–Well, I do have a gun…. __Suzie
In the spring of 1985, single in San Diego for a while, circumstances forced me to economize. I did have a job, but the pay was hardly phenomenal in a town that charged $400 a month and up for one bedroom apartments.
What I did not have was a car or an affordable place to live.
Housing came first. The little rotating bulleting board at Big Bear supermarket displayed a number of cards listing “Roommate Wanted” opportunities. Dan answered on the second ring.
The apartment looked just fine except for two items: The kitchen overhead light exaggerated its twenty-five watt ambition with a forty watt rating, and the place sported more cockroaches than a Raid commercial. You don’t see roaches mentioned in any of the glowing Chamber of Commerce literature, but this far south a good pest extermination business is as safe an investment as igloo construction in pre-Caucasian Alaska.
Dan had a Master’s Degree in Psychology and worked two part time counseling jobs while studying toward his doctorate. My own Bachelor’s Degree in Psych plus the two of us being Vietnam era veterans gave us much in common, though he had actually seen combat in ‘Nam while I’d been stationed safely in Germany. We got along fine.
The roaches were another matter altogether. During our pre-rooming-together interview at the kitchen table, at least thirty of the bugs bit the dust, flattened by lightning Cockroach Karate strokes.
“I can’t believe there are so many of them,” I admitted.
Dan stared at each hand-slap or foot-stomp in open amazement. “I can’t believe you actually go after them with your bare hands. I’ve never seen anybody do that.”
I got up to stomp a stray that had carelessly ventured from beneath the refrigerator. “Never done it before, myself. But they’re a bit to bold here….”
Two hours of conversation passed in that fashion, sentences punctuated by–whack!–frequent–whomp!–forays against the little brown six-leggeds that thought they–slap/slap/thud!–owned the apartment.
Dan loved it. Without lifting a finger, he had acquired a live-in Dirty Harry who prowled with palm and fingers at the ready, a born hunter who could spot a carapace at twenty paces, snarling softly under his breath, Make my day, as he gave critter after critter free tickets to Cockroach Heaven. In fact, my new roommate quickly theorized an entire Roach Mythology to account for their boldness in my presence.
“You’re a sort of god to them,” he declared. “When a roach wants to prove its Roachhood, it deliberately moves out into the light where you can see it. It knows nearly every fellow bug who has done so has been splattered. Such are the ways of a god. But if you miss and it scuttles back into the wall safely, it can tell the others, I faced the god and lived. I am now a true roach among roaches.”
I considered. “Of course, there are the roach skeptics who claim a god that sometimes misses is no god at all?”
“Of course, or that the god let them live for reasons of its own, such as being superior roaches. And a few heretics claim you’re just an overgrown cat with hairless paws. But these are shouted down and forced to leave the building to go live in the alley.”
Hm. God of Thunder to the roaches, eh? Not bad. We are all, of course, fellow travelers in the Light and Sound of Eck…could we not sometimes serve as imitation “gods” here and there? To live up to my reputation, I brought in heavy artillery in my war on the bugs. Blue death-powder encircled the kitchen floor perimeter. They wouldn’t listen to my requests to leave the premises? Too bad. Little poison cakes of boric acid, sugar, flour, and chopped onion decorated corners and shelves in various rooms. If you are a roach, it is unwise to ignore the mandate of the local roach god.
A month or two later, the landlord even fumigated the entire building.
Not because of cockroaches but because he could see his investment disappearing through the terrible tummies of trillions of termites. This insect version of a nuclear bomb helped, and the place became temporarily livable for humans at last, with only a few new bugs arriving weekly and these quickly civilized by powder, palm, or shoe.
The office building where I worked sat serenely in a cul-de-sac at the end of Camino Del Rio South, some four miles exactly from the apartment. With housing secured, transportation moved up in priority. A pair of worn blue tennie runners plus a yard sale one dollar backpack, red nylon with black webbing straps mounted on an aluminum frame. Every workday, the pack carried office shoes, lunch, and a library book. Fifty-nine minutes from door to door going in. Ten minutes more on the return trip to allow for steep Texas Street Hill. Often Robbie, a coworker approaching retirement age, provided a ride up that hill after work. Thank you, kind lady. May your Buick run in good health.
My aging tennis shoes became extremely familiar with Adams Avenue, particularly the section running through the heart of the Normal Heights business district. Past the Post Office and Variety Hardware, past the Purple Rain nightclub, but stop–definitely stop–at the Writers Bookstore and Haven. Behind the Haven’s modest storefront, a fascinating combination of hustle-bustle and relaxation reigns. At one moment, Lief might be working in his publishing area, Skip installing a new wall or reworking an old one, Hal or Edee or any of a dozen others holding a writing workshop while Betty bounces back and forth between bookkeeping, telephone, and customer assistance. There are knots of people doing no more than sitting around over coffee or yogurt from SeaCoast Health Foods, swapping yarns and lying blissfully to one another about how many pages they wrote that day.
