Friday, November 30, 2012

City Bus Adventures #1: "The Definite Article"

This morning after sparring with my employer over my latest missing paycheck (Fresno Unified School District has a shameful nation-wide reputation for losing paychecks and shorting employees; they never answer their phones and frequently slam down the sliding metal shields at the service windows during office hours when they sense irate and desperate personnel approaching), I hopped on the northbound bus toward my favorite library, a branch tucked into a strip mall next to a kickboxing academy and a liquor warehouse.  This library, one of the last remaining quiet spots in cacophonous, screeching, gut-bellowing Fresno, is where I'm writing on one of the branch's newly acquired Google Chromebooks, available for 4 hour stretches to card-holding patrons.  Last night one of the librarians said to me, "I think getting these computers is turning out to be a big mistake.   They're attracting the wrong element."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You know--library haters.   And Google is evil."

"Of course."

The bus ride to the library was uneventful until the last mile or so, when the rather striking and commanding female driver wrenched the bus over to the sidewalk--not at a designated spot-- where a disabled man waved limply, head lolling, from his powered wheelchair, over which a trio of shocking pink and green visibility flags bobbed atop bendy white stalks sprouting from his seat back.

"There he is!" she shouted.  "He ain't never in the right place!"

"Shit, man, just don't pick him up!"  This was from one of two other passengers besides me, a caballero in dark round shades and phony lizard-skin, lounging beneath his stylized wrangler hat near the front of the bus.   Behind me  another passenger, a snoring, marshmallowy lump, had been struggling to hold his head up above the metal seat bar in front of him.

"I gotta pick him up, brother."  She pulled a lever that started the beeping and squealing extrusion of the vehicle's handicap ramp.  As it tilted up and over, she executed a balletic hop-and turn-away from the passenger door to land on her booted feet facing us--me, the caballero, and the sleeper--in a vaguely menacing crouch, arms curving out and down.  She flipped back her long hair--a beautifully gold-streaked forest of straight strands and thin, tight braids.  A combat-ready air hung about the bus interior, coming from her strongly leonine face and her stance. "You men know how it be.  Man gotta help man."

"That's the way of it, for sure," said the caballero.

Normally I stay out such discussions, but she hopped again, shifting a bit and staring right at me.  "I know you can hear.   I see you on my bus all the time.  No! No! Don't turn around!  I ain't talking about Punky back there!"

"Okay," I said.  "It's all good.  Pick him up.  I'm in no hurry."

She started to answer but turned back to the door and the ramp.   "Dammit!  No!  I told you before!"  She leaned out over the ramp.   From the middle of the bus where I sat I could just make out that the man in the chair--a thin fellow with an ultra-white crew cut and round shades exactly like the caballero's--was stuck on the ramp.

"You stuck!  I always tell you you gotta go backwards!  You can't drive no wheelchair--here her voice turned snarly and whiny--no ASS-istive tech-NOLOGY!!!--up no ramp going forward!"  She turned back to us.  "He got them little spinny front wheels hung up.   Again!   I can't go out there and push."

She looked at me.  "Somebody got to go lift his ass up and unhook them wheels."    I was sitting right behind the mid-bus exit, my usual spot.   I started to squirm up, but the caballero sprang up and reached the door before I rose an inch.

"Watch that green light go on then push that door open!" shouted the driver.  "Touch the yellow strips down low!   Yellow strips down low, I said!"

"I know how to push the strips," said the caballero.  He hopped out and started tugging at the handles on the chair.

"Everybody know NOTHING!"  Now she had me fixed in her gaze.   "Man out there can't drive no car, can't walk, can't ride a bike,  ain't no preacher gonna slap his forehead and make him get up and walk, so he better learn to drive a wheelchair backward up a RAMP!  Huh!  Yeah?"

I thought for an instant of the fairly advanced technology installed on city buses like this one--little sparkly domes of multi-directional cameras studded all over--goggling and sound recording every bit of this scene.  The driver knew this very well but didn't care.

"Absolutely," I said.

After a moment's fuss, she and the caballero finished directing the man up the ramp and maneuvering him into  place in one of the bus's two wheelchair bays.   She straightened up after buckling the last safety strap around the chair.  The occupant's white head resumed lolling.   She faced her passengers again, arms akimbo, placid smile stretching, and sighed.

"This is all about . . . Man helping man.   Or should I say Man helping Mankind.  You know the difference I mean?  Because you men can see I ain't no man."

"No, you ain't," said the caballero.

She whipped her head toward me.  "Don't you worry, youngster!  We ain't behind schedule!  I keep a sharp-ass watch over you all!   You know who Neil Armstrong was?  Neil Armstrong!"

"He was the first man to walk on the moon," I said.

"That's right!  You know that because you an educated man!  Shut up!  I see you over at that library every day!"

I had only seen her on the bus.  "You go there?" I asked.

"Neil Armstrong wasn't riding no backwards-driving wheelchair he got free from the state up a RAMP was he?  He was flying a SPACE module!   And you know what he said when he stepped out on the moon?  You know how he messed up,  I mean MESSSSSED UP!  Huh?"

"He said, 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'"

"And what did he leave out?   Shut up!  The definite article!  Thought I didn't know?"

"Not at all," I said.

"He should have said A man," said the caballero.

"That's right!  So we all clear?  When I said it's about man helping man I was speaking very very loose to mean women and men and everything in between, whatever the hell you all are.    But I ain't driving no SPACE module on a historic occasion so I didn't MESS anything up the way old Neil did for all time and posterity, now did I?"

She let that hang and stared directly down the center of the bus at no one in particular.

"Okay, then, precious cargo--Let's roll!"

So we did.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Some Kindle Samples of Books about the Homeless

Because I write a "homeless" blog--whatever that is--I thought I'd peek in on what other writers were doing along the same general lines.

A Gift of Hope by Danielle Steele

In this book, Danielle Steele, who is line-by-line the worst writer of popular novels of all time (any one of her books is a great help to any struggling writer of fiction: look at what she does, then at all costs avoid doing the same thing), reveals that for eleven years she and a team of ten helpers went out "night after night" and "dealt with whatever we found, served three hundred people a night, three or four thousand a year," giving them high-quality clothes, umbrellas, and healthy food.   Main Idea:  Danielle and her van-driving team stopped a lot, jumped out, and handed enough bags of supplies and goodies to last "for weeks or even months."   Best Part:  Danielle claims that "for one shining instant, [the homeless] knew with total certainty that someone cared, and fell out of the sky [my emphasis] to help them" immediately after writing that she and her team jumped out of vans.  Also Danielle claims that her acts led the homeless to believe that things like this would happen again.  Maybe so.

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski

First off, Mike tells his readers that even though street people use four letter words frequently and in creative ways, he won't include them in his book.  After much prayer and pondering, Christian Mike and his friend Sam  decide to take a sermon's challenge to "Be the Christian you say you are" and voluntarily go on a grand six city, six month tour across America living as homeless men.  Best Part: to their credit, Mike and Sam admit at the outset that they "would not actually be homeless.[emphasis in original]  Any time things get too hairy they can hightail it home for more church and ice cream socials.  Main Idea:  Mike and Sam realize there are more ruined and hopeless people out there than most people can imagine, but this gives them hope because that gives God that much more work of redemption to do and makes him an even greater God.  Also:  While these guys set themselves strict rules--no credit card, bus fees only from pan-handling--all the talk of God and hope and redemption and miracles is just a smokescreen for an elaborate stunt.

Breakfast at Sally's: One Homeless Man's Inspirational Journey  by Richard LeMieux

Right off the bat, Richard tells a man he meets in a park that he's writing a book about "Homeless people . . . People I've met--interesting people.  People living, laughing, crying, struggling--people dying."   He's writing the book on a manual Underwood typewriter a kind man in a secondhand store gave him--along with some paper--free of charge when he told the man his dream of writing his story.  Best Part: After Richard ruins his typewriter by leaving it out in the rain, the very same man he met in the park surprises him at a church charity meal with another typewriter and some paper.  Richard takes this seeming coincidence as a sign that he must keep writing.  Main Idea:  As a general rule, being homeless (actually, so far in the sample this guy has a van, money to keep it rolling, and a dog for company) brings out the cliche'd worst in people's style, a kind of vacuous, slack-faced smiling trudge through the banal with plenty of unneccessary adverbs and exclaimation marks.  Also:  Any book that opens with a hitchhiker called "C" pulling a book by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers out of his rucksack and reading from it aloud is off to a wretched start.

Of course, I need to sample more of this stuff, but it doesn't look promising.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Enjoying the End--a Sampler

(Note: These Amazon Kindle Sample Reviews are ideal for the busy homeless.  Contrary to popular imagery of the homeless as parasitic slugs and sloth-like hangers-on, street people are busy as hell riding buses, filling out forms, running to government offices and labor exchanges before the work is gone, getting up at 3:30 AM to stand a bare chance of beating the recycling competition, standing in endless lines with dangerously impatient predators and hustlers.  My sample reviews are also ideal for readers at any societal stratum rushed for time and in need of cocktail party chit-chat and one up-manship ammo.  I'm proud to provide this service. Each review clusters around three deliberately simple--if not simplistic-- cheery "book report" devices, nostalic reminders of grade school assignments: Main Idea, My Best Part and an Also afterthought for bedtime contemplation)

                           "The best lack all conviction while the worst
                    Are full of passionate intensity."

