…a sequence of observations made on a day in May 1980
(Inserts are credited to the Catholic Missal)
Russell B. Guerin
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible…
Some things are easier to believe than others.
…And in one Lord
…Who for us men, and our salvation,
came down from heaven
and was incarnate…
Others seen too pat, too facile. Complicated and many faceted; but rather like the cutting up of a jigsaw puzzle, not the putting together of it.
These were my musings as I sped along the elevated interstate connecting New Orleans and Hammond. I was driving my Triumph TR-6 with the top down, on my way to a mid-morning business appointment. For miles upon miles this stretch of concrete cuts a swath through a Louisiana cypress swamp, and it was easy to be in communion with creation. My Matins prayer was passive, being only mute observation of the serene wilderness, and indeed I would have found it difficult to make efficacious any prayer but passive prayer.
My wonderings expanded to question how some – individual people and whole, elaborately worked out systems alike – would seek to find blame within me and call me blasphemous for my speculations. I recalled the tortured logic that separated vincible from invincible ignorance, that attempted to set rules for assigning culpability on an objective basis. I also remembered that there was always a hedge, however. (Not to pray regularly was venially sinful, I had been taught; but not to pray at all for an entire week was a mortal sin. The hedge was that this was the “general consensus” among theologians, and that we must ultimately consider one’s own manner of prayer, and that it might be passive, etc.; and so on and on went the contortions. Even then I remember questioning whether the week was to be measured by seven consecutive days, or was Sunday to Saturday required, in the “general consensus.”)
Isn’t it curious, I thought, that I should feel no guilt in these pursuits, while others would argue – sometimes vehemently – that my fault was real and voluntary, that my gift of faith had somehow been voided by a free act of volition. Very curious, indeed: could it be culpable ignorance that caused me to choose to see this as contradictory?
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…
Send forth thy light and truth: they have
conducted me unto thy holy mount
and unto thy tabernacles.
Not by my will, but thine….
The swamp truly appeared to be part of the altar of God, maybe moreso than philosophically at the moment because my senses informed me of a distinct cooking odor. Cooking odor!? In the depths of this swamp? Perhaps a Cajun delight emanating from the stack of some hidden fisherman’s cabin. It couldn’t be, my better judgment told me: there’s nothing around for miles, not even an exit. That’s when a horrible thought presented itself, without volition, without my wishing that it were so: perhaps it was my Triumph cooking!
And so it came to pass. Here was the harsh reality of experiential fact: my car’s existential radiator was boiling over. This was the beginning of a day that was to reveal to me some few imperfections of the creations of both men and God, manifest in a blink of the eye of Time, on a tiny dot in endless Space. I shall try to be faithful to the details as they occurred.
I nursed the car along to the Manchac exit, all the while watching the temperature gauge and smelling the aroma of roasted roadster. The first place that looked as though it might have help was a bar with two gas pumps out front. It was a typical roadside place, kind of dingy and with an empty asphalt-gravel parking area. I went inside and found no one at the bar. Inside the adjoining house, however, were the owners, he remonstrating loudly with her about how their daughter shouldn’t be making her problems their problems. He seemed to be assessing a certain amount of blame to his wife. She seemed more stoical about whatever it was, and seeing me from her quarters, came into the bar. I explained my problem and asked whether they might sell any radiator repair such as Stop-Leak. She wanted to help and said she would go look, but this obviously displeased her husband, who shouted at me that they didn’t stock any such stuff, that all he did was sell beer and pump gas. Nonetheless, his wife repeated that she would check, and he seemed all the more displeased.
I began to wonder whether he made it a practice to make his problems other people’s problems. Anyway, his wife could find nothing to help me, but offered the use of the hose out front to cool off my car, giving me a chance to drive to the next place, just across Pass Manchac. I accepted her kindness, and went outside to add cool water to the radiator. Apparently the system had been hotter than I thought, and the fresh water that I added began to come back at me in huge, rusty belches. The more I pumped into the bowels of the engine, the more the great regurgitations spilled over onto the asphalt. About that time, the proprietor happened to come out, and witnessing my troubles, decided to augment them.
