A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Greetings from the Laundry Basket, or more accurately THE LAUNDRY B SKET, a laundromat in Austin. The tall and weathered man next to me has been listening to Talk Radio: an anti-pornography Texan made the shrewd point that cigarettes can’t be advertised on TV. Then time ran out.
A couple near me that seem to be perpetually in combat (he called her a pig) drew my attention when their little boy, Bradley, wandered over to the Laundry Lady and she called out, “What happened to his neck?” “He got that wrestling with his father,” the mother returned cheerfully. And repeated it. Hmm. Wrestling with his father. . . . “He won’t anymore. He’s dead,” says the cowboy on TV. “Dead? How’d he get dead?” asks the other cowboy. The Pig Man just hit Bradley and said, “Behave!”
I went on a blind date to the Nuclear Freeze Walk around Town Lake in Austin with Julie Niehaus, who, unlike my first and only other blind date (arranged by Martin and copiously described by him as “youthful”), was not fifteen years older than me and gray-haired, but young, trim and recently divorced. Unfortunately her father is a vice president of Union Carbide, which I recently demonstrated against, and her passion in life is the State of Israel, while I favor the PLO. (Also she has a $90,000 house and I live out of a small brown bag.) In this case the theory that Opposites Attract did not hold, though we did have a frank discussion of our ruined relationships, watching the waterski competition on Town Lake.
An oriental couple near us was teaching their child to throw rocks into the water as I shouted against Western medicine: “This doctor told me I had a urinary infection, and had to kill it with antibiotics before it spread to my kidneys. That’s how we got in Vietnam!” The couple turned to us worriedly, then smiled — they must have been Vietnamese.
Driving me home, she said, half to herself, summing up our date: “I’m learning there’s a lot of other people who’ve also screwed up their lives.” So I guess our alliance was a success.
As I stood on a wall next to I-35 in Austin two guys in an aged pickup stopped below me.
“Put your stuff in the back,” they offered. I hoisted my bags and started to climb in the rear, too, when one of them said, “No reason to sit in the heat when we got air conditioning.”
I entered the cab, noticing it was warm.
“You have air conditioning?” I asked.
“When it’s on,” the driver grinned. That should have made me suspicious.
Their names were Larry and Buzz and they were a study in rural decay: unshaven, creased skin, their teeth divided between golden and tobacco-stained. Larry was the silent one and Buzz the salesman. After some preliminary exploration of my finances, Buzz announced, “We have a money-making proposition for you.”
“That’s OK,” I replied immediately. Generally in hitchhiking this refers to an activity prohibited by the Old Testament.
“Well then, we’ll find another hitchhiker,” Buzz said, slowing down.
My curiosity started itching. “What is it?” I asked.
“We’ll give you $300 to cash a check — and it ain’t even a bad check!” Buzz exclaimed. I thanked them and left.
My next ride, a Robert Redford look-alike from Lewisville, advised that I should have cashed the check. Signing a second-party check isn’t illegal in Texas as long as you sign your real name, he explained. But he did allow that Buzz and Larry probably would have rolled me for the money.
David had come to Texas twenty years ago with $1, and made $110 hustling pool the first night. He knew a great deal about various swindles. His guess was that Larry and Buzz had hotwired a backhoe standing by the highway and used it as collateral for a quick bank loan.
He explained a complex Bank Examiner scam he seemed to know intimately. “I’m investigating an embezzler in your bank,” you tell a prosperous but gullible individual, showing him your Bank Examiner business card. “The first thing I want you to do is check my credentials.” He calls the number of your “superior” — a confederate in a phone booth at the State Capitol — who verifies that you’re legitimate. Then you swear him to secrecy.
You explain that you don’t want to take his money, just copy down the serial numbers — the bills will never leave his sight. Then, while you’re doing so, a crisis develops: you run out of time, your plane’s about to leave. In desperation you call your boss, who orders you to bring the money to the office and return it the next day. At this point, the pigeon is your fast friend — he’s been helping copy down the numbers — and he cheerfully bags his money for you.
“No one ever objects?”
“Never. This preacher in Oklahoma got taken for $17,000.”
“But then they can describe you,” I point out.
“You ever hear someone describe somebody? ‘Blond hair, about six feet, no scars.’ ” He smiled.
