Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dharma Bummed

"Beggars should be abolished entirely...
It is annoying to give to them, and it is annoying not to give to them."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

"And that's the way this wheel
keeps working now..."
-- John Mayer

The Exit ramp off Interstate 80--one of the many leading into Joliet--was backed up nearly to the shoulder of the highway. Green light, green arrow pointing left, allowing for a safe and legal turn onto Houbolt Road. My daughter was asleep in the passenger seat next to me, the radio playing loudly from the last station her finger had visited on the dial before tuning out herself--a habit she is wont to do--and leaving me wondering all of the sudden why I hadn't thought to change the station.

Not that I have anything against popular music of the day, actually.

[Aside: I always swore I would never become one of those kind of Dads, bemoaning the loss of the supposed "glory days" of music/film/sports/cars/culture-in-general. Rambling on and on and on about some romanticized vision of some ethereal past that probably--if push came to shove--never existed anyway. You know...that guy. The veritable "Grumpy Old Man." The buzzkill. The literal death of the party.]

I like to think of myself as championing the theory of Always-Trying-To-Do-The-Right-Thing-When-It-Needs-To-Be-Done--an example I like to set for my daughters when I can. It's a theory of open-mindedness, I like to believe. It's a theory of inclusiveness and awareness of another's feelings and attitudes and beliefs in the grand mix with mine.

And so, by surrender, that theory also extends to the music played these days in my car when my daughters--now of the pre- and full-fledged teen variety--are along for the ride with me. When they were younger, it was so much easier; I could get away--while driving them here and there--with indoctrinating them to my taste in music. It was always my radio station of choice. My personal collection of CDs played over the car's stereo. My iPod's music list plugged into the auxiliary outlet on the panel.

I was rather proud of the fact that my daughters--at the wee ages of 4 and 7--could recognize the opening chords of The Flaming Lips' "Waiting for a Superman." And not only recognize the song, but sing along with it. Flawlessly. And even request to hear it again, played on repeat ad nauseum.

I was raising some well-rounded, respectful, cultured, and open-minded young ladies.

[Aside: But after all, what were they going to do, disagree with me? I was Dad. And they were 4 and 7, for God's sake. Besides, I was getting to listen to my radio station, and my CDs, and my extensive musical library in digital storage. But that's beside the point. And anyway, that was then....]

Still, I had to wonder now, as the line of cars stacked up along the Exit ramp and slowly inched along, one by one, to the lure of the left-pointing green arrow, what sort of fog I had been in that I hadn't changed from the usual top-40 fare blaring from my car's speakers. My daughter had fallen asleep, like usual. So it was just me listening to this crap. What had I been thinking?

And it was then that I saw him. Standing on the edge of the left-turning lane, dressed in worn-out, stinky-looking clothes--long, tangled blond hair held under a greasy ball cap, an untrimmed beard, scuffed boots, torn jeans, an oversized hoodie hanging on his frame. And most notably, perhaps, a ragged rectangle of corrugated beige cardboard held between his hands just at lower-chest level--a message scrawled lightly, and apparently quickly, in black permanent marker. I was still too far away to read what was written (and probably misspelled, I assumed) on the piece of cardboard ripped randomly from some leftover box resting in the ditch, I would imagine. But then again I also assumed I knew just what the wording on the young man's homemade sign was. (Or at least a close facsimile.)

It was also at this time, not coincidentally, I began to wonder just how long a green left-turn arrow lasts.

I knew it would happen the way it happened. And so it happened. A row of red blinking turn-signals disappeared in succession, like lemmings over some God-forsaken cliff, and still the green left-turn arrow remained. Five cars ahead of me now. Four. How soon would it turn yellow, and then red? I noticed the cars ahead of me speeding up now, ever so slightly, just to make the light. A helpful ploy, for all involved. Surely the green arrow can't last much longer. Surely it won't change now, though. Nobody wants to be that car, sitting stopped, with a supposed homeless beggar weighing on their conscience off to the side of the road.

Nobody wants that.

Three cars now, each moving along nicely. Time is of the essence. Everybody being polite, after all. Everybody taking their turn. Everybody observing--to the best of his/her ingrained mannered abilities--the proverbial "rules of the road." A staple of civilization, I suppose. One of those things, like the opposable thumb, I would guess, that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. The lesser beasts of the earth. The unwashed herd. ("And speaking of 'unwashed,'" I thought...)

