Some Interesting Characters
by C. J. Rowan
I dont know why it is, but it seems that I have always attracted more than my share of eccentrics. Im the kind of person who is inevitably accosted in a public place. This seems odd for more than one reason. I certainly am seldom in any haste to introduce myself to strangers. It is far more typical for me to be acquainted with someone for maybe five years before I speak to them about anything at all personal. But perhaps I am a good listener, and a certain type of person is able to home in on that, through some kind of esoteric pigeon-like magnetism.
Now, Im not talking about people who simply buttonhole every stranger who walks by. Though I did meet a beggar-woman in London who caused me a good deal of embarassment when she insisted that five pounds was not enough, and she wanted the rest of what was in my wallet as well. The beggars in India were still more strident, the most ghastly being a fellow with no forearms who nevertheless raised what stumps he had as if attempting to make the namaste gesture of greeting. But we had been warned about them in advance, and the fear that giving one coin would attract a mob of them was incentive enough to be stingy. (Doubtless through my fear, I incurred a good deal of bad karma.)
I had more sympathy for the mendicant yogis on the bridge at Dakshineshwar. They sat quietly on that cold morning, their begging cups in front of them, hoping that some of the people visiting on pilgrimage might see them as a likely means of earning some merit. I gave a coin to each of them. The last one talked me into getting him breakfast as well (apparently there are limits to austerity). But my favorite was a very distinguished-looking, dark young man with a beard and a coil of hair. He looked like someone who must surely be well on his way to sainthood. I stopped and gestured with my camera that I would like to take his picture.
He beckoned me, and in somewhat halting English explained, that if I wanted to take his picture, I should get him a red blanket from the shop around the corner. This I did, and on returning was able to secure a rather underexposed image of him looking very happy with his new blanket.
A much stranger experience occurred when we visited a small town near Bangalore. I forget why our group went thereI believe it was for some type of ceremonybut when it was over, all the local townpeople approached us white American spiritual tourists and asked for us to write our autographs, and addresses. Apparently they seldom saw white people there, and even fewer people of my height. In any case, it was an extremely disorienting experience to be treated, for a few minutes, as some kind of celebrity. It gave me a glimpse of what famous people must go through, and how they must come to crave it. It also left me feeling vaguely unclean.
In the bus afterward, my fellow travelers suggested that the local people had asked for our addresses so they might write to us later, asking for money. But in fact, I never did hear from any of them again.
The front steps of the Bodhi Tree bookstore in Los Angeles are also a favorite hangout for beggars. They catch you as you come out of the store, having just made some type of conspicuous purchase to assist your quest for enlightenment. I remember, for example, a dark, rather gypsy-looking woman who asked me for assistance in feeding her hungry children. To ignore her at that point makes you feel very shallow indeed.
It was inside that same store that I encountered a fellow who was feeling upset with his girlfriend. It was in the section on Hindu philosophy, where there are rack after rack of books about various celebrated and semicelebrated Eastern swamis. And this fellow, a blond white guy, indicated a book about a particularly fat Indian master and said something like, "Can I ask you something? How can someone claim to be enlightened when he has no respect for his body? If hes so enlightened, why is he such a pig?"
Having heard stories about this master before, I muttered some vague justifications. How the body is just a vehicle, and doesnt matter that much once youve reached realization. How the guru takes on a lot of karma from his disciples, and so on. My questioner still seemed dissatisfied.
"And why is it that people get involved with these groups. My girlfriend, you know, she started hanging out with this group of devotees of Meher Baba. And theyre all a bunch of lesbians. What kind of spiritual master is that, who would be followed by a bunch of lesbians? Ive tried and tried to understand her. Thats why I came here to check out this spiritual stuff."
His eyes were disturbingly intense, and tended to shift about in a twitchy sort of way. His whole posture seemed kind of tight, like he was wound up inside. "When we met, it was back in Haight-Ashbury in the 60s. We were on acid all the time. And it was cool, it was all cool until she got involved with this shit."
He seemed to be getting increasingly excited, and I found myself starting to edge away. He was quick to notice. "Im freaking you out, man. Sorry about that."
I muttered something about getting back to my shopping, and escaped. (By the way, there is nothing more amusing than hearing a really spiritual guy try to pick up a young woman at the Bodhi Tree. Its like, "Wow, I feel this really strong connection with you. I think we must have been together in a previous life.")
Weve all seen some of those guys who wander around warning people to repent because the end is near. The end, it seems, is always nearest in downtown areas, especially near major parks. One such fellow I remember was an old black man who was wearing a sandwich board with the usual warnings, and speaking aloud to no one in particular. But that is only normal.
More interesting is to see the genesis of a new faith. This I happened to witness at a drum circle at the beach. Maybe a hundred and fifty people, of varying ages, and wearing a lot of tie-died clothes and sandals, were grouped around a bonfire playing the basic drum circle rhythm. It has no name, but is the inevitable beat that results when a large number of amateurs play together, after all the rhythmic variations in the group add together or cancel each other out. We had drummed through the sunset and now kept pounding in the semidarkness, as the light flickered between the silhouettes of the people nearest the fire.
One middle-aged man in the group had been carrying around a banner with a photograph of Jerry Garcia for hours. (This was shortly after Jerry Garcia died. People who go to drum circles tend to also be Deadheads.) At odd whiles he had exhorted the rest of us to "let the rhythm flow, just play what you feel in your heart." Finally when we reached a certain substantial pause, he took the opportunity to say more.