Today this hitcher walked up to me on the highway — a little stoop-shouldered guy in a flannel shirt, about my age, with an “OKC” sign like me.
“Do you know my Father?” he asked. I nodded and he smiled.
“Where you going?” I asked.
“You got work up there?”
“I’m going back to get my old lady.”
“She ran off?”
“You had fights?”
“She ran off ’cause I got too paranoid.”
“Did you hit her?”
“I never hit her, but I shook her — that was the last time. That really got to her when I shook her. You want some whiskey?” He withdrew a flask from his back pocket.
“No thanks. What were you paranoid about?”
He took a swallow. “I thought somebody was trying to kill me.”
He shook his head. “Just the Lord.”
“I don’t think the Lord wants to kill you.”
“I heard Him saying so, in my head. I still hear it.” His fingernails were bitten all the way down. “Don’t you think there’s a point where you’ve just gone too far and you can’t go back?”
“No, God loves us. It’s never too late. You can always go back,” I said.
Gradually I came to suspect he believed his actual father was God. “I know my younger brother is superior because he’s spent a lot more time with my Father,” he testified. His father was a butcher.
He said some wonderful things, including that the Cowboys will inherit the earth.
“They say it’s a man’s world,” he noted, “and just lately I realized who the Man is.”
He showed me a plastic medallion that looked like it came out of a bubble gum pack — it was one of those pictures that changes when you tilt it. It bore the face of a black ballplayer — his name was Curtis something. His number was 33.
“You see,” he said, handing it to me, “It’s just One Man. I want to show my old lady that — that it’s just One Man.”
I tilted it, and the athlete appeared holding a bat. I angled it back and forth, enjoying the alternation: his relaxed, proud smile, his batting stance. His body gave off power. That guy was right, it was just One Man.
As I travel I notice almost nothing about topography except rivers. I was awed by the Mississippi — it seems mythic even while you’re looking at it — and I was pleased yesterday to relearn that the Red River actually is a deep brown-red. All other terrain I divide into two categories: “gently rolling” and “mean.” North Florida and the Hill country of Texas are both mean — I like that. Everything is spiny and bent from the war to live. For some reason such landscape registers in my mind as mystical — perhaps because my own spiritual victories have been hard won.
Anyway, Texas was “rolling hills” up out of Austin on 35. (Texas is always greener than one expects, probably because “The Texas Rangers” TV show was shot in California.) And here in Elk City, Oklahoma, I noticed a third terrain — wind. The land has disappeared and been replaced by wind (this letter just blew into a ditch) — wind so strong that when Bill, who signs himself “The Minstrel” on lampposts, handed me his guitar, he said, “Be careful it doesn’t blow away,” and that wasn’t a joke. My hat blew off sixteen times before I gave up and stuffed it in my pack.
But that was after I met Ozzy, or “Ace,” the vice president of the El Paso chapter of the Hell’s Angels, on an entrance ramp outside Sanger, Texas. He’s 5’6”, 220 pounds, and he told me almost immediately, “I haven’t had anything to eat for three days.” We were about to split up, but I offered him some sourdough bread and sesame butter, and while we were snacking a van stopped. It was five guys coming home from painting all day in Dallas, getting as loaded as possible.
“Do you want to blow one?” a guy with a hat asked, holding aloft a joint.
Ozzy, who is thirty-six, with a biker’s cap, a “Kiss Me I’m A Leprechaun” button, a fringe beard, brown bangs and a cherubic smile, agreed. He set down his water jug, his radio and his small Army pack, took a long toke and began to narrate his adventures, concluding only when we were ejected onto the streets of Gainesville, Texas with two beers between us. (He drank mine.)
And what adventures they were! Here’s a partial list, compiled over the next two days:
He’s written at least four books: American Freedom (more than 800 pages), about motorcycling; Walk Across America (the bestseller! — plus the article for People magazine); The Serpent and the Stone (written at the age of ten, under the pen name “Lear” — it was the inspiration for the song “Paperback Writer”); and a book about a tour of France, the exact title of which he’s forgotten. All his works are pseudonymous.
He has a B.A. in journalism (one year at four different colleges) plus a Ph.D. that combines two subjects: journalism and psychology.
He knew John Lennon and Paul McCartney. (“What was Lennon like?” I asked “He was cool,” Ozzy said.)
He slept with Madonna in high school. (His actual words were “I jumped her bones.”)
