Devil with a Blue Hat
Today, I again had a day off from the kitchen on the weekend, and again Ben had given me some playing money without me asking. It’s as if the cosmos were conspiring to get me buzzed. A bonus was that it was a Sunday. This would both force me out of the library and allow me to listen to A Prairie Home Companion while my buzz was peaking. On top of that, it was an awesome early summer day.
I took the customary evasive maneuvers, staying as far away from the mission as possible, lest I run into anyone from there with loose lips. The closest I would get would be to go to lunch and dinner at the soup kitchens. In addition to my portable potent potable, I only brought along enough money for two beers and the newspaper. I planned on starting the formidable Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle around the time that Garrison Keillor’s folksy humor would make me feel warm. I would resist the urge to dance to whatever country or bluegrass style music he would feature.
Twice today the same pretty girl walked by and offered a quick, “Hey, what’s up dude?” She said it with the same clipped tempo that I have always used when uttering the expression, thus leading to my nickname of “Dude” in high school. It got me wondering if she was from my hometown or thereabouts. She looked to be about my age, but I didn’t recognize her. I assumed such a person would have the courtesy to stop and chat, yet I still should have tried to initiate conversation.
I am almost always shy about approaching women I don’t know for romantic purposes. Even while drinking, my otherwise courageous personality takes a holiday. Plus, my beard, weathered face, hair loss, and overall maturity make me look 10 years older. Looking older was cool when I got served beer and even liquor at 18, but people my age have started calling me “old head.” On those rare moments when I have the gumption to approach a twenty-some year-old girl, she’s apt to react as if one of her dad’s friends were hitting on her—one of her dad’s friends who’s not rich. Likewise, when 40 and 50 year-olds hit on me, they seem shocked if I’m not interested.
I don’t think that my standards for romantic companionship are too high. All I am seeking is a nubile beauty with great intelligence and no moral defects. Oh, and she should also be a princess. But, alas, for the time being, the best I can hope for is a slut wearing a tiara.
At any rate, I don’t even concern myself with such matters when I have nothing going on in my life. I haven’t had a car in several years, and being chronically broke is no asset. Sadly, this leaves one-night stands as my most feasible option. Nonetheless, I should have seized the opportunity the second time around and talked to this girl.
I got to the soup kitchen for lunch wishing I had brought more money for drinking. It was past my customary cut-off time, but today was one of those days when I wanted to keep going. I got in line and, lo and behold, I was behind the same girl. This was surely synchronicity, but I was almost still too timid to talk to her. She beat me to the punch.
“Hey there, buddy. You make it around a lot.”
“Yeah, just doing the rounds.”
I retreated into my usual silence, the alcohol notwithstanding. I vowed to make it a point to sit near her or somehow engage her in conversation. I noticed she was carrying a hefty duffel bag. She was wearing a Mets cap turned around backwards. Her braided reddish-brown hair extended halfway down her back. It’s very rare to see cute girls like her around these types of places.
As we picked up our trays, she again took the initiative. “You want to sit together?”
She began to tell me about how she had to catch a bus in almost four hours and that she worked in retail, most recently at Macy’s. She was from Alabama and all but finished with some kind of design degree from Auburn. She hadn’t been back in a year and a half. This Southern bit of information seemed incongruous, because she talked real fast and had no discernible accent.
I started to shed my timidity and told her I was from the area. I briefly explained how I used to teach philosophy at a couple colleges but have since drifted toward blue-collar jobs. I omit the nature of my current residence. I recalled the guy sitting across the table from us as having stayed at the mission a couple weeks back. He seemed like a nice guy, but in the interest of not developing any more friends, I had always managed to cut our conversations short. Not today.
“You used to teach philosophy? I never understood how that was different from psychology.”
Oh come on now, don’t cock-block me, bro! I only had so much time here. This meal site isn’t the type of place where you linger and leisurely engage in post-meal conversation. And he had the gall to ask a reasonably intelligent question, albeit one I’ve heard innumerable times before.
I knew it was a chance to impress this girl, but I didn’t want to get distracted by academics. I quickly said that historically, philosophy has sometimes been called the “queen of the sciences” because it has spawned a number of the physical sciences and virtually all of the social sciences. Concerning his question, psychology concerns itself with how we think, whereas philosophy deals with how we ought to think.
