The Resurrection of Alan James / by Marc Librescu
Marc Librescu is a writer and photographer who lives in Orange County, California, with his wife. He is currently writing a science fiction comedy novel set in New York City. His travel articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times. Marc’s photographs have been exhibited at the Visual Arts Gallery in New York City and have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register.
Author’s Note: The character of Alan James is not-so-loosely based on my friend Alex John, who I met in 1981. Alex changed Meher Baba from someone I’d heard of to someone I know. Most of the early part of the story actually happened, including the Ouija board incident. The end bits only happened metaphorically. Unlike the protagonist of this story, I haven’t found fame and fortune as a writer, but as they say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope. . . . Alex dropped his body in 1996.
The Resurrection of Alan James
I used to think the idea that someone could come back from the dead was ridiculous. That was before I ran into my friend, Alan James, on a snowy February afternoon in New York City, exactly one year after his death.
When I first met Alan, he was living on East 4th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a four-story tenement. It was 1981, before the Lower East Side had felt the touch of gentrification. There was no Starbucks on Astor Place, no Gap on St. Mark’s Place, and no Tower Records on Broadway.
The people in the neighborhood bought groceries from corner bodegas. Drugs were big business. Some of the bodegas displayed a few dusty items on their shelves as a ruse . . . the real merchandise could be smoked, injected, or snorted, and was sold behind the counter for ten dollars a bag.
It was the heyday of the New York music scene. Musicians clad in black leather moved to the Lower East Side, drawn by the cheap rents. Pale-faced nocturnal punks with dyed-black spiked Mohawks and safety pins through their cheeks roamed St. Mark’s Place after dusk.
My friend Steve moved into the neighborhood after graduating from New York University. This wasn’t Fairbrook, the New Jersey suburb where we went to high school, but the rent was cheap, and after all, it was an apartment in New York City.
Steve told me stories about his neighbor who lived across the hall. His name was Alan James. Alan believed in reincarnation and Eastern religion. He believed that entities flew into his room through the walls of his apartment at night. He claimed that the Astor Place cube sculpture on Lafayette Place was the focal point of an energy vortex.
This seemed pretty crazy to me.
I met Alan on a hot Sunday morning in August. Steve and I were fighting hangovers from the night before and making breakfast when there was a knock on the door.
When Steve opened the door, I saw Alan James for the first time. He appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties. His faded pink T-shirt and wild gray hair contrasted with his chocolate-colored skin.
“Steven,” he said behind an impish grin, “I didn’t know you had company.”
Steve introduced us. Alan gave me a smile that would have lit up a book of wet matches. I shook his hand and felt a vibrant energy in his handshake. I realized that in a way I didn’t quite understand, he wasn’t an ordinary man.
Alan told me that he was a devotee of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual leader of Persian descent who died in 1969. I’d heard of Meher Baba . . . I had been a fan of The Who when I was a teenager, and Pete Townshend was a follower.
Alan was eager to show me his apartment so we went across the hall for the grand tour. There were photos of Meher Baba in every room. A framed black and white photo hung over his bed, showing a middle-aged man with a prominent nose and a large, bushy mustache standing on a mountaintop. A jacket covered most of his white robe. The expression on his face was a mixture of satisfaction, joy, and suffering.
Alan believed that Meher Baba was God. The idea of God coming back as a man isn’t new in the history of religion. Alan believed that he comes back again and again and that all the world’s great spiritual leaders—Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, and Zoroaster, to name a few—were all manifestations of the same God. He said that Meher Baba was God’s latest manifestation.
Alan understood that most people thought that his beliefs were crazy but he didn’t care; he wore his soul on his sleeve. He honored life by the simple act of living. As Alan once said, “I have one foot in this world and one foot on a banana peel.”
During a visit to his apartment, Alan showed me a collection of colored bottles filled with water that he’d placed on the fire escape. I asked what they were for.
“I read in a book that different colors have different healing properties,” he explained. “The way to take advantage of this is to fill red, yellow, and green bottles with water and place them in the sun for a few days. The sunlight allows the energy of the bottle’s color to get into the water. Then you drink the water. It’s supposed to be very good for you.”
Alan played the horses at Off Track Betting religiously, using a system he devised based on numerology. Even though his losses outnumbered his wins, he continued to make regular trips to OTB; always sure that the BIG WIN was just around the corner.
The main problem with Alan losing at the races was that he didn’t have all that much money to start with. Alan was living hand-to-mouth; a sudden outflow of cash meant that it became difficult to purchase basic necessities like food and clothing and to pay the bills on time.
