Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Surest Route to the Lake of Fire

Four or five times a month a pastor or Christian rock musician urges the congregation to come forward at the altar call to accept Jesus using the following prod: "because any of you could hit tomorrow by a city bus and wake up in the Lake of Fire."  It's striking how widespread this religious meme is, and also striking that the Lake of Fire is never reached via death by schoolbus, charter bus, or the occasional taxi. 

The poor bastard sitting next to me one night confided his relief at discovering that he didn't have to kneel at every altar call.  "I thought I wouldn't be saved so I was going up there every night.  Then my friend told me once you accept Jesus sincerely, you're saved forever!"

"Apparently that's how works," I said.

"How many times have you gone up?"

"I've never gone up."

"You don't want Jesus, brother?"

"Not really.  I like the water into wine thing he did, and what he said about charity."

He looked as if he had something more to say, but he turned his head and stared grimly at the front of the chapel.  Nothing was said that night about city buses smacking souls into hell.

Vengeance and the Chaplain

The Fresno Rescue Mission does many good things.  Generally, this blog will not focus on them.  However, because I'm always grubbing about in the grotesque, the absurd, and the plain old bat-shit insane, I'd like to mention something I like quite a bit, without any snide or ironic overtones: the Mission's Chaplain Jay. 

Dapper, balding, gray-haired, slightly paunchy, not too tall but strikingly upright in bearing, Chaplain Jay projects none of the thuggish sharky slickness or covert arrogance cloaked in piety I associate with many of the pastors who preach at the mission.   He's a very skillful old-school black preacher, effortlessly calling on hoarsely shouted fervor, falsetto whinnies, a roller coaster repertoire of high and low vernacular, genuine warmth, earned jokiness, and perfectly-timed jolts of "Better wise-up, boy!" fear.  The Chaplain appears before us about once a month to preach a sermon or substitute for a pastor who fails to show.

He knows his audience well, having paid his dues years ago in the Mission program.  Many of the men are hardened, mortally tired, clinically depressed and murderously angry.  Eyes smoke with a reptilian menace that comes from time in the joint.  Thus Chaplain Jay's frequent focus on the theme of vengeance.  He tells a harrowing tale of being stomped as a youth by four of his fellows in a Detroit parking lot.  Consumed by a rage for revenge he took his daddy's gun and got one of his assailants in his sights.  God stayed his hand, he says, and he did not kill.  

"Let God take care of it," he tells us, and it's striking and frightening to see his gaze penetrate the audience and pin down their emotions.  "You're angry at the men who've dogged you.  But vengeance belongs to the Lord."

Another night he tells us about one his current projects--an attempt to befriend his suspicious-looking neighbors and their vicious pit bulls ("They got four pit bulls or maybe it's three pit bulls and Chihuahua") a scheme he calculates may take months, but he has the kind of patience normally needed for coldly served revenge.

I have no religious convictions, cannot share Chaplain Jay's Christian world-view, but he seems the real deal, a man tempered and transformed by his life and religion.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Speech to the Royal Society--"Eaten by Sharks"

3:00 AM, wide awake, thinking and listening in the Fresno Rescue Mission dormitory:

Largely lost to public consciousness are the extraordinary range, intensity, and terrifyingly fecund creativity of schizophrenic, bipolar, and OCD rants.  Everyone has heard street people muttering or shrieking or seen movie depictions of hyper-verbal mental suffering like Brad Pitt's character in Twelve Monkeys (Actually an accurate, well-researched by Pitt, well-worth-watching screen job).  However, outside of transcripts and videos I'm sure are archived in mental hospitals and universities, not much stuff that comes out of the mouths of the seriously demented has been widely published or posted (Perhaps someone can set me straight about this). 

Before presenting a sample rant (something that might become a semi-regular feature of this blog), I have to stress the danger and bogosity of romanticizing mental illness: patients are poets, conduits of the divine, chained visionaries, etc.  This is nonsense.  All mental illness is ugly, ghastly suffering, the byproduct of a kludgy stacked-up brain architecture, evolutionary misfiring, demonic neural gibbering.   But hearing its effect on utterance is still gasp-inducing, and gasps sometimes turn to guffaws. 

