A tattered man with a mole-freckled face and a sideways gut.
Usually, he carries life in a single bursting black trash bag, which sags behind him through his 50-block urban homeless hell called Skid Row.
Usually, there is no place to read. When you are homeless on the Row, a $6 million police force, which guzzles more funding than all the homeless services in the city combined, threatens to cite you with an unpayable trespassing ticket, or else incarcerate you, if you dare sit down on public sidewalks during daylight hours.
Not that you would read if you were allowed to sit down. Smells and screams and substance abuse lurk too closely to warrant an escape into pure imagination. A more real escape is necessary.
And so on three separate Fridays every year, the LA Catholic Worker, where I'm an earnest and clueless newbie, rents a bus and takes 50 Row residents on a picnic. We don't do it to convert souls. Merely to give our selves in other bodies a well-deserved rests. (Me in another body. That's all you are.)
We serve hamburgers, watermelon, and ice cream sandwiches (which were processed by child-labor maniac Nestle, to the abomination of some of our guests) on the banks of a green lake in Whittier, CA. Anyone who lives in the suburbs would be less-than-impressed with the location. It smells like algae and duck-poop and is surrounded by power plants.
But when sewer-stained concrete has been your playground, your bedroom, for a few months or years, any patch of grass exhales liberation.
And so my tattered friend reads.
I am struck subtly and resonantly that watching him read is the pinnacle of my life. A realization, not like a golden trumpet blast, but like a river rippling its transformation upon receiving a smooth stone.
This is true, lasting, weightless happiness. No true love's first bloom nor sweeping green cliff's majesty, however symphonic, could stir such music in me as the sound of broken chains. No matter whom they tether. Because the truth is, when we cross far enough through the fear on the lids of our mind's eye, we realize something my favorite author says better than I...
"In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world's rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether that buoys the rest, that gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned."