If You Live Long Enough

man on bike in snow

I get to know people but I may not know names. Thirty years ago I began taking my little kids to and from their [neighborhood] schools. I often passed a corner where there is a crossing guard, hired by the school district I assume, a man of many jobs it was clear to me because crossing is an hour or two job morning and afternoon and then I observed him hurrying off to his next location.

He drove a bike in those days, in all weather he drove a bike and he did it with abandon. He flew down the road on that bike, always toward the city. I enjoyed watching him sail down the road east-wards.

In recent years, I saw him less often but he was still employed I assume in the neighborhood as I would see him walking through the cut-through in front of my house that leads to the Metro Link. Also toward the city. So he is taking the light rail now but he was working somewhere in the neighborhood, he must have known people in our neighborhood he’s been around here for so long and if you noticed him you noticed as I did that he was dependable. He was crossing kids on that busy corner in all weather then off he zoomed on his bike. If you employ people, you want to employ a guy like him.

He is a black man. I am a white man. We both have emphasized the gesture of mutual acknowledgement all these years in enthusiastic ways, but I am in a car, he is stationary on a corner and though we always exchanged greetings through the rolled down window of my car as I was retrieving or returning my children, we didn’t actually converse. It was always a greeting with verve; I looked for him he looked for me I could tell.

We have never had a conversation because in all these years I have never bumped into him walking. Here I might pursue a distraction and follow the notion how come I am always in a car in a neighborhood not too large too walk around in and especially now that my children are grown this particular vicinity should be my stomping grounds in the sense that the idiom was created I should be stomping around in it who needs a car within this five-six block radius where I hang out, sit in the coffee shop, read and write meet people, etc. My office is a coffee shop I have an office but I prefer the coffee shop.

It’s been thirty years and we have never had a conversation. Until this morning.

On this particular morning, I walked over the cut-through to go to the gym to be tortured by the trainer I pay to keep my knees in shape so I can run up and down the stairs in my palatial estate. I am recently a first-time grandfather and I intend to chase baby Harry around my house as much as he wants but my knees have been in minor rebellion these last years and I thought some serious pump-iron might help me in the future. So far – it’s working.
This morning as I was coming back from torture and approaching the cut-through from the other direction, coming toward me the way he is always walking when I have seen him in recent years (toward the Metro Link) was the man who I have been exchanging sign language with over the last thirty years.

Here I might follow another thread and write about how many black men assume you don’t recognize them I have had this feeling myself I am not that recognizable unless I am dressed up or wearing a silly hat and I can always tell from a distance on approach whether somebody who should recognize me recognizes me at all. I could see on approach he made no gesture probably accustomed to not being recognized by a white man in the neighborhood of course I recognized him right away and hollered out first to let him know I am happy to see him.

I stopped on the sidewalk in the middle of the cut-through and we exchanged the obvious: how are you, good to see you again, don’t see you much anymore, how you doing, are you still riding that bike (he was now and again but not as much as he used to), and then I said: you know, we have known each other for (I made a quick calculation) thirty years but we don’t know each others’ names. That’s wrong. What’s your name? I’m Dan, he said. I’m Jim, I said.

We greeted each other on that bridge like old friends because we are. We didn’t know each others’ names for all the wrong reasons not only the racial divide but the economics of it (he has a bike I have a car) he has a bunch of jobs I have a bunch of jobs too but mine are flexible enough that I spent a lot of time driving my kids to and from school and my jobs (maybe) paid better and he probably doesn’t know that I think of him as my friend I have known him for so long and our greetings have been so mutually effusive (we made grand gestures of greeting at every sighting in all weather during all seasons) this constitutes friendship for me in some contemporary refiguring of the term and I might be distracted here and follow a trail about friendship and I don’t what it means for him but the clue has been we have paid attention to each other for a long time now and to me he is my friend.

If you live long enough, you make friends of all kinds you redefine friend and whatever we are to each other it is something especially to me (I am shy). This morning – we spoke.


Hard to Kill from the Jailhouse Stories Big Tent

jail with padlock

On the floor called “the hole” reserved for disciplinary segregation, I can visit and the corrections officers put me in a room where lawyers and psychologists and others who have occasional time with the inmates meet. It’s a small room, open to where the corrections officers sit so they can see me at all times. Sometimes they ask me to sit in the doorway, sometimes they ask the inmate to sit in the doorway. It’s an open door room and there is an official looking computer and a screen and a corner of table between myself and the person I am speaking with so we can lay out some papers or a book.

