Twelve or 13 years ago, in Indonesia, I saw a homeless woman resting in the shadows of a side street holding a sick child in her arms. She looked up indifferently at me as I passed through the shadows, but I saw her eyes.
They were part of a portrait of incurable poverty, not drugs or alcohol. I saw no family, no food, no resources and no hope.
It is a moment I can’t forget.
She was so beaten down. I could not tell her age. Her child was so young and quiet. Her eyes seemed vacant and without hope. It was a combination of abject poverty and also a renaissance portrait of Madonna and child.
Without thinking, I surprised myself. I reached into my pocket and handed her what I had. I have no idea how much money I gave to her. It was everything but it was a foreign currency.
I was instantly embarrassed at this unexpected burst of emotions, so I didn’t look back. I just kept walking.
I have come to conclude that no matter where we go, we live in our American culture, its vision of itself, and only caricatures of the outside world which have been baked into me and I take for granted. As Americans, we believe ourselves to be kind, but while it may be our nature to be kind, we protect ourselves from caricatures, like the poverty of strangers when it becomes too much.
When the caricatures fall apart, a different world takes its place.
She was not begging. I just found myself giving her a fistful of money and I kept walking. The money was balled up into my fist when I gave it to her.
I didn’t see her after I gave it to her.
When I turned away, I left the shadows and went into the sunlight and tried to leave it all behind. To forget about what I saw and what I had done. I was surprised to find that she had gotten up and followed me. She’d put her hand on my shoulder. Was she touching me to acknowledge the amount of money I had given her?
Yes I think so, but I think it was something more.
She pointed at my camera as if to say, “thank you and remember me.” She did not smile as I took her picture. She just looked at me with those eyes I can’t forget. I don’t need the photo but I return to it off and on.
I wonder if they are both gone now. It was a while ago. I still have that photograph. It is posted here. I want to remember her and never think of her as a caricatures of poverty.
I have twice lived in a divided country. The first time it still had American kindness and we could still talk.
The Vietnam War had divided my country in 1968. I was hitchhiking because I wanted to abandon all of that, and be together with American strangers and their kindness, which was how we defined ourselves. I wanted to believe.
I got rides from both sides.
A senior Marine officer in a convertible had taken me into the PX at Parris Island to buy tax-free cigarettes. The marching soldiers on both sides of his car stopped to salute his license tags when he brought me in and then returned me to the highway.
It was a kindness he offered to me.
I had changed my mind late that summer. I had made it to California, but decided to head back to be with my father in Easton, Maryland for his birthday at the end of August.
The Democratic Convention in Chicago would be happening in about week. Violence was predicted.
Because it had been impulsive and I had started late, I tried to hop an eastbound freight train in Cheyenne, but I got caught and was mercifully dumped back on Interstate 80 East by a gruff but kind state cop who told me to disappear in 30 minutes because he was coming back.
Within 15 minutes, I got a ride from a boy dressed as a rhinestone cowboy in a white convertible with the top down and Iowa tags. He was heading east to Fort Dodge. He was going home to see his father. This was good. It would be a 660 mile ride so I would make up lost time and we were going to get to know each other.
He told me he had spent two years in Vietnam and was a war hero. He told me he had spent a year in Wyoming herding cattle. He told me that the night before, he had been in Las Vegas with girls in the front seat and girls in the backseat and had won big at the slots and had decided he wanted to see his father back in Fort Dodge. We drove nonstop all afternoon and all night laughing, smoking and talking. From the start, we liked each other.
We were Americans and therefore brothers by accident.
When he pulled over for gas, he bought me cigarettes, a can opener, and a can of peaches. It was a kindness he had offered to me.
As we rolled down the highway, I forked out the peaches and drank the sweet syrup. He told me about his life in Vietnam and the year he spent out on the western ranch, and how much he loved his father.
As we turned off the interstate and entered Fort Dodge dawn was breaking and, as the sun was coming up, he parked the car in front of a broken house in need of paint and shutter repair. The front door was unlocked and two of the windows in the front of the house were broken.
