My favorite moments are those when things come together, and life makes sense. All the tests of the past are suddenly seen as preparations for the present. Winston Churchill described such a moment in his own life as “walking with destiny.”
Of course, in order for such moments to be special they can’t happen all the time. What this means is that there must be other times when life makes no sense whatsoever. I’ve had a lot of those. Such times either break, or strengthen, your faith.
In my case it seems I have experienced a little of both breakage and strengthening. If my faith was perfect I would have had no doubt I was cared-for, even in the midst of calamities, and would have whistled cheerfully, but the truth is: I grumbled a lot. In my time I’ve been one of those bums you shy away from, because they are talking to themselves as they shuffle down the street.
Actually in my case I was talking to God. Basically I‘d be saying, “I don‘t get it. Nothing makes sense.” This seems a little audacious, for in a sense it is like a speck of dust folding its arms and tapping its toe and demanding that Infinite God start explaining Himself. But I think God likes it when we draw close. Maybe He’d prefer it if we praised more and grumbled less, but He can handle our grumbling. He isn’t like a mother who shakes a baby unconscious to stop its crying.
In any case, if grumbling is “drawing closer to God”, then I do get points, for I grumbled a lot. One reason I grumbled was because I had a great appreciation of harmony, and could see how beautiful life might be “if only”. Those two words can be the saddest words in the English language: “If only”.
The fact life could get ugly was especially frustrating when it seemed to defy Karma. The Bible states, “You reap what you sow”, but I seemed to experience the opposite. For a long, gloomy time my motto and mantra was, “The right thing is never the rewarding thing”.
I think this tends to be a common experience for all artists of all types. God gives them a gift, and they know they are gifted. Furthermore they know it is wrong to “bury your talents.” The Bible makes it quite clear that the fellow who buries his talents gets punished. So artists do the right thing, which is to sit around being artistic when everyone else goes out to work in the fields. Then, when harvest time comes around, everyone else has a harvest, but what have they earned? It is a bit crushing for young artists to realize they don’t get paid millions, like the Beatles were paid. The Beatles were the exception and not the rule, for if what you sow is songs, then what you reap is music, not money/
It can be exasperating, especially when you are young, to try to achieve a balance between, on one hand, utilizing the unprofitable yet dazzling talents God has given you, and, on the other hand, fulfilling your worldly responsibilities. When I was young I decided good symbols for this dichotomy were Aesop’s “Grasshopper and Ant”. At age 26 I decided each deserved its own sonnet:
THE GRASSHOPPER SONNET
When I was young, I was told a fable
About a grasshopper and one good ant.
The good ant gathered grain for its table.
The grasshopper fiddled the following rant:
“Man can’t live on bread alone; all need song.
Yes, all need song. Life, without its tune,
Is wrong. Yes, utterly, hopelessly wrong,
That grasshopper came to ruin,
Or at least that is what the fable states.
I guess that means next spring will be silent
Without the sweet chirping a grasshopper makes.
I guess that means all the ways that I went
Will lead me to death, while you’ll never die.
Either that or all the old fables can lie.
THE ANT SONNET
The poor ant works while the grasshoppers fiddle.
The ant looks up to the sky with trust.
The ant can’t see God stands in the middle.
The ant is shocked by the first locust.
The locusts swarm and the fields are stripped.
The ant’s outraged and it seeks its peers.
Army ants march in tight ranks, grim lipped.
Soon the last locust disappears.
Thus there’s no fiddling. Thus there’s no grain.
Thus we have nothingness. Thus we’re insane.
Thus all our efforts breed flourishing pain.
Thus does humanity go down the drain.
Pray for ecology. Then there’s a chance
That grasshoppers will get along with the ants.
“Simple yet eloquent”, I said to myself, writing my own review. Then I sat back to await the accolades. Instead I received the usual rejection slip. Rather than the $1000.00 first prize I was counting on, I had to get a job at a herring cannery.
I think the people at that cannery thought I was too prissy and would never last, for the very first day they gave me the worst job, down in the dungeons in the bowls of the building, where a gargantuan machine groaned and squealed, screening the herring guts from a flood of reeking waste water. God heard me grumble a fair amount, that afternoon.