The first time I called Alan and reached a recording saying the number had been temporarily disconnected, I was so worried that I looked up his ex-wife Carol and his friend Neil Hopkins, the jazz pianist. Neither of them had heard anything about Alan but Neil offered to drop by his apartment and check on him. Neil called me later the same day and told me that Alan was fine; his phone had been temporary disconnected because he hadn’t paid the phone bill.
It was two weeks until the phone service was restored. I explained to Alan how worried I’d been.
“Did you think that I dropped my body?” he asked. I could hear him smiling through the phone line.
“No,” I said. I was lying.
Most people used euphemisms like “passing away,” as a way to avoid the unpleasantness of the subject of death. When Alan talked about dropping his body, it wasn’t a euphemism. He believed that the body was like a set of clothes that the soul discarded when it was no longer needed. After you dropped your body, you would be reborn into a new body, which was like putting on a fresh set of clothes.
“Alan’s on vacation in this incarnation,” said Steve. I had no doubt that this was true. He joined the Merchant Marines and traveled the world when he was 18. He met all the jazz greats when he lived in Harlem in the 1940’s: Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, and Louis Armstrong, to name just a few.
Alan’s spiritual journey began in the back of a cab in the freewheelin’ sixties, thanks to a cabdriver named Frank who dispensed enlightenment along with a smooth ride in air-conditioned comfort. Frank turned Alan on to Meher Baba and there was no turning back.
“I felt the shakti,” said Alan. “There was all this energy flowing into me from God.”
There was no telling when Alan might feel shakti. He could be in the middle of a sentence, when he’d suddenly close his eyes and get a blissed-out expression on his face. His head would nod slowly up and down and then roll slowly from side-to-side. “It’s the shakti,” he would invariably say. “I’m playing with it.”
A few years before Alan died, he managed to get an apartment in a new building run by a Jewish organization. A small percentage of the apartments were set aside to go to lower-income residents of the neighborhood. The building was modern and clean, and it had a view.
Alan told me a story about running into one of his neighbors in the elevator of his new building. The neighbor was a woman who was about Alan’s age. He imitated her greeting for me, mimicking an old woman’s voice: “‘Hello, Alan, how are you today?’“
He raised his eyebrows and asked, “Mike, why does she have to talk like an old person? People don’t have to talk that way just because they’re old.”
I didn’t know the answer.
Alan’s mind didn’t age, but he couldn’t stop the effects of time on his body. A minor heart attack landed him in the hospital. When the admitting nurse asked him his name, he replied, “I am God.”
That worried the hospital staff.
They thought he might be schizophrenic, so they asked him some questions to test his sanity.
“Mr. James, do you know the name of the president of the United States?” they asked.
“The cowboy,” he answered, referring to Ronald Reagan. He flashed a disarming smile. They all had a good laugh. The hospital staff decided not to ship Alan off to Bellevue.
Alan’s heart stopped during the surgery. He had a near-death experience; he floated out of his body and saw himself down below on the operating table. He was aware that his body wasn’t breathing and watched as the doctors tried to resuscitate him.
“I saw a bright light,” he told me later. “I floated toward it. I saw Meher Baba.”
“Then what happened?” I asked
“Baba embraced me,” he said, his voice full of excitement.
“And you knew you were dead?”
“What were you thinking?” I asked.
The doctors got Alan’s heart pumping again and he found his way back inside his body. He resumed his life . . . he played his piano, he listened to jazz, he read books . . . but he had slowed down considerably.
Alan created art, which he displayed in various places in his apartment. His works were found objects, the type of art that Marcel Duchamp called ready-mades. A rusted mattress spring hung from one wall. Another wall displayed a bunch of old hangers tied together with string; their faded, yellow paper covers advertised the name of some long-gone dry cleaner. There was a sardine can on his night table with the cover rolled back to reveal an eerie hologram of an Australopithecus skull that he tore out of an old National Geographic.
A smooth stone about the size of a cantaloupe sat on the threshold of the bathroom doorway.
“Is that more of your art?” I asked.
“No, he’s a houseguest. Stones have a rudimentary form of consciousness, you know.”
I didn’t know.
Alan was invited to exhibit his work at a local gallery. But his health took a turn for the worse. He developed chronic bronchitis, which kept him from attending the opening of the art exhibition. He was too fatigued to go out much. He wheezed and was frequently out of breath.
Looking back, I should have been able to tell that Alan was dying. Maybe I took it for granted that he was always going to be around. Maybe I was too busy with my work. Alan asked me to come over and visit whenever I called. I always said I would but I never found the time.
I called Alan one day and got the now-familiar recording telling me his phone was temporarily disconnected. He’s still playing the races.
