John Michael continues his series, reflecting on life and people encountered, with three new stories about defense mechanisms, basketball, and contemplating what’s next.
We All Have Our Defense Mechanisms
Some folks may see a friend of mine around town. They may assume he is crazy or on drugs; he is neither. However, when it comes to his tidiness? Well, he is always disheveled, from moderately to very.
I came across him downtown on his bike one morning and it was hot. He was probably up all night rambling around. But he was trying to maneuver the bike with three or four bags, dressed in a long sleeve shirt, one jacket, and one heavy coat, sweating profusely, as they say. So, I nurtured him a bit, bought him a Pepsi, and drove him home.
When you mention James to other people that know him, they always smile. For one thing, he is generous. He will show up at my door on occasion in need of a ride somewhere. And many times, I have stepped outside my door to find some cigarettes or cans of pop he has left for me.
I have written about him before, I believe, and he is a fella that never shuts up, always going on in a low mumble. Does not bother me a bit unless I have other people in the car I am trying to listen to. He will roll down the window a lot to yell, “Hey, baby doll,” at women and tell all the strangers he sees that he loves them. He does have a sense of humor and, every once in a while, he will say something that makes me laugh. I look over and he is grinning like a wily coyote.
He is handsome with graying sandy hair, blues eyes, and a lovely slight hook to his nose, and he always looks like he could use a few pounds. He has lived on the streets and in a vehicle, but has a small, decent apartment in town at the moment.
I saw him downtown a couple of days ago and had him run some errands with me. We went out to Asotin County as I was ticketed for not wearing a seatbelt. Washington makes fighting these things straight up difficult as you have to subpoena the cop yourself.
Anyway, James and I were having coffee and, for some reason, he sang a couple of verses of a song slowly and clearly. I was a little shocked and said to speak like that more often so as maybe we could have a real conversation. There was some silence between us for a second and I thought he was going to risk it. But he went back to the muttering, which does have some humor to it if I can stay engaged long enough to catch what he is saying.
Later that night, I realized at that silent moment he was my exact mirror. I struggle with intimacy some and am not sure if I have ever had a real heart-to-heart with anyone or sat open-hearted in conversations. We all have our defense mechanisms that make us feel safe but lonely. That mine are more socially appealing does not make the loneliness any different.
I am making progress, as I assume we all are as we venture deeper into our years and our lives. So, if you find yourself in conversation with me and you detect a little acting going on, feel free to say, “John Michael drop the charm and the people pleasing and let’s get honest here.”
He Was a Cagey Basketball Player
I went down to the levee around noon to pick up some pirate friends of mine for some free lunch over at the hobo day center. I like that place: no one cares what you look like, smell like, talk like, or if what you are saying makes any sense at all.
There are always at least a couple of people with enough social anxiety to keep them out of this world and conversing with folks in the unseen realms. They will still smile when you say hello and thank you for a cigarette if you are offering.
At any rate, when I stepped out of my vehicle and into the sunshine I had what some people call a Zen moment. When you are way out of yourself like that just conversing naturally with Jesus, you think, How could anyone ever desire anything but this? Well, the world is the world and a half an hour later I was like, Where are my cigarettes? Hey man, don’t drink all my Coke.
Compelled by my past, or maybe just a need for some exercise, I drove up to the outdoor basketball courts hoping for an empty hoop so as to think things over while dribbling and shooting. The place, however, and maybe this was what I was after, was full of gangsters and children, playing five on five.
The other team had two fellas topping out at over 6’10”. Now, if this sounds unusual, it is. Basketball and I have a past, and any idea of Zen out there is for some future me. I took off my shirt to expose my pudge and to destroy any narcissism I have around pretending I am not pudgy. Then some ragamuffin high schoolers and I went after the Goliaths. In my mind, those two fellas ending up on the same team meant that the anxiety about facing off with someone their own size was too much to bear.
I have had three semi-careers in my life: social worker, journalist, and hobo.
When I first touched the ball, I realized I had no rhythm or feel for the game, having no chance to warm up. I am 6’4” and cagey out there as I learned to play the game when I was way smaller than everyone else. Big fellas also get a little lazy on defense thinking they can just swat anything anyone puts up when they get close to rim.
Midway through the game, I drove by Goliath Number One, changed my angle, put some extra spin on the ball, and scored. The big fella was surprised and his ego got touched some. I mean, what twenty-something wants a balding, sweaty, out-of-shape, middle-age man scoring on you?
He said something implying it might have been luck that the whole thing happened. That kind of talk is so common in sports, so I completely ignored it. Now that I am at peace, my rage can catch me off guard. Looking back, I realized I was enraged on the basketball court most every time I stepped onto the thing, using every slight to compel me on to greater greatness. Had these been my playing days, Goliath and I would have been in a hard-paced duel until the final bucket fell.
We did get beat, but not by much, and as I was driving home I realized him implying that any kind of luck was involved did touch my ego as well. How dare you question the skills I developed over the years playing against dipsticks like you!
Now, I don’t imagine my gravestone is going to say, “He was a cagey basketball player.” Hopefully, it will mention something about me being kind. I will get there, I suppose, like the rest of you, one human moment at a time.
Social Work, Journalism, Hobo, or Something Completely New?
Everywhere I go in the valley contains a memory of my past self at different stages of life. Both warm and scary feelings can arise from memories alone as I head into the grocery store or take a walk along the river.
Panic that used to arise on certain Clarkston streets about the judo instructor who molested me while driving me home alone, now just a mild fear at times or just complete peace. I have a flight response on occasion sometimes thinking, Why would I stay here with all its haunted past?
Recently, I have attended some evening swims at the, unchanged in 45 years, Burt Lipps pool. The memories there are always pleasant. I pulled a ladybug off the water and swam across the pool underwater like I did back in the day. I am always finding someone in need of a little tenderness, and I do what I can.
There was a kid at the pool sitting on the edge by himself, resting some, because of a bee sting. I won’t go into too much description, but he had obviously been in some kind of major auto crash at one point in his life. We chatted for a moment and, before long, he was doing his best to make it across underwater. I was happy to see him leave with what appeared to be a very loving family.
Later, I wandered over to Albertsons and went through their garbage and pulled out the aluminum cans. A very slight, pretty Hispanic woman was standing there with a baby and I did not notice at first but she was holding a sign asking for money for groceries. I gave her the change in my pocket and a smile. I was a little relieved that she was not going to judge my garbage-can ways.
As I was smoking, the grocery fella came out and ran her off. Now, if she was a grifter type or in real need, I have no idea. But watching her go, it struck me that we live in a beautiful, odd, and at times sad world.
I am slowly adjusting to my newfound happiness and peace. I did not do much of anything today, just hung out at the library, but I did so with a sense of well-being.
I have had three semi-careers in my life: social worker, journalist, and hobo. While homeless, I gained a sense of humility that seems to be forever deepening. I also learned to appreciate the small gifts and moments in life. I remember a ladybug landing on my arm on a hot day in Texas during a low hobo moment and it turned me around some.
At the pool the other night, I was doing some bobs in the deep end of the pool and was overwhelmed with gratitude just to be able to do it.
I am not sure what my future holds … be it social work, journalism, hobo, or something completely new. Regardless, the things I did with much fear and self-loathing, I will now be doing with joy and with confidence.