The green arrow suddenly paled to yellow. Who's it going to be? Two cars now. One. How fast can the remaining car ahead of me move?


She couldn't.

The yellow left-turn arrow faded to red as the driver ahead of me made her casual advance, completing her turn, and speeding successfully along her way. I, on the other hand, remained behind. I was that car that didn't make the left turn. I was the car sitting at the front of the line now, waiting on the red light to change. I was the car directly next to some guy, a stranger in used clothes who looked like he hadn't had a bath or a decent meal or a full night's sleep in ages and who--for God-only-knows-what reason--had been reduced to standing alone alongside the Exit ramp, stalwart and stoic, holding a cardboard sign in front of his chest, begging for money, for a ride, for help, and waiting for someone--anyone--to acknowledge him.

"Of-fucking-course this would happen to me," I thought to myself, careful not to give voice to such frustration (even though my daughter was still asleep). "Just my luck..."

At least from this newly acquired vantage point, though, I could now make out his sign:

The fact that I was right, as it turns out, about his sign being misspelled was of little satisfaction. The only reason I had finally read it was: 1.) I was now sitting comfortably in my car just mere feet from the guy, my air-conditioner blowing and the stereo blaring the latest masterpiece from Maroon 5; and 2.) I was wearing my aviator sunglasses, large enough to hide my eyes and to sneak a sideways glance at him and at his scrawled misspelled message on his pathetic piece of cardboard. I didn't want him to notice my looking, however--I didn't want him to know I was glancing at him and thereby bring down all the attendant expectations such a noticed glance could inevitably bring.
I quickly thought of all the things I could do to make it look like I was suddenly an extraordinarily busy and important person. I thought of fidgeting with the stereo--or at least pretending to. (With this thought was the presumed assumption on my part, I guess, that my car doors were, in fact, padded with some miraculous soundproof lining and that though he was poor and obviously down-on-his-luck, this meant, for some unexplainable reason, that the guy standing 4 feet away from me on the side of the road was also deaf.) I also thought of becoming inordinately interested in suddenly fishing for something under my seat--like some misplaced change, or a piece of gum, or a dropped detonator. Something like that. I thought, too, of immediately bringing my cell phone up to my ear (thank God for 21st-century technology, after all) and falling back on the old familiar standby of suddenly finding myself in a very elaborate and animated phone call.
[Aside: Who among us hasn't tried that old chestnut at least once, for various reasons of our own and with equally varying results?]

But then, as I glanced at him again out of the corner of my eyes--with his sad, bedraggled appearance and his sign and his pitiful "1,000-yard stare" (as if not wanting to make eye contact with any of the random motorists pulling up randomly alongside him, just about as much as none of us wanted to make eye contact with him) I thought of this also: That could be me out there...

I thought shamefully of the unpaid bills piling up at home, and of the mailbox full of more, always more. And I thought of past-due balances. And of overdraft notices. And of debts. And of the repeated litany of questions every month, rolling through my mind--a list of questions forcing me to prioritize my needs, like some absurd sort of financial triage: "Do I have enough money to cover these payments? How about these? And which bills are the longest overdue? Can I pay those off now? Will they accept half a payment? Which bill(s) will go unpaid this month? And what about gas? And what about groceries? How overrated is eating, really?..." And the endgame to all of that, then, of course, are the creditors calling ceaselessly, day and night, wanting to know where the money is. And can they, in any way, be of help? ("Oh, the irony," I thought suddenly, sitting comfortably in my car. "Where's my piece of cardboard?") I thought of vacations and new cars and expensive toys and top-shelf hobbies and the lifestyles all my friends seem to be living every minute of the day--if what one sees on social sites like Facebook is to be believed. Everyone seems to have found the secret, it would seem, except me. and the young, bearded, homeless hippie standing next to me at the moment, I had to guess.

And that's when it all, in just a second's passing, came crashing down on me: That could so easily be me. Any day now. Standing on the side of the road with, yes, my own cardboard sign, in fact, held in front of me, desperately asking total strangers for help.

I looked at my daughter then, sleeping so peacefully in the seat beside me. Blissfully unaware--thank God--of the cares of the world, and of the weight of being a single Dad, and of absurd unrealities to her of such things as child-support, and health insurance, and responsibilities that reach far beyond the tangibles of paper money and paper mailings and paper guilt.

