My body had been dead for two days. I could hear my brother monks chanting the Mantra of the Dead the whole time: “Go to the Light. Do not be distracted by the demons of the Bardo…” If this was the Bardo, it certainly was not what I was expecting.
I found myself on a swaying, rattling train that made its way at a frightening speed on screeching silver rails through tunnels that were beneath a huge, bustling city. Above the windows were rows of signs in English. They were advertisements of some kind, but I couldn’t read them.
“Go to the Light,” they said, so I made my way through sliding doors that separated the empty cars to the front car. I looked out the front window, and I did see a light. I was headed in the right direction! But it turned out to be just a station. The train stopped and the doors opened. I wondered if I should get off. A single passenger entered my car. He was a large black man with wild hair and full beard. He was dressed in filthy rags and he carried an overpowering smell of urine.
“Hey, baby. Nice threads.” he said, looking straight at me.
“Yeah, man, your outfit. That’s da shit. I wish I had me a rig like that.”
I gathered he was referring to the burgundy and saffron robes I had worn all my life. The robes all the monks of my order wear every day. I never thought there was anything special about them, but, seeing how impressed he was, I began to think maybe they were rather special, at least in contrast to him and these gray, dirty surroundings. The train pulled into another station. The doors opened again, but no one got on. My companion and I were still alone. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any other passengers on the entire train.
I had no trouble understanding my companion’s spoken English, even though the writing on the advertisements looked completely alien to me.
“How are you called?” I asked him.
“‘Yo, muthafucka!’” He laughed loudly. Apparently he had made a joke, but I didn’t get it.
“My dharma name is Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I have many other names, though, some of them secret. You can call me Dilgo. Nice to meet you, Yo Muthafucka.”
My companion had another hearty laugh. It was hard for him to stop laughing, but when he finally did, he said, as straight-faced as he could, “Nice to meet you, Dildo!”
“Yeah, I know. I was just playin’ wit’ cha. By the way, my name is Leroy. Leroy C.V. Jones, writer, poet extraordinaire and bon vivant, at your service.”
I looked at him in puzzlement.
“Just call me Leroy. Say, you a monk, right?”
I brightened. This man knew more than he let on. “Actually, Nepal. We were all driven out of our home, Tibet, many years ago. In 1959.”
“1959? What year is it now, anyway?”
“In Western time, the year is 2016.”
“No. You’re shittin’ me!”
“I shit you not.”
“I been dead since 1965.”
The train stopped again. “Union Square,” said Leroy. “Let’s get off and change to the Broadway line. Maybe we can catch Bird.”
“Charlie Parker, man. You never heard of Charlie Parker?”
“Only the greatest saxophone player that ever lived. The greatest musician that ever lived. Sometimes he plays on the 49th Street platform. If we’re lucky, we can catch him. It is absolutely the best thing about being dead… Hey, listen to this…”
He positioned his hands as if playing an invisible saxophone and sang a fast and complex series of notes. These notes had a certain universal truth to them, so that, as alien as this music was, it communicated something to me.
“That was called ‘Au Privave,’ a Charlie Parker tune. Great, huh?”
He stuck his hand out to keep the doors from closing. “You sure you don’t wanna go to 49th Street with me?”
“No, I think it is better for me to stay on this Bardo train. I must go toward the Light.” I gestured toward the front window. Leroy let the doors close and looked out at the tunnel ahead.
“I don’t see no light. I see a lotta lights—red ones, green ones, white ones…”
“Well, I do see a Light, and I’m going to it.”
“Okay, brotha-man, I’ll go to da Light wit’ cha.”
“Can I trust you?”
“Now, what kinda crazy-ass question is that? If you couldn’t trust me, I’d tell you you could trust me. If you could trust me, I’d tell you you could trust me. So, you believe what you want.”
“In our Book of the Dead, it warns us to beware of demons who will distract you and draw you away from the Light. Are you one of those?”
“Not that I know of, man. But I’ve been called worse.”
The train stopped at First Avenue; no one got on. We then descended into a long, black tunnel. I sensed we were under a body of water.
“Is there water above us?” I asked him.
“Yeah, the East River. Soon we’ll be in Brooklyn.”
“What is in Brooklyn?”
“Nothin’, man. Usually I just stay on the train when it gets to Canarsie and go back the other way. When we get back to Manhattan, I’m goin’ to 49th Street. You can come with or not. Your choice. One thing I can tell ya: there ain’t shit in Canarsie.”
At the first stop in Brooklyn a group of six young men entered our car. They were various shades of brown. They looked at us, whispered together and laughed. The largest one approached us.
“What the fuck you doin’ on our train?” he asked. His voice had a belligerent tone.
Leroy responded defiantly: “What choo mean ‘our train’? This here’s a public conveyance.”
The leader approached Leroy, sniffed him. “Man, you stink like a toilet! Hey,” he beckoned to the others in his group, “come here and smell this guy.”
“Pee-yooo,” they all said, holding their noses.