                                             --William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Recently  I entered the darkened apartment of a friend to find him lying on the couch, visible only in the blue light of his laptop's power indicator, listening to Jim Morrison and the Doors performing "The End."  My friend and I had compared notes many years ago and discovered that our first exposure to this doleful epic of percussive jangles and down-spiraling guitar riffs had been during the opening scene of Apocalypse Now.   Francis Ford Coppola did some of his best work with the opening montage of napalm blossoming in the jungle, Martin Sheen melting down in a Saigon hotel, and wraith-like helicopters drifting across the screen--all of it given gravitas by Morrison's groaning but commanding vocals.  It all seemed tremendously profound at the time, but now seems slightly forced or sophomoric, and I wondered what what my friend was thinking or feeling having deliberately pulled up the song on his computer.

I sat down and waited for the song's conclusion before saying, "Mood music?"

"Naw," said my friend.  "Sometimes you just want a little bit of Jim and a little bit of downer, tiny taste of world-ending, all that shit."

Then he turned on the TV, took a couple beers out of the fridge, and we settled in for a World Series game.

I know just what he means about a "little bit" of apocalypse, the short, sharp pleasures of brief yet languid contemplation of collapse.   What better way to share the feeling than a selection of the many Kindle samples I've read lately that fervently wish for and revel in (no matter what the authors say to the contrary, no matter how tear-stained their tone) the End of All Things.  Get ready to wallow . . .

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Great New Party Game and a Couple of Book Recommendations

Recently I was reading a terrific book called Monkey Girl, a well-researched and gripping account of the famous Dover, Pennsylvania evolution trial in which Lisa Kitzmiller, a local mother, and ten other citizens sued the city school board for trying to introduce "intelligent design," a supposed "alternative" to the well-established theory of evolution, into the classrooms where their children sat and learned.    Judge John E. Jones III,  a conservative Christian judge appointed by George W. Bush, delivered a decisive ruling regarding intelligent design:  it is, he declared, a religious program and not science and has no place in a public classroom.  He also called the school board members "liars" and labeled their mischief "an act of breathtaking inanity," a phrase everyone ought to tuck into their argumentative toolkit.

Intelligent Design is simply renamed "scientific creationism" with a bit of pseudo-sciency biological misdirection called "irreducible complexity,"  the observation that complex processes and structures in organisms like the immune response or the molecular "machinery" of a single cell are constructed of interlocking parts and steps:  remove any one of them and the system ceases to function.   Thus, it is argued, the whole thing, cell or system, must have been created--ZAP!--at once by a foreseeing intelligence of some sort and could not have evolved step-by-step through natural selection.

This is just plain wrong, as many scientists have shown, but lots of people have fallen for it.  Intelligent design fails completely because it ignores the well-documented way evolution builds scaffolding underlying complexity step-by-step out of parts that are initially useful but later may be discarded as new functions and structures  develop.  The result looks like a magic trick (How did that big rock get all the way up there! Jeepers! Must've been aliens!) if you don't do the hard work of reconstructing the shape of the scaffold.  If you pull out the keystone of an arched bridge, the whole structure will indeed collapse, but that tells you nothing about the support mound that held the whole arch up as it was constructed stone-by-stone.

Here's a new party game you can play alone or with friends--no real limit on number of players other than space and time considerations.  I call it "Life Scaffold," but you can call it anything you want.  The only equipment is brains and an understanding of historian Daniel Boorstin's 1963 prediction that in the future "celebrities will be known for their well-knownness."   So if you know that Kim Kardashian has a colossal booty (I had known of her before I ever saw her picture or knew anything about her body), you already know more than enough to play.   The only firm rules are "don't resort to the supernatural or non-existent technologies" and "don't quote the Bible except for rhetorical and literary flourishes," by which I mean don't be an idiot.

Quick game sample,  starting at the highest skill level.   What event or sequence or confluence of events  would it take to slam Brad Pitt (or Bono, or Lady Gaga, or Bill Gates, or George Lucas--you get to pick) and Angelina Jolie into homelessness?  Homelessness is having to sleep outside under the stars or bridges (No shelters, no shacks, no shanties, no caves, no friends or relatives' couches, no dog condos, and no protection from the elements besides blankets and ponchos)

You and the other players have use your background knowledge of the world to find a plausible way this could happen.  In this case the scaffolding holding up Brad and Angelina as they construct the cathedral of their lives and careers is about as sturdy and intricately interlocking as it gets.  And like the building of a cell's machinery, much of its historical path is invisible.  But unlike a cell's molecular machinery or an arch, knocking out a single part might not do the trick.   Too many variables and societal helpers come out of the woodwork to help:  friends, family, fans, and the near invincible power of Boorstin's "well-known-ness" dictum.  Where do you start?  How to bring them down?

Your first impulse is to play the scandal cards allotted to you--mentally tallied--because the game has no physical props.  Scandal cards cost you a lot of points, especially the big easy Child Abuse Card.  And remember, you're trying make them homeless (the freedom!), not incarcerated felons.  Or you can simply list  the cards not permitted at all before the game starts and make sure everyone agrees.  Also, you can invent future events but you're not allowed any "Time Machine" cards to change the past (I haven't worked out all the details because I'm too lazy and I'm already giving you a wonderful free  idea to go over the back fence with, so you can hammer out the rules).

If you spend even a couple of minutes puzzling over the above situation,  you should see that without scandal cards that it's going to be super difficult,  especially in a world where celebrities' lives actually improve the more beastly they behave. In that case,  you might want to start at beginner level.  A few weeks ago we heard about Erin Moran, who was Joanie in Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi, and her current incarnation as evicted trailer-park trash.  You don't have to strain much to picture the ways she and her bar-fly friends spent the 65,000 dollars she got not long ago by suing the producers of her old shows.

If you and your friends are brave enough, or you're alone some night, you can play a version of the game I call "Avoiding the FAED."  FAED is my own acronym for the Fundamental Attribution Error Demon.  Very quickly, the Fundamental Attribution Error happens when people watch other people screw up, wreck their lives and create poison chaos for others with seemingly obvious and doltish mistakes that you could see coming for miles.  What idiots.  However, when you screw up and find yourself flat on your back in the muck, it wasn't your fault, it was society, the environment, the system, the noise and distraction--the brutes!   Yes, you say, mistakes were made . . . but not by me.

That's the title of an excellent book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson which brilliantly explains the psychology of cognitive dissonance, the profound physical and mental discomfort felt when people try to hold mutually incompatible ideas in their heads simultaneously.  One of the ways they escape CD is invoking the FAE Demon, who is very useful at shifting blame and allowing you to always be right and never make a wrong decision.

Okay, let's wrap this up so you can try out the new party game with your friends or play the solitary version.  This involves fearless and meticulous (perhaps impossible in practice but not in principle) mental reconstruction of the scaffolding you and others constructed step-by-step that got you to your current peak or pit.  Unlike the proponents of intelligent design, you are not allowed to insert Providence as a explanation for successful life construction or blame a demon for slip-shod craftsmanship.   Enjoy!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Treat for the Devil

Halloween night, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1992.  I was living in a moldy studio apartment filled with cockroaches the size of paperback books.  At night they sounded like pattering rats as they scuttled over the kitchen carpet--the whole fetid box was covered with the same splotchy gray fabric, even the bathroom--and tried to dig their way into the cereal box or oatmeal cylinder.  My girlfriend had recently taken a job in Kentucky and I was fighting horrid loneliness, a reappearance of aggressive foot fungus because of the humid, swampy Louisiana atmosphere, and the irony of teaching creative writing up at LSU while being massively blocked myself on both a novel and a screenplay.

Outside, as I sat on my bed reading and swigging from a jug of cheap wine, the following things lurked:  A misty, swampy rain, sauna hot even at the end of October, swirling down grayish-green and phantomish from weirdly-lit orange clouds; an alligator that I and several other residents had spotted repeatedly, skulking and swishing its way through the weed-choked parking lot into the woods behind the complex--animal control hadn't yet responded and each trip to my car parked a few feet from the door was terrifying; a ferret owned by the lesbian witch masseuse who lived upstairs and was always bounding and leaping up and down the stairway, fixing you with its black eyes and making a horrid FITZSSSS!!! . . .FITZSSSS!!! sound at you; my neighbor a few feet across the hall who looked exactly like Peter Lorre and never made a sound except a sickly giggle when our paths crossed.

One year ago this very night a Japanese LSU exchange student dressed up in a luminous skeleton costume had been shot to death on his way to a Halloween party when he and some of his friends attempted trick-or-treating in the wrong neighborhood.   A Cajun who didn't much care for Halloween, or perhaps didn't understand trick or treating, blasted the costumed foreigner with a shotgun when the kid rushed the house screeching and waving his arms, trying to have some spooky American fun.

 Hurricane Andrew had torn through the state just over 2 months ago, uprooting hundreds of the city's centuries-old live oaks.  Their twisted boughs and branches still formed a nightmare maze-like jumble over the debris-strewn streets, and the clean-up was still in progress.  I doubted that any trick-or-treaters would be out, and it was highly unlikely anyone would find my secluded studio, tucked in next to the laundry room in the back of the old brick building.

About 10:00 PM, when I was dithering over reading a student's story about a New Orleans undertaker who had a different sexual fetish for each day of the week--one involved mint juleps and pacifiers--or watching a horror movie on TV, there was a knock at the door.