“Who gave you permission to flush your radiator on my property? I’m going to have to clean that up!”
“I’m sorry,” I managed. “I didn’t mean to flush it, but only to add cool water.”
“I’m going to have to clean that up,” he repeated.
Getting a little angry myself and at the same time wondering whether rust color did not in fact add to the cosmetics of this man’s spread, I said that I would hose it down. He went off grumbling as I splashed water from the hose onto the asphalt.
Mea culpa, but no mea maxima.
The old bastard. I washed the oily, rusty splash off my hands.
I will wash my hands among the innocent,
and walk round your altar, O God, to
hear the voice of your praise and
to tell of your wondrous deeds….
In a last attempt to turn this stop into something worthwhile, I tried a public phone, hoping to get Tripe-A. The phone took my dime, but all it would give in return was a high-pitched squeal.
Just across the bridge was a small seafood restaurant with two gas pumps out front. All they did was sell seafood and pump gas. At least they were civil in their tone, and suggested a little grocery about half a mile down the road. Before proceeding, I tried the public phone outside the restaurant and again lost a dime.
The grocery store turned out to be more like a general store. Groceries were in evidence, but so were drug items, fishing tackle, hardware, and – I knew then that I had been living right – auto supplies. Behind the counter, which also seemed to serve as a bar (there were four stools in front, and a beer cooler just on the other side), was a kindly old gentleman who chewed quietly on an unlit pipe as he listened to my plight.
He did in fact have some Stop-Leak and some other radiator repair in a small metal can, rusting from the inside out. For good measure, I decided to purchase it too. The proprietor examined it curiously, saying something about not having known he had that. Wondering aloud about how long it has been on the shelf, he charged me the marked price, which was twenty-five cents. He also offered me the use of the hose at his son’s mobile home, two doors away.
I used both repair kits and the coolant and the hose, careful not to flush the radiator, and got underway again. Unfortunately, the temperature gauge continued to climb, and I concluded that I could not proceed without risking the sacrificial immolation of my engine.
Returning to the general store, I once again tried to seek help through Ma Bell, thinking that surely something was in the offing that was the next best thing to being here. The phone was an outside installation, in the sun. After a couple of tries, I was able to reach an operator, and then a number in Hammond, which was listed as the only AAA service in the area.
They had recently bought a new wrecker. But is had broken down. Try Phil’s in Ponchatoula, they said.
Before calling Phil’s, which was not an authorized AAA representative, I called AAA in New Orleans to ask what I should do. The answer came back quickly and cheerfully: by all means I should call Phil’s, and AAA would be happy to absorb the cost of the first two miles.
“Two miles?” I exclaimed, “I’m not two miles from anywhere!” But that is what my contract called for, said the young woman, still cheerful.
I called Phil. He was out on a call, said his wife, but if I would assure her that I’d wait she would send him right out as soon as he got back. I assured her that there was nothing else that I could do, that Phil was my last hope, and that, besides, I felt sourly toward the phone company and didn’t want to put any more long distance calls on the Bell credit card. She approximated the wait at one hour.
After calling my appointment, who mercifully has an 800 number, and explaining that I’d be late, I went back inside the store. The proprietor asked solicitously why I was back, and suggested that I make myself at home at the counter.
Meanwhile, another patron had come in and was already having a beer. He was elderly, perhaps a retired fisherman. Whatever he had been, it was quickly clear that his main pursuit these days was simply passing the time. He attempted to make conversation, but I did not feel too talkative, and anyway he did not appear to be the type to share my feelings about the shortcomings of South Central Bell or Triple A.
Looking to the can of beer, he said, “Ya know, if a man drink two-tree glasses of water dis big, he’d be full-up. But ya can drink five, six, or eight beers, and still want more. Dey must put somethin’ in dem tings dat makes you want more, ya know what Ah mean?”