He was at the Grateful Dead’s first concert.
He’s the nephew of Sonny Barger, president of the Hell’s Angels.
He’s an expert tattooist, charging $300 a tattoo.
He’s been married three times and has twelve children.
He’s been stabbed twice, shot once.
Probably the most amazing part of all this is that I believed it. (It wasn’t difficult reconciling his ninth grade vocabulary with his Ph.D., though the dual concentration strained my credulity. The only detail that troubled us both was that he’d chosen a pen name in 1960 in honor of Timothy Leary.) All con artists exploit vices, and he targeted a relatively subtle one — the desire to believe that Something Important is going on. Somehow he knew that what I most wanted in life at that moment was to meet someone who’d slept with Madonna.
In the darkness by the exit in Gainesville, we sat and blessed our meal, I invoking Adonai and he Lord Jesus. Then we finished the sourdough bread.
“You know, I may be a Hell’s Angel and everything, but I’m a real believer, too,” Ozzy said. “I’m a follower of the Lord.” I wonder if he knew how true that was.
Then he brandished a pocketknife at imaginary demons, pledging to defend me with his life.
We walked through town, stopping only at the Boys’ Club to ask if we could shoot some baskets (“One of the Board of Directors is here now,” a slightly bewildered young clerk apologized), and at McDonald’s, where a dirty-handed Carney, still a teenager, bought us cheeseburgers (Ozzy ate mine) and told us “they need men bad” at the local circus. We debated whether to join, then slept under an overpass. I felt safe around Ozzy.
The next morning we split up, after unsuccessfully hitching together. He spent two hours cadging a meal at a truck stop near the Oklahoma border, in return for some dishwashing, while I thumbed, across the road. Just as he walked out, a Malibu stopped and took us almost to OK City. John, the driver, an extensively tattooed individual and former member of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, was disillusioned with the biker world.
“It seemed like after a while all I did was go to funerals,” he said.
“How often?” I asked.
“About one every two weeks.”
One Outlaw started his bike and both his arms were blown off; his girlfriend behind him “was like raw meat.” Plastic explosives had been connected to the starter. “And they aren’t hard to put on,” Ozzy smiled.
My crisis of faith with Ozzy came when he told an altruistic student in Norman, Oklahoma that he hadn’t eaten for two days, after having polished off half my bag of granola and the truck stop meal scant hours before. My disillusionment slowly grew, and now I even wonder if he would have been much help in a fight — he certainly had other Falstaffian qualities.
Gradually I came to doubt everything he said — and everything everybody else said as well. Travelling with a habitual liar, one begins to doubt even the astronomer. Someone picks you up and says, “My name’s Chip. I do construction,” and you inwardly reply, “Who are you really?”
One comes to envy the tremendous advantage liars have. One dutifully recounts events that have actually happened, while they can tell about being attacked by a cougar one night in Oregon and shooting it nine times. I resolved that I would start lying too, then counter-resolved that that would be giving in to temptation.
Ozzy’s credo was, “I ask everyone for something: a cigarette, a joint, fifty cents. And I get it.” What struck him most in our travels was that John, the ex-Outlaw, gave him a pack of cigarettes he hadn’t asked for. He mentioned this again and again.
From him I learned that people like you better if you ask them for something. They appreciate your honesty, and it gives them a measure of superiority. (It works best if you ask for a vice.)
It was in Oklahoma, near Norman, that we faced our greatest trial, on a bridge under construction. A worker pointed us to a walkway that would take us across — wide enough for one man, with two waist-high walls. On one side was the highway, on the other a forty-foot drop. We started walking, and two-thirds of the way across, the second wall ended and the path narrowed.
We stopped, surveyed the situation, Ozzy consolidated his pack, then we clasped hands and prayed.
“Lord, we thank you for everything. We offer our lives to your service,” I said.
“Lord Jesus, we thank you for what you’ve given us today. We ask that you get us across this bridge. We ask this in your name. Amen,” Ozzy said.
“Amen,” I said.
We stood up. He went first, balancing his stout frame on a foot-and-a-half ledge covered with gravel, his left arm extended over the wall but not touching it. I crawled behind him, hugging the divider. Thirty inches away trucks roared by at forty miles per hour, whipping us with wind. The bridge shook visibly. We didn’t look down. We made it.
