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Lily Dale…Where Lines are Blurred

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I heard again and again. People say they can feel Lily Dale’s power when they enter the gates. It calms some people and revs others up.”

~Christine Wicker

So I just finished reading the book about the tiny spiritualist community that resides about 60 miles south of Buffalo, Lily Dale, The Town that Talks to the Dead, by Christine Wicker. I’ve been intrigued by this community for years and finally got around to visiting, thus this is a two part posting. It is about my thoughts of the book and also of my visit, which in many ways meld together. But before I begin I have to tell you about my journey to get there, which has been 27 years in the making.

On a beautiful day in the summer of 1990, not unlike the one when I visited Lily Dale last week or the one now as I type these words, my girlfriend and I were on our way for a day trip to Lily Dale. It was upon her insistence as I had never heard of the hamlet. We were young and had so much ahead of us. We would later marry, have a child, who is now a beautiful young man not much younger than we were when this story began, and then later we would separate but remain friends. Anyhow, for some reason I can remember the day but not what the argument was about. As we drove down Interstate 90 we got into such an argument that we actually halted the trip and turned around. In retrospect I wonder if something was keeping us from our visit. Over the years I thought of visiting many times but never did, until last week, but again it was a struggle to get there.

As many of you know I do not own a car but am a member of Zip Car, so a week ahead of my planned trip I reserved a vehicle. The evening before my trip I received a phone call telling me there was a problem with the vehicle and they had to cancel my reservation, and sorry but there are no more vehicles available. What, I thought to myself? I decided to check their website and there was a vehicle available but it was about 4 miles away; I booked it anyhow as I had planned other errands prior to driving to Lily Dale. So the morning of the reservation I rode my trusty little folding bike to the car and put it in the back. Noticing it had only a half-tank of gas I stopped to fill it. For those that don’t know, gas is free with a car-share; the cost is worked into your membership. So I stopped at a gas station and attempted to put gas in the vehicle using the Zip Car credit card and my membership number. It wouldn’t work so I went inside the store to ask the clerk for help. She ran the card, then looked up at me awkwardly and says, “It says you’re an invalid driver.” What?

So I call the company, and yes, they say there is a problem with my card, you’ll be issued a new one but in the meantime use your own card and you will be reimbursed. Ugh, okay, so I used my own card. I then drove out to the suburbs, at Empire State College, to meet with my mentor. I get there and he wasn’t. Really? We had made a change in our plans and he didn’t make the change in his calendar. My blood pressure was slowly rising.

Okay, I thought, I’ll stop at a diner for lunch before the ride. After lunch I get in the vehicle and it won’t start. Nothing. Nada. Are you freaking kidding me? Blood pressure continues to rise. So I call the company again, they agree that it is a “weird occurrence,” but they are able to diagnose the problem and start the vehicle remotely. After the vehicle was started I sat for a minute to collect myself and I spoke aloud to the Universe, “Look, I’m not sure what the deal is, but I am going to make it to Lily Dale today, with or without your help or permission,” and then I drove off. The remainder of the ride was uneventful other than the front end of the vehicle needed a wheel alignment (I’m assuming) and felt at times that someone was pulling the wheel from the left and then to the right. Nonetheless, I did make it, and the minute I entered the gates I felt peaceful and calm.

Christine Wicker first went to Lily Dale about 20 years ago as a reporter from a large Texas newspaper. She had gone with an open mind; not necessarily a believer but not there to debunk either. What was supposed to be a short stint ended up being multiple visits spanning a couple years. In this same way, I approached Lily Dale as both a believer and a skeptic. In short, I am open to most things until proven false. I also believe in mind power and that there is far more to this existence that our puny human senses can perceive.

What would later be called spiritualism, began in 1848 in a small cottage in Hydesville, NY, which was owned by the Fox family. They began hearing “knocks” at night, and could communicate with the knocks by offering variable knocks in return. It was deduced that the knocks came from the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in the cellar of the cottage. Feeling as though the spirit was speaking directly to them, two of the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, eventually went on to speak in front of large audiences. Thus was the very beginning of spiritualists offering “messages” from the spirit world.

According to Wicker, during the 1800’s Western and Central New York became so known for the “mighty works of the spirit” that the region became known as the “burned over district,” because of the fires of Christian revivals that swept through the area. Another example of this “fire” can be seen with Joseph Smith, who in 1823 claims to have received golden plates from an angel, which happened just outside Rochester, NY. Smith, of course, went on to found Mormonism and the plates were translated into the Book of Mormon.