A small person stood looking up at me through the eye-holes of a cheap molded K-Mart devil mask.  It wore a red cape and tights.   "Trick or Treat!"

"Take off your mask and let me see your face, devil."

The small person complied.  It was a boy about age 7.

"Trick or Treat!"

"How old are you?  Where are your parents?"

"I'm six.  They're at home."

"You're out by yourself?"

"Yeah, it's okay.  Trick or Treat!"

We bantered back and forth another minute or so, me worried about this kid out alone and unsure what do to. 

"Look," I said, "I don't have any candy--I didn't think I was going to have any visitors tonight.  I think I should talk to your parents or something.  Give me their phone number, devil."

"Give me a treat first."

"I don't have anything sweet in here except for some cinnamon raisin bread.  I could make you some cinnamon raisin toast with whipped-butter spread, if you want."


I stepped over to the toaster, within sight of the kid.  "Look, I'm going to trade you the toast for your parent's phone number, or maybe walk you home."

As I shoved a slice into the toaster slot, the devil said, quite forcefully, "Don't toast it too much!  I don't like the taste of carbon!" 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Moonscape Snapshots

Each morning I left the Mission through the cafeteria doors, took a free sack lunch from a sullen Disciple (when Disciple Brady was on sack lunch duty I always made sure to give him a belly laugh by answering the staff-required "God Bless You" with "No, Thanks!"), walked north along the Mission gates, past the forbidden gated garden, and onto the Moonscape, a bare stretch of dirt and rock bordering a railway line that appeared mysteriously lunar in a manner both ancient and forward-beckoning.  Against a glaze of orange sunrise and the glitter of broken bottles, some images  I remember:

--Lonnie, a legally blind veteran and conspiracy theorist who gives free lectures on ancient aliens and the History Channel; Free Mason/Mormon puppet-mastery; 9/11 and high-intensity focused military-grade microwave weapons;  crop circles created by post-hypnotically controlled illegal immigrant farm workers being unconsciously trained for saucer duty; NASA fakery at Skywalker Ranch (as a black man, Lonnie admires George Lucas for dating a black woman, but knows he's in cahoots with the CIA/WHO-created End times AIDS plague); Government cell phone Neuro-Remote Control; manifestations of bible prophesies in Braille on the arms of addicts . . . practicing Tai Chi near the No Trespassing sign, white cane propped against a concrete section of sewer pipe, one of several scattered about the barren landscape.  His face looks stuffed together, white-filmed eyes embedded in crushed putty, and his body swells with the edema of some painful disorder, but each morning his movements are slow, slow turnings and precise finger tracings in the chilly air as overpass traffic flits behind him in utter silence.

--The  frantic hopping,  groans, and hoarse exectrations of men who just can't make it to one of the contested public downtown toilets, ranging from the casino to the courthouse juror parking garage to Starbucks (One dark recent night, many downtown toilets  acquired token-operated locks, said tokens obtained at the discretion of clerks or janitors after visual inspection to detect severity of indigence), yanking down their trousers, squatting and splattering.

--Jordon, a male schizophrenic and occasional model who used to sleep in the bunk above me, drank Folgers Instant Coffee 24/7, and slept like the dead--often having to be yanked and pummeled awake by a Disciple-- sitting on a dead shopping cart and eating from a monster stash of carefully wrapped  Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches (expensive-looking white paper folded like some aggressive form of origami) in a canvas shopping bag, staring at nothing and gurgling "PB and J! Goddamn PB and J!  PB and J! . . .what are you gonna do without PB and J? Fucking PB and J!"

--Dangerously crazy Mondo, howling from the deep-down of  himself at the rising sun like some pre-Copernican barbarian, objecting to the remorseless start of another day.

--A blackened ring of ash and rocks with a scattering--like tossed Pick-Up Sticks--of syringes inside.

--My bunk mate for a few weeks, Little John, a former L.A.stick-up artist in his 60s, whirling each time I edge up behind him, crunching gravel and high-stepping over blanketed lumps, screeching at me, "Don't want no trouble, mister!  I got nothing for you!  No damn trouble after all this time! . . ." and trembling until I remind him who I am.

--Me, framed in the camera viewer on my little-girl-cell-toy-decorating-party phone I got at Target, snapping an early morning Moonscape shot of myself against the  railway company warning sign, thinking about two main things: my achievements before arriving here--divorce, bankruptcy, car-repossession, clinical depression, addiction, eviction, and this daily trespassing--plus the undeniable fact that these 3-5 minute stretches of my 20 minute morning jaunt to the bus depot and my teaching jobs, numbering in the hundreds now, are some of the happiest times in my life. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Beri Beri

Lately I've been doing my sub teaching routine nearly every day--early morning bus trips to battered, weary neighborhoods and schools which cower next to chain-link-bordered front yards filled with foaming pit-bulls perfectly capable of jumping over the fence, though they're too dumb to realize it.   Of course, I also get to teach at more upscale schools, ostensibly no different from any other in the district, although everyone knows this is a polite, extended-pinky-finger-fiction.   (I'm also temporarily renting space on a friend's couch, so technically I'm not homeless like it says up above, at least for now. Some friendly acquaintances from the Mission tell me I'm "couch surfing," in a tone that vibrates with disapproval.)

At today's job, the merest  glance at the kids skittering around the halls and into various labs and offices on their before-school errands tells me one thing right away: they have better nutrients coursing through their systems on a daily basis.  Because all schools in the district serve the same cruddy carbo-loaded breakfasts and lunches, the kids in the "good" neighborhoods are getting plenty of fruits and vegetables and quality protein at home and in their nifty designer lunch satchels (Hannah Montana, Justin Beiber, the Disney Cosmos) that I lock into a special cabinet at the beginning of the day.  A shocking pink sticky screams "Guard the lunch key!!!"   I learn  early on that sneaking Hot Cheetos onto campus is the major snack offence, and several of the kids warn me about a boy named Gage, who is apparently an expert smuggler and dealer of this toxin.

 Hot Cheetos kids are round,  greasy, somnolent and depressed.  And because their diet is mostly sugar they get childhood diabetes at an alarming rate and often develop fatty livers which lead to cirrhosis, and then they need transplants.   Also, Hot Cheetos kids who live in Fresno don't develop normal lungs so their brains are always oxygen deprived. 

Just before lunch I march the kids to the computer lab for their weekly 50 minutes of online slogging through approved websites--math and spelling games, mostly.  The district has diligent blocking software for forbidden sites like YouTube, but I have to patrol the room carefully to make sure the students don't find some obscure, potentially soul-damaging "content" floating around.  (Most schools haven't been transformed by the computer "revolution."  They simply sequester banks of PCs in a single "lab" and load in each class, K through 6,  for a weekly dose of keyboards, mice, and graphics. I don't think anyone's really figured out yet how to nourish children with this technology).  

Today I'm intrigued by the teacher's instructions for the computer lab: "Tell the kids they have to donate 300-500 grains of rice before they can sign onto Supermath or the NASA project."

"What the blue blazes is this thing about rice?" I ask.

"It's ',' says Taylor.  Today I have two Taylors, both female, one of whom has an identical twin named Trinity, three Aarons, two Serenities, a Galaxy, and an Odin (I confirm that yes, he's named after Thor's dad, played by Hannible Lecter in the Marvel movie). turns out to be a site that donates ten grains of rice for each vocabulary question you answer correctly.  There are about 60 or so levels of increasing difficulty, but even the really hard, unabridged OED questions still send only ten grains--an amount you could pick up with a saliva-moistened fingertip--overseas to the needy and starving.  Sample question from the high end:


Look it up.

"So," I ask the class before they clap on their earphones, "Why don't these guys just send the rice?  What does answering questions have to do with it?"

Trinity explains:  "The advertisers who appear at the bottom of the page when you answer questions pay for the rice."

 "How many meals have you guys donated to starving people?"

"Lots!" they chorus.  After a bit more chat it's apparent that they really like this activity and do it at home, too.  It makes them feel good, they say.

Then I can't help it:  "Is the rice being donated polished rice or brown unhusked rice?  Because in the picture here on the home page that looks like polished rice to me and that means it might be contributing to Beri Beri."

"Beri Beri?  What's Beri Beri?" 

The kids like the sound of the word so they repeat it several times.  It's one of those utterances they like to roll around in their mouths like Jolly Ranchers--things like "fruit bat," "woop woop," or "Lake Titicaca."  Often the terms become creative insults or means of mojo stealing.

"Why would you polish rice?  Like the floor polisher?"

Beri Beri, in case you don't know, is common in countries that have a high percentage of caloric intake from rice that has had its husk, bran, and germ removed, meaning it can be stored longer but is totally lacking in B vitamins, especially B-1 or Thiamine.

My father was a doctor, and Beri Beri was one of the diseases he enjoyed telling us about on family outings, along with my biggest childhood fear, rabies.

"If you get Beri Beri you have trouble walking, seeing, have severe pain, and sometimes people swell up--I mean really gigantic like a parade balloon."

"That's awesome!"

"You can also get  Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which means you can't form short-term memories anymore.  You can remember stuff that happened a long time ago, but if a Tyrannosaurus smashed through the window over there and yanked one of you out, a thiamine-deficient person wouldn't remember it three seconds after it happened."