Nonetheless, it’s not the Haven’s supportive environment that draws me. It’s not the you-can-do-it attitudes exemplified by partners Nancy and Betty. It’s neither the availability of such tools of the trade as IBM Selectrics and reference books, nor the ambience suitable for novice or pro, with all skill levels represented freely. It’s not even the friendships.
It’s the cookies.
(Are the cookies, Fred; didn’t you ever study grammar?) The cookies are incredible: Oatmeal-raisin, four inches across, two for twenty-five cents and a Cookie Tab available if you’re short before payday. “Short” means dead broke and walking home from work, not four feet tall in cowboy boots. One pay period, my Cookie Tab soars to an unbelievable five dollars and twenty-five cents, which translates to forty-two cookies for the Cookie Monster.
A few blocks east of SeaCoast and the Writer’s Haven, Safeway and Big Bear supermarkets glare at each other across Cherokee Avenue. The apartment is only a few blocks from the Cherokee-Adams junction; countless times my feet negotiate that intersection.
One fine Saturday afternoon, backpack in place, I turned onto Adams en route to the Writer’s Haven simply to kill some time and mutilate a few cookies. San Diego sunshine beamed down impartially, warming people, buildings, and gutters alike. My legs were in great shape. The pack rode like a well oiled saddle or perhaps a uniform implying health and vitality.
Ahead, two rather seedy individuals lounged against a storefront. The larger man wore a full beard, his shorter companion sporting only a Don Johnson three-day stubble. No particular threat tome, but my senses went on Yellow Alert anyway. No other pedestrians could be seen except for a lone white haired woman approaching from the opposite direction. Then the elderly lady headed for the street, and the big fellow moved suddenly to intercept her.
“Let me help you across the street?”
He really didn’t look all that helpful. Under control but obviously alarmed, she tried to tell him she needed no help. He continued to press unwanted “assistance” as she turned, not crossing the street but unlocking the door of a vehicle parked at the curb. Perhaps she had been around the block a time or two; she certainly hadn’t had to fumble for the keys.
By this time, I had arrived, my usual long stride idling to a stop near the rear of her car. She remained unaware of my presence, but the two men did not miss the point. My involvement had become obvious as I openly found the scene of great interest. The smaller man had been to my rear but not ignored; his attitude and position had been carefully noted. Without starting a stare down that could mean unnecessary trouble, I silently broadcast the message: This isn’t a confrontation yet, boys; how do you want to play it?
Now the game became trickier, the decisions critical. Did these two down-and-out gentlemen want to continue their solicitation and/or possible mugging with a lean backpacker standing by, pretending now to be vitally interested in some cut glass figurines displayed in the store window? Did they wish to try their luck with an onlooker whose short haircut and overall appearance reminded them of the military? An ex-Vietnam chopper pilot, perhaps, a real life version of the A Team’s Howling Mad Murdock in the flesh, ready to do wild and crazy things on the streets of San Diego.
They decided not. The smaller man moved on down the sidewalk, abandoning his friend to the fates and their whims. It reminded me of a street fight I’d had at the age of sixteen. Cut of stouter cloth than his smaller friend, however, the bearded man carried through his charade. He continued to verbally wish his target well until she pulled away from the curb and into traffic beyond his reach.
The cut glass figurines didn’t seem to be what I was looking for after all. I strolled on down to the Writer’s Haven and munched a few cookies.
One Friday night a week or two later, I left the apartment to walk–without the backpack–to the mailbox in front of Safeway. It was a balmy night, the sort of weather that draws tourists to San Diego and then converts them to residents. I felt good–down to thirty-seven cents in my pocket with a week left to payday, but good nonetheless. Clearly, as Soul I had set this up, this momentary shortage that left me without a car for the first time in twenty-four years. Would I hoof it just for the exercise? No. For the fun of it? No. But give it to me as a perceived necessity, a way to survive, and I’d not only do it but love it in the process. I loved the feeling of physical power and coordination, energy pumping through well conditioned legs, the sense that I was doing something at which other people might cringe and wonder.
I loved the people I met on the street and at yard sales now providing most of my major supplies–curtains and clothes, notebooks and picture frames, a clock radio and miscellaneous items too numerous to mention. All of it moved me at a depth beyond rationality. The Eck had allowed me this grace, and grace I knew it to be.
Foomp! Went the mailbox, its metal jaw snapping shut as it hungrily swallowed the letter. Just then, a feminine voice spoke behind me.
“Do you know how to get to the Holiday Inn from here? It’s the one on Hotel Circle North, but I don’t know how to get back there.”
I turned. A big, shiny, late model Lincoln had pulled into the parking lot, noticeable because there weren’t too many Lincolns cruising Adams Avenue at ten o’clock at night. It carried Arizona plates. Behind the wheel sat a beautiful young lady, perhaps twenty-five years of age. Curly dark hair framed a face too stunning to ignore as she directed her question not to me but to two young men who happened to be walking by at the moment.
The two fellows paused and tried to help. They clearly possessed sincerity and a willingness to share what they knew. What they did not have was a clear knowledge of Hotel Circle North’s location as perceived by a shopping tourist from Phoenix who was lost at night in San Diego. Before long they had given up, having merely added to the driver’s confusion. They moved on as I carefully shifted into positon.