Lily Dale was originally founded as a sort of revivalist tent camp, eventually buildings were added and it became the quaint Victorian town that it is today. Interestingly, the town is still referred to as a camp by it’s residents and summer is called camping season. The Fox cottage was moved to Lily Dale in 1916 but burned to the ground in 1955. Today, the patch of ground on which the cottage sat is considered a sort of holy ground by spiritualists.

In her interesting and highly entertaining book, Christine Wicker profiles many of the towns eclectic residents, those that currently reside there and those that have crossed over to the spirit world (as they are not referred to as dead in Lily Dale). One of the residents that I would loved to have met is Lynne Mahaffey. According to Wicker, Lynne first came to Lily Dale in the 1940s, and when arriving she felt the urge to immediately remove her shoes because she knew she was on holy ground. At the time of writing the book, Lynne is described as an elderly grandmother who rides around Lily Dale each morning on an old Schwinn bicycle. She does it for her heart and the world, the author states. She would ride for the physical exercise but also would pray for all of humanity as she rode. I’m assuming, given her age at the time and the time lapsed since the book was written, that Lynne has crossed over to the spirit world. She did not communicate with me on my visit. 

I have to admit that there is something to Lily Dale; there is a certain feel to the place. After my frustrating morning I did feel a sense of calm the minute I arrived. Maybe it’s the throwback feel of the village…the unpaved roads and quaint Victorian buildings transported me to another time. Or maybe it was just all in my head. Nonetheless, it was real to me at the time. I felt at peace.

One of the things I noticed right away were all the figurines. They were everywhere. Small statues of angels, elves, fairies, gnomes, cats, dogs, you name it, they were everywhere. In windows, front lawns, and in the woods, one could not escape the tiny statues. It was while I was squatting down to take a photo of some figurines in a front lawn that a golf cart rode up behind me. “Are you interested in fairies,” the person questioned? Somewhat startled, I turned, “What,” was all I said. “Well, I see you’re taking photos of fairies, have you been to the Fairy Trail?” When I told the cheerful and welcoming woman that I hadn’t, she told me it was on the opposite end of the camp, and then said, “Hop in, I’ll take you there.” Under “normal circumstances” I would not have gotten into the golf cart of someone I didn’t know, but I surprised myself when I did.

As we rode I received a sort of impromptu tour of the camp. My guide asked if it was my first time there. Yes, I told her, and that I was reading a book about Lily Dale and wanted to visit. The Town that Talks to the Dead book, she questioned? I told her it was. She simply smiled and told me she was in the book. Her name is Shelly, she told me after I asked. I’ll remember her name, I said, because I have a sister by the same name. She has summered at Lily Dale for 40 years, she also told me.

After arriving home that evening I flipped through the book. It turns out there are large portions of the book devoted to Shelly. She is a retired psychologist who, at the time of the writing of the book, lived at Lily Dale with Frank, her husband and retired philosophy professor. On our tour Shelly did not speak of Frank but she did talk about her children and grandchildren. She drove me past Mother’s Garden, where here children had just planted flowers.

Shelly founded the esoteric group, Lower Archy of the Pink Sisterhood of the Metafuzzies and Blissninnies, whose motto is “We don’t know jack shit, but we care.” A no-nonsense type of a person, regarding her thoughts on the secrets of the mediums she is quoted in the book, “Either they’re crazy or I’m stupid.” In the short time I was in Shelly’s golf cart she pointed me in the directions of the Fairy Trail, the Pet Cemetery, the museum, and the Buddhist Monks who were preparing a sand mandala in the fire hall. Before parting I asked if I could take a selfie of us, she readily obliged.

After visiting all of the said places, I meandered over to Inspiration Stump, which resides in Leolyn Woods and is considered the holiest place in Lily Dale. It is here that people gather twice daily and mediums offer free messages to a few people. I was surprised at how beautiful it was, I felt as if I were in a sort of outdoor cathedral, and in some ways I suppose I was. The person introducing the mediums claimed that the area was a vortex or portal to the spirit world. I’m not sure how I felt about that, but it was very pleasant. Unfortunately, I found the message service uninspiring. I stayed to listen to three mediums which all followed the same format. They would choose a person from the audience and ask if they could “come to them,” or “enter their energy.” They would then say what they were “getting,” which to me seemed pretty vague, such as an aunt or grandmother from the spirit world wanted to let the person know that they were doing well and that they were proud of them. Maybe it would have been different if a medium entered my energy where specifics meant something, but these messages just seemed vague. The thing is, I really do believe that there are people that can channel energies or make connections to something unexplainable, but on this day I don’t believe I witnessed it.

I also went to a service at the open-aired auditorium, which are conducted free twice daily. This, to me, resembled more of a church service. People gathered, sung hymns, and a medium spoke. They refer to their talks as messages and not sermons. I enjoyed the daily message, which like most of the messages at Lily Dale, fortified being a good person, believing in yourself, and believing in others. The speaker quoted from Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dryer, and other New Thought authors. She also spoke of the power of personal affirmations, and recited a couple of the principles of Spiritualism which were posted in large letters next to the stage. The fifth principle is the only one that I personally have difficulty with, and that seems to be a main focus at Lily Dale. Honestly, I went away feeling positive and feeling good about myself and the world. The message did it’s job.

Principles of Spiritualism

1 We believe in God.

2 We believe that God is expressed through all Nature.

3 True religion is living in obedience to Nature’s Laws.

4 We never die.

5 Spiritualism proves that we can talk with people in the Spirit World.

6 Be kind, do good, and others will do likewise.

7 We bring unhappiness to ourselves by the errors we make and we will be happy if we obey the laws of life.

8 Everyday is a new beginning.

9 Prophecy and healing are expressions of God.

Throughout it’s history many famous people have been drawn to Lily Dale. Susan B Anthony was a regular, for example. While I was in the museum the attendant showed me a photo of Susan B. Anthony at the camp and flanked by bodyguards because, according to the attendant, her life was in danger. May West was also a regular at the camp and had a personal medium, Jack Kelly, who was a celebrity himself among the mediums. Harry Houdini also visited the camp on several occasions and was able to debunk many of the fraudulent activities. He was so feared by the mediums that it is said they would lock their doors when there was news of him at the camp.

In her book, Christine Wicker discusses the many classes she took and messages that were given by countless mediums, and it seems she wanted to believe so badly but flip-flopped between belief and unbelief. She doesn’t speaks disparagingly about the mediums or their practices, and in the end she seems to have come to terms with what she felt the camp is really about, a sort of transformation, “It’s as though we live inside a big egg, whose shell is made up of a million perceptions, comments, and occurrences that have hardened around us and blocked our view of anything else. All we see are the calcified remains of our experience, and everyday the shell gets thicker. Lily Dale’s spirits tap, tap, tap away until they break a tiny pinhole in the shell. A strange light comes through. And some of us start to kick our way out.”

In the beginning of reading this book a problem I had with it—and I don’t mean this to sound snarky—is that I felt like this movement was a bit self-centered in that it focused on the individual rather than others. Mostly I felt like it was about trying to speak with the dearly departed. What I’ve come to think is that it is more about healing and transformation. Many people go to Lily Dale to be healed, physically or emotionally, which in turn can transform them. And like any transformation they then can then offer love to others, such as Lynne when she rode her bike and prayed for the world as a whole, but also on a smaller more individual level, to help a person feel good about themselves and those around them. Because if a person feels good about themselves they can spread good. A person first has to love themselves before they can love another..

So at the end of the day and the end of the book what do I think or believe? Well, as aforementioned, I do believe there is more than we can see, and I do believe that there are mysteries in this world. Like many, I myself have had mystical experiences, but at the same time I feel they sound trite when verbalized. Are there people—mediums—who can communicate with those “on the other side?” Yes, likely. Can everyone at Lily Dale do it (or are all of us capable of doing it as they claim)? Also, was there “something” keeping me from making my visit to the camp as outlined in the beginning of this writing? Maybe, I don’t know, but doubtful. I don’t mean for that to sound skeptical even though it likely does.

It’s interesting though how many people began going to this small hamlet with a visit and became entranced, many stayed for the rest of their lives. I have to admit, that on driving through the gates I felt good, and even though I have only spent one day there I seem to be thinking about it a lot over this past week. But why, I wonder. Maybe there is something to the place that is unexplainable. Maybe I need to visit again, and I will. Soon. Very soon. 

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Two Guys Talking on a Street Corner

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[This is part of a series on Faces of the Homeless and street people, for more in this series click here.)

All things are linked with one another, and this oneness is sacred; there is nothing that is not interconnected with everything else.” ~Marcus Aurelius

At first glance one would not likely think that Gary would be asking for money on the street. Dressed in khakis and a turquoise colored Polo-style shirt embroidered with a little sailboat insignia, he would appear to be just an average middle-aged guy waiting for a bus. But there was something in the way that he scanned people as they passed that I new he was panhandling. I was on my way to a local tavern when I first noticed him as I crossed the street. He looked both shy and a little scared when he asked politely, “Excuse me sir, can you spare some change for a disabled veteran?” Knowing the only money I had on me was a twenty dollar bill, and I was on my way for a beer, I looked him in the eyes and politely but selfishly replied, “No, sorry buddy, I can’t.” As the words came out of my mouth I thought to myself, “can’t” or “won’t,” but still I walked over to the tavern which was just a storefront away.