Scribbled down in restroom, 5-10 minutes after the event, overheard coming from a nearby bunk:

"Gentlemen of the Royal Society, distinguished colleagues,

"There are few things in life more horrifying than being eaten by a great white shark.  I am able to testify to this fact because it has happened to me no fewer than eight times during the course of my 30 year career as a marine (marine meaning 'sea') biologist.   I have been eaten--my muscles, bones, blood, fat, brain--all of me, I say ALL OF ME! ALL OF ME! ALL OF MEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!. . . has been eaten by great white sharks.  EIGHT TIMES!  THAT'S A WORLD CLASS RECORD, MOTHER FUCKER!  In my distinguished (pardon my lack of modesty) career at the Santa Ana Maria Beach Research Institute.

"Some facts, from my collected facts: Sharks can come in through windows.  But do not ever forget that all shark movement is swimming. 

"HA! Don't be telling me I am not British.  I tell that motherfucker I am most certainly British.  Do I not speak English?  Do I not refer to the jelly packets as Milady's Marmalade?   Do I not I say do I NOT! request buttered scones and tea instead of that jacked-up punk-ass-bitch piss-warm coffee and the fucking 3 day old pastries from the Safeway bakery?  Be bouncing that shit off the wall like Steve McQueen's ball in The Great Escape.  Fuck that shit.

"They be saying a great white can't be kept in captivity because of the magnetic fields messing up his navigation so he try to bash his way out and kill himself eventually.  I can fix that with a big-ass electromagnet I rig up and position just right till he calm down then give him a Scooby Snack like a canned ham or a shitload of salami then he be making the right associations.  Everybody friends.

"Harumph.  I say Harumph!  I must apologize to this august (not the month) company.  Dr. Cornelius, my distinguished mentor, (not to be confused with Don Cornelius or Cornelius the intelligent ape . . . when I get that fucking white shark tame I'm going to call him Charlton) has warned me often about cleaning up my presentations.  This is horrendous.   I enjoy Masterpiece Theater, don't you gentlemen?  Eaten by Lemon sharks.  That's whole other matter.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Breakfast with the Scribe

At 5:30 AM the lights in the Fresno Rescue Mission dormitory switch on and the Disciple charged with wake- up duty starts his routine, a verbal and occasionally physical procedure that varies widely.  Most use a blunt military approach: "Wake up!  Now! Move it!  Breakfast won't wait!  Make your bunks!  Bunks gotta be neat and tight or we'll A-22 your ass! (This refers to a write-up form; 3 bed violations and you lose your bunk and spend one night outside) This ain't the Hilton!"

This morning we are greeted by Disciple Ron who, I feel sure, could easily have a career as children's show host or make decent money voicing characters in preschooler cartoons.  "Time to wake up, everybody!  Mr. Sun is getting ready to show his face, so get ready to show him yours!  Wakey, Wakey, Eggs and Baky!"  It's hard to tell how much of this is a put-on, so consistent is the performance.  For "Sleepy Slugs" Ron bends over and sings a familiar kindergarten song in their ears: "Good mooooorning, Good mooooorning, Good Morning to you!  The day is beginning, there's so much to do!" I worry sometimes about Ron getting stabbed.

At breakfast (It really is eggs and bacon today, to every one's delight.  And plenty of orange juice and cartons unspoiled milk.  Yesterday there was a near riot when everyone got an individual kid's pack of Frosted Flakes and a splash of milk) I find myself sitting across from a guy I think of as the Scribe.  He's a silent, hulking black man in his late 20s who spends most days at the downtown branch of the Fresno Public Library, working diligently on a project either awesomely ambitious or deeply sad, depending on how you look at it.  I've been trying to figure him out for months now.  He monopolizes the same table each day, covering it with papers, reference works, notebooks and binders.  He spends most of his time either Xeroxing pages from books or painstakingly copying huge swatches of prose into his notebooks in minute, tightly ornate script, razor straight and faintly archaic.  I can only glance at his project as I pass his table; to ask him what he's doing would be more than rude--it would violate an aura of monkish devotion I sense.  His project is bound by no scheme I can determine from my glimpses.  The material he cuts and tapes together (he's constantly in minor trouble with library staff for the massive amounts of library tape he uses) ranges over everything.  Sometimes I think aviation dominates, then arcane medical stuff, then pages from graphic superhero novels. 