"Cool!"  "No way!"  This gets discussed and various horrific things get suggested that a victim might instantly forget.

"Well," I say, "the people you're donating to probably get to eat potatoes and tubers and beans and things like that so they get vitamins they need.  And Drew Barrymore gives them cups of nutritious porridge.  She was that little girl in E.T but she's all grown up now."

"What the deuce?"   This is a favorite phrase of grade-schoolers because of Stewie on Family Guy.

"But it's still an important question," I continue.  "Are you contributing calories to keep people alive or are you contributing to Beri Beri?  And how could we find out for sure?"

I assign the project of finding out to the twins Taylor and Trinity.  "Scour that website and find out what kind of rice is going out." 

At the end of computer hour they've found nothing--the FAQ is useless--but a there's a Contact page which warns that is too busy to answer many e-mails, but they'll try.   I have the twins compose and send question about the rice, then it's time for lunch.  

I eat a $2.00 salad that I purchase in the teacher's lounge and after lunch, because I'm tired and don't feel like doing the boring California history lesson, I get the kids going on a discussion of the merits of Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe's.  Then we play boys vs. girls dodge ball ("If I hit you you'll get Beri Beri!") and go home. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Gold Standard

I witnessed my first suicide a few weeks after arriving at the Mission.   Above the main building, curving across G street to slope westward down the weed-choked hill where quite a few homeless nestle and burrow at night, the gray concrete highway overpass rests on its thick pillars like a grungy imitation of an ancient monument or temple.  The access stairway, steep as a hike up a ziggurat, stands wrapped in chainlink fencing and upward-spiraling coils of barbed wire. 

We spotted the man standing balanced on the freeway railing high overhead right after breakfast.   His back was to us and his arms were outstretched, pointing east and west.  Before anyone could shout or speculate about how he'd gotten up there, he tipped backward and fell.   His long green coat fluttered.  He hit the ground prone with arms still extended after a neat 90 degree turn. 

The sound of his body's impact was one of the strangest, most unexpected things ever to reach my ears.   In retrospect, I suppose I was unconsciously primed in the 3 seconds or so it took him to fall for a kind of wet smacking sound combined with a muffled thump.  That's how a body should sound, right?  We're bags of blood surrounding solid bones.

 !SMACK!THUMP! or !THUMP!SMACK!   Wet and heavy.

This is wrong, at least in this instance.  Instead, the impact sounded exactly the way a wooden pallet--the kind you see on loading docks or in discount warehouses--sounds when dropped from a significant height. CRACK!CLATTER!   That's it--precisely:  the !CRACK!CLATTER! or !CLATTER!CRACK! of a flat, squarish, slatted wooden contrivance used for stacking mechandise impacting concrete.  Maybe something of the !WHAP! about it.  But nothing human.

That's what I thought at the moment.  I don't remember any of the reactions from people around me.  I had to catch a bus.  Lots of blue-shirted Disciples surrounded the fallen man.  Guests flipped open cell phones.   An ambulance arrived as I set out.

 It didn't occur to me until the next day, when a rumor made the rounds that the man, whom no one knew and was not a Mission guest, had lived for 12 hours in the hospital before dying, that I had never heard a wooden pallet hit the ground after dropping 50 or so feet.   Never.  Sure of it.  So that made my surprise at the falling body's sound some kind of internally-generated and unjustified leap, an inference based on a cartoony mental map of reality.

Well, one thing to avoid here is some kind of juvenile solipsistic/philosophical riff ala The Matrix (a piece of cliche'd, doltish claptrap), but the body's impact immediately set off an inescapable obssession with wooden pallets and what sound they actually make in the real world .  

Don't tell me that's naive.  There is a real world and things make pretty much the same sound for human beings built on the same body plans everywhere unless their nervous systems are drug-addled or miswired.  And people who say solipsism (the insane belief that only you and your perceptions are real) is a more parsimonious view of reality than the inferential world revealed by science are the naive ones.   Solipsists have the added workload of explaining how the self-generated phenomena in their self-generated world keep generating novel behavior and revealing new layers and depths apart from any conscious effort on the solipsist's part.    Really.  Think about it. 

In my reality, pallets were suddenly everywhere and I couldn't stop noticing them on loading docks, in piles behind markets and in alleys.   In a corner of my favorite vacant lot--favorite because it's a fenced-in and barbed-wire-protected expanse of cracked asphalt enclosing nothing but tall brown weeds sprouting through jagged cracks--I spotted a six foot stack of pallets I'd never before noticed and wondered if they'd been deposited overnight.   These pallets were tantalizing but inaccessible.   Could I get my own pallet somewhere for testing?

And for that matter what kind of sound do falling bodies make when they hit concrete? I could wait for another suicide but that was unlikely.   I wanted desperately to ask someone in the breakfast line or changing room if they remembered the overpass suicide and what they heard when the body hit.  Because that's the Gold Standard, I kept telling myself--independent varification.  The empirical motherlode.  The Gold Standard.  I repeated this phrase to myself over and over whenever despair at finding out got the better of me.

(It's against my rules and a certain implicit street ettiquette to ask direct questions.  The data has to present itself in just the right way.  This is what happens when you're walking the streets and riding buses all day and you used to teach college "critical thinking" classes and babbled at students who couldn't have cared less about the need for "epistemological clarity" and "cleaning your reality filters,"  and you have no audience except other crazies batting at the air and screeching, "I'm not a doormat, you goddamed Stalinist bastards!  Give me my glasses back and I'll clarify everything for you once and for all!")

Well, I have no way of stretching the suspense out any longer.  One morning in breakfast line, just when I'd given up and hadn't actually thought about the problem for a while, I heard a conversation that went like this:

"Man, I just want to kill somebody!"

"Go to the clinic, dude, you're depressed."

"Depressed?  I just want to kill one of these stupid motherfuckers I live with!"

"Naw, you're angry at yourself, that's what depression is.  Get some medicine!  It's free!"

"Maybe I'll jump off the overpass.  Maybe I'll take a few people with me!  Hah! Hah! Hah! Haaaaaaahhh!"

"Were you here when that pendejo jumped off the overpass?"


"His body sounded like it was made of wood."


"When it hit the ground it sounded like wood."

"So what?  It was his skeleton!"

"No, you don't understand--"

"No you don't understand--I know what a body sounds like."

"I was there!  It sounded just like in Food Maxx when I used to work there!"

"Food Maxx?"

I held my breath.  Please, I thought. Please.

"Like a pallet."

"What the fuck . . .?"


Monday, August 27, 2012

Mission Miracles and Revelations

Recently the whole Mission chapel hour was given over to guest testimonies about Jesus and the ways he saves lives and souls.  As always, guests were admonished to stay within 5 minutes, not to ramble, and to include the most important part--miracles performed by the Son of God.  As each eager testifier bounded up and regaled us with tales of divine intervention in their lives, I struggled with a dream I'd had the night before and fantasized about going up to the podium and asking for advice on interpretation.  Maybe someone in the congregation was the equivalent of Joseph, sold into Egypt, advising the king on his visions, or those dream handbooks on the discount table at Barnes and Noble (anything with crecent moons and pointy stars is a bad sign).  My dreams are almost always embarrassingly mundane, like being chased by a wolf, or taunted with a pot of gold by a tricky leprechaun.  However, this dream was so specific and pregnant with meaning, I wondered if I too had become a conduit of divine will.  I'll get to the dream after a couple of miracles and messages from above:

Raymond, a huge, muscular black Texan in his late 60s and sporting a shower cap, began by begging our forgiveness for using an old cliche'-- 'Don't mess with Texas.'   "Brothers, I spent 46 months on the chain gang swinging a hoe--prisoners do all the farm work in that state no mistake about it--we can beat any machine, put 100 men with a hoe and an hymn and we'll have the whole state plowed and fertile while they changing the spark plugs.  Haven't been in trouble with the law for nigh on twenty-three years and aim to keep it that way, had to do another stretch in FDC Houston broke my mamma's heart for my heinous crimes but I been wiped clean, by the state or feds or by the Higher Up Man?  You decide.  It's MY BUSINESS.

"Let me tell you about Heaven, the streets of glory we're all headed for, contrasted with the Fresno schools where some of my grandchildren go.   In Fresno the girls--and I partly mean 12th grade bitches walking around in spiderwebs and butt-thongs--they always right and the teacher always wrong.  Upside down, just like this world after Eve ate the fruit.  In Texas, a child come back 5 minutes late from the bathroom--they gotta swipe an identity card just to pee and it times them and if they half second late a police officer--not no renta-cop pansy-ass uniform boy--an OFFICER OF THE LAW! grabs them!  The principal tells that kid next time we gonna stick a MOST DEADLY VENOMOUS NEEDLE in your arm.  AND THEY MEAN IT!  It's Texas!  

"Whole place is organized like a bunch  of Temperance Society women who meet each week to knit and hit drunks over the head with churning paddles--people behave, and if they don't they get slammed so goddamn hard--sorry--they don't ever do it again.  Which is like Heaven on Earth, so Heaven is gonna be better than all that by a billion to a billion powers!  AMEN! Brothers! AMEN! [Amen! echoes the crowd] 

"And one last thing I want to share with you.  If you gonna live a life of crime don't be robbing no 7-11 or  Circle K.  Express yourself!  Get some big money if you gonna take that kind of risk!  They don't keep what you need in a cash register!"

