Friday, June 22, 2012

Scottish? Irish? Genius? Clueless Windbag? Who Cares?

One of my new friendly acquaintances at the Mission (Joseph, my round rabbi-like avuncular Mexican/Jewish/Gangster adviser told me once to never, ever try to be "friends" with anyone at the Mission.  "Become a skillful skimmer of  the surface of friendly acquaintance.  Have many escape routes and excuses.  Only then will wisdom come to you"), is a swaggering, pontificating alcoholic windbag and pseudo-polymath who calls himself Colin.  We began talking one morning when he saw me in the breakfast line reading a book by religious scholar Elaine Pagels, The Origins of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, a fine skeptical look at the invention of Satan and the use of this bogeyman for political oppression and general harassment.

Colin tottered up to me like a circus-trained bear, meal-sack belly swinging,  stared down at me (Look, I swear it's true--his eyes are "blue and twinkling, surrounded by wry crinkles."  Forgive me, Father for I have sinned), and said, " Well, young laddie, is he Jon Lovitz in red tights or the fellow who nailed Rosemary or is he entombed in ice at the center of Dante's playhouse?  Which is it?  Out with it, young buck!  I've been pondering the question myself since I was knee-high to a shalalie stick me-self!"

What the hell?  Not since Robert Shaw invented his own completely original and utterly bogus New England Fisherman Accent for Jaws (one of my top ten films), had I heard anything like that Disney-fied accent and diction, pouring out of his mouth as if he were a programmed animatronic diorama dummy.  It vaguely reminded me of how Sean Connery over the years defiantly kept his Scottish accent, even when playing an Irish beat cop in The Untouchables or a Russian sub commander in The Hunt for Red October and somehow got away with it time after time.

"Yes, Lad?"

"Well, she's certainly provocative and informative."

"Let me clue you in on Sister Elaine, boy-o.  She's a bloody feminist and no mistaking it!  Don't you ever forget it.  A fooking feminista if ever a one trod God's good green earth!  Have you got your grains of salt at the ready?  You'll be needing them, and plenty of them!"

"I try to be objective, I'm pretty skeptical of everything."  He'd instantly reduced me to bland cliche'.

He leaned toward me, put his hand on my shoulder (fooking? Touching me?!)  A fine mist of alcohol adhered to my face like a warm mask.  Johnny Walker Black, I thought.

"Just last week at the Highland Games [Highland Games? Isn't that Scottish?  Kilts and prancing about and throwing big logs and so on?], I was watching Brother Conner perform his miracle with the caber throw--you know it's a divine intervention, don't you, lad?--and I thought of what Father Socrates said: 'All I know is that I know nothing.'"

He nodded and smiled and breathed on me.  "Well," I said, "I've always thought that was kind of vacuous and circular, almost solipsistic, know what I mean?  Not really worthy of a philosopher of that caliber."

He gripped my shoulder.  My God, I thought, is anyone seeing this or listening?  "I can see you're a young fellow of discernment and wee bit o' taste.  We'll be talking again."

Then he barrelled his way into the cafeteria ahead of everyone, past the Disciple guarding the door, and bellowed at the kitchen staff, "Give me a sandwich!  I'm off!"  And they gave him a sandwich, one of the subs only the Disciples get.   It turned out he'd been doing this everyday.  He did it just this morning.  I hadn't noticed because I mostly read and listen to Beethoven in breakfast line, occasionally glancing around to see if anything interesting happens.  But I'd missed this.

My primary image of Colin until this point had been the nightly sight of him sitting on the sidewalk listening to baseball or football, carving away at a sack of raw vegetables with a "Crocodile Dundee" knife.  He often wore a big floppy-brimmed feather-decked hat and I'm pretty sure I'd heard him use the words "outback" and "mates" and "Foster's."  That hint of Aussie affectation combined with the vegetables and his incessant scripture quoting and Bible Belt bluster gave him back-burner status for me.  I filed him away as potentially interesting or useful, but definitely one to avoid for the time being.

One night he strode into the changing room upstairs--a tiny space with some low steel benches and moldy walls where dozens of sweaty, hairy, warty men are expected to undress, dry off, apply deodorant and lotions and pop their meds, all without killing each other.

"Ever seen the likes of that, me buckos?"(Long John Silver now?) Addressing the mostly Mexican crowd who were cooling their heels before going downstairs to chapel, he held up what looked like an ordinary supermarket green pepper--a serrano maybe.  "That's a variety of pepper found only in Peru. [Where the hell did he get it?  Surely you understand by now it would be blasphemous to point a skeptical poniard at Colin's personae?] "Only those blessed with an iron constitution like me self can ingest one and expect to continue walking God's Good Green Earth."

The exhausted, filthy men stared or grinned.  Colin continued, "But don't you go buying into the myth that the local constabulary likes to spread about you south 'o the border chappies:  You know the one about your near-mystical immunity to pepper spray on account of your liberal consumption of fire and brimstone spices in your 'wittles?"['wittles? So he's the convict in Dickens' Great Expectations now?]

Colin paused and surveyed the changing room.  "Racist is the last thing any of us can afford to be, now can we?  And if Richard Dawkins is correct, we are all Out of Africa!  Except that over-rated hussy Meryl Streep.  'Eye, I'd like to take her by her bony shoulders and give her a good rattling shaking. Quote me on it."

