After I scarfed down my tuna sandwich, we both packed up our trash and headed toward the cathedral. Velma said my next project would be waiting in her office. I couldn't imagine what she had cooked up this time and whatever it was, I doubted that either one of us would be able to see it through to completion. I noticed that trend with all of our projects. They sounded good in the beginning but neither one of us could devote the kind of time needed to get them done.
As we climbed the stairs to the main entrance, a large maroon bus with high tinted windows was slowly spewing out tourists. It was a real weekday crowd: A steady stream of older men and women in bright colors wearing assorted head coverings, some visors, others baseball caps. Somewhere on their person were pouches for their cameras and stainless steal water bottles. The cathedral was a logical stop for many who came to the New York City. Not only was it one of the largest cathedrals on the planet but it was also an architectural oddity being constructed in a half Gothic and half Romanesque style. Put simply, it was a gargantuan stone mish mosh.
I had visited St. John the Divine at least 3 or 4 times before and every time the initial height of the Romanesque knave always caught me by surprise. This time was no different. It was by far the highest indoor expanse I had ever been in with its hundreds of uninterrupted footage soaring into the air. The top of the vaulted ceilings were nearly undetectable because they were so high. Since the Romanesque windows in the front were so high and comparatively small, it was almost completely dark with the exception of a few lone shafts of light. Velma didn't even slow down to let her eyes adjust to the darkness that enveloped us. She didn't even look up to pay homage to the enormity of the space. This was her office and her everyday routine.
I, on the other hand, was stumbling through the dark with my mouth open like a baby bird. "Come on, sweetheart, we don't have all day."
"I haven't been inside since they finished the repairs." The knave was damaged by a bad fire back in 2001 and subsequently closed off to the public for 7 years.
"Yeah, yeah, come on. We get enough tourists around here." She said this as she breezed by an older couple standing in the middle of the transept admiring the blue rose window. They overheard her barb and looked at each other in horror.
"Ignore her. She has bad gas today. It's making her cranky." I said to them. They giggled.
When I turned around a paper airplane made of a "Music at the Cathedral" pamphlet hit me square in the forehead. It dug into my skin like with its razor-sharp nose. "OOOWAH." The couple started laughing hysterically at my misfortune. Turn coats.
"I'll give you gas," she hissed.
"How did you make that so fast?"
"There's more where those come from so stop giving lip." She shouted right passed a group of singing children. They stood in a perfect arc at the foot of the cathedral's massive choir. Some of the people who had crowded around them turned to look at our little sideshow in disapproval.
I stopped to listen to the music. Not just to agitate Velma, but also because it was eerily beautiful and... I swore I could place the melody. It was a heavenly combination of major piano under the minor harmony of those 15 or so cherubic voices. Then I did, indeed, recognize the tune. It was John Tavener's piece "The Lamb" based on William Blake's poem. Dissonant but really quite bright in spots. Full disclosure: I had a John Taverner station on my Pandora. Creepy choral music helped to focus me.
Suddenly a bony hand grabbed my arm. "Move it! We both have things to do and these brats are here every first Monday of the month." She dragged me down the right passageway behind the choir and stopped abruptly at at a black iron gate. It was the guilded entrance to a dark spiral staircase. Velma swung open the gate and darted down into the shadows.
"How do you not kill yourself going down these things?" I was cautiously placing my left foot onto the first stair.
"I count them. You know how many years I've been doing this? Close the gate behind you."
I did as I was told. "No flashlight? Nothing?" I had never been to her office before and I was brimming with anticipation for the opportunity. I just knew it would be a treasure trove of New York historical artifacts.
"Quit the whining, fancy pants. Just count! There are 28 steps." She was already at the bottom jingling keys.
"Well I don't know which step I'm on now." I honestly didn't get very far. "Now I have to go back up and start all over."
"By the sounds of it you're on 8." I heard a key click into the lock and then a slow turn was made. It sounded like she was unlocking a massive bank vault
In my mind I counted from 8 and once I labored to 27 I took one more step and cautiously felt for another, but there was only floor. She was spot-on. The very second my foot made contact she flung open the door and light quickly spilled out onto the staircase. "You couldn't have done that sooner?"
"I wanted you to know I was right."
"How does Nick do this everyday?"
Velma said, "He counts. Like I do."
I quickly heard a second familiar voice from the other side of the door blurt, "I use my cell phone."
Velma jumped a smidge at the sound of his voice. "Oh Nicky. You're home." I was still standing at the bottom of the stairs anxiously waiting for my invitation in. "Well, come on. This is where all the magic happens, sweetheart."