After the bartender brought me a pint she set my change on the bar, and as I looked at it I couldn’t help but think of Gary who was standing just a storefront away. So I set my book next to my beer, grabbed a ten from the change, told the bartender I’d be right back and walked over to Gary. He looked a bit startled as I walked back towards him, and without offering any money I introduced myself and asked if it would be okay to ask him a few questions and possibly take his photo. Not surprisingly he was leery and wanted to know why. I gave him my card with my blog address and explained to him that I was doing a sort of research with people on the street, that I wanted to hear their stories. He agreed, so here is Gary’s story.

Gary is 49, he’ll be 50 next month. He’s not homeless, he has an apartment which is subsidized. I asked him why he is on the street asking people for money and he told me to help pay his bills. His apartment is subsidized but it’s not free, he told me, and he also added that he doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s only been panhandling for a “short while,” he also told me. When I asked him what it was like when he first started asking people for money, he averted his eyes, looked down and said, “It was humiliating, it still is, but I have no other choice.”

Gary is a veteran who served our country but here he was on a street corner asking people for money. In the age of affluence in which we live, how can this be, I wondered? He didn’t look physically disabled, I knew it had to be something else, so I asked him. “I hear voices,” he told me, “that’s why I can’t hold a job.” It first started while he was in the Marine Corps, back in 1989. Doing the math, Gary would have been in his early twenties, the age at which schizophrenia often emerges in a person, and this is what he is diagnosed with.

I have found that often people just need someone to listen, and that’s what I did. The two of us on a city street corner on a beautiful summer evening. Just two guys talking.

“I have tried so hard,” Gary told me. He asked me to imagine what it would be like to try to hold a job while people were talking to you from inside your own head. I cannot imagine, I told him. “I have fought back with this disease,” he added. He earned his associates degree from Alfred State, and also holds an electrician certificate. He’s tried to hold jobs, but he can’t. “I’m scared,” he said, “I try so hard but I just can’t do it.” His voice changed and there were tears in his eyes as he said this, which caused tears to well in my own eyes, and now it was me looking away uncomfortably.

It was getting dark now and I asked Gary if he has ever been harassed. A little, he told me, but nothing serious. I encouraged him to be as cautious as he could on this street. It is popular with panhandlers in the evening and I have witnessed some being verbally abused by young college kids coming here for the bars. He knew that he said, and he was planning on heading back to his apartment soon.

Before parting I handed Gary the ten dollar bill and asked again if I could take his photo. I took one of him and was surprised at the big grin he offered to the camera. “I smiled,” he said and then asked to see the photo. On an impulse I asked if we could take one together, which we did. Before parting I offered Gary a bit of encouragement and that I hoped he stays safe and that things will keep getting better. He hoped so also, he replied. Uncharacteristically of me, I almost asked Gary if I could say a prayer for him, but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Instead we talked some more, and I listened.

Back at the bar as I sipped my beer I thought of Gary and hoped he was safe as he made his way back to his apartment. I also thought of how we are all connected in some indescribable way. All of us. Most the time this is difficult to remember, but other times—such as tonight—it is not. It’s as if we enter a thin space, as the Celts call it. That place that is thin enough to get a glimpse through the veil, to see the reality of life and what it means to be alive. While I didn’t offer Gary a verbal prayer, in many ways our conversation—him talking and me mostly listening to his story—was a sort of prayer, something sacred. I need to remember this more often, the sacredness of human interaction. This is what I thought about as I sipped my beer on a warm summer evening with a breeze blowing in the opened front door.

On Being Human…

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Her voice was rather loud for such a petite elderly women, I thought when finally seeing her. I could hear her before I saw her. It’s because I was seated and the subway car was crowded. The car fell silent as she squeezed through people while belting out her spiel, “I’m homeless and my only income besides begging on these cars is collecting bottles and cans,” she said. “Please, from the bottom of your heart, anything will help. I’m a human just like you,” she added.

