Noblesse Oblige

Phone calls long distance to tell how you’ve been; you forget about the losses, you exaggerate the wins. And when you stop to let ’em know, you’ve got it down; it’s just another town along the road.” – The Road – Jackson Browne 

Mt. Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high; said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God.” Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

When Ernest Hemingway wrote his short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1938 he imagined the leopards quest for solitude to be like that of the writer or the boxer who goes off alone to commune with his demons and his final redemption. Rejecting the church that backed Franco in Spain, Hemingway came up with his own code of human conduct; a mixture of hedonism and sentimental humanism; likening solitude to “The way we burn the fat off our souls”.

I thought about this as, days earlier, I’d stepped across the threshold of the funeral home for the dead and dying, a holocaust memorial where I’d spent the last three years; extracting myself from a great familial civil war, one from which no man could long endure; and executing the greatest coup de’ gras; disengaged, declared victory and departed the field; surviving my own personal Ides of March betrayal. Lacking any symbiotic mutuality, I left with an ET tu Brute and a Sic semper tyrannis for good measure.

Seeking to make sense of the aborted episode, struck dumb, I recalled Bruce Lee’s quote “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” Well, maybe so. Sometimes the only way to be heard is to stop talking. As I made for the exit the sun burst through a sky of watered milk like just maybe somebody up there liked me.

Now collapsing on my recliner, the forced relocation finally over, my pictures up on the walls, drifting satisfied I breath deeply, surround myself with white light, empty my mind – a commando trick – and penetrating the surface tension; sink into REM. I am home; ensconced in solitude, established, settled in a comfortable, safe, secret place with no more visceral tsunami of feelings running over me like dogs chasing pigeons in the park; only the sweet knowledge that postcard pictures of Malcolm, Martin, Mandela, Marley, Obama and Gandhi, back-lit by an inspirational scroll quoting the 14th Dalai Lama, a gift from my Muse, and surrounded by every word the great Bukowski ever wrote, enfold me in a warm, loving embrace.

My new digs cater to the aged and in-firmed, where old men shuffle ahead in six-inch increments, somnambulist-like, looking like slow motion Japanese geisha. This must be the safest place I’ve ever been; feeling akin to what a soldier fresh from the battlefield must feel like sleeping in a middle-American suburban bedroom alongside an infant. The old women carouse in various stages of decline twinkle-eyed; like a room full of speed freaks hanging Christmas tinsel. They seek to make this forty-unit community something of a community. They sponsor pot luck get together; laying out elaborate spreads of food that look exactly like what a white bread Midwestern grandmother would concoct; lots of peasant bread made in old soup cans and a pastiche of yellow, green and purple jello molds. The rules as I’m told by what must have been a former chief of police, now relegated to maintenance man, is a three dollar donation exempts those who fail to bring an offering.

Both sexes are eager to off-load the narrative of their entire lives, with emphasis, and the logic of this escapes me, their myriad ailments; delivered in riveting detail, and the plethora of potions meant to ameliorate them. The wounded elephant in the room that sits groaning between us knows the real score. As my new friend, the empathetic and benevolent Pisces monarch Double G, the Mother Teresa of our happy enclave, a man throwing kindness around like confetti tells me; a local priest admitted to presiding over sixty funerals a month in this tiny burg; and that’s only one priest from one church. The real booming industry here is death and the dying are dying to get into this oasis of push button doors I have lucked into. There is though, a gloom hanging over the lot of my commune mates; the kind of shroud funk that comes from the resignation one experiences when standing at the precipice with only the leap left to maneuver.

Never more than a few city blocks from anything that sustains life; food, medicine, friends and the like I walk two blocks to enter the local diner to find the real northern Wisconsin archetypes. They wear planet-size belly bulging workman’s coveralls stretched tight over prodigious beer bellies; mud-people in camouflage print making all look much the same. They are urban mountain men looking more like drifters that rob gas stations in their off time from their full-time day jobs operating the tilt-a-whirl at the traveling carnival.

The cigarette smoke, years embedded in their mock-military styled nylon covered outer-wear, wafts off them like they haven’t been cleaned since the blizzard of 1973. The toxic mix of body funk and nicotine makes my eyes water and my skin burn. Theses are the three feet-ers; the distance that must be maintained if one is to survive the funk’s potent aroma; as repellent as the odor that floats off a tribal African living in the bush who has never seen a bar of soap. I muse what finance could be generated here via sale of nose and ear hair trimmers and mirrors. That’s not to say this click represents most here; most are the “cleanliness is next to godliness crowd” and are as clean and shiny as a new penny. I imagine the moldy set must have had their sense of smell obliterated in Viet Nam by exposure to Agent Orange.

Big H, my only neighbor, with whom I share an exterior wall in our two-unit townhouse, looks in his forties and as my guide Double G tells me; the only way you get in here not being of retirement age is to be handicapped. Harold is surely that; as roly-poly as a beach ball, Orca fat; even his head seems swelled up. If he ever tripped and started rolling downhill with enough steam, only the bravest Seal Team Six members would manage to muster the courage to stop him. The pale glow of his skin is the color of an uncooked turkey.