“And look at this one,” said another, fingering my robes in a most disrespectful manner. “What are you dressed up for? Is it Halloween already?”
“I do not know of this Halloween,” I said. They all laughed. These youths were definitely threatening us. I felt that they were working themselves up for a physical attack. But, if we—Leroy and I—were already dead, what could they do to us?
The youth that had addressed me turned to the others. “He don’t know about Halloween! Hey, where the fuck you from, anyway, China?”
“Nepal,” I said.
“Never heard of it. Must be one of those piddly-ass countries over in Asia.”
“That is correct,” I said.
The train pulled into another station and stopped.
“Let’s throw them off the train,” said the leader. “Man, you in Crip territory here. You won’t last five minutes.”
“No. I must stay on this Bardo train.”
They all started to grab me. Leroy ran to the other end of the car and cowered behind a seat. Instinctively, I defended myself, using the ancient Tibetan martial art of Sengueï Ngaro. In a flash, all six men were scattered on the floor of the train. The doors of the car were still open and all of them got up and fled as the doors closed. The Bardo train moved on toward the Light.
Leroy got up from the floor behind the seat where he had been hiding. “Holy shit, Dilgo, you kicked their asses! My man!”
“They forced me to break my vow of nonviolence. I wonder if this will affect my karma adversely in my next incarnation.”
“You be alright,” said Leroy. “None of them was hurt so bad they couldn’t get up and run.”
“You speak wisely, Leroy.” His words comforted me. “I think perhaps these were the demons the Book warns of. How did you die, Leroy?”
“I was livin’ on the streets. It was a very cold night. I got drunk on some cheap wine and fell asleep in a doorway. And I woke up here.”
“Sounds like a good death,” I said.
“It was! A very good death. I never felt a thing. Hell, I’d pick that death over some kinda cancer any day of the week. How did you die, Dilgo?”
“I lived 101 years on Earth. Peacefully, happily. Then I got very tired, so I left my body.”
“Wow. Now that sounds like a great death.”
“Yes, it was. All my brother monks were around me, chanting me into the next stage of existence. But I must admit, I never expected this. What do you do here?”
“I just ride different subways from station to station. I take the A Train, the double E, the IRT, this used to be the BMT. Of course, they don’t call them that anymore, but I’m still in 1965.”
“Do you ever get out of the subway?”
“Never. I can never get upstairs to the surface. And the only other people I see are dead like me.”
“Then those boys, the ones I beat up, they must be dead too.”
“Damn right. They be dead as mackerels. They just ain’t figured that out yet. And the station where they ran away, Lorimer Street… They were right, that is Crip territory, but it’s dead Crip territory. Of all the stations in the subway system, Lorimer Street is the closest to hell. The Crips there make you watch as they kill and mutilate everyone you’ve ever loved or cared about. I made the mistake of getting off there once, but I was lucky. I managed to cross to the other platform and get on the train goin’ the other way before they got finished killing my mother.”
I was looking out the front window as we neared the next stop. It was the next-to-last stop on the line, the one before Canarsie. “Look, Leroy! Can you see the Light? It’s getting brighter now.”
“Yeah. It is getting brighter. I can see it, Dilgo!”
The train stopped at East 105th Street and Turnbull Avenue. The doors opened and a monster got on our car. He looked and smelled like a rotting corpse. He walked stiffly, like a
reanimated dead person. When he tried to speak, guttural, gurgling sounds came out of his mouth. He approached us with outstretched arms, gurgling.
“Ahhh! What’s that, Dilgo? Let’s get the hell out of here!” Leroy started to run for the exit while the doors were still open. I grabbed him and held him back.
“No. This is another trick of the Bardo to keep us from the light. This creature is here to test our courage. Stand still and don’t move. It cannot hurt us.”
“It’s stink is already hurtin’ me,” said Leroy.
“Just stay still. Only one more stop to go.”
The white Light of Canarsie filled our car as we rolled into the Rockaway Parkway station. It was almost too bright to see the details of the station, but I could see there were stairs that led up from the platform.
“Goddamn. I wish I had my shades. I left them on a train about twenty years ago,” said Leroy.
“Don’t worry, Leroy. You will soon get used to the brightness.”
As we rolled into the station, the creature dissolved into the Light. The train stopped, the doors opened, and we walked out onto the platform.
“Where we goin?” asked Leroy. His voice quivered with trepidation. “I don’t wanna go to Canarsie.”
“It is not Canarsie, Leroy. It is the next phase of our existence.” I led him up the stairs. Sweet-smelling air was wafting in from above.
“But, I can’t go like this,” he said. “Look at my…” He looked down at his clothes to see his rags were gone and he was now resplendent in a beautifully-tailored white silk suit
with matching white buck shoes. “Look at my clothes! These are the baddest, most splendiferous mutha-fuckin’ threads of all time!”
“Yes,” I said, “and you smell good, too.”
Banner Image:By Fan Railer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons