December 25, 2013
The door banged open and Arnie blew in with the Santa Ana’s (that’s wind for the non-southern California folk). “I just got off that L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught,” he said. We knew what he meant. Every one of us had spent time on California freeways to get to this room. If L.A. freeways are good for anything else, they always make you feel like you’ve accomplished something making it to your destination in one piece! But when an armadillo says without getting killed or caught (Had I said Arnie’s an armadillo? We’re all uniquely created, but ya gotta admit, there’s something a bit different when it comes to armadillo’s.) you get one of those chicken crossing the L.A. freeway images and, well, Arnie probably had his heart beating a bit more than normal a time or two.
“I thought I’d left the key in the ‘ol’ front door lock,” Arnie said, “but, then, we got something to believe in, don’t you think?” We sat there looking at Arnie and no clue as to what he was talking about. But that was nothing new, Arnie often kept us a notch off center, wondering.
“I walked through the downtown yesterday, he said. The streets were filled with laughter and light…and the music of the season. We looked at each other and wondered what in the world was Arnie doing downtown? There always a risk when any of us visit the city, but an armadillo, downtown, with foot and car traffic, in this season! Well you’ve gotta give some thought to how well he’s tracking! Arnie went on, “as I walked I got those stares, you know the ones. It was all a little surreal, there is something about when their christmas comes they tense-up and focus on possessions. You’d think the act of giving to their relations would be a good time, but many seem to walk with smiles on their faces while the season turns their temple to a robber’s den.” We were tracking him, more or less, but one couldn’t be sure.
“I came to the corner of 25th and Chris Street,” he said. “There was this old boy in worn out shoes, sitting on the curb. There were cars driving in front of him and people walking on the sidewalk behind. He held a cardboard sign old and bent [saying] friend for life 25 cents. I can’t say why I sat down.”
“You know how people notice us whenever we’re in town? Well, people, driving and walking by noticed me—you’d think they never saw an armadillo before, but at the very same moment, it was as if they couldn’t see the person sitting beside me who looks and talks most like themselves. Weird, isn’t it?”
“He had the eyes of age as he spoke right out, Arnie said. “He talked about the days when he danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs throughout the South. Then as if to prove it, he danced a lick…jumped up high…clicked his heels [and] let go a laugh…yeah, really, he let go a laugh as if he knew something no one else could imagine! As he sat back down someone dropped a dollar into the hat.”
“I had a dog once,” he said. ”He traveled with me and was a friend that only a do can be, you know what I mean? But one day my dog up and died. Twenty years later and I still grieves and so I drinks a bit.” He smiled. “It ain’t so bad you know. From time to time I find myself standing behind those county bars, but the folk I meet enjoy my dance and my word. More times than not, I give them 25 cents and they are friend(s) for life.”
“I sat quiet like,” Arnie said. Arnie walked over to the stove, pulled a mug off the shelf and poured a cup of coffee. He swallowed and closed his eyes as if this was the best coffee he’d ever had. “Man I hate getting old,” he said. “I’m tired of the stories, these stories, they seem a dime a dozen, you know. Too many county bars with too many folk.” He glanced our way, but he seemed someplace else. “I said so much, to this old boy,” he said. “And what did he do? He took his shoe off, rubbed his feet, and examined his holy sock as if it was speaking to him, and then said, ‘so, you think you’d do more than these folk driving by? At least want to try?’ I felt as if I’d been put on the spot and I reckon I had. Yet something welled up from within and I said, Yes. I can’t say what got into me, but sudden like, I just figured something’s gotta change. How in the world can hundreds, if not thousands, of people walk and drive by homeless folk without a second thought? YEAH, I said, yeah I can do something to get people to give their relations a second thought. Don’t get me wrong, I said, there is more than a bit selfishness here. After all, if people don’t learn to treat those who look and sound most like themselves, fairly and equally, what chance do me and mine have?” All of us in the room looked at each other and nodded our heads. “He looked at me,” Arnie went on, “smiled, and said, ‘well, you know if any one should interfere in the business of why they are poor, they would get the same as the rebel jesus.’ His The words were hardly spoken when three people walked by and said, homeless, get away from here; don’t give them no money they’ll just spend it on beer.”
“He just smiled.”
“Across the intersection a woman pushed a shopping cart. ‘Aw, Betty,’ he said. ‘I met her when I first arrived. She showed me the ropes, you might say. Thanks to her I found how to get me some dirt road back street in the middle of all this concrete. She sings a song that no one hears…a heartfelt melody, one that begs for harmony…Oh Susanna, don’t you cry, babe. Love’s a gift that’s surely handmade. I’ve heard her say, God it’s been so many years walking these streets, but don’t get me wrong, these days she’s way past complainin.’”
“He turned to me and said, ‘You know life ain’t easy it takes work. The hardship for folk like Betty isn’t their life, it is the rest of us not finding our way to knowing them as sisters and brothers. It might seem the task of helping people see people is noble work, but know you can lose your faith, you can lose your shirt and if you’re not careful you can lose your way sometimes.’
He was quiet for a moment, smiled and then yelled over his shoulder, ‘Betty, wait up!’ In one fell swoop he picked up his hat, dropped the money into his pocket, and tucked the cardboard sign under his arm. He headed across the intersection, looked back and said, ‘please forgive me if I seem to take the tone of judgment. For I have no wish to come between this day and your enjoyment.’ I’m not joking, he said that and went on to say, ‘in this life of hardship and earthly toil we have need for anything that frees us. So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer. From a heathen and a pagan on the side of the rebel jesus.’
Next thing I knew he was across the street with Betty. Both were a talking, arms a waving, and kicking up their heels. It seemed as if they were out of their senses while fully in their senses. Last thing I saw,” Arnie said, “was the back of the cardboard sign, friend for life, 25 cents. I know it all sounds a little weird and it sounds a little nuts. And perhaps it is, but just the same, I’m going back out there to go find this old boy who speaks a word unlike that I’ve heard before.”
Arnie put his coffee mug next to the pot, opened the door, and looked back. “If you want to join me, I’ll be at the cross-street of 25th and Chris, you can’t miss it.”
We sat there, looked at each other and wondered, are we critters who ‘guard our fine possessions,’ or critters who could seize a life of generosity and mettle ‘in the business of why [there] are poor.’
Homeless: Lyrics by Guy Clark
Mr. Bojangles: Lyrics by Jerry Jeff Walker
The Rebel Jesus: Lyrics by Jackson Brown
L.A. Freeway: Lyrics by Guy Clark
Photo by Michael Pharaoh (http://www.behance.net/gallery/The-Homeless-of-LA/10730019)
© David B. Bell 2013
May this holiday season smile gently upon you and yours, and may the New Year bring you light and joy.