Perhaps the unusually good breakfast or the campy wake-up from Disciple Ron  ignites a fleeting wish that his project really has an over-arching plan, that its a work of vaulting genius in the making.  More likely, though, it's an interesting manifestation of the twitchy, often maddening obsessive compulsive behavior rampant at the mission.  Last night in chapel, for instance, I guy behind me kept repeating,  "I want a loaf of bread and a fish, Jesus.  Not sliced bread.  A loaf.  And bone the fish for me, will you?  You wouldn't want me to get a bone stuck in my throat would you, Lord?  I want a loaf of bread and a fish, Jesus. . . "

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Real Reason People End Up in Prison

Sociologists and psychologists specializing in criminal pathology have created tottering piles of books and studies purporting to explain America's extraordinarily high percentages of incarceration.  Draconian drug laws, ease of obtaining weaponry, single motherhood--blah, blah, blah . . .

After months living among felons at the Fresno Rescue Mission I can now reveal the main reason men end up in prison:  when plotting a caper (stealing food, selling contraband, buying drugs) they huddle together in pairs and groups, eyes darting about, heads jerking nervously, voices lowered to hoarse but quite audible whispers.  In short, they always look and act like a group of kids planning to raid a tree house and steal its store of Jolly Ranchers and Twizzlers.   Of course they get put away.  I'd warn them about this behavior if I wasn't afraid of getting thumped.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Disciples and their "Guests"

The Disciples are the unpaid staff who run, organise, supervise the Mission and do the grunt work that keeps the whole thing going.  Most of them are convicted felons, heavily tattooed, often sporting sets of outdoor gym muscles that looked stuffed and worried into place .  Many are deeply resentful that they are now "Disciples for Christ," following orders from paid staff at the downtown offices, under the hanging anvil of a return to prison, some in line for a California third strike.   The Disciples, identified by bright yellow name tags, sweep, scour and wax the chapel floor, corridors, and the dormitory where most of the overnight "guests" stay.  They cook and serve food, patrol the aisles of the chapel with baleful raptor eyes, and have a weirdly ambivalent relationship with the guests.  For many of them, this is the first responsible job they've ever had, and they're clearly uncomfortable with their dual role as flop house hosts and playhouse prison guards.

One of the conceits behind the guest concept is that you are ideally sleeping in the Mission for a mere night or two; thus, there are no lockers available and each day you take all your possession with you--a home on your back--and go out into the world to seek your fortune.  Many guests, however, stay for months or even years.  You can stay as long as you want as long as you don't mess with anyone or rack up too many black marks with the Disciples.  

 Unruly or intoxicated  guests are usually surrounded immediately and escorted out or occasionally thumped or pounded as needed.  Lately, as a transitional or herding device, Disciples have been shouting "Reverence!  Reverence!"--before prayer, before introducing a guest pastor, etc.   The other night, when a chapel crowd--people who have lower than average impulse control--began snickering and nudging each other over some piece of perceived smuttiness-- a new disciple bellowed "Reverence, you bastards!"  Two of his fellows grabbed him by the elbows and led him off.

Today my sub teaching gig was an AP high school calculus class. "I took calculus 30 years ago so I can't help you," I said.  "I'm really an English teacher."  For some reason they found this hilarious, giggling and drumming their desks.   The "teaching" I did consisted of having the kids correct test problems in assigned groups.   Then we had an hour to fill.  Noticing a old piano at the back of the room (high school classrooms often have strange items stored inside like ancient refrigerators, 1970s Hi-Fi rigs, stacks of  hygiene pamphlets from the 1950s) I asked the class if anyone played.  To my delight and relief--I hadn't planned on dead time today--three students began banging out tunes ranging from classical and jazz piano to show tunes and TV themes.   Then the students worked on me to let them go early, and I caved.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Visions and Testimonies