This brings me to the question, “Did God respond to my muttering?” In some discussions this becomes a debate about God’s nature: “Is God personal or impersonal?”
I tended to argue God was personal, but others would counter I was merely putting a silver lining on clouds, even when they were utterly dark. For example, I came to see my cannery job as a blessing. It toughened me up. I learned I could endure harsh conditions. Also the people working there were a wonderful collection of characters who loved to laugh, and I found myself enjoying myself, even though few cared about poetry. By the time I left, seven months later, I had reversed my thinking, and was sure I wasn’t going to die young like John Keats, (because I had outlived him), and few would have called me “prissy.” Therefore I could say God had been smart to put me in a cannery, rather than give me $1000.00 for sitting on my duff. I believed this, but more cynical people would growl I was merely trying to polish a turd.
Skip ahead seven years, and I had bounced from job to job, north and south and coast to coast, and perhaps was getting discouraged. I felt farther from being “discovered” than ever, and rather than wiser I seemed more confused. I was usually broke, and lonely. I often wrote because the paper was the only one who would listen.
Said the singer to the song,
“It is for your lips I long;
It is for your sweet embrace
Though I cannot see your face
And I cannot ever kiss my own creation.”
The song came singing back,
“You are everything I lack
And we need each other’s life for celebration.”
By the time I passed age thirty-three I was catching on to the fact that art, at its best, is a reward in and of itself. To ask for money lessens it, and can dirty it at times. Inspired art is a matter of the heart, and is beyond the arithmetic of budgets. Trying to materialistically value art is like a husband and wife trying to calculate who owes whom how much, and for what. And this is especially true when art becomes worshipful. When joy wells up, and one bursts out in song, art possesses a spontaneity which makes it different from a paid-for service. (When one employs the services of a dentist, one isn’t looking for spontaneity.)
Not that worship isn’t valuable. It is. The Bible even stipulates that people who are manifesting gifts with great ability should receive a “double portion” so they are freed from other tasks that might divert them from manifesting their gift. However it seemed to me this occurred after they were already successful. It wasn’t what I wanted, which was money before I succeeded, so I might “develop my art” and “have time to write.”
Young artists called this “an advance”, and dreamed of achieving such riches, but age brought wisdom, and a certain cynicism. As years passed, hearing the words “an advance” made some immediately adopt the voice of Wimpy in the old Popeye cartoons, saying, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” while others stated the only advance you were likely to see from an editor was a sexual one. By the age of thirty-three I had glumly concluded money was a matter for the material world, whereas art flourished elsewhere. I tried to have a sense of humor about it, but God heard a lot of grumbling from me.
I have only got a penny
And that isn’t very many
And in fact it can’t by any
FOOD FOR ME!
But as long as I keep living
There is love; there is forgiving;
There is sight, and thought for sieving
And it’s ALL FOR FREE.
In January 1988 I was barely managing eke out a precarious balance between worldly responsibility and art, on the cold, dry and winter-drab streets of Gallup, New Mexico. When the weather had grown cold I had moved into town from a campground where I’d survived at $25.00/week, into a motel unit on Old Route 66 which cost a whopping $60.00/week. Originally I paid for a week at the start of the week, but gradually was later and later with my rent, until I was paying for the week when the week was over, which the landlord didn’t approve of at all.
Minimum wage back then was $3.30/hour, or $26.40 a day, and I needed at least three days of work to pay my rent, and to have a little left over for rice, beans, coffee (and cigarettes, which I could buy very cheaply on nearby reservations.) I preferred to work four days a week, so I could buy gas for my sputtering 1974 Toyota Corolla, and afford to do some laundry at the Laundromat, and splurge on a chicken and a six-pack of beer. I’d work five days a week rarely, and only to buy time to write the following week. I preferred to have three or four days a week to wrack my brains. My writing seemed to be growing steadily worse.
I eat, sleep, work, drink and piss.
There’s just one thing I miss:
One year without a kiss;
Lord, it’s too long.
Lord! It’s too long.