When we entered the house, there were slats missing on the staircase going up to the second floor. Beer cans littered the floor and overflowed out of a trashcan next to the refrigerator.
Before the boy went to wake up his father, he opened the refrigerator and handed me a beer. Then he took two more and excitedly bounded up the staircase.
There was loud coughing from upstairs and after a while the boy and his father came down. The old man was weak and had phlegm in his lungs. He didn’t look like he was long for the world.
I wanted to leave them alone so father and son could be together. I asked if I could take a bath upstairs. They said no and pointed at a wash tub, tilted against the stove. I was told there was no hot water but I could heat water on the stove and mix it with tap water and bathe while we drank breakfast.
So I did.
I was happy in my warm and soapy water thinking about how soon I would have a “dishpan body” as I sat in a washtub in the dawn drinking beer.
It was clear the boy and his father loved just being together. They joked, laughed, and chided each other as if they were long-lost friends.
After about a half an hour into my bath and after more breakfast beer, there was a knock on the door and two police officers entered the unlocked door without permission.
I obviously was in a considerably compromised position, but the officers paid no attention to me.
Chaos broke out. The car I had been riding in apparently had been purchased about a week ago with stolen money. Both the father and the son were confessing to the police officers to save the other. The officers arrested the boy, handcuffed him, and took him away in a squad car. The father burst into tears and told me the story.
The boy had just been released after seven years in prison for smoking marijuana. He had not served in Vietnam or been a cowboy, but he had won big in Las Vegas with money his father had given him. The boy had come home to give his father money to pay off the used car his father had bought for him.
After his father had given the car to his son, he had ordered him to leave and go west to start a new life. He instructed the boy to not come back but his son could not resist sharing his good fortune. They had only each other in this world.
The old man continued to drink beer, cough and smoke cigarettes at the kitchen table. The more he told his son’s story the more he drank and the more he cried. Somewhere around noon, he took off for the police station on foot in an effort to do what he could for his son.
I had not slept since before Cheyenne so, when he left, I put my duffel bag under my head and I curled up on the floor and slept for a while. I woke up late in the afternoon. The father had still not returned, so I threw the knapsack over my shoulder and headed out to try to catch a ride.
There was a United States post office hub in Fort Dodge, so I hung around there until I got a postal driver to let me ride shotgun to the mail district in South Chicago. As I was let out, I got cat calls from some of the postal workers who were waiting to punch the clock to begin their shift. Mayor Richard Daley was fighting the demonstrators outside of the convention.
From Chicago, I got short rides through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then across the Bay Bridge on to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My last ride was from a tow truck driver, who had never left the Eastern shore, and never been on a boat.
During those last short rides, I kept thinking about how different we all were, but how we could talk and share our lives, and how each person had enriched mine.
That is America to me. That is what will make us great again.
I got to Easton on my father’s birthday, and the prodigal son was welcomed home yet again.
In my effort to avoid thinking about American politics yesterday, I found myself daydreaming about years ago when I was sitting in a bar in the night markets of Bangkok, Thailand, drinking a scotch…
Obviously, I was working hard to avoid thinking about American politics.
… The night markets sold everything and then disappeared at dawn. For some reason, as I sat in the bar drinking, I was thinking about people who collect things: art, old stamps, fine wine, or antique books.
Several days before, I had been up north in Chiang Mai and had decided I wanted to buy an antique Buddha statue. I was informed that it was illegal to take an antique Buddha statue out of Thailand, and the penalty could include jail time. I had no real interest in art, old stamps, fine wine or antique books, and antique Buddha statues could only be viewed by scholars or museum staff.
However, there was a black market, and I wanted adventure.
I asked around and was told there was a back room in a small store in the outskirts of the city. I booked a cab.
When I got to the store, I poked around and looked at the various objects that were for sale and eventually introduced myself to the owner. I innocently asked if he had any Buddhas I could see. He tried to interest me in a miniature figure that was in a partially open box with little hinges that he assured me was from Angkor Wat. I demurred with a polite shrug, implying I thought it might not be genuine and repeated my inquiries about a Buddha.