Waiting for the bus one morning on my way to a 3rd grade sub job, I found myself staring at the imposing solidity of the gray blocky downtown Fresno jail and its ominous window slits.  For amusement, because waiting for the bus is one of the dullest things humans do, I imagined myself to be a nitwit city planner who had convinced the powers that be to allow the jail to be "brightened" up by those "denied a voice"--artists and visionaries imprisoned for piddling offences.  I envisioned an unrolling of a giant "multicultural" mural down the face of the jail:  Aztec suns, ziggarats, Che, MLK, Maya Angelou, dolphins and unicorns flying amidst bubbles of oxygen rising from rejuvenated rainforests--all the usual suspects.

Actually, what I needed was a set of high-tech glasses that with a tap could convert Fresno into a dystopian fascist government with monumental dark buildings that spelled surveillance and huge squares built for marching and rallies.  Another touch and I could have a meadow prancing with Disney animals.   I settled for the silly jail fantasy and got on the smelly bus.
That morning a 3rd grader insisted she'd seen me "on a movie."  Pressing her further she told me it was one of the "Step dad" movies.  I was also puzzled by her grammatical construction until I realized that for kids these days everything is "on."  "On" TV, "On" the phone screen, etc.   So inside a real theater actors are "on" the movie, not "in" it.  Apparently there are a slew of evil step dad, stepfather, and bad boyfriend movies with sequels and spin-offs, so it isn't surprising that I would resemble one of them, because I've been a step dad (Since this incident I've been told twice more that I resemble one of these cinematic fiends.)
     "Aren't you afraid of me?" I asked Summer (like most grade school girls her parents chose her name from a menu that had Summer, Brittany, Megan, and Bethany at the top)
     "Are you sure I'm the guy on the movie?"
     "Yes, for sure."
     "But I'm okay now"

    "Yes, because then you were on the movie and now you're a teacher in a classroom.  "You wouldn't hurt me. I just know it." 

That night in chapel Conny, a rather feeble-minded young fellow with very tall hair bounded to the podium when that night's Pastor called for testimonies.  In the context of the mission this always means "This is what Jesus has done for me" and nothing else.  Conny began, "Hello, most of you know me I'm Conny and I love animals."   The guests murmured approval and a few bellowed "CONNY!"  They like him a lot.  Conny continued, "Tonight I want to talk about the Galapagos tortoise.  The Galapagos tortoise lives a long time, nobody really knows for sure how long because humans usually die before they do and don't always keep track."
He warbled on in this fashion about the tortoise until the pastor touched him gently on the shoulder and said,   "How about Jesus, son?"
     "I'm sure Jesus is doing many good things--miracles and tricks and things to people's minds."
     The pastor persisted.  "But maybe that tortoise is like Jesus . . . It just keeps living on and on . . ."
     "I don't want to talk about Jesus I just want to talk about the tortoise."  He seemed distressed and near tears.  Eventually he was persuaded to sit down.  The next testimony was about how Jesus procured a new set of guitar strings for a young musician when all hope seemed lost.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why Homeless? Why Ignoble?

One morning the Mission cafeteria was serving some extra gluey grayish slop (they sometimes serve healthy eggs and fruit), so I decided strap on my pack, eat a protein bar I found in my jacket, head toward that day's high school science sub job, and reflect on why I and so many other people end up sleeping in doorways and shelters.   Anyone can sleep in the Mission if they can follow basic rules, put up with  imbecilic fundamentalist sermons from addled pastors, sleep on thin green plastic mats beneath  disquieting pictures of a blue-eyed Jesus--glowing blue like those of an alien child.  Many people don't want anyone telling them what to do, whether earthly tatooed ex-cons or more ethereal entities, so they sleep outdoors.

Most--at least 51%--of homeless people are in the gutters and shelters because of substance abuse.  Let's just get that out of the way right now (it's a boring, obvious observation) and list some other reasons.