I called again a week later and got the same recording. I tried a few times during the following weeks but the number was still disconnected.
Not long after, I took a break from doing some research when I picked up the phone and absently dialed Alan’s number. I was relieved to hear the sound of someone lifting the receiver. My relief was short-lived; the voice at the other end wasn’t Alan and it wasn’t even speaking English. I hung up and redialed, but the same guy answered. I asked for Alan; the voice at the other end responded in a language that I couldn’t identify.
I discussed the situation with Steve one day at his house over lunch. “Either he moved or he’s dead,” he said succinctly.
“Or lying in a hospital somewhere.”
We pondered this for a while. “Give me the phone,” I said. “I’m going to try and get the phone number of the building that he lived in.”
I made a few calls and soon had the number of the front desk. A woman answered. “I’m calling about Alan James,” I said.
“I’m a friend of Alan’s.” I could feel what was coming next.
“Mr. James passed on a few months ago,” she said.
I thanked her and hung up the phone. I broke the news to Steve and sat down, letting the news sink in.
My friend Alan James was dead.
It was Steve’s idea to try to contact Alan with a Ouija board. “I want to find out when he died,” he said.
I’d played with a Ouija board as a joke when I was a kid, but I’d never used one seriously before as an adult. I was a little hesitant about the whole idea. I’d heard that Ouija boards could be dangerous. I’d seen The Exorcist. But Steve convinced me that if we were contacting Alan, we’d be safe.
Our Ouija board was homemade. Steve tore a sheet of yellow construction paper from his son’s pad and wrote the numbers 0 to 9 at the top in blue crayon. Beneath that, he wrote the alphabet in three neat rows. He finished by writing the words YES, HELLO, GOODBYE, and NO, across the bottom of the page.
He disappeared upstairs and returned with a cassette recorder and a box of Blue Pearl incense. “The recorder is so we can have a record of the session,” Steve explained. “The Blue Pearl was Alan’s favorite incense until his breathing problems forced him to stop using it.”
Steve lowered the lights in the living room and lit a stick of the incense. The sweet smoky odor began to fill the room. We sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor around the play table that Steve’s kids used for coloring. Then we each placed two fingers on the mouth of the baby food jar that served as our planchette.
The jar began to move wildly across our makeshift board. My heart leaped.
“I don’t believe this,” I said.
“Hello, Alan,” said Steve. “Are you there?”
The jar twisted under my fingers and pulled down sharply. It stopped at the word HELLO.
“How are you?” I asked uncertainly. Again, I felt the baby food jar pull under my fingers. I read the letters as the jar stopped over them: I . . . A . . .
The jar continued to move.
“Push down on the jar as hard as you can to try and stop it from moving,” said Steve. I pressed with all my strength. The jar didn’t even slow down.
“I am fine,” I read.
“Alan,” said Steve. “We didn’t know you had died. When did you die?”
I NO D
“I no D,” read Steve. “I don’t get it.”
“I’m not dead.” I said. “He’s telling us he’s not dead.”
“Alan,” said Steve, “is there anything you want to tell us?”
“What’s it like where you are?” he asked.
FAR FUCKING OUT
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, at least we know it’s Alan.”
The jar moved again. It stopped on GOOD BYE.
“Wait,” said Steve. “We have more to ask you.”
The jar moved around the board and stopped again on GOOD BYE.
There was a breeze in the room and the curtains on the patio doors moved. We were interrupted by the electronic sounds of a baby’s cry coming from the monitor. “That would be Evan waking up from his nap,” said Steve. He went upstairs to attend to him.
It was hard to believe, but we had spoken to Alan. It was high strangeness and it was about to get stranger.
I spoke to Steve on the phone about a week later. When I asked what he thought about our session with the Ouija board, there was a long pause.
“I know this is going to sound weird,” he said. “I know we contacted Alan, but I don’t remember any of the details.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I can’t remember any of the questions that we asked or any of the answers. I tried to listen to the tape we made. When I turned on the recorder . . .” He paused. “Do you remember that tape Alan had of Muktananda chanting? The one where he and his followers chant the same line over and over for an hour?”
“I remember it. Alan constantly had to buy new cassette players because of that tape. He said that the tape had so much shakti that it kept blowing out his machines.”
“Well, that’s what’s on the tape we made. It kind of fades in and out but it’s the same chanting. Listen . . .”
There was a faint click and I heard the drone of rhythmic chanting. I recognized it as the chanting from Alan’s tape.
I had mixed feelings about Alan’s death over the following months. On one hand, it felt like he wasn’t really gone. After all, he had given us a message that his soul still survived. On the other hand, I missed him.
