Thursday, March 15, 2012

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.

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