Next up . . .

Colin, a man who channels Old World souls of indeterminate origin and accents.  "Brothers, many times I've stood before you to reflect on the train wreck of both my body and soul, and so with that in mind I want to relate a vision I believe was given to me by the Lord.  Close your eyes and imagine me stretched out for miles as if transmogrified into a  train on a supernaturally straight line of tracks laid down upon a flat desert with no oasis in site.  Coming toward me is a train pulling hundreds of freight cars laden with booze, exotic women, spices, Turkish delights, jewels, untraceable currency of every description--and all I have to do is reach out with me filthy paws--I've got thousands of them in this vision, like a millipede-- and pull a switch shunting me onto another track leading faster and faster to escape the pull of this fallen world and from there to the City of God.  Or I can reach out for gleaming and lubricious debauchery. DEBAUCHERY!  But I cannot decide, brothers,  I cannot decide . . . Perhaps when the time actually comes the decision will be made for me, if it's God's will.  Amen!  But the time hasn't come yet!  So you and I are in a state of suspense.  Will he?  Won't he?  This is moral dilemma on a knife's edge.  In Christ's name, Amen.

--While all this was going on I was thinking, what difference would it make after this stuff if I went up and recited my dream?  It went like this:  I was standing on the rim of an active volcano next to a beautiful woman who looked a lot like the young Winona Ryder, but it wasn't really her, it was just a dream woman.  Know how that goes? There were some other people scattered around us and we all seemed to be tottering over the smoking red maw of the volcano.  The woman threw her arms around me and shrieked, "My God!  There are thirteen of us!  Thirteen!  We're doomed!" 

"Silly bird," I said.  "You always forget to count yourself!"   Then the dream shifted to the deck of a sinking ship and the exact same scene played out, the fake dream Winona Ryder throwing her arms around me and screaming about the deadly number thirteen, and me comforting her with a grin and a chuckle like Cary Grant:  "And Baby makes fourteen!"  The dream shifted to other scenes of peril--quicksand, burning building, tsunami, earthquake--until suddenly the fake Winona and I were alone in a meadow and I was asking her suavely, "And how many of us are there now, darling?"  But before she could answer I woke up.

The dream was radically different from anything my subconscious had ever produced before and it had numbers in it and scenes of destruction.  It was kind of Biblical in its own way.  Maybe I should share it.  Sure.  Just for the hell of it.   But instead of going up I settled back in my chair as Connie, the Mission's village idiot, stumbled up to the podium to cheers and bellows from the guests.

"Hi, everyone, I'm Connie, most of you know me, I love animals and I have a story I know you'll all like and many of you have probably heard it before.   A man was on the beach throwing stones into the waves, and a man dressed in white came walked up to him and said, 'Hey, pal, be careful there.  You might hit a starfish.  Always be careful what you're aiming at.'

"Well, the two of them started walking down the beach together and neither of them said anything.  After a while the man got tired and lay down in the sand to take a nap.  When he woke up, the man in white was gone!  He looked down the beach the way they had come and he only saw one set of footprints, his own.  And that was pretty weird because he remembered walking down the beach with the man.  Then he thought, 'That man looked a lot like Jesus!  He was walking with me and didn't leave footprints!'  So it was a miracle."

At this point someone in the audience shouted out, "That ain't the way the story goes, Connie!  The man  sees two sets of footprints for a while and then he only sees the stranger's."

Utter bafflement from Connie.  "Well, I guess that means . . . The man walked in Jesus's footprints to follow him."


Somebody muttered, "That boy's all fucked up.  Seriously fucked up."

Connie tried again.  "Maybe the whole thing was like a dream, or maybe . . ." 

The pastor stepped in and put his hand on Connie's shoulder.  "Son, I think what happened was the man saw his footprints all alone and asked the Lord why he abandoned him and the Lord answered, 'That was when I carried you, my son.'"

After Connie was gently nudged off the stage and we lined up for showers, I felt cowardly and envious of the bold, if muddled, visions expressed by my fellow Mission guests.  That night I had a dream about going to a movie that turned out to be all loud, gaudy previews for two hours.  Then, in the manner of dreams, I went on a fruitless, circular quest through the labyrinthine theater to ask the management for a refund.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Babes: A Tale of Economic Woe

I started teaching again this week, and the required vocabulary word "dismayed" came up in a short story some third-graders and I read aloud yesterday.   The protagonist, an absentminded kid forever losing things--books, house keys, caps, gloves, notebooks--and thus a habitue' of lost and founds, was "dismayed" to find that some shifty classmates had submerged his book report in an aquarium minutes before it was due.   I tried, like a good teacher, to get them to define the word from context clues, but I got answers like, "He wants to kill them," or "It means fish ate the paper." 

"Let me tell you a story kind of like that where I ended up 'dismayed,'  I said.  "I was spending the night in a friend's backyard last summer--"

"Why were you doing that, teacher?"

"I like to look up at the stars."  Actually I'd been kicked out of the Mission my second night there because a paperwork error had misidentified me as a chronic dormitory litterbug.  

"Don't interrupt.  Anyway, I forgot about my friend's new black Labrador puppy,  and I left my backpack and cell phone and wallet sitting on a table next to the air mattress.   In the morning, I found the puppy had chewed my backpack to tatters, cracked my cell phone into three pieces, and had torn apart my leather wallet with about 50 dollars in it."

"It ate the money?"

"Tore it up into little pieces and slobbered all over everything then jumped on me when I woke up and got my t-shirt muddy.  So I when I saw all this stuff I'd lost I was dismayed.  What was I feeling?"

"You wanted to kill the dog!"

"You should have called the dog catcher!"

"I'd call the police."

"Why didn't you just go to the store and get change for your fifty dollars?  That's what my Mom does."  This from a smug little girl named Sierra.

I heard a pounding noise in my head.  A wall was fast approaching.  I had to swerve away.  (Earlier today I'd had a similar feeling during math and Bear Logic, which involved basic reasoning problems involving different colored bears running races: Me: "If the red bear comes in second, and the yellow bear doesn't win the race, what does the blue bear do?" Kids:  "He ate too much honey and fell asleep!"  Me: "How can we use Bear Logic in real life?"  Kids:  "If you go camping and meet some bears you can tell them what to do.")

"Look," I continued,  "the fifty dollars was gone!   Haven't you ever lost some money that you really needed? It was everything I had and I couldn't even call anybody to ask for help.  It chewed up my bus pass!  I was totally stranded because my friend had already gone to work!"

"Why didn't you drive your car?"

"Let's stick to the fifty dollars.  I was dismayed.  I was sad.  I was angry.  I was surprised and shocked.  I felt like crying and I'm a grown-up.  That's dismayed.  Who's ever been dismayed here?"  Hands shot up.

Now a curious phenomenon started bubbling that you usually want to clamp a lid on right away, but lately I've been letting things like this reach a roiling boil for the anthropological value and absurdity.  A classroom of thirty kids can be seized by a kind of mass hysteria that makes them more fluent liars than usual if they get focused on just the right thing--and the idea of losing fifty dollars was a perfect kick start.  Listen in:

"I lost a fifty dollar bill once."

"How'd it happen?  Were you dismayed?"

"A burglar took it." 

"A burglar, eh? Most inconvenient.  How did you feel?"

"Mad and sad."

The reaction gathered speed . . .kids glanced at each other, eyes rolled sideways and upwards, bodies squirmed with the cost of juvenile mendacity . . .

--"I had fifty dollars that I won at the fair but my cat ate it."

--"I was in the park playing with my cousins and I had a fifty dollar bill and it fell down a hole.  I think squirrels got it."

--"I saw a fifty dollar bill on the ground once, and bent over to pick it up but the wind blew it away way up into a tree."

--"I had a fifty dollar bill to buy some ice cream but my baby sister flushed it down the toilet."

--"I was at a picnic with my family and some leaf cutter ants chopped up my fifty dollar bill."

--"I got a fifty dollar bill from the tooth fairy because I had a whole bunch of teeth under my pillow but then Chucky stole it."

--"A Killer Klown from outer space stole my fifty dollars."

--"Freddy Kruger stole my fifty dollar bill."

--"A monkey at the zoo grabbed my fifty dollar bill and wiped his butt with it."

Roars.  At this point I interrupted.  "So how did you all feel when you lost your fifty dollar bills?"

"I was sad."

"It was jacked-up."

One last time.  I leaned over the kids, sitting on the carpet in front of me.  "If you lose money that you really, really need, what's a word we learned today?  You felt Di. . .Dii. . .Diii. . .? Starts with the fourth letter of the alphabet? Diiiii . . ."

Sierra, the girl who'd earlier advised me on economic recovery, threw her hands up in the air and shrieked, "DELIGHTED!"

And somehow she was right.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Which Came First?

Everyone here at the Mission has been slightly stunned by the reality of the gradual winnowing of guests and their ejection, starting with long-term residents who've been here years.   Most guests who've been given walking papers have rejected the option to remain on for a limited time as an unpaid "Disciple of Christ," perfoming menial chores for bed and meals.  The principle reason for rejecting this offer is one I can understand:  the religious devotion, rituals, chores, and Bible classes required are drooling and dunderheaded beyond belief, the worst kind of primitive religiosity crossed with lots of New Age uplift guff and prison-speak.

