Sunday, March 24, 2013

Left Hand in the Air

One evening I witnessed a bizarre fight between two Mission guests while I sat reading on the sidewalk before chapel.  The men, small and slender, identically dressed in oil-stained jeans and lacerated white t-shirts, trotted across the street, boot heels tapping, heading toward the free Friday night mini-pizza give-away spot where a nervous crowd waited, arguing about the probable arrival time of the Pizza Hut hatchback loaded with steaming cardboard boxes.   "Man," said someone in the group, which seethed and stretched between amorphous mass and a feeble attempt at an orderly line, "they need to load a fucking truck with pizzas so everybody can get enough!"  A white-bearded gent banged at the pavement with the base of a wizardly wooden staff taller than he was as if to conjure up the charity delivery.

In rapid succession, with no discernible cause, the two men crossing the street bumped shoulders, twisted on heels, thrust sweaty faces together, bleated Spanish curses, and began snatching and clawing at shaved skulls, windmilling arms, grappling, pumping trunky legs and banging knees as if attempting to run through each other.  The pizza crowd "Yeaaaah! Yeaaaah!"-ed and "Woooo! Woooo!"-ed.  The wizard revved up his staff to jack-hammer speed.

Like a jagged cut in an amateur exploitation film the men's pummeling and kicking flickered instantly into a limp slap-and-tickle puppet show . . .and then they were hugging (I mean really hugging), wailing and sobbing, "Mi amigo lo siento!" over and over, "Mi amigo!" snuffling into each other's necks and pressing the tips of their boots together.   The pizza group yowled and chortled: "Awwww! Ain't that heartwarming!"  "They getting all loved-up!" and, of course, "Get a room, fun boys!"

The men, resembling brothers or fraternal twins, swayed together, mumbling and giving out short, grieving yips. Soon the pizza car arrived.  The tearful men, still finding ways to touch and pat backs and shoulders, entered the jostling queue.  The switch from street fight, which could easily have turned to stabbing, gouging, bloody face stomping or other grievously bodily harm, was one the of the most startling transitions I've ever witnessed.   The men's obvious terror, the lack of phony performance artistry and affectation one sees among the homeless, and their final tenderness, haunted me, as they say, for the rest of the week and got me thinking about physical contact.

Not long before the fight, I had thought lying in my bunk soon after lights out, "My skin is starving.  I never touch skin anymore."  Since  my divorce I'd had a scattering of dates, a few bedroom tussles, and an initially promising relationship with a waitress who kept hinting around about another boyfriend still lurking in the background of her life.  The guy, whom she described as a "real multi-tasker," and someone I just had to meet, turned out to be Jesus.

 I got plenty of Jesus in various incarnations at the Mission but I really think what I needed more of was the touch of human skin.  When my ex-wife and I were getting along, we'd often sit on the couch for several hours watching movies with nothing more than a single fingertip lightly brushing or tapping the other's, occasionally changing fingers at random, mixing and matching.  Sometimes it became an exercise in minute mindfulness as my focus wandered from the video image to what seemed the immensely magnified ridges of my wife's fingerprints.  My three young step-children didn't particularly like lengthy cuddle sessions, but somehow came to enjoy sitting in my lap so my chin rubbed lightly against their wispy blonde skulls as they watched TV or we read a story; often they'd tip their heads back so their foreheads touched my chin.  None of this was ever initiated without the kids first asking if I'd shaved carefully that day
It's not exactly sizzling neuro-news that human beings need touch, skin against skin, stroking and caressing, pinching, rubbing, spanking, all the ways people bring into contact in pairs or groups what Sunday supplement factoid pages call "the body's largest organ." (Actually, this "largest organ" rap about the skin always arouses my skepticism; it smacks of that mass of societal folk facts like "You only use 10 percent of your brain!"  Surely the skin, with its pores, follicles, myriad sensors, scents, hormonal secretions, and complex role in self-image and empathetic "theory of mind,' is more like an organ system akin to the digestive tract with its multiple functions.)  Everyone knows that skin-stroking, sex, and infant-mother contact release the current all-purpose human positivity wonder hormone oxytocin, whose molecules enfold us and make us all get along and give away more money if one happens to be a volunteer in a college psychology lab dosed with a snort of the stuff.

I saw a lot of human skin in the Mission's agonizingly slow shower lines.  The average male body and its 22 square feet of exterior sense organ is a horrific sight--whether tattooed, bullet and knife-scarred, pock-marked, a strange territory of warts and boils and unclassifiable protuberances--or smooth as classically shaped marble.  The nightly trudge to the shower amid the steam and ever-fuming aerosol of dying (soon, very soon) male bodies stripped off a normally invisible layer beyond clothing.  It's the layer that creates the fleeting illusion of godhood in an athlete or dancer or fighter; no matter how well-cut and vein-wrapped, a man facing forward in a naked line, staring at the backs and buttocks of his fellows, seems on the verge of messy deliquescence.

The most reliable skin contact I had at the Mission came from the nightly visit of a silent young homey who'd dance around the dormitory's 120 bunks in his white underwear, twirling and bouncing his compact body from bed to bed,  flashing his silver grill at each prone guest and giving out random fist-bumps which sent him spinning like a robot toy to the next set of metal racks.  I didn't always get my fist-bump and perhaps lost a bit of sleep, puzzling.  Once in a while he'd add a treat to the bump: raising his eyebrows and giving a you  an extra bit of footwork patter, he'd reach into a paper bag and deposit a mini-chocolate chip cookie on your mattress or even your chest with the kind of delicacy you'd associate with  luxury hotel service.  When he and the nightly dancing-bumping ritual vanished without warning from the Mission, it was reality-distorting--as if the death of the tooth fairy had been announced on CNN.

These days, until I risk another relationship, the closest human contacts I can count on are the approximately five hugs a month I receive from school children.  Children hug their teachers for many reasons--missing warmth at home being the most common--but as a visiting male teacher I have to be especially careful.  Female school employees get lots of hugs from kids for reasons that people think they can easily spell out, but actually they can't.  It's not that simple and I'm not going to try.  It hurts too goddamn much.

Officially I'm supposed to avoid contact completely, especially if I can see it coming from a rushing, open-faced first grader or a clinically depressed--already, so soon!--sixth-grader.  I generally back away, wagging finger at the ready-- "No touching the teacher!"  This is a painful thing for me to say, even though I know it's right, the right thing to do, the correct one, I mean.  Actually,  I don't know what I mean and I don't think our society knows anymore.  We're all hurting.

 If the child sneaks into my space while I'm bellowing at some playground misbehavior and wraps his or her arms around me, it seems generally agreed that it's okay to give a single back pat with one hand and fling--yes, fling is the only word--the other hand upright into the air while backing slowly but steadily out of the child's grasp.  What this gesture actually signifies--alarm, salutation, surrender, retreat, exhaltation, left-handed protest aimed at an eye in the sky--I can't really say.