It’s too long, Lord,
Too long! My mind
Help me, Lord.
The way I found work was to head up to the local Unemployment Office at the crack of dawn. You had to arrive there early, because an unwritten law stated that the men who arrived first got the first jobs, and, as some days there were only one or two jobs, it tended to be a case where the early bird got the worm. Often I’d arrive at five although the office didn’t open until eight, and I got to know some of the other fellows, (primarily Navajo, with a few Apache and Hispanics), quite well.
Gallup was going through hard times. All sorts of Booms had gone bust. The coal mine had closed. The Uranium mine had closed. The Native American jewelry and tapestry booms had gone bust. The road-building boom had withered with the completion of Interstate 40, and the completion of that interstate basically ruined all the businesses along Old Route Sixty-six. Summer tourism was only a shadow of its former self, and when tourism dried up in the winter the unemployment rate soared above fifty percent. The only sure jobs were to work for the government; for example, at the unemployment office.
It was hard enough merely surviving those winters. Bums like me really had to hustle, and pick up every returnable wine bottle seen on the sidewalk and return it, and sell plasma at a place in downtown Gallup. I had learned to get by, providing everything went well. But then things didn’t go well.
First, my car developed an odd ailment. It would run for only three to five minutes, and then would die. After the engine cooled down it would run again, and then die again. I knew very little about engines, but couldn’t afford a mechanic. I took to visiting bars to pick the brains of people I barely knew. They gave me around fifty wrong answers, but in order to learn the answers were incorrect I had to take their advice. In one case I stressed my budget by going to an auto-parts store and purchasing a new coil for $42.99. It did no good. The car still stopped running after three minutes. I parked it behind a friend’s business, two miles from my motel unit, and began walking a lot.
$42.99 for a coil was more than a day’s work, and I was a little late paying the $60.00 for my motel unit that week. Fortunately I’d earlier helped a Navajo friend raise the money to fix his truck by giving him $50.00 for $50.00’s worth of food-stamps, out at a campground months before, and I still had the food-stamps. I did not give the landlord the food stamps, but he accepted my explanation I’d have to do some adroit swapping, and he had no qualms about grabbing the dollars I produced a day later.
That landlord approached the size of a midget, with a wife who was shorter, and he likely had a grudge against white people, for it was white people who, seeing the writing on the wall, wisely unloaded all the motels along Old Route Sixty-six, as Interstate 40 neared completion, to a whole collection of short people with the distinctive accents of the sub-continent of India.
Little did the small man know, but I had a wonderful time in India in 1974, and was a sort of reverse-racist, in that I was inclined to think the best of people who spoke with that accent. He never thought the best of me. No matter how cheerful and ingratiating I endeavored to be, he never once smiled.
I was getting used to this treatment. A poet is always living in a dream-world above the sleazy concerns of money-grubbers, and he suffers a sort of heartache when the rubber meets the road. There are certain situations that allow shrews to revel over eagles, and landlords enjoy that advantage over poets, when the rent is due.
But I must mention this: I am not a Zuni, and in my adventures with them I was most definitely an outsider, but they were, on certain occasions, splendidly kind to me. The same can be said for other groupings of persons I met in that area. I was an outsider with the Navajo, an outsider with the Hispanics, an outsider with the Chinese-Americans, the Italians, the Mormons, the high mountain Ranchers, the Hopi, the Acoma, the Apache, and I can give examples where they dazzled me with kindness, and made me want to write poems about them.
I wish I could say the same for the diminutive motel-owners along Old Route Sixty-six, but I’d be dishonest if I said so. Surely they are kind to people in their own clique, but I never saw a hint they could be kind to poets. I drifted through Gallup often over the course of four winters, and hit the motel owners with blasts of my charm, and they proved impervious. It gave me the sense I must be getting old and ugly, for in my younger day I was highly skilled at getting invited to dinner.
