Friday, February 22, 2019

Stinging Polly Papercuts Meets Her Match

"Hurry up! We're already late. I said we'd be there by sunset. They're gonna lock the door. Come on..." implored Betty, The Exorcist, her bag of rags - and her best and only friend - trailing behind her as she raced through the riverfront freight yard in Belfast, Maine.

"And I said I didn't want to go to no box car soiree full of strangers," Stinging Polly Papercuts complained. "I don't even like going to parties where I know everyone - and my cuts are killing me, today."

Looks legit. Hey - maybe they'll have lobster rolls! Photo by [Maris] - 2004

"Oh hush. This isn't your run of the mill box car party. You'll love it. Hey - have I mentioned that the river we're running along is the Passagassawakeag?"

"You're a Passagassawakeag," Polly said with her signature ooh that stings clenched-teeth hiss. "If you were any kind of friend, you'd have left me to sleep in the woods. I'd be happy to hear all about the grand time you had at the party - tomorrow."

"Nope. You need this. Trust me," said Betty, The Exorcist. "Besides, maybe I feel like you kinda owe me one. Hurry up..."

Stinging Polly Papercuts did kind of owe Betty one. A decade ago, when she was still Pollyanna Archer, a hobo virgin in every way, having just joined Hobo Nation, Betty performed one of her namesake "exorcisms" on Polly, and since had claimed to have saved her life. In reality, all Betty had actually done was misquote a few Bible passages, make some weird noises, and wave her arms around for a few minutes, and then declare that the nonexistent "demon" in possession of Polly's mortal soul (which here means hiccups) had been successfully "exorcised." 

Even then, at the age of fifteen, Polly recognized this exercise as the complete and utter bullshit that it was. She had learned to spot such nonsense at an early age. Her father had been a philandering preacher in the 1920s, and had he been half as good at avoiding being stabbed by his wife as he was at cherry-picking the Bible to rationalize his behavior, he might have lived to stop Polly from becoming a hobo. But he wasn't, and he didn't. And so, two weeks after her mother died of acute early-onset tax accountancy, Pollyanna hit the road with all that she could carry, found train tracks that stretched westward from her New Haven home, and reinvented herself as one of the toughest New England hoboes of  the 30s.

Until she became possessed by the hiccups. At first, they hadn't bothered her at all. She had survived being caught in a whirlwind of discarded papers, outside a Newbury school on the last day of the Spring term, and went weeks at a time without so much as a mention of the searing, stinging discomfort that resulted. But the hiccups kept her awake, and she loved her sleep like a junkie loves her junk. Hence, her willingness to let Betty "exorcise" her demon. It didn't help at all; she knew that the hiccups had simply gone away on their own - but she had made a friend. They had scarcely been apart in the ten years since.

But now her cuts were barking at her, and her friend was being weird. She emitted pained little grunts as she hurried after Betty, stopping short when she saw the box car. "That? That looks like a place where livestock goes to die, Bet. I wouldn't pull that door open on a dare."

Betty The Exorcist stood on tiptoes next to a noisy wooden box car that looked as if it might disintegrate with the next stiff breeze. She knocked three times. The garrulous sounds from within stopped, and amid a chorus of shushing, a deep, rough male voice said, "What."

Stinging Polly Papercuts dropped her sack on the gravel ballast and groaned, "Come on, Betty. I don't think we should be here. Let's just leave..."

"Oh, don't be a stick in the mud. Come on..." The door creaked open an inch or so and paused a moment, before grinding and scraping its way to a less-unwelcoming fifteen inches of dark openness. Betty and Polly strained to see inside, but could not.

"Betty? Betty, The Exorcist?" a voice said from inside. "Hey fellas - it's Betty, The Exorcist! And she's got a woman friend with her. Come on in, ladies!" A grubby hand popped out of the darkness of the car and carefully pulled each woman up, in turn.

It wasn't nearly as dark as they had expected, as there was a small fire burning in an old oil drum, and several panels of the car's roof were gone. The interior smelled of woodsmoke and cooking meat and beans, and there were easily thirty hoboes - mostly men - standing around, talking and laughing and drinking homemade hooch. 

Polly and Betty found said hooch, and quickly began to relax. In fairness, Betty was already pretty relaxed. They ate and drank and exchanged stories with their fellow hoboes, and Polly Papercuts managed to forgive her friend for dragging her here.

"You think you forgive me now?" Betty laughed, taking Polly by the hand and leading her through the revelers to one of the corners of the box car, where a dirty and poorly-lit, but clearly tall and handsome hobo stood, by himself. 

"Betty..." Polly protested.

"Shush. Stinging Polly Papercuts," Betty announced, "I'd like you to meet Talmidge, The Bactine Bearer. Talmidge - this is Polly."

 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

How Much For The Wise Men Candles, And Will You Take A Check?


I don't think you can afford it. Okay, twenty bucks.

OJ watched from behind her tables, as the flock of professional yard-sale junk-hunters grew to over two dozen - within the first 90 seconds of the 9AM opening time her parents had written on the fluorescent pink signs they had posted on every telephone pole within a three-mile radius. OJ's mother had warned her to be prepared for the pros - she called them vultures - who show up at yard sales the second they open - often before the posted start time - searching for the one or two real deals being offered, in order to scarf them up before the rabble would arrive. She was right. There were several vultures wandering the backyard by eight-thirty, when half of the Blacks' junk was still in the house. One couple had been so aggressive in their attempts to purchase a pair of OJ's grandmother's old lamps - going so far as to double the written price - that Mrs. Black had chased them away and put the lamps back in the house.

It was a great relief to OJ that the early birds all cruised by her tables with hardly a second glance at her things. She was seventeen-and-three-quarters and heading to college out of state in... 42 days - not that she was counting - and she just wanted to get through the next six hours with a minimum of haggling over the prices of crap she could just as soon throw in the trash. She also wished - hard - that none of her friends or their parents would see her there, peddling the contents of her childhood bedroom, and that of her older brother's ex-room (now Dad's office).

Her wish was granted. For an hour. Then, squinting into the morning sun and regretting the placement of her pair of tables - as well as her decision to forgo sunglasses because they would have obscured the "profound blackness" of her over-the-top eye makeup that her parents had finally learned not to call "goth" because goth kids were losers and OJ was not a loser - she saw some older dude in Levi's. He was dad-walking straight from her mom's baked stuff table, toward OJ's "curiosity shoppe."

"Oh, shit," she muttered to herself. "Whose dad is this?"

"No one's dad," he assured her. "Your embarrassing yard sale secrets are safe with me."

"Oh. You heard me. Super. You can have everything on both tables - plus the tables - if you'll just kill me now."

The older man (much older - like, 30) smiled. "Wow. Dark. How 'bout nobody gets killed, but maybe I give you ten dollars for that Key Largo Club sign? Does the neon still work?"

OJ looked at the tag her father had affixed to the faux-art-deco neon clock/bar sign. $20.00. "It works. My dad has an extension cord out here somewhere to test stuff. But what is it about yard sales that makes everyone think it's cool to just go around offering half the asking price on everything?"

Her prospective customer seemed genuinely taken aback. "I'm sorry," he said, "I thought that was supposed to be part of the fun. I just... Um, this is the first yard sale I've been to since I was a kid. I like your eyeliner, by the way. It's so..."

If you say "goth," I swear to Peter Murphy I will cut you, she thought.

"So... profoundly black," he said.

Thank you. "Just until they come out with something darker," she said, matter-of-factly. She waved across the yard to her mother. "Hey Mom? I need the extension cord for a sec - so Daddy Warbucks here can try out Danny's old neon thing..."

"In a minute, OJ," Mrs. Black called back. "Your father's using it to demo the old Cuisinart."

OJ turned back to her would-be buyer. "Feel like getting into a bidding war over a twenty-year old food processor?"

"That's tempting, but, no. I'll take you at your word that this thing lights up. I'll just pay full price. What's OJ stand for?"

"Obsidian Jade. Obsidian Jade Black. But don't tell my parents that. They're really committed to the vile lie that it's Olivia Jane, or some such bourgeois nonsense. And just so you know - this thing was my brother's. I don't do neon - unless I'm being strictly ironic."

"Nice," the man said with a nod. "I'm Darkness O'Hauntington, but don't tell my driver's license, which is convinced that I'm Brian Helton."

She wanted to feel thoroughly creeped-out by this guy, but instead she was only cautiously half-creeped-out. "Are you here alone?" Before he could answer, she added, "Are you a pedophile?"

"Yes alone, no - not a pedophile. Damn - am I giving off a vibe? I just want to buy some junk for my niece. She's heading off to college, next month. Sorry if that makes me a creep."

Obsidian Jade Black fought hard to not look like she felt a tinge of guilt, but she felt a tinge of guilt. "I'm sorry. It's just that you zeroed in on what is basically the kids table, and... whatever. I'm sorry. Here's your weird fake bar sign. Thanks for shopping at OJ's Curiosity Shoppe. All sales final. I'm supposed to say that."

"That's okay." He looked absently over the spread of junk for sale that lay between them when his gaze landed on a large plastic bin, and his eyes went wide. "Wait. Is that what I think it is?"

"That depends," OJ said quietly. "Do you think it is a tub of eastern region trilobites?"

"You mean, trilobite fossils, I assume," Darkness O'Hauntington/Brian Helton said.

"Oh sir - If I had meant trilobite fossils, really, I would have said trilobite fossils. These here are actual living trilobites. Five bucks each, or the whole bin for fifty. You want 'em?"

"Bullshit."

OJ blinked a him as slowly as she could manage. "You want 'em?"

"Yeah, I want 'em. How is that even possible?"

"It's not, technically, but what are you gonna do, right? Anything else?"

"I'll take the mobius strip Hot Wheelz track for five dollars..."

"You want the cars that came with it?" OJ asked, "Or, for an extra five bucks, I am authorized to throw in the limited edition Hasbro Rad Rods cars, including the 1985 4-door Cavalier (in beige), and the '83 K-car wagon (also beige)."

Brian was already nodding emphatically. "Yes, yes. All of it. Done. And the signed Yars' Revenge Atari cartridge, for a hundred..."

"We're not sure if it works," she cautioned. "Full disclosure, or whatever."

"That's cool."

"Anything else?"

"The Howard Sprague napkin rings."

"Two-fifty. That it?"

Would you mind blinking for a nanosecond? I'm fixin' to vanish...

"How much for the little green lizard?" he asked.

"What? Oh, shit. How'd he get out here? That's Klaus Nomi, and he's totally not for sale."

"How about the-- wait. What's the lizard's name?"

OJ tossed her head as irritatedly as she could, resulting in the maximum coverage of face with her asymmetrical black, blue, and purple bangs. "Klaus Nomi.He was a genius. If you make an AIDS joke, I'll tell my dad you tried to grab my tits..."

"No, no, no, no. I know who Klaus Nomi was," Brian Helton said, making a great show of how unconcerned he was with her disproportionate response. "I'm just surprised that you've heard of him. No offense, but you seem too young to know who Robert Smith is, let alone Klaus Nomi."

"No offense, but you seem too old to know who Robert Smith is, mister wannabe cool uncle Darkness."

"Yikes. Touché! Anyway... speaking of things from way before your time - you really think you'll get fifteen bucks for this Cabaret Voltaire t-shirt?"

"It's only been worn, like, once."

"Done. I'll take it."

