I don’t believe in luck or fate or coincidence.
But I do believe in guardian angels.
I do because one night I took a subway train to Chinatown in New York City, I was saved by one, and somehow that same night, I became one.
At 18, I was a naïve, dark-haired college basketball player, certain I was headed for the Hall of Fame.
One night, after a game in Madison Square Garden, I got drunk. As drunk as I have ever been. Waiting for the subway, I got separated from my friends.
Uptown was home and downtown was lost. I stepped on the express train to lost.
At night in Manhattan, roaring through dark tunnels, it’s easy to lose your way. Alone, drunk, and now sick, I got on and off train after train. Then, exhausted, I stepped off onto a deserted platform in Chinatown. I slumped on one of the commuter benches and passed out. Much later, I felt someone shake me and looked up into the face of a stranger.
“You don’t belong here,” he said. I tried to answer, but could only manage the untranslatable lost language of Budweiser.
After a moment, the man said, “Come with me.”
He got me to my feet and helped carry me up onto the streets of Chinatown. We waited there in the dark, until finally, the stranger hailed a Checker Cab.
“Get in,” he said. And as we drove up onto East River Drive, I passed out again.
Sometime later, I came to. The stranger was shaking me. It was dawn, and we were in front of my college.
“You’re home,” he said.
I looked into his face. “Who are you?” I asked.
“Never mind that,” he answered.
I got out, staggered and fell then stumbled to my dorm. I was sick for two days, the worst hangover of my life. Word spread across the campus. I had been saved. Saved by a guardian angel.
A couple months later, I got a call from a friend asking me to join him in Connecticut, fifty miles away, for a party. I agreed but there was no train and I had no car. All I had was my thumb.
In the afternoon cold, I shivered by the highway trying to get a ride. It began to snow. As late winter darkness fell, I was about to give up. One more car, I told myself.
A VW hurtled by, then slowed, and stopped. I ran, jumped in and thanked the driver, a man in his mid-thirties with sad eyes. As we drove, he kept glancing at me, and I began to have a feeling that I had met him somewhere.
Finally I said, “You look so familiar. Do I know you?”
He stared ahead into the black and the deepening snow. “You don’t remember?” he asked.
Then he told me a story.
“I’m a drunk,” he said. “Not a ‘get-tuned-up-on-a-Friday-night’ kind of drunk. I’m a ‘too-much-ain’t-enough’ drunk. But three years ago I met a girl and fell in love, and it changed me. I stopped drinking. But after years of bars, I needed someplace to go when the urge hit. I’m a college basketball fanatic, so every time I wanted a drink, I’d find a game instead.”
I listened and stared at him, trying to recall his face.
“A couple months ago I was at her place in Chinatown,” he said. “In the middle of the night, we had a terrible fight. We had talked a little about getting married. She said, ‘We belong together,’ but all I could think was, ‘I’m just a drunk. I’ll screw this up just like I have everything I’ve ever done.’
“So I said, ‘I need more time.' She blew up and ended it and I walked out. Standing on the street at 3am I decided three years sober was long enough. I was gonna find as much gin as there was in Manhattan to pour it on my heartache. But when I walked down into the subway, I saw this drunk kid passed out.”
“Me?” I asked.
He nodded. “I recognized you. I’d seen you play a couple times and knew what college you went to. Just then a train came through and stopped. I was about to get on when I turned and looked back at you. I had to decide, go crawl into a bottle or help you crawl out. The gin could wait. I dragged you up onto the street and into a cab.”
Darkness was all around the VW now and a blizzard of white swirled about us.
“You got out of the cab, and I watched as you stumbled away. The driver asked, ‘Where to?’ You staggered and fell, then got to your feet and disappeared inside the gate. ‘So what’s it gonna be, Bub?’ the driver said. I took a deep breath. What's it gonna be.
“’Chinatown,’ I said.”
The deserted highway stretched before us, and snow filled the dark with white.
“We’ll be married later this summer,” he said.
We drove on in silence through the snowstorm. The drunk that saved a lost boy and the lost boy that saved a drunk, each through some unspeakable mystery, put in the other's path.
And later in the dark, he pulled to the side of the road to let me out near my destination.
As I stepped out, I turned to him and said, “My friends called you my guardian angel. You saved me."
“No,” he said. “If you had not been there, lost and drunk, I would’ve made a dive into a bottle and never climbed out. I would’ve lost the girl and then myself forever. You saved me.”
I closed the car door, with the black sky above and the snow swirling all around me. And I stood there watching the tail lights disappear into the night.
Sometimes now I have an odd feeling that this face I wear is not my own. That I am not who I think I am. That there is someone else quietly clamoring inside me. That he is whispering as loud as he can that I should remember. Remember who I really am. Remember what I have been all along.
When I was 18, my hair was dark. Now when I look in the mirror, all I see is a blizzard of white. For decades, my heart was as black as coal. Now some nights all I feel is white ash burning away the black at its edges. And sometimes just before sleep I still see a stranger who saved me. A stranger who I saved.
I do not believe in coincidence. Only the innocent, the untouched, do. Those who have never felt some unseen mystery brush by. Those who have never felt something far greater than our small reckoning can fathom.
And so I do believe in guardian angels. I met one and once, long ago, I became one.
Now sometimes when my back aches, I think maybe, just maybe, I am finally growing wings.