I grumbled to God about this, as I trudged about without a car. I was tired of being an outsider, always on the wrong side of a windshield, cold while others drove by snug. Rather than life making sense it seemed increasingly senseless. Many of my pet theories were going down in flames. “No good deed goes unrewarded” seemed to be being replaced by, “No good deed goes unpunished.” My idea that people from the sub-continent of India were more spiritual and less materialistic than Westerners was replaced by experiences of money-grubbing meanness. Worst, my sense that God was a compassionate father who listened to me was challenged by a sense God didn’t care a fig about me.
I fought that feeling with might and main, likely because, if I didn’t, I’d vanish under a quicksand of complete despair. I told myself God was teaching me valuable lessons. I was learning to count on self-reliance before charm, and to never be a moocher. I was learning to avoid judging people by their accents. But these arguments weren’t working very well, especially as my health began to fail.
I had to get up when it was dark and walk for a half hour to get to the unemployment office before anyone else, and a couple of mornings I simply felt too ill to do it. Then I did manage it, but there was no work for anyone that day. I only made $52.80 for an entire week, which meant I had to avoid my landlord for a weekend. Fortunately I had a friend who didn’t mind me serving as a sort of “night watchman” at his shop, by sleeping in the back. He liked me being there because Gallup could get rowdy on the weekends, and businesses that didn’t have caged windows often suffered break-ins. Usually my friend slept at his workplace, but he wanted to get away that weekend to see his girlfriend.
I did manage to get work the next Monday, which allowed me to casually hand the landlord $60.00 that evening, apologizing for being late, and excusing myself with the statement, “I’ve been away.” It wasn’t a lie, for I was sleeping roughly two miles away, but the little man looked like he didn’t believe a word of it.
The next week was worse. With Monday’s money used for the prior week, I was starting behind, and only got one other day’s work, for another $26.40. I sold Plasma on Tuesday for $7.00 and again on Thursday for $9.00, plus a bonus of $7.00 (which one received every eighth time one visited.) I turned in $2.60 of aluminum cans I had collected, plus lugged four cases of returnable wine-bottles to the bottling plant, feeling dizzy and exhausted, for $8.00, which gave me a total of $60.00 exactly, but no money for food.
I went to my parked car and searched under the seats, and collected $2.65 in loose change, and also found my G+H green-stamps. (I collected them even when I didn’t shop, for some people didn’t bother with them, and I’d spot them blowing about the parking lot of the grocery store and would pounce.) I walked to the green-stamp “redemption center” and got another $3.60. I then had a whopping $6.25, and felt like a millionaire. I bought a pound of chicken wings for 69 cents; two carrots, an onion, and a potato for 89 cents; a pack of cigarettes for $1.09; and a cheap six-pack for $1.50. Then I went back to my motel unit to make a stew, sip beer, smoke, and write. I had taken care of the worldly-detail side of things, and quite honestly felt a welling-up of self-esteem. But I had forgotten the landlord in my satisfaction. He was pounding on my door even before the water was boiling, scowlingly demanding my rent. I had the $60.00 tucked into an envelope in a book on a shelf, and retrieved it in my most casual manner, as if the money had been there all week. He snatched the envelope from me and suspiciously counted the money, before wheeling and walking away without a good-bye.
“What a turd,” I thought to myself, closing the door and cracking a beer. “I bet he’ll be sorry, when I’m famous, and put him in a story.”
I tried to settle down and enjoy myself, but felt feverish and restless. The landlord had put me in a bad mood, and I knew better than to attempt to write, because self-expression would likely dissolve into a rave about how all landlords are jerks. Instead I was hoping the chicken soup might cure me. Either that, or the fresh pack of cigarettes. All week I’d been emptying the tobacco from old butts, and re-rolling it as “second generation” tobacco, and few things are more raunchy. It made even an nicotine-addict like me smoke less, but I felt worse.
Being unable to shake my cold, or ’flu, or whatever it was, bothered me, for one thing I’d always been able to count on was my stamina and resiliency. On some work-sites I’d go out after work with the fellows, and everyone would drink far more than was wise, and the next day I’d be the only one who showed up for work. Nothing seemed to weaken me the way it weakened others, and I could get away with things I probably shouldn’t have risked. At worst I might lay low for a few nights, catching up on my sleep, but soon I’d be bounding back to repeat the offences. Yet now things seemed to be catching up with me. Not even the chicken soup helped.