"All too easy," OJ sneered, in her best version of a Darth Vader voice that sounded like she wasn't trying to do a Darth Vader voice. "But for the discerning collector, I can't in good conscience sell you the CabVolt shirt - which I only part with because my budding bosoms have rendered it unwearable - without first--"

"I'm pretty sure no one ever called them 'CabVolt' but--"

"...without first showing you this mint-condition 1980 Betamax, with a pristine copy of 'The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again' inside. It's stuck inside, but it plays. One hundred even. Whaddaya say?"

"Nah," Brian said coolly, "Sequels are never as good as the original. I actually had my eye on the Pants Corral box."

"Two bucks," she said flatly. "Are you deliberately wasting my time?"

"Not at all. I've been meaning to ask - what's with the box of used combs and brushes?"

"Four-fifty," she declared. "What?"

"Gross."

"I know, but so much DNA, no extra charge."

"Gross," he repeated. "I'm also curious about the reel-to-reel tape recorder. If it still works, it's a steal at twenty dollars, but..."

"But what, cool uncle Darkness dude?"

"Well, I assume you'll be off to college, next year..."

"Next month, man."

"Wow. Really? Good for you," Brian said. "So, I imagine you'll want to bring  your old-old-old-school reel-to-reel with you to school, to show how non-digital you are, or whatever."

"Who are you, man?" Obsidian Jade said.

"No one. Anyway, people are starting to stare at me and act like they're not. I'm out of cash, but how much for the three wise men candles - and will you take a check?"

Sunday, February 10, 2019

On The Cultivation Of Another Alternate Memory

Harvest Time Approaches (photo by J. Scott 1997)

It had been a year and a half since their last visit to the ancient tractors that watched over the railroad tracks that bordered the last cornfield in Dickerson, Maryland - and almost twenty-three years since the second-to-last visit. This time, it was Ted who had requested it. He had become addicted to his phone - more specifically, to the unceasing torrent of sludge that was the 60-by-60-by-24-by-7-by-365 bad news cycle - and he needed a bit of his favorite therapy. He needed someone well-versed in his particular brand of escapism. He needed Nicole. After two days of back and forth via text, it was arranged.

This time, it was Ted who was late, for a change. He emerged from the eight-foot-high corn that should have been harvested last September, and found Nicole leaning against the "new" old tractor, smiling and pointing at her watch.

He decided not to address his lateness. "I think this corn is probably past its sell-by date, at this point," he declared.

Nicole chortled. "Yeah, its pretty high."

"It's as high as an elephant's eye," Ted said.

"It's higher than Astrid on prom night," Nicole added, as Ted stepped up and wrapped her in a warm bear hug. "But you know what's really sad?"

"You bringing up Astrid, before we've even said hello?"

"I smelled you coming."

Ted stepped back and blinked several times. "Excuse me?"

"I could smell you before I heard or saw you," she sort of clarified but not really.

Ted made a show of sniffing at his armpits. "I know it's like 65 degrees in February and all, but come on..."

"I mean your cologne, sweetie."

"Oh."

"It's nice. What's it called - eau de Midlife Crisis?"

"Geez, Nic. If I wanted to be insulted, I'd watch a White House press conference."

"Ha. I think they canceled those," Nicole said with a roll of her eyes. "Too many questions, or something."

"Don't get me started."

"Hey - you brought it up, buddy," she smiled. "In fact, you're the one who called this meeting. It sounded serious. Are you okay?"

He looked at his shoes for moment, then at the unseasonably warm Maryland sunset, then back at Nicole. "I'll be okay," he said quietly. "But enough about me - let's talk about you..."

"Let's not," she said flatly.

"It's been almost a decade since we lost Bobby, and I know it's nobody's business, but--"

"It's been eight years, eight months, and twelve days, Ted. And no, I don't think I'll ever remarry. Why? You got something you wanna ask me?"

"Well, actually..." For a moment, Ted looked so deeply into her eyes that she felt compelled to pull her jacket closed and secure it in place with crossed arms.