Got that? Because I didn’t give a shit if they did. It was enough to convey that I was smart.
“Do you want to hang out after this?” she asked as we were finishing our meals.
* * *
Shirley, as I learned her name was, asked if I held hands. With her? Of course. But it was funny because it sounded as if she was inquiring about a cultural custom, rather than asking if I wanted to hold hands. As we neared the riverfront, she said she was very sensual—sweet!; was she an e-head?—and lamented again that her bus was leaving in less than four hours. She said she didn’t want to leave but was on a schedule. Damn, was she raring to go!
Our petting become gradually more involved as we sat down on the riverbank. And here I was with no place to take her. I pondered how to casually mention that my favorite Beatles song was “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
“Are you homeless?”
Are you a mind reader?
“No. Not really. I have been twice, but never for more than a couple days. I stay at the mission now. I actually enrolled in their program but I’ll be done in about two and a half months.”
“I sort of sensed something like that back at the lunch place. I’ve been homeless a number of times all around the country. I was homeless in Vegas a couple of months back. Me and this guy. That place was fucking crazy! You’ll hear gunshots and the cops don’t even care. They broke the payphones so you can’t even call them anyway.
“I really didn’t care, either, the times I was homeless. I mean, I used to work real hard and was getting promoted and all that, and then I end up losing my job and my apartment anyway. My parents have money but I won’t ask them for help.
“What about your parents? Can they help you out with your situation?”
She asked a question that I didn’t know how to sincerely answer without opening up old wounds. The answer was troubling to give.
“My parents push daisies.”
It took a moment for the import of my statement to dawn on her. “You mean—oh, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I only blame you in part.”
She was again a little slow on the uptake, but it wasn’t exactly her intellectual prowess I was interested in.
“You seem like a combination of cynical and upbeat. I like that. That’s kind of my philosophy, too. I can handle anything, that’s not a problem. But like when you feel that things can’t get any worse, you just kind of say, ‘Fuck it,’ you know? What’s the point? The whole rat race deal.”
“Yeah, I’ve assembled quite a ‘Fuck it list’ myself. But I agree with you. You bust your ass to make ‘The Man’ richer, but you’re just a commodity to him. Our country is sick with affluenza anyway. We’re so well off but people bitch about the economy because they can’t get the newest toys. Try going to Africa, I want to tell people, if they think that we have it rough.”
“Yeah, I really get sick of hearing people complain when we have it so good here. When I lived in the streets, it’s not like I was going without or anything.”
“You know, I don’t really see that much difference between the life of the rich man and the life of the loser. They each have their unique problems and dramas. One may affect a wider portion of the world, but no one is of less worth simply because they have a narrower sphere of influence.
“That part sounds sunny and optimistic, but there’s a cynical facet to complement that idea. Christians have their idea of Original Sin. I propose the idea of Original Lameness. Regardless of how great anyone may seem, we’re all basically mediocre and pathetic.”
“Totally, Shirley. The contradiction is that we still need to immerse ourselves in all the meaningless stuff regardless. Some New Agers call it ‘playing the game.’”
“I’m sure you’ve heard of Taoism—am I saying that right? You just kind of go with the flow and be happy with whatever happens. Nothing really matters anyway. I mean, it’s all good no matter what. Just follow the Tao.”
It seemed like we were largely philosophically aligned, she with her inchoate Taoism and me with my futilitarianism. Is this how one meets one’s soul mate, if there is such a thing? I kissed her, and we made out for a while.
* * *
“I’ll try to find you if I ever pass through this town again.”
“Wh-what do you mean? Where do you live?”
“I’m on my way to Albany. I kind of have a boyfriend there. He plays minor league baseball, hoping to go pro, of course. I told you I had to catch a bus.”
Jesus Tao Dancing Christ! Then it dawned on me. I assumed she was talking about a local bus, but it’s a Sunday and they don’t run on the Lord’s day. I couldn’t imagine that a traveler would know about the soup kitchen.
Sensing my disappointment, she also knew the cure.
“I’ve got about $30 left if you want to get some beers. I can tell you’ve already had some. I don’t want to screw up your mission thing, though.”
“Fuck it. Let the beer flow.”