After some questioning, he took me to the back of the store and threw aside a hanging sheet that acted as a door into a room with perhaps six or seven tables, each of which had several Buddhas placed on them.
I could see that several were extremely old. I had read up on the different historic influences and style changes over time and pointed out that these statues were from different places and times throughout Asia. But I was bluffing and flattering the proprietor. Out of my depth and about to be caught, I claimed to not understand because of language barriers. I kept the conversation going by asking questions.
I innocently asked what the cost would be to purchase one in particular. The proprietor at first brushed off the question, but I feigned innocence and kept asking until he pulled out his calculator and we were translating bots into dollars. Very quickly, I realize that the cost was way beyond what I could afford and smuggle out of the country.
Over the next week, I went into northern Laos and was crossing a bridge over a large river gorge. As I reached the other side, there was a street vendor with a little cart that was full screwdrivers, clips of all kinds, and knickknacks — as well as two beautifully carved opium pipes, which I think were fashioned out of water buffalo horns. I negotiated politely and purchased them for a few dollars.
Because I bought both pipes, I considered myself instantly a collector. I was exceedingly proud of myself.
When I returned to Chiang Mai on my way home, I asked the cab driver if he knew where I could buy a really beautiful antique opium pipe, and he dropped me off at an antique store that was mainly filled with beautiful furniture but there was a display case with several elegant opium pipes.
I asked if they had been used and he nodded affirmatively, because the soldiers in Chiang Kai-shek’s army were sometimes paid with opium and these pipes had been used by the senior officers. He held them up so I could smell the sweet smell of the old smoke.
They were all beautiful. I bought one for around $30 and was also provided with all the operational equipment that went with it, except of course for the opium. He also had a book printed in English about the antique opium pipes, which I bought to round out my new collection.
During this trip, along with the opium pipes, I had collected gifts for others such as fabrics, articles of clothing, and the mandatory t-shirts, costume jewelry, and trinkets, which I packed in my big suitcase for storage on my way home.
After a long flight, with a brief stop in Frankfurt, all was good until they passed out customs forms and announced that we were close to our destination, Washington DC.
A horrible lighting bolt of realization shot through my body.
I was bringing into the country three used opium pipes, as well as the paraphernalia, and they were not in my carry-on bag, so I couldn’t abandon the pipes and paraphernalia in the bathroom before we landed.
I was going to have to go through customs with them.
I was terrified.
As my terror ripened, I thought about the headlines in the newspaper about my airport arrest and the announcement of my disbarment.
My stupidity rolled over me like a dump truck, then it got worse when I started thinking about my prison sentence.
The plane started to descend. I had to think fast.
After thinking fast, I came up with, “I actually bought them for the Baltimore Museum of Art.”
Maybe just confess and go into full tears?
I started feverishly filling out the customs form and reporting each and every fabric, each and every article of clothing, and the mandatory t-shirts, costume jewelry and trinkets to try to fill up space until I recorded at the very end, “ceremonial pipes.”
I thought maybe they would let me go home because Bowie is a Scottish name and so I must be bringing in bagpipes…
I had abandoned reality.
The reentry line at customs was long as we each opened our bags and the officers routed through them. What else could they be looking for on a plane coming in from Asia other than drugs?
When my turn came, as the officer started going through my list and asked me in detail about each of the fabrics, articles of clothing, and the mandatory t-shirts, costume jewelry, and trinkets on my custom form, he instructed me to unzip my bag.
I saw his handcuffs and thought about being led awayay. Then the officer stopped and said, “welcome back,“ and indicated that I should rezip my bag and move on.
I started a slow motion run as I pulled my bag behind me and blasted through the automatic doors into the airport. I saw the car that was to pick me up. I saw the driver waiting for me with my name on a sign as I moved in slow motion toward him.