"You are not proposing to me in the old cornfield by the train tracks, Theodore!"

"What? No! Not even! I'm just saying, if you ever change your mind..."

"You'll be the first to know, sweetie. I promise. By the way - I heard this old farm has been sold."

"To a developer," Ted added. "I heard. It's sad. I spent a lot of happy nights in this field. I mean, most of them were before you came along and Yoko'd Bobby away from the group, but still..."

"'Yoko'd?' Ouch. That's a bit much, isn't it?"

"Yes. I instantly regretted it," Ted said. "I'm sorry. I like your hair, by the way. I've never seen it so short. It's cute. I hope it's not insulting to say it's cute."

Nicole smiled. "Cute is perfect. Now, what's really on your mind? Did you want to vent about the so-called president, or what?"

Ted inhaled deeply, filling his fifty-ish-year old lungs with overly-warm February air. He watched a half-dozen thoroughly confused little birds chase each other toward the setting sun, chirping excitedly about the end of the world - or maybe just winter - or, perhaps, simply about the end of the day. He exhaled slowly, as if emptying his lungs of warm and satisfying cigarette smoke, and refocused on Nicole. "Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Berlin, Nic..."

"Oh, lord. Here we go," she groaned. "You mean Berlin, the band? 'Cause I saw them in L.A. a couple of months ago, and they were awesome. Don't mess with Terri Nunn, man."

"What? No. I love Berlin. I mean Berlin, the city, and I'm quite sure that you knew that."

Nicole's playful dimples disappeared, and her eyes went all sad and sore, as if watching the ghosts of loved ones suffering. "I know what Berlin you mean," she sighed. "I just don't think I can do this. I don't want to go there again."

"Neither do I," Ted said, "but lately, it's not giving me a choice in the matter. It's like it's come back for me, and it won't leave me alone."

Nicole shook her head slowly and, despite her best effort to resist, rolled her eyes slightly. "It will never leave us alone. It's up to us to shut it out. The Cold War is over, and at least for the moment, we won. We should focus on the here and now. We have lives to live. Did I tell you Claire's graduating in May? My baby's going to have a Master's Degree."

"I know, I know. And that's amazing. But Berlin haunts me."

She took his hand. "I know it, babe. I do. But it's been over thirty-five years. It's so far away, now."

"I can still hear the screams. I can still see the blood in the snow. Why didn't you call? You said you'd call. We were going to quit the business and disappear. It was all lined up..."

"Don't!" she interrupted, her voice shaking, "Don't you dare. There was nowhere for us to go, and you know it. There was only one way for me to disappear."

"We could have tried," he insisted. "The Soviets were awful, but they were so inefficient."

"Yes, but the East Germans weren't! The would have shot me fifty times, before I even reached the middle of the bridge. Look - we did what we did, and we can't undo it. Any of it."

"I know, and knowing what I know now, I'd throw that grenade all over again. But when they caught us, I wish you could have at least given me some kind of sign. They didn't even ask me any questions. They just made me watch as they strip-searched you..."

"Hey - you got to see me naked, didn't you," Nicole laughed, awkwardly.

"That's not funny!" Ted spat. "I thought they were going to slit your throat or something, right then and there..."

"Again, those were Soviets, Teddy. They would have shot me right away, and then spent the rest of the night filling out forms. Besides, the microfilm was already safely at the embassy. Even if they had killed us both, we had finished the job."

"That's not what's really eating at me," Ted said with a sniffle. "And it's not even that you ran off with Bobby, executing what was basically our plan for your escape from Spy World."

"I was a child!" she cried, "I was in love!"

"You knew what you were doing. Wait. Are we doing 'Raiders,' now?"

Nicole looked around, somewhat sheepishly. Eventually, she said, "What?"

"I feel like that last bit is something Marian said to Indy, when he came looking for her father's medallion."

