We take people for granted, don’t we? We are quick to react. We judge, compare, and analyze people without giving ourselves a chance to see them objectively. We forget that every interaction has the potential to teach us something, help us remember, or change our perspective fundamentally. I have been guilty of this. I once met a man in my hotel room in New York, and I did nothing but to judge him and write him off as a complete weirdo. Only did I realize the significance of our interaction until exactly a year later. So I guess it would be fair to share this story, right?
It was February of 2015, and I was in New York city furthering my quest for fame and capital. It had been just three years since the beginning of my career, and I had already achieved everything a Western mind would consider being a successful photographer. So there I was, in New York, setting the foundation for "bigger" and “better” experiences.
It had been a snowy week, and the city looked like a living postcard; a beautiful display of the struggle between the convenience-driven human and its co-existence with nature. During snowfall, a blanket of silence would cover the city, and all activity seemed to cease. A sense of calmness would take over the otherwise anxious city.
I was accompanied by my friend Nicholas whom I had already spent a week in Brooklyn with. We had set off early that day to explore the city with our cameras until I had to relocate to Soho to stay at The Bowery Hotel for the following seven days.
The room was booked by a client who has also become a dear friend, so all was set for a memorable experience ahead. Upon checking in, a charming man in his late twenties, early thirties jumped in and grabbed our bags. We didn’t get a chance to decide whether wanted to carry our own stuff or have someone take it, but from the way it all happened, it was evident that the decision was made for us. "Do you have cash so we can tip him?" became my anxiety. We were escorted to our room on the 11th floor by Ramone, one of the bellhop boys (sounds like a gang; Bellhop Boys). Upon entering the room, he gave us a brief tour and proved his charm by walking over to one of the windows, opening it, and telling us that we can smoke “certain substances” if we keep it by the window. Nick and I had spent an entire day walking around, so this news made us feel all sorts of happy. To return the gesture we asked if he wanted to join us in our use of the window, to which he agreed to. He was going to end his shift in eleven minutes.
At 4:11 p.m., Ramone returned to the room, and by then Nick had finished off rolling a fantastic blunt. (A cigar hollowed out and filled with marijuana) We sat around a circular table by the window of the room, facing the street, and started the ritual of passing the blunt around and getting to know one another. The conversation began with the trading of stories and backgrounds, along with topics about the weather, work, surface-level stuff. We learned that he had just moved from Florida, after selling off all of his belongings and relocating to the city with his dog to pursue his dreams of being a theater actor. He had been deeply inspired by a book he had read that changed the direction of his entire life. We were approaching the last bit of blunt, and by then the conversation had gone into an unknown territory. I was too high to realize this transition at the time, but from I remember, I fully understood what he was saying, and then I was baffled and paranoid.
The conversation suddenly went from a group dynamic to something he was entirely in control of. He asked us if we knew anything about breathing techniques, to which we answered no to. He then began to demonstrate a breathing technique and wanted us to follow along. I could not get myself to breathe the way he was asking us to. My stomach was tense. I could not find a rhythm. Plus, I was feeling insecure about the fact that he was watching me fail at breathing. "What the fuck is wrong with me?" “Breeeeeathe.”
He then started to talk about how he can gather enough air inside of his body to make himself weightless, and ultimately, levitate, which he tried to demonstrate. He stood in the middle of the room with his knees bent, arms in front of him, and created an air bubble inside of his torso. His stomach was making really loud strange noises, and he even burped a few times. I, in my state of paranoid highness, had reached the conclusion that any second this man was going to shit his pants in the middle of my hotel room, and that we had to somehow deal with it (Later I found out that Nick was fearing that this man was going to knock us out and steal our stuff.) By then the experience had become a bizarre one; one that I could share at a party if I need to bond with anyone about how weird New York city is.
He sat back down and I was relieved that no one was going to be defecating in the middle of the hotel room. At the same time my friend Isabelle arrived. Perfect timing! We had made plans earlier to go to dinner and catch up, which I had forgotten about in my state of confusion, so when she arrived, it felt like an angel had come unexpectedly to save us from the craziness we were trapped in. I say trapped because both Nick and I were too nice to say "hey man, get out of here with your shenanigans" and kick him out. Like any person who wants to be respectable, we sat there and took it, politely.
Isabella arrived and settled onto the bed as we continued the conversations. Luckily she was not receptive to Ramone's charm, so the space he had created began to evaporate, and freedom was finally within reach. We started to get ready to leave, but since Ramone could not be seen hanging out with the guests of the hotel, we had to help him sneak out. We now needed a plan. "God damn it" I kept thinking to myself, "he's never going to leave us!". It was decided that he would cover his head with a hoodie, as we circled around him to block any of his coworkers from seeing him. Unfortunately for him, the elevator we walked into was being operated by a colleague of his. What he decided to do next shocked me. He pushed through the barricade we had created around him and went straight to the back corner of the elevator, while still covering his face. He then decided to face the wall for the entire elevator ride. It could not have been more obvious that someone is trying to hide something! The man in the elevator kept trying to catch a clue from the corner of his eye, but to act respectful towards us, he played along. We finally got out and went onto have dinner. The topic of conversation for the rest of that night was what happened in that hotel room. Nothing else.
The following days I would see Ramone in passing, waving hellos and making small-talk, but that would be the last I would see of him.
Fast forward to February of 2016. I had ended two very close friendships at the end of 2015, starting the new year alone and depressed; questioning my entire path and the pursuit of happiness. I was desperately trying to bring calm to my life. I was either replying the past in my head or anticipating the future. I knew I had to slow down. I had a feeling that I need to find a new path because the way I had taken had proved to be as empty as the goals I had reached. I had been shooting celebrities and models every single day for the past four years, trying to "achieve success" so I knew nothing else about life. My love life was a joke, most of my friendships had become superficial, and I felt empty inside.
Out of desperation, I started googling how to meditate. I read some articles and tried to follow instructions on how to meditate. None of it worked. Within three seconds of closing my eyes, my mind would become flooded with thoughts, and my body wanted to do anything but to sit still. It wasn't working. It was all bullshit. As I was about to give up on the entire thing, I suddenly had a thought. I remembered the breathing Ramone tried to teach me in my room at the Bowery Hotel.
So that night, I lit some candles, sat on my chair, smoked a bowl, and tried the breathing. "Breathe in through your nose while you fill your stomach with air, then push out all of the air through your nose while pushing in your stomach until there is no more air. Repeat."
It worked. I entered a state of being I had never felt before. I felt vast. I felt like I could hear what was quieter than silence. This state of being lasted a few minutes, but it shook me to my core. I realized that I know absolutely nothing about anything. Everything I had learned in school, everything that was told to me by parents, family, teachers, friends, was false. I had found a deep reservoir of "something." So I committed, and for the first half of 2016, I spent most of my days in solitude and in meditation. Hours stretched to years, and I gained self-knowledge as I had never before. I felt acceptance, forgiveness, and death. At some the meditation became a constant state of being, where every act became a form of meditation/attention itself. Eventually, in June, I took my first tab of LSD, and took the the process of self-exploration to a new level. You can read about that experience here.
So, it was Ramone who planted a seed and helped me overcome the walls of my own mental prison. It was through an interaction that I had judged and categorized as "bizarre" that I gained something precious. The simple act of breathing changed the course of my life and allowed me to have the capacity for harmony. Otherwise, I would still be running.
I haven't had any contact with Ramone since those days, but I hope that wherever he is, he is full of love and is doing what he is here to do. I am forever grateful for the seed he planted in my being, and I hope that by reading this post, you consider every person as a potential teacher. Afterall, we are all each other's messengers.