I spoke with Lee, a man who's been living at the Mission for five years, why he was choosing the uncertainty of the street over discipleship.  "I don't want anyone telling me how to worship, and I'm too old to be on my knees scrubbing shit.   My feet hurt.   Ain't doing no stupid-ass disciple program.  Lots of people here ain't even religious.  I'll sleep outside or get into the Village."

The Village is a small collection tool-shed sized structures across the street associated with the Poverillo House with no electricity or plumbing.  Painted soft pastel colors (from a distance the Village always makes me think of Disneyland) each tiny shelter has two shelves inside to bunk a pair men.  The waiting list for the Village is long and uncertain.  Beyond that option you can risk getting rolled or raped or arrested in parks and doorways.    That's about it.

I overheard a Native American homeless man and parolee discuss his fate with a companion while standing in line waiting admission to chapel:

"I already told my fucking P.O. [parole officer] I'll go back to prison before I do that Christian shit.   I'm an Indian, Lakota Sioux, we don't believe that shit.  The mission's supposed to be for everyone!"

"You got that right."

"These fake preachers--they're in it for the money.  When we sweat in the lodge that's the real spirit!  This place is drying up because nobody wants to donate anymore, that's why they're broke.  The Christian bullshit prison program gets state funds, tax-payer dollars, man,  the rest is donations and nobody's donating, that's why the food is such garbage.  Shit, Jesus ain't gonna help nobody!  We need somebody with real power like Superman!"

"Superman?  What's that shit all about?  You're an indian.  I thought you prayed to the Great Spirit or something."

"I don't pray, you don't understand.  I just like Superman."

"Well, you know, you can see Christian symbolism in the Superman story."

"What the fuck?"

"You know, boy comes to earth, has powers, saves people, his father gives his only son to us . . ."

"That's bullshit!  That's backwards!  The Christians got all that from Superman!  They stole it! Just like everything else!"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Over the River and into the Wilds

One day last spring I took a sub teaching job at a south Fresno school.  The bus took me only part of the way, and I ended up walking three miles into the country--green fields, clucking hens, ramshackle cattle sheds--following directions from the friendly school office manager, with whom I maintained cell phone contact.  She was an hysterically cheerful woman who brayed laughter when I told her I was walking. 

"Walking, hun?  Oh, fresh air! Fresh air! Ha! Ha! Haaaaaaaah! Just keep coming on down the road you're on and turn left just past the train tracks.  Don't go right or you'll end up at the middle school with all the hooligans!   I'll have some coffee ready for you! HAAAAAAHHH!"   I turned left after the tracks, just as she'd said, walked a another half mile looking about thinking, "I really am out in the country!  Look at all the evidence: barns, snarling dogs, billowing sheets hanging out to dry, barbed wire, ducks, a couple of horses, a hazy horizon, even a glimpse of the Sierra Nevada to the east.  And just a short while ago I was at the downtown bus stop looking up at the Holiday Inn bulking above the seedy, sinister casino watching a man on a fifth floor balcony perform Tai Chi in his underwear."

I'd had no sleep the night before in the Mission dormitory.   The fat slug next to me kept rolling over and smacking me on the chest while he emitted a horrid combination of snores, wet burbles, mutterings and groans. At one point he yelped "I'm not anybody's puppet!  I'm my own man!"  Glad to hear it.

At first look the little school had the appearance of an empty field surrounded by chain link onto which a few portable buildings and trailers had been airlifted and dropped.  It looked forlorn and scattered, like something a giant child might leave behind after playing with blocks and getting bored.   Closer, concrete walkways painted with strips to guide the kids appeared, along with a nicely standard playground--climbing structure and wood chips, basketball courts, a turfy, humpy athletic field. 

Finding my way to the office I shifted into silly simplification mode and reflected, It's all about lines.  Yes, that's all it takes to carve out a space in the urban jumble or the rural wilds for the sake of the kids and the Enlightenment: some straight lines laid down by the loyal maintenance crew, a bit of non-aggressive fencing,   some pointing arrows, some shallow furrows in the turf, a brief list of posted rules--and you've got a school.  Seriously, though, that's what I've always loved about elementary schools: once you've entered their mostly benign geometries (some administration offices have a trippy, disturbing Non-Euclidean aspect to them, depending on principal and staff), it doesn't matter where you are, boiling city or cold flat nowhere land, you're on  campus, in Kid Land, and the bulk of what goes on there (yes, we all know about violence and national education failure) is a scaled-down and believable utopian dream.  Even in south east Fresno.

This little school dropped down in the ragged country seemed an outpost at the edge of the wild, like something out of Joseph Conrad or early J.G. Ballard.  Then, instead of falling out of the sky,  its tacky temp structures, trailers, concrete walkways seemed to have sprouted whole from the ground like mushrooms after midnight,  here between awful, irredeemably doomed Fresno and the faint promise of open land still not gone forever in battered California. 

"Look, kiddies," I said to the chirpy third graders I had for the day. I was still sipping the coffee provided by the laughing lady.  "It's going to be a hot one today, so why don't we change the schedule a bit and have P.E. this morning instead of after science?"

"You shouldn't be drinking in front of little kids," one of the Hailies said.  It's a grade school law that if a class contains one Hailie (or Hailee or even HeyLee), it must contain at least one more, often three total. 

"I'm not drinking, you dingleberry.  I'm sipping coffee.  And you all have water bottles and Powerade."

"Dingleberry! Dingleberry!"  all the kids shouted, then giggled.

"Mrs. B says teachers shouldn't drink coffee or soda in front of kids.  And what's a dingleberry?"

"You are, and so is everyone else, me included, for doing this job, and living this life," I said, hoping to diffuse a discussion or argument. Or a trip to principal's office for me.  "You can all call each other dingleberries or wet smackers or boggy bompers or squiffy biffies and no one will be hurt or in trouble.  If you're good, I'll give you some other silly names that don't hurt and you can all call each other funny things.  Here's another: wonky bonky!" 

The kids tried out the names on each other.  "Write them down!" they pleaded. "Write them on the white board!"

"You're not supposed to call names," persisted Hailie.

"Yes, yes.   There are lots of things you shouldn't do.  Try very hard to be a bit more literal-minded, darling.  By the way, all of you are simply a scream to me with your rapper clothes and pouty looks and "Hannah Montana" backpacks and the glitter hair and so on.  Now let's get back on topic.  Who wants P.E. this morning after the spelling test?"

Some classes are more compulsive and protective regarding the posted daily schedule than others.  This one voted for hope and change.  A few kids whined but I quelled their objections by describing my P.E. proposal:  "We're going on a safari--that's like a Jungle Adventure you might have seen on the Disney Channel.  All sorts of dangerous and exotic animals.   Hmmm?"

I don't have the faintest damned idea what sort of act or persona works best with kids.  Today I was trying a patrician snob because I was tired and felt like a languid and dissipated scion of some obscure billionaire languishing in a New York high-rise apartment. Actually, I don't have any idea what that's like but it was my guiding star for now.

"I don't like it that you called me a dingleberry," said Hailie.

"Would you like to be my number one assistant on the safari, Hailie?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah!" She brightened right up.

"Okay, go find us two jump ropes.  Borrow them from someone, I'm sure you know where.  And no, we're not going to jump ropes.  It's something much better."  She skipped out.

"Teacher, where do you live?" asked Johnny, a miniature boy gangster in full street regalia.  "I saw you walking to school this morning.  Where your car, man?"

"I live beneath the roof of the sky, and tread upon the grassy earth, over hill and dale, companion of trees and animals.  Beholden to no man or human institution, I am as free as the unfettered autumn leaves." (Yes, and just this morning a felon with flames and big black spiders tattooed everywhere yelled at me to get out bed)

"But where your car?"

"Oxidizing somewhere, no doubt.  Now, study your words SILENTLY! for a few minutes, then we'll have the test, then the safari.  Ahh!  The ropes!" 

Hailie had just shoved through the door, trailing a couple of ropes with knocking wooden handles.

Outside I led the kids, most in school uniform--white shirts and some sort of blue underneath, navy skirts, blue slacks or jeans--out to the lumpy green athletic field.  It was difficult to find a place that wasn't muddy from watering or rain.

"Heads high! Shoulders back!  Watch your spacing!  Don't stamp, we don't want to attract the beasts or natives.  Chest out, eyes forward, but keep a sharp look out for snakes!"  I'd shifted into bluff, stiff upper-lipped and pith-helmeted explorer mode.   These were sharp, enthusiastic kids and most of them got into the whole jungle adventure thing.

"Sir!"  a girl named Brandy shouted.  "We're headed into Giant Black Widow Spider Swamp!"

Others chimed in with warnings about various beasts, mostly venomous, quicksand, cannibals and booby traps.  

After finding a relatively dry spot, I laid out the ropes,with Literal Hallie's help, in two parallel, slightly snaky lines.  Pointing at the space I'd just created on the turf between the two ropes I said,  "That is the most the most dangerous river in the world.  Absolutely lethal!  Death soup!  In that river are crocodiles, alligators--yes I know they live in different parts of the world but not in my river--sharks, angry hippos, stingrays, barracudas, killer octopuses, giant squids, electric eels, piranhas, poison stone fish, stinging jelly fish, giant lampreys, toxic leeches and many, many other deadly species not yet cataloged.  Plus the river is polluted and full of sewage."