"Is it? I'm sorry. Look - I'm never going to be as good at the Ridiculous Game as you are. I thought I was doing pretty well, for a minute there. I hope it helped."

"You were, and it did," Ted said, hugging her. "Thank you. You're my lava lamp."

"You're welcome, sweetie. Wait. I'm your what?"

"My lava lamp. You're like, instantly calming. Very therapeutic. Don't look at me like that. It's a good thing - really!"

Nicole shook her head. "No, I get the therapeutic part. Bobby had a lava lamp, when we first started dating. It was very soothing."

"See? That's all I meant," Ted said, relieved.

"Oh, I think I do," she smiled. "The thing is, you have to stare at a lava lamp for a while, to get the effect." Nicole turned and headed toward her car, parked somewhere on the other side of the looming towers of dried corn.

"So?" Ted asked, following her.

"So, how many years have you been staring at your lava lamp, Theodore?"

He shook his head at the sky and sighed. "Only since the day we met, Nic," he whispered, "maybe longer."


Spoiler Alert: It's not really lava.


Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Loon Says What We're All Thinking But Not Really

"I'm not a kite! Let me down! Let me down!" Photo by J. Scott 2001




With a lot of the ridiculous hoboes on John Hodgman's list, the back-story is right there in the name. Santa Fe Jinglebell, The World's Most Christmassy Tramp comes to mind, as does Ol' Barb Stab-You-Quick (obviously). Some hoboes were deliberately mis-named, like when a huge man is nicknamed "Tiny," or a bald guy is called "Curly." Occasionally, a member of this rag-tag above-ground underground of untouchables ended up with a moniker that held two or more meanings - both perfectly apropos.

Such was the case with The Loon, a man who is said to have wandered the rails between Wilmington, Lewes, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the 1920s and 30s. Almost all we know of The Loon's hobo years comes from his "leavings" - the chalk and/or creosote-scrawled hieroglyphs he posted on barns and buildings and telegraph poles - and from a bit of oral history.

From the leavings...

"Only I can solve this."

"The yarn remembers, but will never speak."

"400 proof? What is this - Mothers Day?"

"Who is the more of clown - him who wears a squeak-nose and tons of makeup, and falls down to make children laugh, or I, who does the same but with no makeup?"

"The Loon is feeling uncharacteristically melancholy, probably due to his sudden switch to third-person."

"Never trust a rude frog. A prince would have better manners - and listen to your horse!"

"Not twenty years after the world finished burying the dead of the War To End All Wars, we're gonna do it all over again - only much, much worse. Learn your damn lesson, already!"

"One day, they'll let people in motor cars turn right in the midst of a stop signal."

"Stophack whipping tinker deterrent!"

"If you think the bumper cars are swell, just wait 'til you see the flying cages."

"I woke this morning to the horrible realization that there was still a bit of blood in my rumstream."

"I never said I always say that. I always said I never say that."

"I tried to go home, once. My father had left a couple of years prior, and my mother was talking to a coconut with one of his old hats on it."

"Don't blame me. I voted for Al Smith in '28."

"Soon, radios will come with pictures."

"The Loon says The Loon says The Loon says... AA-OOOOOOOO-GA!"

He left loonier track-side missives, but most of those were either too dirty or too violent to be reprinted in a nice wholesome family blog like this one.

The other reason he ended up being called The Loon was largely unconfirmed, having been passed from hobo to hobo for so many years, no one could remember who started it. It was said that the man was a master imitator of north American waterfowl.

That's all. Bye!
       

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Arther Moonlight On Better Worlds

Sunflowers - Somerset County, PA - Photo by [Maris], 2001

When hoboes eulogized their friends, there were usually precious few people around to hear them. Such was the case in August 1938, when Unshakably Morose Flo, Ol' Barb Stab-You-Quick, Knee-Brace Kenny, and Laura Delite gathered between the railroad tracks and a field of sunflowers, just east of Gallitzin, Pennsylvania to remember Mad or Sad Judd (no one could tell), at the invitation of Arther Moonlight. Judd had died five weeks before, having jumped or fallen (no one could agree on that, either) from a bridge into the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg.