Things had reached the yearly low, in terms of the local economy. Not only was tourism as low as it ever got, but it was the week before the various governments (Federal, State and Tribal,) cut monthly checks, and everyone was barely hanging on, waiting for those checks. Even though I didn’t receive one, I knew I would likely benefit from the flurry of buying and boozing that followed their issuance. I had the feeling that, if I could just hang on one more week, things would improve.
But what followed was a dismal week. Not only were there far fewer wine bottles on the sidewalks, but there were far more people collecting them for the refunds. Never had the streets of Gallup seemed so clean. I sensed I was in trouble even before the week began. Then, though I looked for work every day, not a single spot-labor job appeared up at the unemployment office. A cheerful employee up at that office informed me and my fellow Destitutes that we should have hope, for people would soon be hiring spot labor to make ready for the next tourist season, and a Navajo grunted back, “Easy for you to smile. You’ve got a pay-check, this Friday.” I buttoned my lip, but imagined that my landlord wasn’t going to be very impressed by mere hope.
I couldn’t even hide out, being a “night watchman” at my friend’s, for he had left town early, due to the complete lack of business; Gallup’s streets were so empty he likely didn’t fear his shop would be broken into. His shop was dark and lonesome-looking. I decided there are few sadder sights than a friend who isn’t home when you need a friend.
I had to do something, so I sat in the local public library until it closed, and then in my car until I got cold, and then headed to an all-night coffee shop until it was very late, (getting free refills for my 50 cent cup from a kindly waitress), and only then did I tiptoe back to my motel, and went to bed without even turning on the lights.
Then next morning I crept off early, taking a path that avoided the view from the front office‘s window, and headed off to my final hope, which was my post-office box. You never knew what might come in the mail. My main hope was for my tax refund, which would be around a hundred dollars. I muttered to God a lot as I walked to the post office, and as I opened the box my muttering became fervent prayer, yet when I opened the box it held the ultimate rejection-slip: It was empty.
God may be King of kings and Lord of lords, but I fear I was then less than respectful. Not that I used the wrong words. I said, “Thanks a lot.” But the tone was all wrong, and caused other people in the lobby to jump. I didn’t care. Life had ruined me, and I owed it no good manners.
I knew I should seize the bull by the horns, and walk to my pip-squeak landlord and explain the situation, but the idea made me want to vomit. Instead I wandered about town, meeting my fellow Navajo bums, who knew how I felt, because they too had to face pip-squeak white men who had invaded their land. None of them were better off than I. We all were surprisingly sober for a Saturday, and broke, just hanging on until the economy improved.
By afternoon hunger drove me back to my motel unit, and I snuck back in to cook my remaining food, which was dried rice and dried beans. It wasn’t easy. Because Gallup, though down in a valley, is at an altitude above the highest mountains back east, water boils below 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and also, because the barometric pressure is much lower, water evaporates with amazing speed. Boiling is next to useless, because the rice and/or beans are nearly as hard when you are done boiling as when you begin. I learned this the hard way. However a Hispanic fellow had taught me how to fry rice and fry beans, so that it was already cooked before you boiled it. However I had no oil or butter to fry with, and therefore, displaying scientific ingenuity, I had to roast my rice and beans in a carefully-attended frying pan, before boiling. It took until after dark to produce the gruel I ate, and, although I did hang my spare blue jeans over the window to hide my lights, enough light must have leaked out to alert my landlord to the fact I wasn’t “away”.
One odd event happened, as I ate my gruel, that final night I had a home, before I became homeless. I was praying, asking God for, if not a “sign”, then mercy, when a little mouse appeared from behind the radiator on the far side of the unit and began coming towards me. At first I thought it was cute, and a good “sign”, but quickly I surmised the mouse was very sick. Rather than darting and scurrying it staggered. It labored forwards, tottering to my feet, where it fell over on its side and died. Hmm. Not a good “sign”.
The next morning I crept off with my final fifty cents to get a coffee, and when I returned an odd clam-shell was clamped to my unit’s doorknob. I couldn’t get in to my breakfast of rice-and-beans gruel. Obviously the landlord had had enough.
