. No matter the miles of distance, the minutes, days, years that have passed, these doors do not fade. Their hinges do not squeak as they glide open on the wind.

‘See you inside.’

‘The Cobbler’ was a monthly newspaper that Ayça and a few others, myself included, put together. The older and more radical of Ithaca’s residents might remember.

That’s not important. Aaron tells stories with lines, spaces and colors. Some words too. It’s hard to think of Aaron writing anything this long. Maybe he should have contributed pieces like this to ‘The Cobbler.’  

Anyway, there are heart-doors open, he reminded me. We will meet again. One day. 

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   
Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten 
 Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds

Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays  
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry

Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer



Pamodhi Kuruppu said...

Someone had share this. So I had a read. Seems like that cafe is a coy place..based on your story :). It's quite interesting to see hearts open easily but a person's mind cannot be easily opened noh. Where as closing heart-doors is hard. hehehe :D