"No one else is coming?" Asked Arther Moonlight, so named for both his love of staring at the moon and his impossibly pale skin - and because hoboes didn't know how to spell Arthur.

"I don't think so," Laura said. "Pretty sure it's just us."

"Nuts."

"Hey - five is a pretty good crowd for one of these things," Kenny reasoned.

"Can we make this quick?" asked Unshakably Morose Flo. "I hate these things. So sad."

Arther smiled. "Don't worry - I don't have much to say."

"Were you and Mad or Sad Judd very close?" Laura asked.

"Nope."

"Oh for Pete's sake!" Ol' Barb spat. "None of us really knew him, either! What are we doing, here?"

"Every hobo deserves a respectful goodbye, Barb-- Don't stab me! You know it's true. Let's just bury his stick and bindle, say something nice, and be on our way, okay?"

"Fine."

"Friends," Arther began, "we gather here today to say something nice about our fellow 'bo, Mad or Sad Judd, who caught the westbound last month--"

"He jumped," Flo said. "I heard he was planning to swim down the Susquehanna, down the Chesapeake Bay, and all the way to Europe, to start a new life."

"No way," Knee-Brace Kenny said, "That's dumb."

"YOU'RE dumb!"

"Shush!" Arther shushed. "She's probably right about that, though. I only met Mad or Sad Judd once - he was sad, by the way, not mad. Our only meeting had a profound impact on my life. I was seventeen years old, less than a year into my life as a hobo, and as usual I was standing by the tracks in the middle of the night, staring at the moon. I was considering going back to Baltimore, to try to start over with a job at the port or something. My parents were long-since dead and buried, but I had an uncle with connections at Locust Point, so..."

Ol' Barb Stab-You-Quick snorted. "Gee whiz, Moonlight - you sure know how to put the you in eulogy."

"I told you I didn't know him that well!" Arther snapped. "Let me finish. So, this older fella walks up and stops and stands there next to me for a minute, looking up at the moon with me. I said hello, and something about it being extra bright that night, and he laughs and says, 'There are better worlds, kid. That ain't one of 'em, but there are surely better worlds.' I didn't know what to say. I just stared at him for way too long, and in that extra-bright moonlight I could see a sadness in his sunken eyes that shook me something awful. He wasn't just sad. He wasn't just tired, or suffering, or any of those things we all know so well. He was broken - shattered, really. And he shook my hand, and all that stuff I just seen in his eyes came charging into my hand, like I grabbed an electric fence. I was flummoxed. This beat-down, crushed tin can of a man had just said the most hopeful thing I had ever heard. And he turned and walked away. I only found out who he was a few days later, when a yard cop came asking if I'd seen him."

"What's so great about that? 'Better worlds exist?' So what?" Unshakably Morose Flo said. "We're stuck on this world. If anything, I think knowing that there are better ones - well, that would just make it worse, wouldn't it?"

"Not for me," Arther said. "For me, it meant that I shouldn't ditch the path I was on. It meant, 'Keep looking, kid - don't give up.' That was a good fifteen years ago, and I still say it every day. Better worlds exist, and I'm gonna find me one - and if I can't find me one, I'm gonna make one..."

"You're going to make one?" Ol' Barb sneered. "How do you think you're going to do that?"

"I'm gonna do the best I can, that's how. Today, I'm gonna bury this here bindle sack in the earth, and say a prayer for Mad or Sad Judd, and wish you all well. And tomorrow, I'll look for work again, and take whatever this world gives me, and keep on walking."

"Sounds about right," Knee-Brace Kenny said, grabbing a piece of metal from a trackside scrap pile. "Let's do it. I'm happy to lead the prayer, if you'd like..."

"I appreciate that," Arther said, "but I'll handle the prayer."