Just as obviously, this was a situation I needed to think about, before I faced it. I went for a long walk, and the day passed with me muttering to God a lot. I attempted to assess the situation in a pragmatic manner, (which poets only do when driven to it by emergency). How was I going to approach the landlord?
First, I had noticed few of his units were actually occupied. Therefore, as a customer who had always paid his rent, I must have some value, though I had just spent my last fifty cents. He must know I always paid, though I paid late. Perhaps, if I mentioned my coming tax-refund, he could be dissuaded from throwing me out.
Second, though the fellow seemed to have an accent from central India, I gathered he wasn’t a Hindu, primarily because the Navajos who had served in the Army referred to him as an “Aye-rab”. And also I had not spent hours staying warm in public libraries without poking through books. If you investigate you learn the nice-sounding word “partition”, concerning India, was not at all that nice in 1948. Gandhi could talk of love and pacifism to his heart’s content, but millions died, as peoples who had lived together for centuries divorced, and the subcontinent convulsed.
Though my landlord looked too young to have been driven from India in 1948, I surmised that likely his grandparents and parents had been among the millions who fled north to Pakistan. I imagined they didn’t find things any kinder in their new home. Why else would they flee Pakistan to the far side of the planet? There were likely some very sad reasons why the little man never smiled. I should have compassion, and also not expect the worst. Surely the fellow would pause before making me homeless, having once been homeless himself. Surely he would not do unto others what he himself hated, when it was done unto him.
Actually he seemed to rather enjoy it. When I finally dared return to talk to the greedy, little man, he just wanted me to get the heck out. He didn’t want to talk about history, or about compassion. He had not even any interest in my future tax-refund. Perhaps, after being bullied by others for generations, he was relishing the chance to be a bully. He didn’t actually smile, but I thought I detected a sort of satisfaction in the way his nose wrinkled a sneer. He seemed to like being mean, especially because, in my cowboy boots, I was a well over a foot taller than he. I’m not certain if there is a David and Goliath in Islamic literature, but if he was a Jew he definitely would see himself as David, and me as a Goliath.
It was an odd experience for me. I have been accused of many short-comings in my time, but seldom of being a Goliath. Poets are seldom accused of being hulking monsters, but apparently my failure to come up with the rent made me one. When I looked into the man’s eyes I saw nothing remotely approaching sanity. If the measure of a man is determined by his responses, the already-short man grew even shorter.
However I should confess I was not scoring much higher, if you are into measuring men. The only measure I was interested in was the distance between my fist and his chin. I was so tired and so sick that a ripple of rage quivered through my brain. I was close to violating my poetic principles, and the man was close to being unconscious and perhaps dead. But I abstained, thank God. Instead I chose to think in terms of words. What words could I concoct that would punch the greedy little rat in the jaw? The best I could do was to growl, “If you are not interested in money or my tax-refund, just unlock the door. I’ll be out of your life by sunset.”
Rather than devastated, he looked pleased, and he asked, “By sunset?” I nodded. Then I thought of something absolutely devastating I could say. It was proof I was a true word-smith, and made me smile, which changed the little man’s expression towards suspicion as he took the clam shell gadget off the doorknob, but I kept my words to myself. I figured it would be smart to be on my best behavior, until I had my stuff moved out.
I didn’t need to even think of what I had to do next. Now that I was a street person, I obviously needed a shopping cart. I recollected I’d seen one down in the bottom of a gully beside the nearby supermarket. In a matter of minutes I came squeaking back to the motel unit. The little man had vanished. I unlocked the door and began to load up everything I owned. It didn’t take long. My suitcase slid onto the shelf below the cart’s basket, and books and scribble-filled notebooks and a battered typewriter took up most of the rest of the space, with my coffee cup and a few utensils topping everything off, including my pot holding the last of my gruel. Then I pushed my squeaking load to the front office to return my keys, and to deliver the nasty statement I was treasuring.