With my romantic illusions dashed, I played up the intellectual role I had given short shrift to earlier. I did my best to be a tour guide, but our main destination was the ghetto bar I had left not too long ago. We had some good conversation about a variety of topics. I was impressed with her worldliness.
Like me, she liked profiling people. She ventured that I was a Republican who liked country music and soccer. She was off, but since I’m a conservative I’ll give her partial credit on that score. She guessed rightly that I was a Sagittarius.
I speculated that she was a Democrat who liked every kind of music and baseball. I likewise was wrong on all but the last count, but that was a no-brainer. I tried to shoot the moon by going for her exact birthday, but I was predictably wrong. She liked to play these games because of her interest in marketing, whereas I do it because I’m into trivia and testing my intuition. We had fun, but—surprise, surprise—I drank too much.
As I saw her off, she resisted my attempt to give her the number to the cell phone that Ben had bought me. She said she’d just try to find me if she made it back through. It was clear that she really didn’t want to go to, let alone stay in, Albany. She gave me the rest of her money and smokes, which I had also been bumming by this point. She told me to buy some peanut butter and eat as much of it as I could. Instead, I went back to the bar and had two more beers.
I knew I was pushing it with the drinking. I was hoping, with her free-spirited gypsy ways, as well as her disinterest in going to New York, that we could run off together. Fuck her baseball player boyfriend! I’m an athlete, too! Twice I almost made it into the second round of the Harrisburg Open. And I’m a hell of a ping pong player. And we don’t use steroids. Well, I guess the Chinese probably do.
Oh well. She’s a traveling girl, who’s made a lot of stops, all over the country—I was just her Pennsylvania Pauper.
* * *
I brushed my teeth three times and bought and ate some peanuts before heading back to the mission. I had come back tipsy before, enough so that other guys had noticed, but I had never been questioned. Tonight I was definitely beyond tipsy. It was time for prayer.
It was also time for song. If alcohol was my consolation for not getting together with Shirley, singing was another coping mechanism. Prayer was my hope for avoiding the consequences of it all.
“Here it’s another Saturday night/ And I ain’t got nobody/ I got no money ‘cause I spent it all/ Now how I wish/ I had some auburn-haired girl to talk to/ It’s not even Saturday.”
Cleverness with improv was another palliative. I attempted to sing a straight “El Paso,” another forlorn song, but I can never get the lyrics right. Like so many blacks I see walking around singing or rapping, I was un-self-conscious. I had to re-ground myself as I neared the mission.
Oh Rasta! Fred was working. I saw his car in the parking lot. He’s a 73 year-old Jamaican guy who used to know the Marleys. He’s the only 73 year-old I know that I would worry about in a fight. The guy is stacked. He must have done a lot of weightlifting during his 20 years in the slammer for peddling dope.
One might easily be fooled by his dreadlocks and demeanor into thinking that he’s laid-back. Unfortunately, though, he overcompensates for his past transgressions by cracking down on any of ours that he can. He has no truck with anything even remotely disorderly.
I didn’t even get a chance to pick up the pencil to sign in.
“Come here, Mr. Willard. Time to blow in the machine.”
I should have just ‘fessed up, but I believe in miracles, even to enable ungodly deeds. I had seen a friend get out of a DUI once because the machine was broken (an incident provoked by me tossing a beer can out the window). Maybe this one would malfunction as well. Chi power time! Come on Tao!
I blew a .23. Holy shit! I couldn’t legally mow the lawn in that condition.
“You know the devil’s always trying to trick you, man. That’s what he does. Sets you up, looks seductive, that’s how he lures you in, yeah, you know. Happenin’ to me my whole damn life, man.
“You didn’t notice me, man, but I passed you on my way here tonight. Yeah. You were staggering and singing some crazy song, like a crazy person. I said to myself ‘Damn. There’s a good person that’s gone and messed up. The Tempter got to him.’”
During our Bible study discussions, I had already articulated my thoughts on the “The devil made me do it” line. Nor do I reify alcoholism by saying that it made me do something. I’d just as soon blame Twinkies. I slurred my point as a parting shot to Fred.
It then occurred to me that .23 was my “score” when I had a DUI over a decade ago. I wondered how I would play that number in the lottery.
“That’s just what he wants you to think, man. You’ll see, Mr. Willard, yeah. I hope you figure that out, man, before it’s too late. Let’s go down and pack your things. You’re discharged.”