Today I almost bought an umbrella. I fondled a few at a store, but couldn’t decide if I wanted to go with something sedate, the way I always do, or something a little spicier. I almost went with the spice, and then decided not to buy one at all. It wasn’t going to rain, and besides, even if it did, I long ago gave up caring about being caught in it.
I left the store and called my usual sidekick, M, to see if he wanted to meet me for lunch on the Upper West Side, and planned to cut through Central Park. But about ten minutes after making our plans, it started to rain quite hard, so I called M to cancel (he cannot be immersed in water and must be dry cleaned), and decided to just get on a subway and go home.
The streets leading west from Madison to Fifth Avenue (the east side of Central Park) were blocked off by police. I asked one of them what was going on.
“A funeral,” he said.
I decided I’d satisfy my Harold and Maude morbidity, and started down East 63rd Street. This distracted me:
Click to enlarge
(I shouldn’t have to tell you this, of course.)
(You can see the detail of the door a bit better here.)
At first I thought, “Tree of life?” And then I wondered what kind of tree was relieved of its life in order to make a door decorated with a relief of a tree.
I changed my mind about the funeral and headed toward the subway at 59th and Fifth. But of course that was not to be. I can’t believe that in the short period of time between regarding the synagogue door and deciding to go home instead of follow the funeral procession, I forget that Fifth Avenue was barricaded.
When I reached Fifth Avenue, just north of Bergdorf Goodman, I saw a crowd. Huge. Pulsing. Cuban flags and flags from other Spanish-speaking countries swinging and swaying in people’s upraised hands:
Cameras. Applause. Laughter. Cheering at a funeral procession? What the … ?
It was then that I confirmed my suspicions. This was the procession for Celia Cruz. La Reina de la Salsa. I got there just in time to see the horse-drawn carriage bearing her casket:
It started to rain more steadily and heavily, but no one backed away. Those who had umbrellas already had them open. Those who had braved the rain to that point opened theirs. Others just stood in the rain, undaunted.
Throngs of people walked down Fifth Avenue, following the procession. Here is just a sampling of how drenched everyone was:
I walked down Fifth Avenue until I couldn’t walk any further. It was not fatigue that stopped me. I walk almost everywhere and for hours at a time. No, it was the crowd that inhibited my progression. I didn’t understand why until I realized that I was only about a quarter of a block from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where services were going to be held. I literally inched forward. Clammy, drenched flesh, like so many fish at the Fulton Street Market, was pressed against me on all sides. I instantly thought of one of my favorite books, My Petition for More Space by John Hersey.
By the time I finally came to a full stop, the rain followed suit. I was just across the street from the cathedral:
The rain returned, this time even stronger than before. I had made “friends” with a small group of people around me. None of us had an umbrella, and we liked it that way. The rain was coming down so hard that using one would have been futile anyway. We were even more drenched than the people and dogs shown above.
Everyone was laughing and applauding. And chanting: Ce-lia, Ce-lia! Or calling out: Azúcar! In fact, the harder and more insistent the downpour, the louder and more insistent the chants and cheers. And when the thunder boomed a few times, and threatened to crack the sky, one of the Hispanic ladies I was hanging out with said, “Lluvia! The heavens have opened up for La Riena de la Salsa! Tears from el cielo!” And rain it did, for La Reina.
And rained and rained. Raindrops so thick and full and huge that if you opened your mouth and lifted your face upward, you could drink a cup within seconds. Some of us did lift our faces. And laughed maniacally. Others sang. If anyone was crying, the rain was certainly disguising it. But I really didn’t see any tears. Everyone was so joyful and outgoing and full of life. We stood there for two hours.
Eventually the rain got cold, and a bit of a breeze chilled our skin. I couldn’t stop shivering. But I didn’t want to leave. Like the others around me, I wanted to stay to see the casket of La Reina come out of the cathedral. And then, just before it did, the sun came out:
The crowd was still very thick even after everything was over. We stood around talking for a while, and then went our separate ways. It started raining again. First gently, like a wink, and then a downpour, like raucous, jubilant laughter. It didn’t ease up for my entire walk home.
I was so glad I didn’t buy an umbrella.