Angels in the strangest places


My angel, Alejandro. (P.S. Dalai Lama says: No Refunds)

I’m not the first person to discover how close angels hover when we’re in trouble. If I knew any scripture I’d toss something angelic out, but, being brought up Unitarian, I can usually only muster a round of “We Shall Overcome” when things get bad.

I considered J. to be an angel. Even Mumbles. Strangers who saw my vulnerability and were moved by it–and tried in their ways to help me. You can’t ask for much more than that. This is where the street becomes a very clear teacher, where it’s easy to be humbled quickly–in beautiful ways as well as pained ones.

I can’t remember the rest of the day after I saw Sean. I think I must have gone back to my rooms and made some desperate calls. I seem to recall phoning my ex-husband–the good one, not my son’s father–and crying to him. I eventually made my way back on the street, heading down to Shattuck. I figured Sean had given me the big slip and maybe headed up into the Berkeley Hills.

I don’t know why I decided to stop in the Tibetan shop, maybe the smell of incense. Inside, a man was drumming on a glass counter as tabla drum music played on the stereo. He  asked me if I needed any help. I gave him a weak smile and said, “What I need help with you can’t give me.”

He shot me a big smile and said, “Everything will be all right.” He was Hispanic and had a big mustache and merry eyes. He stopped his drumming and began picking up items to present to me. “A bracelet?” he asked. “No, no, really, I’m just looking,” I said.

“Do you like incense?” he waved his hand across a large table with dozens of boxes. “Well, yes,” I ventured. “Try this,” he said, thrusting a box of Frankincense at me. It did smell good and I had a sudden flash of Sean and me driving in the car with nag champa burning in the ash tray and Portishead on the stereo. I picked up a few cheap boxes and headed for the back of the store, where I spotted some luscious Tibetan blankets made out of lama wool.

They were cheap–$25–so I found a soft soft brown and cream plaid and added that to my cache. Then the storekeeper lured me toward a bowl of smoothed stones. “Pick one,” he said. That overwhelmed me somehow, the concept of choice. “You pick one for me,” I countered. He reached in and found a soft rose quartz. “This is good for you,” he said. “It is healing, has good energy, right?”

I held it in my palm, rubbing a dubious thumb over it. This guy was so sweet, I was starting to worry about disappointing him. He took it out of my hand. “We need to clear the energy though,” he said. “When people touch some of their energy stays in the stone.”

I looked a little confused and he handed it back to me, reaching across the counter to pull out a Tibetan singing bowl. “I’ll clear the energy. I show you. Put the stone in the bowl then put your hands underneath.” He pantomimed hands cupping hands. I did as he said, and he rested the bowl on my hands, holding my hands underneath with one of his own. With the other he began thrumming the outer edge of the bowl with a wooden pestle.

“Close your eyes. Relax,” he commanded. (By now I was going to have to go along with the gag whether I liked it or not.)

I closed my eyes as he stirred the bowl. It hummed and vibrated in my hands, traveling all the way up my arms to my skull. My brain hummed. My nose itched but I didn’t dare scratch. Slowly though, I softened a bit. The humming got louder and deeper; I felt its waves. And the space it made between me and my sorrow.

Once I peeked and he was looking around the store and nodded to a customer entering. Still, he kept his humming. And I couldn’t help smiling–half embarrassed, half something else. Something sweet and unexpected. He bonged the edges of the bowl like a bell. Once, twice, three times.

I opened my eyes. He was smiling at me. “Yes?” he said. “Relaxed?” He put the bowl down.

“Yeah, that was really sweet of you.” I was embarrassed now to find my hands still in his. I took them back and fumbled with my wallet.

“You want the bowl?” he said.

“No, no no,” I said. “But thank you.”

“Okay. Come back anytime. The bowl is here.”

And I did. Every damn day I was in that wretched place, I stopped by the Tibetan store and my angel–Alejandro–put my hands in his and sang the bowl.


The texture of pain

cement wallDespite the jumble of contradictory Sean sightings by the redwood encampment in People’s Park, I felt sure he had been there last night. I thought about how I had slept just blocks from him, my radar already casting its beams as I slumbered. And how he rested unknowingly nearby.

I wandered a few blocks down to Telegraph Ave., where an assortment of young street people were forming a gauntlet at sidewalk’s edge. Many had dogs sporting bandanas. A few had cloths spread on the sidewalk with odd wares: small rock and minerals samples, glass pipes, trinkets. I looked for Sean among them, hopeful in a way that he was part of this anarchist collective and not the crackheads in the park.

I stopped in front of a sweet-looking bearded man who was selling rock samples to show him my pictures of Sean. He recognized him immediately and said he passed this way daily, usually in the afternoon. And that he usually wore a straw hat, a kind of cowboy affair. I tried to imagine Sean in such a getup–he always hated hats, and cowboys for that matter. “If you just hang around here you’ll probably see him,” he said.

I pounded him with questions: How did he seem? Did he have friends? Was he okay? The young man–whose name I later learned was J.–was thoughtful in responding. “He’s a bit of a loner,” he said. “He seems a little spaced out. Sometimes he talks to himself.” My heart sank.

I was too buzzed to linger, so set off to see if I could find Sean in the streets. I stopped a vendor who was hawking a homeless newspaper. I bought one and showed him a photo of Sean. “Yeah, I just saw him at McDonald’s. He was with a girl. I think they do a bit of weed.” I asked for directions and sped off, my eyes combing the sidewalks and park benches hungrily.

