Traveling in Troubled Times

Sarah Art, Fashion & Travel, Slider Leave a Comment

I think for a good many of us living in New York, the current Corona Virus pandemic and accompanying economic downturn has echoes of past traumas including the 9-11 attacks and the Great Recession, a decade ago.  With my celebrancy work schedule still fairly light in the winter months, I have considered trying to take a short getaway to try to gain some much needed balance and perspective.  With the unpredictable nature of the virus, I’ve yet to “pull the trigger” on a ticket on Kayak.  But, thinking about it has returned me to the tumult of September, 2001, when travel was a welcome tonic for what ailed me.  I share that story again here:

The year was 2001.  I was depressed about the end of my marriage and had just moved into New York City, from my suburban home in Princeton, New Jersey.  After work, from time-to-time, I would sit on the front step of my Upper East Side apartment building, pondering my future.  Perhaps a week before the 9-11 attacks, I met a neighbor Homer Avila—he would walk his over-fed Chihuahua “Biscuit” in the early evenings.   Walking the dog was challenging, as Homer had lost his leg and was on crutches.   I soon learned that bone cancer took his leg that April.   As upsetting as this was, I was startles to find out that Homer was a professional dancer, since his college days at the University of Tennessee.  The universe dealt him an unbelievably cruel blow.

Only a few weeks later, New York sustained the attacks of September 11.  New Yorkers, of course, were frantic and scared.  On a personal level, I was in wallowing in my own despair, while Homer was coping with the devastating consequences of this life-threatening disease.  By then, I had come to learn the healing properties of travelling.  The month prior, I travelled through South Africa with a small group from a nonprofit organization.  So energized by that trek, I immediately booked a solo journey to Ireland for the Columbus Day weekend in October.   

After 9-11, hotels and airlines were extending bargain basement offers to get people travelling again.  And so, I suggested to Homer—a man I scarcely knew—that “We should get out of town.”  I thought that Miami Beach might be a neat place to visit for a quick weekend getaway. Homer had been to Miami once, and I–having never been–was captivated by its exotic reputation as the “Gateway to Latin America.”  While many of my friends thought I was “crazy” for jetting off to an unknown city with a stranger, I had that deep sense that this would be a wonderful experience. So, I honored that prompting, and we left New York early on Saturday morning for a whirlwind visit to Miami Beach. In retrospect, I believe that I was an unknowing (but willing!) assistant in some cosmic plan that enveloped Homer with love and support that weekend.  Time and again, we “stumbled” upon people from various points during Homer’s life as a dancer.  It was one of the most magical two days of my life. 

Upon our arrival in Miami, we off to mill about the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall.  The first guest in our heart-warming story was a young man.  He immediately recognized Homer, and we went over to chat with the young man and his friend.  The fellow explained that Homer had been one of his instructors at a summer camp in Maine, many years ago.  We were all delighted by the serendipitious connection, and Homer and I continued on our way. 

Later that afternoon, we ran into a woman who also recognized Homer.  She called out his name and came forward to chat.  She enthusiastically talked about sharing dance rehearsal space with Homer in Brooklyn.  What are the chances of two random meetings in a far-away city, particularly a city that Homer had only been to once?!  That evening, a balmy Saturday in Miami Beach, Homer and I attended the season opening of the Miami City Ballet.  I was a newly initiated dance enthusiast and was delighted that Homer managed to secure two tickets to the performance.  When we arrived to the Jackie Gleason Theatre, we were ushered to prime seats for the performance, arranged by the dance company.  The performance was noteworthy in a number of respects including the fact that we started by singing the Star Spangled Banner, not a typical activity at a cultural event, but a sign that we all felt patriotism grow out of our fear.  During the intermission, Edward Villella, the founding director of the Miami Ballet Company, dashed to greet Homer and offer his good wishes and affection, along with a generous hug.

We ended the evening sitting around the reflecting pools of the Delano hotel.  With the cool breeze of the ocean, wrapped in the sophisticated hospitality of this hotel, we mused about our own meeting and the uncanny events of the trip.  He was grateful, and so was I.  Upon our return to New York, I came to learn that Homer was a dancer of some note in the modern dance community.  For most of his career he danced in the Avila-Weeks Company.  Although his “traditional” dance career was over after the diagnoses, Homer transformed his work, recognizing his new reality. He continued to do choreographic work and actually performed as a soloist.  His dignity and grit drew admiration from dance lovers throughout the City and beyond.  With a new-found celebrity, he was invited to partake in international events, as well as the famed Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  In a wonderful act of grace and courage, he started a small charity called “One Step Forward” to provide financial assistance to uninsured dancers who faced health problems.  

Homer and I remained in touch upon our return from the trip.  I have always been thankful that I followed my heart in taking this journey.  Whatever joy he may have gleaned from this adventure, the trip was a gift beyond measure for me.  The experience reminded me to be open to others and that travel—near or far—can provide a fantastic prism through which to learn about life and ourselves.  As is too often the case with these horrible cancers, Homer’s disease returned with a vengeance.  He died, at the age of 48, in 2004,   For years after this experience, I returned to Miami Beach each September to honor our journey. I will always carry a little of Homer’s spirit and the sunshine of Miami Beach in my heart.

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