"Some of those species are fresh water and some are salt water," said a scholarly kid named Jordan. 

"You should have told me about your scientific credentials before we started out," I said.  "I could have made you safari naturalist just like young Darwin on The Beagle. Now, here's how the game works.  You line up and take turns running and jumping over the river and each you all finish and are lined up again, Hallie and I make the river a bit wider.  Anyone who so much as touches the inside of the river with heel or toe is dead or injured and has to go the nurses station over there and sit down.  Finally we'll be down to one best jumper who's the winner.  Anyone played this game before?"

No one had.  Earlier they had told me they didn't get much P.E. time because the teachers were so busy preparing them for standardized state tests.  I got them lined up and started them running and jumping one at a time.  A couple of slugs deliberately stepped into the middle of the river to get out of the game.  One of these, a gangly girl named Sarah stood for a full ten seconds in the center of the river saying flatly, "Ow. Oh, ow.  I am being eaten.  I am being stung.  There is poison in me.  It hurts so bad. I am very sad.  Now I will go to the nurse and die here in the jungle.  Ow. Ow."

Beyond that the kids lit up with excitement.  This was something new.  I assumed this tossed-together school was an overflow measure of some sort, but there little taint of the dregs about these students, the dull-eyed signs of stressful home lives, hours watching horror porn videos after midnight with their piggy parents, meals of Mac and Cheese, Hot Cheetos and Coke.  They ran, leaped over the ever-widening river, cheering each other on and screeching when an alligator snapped, or jitterbugging when an electric eel slapped a bare leg.  

I couldn't help marveling again about what simple yet powerful things lines and borders and imagination can conjure in the middle of nowhere--all this laughing and yelling and straining and cries of "shark bite!" and "her heel touched the river!  An octopus grabbed her!"  "This is the best game in the whole world!  I want to play it again!"  (Actually, it's a pretty old chestnut) And most of the kids were seriously staining their uniforms, smearing them with grass and mud as they skidded and fell on the far side of the river.  When they stood up their palms looked coated with thick brown paint.
Yipping and yowling, several kids told me they never got to play any games.   "Be our teacher!  Be our teacher!  We hate ours!"   

"That's very nice," I said.  "Keep jumping."  I could get in trouble for this, I thought faintly, as I have many times as a substitute.  Oh well.

I'm fairly high-minded when it comes to educational standards, deplore dumbing-down and all that, am deeply suspicious of techno-solutions to the education crisis (computers can't do a damn thing for school kids--wake up, everybody), but still I was proud of this scene:  I had walked out of Fresno's expanding, creeping skid row, bused  into the country, strolled through the gates of this little school, demonstrated to staff with my identity badge that I wasn't dangerous, and created a jubilee of leaping joyful kids with a pair of lines in the grass beneath the open sky. 

Finally a stocky but locomotive-powerful boy named Giovanni, and Ally, a quick springy girl with pale skinny legs, faced off while the rest of the kids watched and shouted from the nurse's station.   The river was very wide now.  "The crocs and sharks are hungry!" I shouted.  Giovanni had been clearing the water through sheer pumping power;  he looked too big to make it but he'd cleared the danger again and again with brute pounding speed and piston thrust.  This jump was too much;  his booted heel landed squarely in the river. 

"Out!  Foot bitten off by a croc!" I yelled.   "Nurse's station."  Giovanni rumbled a bit, then shuffed off toward the other wounded.   "Ally!  come here!"   I put my hand on her shoulder.  "Last jump, girly girl.  Want to try it?  Or call it a tie?"

Her blue eyes darted about and she skittered on her pipe-thin legs like a colt.  "What do you mean, tie?  If I don't jump it won't be a tie, he'll still be ahead because he tried.  Tie?  I gotta jump, for crying out loud!"  

"Yes, yes--of course you're right.  Go to it, kiddo."  I was a bit surprised by her adamance and irritation.  She ran back to the starting line, set her face and tore toward the ropes.   When she leapt she gave out a high-pitched SQEEEEEEEE! somewhere between a scream and a bird cry and seemed to float above the river on an invisible seat, her arms thrust back, her legs dangling and kicking, her face flattened out . . . then she landed, skidding twirling in the flattened muddy grass and over a dozen feet somehow managed to dance her way upright.  

Cheers went up.  The uniformed and smeary  kids surrounded me, and Ally wrapped me in a hug, a man who sleeps in a homeless shelter and who'd entered this sancrosanct space of kids and lines as he did most days--with no idea what to expect and no clear plan aside from Just Try Whatever Works--wrapped me in a two-armed hug and said,  "Oh Mr. H!  Are you proud of me?"

"Yes, honey, I'm very proud of you."  And then, far out in the wild country,  I hugged her back. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Connie's Dilemma

When the pastor announced testimony time the other night, the chapel crowd chanted for Connie, the Mission's village idiot, to stand beside the pulpit, microphone in hand, and favor the congregation with another dizzy metaphysical ramble.  I've decided that Connie, with his startling pyramidal stack of blond hair rising above his slightly stunned face, is the real deal:  not affected or exhibitionist in the manner of many street crazies, but genuinely confused and demented, head full of overlapping facts and jumbled ideas from the Bible,  movies, old songs and, especially, nature and animal worship. 

"Okay," he begins.  "I saw something in Courthouse Park this morning that I wanted to share with everyone.  As you know I love animals.  They have smaller brains than humans do, except for dolphins maybe, but I love them anyway.  There are lots of animals in the Bible, one day maybe I'll count them or maybe it's already on the Internet, there are lots of good sites to learn from."

"Remember the Lord, Connie!" one of his supporters shouts. 

"Well," Connie continues, "everything is the Lord's creation, so no matter what I talk about it's about the Lord, that's the way I see it.  Anyway, I was in Courthouse Park looking up at the courthouse which always makes me feel really small, because of all the stuff going on inside.  Lots of crimes and judges and people paying for tickets, and I think there's a whole lot of trouble in this world and I'm just one person so what can I do?  One thing I want people to stop doing is riding their bikes on the sidewalk, it's against the law and pretty dangerous, and once a guy on a bike yelled at me to get out of the way and hit the back of my head.

"So while I was just standing there and looking up at the courthouse, I heard a little boy laughing really hard and I looked down and saw a boy chasing a squirrel around a tree.  The squirrel was already up on the tree but it wasn't going any higher, just running around in circles with its claws and this boy was running around and around trying to catch the squirrel and laughing really hard and saying 'Squirrely! Squirrely!  Be my friend! Be my friend!'

"Well, I know how he feels because I want animals to be my friend, too.  But I didn't know what to do.  What if the boy hurt the squirrel? I couldn't understand why the squirrel didn't just climb higher and higher and get away.  So they ran around and around.   And then I thought the boy might get bitten and might get rabies because nobody vaccinates squirrels. 

"But what could I do?  I thought about yelling at the boy but he was really young and laughing and having a good time.  And I thought maybe I could scare the squirrel off the tree, but I didn't know who was watching and I wanted to look around and see if the boy had a parent or guardian, but I was sort of frozen watching them go around and around in, just like in cartoons.

"People are always asking, what would Jesus do?  Well, I don't think there were squirrels in Jesus's part of the world.  Maybe there were.

 "Finally, the mom, I guess it was the mom, grabbed the boy and yelled at him, 'Stopping messing around with squirrels!'  and took him away.

"Then the squirrel started climbing up and up and finally disappeared right up into the sky, I mean it looked like right into the sun where it was too bright to see it anymore.  So I guess the squirrel ended up okay.   That's my story and I did mention Jesus.   Amen!"

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Night Meeting

“Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents,
through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?”

John Ashbery

I'm not sure what this partial quote of one of John Ashbery's poems means, but I've never forgotten it and it always terrifies me somehow. Maybe it expresses a simple truth: someone or something is always coming toward you--a new lover, a mortal enemy, a crashing bore, mutant virus, rasping parasite, roaring city bus ramming your soul into the Lake of Fire, Ebola, a glowing red chunk of nickel/iron from a meteor that doesn't quite burn up and blinds your infant child.   Sometimes an unexpected visitor descends in a blinding flash of white light--like the white-robed woman many homeless people claim to have seen--bearing gifts, insights, courage to go on.  And there are always bullet trajectories to ponder.  But how do people and things find each other?  Who charts the course?

Specifically, I'd like to find out as much as I can about who drew the line of the proposed--and apparently locked in--California High Speed Rail Transport directly through the center of the Fresno Rescue Mission, an act which will necessitate a  gradual stripping down of charity and guest services over the next two months and its eventual leveling (dismantling, destruction, razing to the ground--whatever the fuck you want).  The 63 year old Mission--which serves thousands of desperate people--and the ghost train from the world of the future have an appointment, and the results won't be pretty.

Readers of this blog may have noticed I have no interest in the grubby work of investigative journalism, preferring to luxuriate in snide and snarky observations, absurd juxtapositions, mean-spiritedness, and detached obliquity.  I do love a few things in this world, and you can find them in this blog if you actually read the thing regularly.  But because I hate so many things about the Mission--its juvenile, thuggish, and dangerous religiosity most of all--I find myself surprised at my anger and sadness at what's going to happen to the big old place.  