There was no loose change in my pocket and I knew that the only denomination in my wallet were twenties, which I would not hand off. When she passed by me I was surprised at how average she looked. If not for her pleading I would never have guessed that she was homeless. “There’s probably 75 people in this car and no one can find it in there heart to offer me even a small amount of change,” she questioned? The car was silent, not a single person gave her anything and when she passed I couldn’t look her in the eyes. I was on my way back downtown after visiting the largest church in Manhattan, the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

In a recent philosophy class we were taught to question everything, especially our actions and motives. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is said to have gone so far as to question his questions. So what is it, I sometimes question myself, that draws me to offer the homeless and street people compassion?

Spending my formative years in a public housing project, our family was poor but I didn’t know it. It wasn’t until later, after my dad had passed and we were living in the suburbs, when I received free subsidized lunches that I became aware of it, embarrassed by it. It was while living in the projects that a young friend of mine (we were probably 10 years old) told me that before moving into their current apartment, his family lived in a car for 6 months. It was also around this time that I first saw someone sleeping under a bridge, which was on my way to grade school. But still I question my motives.

In New York City this past weekend I was overwhelmed by the stark contrast between wealth and poverty. Homeless encamped outside stores that are telling us we need what they have, some sleeping in the city’s beautiful parks, and also sleeping in churches whose steeples seem to touch the clouds. Most were not as vocal as the women on the train, some simply sat behind handwritten signs, but her voice still rings in my ears. 

I met Jeremiah on 14th Street. His signs caught my attention…they were biblical passages with a message of hope. As I spoke with him I squatted down to be at his level—people rushed past—both of us invisible. He’s worried about his future, he told me, but he also has hope. That is what is really sustaining him, he also added, hope.

There was also David, who was sitting in a wheelchair at Union Square. He had no legs below his knees and his sign read, “Veteran. Please help.” I spoke with him very briefly and I felt tears welling in my eyes as I did. Though I am a pacifist I have the utmost respect for our soldiers that protect us. And now here one was on the street with no legs asking for money. When I put a couple dollars in his cup and thanked him for his service it felt trite. How arrogant of me, I thought, and I was fully conscious of my legs as I walked away. 

When I met Michael, who asked not to be photographed, he was sitting behind his sign on Broadway in Lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero. What caught my attention with him was one of the sentences on his sign, “Just want to feel human again.” This was the second time today someone made this reference to being human.

Michael was reading the Bible when I offered him a dollar. When he looked up to thank me I asked him what he was reading. Romans, he said with a smile. I told him that Romans 12:2 was one of my favorite passages and he quickly thumbed through his Bible to find it and recite it. He’s been on the street about 8 months he told me and is hopeful, but at the same time is finding it difficult to find work (I cannot imagine trying to find work without a place to live).

So, I question in this public place, why? Why do I feel the need to speak with street people? Is it because it makes me feel good? Possibly, at some lower psychological level, but I don’t think that’s it. Do I feel sorry for them? That’s not really it either (compassion would be a more appropriate word). I don’t know why, I really don’t. But when I think of all the people I’ve met over the years I do know that we are all children of the same source. And in some ways, I believe, that when I speak with people from all walks of life—and offer a little bit of myself—it makes us a little bit more human.

This Too Shall Pass…

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So I’m in NYC for a few days and staying at my usual place just off Union Square. Yesterday afternoon aa I was heading back to my room I came across this art installation by David Datuna. The reason I know who the artist is because as I was photographing the instillation a young woman who helped install it came up to first t ask if I was with the media, and then to tell me a bit about it. The instillation is made of blocks of dry ice which spell out the word Trump. It is the artist’s response to Number 45 pulling out of the Paris Agreement. What’s interesting is that the artist used dry ice, which is a frozen gas (carbon dioxide), rather than regular ice (which of course is frozen water). The instillation, as it melts, doesn’t leave a puddle. It simply dissipates into thin air…

Urban Simplicity.

The Invisibles.

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Oh no I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough.”

Michael Stipe

I saw him coming. He was walking his bike towards me and eyeing me, but I really wasn’t in the mood; I wasn’t feeling generous or giving. Brandon Lee, that was his name, he told me when I asked. “I’m not homeless,” he also added, after asking me for money. His bike was loaded down, not in the way someone does if they were touring, but more so it was loaded down with what looked like everything he owned. His bike, he told me, keeps him young. He’s 54, he also added. I’m just a year older than him, I told him, and that I also ride bikes. Such similarities but so many differences. He asked me again for money, to which I skirted the subject by asking him a question, “Hey Brandon, if I wanted to offer food to the homeless, where should I go?” “Outside the bus station would be a good place to start,” he said.” “Really, I was thinking about the homeless Jesus statue,” I countered. “Naw man,” he continued, “That’s just where people go to grab stuff that church people leave for them. The bus station, outside the City Mission, under the bridges by the Mission, that’s where you’ll find them.” I reached for my wallet and handed him two dollars, I felt like I was paying an informant. When I handed him the money he thanked me, called me his brother, and then started rattling off other places to find the homeless. He was still talking as I rounded the corner. I could no longer see him but I could still hear him.