The proprietor chuckled and moved the pipe stem from one side of his mouth to the other, but did not comment. There was silence for a little while, and then the patron spoke again.
“Ya know, after Ah drink a couple of dese beers, Ah start to feel younger.”
Pause. No one commented.
“But den, after a lil while, Ah start to feel old again.”
The proprietor could not stifle a chuckle this time.
I will go unto the altar of God,
to God Who giveth joy to my youth.
More silence. Then another patron entered, said “hello” to each of us, and took a seat on a stool. He was a younger man, perhaps in his mid-forties, and spry. Probably a commercial fisherman, I thought. He announced that he had been up since 4 AM and it was now 11, and that maybe he ought to eat something. The proprietor asked what he would like to have.
Before I attempt to recreate the dialogue that was prompted by that question, I should set the scene more clearly. From the vantage point of the counter, one could look through a doorway into the proprietor’s house, specifically, into the kitchen. The building was somewhat typical of small town stores, in that the home and the business were both under one roof. In the kitchen, the wife was sitting with other ladies, and there were people walking in and out and wearing no shoes, and none of them seemed to be aware of the existence of us at the counter. It looked like a neat place, with fading photographs of soldiers in World War II uniforms and a statue of the Virgin and a picture of the Sacred Heart with a brown palm frond behind it.
O Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house,
and the place where your glory dwells…
Patron number 2 sat up straight to answer the proprietor’s question. He spoke authoritatively and with emphasis, using both hands to describe graphically what he had in mind. “I want two slices of bread, with mustard on one of them, and one piece of cheese.”
The proprietor, who had been listening intently, walked to the threshold of his kitchen and addressed his wife, no longer visible from the counter. ”Joe wants two slices of bread, with mustard on one of them, and one slice of cheese.”
The wife, projecting her voice from somewhere in the kitchen, asked, “You want ham on that sandwich?”
The patron answered, “No, just the cheese.”
There was a pause.
“You want minenaise of the bread?”
“No, just mustard.”
“You want mustard on both slices?”
The husband, getting up from a rocker and walking back to the threshold, was helpful. “He wants two slices of bread, with mustard on one of them, and one slice of cheese.”
To be sure, the wife asked again. “You don’t want any ham, huh?”
“And no minenaise, huh?”
“What kind of cheese do you want? The regular kind? I have liver cheese, too.”
“I want the regular kind.”
Finally, the wife shuffled into the store with the completed project wrapped in a paper napkin and laid it before the patron. “I just thought I’d bring it out myself to make sure I got it right.”
The patron said it was fine and commenced to tear it into quarters. Stuffing the first quarter into his mouth, he said something about not being really hungry, but because he had already been up for seven hours, he though it should be lunchtime.
About this time, a third patron entered and walked with quick steps behind the counter to help himself to a beer from the cooler. He appeared to be about the same age as patron number 2, but had none of his joviality. He was trim and tanned and very serious as he tilted his head back to suck on the can of beer. As he did so, I noticed what looked like a black, right-angle scar on his face and neck. Then he turned and took another swig from the can, and I saw a similar pattern on the other side of his face. This time I was struck by the geometry of the mark: it was a grid, drawn ignominiously on his skin, looking very much like a Tic Tac Toe.
It was then that I realized that since he entered no one had spoken, and yet he was obviously the focal point of all of us. Finally, patron number 1 spoke, this time without his customary frivolity.
“Ya had a treatment this mawnin’? How’d it go?”
Patron number 3 shrugged his shoulders. “It don’t hurt none. They just turn on an x-ray or something and you don’t feel nothing.”
“Well, if it don’t hurt none, you might’s well keep doin’ what the doctor tells ya.”
Number 3 finished his beer without responding and left. Number 1 started on another.
What we have taken with our mouths,
O Lord, may we receive with a pure heart,
and from a temporal gift
may it become an everlasting healing.
