“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.