It’snothing new for me to offer street people money, or at least engage with them and offer a little dignity. One person talking to another person. But this was different, in a way. This is a project I am doing for a class I am currently enrolled, Society and Religious Belief. Truth be told, I’ve thought of doing this in the past on my own but never have. This, I thought, would give me the initiative. I was given much leeway with this project and this is what I chose, and now I questioned myself. When offering change and conversation on the streets I’m familiar with, that’s on my terms, but in some ways what I was about to embark on was theirs.

My original plan was to make sandwiches and coffee and carry them on one of my cargo bikes. But I wasn’t sure what to expect and didn’t want things to go to waste, so as a start I opted for bottled water and snack chips. So armed with a case of water and a 24 pack of chip varieties, I headed out by bike.

Against Brandon’s advice, I thought I’d stop at the homeless Jesus statue first as it is only a couple blocks from the bus station, but I stopped before I arrived. Though Buffalo is going through a great renaissance, downtown on a Thursday night after 5pm still turns into a ghost town.

I was stopped at a traffic light at a major intersection and to my right was a guy sitting on a ledge with bags next to him. We were just a few feet apart. I looked over at him and our eyes met, “How you doing, man,” I asked him? He looked down, started shaking his head from side to side and was speaking but it was so soft I couldn’t hear him. He looked to be about my age and was a rather large guy. So I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” Now he looked up directly into my eyes and said, “I’m hungry.” I asked him first if he new of the soup kitchens around the city and then recommended a couple. I pulled the bike over and asked if he wanted some chips and water, which he did. After handing him a couple bottles of water I asked him what kind of chips he wanted. “Whichever kind you don’t like,” he responded. He didn’t want to eat the ones that I liked. When I handed them to him he opened them immediately and started eating. His vice was barley audible. His name is Jeff and he’s a veteran of the Air Force. He’s been on the streets “for a while.” I shook his hand and asked if he wanted more chips or water. He didn’t. He never asked me for money or food, or anything.

When I arrived at the homeless Jesus statue there were a few people there so I sat down on a ledge next to the statue. After a few minutes a guy I saw earlier on my ride came by. He was wearing sweatpants and bright orange sneakers that seemed too large for his feet. Walking in a hurried manner somewhat anxious manner, he carried a garbage bag which I could tell was filled with empty bottles and cans, which one person referred to as “homeless currency.” They’ll steal that shit the same as they steal money, he told me. Anyhow, when he approached he started rummaging through a garbage can for more empties. One he pulled out, I could see as he examined it, was full with the tab intact. He popped the tab, I could hear it’s fizzy release from where I was sitting, and then chugged a little. I decided to head to the bus station and as I passed him I asked him if he would like any chips or water. “Oh, no thanks brother, I’m just collecting cans.”

I stopped in front of the bus shelter for just a brief period as there was not much happening there. But while I was there, and as I passed a statue of a buffalo (as in Buffalo, NY), it reminded me of another time I saw this statue after taking a bus from Nashville. I had just returned from externship from culinary school. Both of my parent were already deceased and while I was gone our family home was sold. It was an odd feeling. I remember seeing this statue at night while waiting for one of my sisters to pick me up. I was an adult, of course, but I felt like an orphan. And in some ways that feeling has never left me. I can not imagine the loneliness one must feel when they are on the street. Alone and invisible.

I don’t want to paint this with rose colored glasses in that the homeless are all gentle street people and nice. On the contrary. Many have problems that keep them on the street and being able to function in “normal society (what is normal?), but it doesn’t mean they are not fellow equal humans on planet earth. No one, as little kids, intends to or aspires to end up on the street, but many do. Anyhow, as I coasted to another stop at a red light at a rather deserted intersection there was a person sitting on the sidewalk reading a book. With many bags next to them, they were so bundled up head-to-toe I could not tell if they were a man or women. I look over at them, say hello. “Fuck you,” is all they blurt back without looking up from their book. I was just going to offer you some water or chips if you’d like some, I say. “Fuck you. Get the fuck away from me,” is how they replied. So I rode on.