He was stupefying in his demented self-possession and seeming confidence, his willingness to approach anyone with a lecture, epigram, parable, scripture quote, limerick.

Another morning he approached me, struck an oratorical pose, and recited the following:

Tommy Loy, the cabin boy,
The dirty little nipper,
Filled his ass
With broken glass
And circumcised the Skipper!

Then he strode off into the morning without another word.

One night I sat together with him on the sidewalk and for the first time he offered me a choice of vegetable pieces from his bag.  Blithley fanning a thick stack of dollar bills he'd somehow obtained he stared into the middle distance, nodded at something in the air and said, "Remember your Sub Genius scriptures, young buck.  'They will pay to know what they already think.'  [I'm actually an ordained, dues-paying priest in the Church of the SubGenius and have been a devout follower of "Bob" for many years, but how did Colin know?] Do you understand the import of that statement?  Do you study the Word diligently?" he asked me.

"You know I do, Colin."

"Don't try to run anything past me, lad.  What did Bob tell us about the meaning of the name of our church?"

Aren't you a devout Christian? I wanted to ask.  What are you?  How are you?  What made you? Am I really here?

I said, "He told us that there's nothing "Sub" about us and nothing of "Genius" either."

"Good, lad.  And what does that teach us?"


"Far from it, boyo, far from it."  Then he munched some cauliflower and the lesson was over.

Just the other day he was lecturing group of ancient handicapped black gents who sit together in the breezeway foyer on low brick benches awaiting their early admission to breakfast about what Colin called "The Elijah Solution."

"Elijah was the originator of CPR.  It's quite clear from the scriptures and in the original Aramaic it's even more clear."  That's another thing Colin possessed--an Aramaic Bible.  But wasn't Aramaic  just the oral language the New Testament stories were told in and later written down in Greek?

"Elijah was in gifting us with CPR bestowing upon us a preview of the Resurrection.  Today instead of the Elijah Solution we have psychiatrists and Big Pharma.  So, Toby?"--here he addressed a half blind man with a walker, "Are you still taking the Seroquel and the Benedryl together?"

"Yeah," said Toby. "Helps me sleep some."

"See me at my bunk tonight, laddie, and we'll talk about adjusting your doses."

An episode still discussed and debated that has already become legend began with Colin staggering up the center aisle of chapel about 20 minutes before the invocation, wailing, "Defiled! Brothers I've been defiled!  Tainted!  Unclean!  Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph and all the blessed Saints!  I've been DEFILED!"   He staggered into the corridor leading to the stairs and the restroom.

The story emerged:  Colin had been sitting in his usual spot with his knife and vegetable bag and radio when a snaggle-toothed, nearly bald whore with a habit of flipping her skirt up and thrusting her alarmingly bushy pubis at anyone, approached Colin.  She fingered his bald, shiny head and tugged at her skirt and said, "Come on, honey."

"Bugger off, lassie, I'm eating me veggies and gettin' me dose of gamesmanship."

Onlookers describe what happened next as something that would be at home in an Alien-type horror film.  The whore sprang on Colin like a succubus, mounting his head, shrouding his entire upper body with her dirty skirt.  She wiggled and writhed and cackled, then dismounted and scuttled down the street.


He came downstairs a few minutes before chapel began, seemingly composed, and took his usual front row seat holding his signature Power Aide container filled with strong Green tea.  He sat staring ahead at the altar space and the front wall with its Las Vegas Mafia Glitter Mirror decor and cheesy Last Supper tapestry.  Then he stood, turned and addressed the still assembling guests.

"I've scalded me pate, brothers.  I've applied every known ablution technique and disinfectant and antiseptic measure the Mission can generously offer.  And offer you.  I beg you to forgive me my outburst.  Remember the story of Naaman cured of his leprosy by the holy prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 5?  I don't think I'll be so lucky.  But I beg you not to shun me.  Avoid me for a time if you must, but do not shun me or condemn me."

One night not long ago I witnessed something happen to Colin that happens to everyone at the Mission in one way or another, and it was terribly sad and especially disconcerting in his case.  People's masks get stripped off with shocking ease by this dreadful, blasphemous, Eldritch place.  People arrive here with nothing but a set of attitudes and affectations; they're all they have left, and would serve them better in prison than this porous place where you're always trembling against the membrane that divides the harsh mistresses of decrepit shelter and deathly cold.

Instead of eating his veggies or blustering about Colin lay groaning on a piece of cardboard twenty feet from his usual spot.  "I need to go to bed," he whimpered.  "I need to go to bed.  Please, brothers."

The Disciples who gathered around him told him, "That's your bed tonight, you fucking drunk.  You're not coming in the Lord's house like that,  motherfucker.  Get sobered up and come back tomorrow."

Kindly Disciple Reynaldo told everyone later that Colin had for some reason gone to the Japanese market across the way and bought nearly a gallon of rice wine and gulped it down in Tent City with a couple of whores.

"Rice wine--that's saki," said Reynaldo. "Drink it with sushi in a sushi bar.  It'll really mess you up, don't matter how tough you are.  He's gonna be a mess for a few days.  We'll give him a couple blankets, but don't the rest of you try that.  You won't be getting no blanket."

A few days later I saw Colin in breakfast line.  He nodded hello but didn't say anything.

Phony or not, he's convinced me I need to be more serious about some things and try harder to be human, whatever that is.

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