The new year came and went. On a cold day in February, I found myself walking down 2nd Avenue in the Lower East Side. I was on my way to meet my agent, Laura Magnussen, for dinner. We were in negotiations with Putnam for my first novel, Shadow of the Blue Moon. I turned onto 6th Street and cursed the biting wind that blew into my face.
I was startled by the sound of footsteps directly behind me. I hadn’t heard anyone approaching, so whoever it was must have crept up silently. I turned quickly but there was no one there. I continued walking along 6th Street, toward 1st Avenue.
When I heard the footsteps again, it sounded like there was someone behind me, hurrying to catch up. I turned around but again there was no one there. I was feeling a little spooked, so I began to walk faster.
“Mike!” said a voice from behind me. I turned to see who was there.
I felt a cold chill that had nothing to do with the temperature.
“Mike!” said Alan James.
This couldn’t be happening, but there he stood, large as life, with a big grin on his face. He looked younger than the last time I’d seen him. His hands were buried in the pockets of the gray cloth overcoat that he’d often worn in winter. I remembered the long pink scarf that was wrapped around his neck and hung down to his knees.
“Give me a hug,” he said. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“But how . . . Alan, you’re dead!”
We looked into each other’s eyes. “Do I look dead to you? I dropped my body, but I told you, I’m not dead. They let me come back today to see you. How’ve you been?”
Vapor came out of his mouth as his breath escaped into the cold air. This wasn’t my imagination. It was Alan and he was real.
“I’ve been well, Alan,” I said. “I’m on the verge of selling my first novel.”
“That’s wonderful! How’s Steven?”
“He’s fine. His wife and kids are well.”
“Give him my love.”
“I’ll try,” I said. “But I can’t just tell him that I ran into you on the street and you asked for him. He’ll think that I lost my mind.”
“Let’s walk,” he said. He took my arm and we walked back toward 2nd Avenue.
“I missed you,” I said. “Steve and I were sorry that we didn’t find out that you died . . . um, dropped your body until months later. We would have liked to have gone to your funeral.”
“Don’t worry, I never liked funerals, anyway. Everyone is always so sad at funerals. What do they have to be sad about? They shouldn’t feel sad for the person that dropped his body. He’s happy.
“Do you know what the hardest part about dying is? The hardest part is watching your own funeral. Everyone was so sad. I wanted to yell to them, ‘I’m happy, don’t cry, I’m happy!’ But they can’t help it. They don’t understand.”
We turned left and walked down 2nd Avenue.
There was so much I wanted to ask him. “Was that you on the Ouija board?”
“Of course. The board is one of the ways of contacting those who passed. It has its problems, though. On our side, there are many entities fighting for control of the board, and some of them aren’t friendly.”
“What’s it like being dead?”
“It’s difficult to explain. Death is just another form of life. Everyone is very happy. Most are sad when they have to leave and come back to this plane in new bodies. Dying isn’t hard. Being born is hard. Living in this plane is hard.
“Did I tell you that today is the first anniversary of when I dropped my body? It was one year ago in your time. We don’t have time the way that you do.
“I’m sorry, Mike, but I can’t stay much longer. Tell Steven to make sure to give his son music lessons; he’s going to be a famous musician some day.”
“Alan,” I said. “I love you.” I hugged him for what seemed like an eternity.
“Good-bye, Mike,” he said. “Jai Baba.” Without any fanfare, he vanished. There was no sound, no flash of light. He didn’t dissolve dramatically. One moment Alan was standing there, the next moment he wasn’t.
I stood alone on 2nd Avenue in front of an all-night coffee shop as tears streamed down my face. I walked the five blocks to Laura Magnussen’s apartment in the cold and tried to compose myself so she wouldn’t see that I had been crying.
The following year was eventful. I was dating Laura Magnussen. Together, we waited for the proof of Hungry Black Moon to arrive from Putnam. I’d started my second novel, Suicide Hotel. Steve’s wife was pregnant with their third child. Things were going well.
I told Steve about my meeting with Alan. He didn’t believe a word of it, although I noticed that he bought an electronic keyboard for his son Evan. I never mentioned it again, not to him or to anyone else.
I thought about my meeting with Alan every now and then, but between writing the novel and seeing Laura, I was pretty busy. I was at Laura’s loft one evening in February when I realized that the next day would be exactly one year since I saw Alan; the second anniversary of his death.
I found myself wondering if he would come back again. He made a point of mentioning that he had come back on the anniversary of the day he died. If I wanted to see him badly enough, surely he’d know and appear a second time.