Som men are homeless because they are lazy, although no one is homeless because they like freedom and adventure and the shapes they can see in the mold beneath bridges;  many are hopelessly mentally ill--bipolar, schizophrenic, or mentally deficient from birth; because their families don't have room for them after they return from prison or the military, not even couch or floor space.  Wives issue ultimatums: don't come back until you stop acting like a goat or gorilla.  Many are given a choice by judges: prison or get religion at the Mission.  Some, including me, see this as unconstitutional.  These guys are usually wearing strap-on leg monitors.   They remind me of small dogs hemmed in by shock collars and invisible force fields on fake English estates.  Many men are homeless because they simply never noticed themselves slipping through crack after crack as the decades slid by.  At least one man, somewhere, decided as a child--like novelist Malcolm Lowry, who declared his intention to grow up and be the best alcoholic he could be--that he would be the best homeless man in history.  I'll address other reasons, including the "economy," later.

Let's get this out of the way, too.  I'm homeless after nearly 25 years teaching college English because of my past use of vodka, bourbon, and prescription drugs like Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin--all those nice colorful tranquilizers.   I once tried a dilettante suicide with some Coppola Chardonay (Nice wine, Francis) and a neatly arranged assortment of multicolored pills.   Sipping wine I'd daintily select and swallow a blue Clonazopam then a yellow Diazapam and slip into a doze.  Upon waking I'd gradually figure out I was still alive and that the CD player was stuck in an annoying stutter.   When I told a friend about this, all he said was, "What a pussy."

Why Ignoble?  The word has two basic connotations.  The first is simple.   It's an act, event, or lifestyle that isn't high-born or blue blood.  Nothing fancy.  It is not bad but not noble.  Liberals and some homeless people like to imagine a basic aura of salt-of-the -earthy pride that surrounds and binds street people together. Heads lifted toward the horizon, they march toward the city of gold.  Dream on.

The second ignoble is negative and nothing but.  It always involves ignorance, depravity, anger, decrepitude, stench.   There is nothing special about it.   It is not a good state.  Homelessness  is not necessarily a sin or moral crime, but it has nothing to recommend it except farcical eccentricity.   If you want to find something good about it,  look for the laughs.   .

Like this:  One night I approached the reeking steel urinal trough and heard a voice coming from one of the toilet stalls:  "I gotta remember to tell my broker to transfer that money to my offshore account."  Edging toward the sink and the mirrors I caught a reflection of a guy in his underwear straddling a toilet and balancing a laptop on his knees.  He saw me in the same instant and resumed babbling, "What am I gonna do with all this cash, be juggling around the whole world keep the feds off me.  Damn that broker!  Heh, Heh."  I returned to my bunk, bladder relieved and my mind afire.  I didn't sleep the rest of the night, but I kept smiling and occasionally snickering.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spirited Away by the Government--A Homeless Rant

A typical day:  Because of budget cuts in the Fresno Unified School District, classes like kindergarten, which ideally should contain 12 to 15 students, often contain up to 30.  This means my day is less like teaching than gerbil control.  They gibber and demand and steal scissors.  One little girl asks me to tie her shoes and begins screaming because I'm not doing it right. She won't stop.  She turns an alarming purple.  Finally, her mother has to come get her.  "You need classroom management skills," the mother tells me.

At the mission that night chapel service consists of two octogenarians who play the cowbells to scratchy religious LPs and do the worst ventriloquist act in history (Have you ever heard a scary dummy screech "Jesus loves you! over and over while a toothless man moves his lips along with the dummy's clapping jaw?) Afterward, we trudge upstairs for showers and then pile into our military-style two-tiered bunks.  About 120 men stay in the dormatory while another 50 to 100 or so sleep on thin mats in the chaple downstairs.