Then I had an entirely inappropriate emotion. I was so cool! I was a drug king pin evading capture but then… then, as I made it through the automatic doors into the airport, to my right I saw a police officer walking a sniffing dog!
I definitely was not a drug kingpin!
I didn’t look twice. I just focused on my name on the card, which the driver was holding. I threw my arms out toward him as if he were a close relative and personal friend that I had not seen in a long time, or like some photo shoot for a Hallmark card, even though the object of my affection was an old geezer holding my name on the card who had no idea who I was.
I dropped my bags by the car, spread my arms wide open and somehow avoided the deep need to kiss him.
The police officer and the dog moved on down the airport as the driver put my bag in the trunk, opened the door for me… then I thought thank god it was just three old opium pipes and paraphernalia and then … Dammit –nothing works to clear my mind! Collectors of contraband?
The police officer and the dog moved on as the driver put my bag in the trunk and opened the door for me…
What had got me thinking about collecting contraband? Antique Buddhas… Opium pipes… Top-secret classified national defense documents…
Damnit. It’s too early for that double scotch.
“It Can’t Happen Here” — Frank Zappa
Since recorded history, our world has continually been at war or engaging in domestic civil wars.
Perhaps it takes repeated wars to reeducate generation by generation those who cannot imagine the reality of war and civil war.
In school, I was taught history chronologically, war by war and how the victors carved new national boundaries and subjugated the vanquished only to have domestic revolutions subdivide countries.
After wars or revolutions end in battlefields and graveyards, but after that generation dies off, wars become books or movies or heroic stories.
It is all just “book learning.” It is easy to get good grades and learn nothing.
There are few generations that are blessed as we have been in avoiding wars or revolutions. The United States has been fortunate. Its last revolution was the Civil War which ended over 150 years ago, and our last foreign war, the Vietnam War, ended over 50 years ago.
I am part of a generation that has not experienced a civil war or a major foreign war for 50 years, however I have experienced both on foreign soil.
After my formal education was over, museums, libraries and good conversations became my continuing education; but international travel gave me the best insights into my own country, its prosperity and its people.
Over ten years ago, I spent an evening with friends in a beautiful plaza in Aleppo in Northern Syria. Talk about the government was discouraged by our guide. Less than a year later, Syria was at war with itself and that beautiful plaza and much of the city had been wiped off the face of the earth.
A little further south, the 2,000 year-old Roman ruins of Palmera, a once beautiful city built around a long dry oasis, would be badly damaged by this modern war.
When I visited Dubrovnik more recently, our guide pointed out the bullet holes that had chipped away that walled city, which had been part of the former nation state of Yugoslavia.
Last summer, during a trip to northern France and the battlefields of the First World War, our guide at the Battle of Belleau Wood pointed to a stand of trees and asked, “How could these trees have survived the battles here and the later deforestation that cleared these fields around it?” And then answered: “The fighting here was so severe that the trees cannot be cut down because the bullets still buried in these trees would break the blades of the saws.”
I have also visited cities and nation-states torn by war and revolution, for example, when I visited the occupied and divided Beirut, Lebanon.
I had been invited to an opulent lunch overlooking a beautiful beach and the city below.
In the cab home, the driver spoke some English. In stop-and-go traffic we were delayed at a roundabout. I found myself three feet from the barrel of a tank pointing directly at my face.
Hoping to encourage the driver to edge forward slightly, I started a conversation, asking about a billboard with a cornucopia of figures looking down on me. He told me that it memorialized the assassinated leaders of the country and city.
That evening, I had dinner with a family who had lived on the top floor of an apartment building in another section of the city, which had had its roof blown off during the intermittent shelling of the city the year before.
A teenage member of the family joked that his mother had, after the damage of the blast, asked if everyone in the family was all right and then went back to eating dinner.
When I asked how on earth they could be so matter of fact, he answered, “Dinner was ready and getting cold.” He then added that fighting had been going on and off in various parts of the city for years, and when it was near their school they got days off until the fighting moved elsewhere.