The mean midget was looking sort of smug when I walked in, but I could tell my statement hit home by the way his deranged eyes crossed slightly after I spoke. I said about the worst thing I could think of saying to a Muslim. It was, “All you Hindus care about is money.” Then I walked out sniggering to myself, and pushed my squeaking cart off into the sunset.
A single sheet of paper may not weigh much, but that cart weighed a ton. Even on the flat pavement I was huffing and puffing, and then I reached a hill that lay between me and my distant car. It really wasn’t all that steep, but I felt sick and dizzy. Also cowboy boots have no tread, and it was hard to get traction. Halfway up the hill I had to pause to rest, and I ate some gruel. Before I ate I remembered to pray. Maybe it was not heartfelt, and was done by rote, but I figured I deserved a point or two in heaven for making the attempt. I tried to remember I was better off than some folk, who had no food at all, but God saw how I rolled my eyes and heard the irony in my voice.
I continued up the hill and continued my muttering, as the twilight grew and the streetlights came on. I was asking God a lot of tough questions, most revolving around the fact He is suppose to be a God of love, but I was failing to see the compassion in my current state of affairs. At last I reached the top of the long rise, and started down the other side, and immediately knew I’d made a big mistake.
The cart was so heavy it practically pulled my arms from their sockets, and I swiftly discovered I could only slow the cart. I couldn’t stop it. I was sort of skiing along behind it, attempting to dig in the heels of my cowboy boots but not having much luck. I was mostly concerned with steering the thing, but as I looked ahead I exclaimed, “Oh really, God? Really?”
Down the hill, under the reddish glow of a street light, a police car was drawn up to the side of the road. Two officers were crouching behind the street side of the car, looking up onto the the porch of a house. On that porch, under the yellow glow of a porch light, a man was raving at the officers. He was waving a handgun about.
It’s funny what you think in a situation like that. I briefly considered letting go of the cart. So what if I lost my life’s work? Poetry wasn’t seeming very profitable, at that moment. However I hung on, for it occurred to me that, if I let go, the cart would rapidly accelerate to sixty miles an hour, and then, the way my luck was going, it would collide head-on with the police cruiser.
I slid on, closer and closer, and finally emerged from the night and slid right between the cruiser and the porch, giving a little wave to either side as I passed through the brightness. As I re-entered the night I glanced backwards. Both the officers and the man were laughing. Apparently I had relieved the tension and defused the situation. Not that I expected any thanks.
“Really, God? Really?” I kept muttering as the cart slowed at the bottom of the hill, and I pushed it on to my car. I had the strangest sense God had used me to break up a fight, and that perhaps He was a compassionate God after all. Maybe not compassionate to me, but compassionate to others.
Yet I then experienced a remarkable turn in my fortunes. I blundered into two day’s work at a car-wash while an employee recovered from the ‘flu. Not only did it pay an unheard-of five dollars an hour, for ten hour days, but also it held an unexpected windfall. At the end of the carwash was an enormous vacuum cleaner people could use to clean the inside if their cars with, and when I was sent to empty the dirt out of it I discovered that besides sucking dirt from the inner mats it sucked up a surprising amount of spare change. Life was good.
The oddest thing of all involved my health. I figured about the worst thing I could do to my body was to be wet all day in a midwinter car-wash, and then sleep in a cramped Toyota when it was ten degrees below freezing. I confidently looked to the corners of my eyes, awaiting the first symptoms of pneumonia. Instead I was hit by radiant health. It made absolutely no sense to me.
Then I remembered the little mouse that died at my feet in the motel unit. Perhaps there was something poisonous in that air. It was making me sick, and God had to get me out of there. I wouldn’t listen, and stubbornly stayed in a poisonous situation, so God had to get drastic.
Of course, I knew some would say I was just putting a silver lining on a black cloud, but that was their problem. The idea worked for me, and I felt loved more than I deserved, and was happy. I even wrote a long poem, sitting in my Toyota one afternoon, and it flowed out without correction and, when I reread it, seemed rather good, if I do say so myself.
A PLACE CALLED HOME
So in love with child-scarred walls
Was I that I was loathe to leave
That place called home, that beat abode
Which saw me waul and roll and teethe
And then, astounded, rub my chin
And feel the first felt bristles there.