Then there is Ann. I’ve seen her on a few occasions but just learned her name yesterday. She was in a doorway with her belongings next to her on a particularly desolate and somewhat dangerous street. She was shivering and looked scared. The clothes she wore would be more appropriate on a younger woman but she may have been younger than she looked. I coasted to a stop in front of her, said hello, and asked if she would like some water or chips. Yes, she said. I handed her two bottles of water and asked what kid of chips she wanted, “Any kind is fine,” she said. After talking with her for a couple minutes she interrupted and asked abruptly, “You married?” Taken aback, I smiled and blushed a little by the surprise of the question so out of context, “Nope, divorced,” I told her, “How ‘bout you?” The same, she said. 

 

Night was falling and I wanted to head home, but on my way I thought I’d stop by the bridges that Brandon had mentioned. I’d seen them before as I’d ridden by on bikes or in cars, the people sleeping under the viaducts. When I approached the first bridge it was empty, except for some trash and other evidence. But when I surveyed the upper ledge where they would sleep—where I would sleep if I were without a home—I could see that there were steel bars installed to keep people from laying there.

I pedaled on, and at this point (sorry to be so graphic) but I had to urinate. This is not a problem if one is part of normal society but what if one is homeless. What about defecation. Such basic private bodily functions I take for granted. 

 

At the second of the two bridges there was a small encampment at the top of the bridge. Not at the very top—the shelf, as I’m told it is call—but the next level. This bridge had double metal bars to keep people from laying in it’s most secure spot. I called up, “Yo, you up there?” No answer. I stood there for a minute, trying to imagine that this was my home, temporary or not. The smell of sewer wafted in my nostrils and I shivered a little. I walked up the incline and set two bottles of water and two bags of chips next to the sleeping bag. I pedaled on.

I’m almost home and stop at a bar for a beer, mostly to relive myself but also because I know there is free live music and I need some beauty. I feel fragile. After ordering a beer I retreat to the restroom. I’ve been here before and know that as I stand at the urinal there is a large mirror behind me. A passage of the book, Down To This, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, comes to mind. The author voluntarily spends time in Toronto’s shanty town, which at the time (early 90’’s) was the largest in North America. He panhandles and plays billiards in bars for money. Anyhow, there’s a passage where he talks about flirting with a person in the bar. He then goes to the restroom and sees himself in the mirror and almost doesn’t recognize himself. He had forgotten, for a minute, that he was homeless and was surprised at how disheveled he looked.

After relieving myself and washing my hands I walked past the mirror but consciously looked away. I didn’t know who I would see.

We’re all just walking each other home.

~Ram Dass

Urban Simplicity.

This is Jay (and he was a bit of a challenge)

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This is Jay. I met him on my way home this evening. But before I tell his story, or what I know of it, I have to tell you mine. At least mine from this evening.

Earlier this evening I was on a phone call with a professor for a class I am currently taking. During our conversation I told him how I feel we are all equal. All of us. No exceptions.

On a side note, if you’ve been to this blog before then you know that I sometimes profile people on the street.

Anyhow, I had stopped out for a couple beers and was on my way home when I heard him. He was across the street sitting on a stoop. I couldn’t see him because from my view he was hidden behind parked cars. But I could hear him, almost wailing. He was asking for help to get something to eat. So I walked over to him.

When I first approached he immediately asked me for money. For what I asked? I am really hungry, he replied. He was going to the store down the street for a sandwich, some chips, and–he added–a beer if he had enough money. [Note the beer sitting next to him.] I thought about taking him to the store to buy a sandwich for him, but I was tired (life, sometimes, can be so exhausting).

I asked him his story, he was somewhat guarded, but this is what he told me. He was released from prison very recently, July of 2016, after 23 years. That’s a year ago, I thought, but after 23 years that’s pretty recent. I didn’t ask him what he was in for because I really was afraid to know. But he told me that when he “was in” he was beaten so badly he now has memory problems and seizures. This, I suppose, also explains his halting way of speaking.

Anyhow–and this is a true story–when I reached into my pocket for change I pulled out not just change but also a small pocket rosary that I had purchased last summer at St. Paul’s Chapel next to Ground Zero in NYC. I sometimes carry it with me when I travel. I don’t remember putting it in my pocket today, but there it was. What, is this a test, I thought to myself? I had intended on just giving Jay a couple quarters but gave him what I had in my pocket, which was nearly two dollars.

Jay was challenging, there is no question. The way he spoke. His assertiveness. But he is still a human on planet earth, and one who has some problems (as we all do). Yes, he had a beer sitting next to him and was hoping to get enough money for another, but I had just come from a tavern where I had three. None of us would hope to end up on the street, but some of us do, and that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. So now, as I get ready to sign off on blogger and log onto Netflix to watch a half-hour of something mindless before crawling into bed, I hope and pray that Jay also has someplace to sleep on this unseasonably chilly spring evening.