I asked for the fellow I have been visiting for about six months now and the corrections officer said, sure but he’ll have to be cuffed. He came out with handcuffs on; there had been some disciplinary business with him though I can’t imagine what, he is so well behaved with me. Polite. I didn’t ask.

While we were sitting and talking another fellow was brought out of the same lock-down (the hole) also cuffed but not nearly as compliant. There were ten corrections officers assisting with his transfer from one section of the floor to another and he was hollering. First he went limp on the floor so it was difficult to pick him up. He’s a big man. A few more officers came up from other floors and he became more agitated and let out a soliloquy of intelligible complaints about his treatment and his life behind bars; loud but in complete sentences and well reasoned.

By this time he scurried and was dragged just outside the open door where we were sitting. We continued talking about the material we were discussing from the book between us even though he was making a major fuss less than ten feet away. You get used to this here, said the fellow I was speaking with, then he described in more detail that guy making all the fuss.

He’s mentally ill, he said, and he filled in for me some of the things he did back on the floor. He’s in the hole, which means he is alone in a cell, but he makes a lot of noise. He’s been incarcerated off and on since he was a teen-ager and he looked to be in his late thirties. He had many tattoos, some of which ran up his neck almost onto his face.

A lot of the guys in here are mentally ill, said the fellow I was speaking with, the book of Torah spread on the table between us, the guy hollering on the floor just outside the door, still we continued our conversation. I would say about a third of the guys here are mentally ill, a third are criminals, and a third like me. What do mean like you? I asked him. I could be helped if anyone would really take the time. He laughed.

There’s no help here, he said, if I’m not careful I’ll become a criminal. Or crazy. Like that guy.

I looked at the guy who was now even closer to me. They had picked him up finally and strapped him into some kind of mobile restraining chair. Let me talk to the psychologist he hollered. He assumed I was a psychologist, sitting in that room, and he started to laugh and then he began to holler a mad explosion of sound. I could see him close enough now to read one of his tattoos, the one on his neck.

It read: Hard to kill.


Vaudeville Kabbalah

Vision, part 1

yonatan ben uziel

R. Gamaliel, R. Eliezer b. Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva came to the Temple Mount they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies, they all burst into tears, except Akiva Akiva laughed. [Makkot 24b]

I saw the foxes on the narrow dirt roads of the upper Galilee inching my way along in a Spanish-built car directioning myself by intuition and finding my way to my destination. I passed near the grave of R. Yonatan ben Uziel. I saw the foxes, it was the week before Tisha B’Av and there was nothing in the obvious associations lost on me. The foxes were small, beautiful, car savvy, easily outrunning me on the car/foot/bike path darting in and out of openings in the foliage at the side of the road where they no doubt lived and thrived. Little foxes.

I felt neither the inclination to burst into tears or to have a particularly optimistic read on the future, though the Akiva laugh is always most meaningful to me as an invocation of neither via postiva or via negativa, just via ambiguosa. Who the hell knows what the foxes prefigure: you may as well laugh. They thought it was desolate, Akiva thought it was funny, George Moon thought it was desolate and funny, I think when presented with the sensory information, one may as well laugh.

I also feel the proximity between the laughing and the tears, to me they are right next to each other on the spectrum of human responses to existence when it is not a linear notion but a circular notion. Tears are sitting in one spot on the circle, right next to the tears the funny man and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat, laughing. I spend a good deal of every day in both seats as do most of the people I love.

I recall the description of Bar Yochai, Akiva’s student: one eye smiling, one eye crying.
Akiva, I am sure, knew the prophecy from Zechariah 8:4ff, Old men and old women shall sit again in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.

If so, don’t take this prefiguring of the foxes too seriously; better days are coming. Akiva of the long look.

Or perhaps what Akiva had was a real vision. He actually saw into the future and saw what Zechariah described happening; it wasn’t a matter of attitude or posture, it was Akiva gazing into the future and seeing so much restoration that the implication of the ruin brought by the foxes meant nothing to him. He might have been laughing at everyone’s limited imaginations. Behold the story of the foxes, drawn without much imagination, Akiva saw beyond that, eschewed homiletics, had confidence in the future and knew God provides. Relax, said Akiva, I saw it and quit making sermons. You’re boring me with your tears drawn from those cute little foxes.

Secret: every so often — what we have here – is a real vision.