Ozzy and I split up in Norman and he said, “Meet me in the truck stop outside OK City.” I slept in an empty lot in the black ghetto in Oklahoma City, and my first ride the next morning, a young computer technician who supported a wife and seven kids on $4.30 an hour, drove me an extra exit out of generosity, up to the truck stop — and sure enough down on the highway was a little round figure with a radio, a water jug and a small Army pack.
While Ozzy walked toward me, I spoke to a fellow under an underpass who’d spent the previous night with him. He showed me where Ozzy had masturbated, waving his penis at the passing cars.
Ozzy and I vowed to reunite at the Amarillo truck stop but never did.
Later a half-reformed heroin addict and a half-reformed alcoholic — both also orange salesmen — stopped for me. For some reason I started talking about meditation, and the semi-alcoholic, who had no upper teeth, shouted, “Ah, he’s a philosopher!” in delight. I wrote Baba Nam Kevalam, the universal mantra of the Ananda Marga Society, on their newspaper, and tried to convince them that yoga gives the same high as drugs, but without the drawbacks. The ex-junkie was intrigued, but also nodding out on Demerol, so I never quite convinced him.
He did explain endorphins, the hormones which opiates mimic, in a lucid moment, however. He said camels have so much in their bloodstream that you can stab them with a knife up to the hilt and they won’t even blink.
They gave me four oranges.
Coming out of Norman, Oklahoma, I got one of my all-time strangest rides: a slim man from San Francisco with upswept, white hair, an open shirt, an effeminate voice and a van full of ladies’ dresses. We got to talking about the Bible — he was a believer, but capable of discussion — and I said, “You’re in a special position, being gay,” and he said, “What do you mean? I’m married and have two kids!” I blushed and he started fussing with his hair in the rearview mirror, saying, “Do queers really look like this?” He turned to me. “That’s why I left San Francisco — to get away from the queers!” He wasn’t putting me on. I figure he’s either the product of twelve years in ladies’ apparel or the worst case of repression I’ve ever seen.
By nightfall I found myself in Conway, Texas, where I slept behind a Stuckey’s and spent the next day observing the Sabbath — lying by the road reading World of Wonders, a wry novel of carnival life by “Canada’s foremost novelist,” Robertson Davies, and contemplating the measureless, blue sky, which flattened all the nearby houses and gave me the illusion I could see very far.
The wind was unremitting, and the trucks doubled it, sometimes slamming the smell of cow manure into my face as well — a not altogether unpleasant sensation.
Greetings from Route 40, “the most travelled highway in America,” according to a gas station attendant in Vega, Texas (“although that won’t guarantee you’ll get a ride,” he added. “We had one guy stuck here four days.”).
You notice landscape only when it changes. One feels there’s nothing in the Texas Panhandle, until one enters New Mexico, when one realizes there had been farms, grain elevators and green fields, because now there really is nothing: just rocks, dried rivers and cactus. It’s as if Texas had tamed the land with its famous will, and at the border everything had reversed — the land began taming the people.
I made these observations sitting beside Dick Kruse, a square-headed Born Again Christian carpenter from Minneapolis, looking for work in Tucson. He’d gone to Bible School for ten years, then spent four years preaching the gospel door-to-door out of his father’s farmhouse in northern Minnesota. He now sees this period as a mistake: he went $75,000 in debt and blames his parents’ deaths on his “rebellion.”
“Have you been saved?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, which was not exactly a lie.
“What church do you go to?”
“Don’t you ever go to church?”
“Well, I like the Catholics. Most often I go to Catholic church.” This made him suspicious.
We stopped in Vega and both went to church — it was Sunday morning. I visited a Catholic congregation full of cowboys (and fifteen Third Order Franciscan nuns in lovely gray uniforms with large wooden crosses wedged in their belts) — more men than I’d ever seen at mass. Of course it was a simple wooden building, which, except for a life-sized crucified Christ, a golden Mary and a few small adornments, could have been a Methodist hall. The priest had dark curly hair, a Texas accent and seemed angry about something. He spoke on the subject of money.
“We’re all willing to sacrifice for that new car, for that VCR, but God is pretty much at the bottom of our list. Most of us spend more on a six-pack of beer than we do on the Church. I don’t mean this sarcastically, but if I had to figure the income of the congregation by what you give I’d have to say most of you were on welfare.