"I'll drink to that," Barb declared, pulling a flask (really just an old cough syrup bottle) from her bag. "Here's to you, Mad or Sad Judd - better worlds exist, and I hope you find yours."

"Hear, hear!" the assembled hoboes chorused.

-- for Mary --


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rubbery Dmitry, the Mad Monk Holds Steady

Black Lightning Strikes The Trees - Photo by J. Scott, 1996

His life was preordained to be one of privilege, wealth, and luxury. He was conceived on March 2nd, 1918 in St. Petersburg, during a riot on the first anniversary of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication. Of course, not everything that's preordained actually comes to pass, and before he was born, Dmitry Kalashnik's parents had lost everything that they couldn't fit into two suitcases, fled the Russian revolution in the dead of night, and washed up on Ellis Island. He was born on Christmas Eve - over two weeks late, and "very large."

Things went a bit downhill, from there. Just before little Dmitry's fourth birthday, his father, whose only marketable skill had been investing and counting money, succumbed to being run over by a streetcar (as so many future hoboes' fathers were). His mother, who hadn't known a minute of work of any kind, back home, stretched her late husband's meager life insurance as far as it would go, but after two years, it was gone. She could bake, and her pirogi were the talk of their neighborhood, so she was able to find work in a bakery, and she followed the shop's owner when he relocated to Pittsburgh in 1928. She married him not long after that, and for her, life began to resemble life, again.

We all know what happened next. The global economy melted into the fire and burned into a stinky smoke, Dmitry's mother and step-father lost their home and moved into a tiny apartment, and focused all of their energy on keeping their sweets and pirogi shop alive. The boy rebounded for a while, but finally left home in 1930, barely eleven years old, and survived as best he could the competing ravages of homelessness and puberty. 

While he learned to live outside, eventually becoming a full-fledged hobo, albeit a terribly young one, his mother learned to live without him, relying on her faith to paint a mental picture of him that wasn't crushingly tragic. In St. Petersburg, she and her first husband had been among the last of the Russian Orthodox Buddhists, and she had spent Dmitry's formative years working to instill in him the values of the great teacher. As she absorbed the sermons of her new husband's American Catholic priests in Pittsburgh, she prayed that she had set her son upon a decent path.

A lifetime later (10 years), having rebounded a dozen times from a dozen different horrors that would have sent lesser men to their whimpering deaths, Rubbery Dmitry, The Mad Monk held steady. He had next to nothing of his own, and that suited him fine. His life was simple. He was walking and riding the rails of freedom and migrant labor, and he was relatively content. He remembered neither the scripture, nor the teachings of Buddha - save for the lessons of stillness, from the latter. "Be still," he heard his mother whisper, "be still."

Life screamed at him to run, or to fight, or to run, fighting into the abyss of the horrible nothing, but he forced himself, shaking, to be as motionless as possible. He mentally reread the headlines of the day - Jews being rounded up and sent to camps, where there were reports of mass slaughter. War machines. Troops here, talks there, fleets, riots, death tolls, more talks, rumors, smoke, blood... 

He practiced his Buddhist breathing. He realized that he hadn't paid nearly enough attention to the lessons on breathing. He shrugged and tried to fake it until he made it, and he breathed all wrong. The world had gone mad, and it was all over essentially nothing, and the opposing forces were sworn to keep fighting until well beyond death, because the other side was so deeply, ungodly WRONG, and that, as they say, was that. 

Rubbery Dmitry, The Mad Monk closed his eyes. He thought. You might say he prayed. You'd be wrong, but forgiven for saying that. He heard his mother again - be still. He snorted, for although he knew exactly what it meant to be still, he had yet to master - or even honestly attempt - the art of being still. 

He took a deep breath, told all of his personal woes - as well as those of the universe around him - to give him a minute, and searched for stillness.

And it stopped. All of it.

And he heard his mother say, "Good, good. Steady... Now what?"