Bruno Mars was belting out his latest rehashed falsetto anthem to young, amazing love (or some such thing...) and I recalled, briefly, how just seconds ago it seemed so miraculous to me that I had not changed the radio station, when the only one who wanted to listen to this sort of music was fast asleep in the car on the drive to go shopping in Joliet. It would seem my theory of Always-Trying-To-Do-The-Right-Thing-When-It-Needs-To-Be-Done had, indeed, gotten the best of me--no pun intended. I was mindlessly mindless. Selflessly selfless. So much so that it was no longer about me--I was merely a microcosmic speck of matter in the great stew of life in this thing we call the Universe. I was matter that did not matter.

I switched off Bruno Mars' voice, then, and in the silence that followed in my car, waiting for the red light to turn so I could be about my day, I heard, instead, John Lennon's paradoxical ramble sift through the music library in my brain:

          "I am he as you are he as you are me.
           And we are all together..."

Pressing the button on the power console next to me, my driver's-side window hummed down. But only halfway. I reached behind me and felt for my wallet--thin, but... I opened it and pulled out two dollar bills.

[Aside: Two dollars? Really?...]

Upon hearing the electric motor of my window, the young man suddenly turned to me. I don't know who looked more surprised, because I obviously couldn't see my face at the moment. This was definitely out of character for me, to be sure, but of course he didn't know that. And he didn't need to know that.

I just couldn't help but think right then that it was not only the right thing to do--giving this guy some help, any help I could spare--it was the only thing to do. "I would want someone like me to do this for me if I needed it," I thought quietly, still not wanting to wake my daughter. Better she not see this, I reasoned, for some reason.

I rolled my car window down halfway and held out the two dollar bills toward him--lengthwise, like a carrot, leading him forward. Oh, the power I held in those two crisp dollar bills, I realized. His eyes turned to look at me then for the first time. To really look at me. And I cannot describe the smile that crossed his emaciated, hollowed face at that moment. He still had his teeth, I noticed. "I guess the heroin or the meth habit I'm helping finance hasn't completely ravaged him yet," I suddenly thought. This was followed by a quick rejoinder: "Shut up!" I thought to myself. "Can't you just shut up your mind for once and be in this moment? Maybe he'll get a cup of coffee with the two dollars you're passing on to him. Or maybe a candy bar. You don't know. Or maybe something sweet for a loved one--a rose for a girlfriend or a small plush toy for a child who is sick or who is out of the picture for some reason. Or maybe he'll pay it forward, giving your two dollars away, in fact, to someone other than himself who needs it even more, someone who..."

"Oh my God, dude, that is so righteous!" he said. He smiled some more at me and laughed a nice, clean, sincere laugh. "Absolutely righteous..."

I smiled back at him.

"Brother," he said, "you are absolutely a righteous man!"

And I continued to smile, feeling pretty good about the moment, actually. This was turning out better than I had anticipated. Maybe my crackpot theory of Always-Trying-To-Do-The-Right-Thing-When-It-Needs-To-Be-Done wasn't so crackpot after all. Maybe my attempts to be open-minded and all-inclusive and aware had its own sense of reward. Maybe, in its own karmic way, this was its payoff. What goes around comes around, like the dharma wheel, itself.

I had to admit, being told I was, in fact, "righteous" was good medicine for me at that particular time. It was just what I needed to hear, perhaps. An affirmation (despite all the contrary evidence) that although I had maybe neglected to pay this month's gas bill, and although I perhaps needed to start reorganizing and reprioritizing my life and start acting like the grownup I was presumed to be, and although I maybe wasn't living the life of fun and enchantment all my friends seemed to be living and inadvertently bragging about online, it could just be that maybe--just maybe--I wasn't so bad after all.

Maybe, in fact, I was even "righteous."


I know what that word means--"righteous." I have used it often myself, in differing times and situations. But I have certainly never used it (or even thought of using it) in regards to me. And even though I know, with a fair degree of certainty, the full denotations and connotations of that word, I couldn't help but think I wanted to look it up in the dictionary as soon as I got home, just to be sure I was right.

Just to be sure I was righteous, in fact.

"You are so righteous," I heard again, as if this young down-and-out gentleman had somehow read my mind and was confirming my obligatory crisis of self-doubt. These two dollar bills were certainly making his day, to be sure.

And then he moved toward me, and not just to retrieve his gift of two-hundred pennies, either, it would seem. He stepped toward me then with his arms unbelievably outstretched and opened wide, as if he were moving in for an embrace.