“And I don’t want you to give because you like the pastor or the bishop. If that’s why you’re giving, you can keep your money! By the same token, I don’t want you not to give just because you don’t like the pastor.”
The cowboys bowed their heads and took it like men.
Afterwards I learned that the government plans to dump nuclear waste in nearby Deaf Smith County, famous for its organic farming, and that the Adrian High School Prom had been the night before. (The graduating class was twelve this year, up seven from the year previous.)
In Dick’s Baptist Church across the street a lay minister in the Sunday School (for adults) discussed “What Do You Do Once You’ve Been Born Again?” “It’s like a new car,” he said. “You don’t just drive it home and put it in the garage. You show it to everyone and tell them about it.”
Dick was pretty liberal — he approved of me practicing yoga and Judaism, so that when I was really Born Again, I’d be able to win over the Hebes and the towelheads.
All this came to a crisis in a gas station/restaurant near Santa Rosa, New Mexico, which served all the biscuits and gravy you could eat for ninety-nine cents and had signs on the bathrooms: “FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY. ALL OTHERS, 50 CENTS.” The doughy woman who ran the place was also Born Again, and narrated her migration from Springer to Oklahoma to Santa Rosa under the Lord’s direction.
It came out that I’d gone to Catholic church that morning and that I was uncertain Jesus was the Messiah. Under their evangelical gaze, I upped the ante, revealing that I was on my way to work for my meditation group in Denver.
“A fella came through here a while back, followed somethin’ called The Masters Of The East,” a seated man in a tractor cap delivered. “He said they could fly and walk through walls. What do you think of that?”
“It’s possible,” I opined.
“I don’t think so,” several people replied at once. A half-dozen citizens had collected for this debate, plus two children looking up from under the table.
“Jesus said, ‘Greater ones will follow me,’ ” I pointed out.
“He said, ‘Greater things will follow me,’ ” Dick corrected me.
“Well, those are greater things,” I held.
“I think they’re demonic,” someone said, and everyone immediately agreed.
“I don’t think so,” I ventured.
“If you look at people all over the earth, in every culture the idea of God emerges — in the American Indians, the Eskimos, in Africa — in places where no one’s heard of Jesus. It’s like people have it inside them, this need for God,” I said.
Everyone was silent. I had won.
“But this Masters Of The East guy said if you want anything, you should just think it, and you’ll get it,” my interlocutor continued. “He said if you wanted a car you should think, ‘I want a car.’ ”
“He told me to think, ‘I want a boyfriend,’ and I did — and where is he?” a young blonde laughed, and the room laughed with her.
“I don’t go for that,” I said. “The good guys tell you, ‘Serve God,’ ‘Serve other people,’ not ‘Serve yourself.’ ” Dick and I drove off.
He deposited me at the junction of Route 84 and the son and daughter-in-law of the cafe proprietress picked me up and ferried me to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where I immediately met three Chicano adolescents — one with a knife, one with nunchuks and all three with a lovely interrogative lilt that sounded a bit like Swedish — gathered around a sixty-one-year-old man with a short white beard in the entrance to an abandoned bar. They called him “Old Timer” affectionately, and I felt like I was in a 1930s movie. His name was Harry Knicht (“it means ‘servant,’ like ‘knight’ ”) and he offered to share his dry, but not enclosed, sleeping quarters with me.
“It’s too cold to sleep outdoors tonight,” I remarked.
“No it isn’t, once you have a little wine,” he countered.
“I don’t drink,” I said.
“That’s your problem,” he laughed.
“I know another place you can stay,” he said, and we parted from the Alvin And The Chipmunks kids and headed downtown, halting every ten feet for his emphysema.
“I spend most of my time in the library,” he revealed.
“What do you read?”
“Sociology, psychology, philosophy, drafting, tool and die design, business administration.”
“What philosophers have you studied?”
“Oh, all of ’em. Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard.”
“Who’s your favorite?”
He paused. “Christ.”
“The Sermon On The Mount, I guess. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God. . . .’ ”
On the dark and windy main street of Las Vegas, New Mexico, a bearded bum quoted to me The Sermon On The Mount. (When he smiled he looked like Jack Gilford.)
“Can you count backwards from 100 by sevens?” he asked.
I tried, stumbled at seventy-nine, and continued.