On my way to the airport as I headed back to the U.S. the next day, I had to show my passport to soldiers in the quadrant of the city that held the airport. I can’t remember if they were Shia or Suni.
So what does global history teach me about my country?
“It can’t happen here.”
Our country supports the freedom fighters of Ukraine as they fight and die to preserve their country from the bloody invasion by Putin — the autocrat so admired by our former president.
After the failed coup d’état lead by this former president (who then raised a quarter of a billion dollars selling the false claim of a stolen election), almost every member of his party voted against an investigation of that coup. Now, half our country still refuses to acknowledge the January 6th Committee’s findings, even though almost all the witnesses are Republicans appointed by Republicans.
The most important protector of a democracy is the informed voter. I wish many of my fellow Americans could be as fortunate as I have been, getting to travel internationally.
So many of my friends will tell me, “We have always gotten through it before. We’re Americans. It can’t happen here.”
“It can’t happen here.”
In our class, the poet Elizabeth Bishop would teach poetry by taking any two poems and placing them side by side to see how they “illuminated each other” by comparison and contrast.
It was an exercise in both observation and communication but it also offered that fresh perspective on what was set in stone and had been taken for granted.
The more extreme the comparison and contrast the more it reawakens: A ripe apple and a red sports car? What makes them red? What makes them different? What makes them go? DNA and water versus oil and a gas engine?
How about like “politics” and “scuba diving”?
Let’s try it.
Well first, in contrast, they encompass two different worlds. One above water and one below. However, people have learned to communicate in both worlds, particularly in life-threatening situations.
How is that communication the same and different, and how can it offer a fresh perspective?
Through communication in politics, Donald Trump raised a quarter of a billion dollars ($250,000,000.00) from small dollar contributions from his supporters to “stop the steal,” despite overwhelming evidence that nothing got stolen. Furthermore, he has convinced his supporters not to watch the January 6th Committee hearings where this was revealed and validated.
So you can’t use Twitter underwater.
But in scuba diving you have hand signals, which is a little more primitive but just as effective for short urgent messages.
All diving is done in at least pairs with each diver responsible for his or her buddy. If you go too deep and become a victim of nitrogen narcosis — which is the song of angels calling you to come deeper to your death. Your buddy should grab your fin and signal with a hand gesture indicating the cutting of one’s throat and then point to the surface. It’s life or death.
During one dive in the outer islands of the Caribbean, I was randomly paired with two Midwestern middle-aged men who already were friends.
We agreed to go down to about 90 feet and swim in formation, like airplanes, to cruise along the deep edge of a cliff overhang and be each other’s eyes and ears.
One of my new buddies, our wing man at the time, banged his knife on his tank to get our attention, made eye contact, and excitedly pointed straight down. He spread his arms way out wide, gave the finger to us, and then put his right hand on his head at a 90-degree angle as if it was splitting his head in half down the middle with an ax. The other two of us got it and looked down into the dark for a “Big Fucking Shark!”
Later that afternoon, sitting side by side with me at the bar, my two Midwestern buddies good-naturedly unloaded all the liberal Democrat jokes they had in rapid fire in my direction, and with mock astonishment I countered them with my defenses and went on the attack. Quite naturally we had come to trust each other with our lives underwater, using sign language which we made up as we went along. We were friends.
I would love to meet them again and learn from them again and laugh. I want to sit on that barstool, turn to look at them and, with a perfectly timed pause, stop deadpan and say: “TRUMP???” And then spread my arms out wide, give them the finger and put my right hand on my head at a right angle as if it was splitting my head down the middle with an ax. I’d love to have them laugh at that, for us to laugh together.
I want to laugh with my Republican friends again and have us trust each other again with our lives.
It beats drowning in an angel’s call.
Last Friday afternoon I took the train to New York for the sole purpose of seeing Christian De Gré Cardenas for dinner. The following morning I took the train back home to Baltimore. The only reason for that trip was because he is a friend I just had to see.
It was also a very personal post-Covid-lockdown tip of the hat to celebrate my belief that change is a gift from God.