I wondered whether number 3’s stoicism was real, or whether the cancer had consumed his spirit and would consume his body too. I thought of the distinction made by theologians – operating in their vacuums – regarding perfect versus imperfect sacrifices. The perfect one is totally consumed, leaving nothing of the same appearances.
Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice
and yours may be acceptable
to God the Father Almighty.
My troubles had been diminished. I was reminded once more of the few certitudes that I have retained: all experiences are relative. I had also learned something about dignity from the humble.
But the day was not over. I was yet to meet still more humble souls.
I shall pass over quickly the towing to Ponchatoula, the most eventful aspect of which was the handing over of my check for fifty dollars, and my business appointment in Hammond. I should mention that Phil was nice and helpful – a human being. He took my car to a repairman whose vibes put me at ease, and then dropped me off at my client’s office. My business, including lunch, was completed by two o’clock. A phone call to the auto repair place informed me that a part had to be sent out for welding, and that it would be at least 4 pm before the job could be finished.
To kill time, I tried walking around the city of Hammond. Fifteen minutes later, I had decided that I had seen the city, and besides, it was hot, what with my wearing a new vested suit and carrying a brief case. The prospect of a cold draft beer at a saloon that I had walked past twice was appealing. Being on Main St., I thought it would be in the right location for the eventual cab ride to Ponchatoula.
The bar was not crowded, and the country music from the jukebox was not too loud. I minded my business fairly easily, as I still wasn’t feeling very talkative. I was still very apprehensive about the car, not being certain that it could be fixed today and wondering whether I might have to spend the night at a hotel. The roughest thought I had envisioned my picking up a Band-Aid patched car and getting halfway back and then breaking down over the same swamp after dark. I did chat with the bartender a little, only to find that I could easily acquire another apprehension: he gave me reason to doubt the availability of taxis in this city.
Earlier, at a restaurant, I had secured a phone number of a cab company. When I mentioned that to the bartender, he expressed mild surprise, saying that the last time he had tried to call a cab for a customer, the only phone number he had was disconnected. He further volunteered that if I were to find a cab that it would be black. Stupidly, I asked why the color of the cab was important (I knew of Yellow, but not Black), and he explained that the driver would be black. He then asked what number I had been given, and after studying it, commented that it was the same one that had been disconnected.
Meanwhile, a man who appeared to own the bar had been listening, and I later heard him say to the bartender that the last time a customer wanted a cab he waited over two hours and no cab ever did show up.
My draft beer was not tasting too good.
I decided that I’d better try the cab number and see if my luck was holding out. A voice answered, obviously black. It asked where I would have to go and told me it would cost four dollars. I said that would be all right, but when could I expect the cab, and was told ten minutes. I returned to my place at the bar smiling, and announced to the bartender triumphantly that I had a taxi on the way. Neither he nor his boss seemed impressed. The younger man offered me another draft, but I declined with thanks, saying that I had less than ten minutes.
I took the opportunity to go to the men’s room, which I reached by passing through a back room being used by five or six farmer types playing poker. A few kibitzers stood behind the players. No one seemed to notice me pass through.
After I had resumed my wait, sitting sideways at the bar and facing the door expectantly, a voice came up from behind me addressing a Mr. Talley. I turned to see one of the men from the back room. He stood there in his coveralls looking surprised, saying, “I’m sorry. I thought you were my friend, Mr. Talley. The back of your head looks just like his.”
I said that it was OK and the farmer took a beer back to the card room. A few minutes later, I heard him again behind me, talking to someone else. I turned to see him shaking hands with another farmer type, a weather beaten, heavy set man of perhaps twenty years my senior. As they walked together toward the back room, the first man turned to me and called out, “This here is my friend, Mr. Talley. He’s the man I mistook you for.”
As they disappeared through the doorway, I regretted to think that maybe the back of my head did look like that.
Where is that damn cab, I thought. By this time, the ten minutes had expanded to forty-five and four o’clock was rapidly approaching. When I was about to call the dispatcher again, the taxi arrived.