"I just have something that Ive got to share with everyone . . . You all know Jerry, you know how much he did for us . . . Hes the shaman of music . . . He put so much spirit into everything he played . . . And I just wanted you all to remember that hes up there now . . . watching over us . . . and hell always be with us . . . Because hes free now, and his music flows through all of us."
Beaches at night seem to bring out the spiritual in everyone. On another occasion, I was with some people after dark, at the foot of the sandy cliffs that define our local shoreline. We happened to be looking at the sky when we saw a streak of white ascending toward the stars. At a certain point it stopped, and blossomed instead into a huge, luminous cloud, like a sort of psychedelic jellyfish that hung there for some minutes before it gradually started to fade.
As we left the beach, we encountered a fellow who had also been sitting there the whole time. And he said, "Its Them again. The Ones who visit us. Ive seen Them before."
(Later, my father-in-law supplied us with the usual Establishment coverup line: "They must have been launching something at Vandenburg, like a satellite or something. They do it all the time.")
Something in my appearance has occasionally caused strangers to assume that I would be interested in illicit drugs, though the majority of the people who know me better would find this incredible. This only caused an actual problem on one occasion. For some reason, I had stopped in a parking lot in a fairly nice suburban area on a nice sunny afteroon. A group of two or three young people in a rather large old car pulled up beside me. The driver leaned out and asked, "Hey man, could we interest you in some hash?"
"What?" I said.
"Some hash. Its really primo stuff. It only costs ten dollars."
I tried to indicate my disinterest. But they persisted: "Come on, help us out, dude. Were totally out of cash. We could really use the money."
I said, "Well, listen. If you need money so badly, heres ten dollars. But I really dont want the stuff." (Are there really people this nice? Yes, there are.)
"Take it man. Here. Have a great time."
So they drove off, having left me with a little one-inch foil-wrapped square of something soft. So I put it in my pocket and got back into my little orange Pinto. Now, I had no clue about how one was supposed to ingest this stuff. Anyway, I drove home. I was living at home with my parents at the time, and I immediately felt terribly conspicuous greeting them with this illicit substance on my person. I retreated to my room (sanctum sanctorum), wrapped it in a kleenex, and put it in the wastebasket.
Then our dog came in, the cute friendly dog we got as a puppy more than ten years before when I was a little kid. And immediately she smelled something and made a run for the wastebasket and started tearing into it. So I had to push her out of the room and close the door.
What to do? Obviously I needed to find a better hiding place. I slipped it behind the bookcase so it fell way down in the crack between the back of the bookcase and the wall. So I opened the door and the dog came rushing in again. And sure enough, the dog started pawing at the bookcase and trying to force her nose behind it. Meanwhile my Mom was meandering around the house and Im thinking that she may come in at any moment.
So I threw the dog out again, shut the door, and then had to move this whole entire bookcase to retrieve the foil-wrapped piece of stash so I could think of a better place to hide it. I think it wound up in the garbage can outside, or else I must have thrown it over the fence into the drainage ditch.
My involvement with spiritual groups has sometimes led me to places in Southern California that I would not normally have wanted to visit. One of those places is the barrio in Santa Ana, and I can tell you that it is a strange experience to wander through gangland in the middle of the night there with an Indian guru by your side.
On another occasion, this time in daylight, I had gone to Santa Ana during the day on some sort of errand connected with this guru and his group. At some point I stopped at a Jack in the Box to eat somethingpresumably not a hamburger. It seemed clean enough. I sat down at the little table with my sandwich, fries, and drink. A couple with young children were sitting across from me, and at another table between us sat a single man nursing his soft drink. To my surprise, he addressed me, approximately as follows.
"This is a good town to do business in. Not so many pigs around, you know. I have to avoid some places, because the fuzz there know me."
I must have nodded politely, because he continued. "Ive got a lot of connections, you know. In my line, theres always work to be had. Ive been working for the mob for a long time. Theyve got a lot of confidence in me. Im one of their favorite operators."
The couple with their children stopped chewing momentarily and started giving us sidelong glances.
"Its a good living, being a hit man" he continued. "Sometimes there are slow spells, but it pays well when there are jobs. You just go in there, waste someone you dont even know, and you get five hundred, maybe a thousand bucks. The trick is just to get in and out. Never pause, never hesitate. Thats the mark of a professional."
I got up to go. He leaned forward. "Listen, man, I know youre cool. Things are kind of slow in the trade right now. Could you give me a couple of bucks to help tide me over?"
Its funny, the strange people you meet, isnt it?
Anyway, I see you need to go now. Youve got that restless look on your face, feet starting to get a little antsy. Sure, I know, you must have a wife, kids, waiting for you. Me? Im free now, just as free as a bird. Yessiree, I set my own hours. Thats because Im a free-lance writer. Im just taking a break from my novel. I got a very promising response from an agent just the other day. She likes the idea, she just wants me to make a few changes, here and there. But Ive got my artistic integrity to think about. You understand.
So, it was nice seeing you. You drive careful, now! Be sure to stop by and say hello if youre ever around here again . . .
About the author: C. J. Rowan is a rationalist with mystical tendencies who has roamed the world in search of The Truth. He lives with two cats and a goddess.
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© Text and photo copyright 1998 by C. J. Rowan