It's going to be turned back into heaps of disorganized molecules.  No more goofy chapel sermons; no more loutish Christian rock bands who never bothered to learn to sing or play instruments; no more hysterical rants or theological arguments in the dormitory or breakfast line; no more starchy, sugary breakfasts and FAILED! scrambled egg attempts by tattooed meth-heads; no more demented and funny street theater; no more stabbings; no more pseudo-scholarly discourses on the connection between NASA's faking of the moon landings, 9/11, TB tests as the Enemy's way of marking you, and, of course, Sasquatch.   No more.

But now I've been doing some direct questioning about what's going to happen and why.  The first thing that's going to happen is that all regular guests will be given the option to become a Disciple of Christ or leave.  Discipleship at the Mission a full-time, unpaid position, a combination janitor/monk/helot not allowed to leave the premises without a permission pass. Disciples must clean, wax, stack, cook, guard, pray, attend Bible and anger management classes, stand and raise their hands to heaven whenever a pastor asks them to (Some guests stand and wave; many don't and aren't required to, although they do get angry glares from staff).  Anyone who gets a job or already has one will be asked to leave.  There are rumors the Mission will try to help people find alternative housing.  The 150 or so guest bunks will be torn out except for 20-30 racks reserved for "emergency overnight guests."  No one will sleep on the chapel floor, which sheltered up to a 100 men this last winter.

 It doesn't take much digging or journalistic  perspicacity to see that the Mission higher-ups are going to employ as much unpaid labor as they can to strip the place down in preparation for eventual demolition, and are perhaps implementing a stop-gap, hunker-down economic ploy on the off-chance the Big Bullet misses its target.

Of course some of my anger is self-interest and simple fear.  I'd planned on exiting the place this coming Halloween Day, because I'll most likely have enough money then.  But now I've already started preliminary negotiations with the staff about my position.  I'm going to start teaching again starting August 20th and the chances of my becoming a Disciple of the Master in exchange for a bed and some daily sugar are slim indeed. 

Lots of guests are panicked and smoldering.  Last night in chapel a casual acquaintance of mine (he reads a lot and writes poetry, which I dutifully read for him.  It's ghastly stuff.  Too bad.) rushed to the stage at testimony time and shocked everyone, me included, by announcing that he was a Muslim (he looks and sounds like a white country boy from "The Dukes of Hazzard.")  and knew damn well that there were other Muslim American citizens in the audience along with Hindus,  atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, and people who just plain don't give a damn about Jesus.  "And you're asking me to betray my faith for a bed?" 

"Fucking terrorist," someone muttered nearby.   My Muslim friend was growled and murmured off the stage, then a couple of Disciples came forward to testify to the extreme wonderfulness of the program and how grateful they were and how grateful we should be. 

Well, I am grateful to the Mission.  I'm here because I've got self-destructive tendencies.  I'm working on them.  For better or worse the Mission has been my home for a year.   But this whole thing stinks to high heaven, the collision of a misguided attempt to create a  Jetsony future and outmoded religious literalism. 

The title of this post "Night Meeting" is a direct steal of a title from a Ray Bradbury Martian Chronicles tale.   In this haunting story, a human Mars colonist walks a road amidst ancient Martian ruins to a party.  He meets a phantom Martian going the other way, also on his way to a party.  Each creature sees the other as ghostly, transparent.  The Martian insists his world is real, the cities and monuments around him still rearing in their glory.  The human also knows his world is real and the Martian is a shade of an ancient past.  Neither convinces the other.  They part, leaving you to wonder about the ephemeral nature of any city, monument, institution, or technology. 

Last night as I lay sleepless on my mat on the chapel floor, I imagined passengers speeding in smooth comfort toward tech jobs and conferences, sipping coffee and tapping pads.  As they rush through the 9th circle of hell that is contemporary Fresno,  phantom images of a blocky, white, green-trimmed old building decorated with brick crosses flash through their brains or seem to flicker on their iPads and Kindles.  For the duration of the Fresno passage they seem to hear men's voices muttering, laughing, spouting obscenities, greetings, yelps.   Around me in the chapel I imagine the snoring and groaning men are troubled in their dreams by the passage of a long silver bullet that seems to snake its way through their brains, making them writhe and whimper.

When I was a kid my father and I both read science fiction and discussed NASA, moon rocks, intelligent computers, and the shining white world of 2001, which he never lived to see.   My dad loved to demonstrate the thrumming power of his Hi Fi rig for the church youth by playing at full blast the Richard Strauss theme that begins and ends the Kubrick vision.   I still love that world, but don't believe it's coming anymore.  What's coming furiously toward us all is a meaner, poorer, rubble-strewn world.  Sorry, but I'm right.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Medium and the Master

I got kicked out of the Mission a few nights ago for reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House on my Amazon Kindle.  This has happened to me 3 times now for reading material in chapel other than the Bible or the Hymnal.  The first time I had enough money to stay at a motel, the second time I stayed at a friend's, but this time I had to find a secluded grassy spot hidden from police car spotlights and casual inspections (I'm not going to tell you where it is, because it's a good spot).  The only problem occurred when the sprinklers switched on at 3:00 AM and woke me.  I waited for them to turn off but it never happened.  I can't imagine why this invisible patch of grass needs so much watering in this broken desert state.   Wet and cold, I spent the rest of the night on a bench.

The Mission's policy on reading in chapel changes arbitrarily along with other rules concerning eating in the dormitory, charging electrical devices, etc.  Most feel the changes are rug-pullers to keep you forever scrambling and tottering and vulnerable.   I agree, but a lot of it is the result of indecision, bad communication, arguments filtering down from paid staff, and a profound aversion to filling out write-up forms warning guests about bad behavior.  Face it, most people can't write or spell in these End Times, even with the help of Apple and Microsoft and Fischer Price, so it's easier to make up rules as you go and just kick people out.   For a long time, plenty of people happily read fat Tom Clancy and John Grisham novels during the idiotic and deranged sermons from the Neanderthal pastors, and the Disciples simply ignored it, staring into the middle distance, snapping into focus only for a drunken outburst or a projectile vomitor.

For a while the guests were allowed to have their smart phones out because many of them claimed to have the Bible readily accessible. This is true, but many of them also have porn and violent weirdness and do a lot of racy texting.   I have a King James Bible on my Kindle, so I devised a scheme that would allow me to switch as fast as possible from the science book or thriller I was reading to the New Testament.  This was a Golden Era to me in chapel sessions, because I could read anything I wanted and even gladly switch to the Bible if the pastor actually happened to have something interesting to say about a particular parable or Psalm.  My black, pebbly-textured Kindle cover is exactly the type of binding you see on many Bibles and New Testaments, and I've lost count of the number of times people have nodded and smiled at me on the bus, murmuring things like, "Good to see you reading the Word, young man."

The evening of my most recent ejection, Disciple Albert, who would have made a good concentration camp guard (his enthusiasm for rules, write-up forms and his gibbering glee upon seeing someone ejected or punished are legendary), snuck up behind me. 

"That ain't the Bible!"   He poked a finger at my Kindle screen.  The S.O.B. almost touched it and smudged it!

"Sure it is!" I retorted.  "Listen to this: 'Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.'  Esther's one of the books in the Bible." I said triumphantly.

I got insanely lucky with the name of Dickens' heroine, but Albert didn't buy it.  He squinted at the screen for a few seconds.  "Naw, naw.  Get your pack.  You're out for the night.  If you argue with me it's gonna be three nights.  Come back tomorrow.  Remember, I love you and so does the Master."

"The Master," is what some people call Jesus these days.  In some translations acolytes call Jesus "master" which connotes wisdom or divine leadership.  But in the brains of people like dreadful Disciple Albert, Jesus is an iron-hard taskmaster, a cosmic Punisher who will bring down fiery destruction on you at any moment.  Nitwit celebrity Kirk Cameron and inane Pastor Ray Comfort have a TV show about Jesus called "The Way of the Master," a genuinely demented farrago of Bible mistranslation, creationism, and a Jesus who seems more like an evil alien from Rigel 7 than an itinerant Rabbi.  

Comfort and Cameron are notorious on the Internet for their riotous, ignoramus commentary on the End Times, Darwin, and Creationism.  They printed their own severely abridged and annotated version of Darwin's Origin of Species,leaving out the crucial chapter on the geographical distribution of species, something no creationist ever deals with because it's one of the most compelling pieces (among thousands) of evidence for evolution.  They are also infamous for their Banana Argument , a YouTube classic in which they argue that bananas are perfectly designed by God for the human hand, having pop tops and easy-peel perforations and so on.  They're oblivious of the fact that bananas' user-friendly features have been selected over many generations by humans and aren't present in nature.  They back-peddled when the howls went up and now claim they were being ironic.

Bananas are an easy but appropriate symbol for so much of what goes on at the Mission and for the stuff that passes as "spiritual" today: the apish, hooting sapience, the slippery pratfalls, the monkey shines and so on.  A couple of nights ago I showed Disciple Albert a book I was reading by Bart Ehrman called Misquoting Jesus.   "Is this okay?" I asked.  "It's about the Master." (Actually the book is a compelling argument by a real scholar that the New Testament has been copied, mistranslated, forged, and mucked up so much over the centuries, there's no way to know what Jesus actually said or did).

He looked dubious. "Well . . . Naw, naw.  Rules are rules.  I'll give you a Bible if you want.  Your own to keep."

"No thanks," I said.  "I already have a couple."

Then we talked about my Kindle and he told me how much he wanted one, but right now the rules didn't allow it.