Mystery…two brief stories about the same thing

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The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

~Albert Einstein

I have always believed in the mystery of the unseen. No, I am not referring to ghosts, but simply that there is more to this life than we can see. What is reality, after all? Science will tell you that everything we can see and touch is not actually solid but is moving and vibratory (Google string theory as one example). But I have to restate my opening sentence, or at least amend it.

I have always believed in the mystery of the unseen but don’t always remember or know it. By this, I mean that I am not always open to it. Such has been the case these past few months. Trying to manage a full-time job, a part-time job, and 8 credits of schooling (and trying to have a life) has been trying to say the least. So I just shut things out and live in the material world, which isn’t always my favorite place. The irony is that some of the credits I’m taking, and the class that has been most challenging for me, is a religious studies class. The reading and writing required for the class is approached academically rather than theologically or devotional, in short in my head not my heart. When I get like this I sometimes need a slap in the face to wake me out of my slumber so I can again see the incredible mystery that is all around me. And this is what happened a few days ago.

As with all of us, there are certain dates of the calendar year that have great significance to me. I’m not referring to holidays, but personal dates we remember each year. There’s one such date that I remember each year and on that day take a sort of pause, to remember. What the date means to me is something I’d rather not share in this public forum other than it is very personal. It has had life-altering significance and on that day I simply remember. But this year I didn’t remember; I forgot. I didn’t realize I forgot but I did. Then, out of the blue, I received a text from someone who made reference to the date. 

Slap! Wake up, it was telling me. When I read the text I felt like I was in a movie…reading it but not really able to comprehend. I was groggy from being woken up. My skin tingles now as I type these words.

There is so much mystery around and it is so easy to see and feel but when I am so engulfed in my own issues it’s as if I shut everything out and live externally rather than internally, which for an INFJ can be a very scary place. The text reminded me to stop and remember not just that particular day but life, each and every day. The difficult part—the real work—is to keep it going.

The day after I received the aforementioned text I had the day off. It was early and I was heading out to a coffee shop. As I rolled my bike down the plank on my front porch I half-expected a squirrel to run up. No I am not crazy (okay, maybe a bit), there is a squirrel that lives in the eave of my neighbor’s porch and in the spring and summer it runs up to you as you leave the house. My neighbor named it George but we’re questioning whether we should rename him Georgina because he may be a she. But the squirrel didn’t show.

When I bring my bike down the porch I have to set it on its kickstand so I can go back up the porch to lock the front door. It, being a rather large bike, has a rather large kickstand which makes a sound when unfolded. Anyhow, when I set the bike on it’s stand and it made it’s predictable sound I heard the sound of feathers being ruffled. It came from the direction of my neighbor’s porch where George/Georgina resides. I look up to see a peregrine falcon perched directly above the squirrel’s hole, which is only about 15 feet from where I was standing. Holy shit!, is what I’m pretty sure I said aloud. It was waiting for George/Georgina. Did he/she have babies in it’s nest, I wondered?

Then the falcon flew to a tree branch, which was actually closer to me but higher. And for another few seconds it looked down at me then flew away. I tingled. The cycle of life I thought. Even in the city these wildlife things happen.

I hopped on my bike and rode to the coffee shop, and as I did I thought of how incredibly strange life is and what was real. Both of these stories are really about the same thing, the mystery of life.

After a lifetime of working in kitchens I don’t have any money to speak of and have (mostly) stopped worrying about it. I really don’t desire things any longer. Experience is what excites me, and life is about experience. That, to me, is reality.

As I pedaled I thought of the famous conversation Buddha had with his disciples, as recorded in Dona Sutta. I’m abridging and paraphrasing, but it goes something like this. He was first asked if he was a god or messiah to which he answered no. Then asked if he was healer or teacher, also no. Then what are you, he was finally questioned. To which he simply answered, I am awake.

I need constant reminders in my life to stay awake. The text was one—that really was a slap—and the falcon another. I need them constantly, we all do I suppose. When I came home this afternoon George/Georgina came running up to me, as usual a bit too close for my comfort, so I stomped my foot for him/her to stop. And when he/she did I told him/her to be careful, to stay awake, that the falcon knows where you live. I don’t think he/she understood me.

In a way, I suppose, when I warned George/Georgina I was really warning myself. Stay awake, because the falcon (ego) knows where you live. Stay awake lest it plucks you away. Next year, I’m sure I will not forget the date.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

~ 2 Corinthians 4:18

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