After my first career as a business trial lawyer I decided I wanted to enter the professional world of theater in New York City, if I could in my late 60s and early 70s.
The only way to get across a chasm so deep was to jump.
Because I was old and no one would read my scripts, I decided I had to take an alternate approach. I decided to use my background as a lawyer so I read all the legal contracts required to be a producer and I took a class in producing theater.
All the young future producers started to ask each other what they wanted to produce. When it came to me I would say: “Nothing. I want you to produce me.”
After I had taken an introductory class at the Commercial Theater Institute in New York, I got a chance to go to the O’Neill Conference in Waterford, Connecticut for an advanced class so I could meet the future big shots.
That trip was a life changer. I hit a gold mine. I met three people within 24 hours who would change my life forever and are my friends to this day: Christian De Gré Cárdenas, Sue Marinello, and Aaron Sanko.
Today I want to talk about Christian and how he has changed my life for the better.
We both got off the northbound train from NYC in Connecticut in the early evening. We were picked up by a van driven by Aaron Sanko, who transferred us to a small motel where we would stay during the conference.
Aaron and Christian knew each other from the New York theater world. I was the old guy in the backseat who didn’t know anything or anybody who had instantly become a groupie.
The next day, Christian and I would be in the same class with Sue Marinello, and we have been bound together with Aaron Sanko ever since. I will talk more about these, my collaborators and friends, as we approach the opening of Mind The Art Entertainment’s (MTAE) upcoming performances, which will be premiering in April, July, and November in New York.
When Christian and I got off the train we looked like two Willy Lomans walking on stage in Death of a Salesman. After we were delivered to the motel and were waiting to register, I decided to talk to Christian and asked him if he would like to go get a drink after we checked in. He never got a chance to answer because the night clerk interrupted to tell us: “Forget about it. Everything is closed.”
Sue Marinello and I sat next to each other at the conference, and she committed to reading my play Onaje. Shortly thereafter, Christian suggested we apply to the upcoming New York Fringe Festival.
After the remarkable success of Onaje, Christian offered me a chance to write Vox Populi, his final operetta in a series based on the seven deadly sins. I immediately accepted and we agreed to meet at a restaurant in Spanish Harlem next to his apartment, where we would sketch out the plot and talk about the tone and temperature of this comedic operetta.
We had the restaurant to ourselves and the waiters brought us food and mescal throughout the afternoon, until the restaurant was set up for the dinner crowd to come in. It was magic.
I went back to Baltimore and went to work at a feverish pace and completed a rhyming rollicking first draft that Christian liked. He invited me to go to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to marry the music to the words.
Each morning we would get up and go to a little breakfast place that had a wide open garden with a little pond, a beautiful flowered fence, and a balcony with tables for breakfast. We were often alone as we started our day of work.
During breakfast we would go page by page editing the draft, and in the afternoon Christian went to work writing the music while I made changes to the script. Later in the afternoon, Christian would play back the music he had created. In the evening we went to magnificent restaurants in San Miguel and drank more mescal.
Around the plaza and the magnificent church, mariachi bands would sing for the locals, as well as the tourists, and we would walk the streets and listen for music coming from the rooftops. When Christian liked the sound overhead we would enter, go up the stairs, order another drink, and listen until we moved on to the next venue. It was magic.
When we got home at night Christian would go back to work, and in the morning, before we went to breakfast, he would play back what he had composed the night before.
This routine went on for well over a week and somewhere during that time we became brothers in creativity and laughter, and deep friends.
It is amazing how we all step in and out of unique worlds as we change careers or grow older. In my case, as my second career evolved and as I grew older, I stepped into an amazing world of people and experiences that have made me richer and more fortunate.
Unlike any profession I know of, the theater welcomes humanity into an opportunity for friendship in a way somehow the world cannot achieve.
During our dinner in New York last Friday, we were talking about something but I can’t remember what. I just remember Christian looking up straight into my eyes in a moment of surprise and saying: “Do you realize I am exactly half your age?”