It hadn’t been over a minute from introducing myself that he tells me he cannot read. Since he just pulled up in his car (which is by the way parked like mine and every other car here not more than fifty feet from ones front door and on level ground. There are no stairs here in “if I fall I’ll never get up” land.) His admission makes me wonder how he got a driver’s license; especially when he tells me he’s “just figuring out the signs” which I take to mean STOP signs. But moreover I felt like Stallone had just clocked me across the bridge of the nose with a two by four. I quickly reexamine my life and how good I have it. A tsunami of compassion like that first snort of methamphetamine washes over me. I am swallowed by the empathy of the French phrase conferring an obligation on nobility, Noblesse Oblige, nobility obliges; that inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged. Anyway we chat. He tells me in halting monosyllables that I always look good; three times. He also likes my car.

A smiling woman knocked on my door last night; real friendly. I quickly calculate whether she’s worthy of the supreme sacrifice and since she wore enough Marilyn Manson style eye makeup, good for a few nights of bad dreams, I’m not sure, which I suppose is a good sign. Turns out until recently her mom, right up until her demise, lived in my apartment and she was rhapsodizing sentimental. I invite her in since its one degree outdoors and colder than a nipple on a witches tit, colder than a bucket of penguin shit, colder than the hairs on a polar bears ass, colder than the frost on my champagne glass. She grills me for info of my background. I divulge Oakland was my recent spot and she has what appears a small orgasm. If I’d have had more than one chair I’d have asked her to sit. Suppose I’ll have to buy one.

It’s twenty-eight below zero in the wind the bored high-gloss weather gal informs me; warning exposed skin is, at this temperature, frostbitten in under ten minutes; I check my zipper. Stepping out the front door, armed with the knowledge uploaded from the Sunday morning talking heads on my TV, the petty, needy, jealous and greedy still inhabit the idiot-sphere; sounding like initiates suffering comically bad ayahuasca experiences. It makes the world outside seem a sort of sanatorium; a low-rent laughing academy, a nut plantation. Excusing myself the harsh narrative with the knowledge that irony needn’t be mutually exclusive with candor I check list my emotional hygiene, being sure to take care of my emotions, my mind, with the same diligence I take care of my body; blocking the neurotic wish to quickly run every emotion through an elaborate machinery of self-conscious self-reflection with the speed of a turbo-charged abacus running ancient Chinese calculations using the same black and white beads since before Confucius arrived. You can have true affection for only a few things in life, and by getting rid of material things, I make sure I won’t waste mine on something that can’t feel my affection.

My newly energized compassion has found a target rich environment. The loneliness here is palpable; it has a pulse; the emotionally lonely and the existential lonely, like all of us cradle to grave, reminds me of walking into a bar where patrons make love to their shots and beers and the desperation is as thick as the fog on San Francisco Bay. For me this self-imposed monastic period, ensconced in my solitude, is a dharma with which I am all too familiar. Again, Hemingway said it best “ When I’m not going good, I go off where I can be alone and work the fat off my soul the way a fighter goes up into the mountains to work and train and burn the fat out of his body. Being alone and loneliness are two different things. I’ll be alone but I won’t be lonely.”

It’s a tiny town; so small even the bakery closes on Sunday. Whether this is an idiosyncratic notion specific to the owner or due to the hyper-religiosity of this place I do not know but I suspect the latter. The social fabric here is woven for service to the likes of those who surround me now; those as broke as teenagers. So, like in my early pious vagabond-glory days in the Haight Ashbury, when my pockets never jingled, I begin, with the prodding of my chaperon Double G, to clock every free meal within a dollars worth of gas driving distance. Though I haven’t reached that place of poverty just yet, my forced move, the second one in three years, came with a major financial set-back. The free meal practice also brings me back to my youth; when traveling America jungle-style like depression era Woody Guthrie hobos; the mantra “never pass up a free meal” memory echos.

So, last light after a mean workout and a five dollar open swim and hot tub at the local motel, we hit the bingo basement of one of the many churches sponsoring “community supper” once a week; which is to say; a free meal. The food is as good as any mid-priced restaurant in San Francisco and the camaraderie far exceeds any found in such establishments. My two table mates launch into a lengthy mumble-fest of thanks to their personal supreme being. It elevates and mixes with the other five billion cooperating mass hysterics who practice this form of suspension of disbelief. How god, the deity most responsible for the worst ungodly atrocities of man, can catalog these myriad Santa Clause style requests for his attention for beneficence without a staff of millions escapes me and I suppose them as well. I wonder; is heaven just one big sweatshop?

My Thursday grub and tub buddy’s Masters Degree and managerial experience in the nurturing of the unfortunate has hustled up a job prospect for him in the Virgin Islands and he tells me of a spot that might be available for me there as well. Should that magic moment erupt you can, much as I kinda like it here, humped-back and crooked as it is, a low-rent laughing academy populated by retired aluminum-siding and screen door salesmen; where my love life circles the drain and it takes a half-hour just to don my long underwear and sub-zero snow boots; you can color me gone. The memory of James Michener’s novels and the thought of a new life in another sub-tropical environment, with a paying gig no less, defines paradise for me.

Enough said: Time to exit stage left and mate again with the stair-climber at the gym while my Oi-gong master blaster buddy – ever the peripatetic – soliloquies his learned speech on anger; all for my personal delectation.