But Real-Estate can never grieve
And For-Sale signs never grin
To see a family stay secure,
And none would heed my aching heart.
I saw them empty every drawer
And watched my childhood bed depart
And, though I then slept on the floor
And listened through the lonely night
To echoes of bygone delight
Go ghosting through the empty halls,
When square dawn roses paned the walls
I had to rise and had to roam
And leave the place I loved, called home.
The smiles and tears and miles and years
I’ve crossed have made a man of me,
And home’s become most anyplace
I rest, and practice poetry.
A tent, or flea-infested pad,
Or barn, or boxcar, boat or bench,
Or millionaire’s mansion, where I’m guest,
Is home enough to make me host
And give what people crave the most
But most have lost for Real-Estate
With fingers crossed
And eyes on gain, choosing losing,
Causing pain, never giving what
I give: The poetry; the Gift.
You cannot buy a gift,
And it’s a gift to be the host
And practice the benevolence
Remembered from a place called home.
I have seen that poetry can bring
The beauty back to sitting on the stoop
Looking at the clouds. Sitting doing
Nothing with a friend. Children sitting
Doing nothing in the lush of summer
As the flowers droop for plushness
And the lone narcotic is the drone
Of many bees too drunk on honeydew
To sting. Bees drinking deep, then winging
Through the lucid air and bluer skies
Back to a honeyed place called home.
Upon the tops of boxcars, or thumbing
In the sizzling heat above the soft
Macadam, my home has come along
With me though I am not a turtle
And not burdened like a snail.
Everywhere I go is home
And everywhere I rest I’m host
And puzzle people with the art
Which makes one feel at home.
For they have bought the houses
And they have hoarded land
And they have sold their souls and sought
What seekers know is sand.
Forgetting green needs water
And sun scorches without rain,
Their roses lack all perfume
And they’re driven to complain,
“I’ve the title to this land.
I own the air you breathe.
You have no right to play the host.
I must ask you to leave.”
And so I hit the road again.
Always, as I roam,
I glance back at the place I knew
And briefly made a home.
Sometimes I wonder, as I walk,
If people watch my leaving,
Then glance about an empty house
And muse, without believing,
On how the quiet seems to mourn;
On how the heart feels strangely torn;
On how the house seems strangely lorn
And not the place called home.
For home comes always on with me
And when my old age sets me free
I’ll look behind, and I will see
The body that I used to be
And used to call my home,
And then my gaze will glance ahead
And see what fearful fools have fled.
There is more to life than bread.
With Real-Estate and For-Sale dead
I won’t have lost; love’s always led
Me to a place called home.
I likely should tie up some lose ends.
I soon mastered the art of sleeping in my Toyota. All one needs to do is learn to curl up in the proper manner, around the stick-shift on the floor. This freed me from the bother of coming up with any rent, for the rest of the winter.
Once I had a bit of spare money I bought a manual about old Toyotas for around five dollars. This helped me figure out what was making the car stop. It was a tiny, worn O-ring that insulated a wire that entered the side of a carborator. As soon as the engine warmed the wire would short out. A new O-ring cost 89 cents, and I was on the road again.
Before I headed out of town back to the campground, I had a final meeting with my friend the tiny landlord. One day I was walking by the motel on the far side of Old Route Sixty-six, and he came dashing across the street and asked me if I had the money I owed him. I didn’t, so I just spread my palms and said, “I’m sleeping in my car.” He looked suspicious, as always, but also crestfallen. Something about how his shoulders slumped as he walked back across the road pricked my conscience, so, when my tax refund came a few days later, I returned to the tiny front office where he lived with his wife and children. (As usual it smelled of the delicious cooking which I was never offered.) He wasn’t in, but his wife came to the desk. When I explained I was there to pay a debt she snatched the money from my hand and turned away. I noticed she was shaking slightly. It helped me understand they likely were desperately poor.
It also helped me understand there might be worse things than to be a bachelor, able to sleep in a car and then head out to a campground when the weather got warm, free as a bird.)