“You have a good mind,” he told me. “My teacher in second grade was amazed I could count by twelves so quickly.” He demonstrated.
“What’s the area of a circle?” he continued.
“A = r2. And what is pi?”
“2.14?” I guessed.
“3.1476,” he corrected me. “I’m a genius,” he smiled. “But I’m modest about it.”
We came to his former bedroom, a neat hut with a built-in drafting table, in an empty lot. It was warm, but pitch black, and it had no lock. I thought about that kid with the knife, and decided to try my luck at the local college. We walked north.
“Do you believe in God?” I asked.
“Don’t you ever doubt God’s existence?”
“Oh no, God exists. You see, if you’ve studied physics and astronomy and biology as I have, you know that life is not an accident.” He tore the filter off a cigarette and threw it in the street. “Even Einstein, you know what he said: ‘God does not throw dice with the Universe.’ But I never went along with him that space is curved and time is curved. Because time is an idea and how can an idea be curved? And space is nothing and how can nothing be curved?” He smoked.
“Well if space is nothing, why can’t it be curved?” I asked.
“Einstein’s problem is he only had one beer,” Harry said. “He shoulda had a couple more. ‘Ein stein’ — get it?”
“What do you think of Buddha?”
“He was a servant of God,” he said quietly. “But we’re all servants of God. We’re all God!” His eyes glittered.
“Do you believe in the Devil?”
He paused, groping for words. “It’s like light and darkness. If there’s light there has to be darkness. It’s hard to explain. If you read this book, Beyond Good and Evil by, ah. . . .”
“No, it was Kierkegaard. He explains that if you look at it from a distance, you need good and evil. In a way, evil is . . . good.”
“You have a cigarette?” a guy asked, coming up to us. He was my age, unshaven, with blond spear-like hair reaching almost to his stiffened shoulders. Harry told him he was out.
“I just got into town. You know where the Crisis Center is?”
Harry did, and after some hesitation began to lead him there. I was anxious, too, to get to my college.
The stranger wore a long green coat, carried no luggage, and bared his lower teeth in a grimace, as if he was freezing. When he laughed the grimace widened. He seemed capable of entertaining only one thought at a time — at that moment it was to get to the Crisis Center. His name was Rick.
Rick and I outdistanced Harry, called the police, were invited to their station, got lost in the rain and were rescued by a stout Chicano legal secretary student, who drove out of her way for us, two hoodlums on the street.
We sat on orange chairs in the police station waiting room as the computer considered our ID cards. A young mustachioed cop walked in asking, “Which of you is wanted?” It was a joke. Then he drove us to Samaritan House, a sort of Hollywood mock-up of a suburban home, where a middle-aged couple and a young man watching TV sullenly welcomed us, as their dog snarled. Perhaps they were disappointed they didn’t have the night off — we were the only clients.
The youth expressionlessly showed us around: eight beds in a big room, each with a folded towel and washcloth; a den with a TV, an aged radio and the kind of books you find in The Salvation Army — Escape from China (by a missionary), a leatherbound novel called Rebecca — sinks, a toilet and a shower. Our guide emphasized the shower in his monologue.
Rick and I read through the list of rules in their pamphlet and I internally debated whether to pay the $2.50 donation they requested. I had the money, but I didn’t want Rick to see it.
They prepared us a late meal, and when I saw the hot dog chunks floating in my beans I explained I was vegetarian. “Oh, Christ!” the woman exclaimed, in the tone of, “One more headache!”
The young man was also vegetarian, however, and asked if I’d like a grilled cheese sandwich. I agreed, but when I saw it — American cheese on Wonder Bread — I couldn’t consummate the act. I returned the plate to him, mystifying the household.
The next day they woke us at 7, we showered for a second time, and they bid us farewell without once having looked us in the eye.
At times I was tempted to say, “I don’t really belong here. I have a Master’s Degree,” but I’m glad I didn’t. I’m sure they’ve heard it a thousand times before — like everyone in prison claims they’re innocent.
Rick and I hiked five miles to Route 25, past knots of kids walking dispiritedly to school. I stopped at Publix for provisions, and he tried to cadge my change for the World’s Cheapest Menthol Cigarettes. I didn’t have enough, so he hustled the guy in line behind us, as the cashier looked embarrassedly at the ceiling.