After lights out, just as I'm drifting off, my bunky John says "At 3 AM they take me away."
    "Who?  Why?"
     "For the experiments.  They be putting me into other bodies and sending me to other planets and dimensions and shit."
     "That's interesting," I say.  "I'm usually awake at 3 because that's when the snoring and screaming (I'm going off a cliff!  I'm fucking going off a fucking cliff!") is at its loudest and I've never seen you gone."
     "That's because they be doing mind tricks on you too.  The other night they had me in a robot suit on another planet and it was just walking me all around the craters and shit recording shit they need."
     "Need for what?"
     "For the future space wars!"  He sounds very angry with me.
     "How do you know you're not dreaming?"
     "Listen to me, youngster."  He leans over and sort of cuffs me with a hard, scaly hand.  "Last night I woke up in a goddamn field in the frosty fucking weeds like I was a werewolf  waking up after eating sheep and people out alone don't know no better. Know why?"
     "No. Why?"
     "All of a sudden I was running down streets and alleys in some town I never seen and cops and dogs and police cars were everywhere.  People yelling at me to stop.  Lights flashing everywhere.  But suddenly it was like I was ten feet tall and I was jumping over those fucking cops and denting the tops of those cop cars and breaking the lights and tossing the dogs against the shop windows.   So I looked down and I had FUCKING DINOSAUR LEGS!  I had my regular body up top but down there I was like one of them Jurassic Park motherfuckers, backwards knees and big old claws and I could leap all over.   They tried to taize me but it didn't do no good.  Them dogs was whimpering and running away and then I started messing with them cops, running at them and smashing stuff.   Then I just went leaping away like Superman.  It was fucking wild!"
     "So the government was testing some new kind of technology, like in Avatar?
     "Avatar, shit.  This make Avatar technology look like something you find at the bottom of a cereal box."

From the Ninth Circle to the Playground

Every morning for nearly a year, I have awakened at the Fresno Rescue Mission in a dormitory filled mostly with homeless felons: sex offenders in prison release programs with GPS leg monitors strapped to their ankles; predatory fiends festooned with menacing tattoos--devil horns sprouting from shaved heads, spiderwebs gripping elbows, sinister symbols boasting of heinous crimes; older men with bad hips, canes, and addictions to mystery or western novels; crack and meth heads writhing with terrifying energy; motormouths who detail to anyone within earshot their expert knowledge of everything from Swiss bank accounts to crop circles. Each morning I eat garbage food--mostly cheap carbs--in the crowded cafeteria, trying not to rub elbows or make too much eye contact.  By 6:30 AM we're all out the gates, striding across what I call the moonscape--a bare dirt and rock section of a railway yard--sometimes in complete darkness, sometimes with a sliver of orange sunrise beyond the highway overpass.  We can be arrested for tresspassing on this land, but it's a well-worn diagonal crossing toward the warehouses, the forlorn downtown mall, and the bus depots surrounding the courthouse. 

From there, I usually depart for my day job, substitute teacher grades K-12.   No one at the mission knows I have this job, and in my vain, fantasy-prone mode I imagine I'm some kind of superhero--scraggly and schlumpy at night, well-dressed dispenser of facts and factoids during the day.

Each morning involves a shocking, gasp-inducing ascent from a ninth circle peopled with screeching sinners and motley miscreants--sometimes within scant minutes--to the benign hopeful geometries of school playgrounds, computer labs--children are the future; the future is the children--and old-fashioned library story times: bottoms on carpets, faces upturned, books read aloud to actual oohs and aahs.  It's a transition of such suddeness it almost demands time in a decompression chamber.

Other mornings I blank out the mission and become all eyes--a continuous soundless steadicam shot traveling across the moonscape, tracking the endless chain link-enclosed weedy lots and grated windows, and then into my classroom for the day where sound and life rush in and the camera work cuts up and jitters with the needs, chatter, and demands of the kids. "Why is your hair always sticking up in the back?" one demands.

"Why is your soul so spiky, you silly child?" I want to say.

Then the evening comes and I descend through the levels to the Mission and the bottom and a rant from a trembly soul who informs me just before chapel service that Obama is a demon from the realm of Volgan, that Whitney Houston's death was a sacrifice demanded by the World Bank, and that only he knows the keys to salvation--but not all of them yet.  Soon, brother, soon.

Each of these two worlds is weird in its own way.  The whacked-out school district fads are every bit as loony tunes as any "pastor"s rant on bar codes and the Beast.  Each entry in this blog will contain a bit of both.  Read on, please.