This guy--this total stranger standing on the side of an Exit ramp leading to Joliet where just a minute ago I was innocently going to do some shopping with my daughter, this dirty, unbathed, and almost-certainly stinking young beggar who was panhandling and playing on people's simple sympathies, like my own--was moving in to get close.

This guy wanted to hug me.

As it turns out, my surprise and my recoil could not have been stronger. I leaned back into my seat, further away from my half-open window, and felt with my left hand along the control panel next to me to make sure, in fact, that the doors were automatically locked and to slide my index finger into place on the power-window control button--just in case.

"Thank you, man! Thank you..." he said, noticing rather quickly, I would assume, that he wasn't going to get that hug. If he was upset, he didn't show it. He had more of a poker-face than I, probably, and he settled instead for the extended two dollars, as well as my hand in a half-hearted shake.

"You're welcome," I said. "And good luck..."

And I meant it. I was sad for him. Just as I was sad for me. He had certainly seen better times, just as I had. And though my times were evidently still better than his at the moment, if nothing else he was living proof to me--as if I needed it--that it could all slip away so quickly. And I could be him. And if my benediction of good fortune was truthfully being passed on to this stranger who asked nothing of me but "ANY HELP" that I was able to give (whether it was truthfully, on his part, "APRECITED" or not) then my words "good luck" were meant for me, as well.

[Aside: "I am he as you are he as you are me.
             And we are all together..."]

"Seriously, good luck," I said again--adding the "Seriously" this time, as if it was needed for some reason.

He looked at me and smiled again. "Thank you. Thank you, brother..."

"You're welcome. Take care."

"You too."

And that was that. How long did the whole scene actually take? I have no way of knowing. A matter of seconds, probably. How long does a red light last? A lifetime, it seems, most of the time, I know. And yet sometimes--on those rare times driving when we're not frazzled and not in a hurry to get where we're going and to get there quickly--a red light can go faster than we'd like.

I rolled my window up as the red left-turn arrow once again turned green, and I continued on my way to go shopping with my daughter, which had been my unassuming plan all along.

This was, of course, the time she decided to wake up. "Hey..." she muttered, half-intelligibly.

"Hey back." I said.

"What's happening?..." she asked.

What's happening?

I thought back to the scene just played out seconds ago. To my recognition of myself in someone else. To my joy and satisfaction at being called something like "righteous." To my automatic and instinctual fear and disgust at the thought of hugging a dirty homeless stranger who was begging for "HELP" on the side of the road. To the way I so thoughtlessly reached now for the little squeeze-bottle of handwash lotion that I keep in my glove-box--for emergencies.

"What's happening?" I say to her, repeating her question, stalling for time.

[Aside: Yes. What's happening? What just happened here?]

"Good thing you woke up," I said, deflecting for a moment. "We're almost to where we're going."

Putting back the handwash bottle in my glove-box, I reached deeper inside for my iPod, which I knew was in there somewhere. My daughter hadn't noticed yet the silence of the "no-music" sound in my car simply because she was still half asleep and it hadn't registered with her. But it would soon.

"How about listening to some of Dad's music for the last little bit of the trip?" I said. I suddenly wanted to hear a song very badly. "You don't mind, do you, honey?..."

"No, that's fine," she said, with a selfless shrug. She looked out the window at the buildings and the cars passing by.

I plugged in my iPod on the console and searched briefly for the album and song I was looking for. Still there. I hadn't deleted it: The Flaming Lips, their 1999 album, The Soft Bulletin, the 8th track-- "Waiting for a Superman." I turned up the speakers on the car's stereo. Loud. And I hit the PLAY button.

The familiar opening crash of chords was like an old friend.

          "I asked you a question.
           But I didn't need you to reply..."

It only took her a second or two to recognize the song, and she turned to me, smiling.

"We haven't listened to this in a long time," she said.

          "'Is it getting heavy?' But then I realized:
           'Is it getting heavy?'
           Well, I thought it was already
           as heavy as can be..."

I looked at her and smiled back. "I know. It's been years."

And by the time Wayne Coyne had reached the chorus, my daughter and I were singing along, matching him word for word, each one of us lost in thoughts all our own in what was left of the morning.

          "Tell everybody waiting for a Superman
           that they should just try to hold on
           the best they can.
           He hasn't dropped them,
           forgot them,
           or anything.
           It's just too heavy for a Superman to lift."