He gave me the nickname “Elly” because I ate peanuts (like an elephant) and I called him “Menth.”
Rick was not an alcoholic, rarely smoked pot, had never been to a Grateful Dead concert and didn’t steal. He’d been on the road almost continuously for thirteen years. He was hyperactive, and walked farther and farther ahead of me until he disappeared. Then I stood by the highway watching a storm come over the mountains, thinking, “No wonder Ansel Adams could take those photographs. It really looks like this!”
Then three Mexicans stopped and took me to Denver: a woman who seemed quite young and told me she had six children; her mother, a wrinkled woman in high heels; and her cousin, a teenager reading a novel-length comic book in Spanish. None of them spoke much English and I settled down to a concert of operatic Mexican music given by their tape player.
It was snowing as we entered Colorado.
Near the end of the trip, I read the novel-length comic book. It was disappointing in its ratio of sex to violence.
Suddenly I was standing in downtown Denver, with bored-looking men in suits waiting beneath glass buildings for the light to change. It felt like years since I’d been in a city. I saw The Denver Post for sale in a metal box and thought, “Do they still make newspapers?”
Then I walked to the Ananda Marga house, a Victorian mansion with an iridescent purple roof, where Dada Utpalkanti, an enthusiastic Dane, gave me a hug and gathered me home.
I thought it would be a good idea to start printing pictures of SUN contributors. I’m always fascinated to see the face that goes with a familiar name.
Sparrow asked a friend to photograph him. “I hope it’s big enough. I have an important job, inaugurating this new Cult of Personality, so I took it seriously. Woolworth’s is in color these days, and I had no black and whites, except of my extreme youth, but I thought it wouldn’t be right to give an elementary school photo to inaugurate this tradition. I’m pretty vain, too, as maybe shows in my photo. I’m wearing a yarmulke — I took it after Succos services — but it blends into the background, and I look bareheaded. Hmmm, maybe that means something.”
The photograph mentioned above is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.
I have mixed feelings about your decision to publish pictures of contributors.
Sometimes, when a photo accompanies a SUN interview, I find myself scrutinizing the countenance, trying to determine whether or not the subject looks like my preferred type of enlightened being. I remember seeing a photo of Ram Dass with a flower, and sarcastically concluding, here’s a guy who’s trying to look enlightened by striking a schlock pose straight from the Sixties. Reading the article, I was able to look at the photo with a less defensive view — how nice that this man is sensitive and secure enough to be photographed with a flower. Despite the obvious overtones — call them sexist, prejudicial, or simply unaware — I comforted myself with the thought that I was just protecting myself against being taken in by new-age phoniness.
Issue 120, however, helped me to realize just how firmly I judge by appearances. The photo of Sparrow was not what I had expected. When you have been “reading someone’s soul” for a while, you tend to form a hazy mental picture of them. If you have a particular fondness for their voice, you attribute to them all the characteristics you like best. In my case, I had pictured Sparrow as older, slightly chiseled, a whimsical no-nonsense kind of man, a walking paradox in tight jeans and tweed jacket. The reality of Sparrow created a dilemma: could I transfer my affection to this bearded stranger?
Other questions followed — would I have felt differently about his writings if I had seen his picture first? (Yes. I would have held myself a little distant from them. Sparrow does not resemble any of the kindred spirits I know.) What is it that bothers me about Sparrow’s picture? (I want him to look more “profound.” I love to be in awe of people, to put them on a spiritual pedestal. The more distant they are, the more excuses I can find for not nurturing my own growth. Spiritual honesty seems less attainable. Here’s a spiritually honest person who looks like a regular guy. Shit.) Does this change the fondness I had associated with Sparrow’s name? (Yes. It’s more personal now. Genuine warmth and acceptance as opposed to warmth tinged with stale respect.)
Thank you, for giving me the opportunity to love Sparrow in his reality and not Sparrow-as-I-think-he-should-be. Each contributor’s picture will be a lesson in the foolishness of judging by appearance, and a delight in discovering that spiritual teachers come in every guise.
The photograph of Sparrow mentioned above (“Letters from the Road” [Issue 120]) is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.
Due to an unfortunate failure to make a Final Edit of my recent “Letters from the Road,” I gave the misleading impression that the area of a circle is r2. Of course, it’s πr2. If any fourth graders have flunked tests as a result of this error, they have my profound apology.