By morning, I was set on my course of action. I kissed Laura goodbye and explained that I was going home to write. I felt bad about lying to her but I couldn’t tell her that I was going to spend the day walking around the streets of the Lower East Side in search of a dead friend.
I had a muffin and a cup of coffee at the Starbucks on Astor Place. I spent the rest of the morning wandering the streets. I stopped in Tompkins Square Park to rest. The weather was mild for February so I was able to sit on a bench and think about likely places to look for Alan.
I grabbed lunch at a cafe on 2nd Avenue. I sat at the table and stared at my sandwich, knowing that I was on a fool’s mission and feeling like a fool. Here was Michael Strasser, author, walking the streets of New York City in search of a dead man. Maybe Steve was right. Maybe I was out of my mind.
I spent the afternoon walking the streets. I looked at every face, peered into alleys, and watched the shadows looking for Alan.
The sun sank in the late afternoon sky, along with my spirits. I looked at my watch and noted that Laura would be home from work in about an hour. I decided to leave a message on her machine and tell her not to make dinner; I’d be over around 7:00 and we could go out to eat. There was a bar across the street. They’d most likely have a pay phone.
The bar was called Assassin. It was decorated in black and chrome. A few people sat at the bar and nursed their drinks. I made my way to the phone in the back, left a message on Laura’s answering machine, and walked back toward the bar. I’d been walking around all day and a beer seemed like a good idea.
I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer from the bartender.
Face it. Alan isn’t coming. He’s dead.
As the bartender brought my beer, a man walked in and sat down next to me. He ran a long finger nervously through his shaggy hair and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his leather jacket.
I’d spent the day alone and welcomed the opportunity for conversation.
“Do you believe people can come back from the dead?” I asked.
He looked at me uncertainly . . . most likely wondering where the conversation was going. “Sure,” he said. “Why not? All kinds of things can happen.”
I shifted my weight on the barstool and gulped the last of my beer. The jukebox started up. It was “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” by the Ramones.
“You’re right,” I said. I told him about Alan James . . . how we met, what he was like, his death, the Ouija board incident, and his return last year. It felt good to finally tell the story to someone after keeping it a secret for so long. What did it matter to me if a stranger thought I was crazy?
I bought a round for both of us and recounted the day’s events, ending with me finding my way to the bar.
My companion was silent. He gazed at his glass, transfixed. When he looked at me, something in his eyes made him seem older.
“That’s some story,” he said. “It sounds like your friend was a remarkable guy.”
“He was,” I said.
“I know what it’s like to lose someone close. My friend Jeff died a few years ago. He was the bass player in our band. Jeff had a heroin problem. I stopped by his apartment on Avenue B one day. When he didn’t answer the bell, I ran up the three flights of stairs to his apartment. I banged on the door but there was still no answer. The door was unlocked, so I went inside. Jeff was in bed. I tried to wake him up but he wouldn’t get up because he was dead.”
“His death hit me really hard. We were pretty close. I’d never lost anyone that mattered to me before. I felt really bad. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. But one day, instead of focusing on my loss and my anger at Jeff for being stupid enough to get himself killed, I thought about his good points. He was a junkie but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t basically a good person. He just messed up, you know what I mean?”
“I do.” I said.
“When I thought about Jeff, I could feel his presence; it was like he was still around. I believe that when you think about people you loved who died, the memories keep them alive.”
I understood completely. It didn’t matter whether or not Alan came back today. He’d always be alive as long as I remembered him.
I looked at my reflection in the mirror across the bar. I saw the guy sitting next to me but his image was distorted, fragmented like a color newspaper photo printed off-registration. I watched wide-eyed as a second figure separated from the first. It was blurred but it slowly came into focus and I was looking into the mirror at the reflection of Alan James.
I looked away from the mirror and over at the guy sitting to my right, who was quietly lighting a cigarette. There was no apparition of Alan.
“Hey, it was nice talking to you,” he said. He exhaled a puff of blue-white smoke and stood up. “I hope you find your friend.”
I watched him walk toward the door. He had nearly reached the doorway when he stopped and turned to look at me.
“Thanks for the story,” he said. He smiled broadly from ear-to-ear. “It was far-fucking-out.”
I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I grabbed a twenty-dollar bill, threw it on the bar, and ran out after him.
The street was empty.
“Alan! Alan!” I yelled. My voice echoed hollowly into the deserted street. Street lights threw ghostly shadows onto 2nd Avenue. Somewhere, far off, a siren wailed.
I took a deep breath and there was a trace of incense in the winter air. I was sure it was Blue Pearl.