As I walked past the university, I thought of my parents–who went to school there and actually met and started dating shortly after the war. Surely they had walked this sidewalk together in the ’40s, although I can’t imagine it was then full of castaways, mutterers in flip-flops, drunks sleeping it off on the sidewalk. Never in a lifetime could they have imagined their first grandchild would be among them.

I looked in vain at McDonalds, cruised Shattuck Ave.–the major commercial drag that connects Berkeley and Oakland. He was nowhere. So I circled back to Telegraph and delivered a couple of slices of banana bread I had bought for J. I chatted him up about his life on the streets and looked at some of his rocks, when he suddenly pointed and said, “Look, here he comes.”

I scanned the crowd in search of Sean and saw no one I recognized. And then I noticed him: Tall, bearded, ambling in a daze at the far end of the sidewalk. It was Sean. We looked at each other and I could feel his surprise registering slowly, grainily.

I gave him a smile, raising my hand like a TV Indian saying “How.” I walked slowly to meet him. “Hey, hi, it’s me,” I said. “You’re probably surprised to see me.” He said nothing. He looked at me coldly and his eyes were very red. “I hadn’t heard from you in a while and I missed you,” I said gently.

“Get away from me. I don’t want to talk to you,” he said and brushed past me.

Not time even to register effrontery. I caught up behind him, walking one step behind like an old-time Japanese wife. I said nothing for a moment, then began again: “I know this must be surprising, honey,” I said. “I just wanted to see you. I love you, sweetheart.” He ignored me completely, though I could feel his alertness.

He suddenly stopped short and looked me directly in the eyes. “You are harassing me,” he said evenly, “and if you don’t stop I will call the police.” He turned a corner and was gone.

This stopped me dead in my tracks. I heard a sound I’d heard before, a kind of animal noise, a howling. And then I remembered: It was a sound I’d heard during my long labor with Sean, like a wolf somewhere. It was me. Only I was so submerged in pain that I wasn’t connected to self anymore.

I howled and turned my body into the building I stood before. I could feel my forehead and fingers scratching against the roughness of the concrete. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

J. came up and touched my shoulder. “Oh man,” he said, “that’s so rough.”

“Go after him,” I pleaded.

J. took off around the corner and I covered my face with my hands and cried some more, leaning against the building for support. These were tears you had to stop for and I remember wondering what people passing by were thinking, and if this were maybe commonplace amid such misery.

He jogged back around the corner and said, “I’m sorry. He gave me the same. I tried to talk to him but he was very hostile.” I fell into J. and he wrapped his arms around me while I cried. “Oh God oh God oh God.”

Those thin threads

Sean spent his first few weeks in the Castro, befriending a scraggly group of fellow street dwellers. At that point, he still had his cellphone. Even though he wouldn’t accept incoming calls and left his voicemail box purposefully, repellantly full, he did manage to call me weekly. At first he was exultant. The flowering trees, the weather, the groovy people. He was evasive with details of his daily life–locations of where he slept, for instance–but I was at least able to get an emotional barometer and vague descriptors.

I knew he slept in parks much of the time, sometimes in groups. So I imagined a group of Merry Men encamped among the eucalyptis in the Presidio. He did say he tried sleeping in a doorway one night, but it was “too scary.” (This is where imagination begins to leave the mind and travel to other parts of the body: My stomach imagined his jolts of fear as junkies, prostitutes and thugs passed by his doorstep, weighing the prospect of him.)

Sean's bushes

Sean’s bushes by the health clinic

Finally, he seemed to settle in a tiny private garden outside a health center in the Castro where he could sleep by himself without being seen. A few weeks later, when I took a detour on a business trip and visited him there, he took me on a tour of some of his haunts. His tiny garden turned out to be a giant aloe planted in a small curbside garden abutting the building, with blooming shrubs and rich foliage. California is ridiculous that way: Everything flowers and multiplies into soft bowers. He really could sleep there relatively unseen.

I have tried to be if not supportive, at least relatively good-natured about this anarchist enterprise of his. It seemed the wisest course if I wanted to keep avenues of communication open. I should say that this wasn’t the first time I had survived bouts of Sean’s homelessness. He had spent the previous winter, off and on, living in abandoned buildings in Maine with other street kids. In between, he crashed at his father’s studio apartment, though they fought often. At least then I knew he had a place he could go. And Sean is not foolhardy, actually. He would seek shelter rather than freeze.

And then two weeks went by in San Francisco when I didn’t hear from him. This was unusual and it worried me. No, worried doesn’t cover it: devastated, devoured, obsessed. I could think of almost nothing else. I maintained a veneer of normalcy at work, but traveled to a “foreign” bathroom on the 11th floor so I could lock myself in a stall and cry when it got too bad. I imagined Sean stabbed, pimped, addicted, drifting through the streets with his mind blown–the absolute worst places my imagination could lead. I tried a few weak prayers but they even sounded flimsy to me.

When he finally surfaced, he sounded unconcerned by my worry. He had been sick, he confessed, very sick, and was heading out to Marin County to “get his head together.” I was so glad to hear from him that I didn’t press for details. I was just glad that he was going to Marin, with its beautiful hills and peace-loving hippies.