BumsSomething written very seriously has turned out to be a satire of a whiny jerk. The truth shines through.
August 6, 2002
To naive minds like mine and Jack Kerouac’s, bums appear mysterious and romantic. When people sit on street corners sporting greasy hair and dirty clothes and consuming lo mein out of paperboard boxes with their fingers, revolution must be nigh. Bums are unknown quantities. When my imagination has nothing better to do, it endows them with a crushing genius and the keys to the secrets of the Universe, or a Martian heritage and plans of world domination.
“...Take this guy I knew in Santa Clara,” I told my friend Jan, in for a visit from New York. We sat in the Japanese Tea Garden sporting Kenneth Cole and consuming jasmine tea with almond cookies. Cocky little black birds hopped on the tables and underfoot, hunting for crumbs. “He was a bum hanging around a 7-11 where I used to shop for food back in ’95.”
“What were you doing in Santa Clara?” Jan asked.
“I just took some classes there over the summer. It was better than going home, you know.” He nodded absentmindedly as I continued: “So I lived there and everything was fine until I ran out of money. I fucked up when I calculated my budget; I had no idea how much things cost. In the middle of July, I had just enough dough to pay for the housing but nothing left for food. I tried to survive on Corn Flakes and water, because I couldn’t afford milk, but I gave it up after a week. The stuff made me sick. I don’t eat Corn Flakes to this day.”
“What about the bum?” Jan reminded.
“Oh yeah, the bum. He had a Ph.D. in History from Berkeley and was a hippy, I think. Way into the sixties stuff. A complete nut, of course. I struck up a conversation with him because I thought it was strange that he was hanging around the store, talking about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He laughed his ass off when he learned about my predicament. ‘You wouldn’t know how to find food if they gave you a map and a compass,’ he said, and then took me to a soup kitchen.”
Jan’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?” he asked incredulously. “How was it?”
I shrugged. “Okay, I guess. I had a tuna fish sandwich. It beat the Corn Flakes.”
Silence descended as we pondered tuna fish sandwiches for a while. Only birds and British tourists chattered.
“It’s funny,” Jan finally said. “I have a similar story. Do you remember the Kellogg Diner?”
“The one in Williamsburg, across the street from your place?” I asked.
“Yeah, that one. Gustav and I were sitting there one time having breakfast when a homeless black guy came in. He was wearing a dirty parka, a woolen knit hat—you know the look...”
“Well, he sat down in the booth across from ours and asked me if he could have my omelette. I told him no, I wasn’t done yet, but if I had any left over, sure, he could have it. He was happy with that and just sat there for a while talking to himself. I noticed that his words sounded funny. I listened closely and it turned out the guy was speaking Italian! He then switched to Spanish, French and Russian. Finally—I couldn’t believe this—he started reciting the liturgy in Old Church Slavonic!”
“What the ..!” I exclaimed. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. He claimed that he knew twenty different languages, including Polish and Czech. I’m Czech, so I decided to test him and sure enough, he could speak it.”
“Okay, stupid question,” I interrupted. “Why would someone like him be sitting in a diner in Brooklyn jonesin’ for your omelette?”
“He claimed that he used to work for the CIA, shuttling around Eastern Europe—Hungary today, Berlin tomorrow... He knew all the border crossings, the entire geography of the place, so I don’t think he was lying. But he was stark raving mad, you know. I think he probably went nuts, lost his job and ended up on the street, begging for change.”
“Jesus,” I said. “That’s depressing.”
“Very. If it can happen to people like him...” Jan didn’t finish. We both knew the ending. “What gets me is that perhaps he’s not even crazy. Maybe none of them are crazy. They could just be seeing the world in a different way, perceiving a richer picture of reality, things that we are too limited to see. Maybe they are the ones who see the universe as it is, not us.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said shaking my head. “The society has no use for them. Think about it: the only reason people got together is to be productive, to engage in cooperative efforts, although they may no longer remember towards what end. I read a book by this guy not long ago in which he claimed that the end result of our production literally is garbage. Whatever we need we manufacture, and use up resources in the process until they are no longer exploitable. We then consume what we made until that is no longer exploitable. In the end, everything ends up in the trash heap. We veil ourselves from the reality of garbage as our ultimate product by putting it out of sight: landfills, Third World countries... The interesting point is that people can become garbage. They are a resource just like anything else. They may have been the reason the machine was set in motion but they constitute an essential part of the machine now and must be replaced as they wear out. Nuthouses and old-age homes are their landfills.”
“Or prisons,” Jan said with a start, and then, recalling his own sexuality: “or gay bars.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “I’ll bet that many societies foster hatred towards gays because you guys don’t reproduce and thus fail to contribute new resources.”
“So I’m human garbage?” said Jan with a sad smile. I felt slightly sick.
“Not in my book,” I mumbled, looking away. “It’s just a theory, anyway.”
Jan was silent. Among the green bamboo, around a red pagoda, paths snaked through a Zen rock garden. The builder of this place was a Japanese man who lived here until he died, and then after Pearl Harbor the government seized the property from his sons, and for a while it was renamed the Oriental Tea Garden in an attempt to burn out any inkling of its origin. Along the paths walked people: bodies with impeccably engineered muscles, blood cells and millions of nerve endings; brains that dream of guns or poetry; thumbs that oppose; and, some say, eternal souls underneath it all—grains of sand at the centers of beautiful pearls.