The driver was certainly black. I will not attempt to recreate his words in dialogue, as in truth most of his speech was unintelligible. He did get across to me that he had to stop to make a phone call. We had not yet completed going around the first corner.
The call, which I had been promised would only take one minute, seemed interminable. I could observe the driver making directional motions with his one free hand over and over again. It was apparent that he was getting directions, and trying to commit them to memory through repetition. It occurred to me that he could not write.
I had to remind myself that we were created equal. Twice.
Negra sum, sed pulchra sum.
Finally, he returned to the cab and communicated that we had to go by the rest home and pick up an old man who had to go the doctor. It was “on the way.”
The sudden realization that my cab was part of a jitney service was the ultimate frustration. It was unexpected and would have been intolerable, under the day’s experiences, had I not recognized the words “rest home,” “old man,” and “doctor.” My emotions were wrung out, and I said, “OK, if it’s on the way.” In retrospect, I was deluding myself in thinking that I had a choice.
When we pulled into the parking lot of the rest home, there stood a solitary figure who quite obviously was a patient. His ample frame was stiff and motionless, his arms limp at his sides, and his mouth hung open underneath spectacles that were perched precariously close to the end of his nose. He occupied a spot not on the sidewalk, but in the drive itself. He looked uncomfortable in a sweater over his hospital clothes, and wore a woolen knit cap turned backwards, pulled down tightly so that the brim pointed down his neck, causing his ears to appear wing-like.
The driver stepped out of the cab and spoke to the patient. “You the man waitin’ fo’ a cab?”
The patient did not answer, seeming oblivious to the question.
The driver raised his voice. “You the man waitin’ fo’ a cab?”
Again no response, not even a movement from the patient.
To me, the pathetic figure seemed to exhibit not the slightest sign of reflective intelligence, and probably had not in years. But the cab driver apparently thought he was merely deaf. Again he asked the same question, even more loudly.
As the patient stared into a distant nothingness, the driver bounded into the office to seek his passenger. While he was gone, the patient came to life and walked to the car window opposite me and studied me silently, his unblinking eyes shining in the dim light. As I was not feeling very talkative, I peered out the window nearest myself, and did not see him leave.
In Him was life,
and the life was the light of men.
and the light shineth in the darkness
and the darkness did not comprehend it.
The cabbie returned alone.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Isn’t he ready yet?”
“Oh, he ready, dey say. He suppose to be out here waitin’ fo’ me, but he loss so they got people out lookin’ fo’ him.”
“Well, do you think he was the man you were trying to talk to?”
“Look,” I said. “You were forty-five minutes late picking me up, then you had to make a phone call, then you had to make a stop I didn’t expect. I’ve got to get to Ponchatoula and then to New Orleans tonight. Now you call your dispatcher and tell him to send another taxi for the old man and let’s go.”
He did as I had requested, and got a reluctant permission over his C.B. As there was no turn-around, he backed up the car through the parking lot and did a right angle around a building. It was then that I happened to turn around and look through the rear window. There, between two buildings, I saw the old man staring at a wall. It occurred to me to inform the driver, but I did not.
I cannot reconstruct my reasoning in not telling the cabbie. Perhaps it was because I was not sure that this patient was one with and the same as the man with the appointment. Maybe I just thought that I had already been through enough and felt justified in getting underway.
Or maybe it was a complex syllogistic process that parallels the rationalization of many of society’s ethical compromises, telling me that the pathetic soul was just as well off without his doctor appointment. I don’t know.
My car was ready and performed well.
Driving home, I pondered the open question of the value, absolute or relative, of human existence. Is it given nobility in the intellectualizing over perfect and imperfect sacrifices? I doubt it. Or is it ennobled by the interaction between well-meaning people in the making of a sandwich? This, I’m afraid, would be confusing the mundane with innocence. Or perhaps it is in the submission to radium burns to combat a raging cellular multiplication. ….
O God, Who hast wonderfully
formed man’s exalted nature, and
still more wonderfully restored it….