I say carefully because the young lady was obviously nervous, and with good reason. It seemed imperative not to give her any additional reason to be frightened. She had her nervous tension under control at the moment, but a misstep could cause her to panic, depriving her of assistance of me of my chance to give, to fulfill that need to be of help to another Soul. And then she might wind up trusting the wrong person and be in real trouble. So I stood off a couple of paces while we discussed her problem.
“I left the hotel about five o’clock to do some shopping at the malls. Then somehow when the malls closed I took a wrong turn. A guy at a gas station told me to take I-8 to some turnoff or other, but I got the wrong one. The next person I asked made it even worse, and now I have no idea how to get back. I don’t have any idea which turn to take, or where the freeway is from here. I really don’t want to try the freeway again, anyway–where is the I-8 on ramp from here?”
“Hm-m-m. I wouldn’t want to tell you to use the freeway system. It confuses me, especially at night, and I’ve lived here for six months. I do know how to get there just fine by way of the city streets, but….”
I hesitated, inner vision picturing the six separate turns required to negotiate that route. She’d never make it.
“But what? I really need to get back; my husband expected me an hour ago. We’re vacationing from Phoenix, and I told him I’d be back by nine.”
“Well…the problem is, I can get there, but I don’t know how to give you clear enough directions so you can get there…it’s not hard to do if you know the way, but one wrong turn and you’d be lost all over again.”
“Oh, I don’t want that.”
“No, of course you don’t. I’m trying to think of the best solution…there is a way that would work, but I hesitate to say it.”
“I could navigate for you. The trouble is, I don’t have a car, so the only way to navigate would be to ride in yours. It’s safe enough, but I know that has to sound a little scary for you….”
She thought about it. We talked over the other options: A couple of turns to get to a treacherous freeway that had had already misled her twice, or trying to grasp the numerous changes of direction necessary to make it through unfamiliar city streets. At length, she came to a decision.
“Well, I do have a gun. My husband makes me keep one in the car.”
That statement, clearly intended to discourage any criminal intent on the part of a strange male, missed its mark badly. Practiced at keeping gentleness foremost in my aura, I had nonetheless grown up with guns and an Old West mentality in many ways. People intending to use a firearm on another human being do not generally go around announcing, I’ve got a gun! Not if they’re any good at it, they don’t. Instead, without giving warning, they haul out the hogleg and start shooting. No, this child might have hoped she was scaring a potential aggressor, but what came out was a plea for reassurance. A part of her trusted me, and the rest of her wanted to be told it was okay despite her husband’s dire (and sensible) warnings about the criminal male mind in the big city.
“Why don’t you drive?” She asked impulsively, opening the door and scooting across to the right hand seat.
In a crazy and wonderful way, that did make sense. Either I was an angel or I was heap big trouble. If I was an angel, she might as well let me drive; if the other…well, maybe her pistol was hidden on the passenger side, and it is hard a novice shooter to steer with both hands while handling a firearm at close range.
I slid behind the wheel, delighted at the chance to drive a real car again, noticing without daring to stare. She wore a light top with dark shorts that set off a pair of legs worthy of her angelic face. Her husband’s worry made more and more sense; this lady seemed to be a gifted Godchild with more innocent beauty than Snow White and Punky Brewster rolled together in a Cover Girl body. There were men in any major city–or any rural county, for that matter–near whom she would be far less than safe.
The big Lincoln backed smoothly around and swung right on Adams. We formally introduced ourselves, and Suzie told me a little more about her husband and their home life. “He runs a nightclub,” she explained. “He’s not home at nights a lot, and he got me an M-16. He’s told me, if someone tries to break in or to get up to the second floor, for me to stand on the balcony and spray them.”
“That ought to work,” I agree. Privately, I thought that putting this Golden Hearted girl behind an M-16 had undoubtedly sound motives–who would not want to protect her?–but might be less than effective, no more street wisdom than she seemed to possess about weapons. Still, a casual cat burglar or drug addict looking for easy prey wouldn’t be likely to hang around very long with several boattail bullets per second coming in his general direction. Maybe the man had it right.
In the final analysis, however, this charmer’s ultimate protection came not from any ability with firearms. Shucks, she was sitting within arm’s reach with both hands in plain sight. Had I been felony minded, she could not have reacted in time to harm me or defend herself. Yet she did have protection, a powerful, even invincible protection, and that from a source perhaps under estimated by her concerned husband. The Eck protected her directly, Spirit leading her to those who could help and showing her whom to trust.
Even so, my turning left from Adams onto Thirtieth elicited a highly nervous question.
“Where are we going?”
Realizing she had every reason to wonder, since I had just left a well lighted business arterial for a much darker residential area, I figured explanations in advance of every turn might keep her calm enough not to jump out of her own moving car. Putting as much It’s really OK as possible into my thoughts and voice, I explained.
“We need to turn the other way to get to Mission Valley, but we have to come over this way first to get to Texas Street because Adams–that we just left back there–has an overpass over Texas and we can’t turn onto Texas directly from Adams. This turn here, now, will take us down to Texas, then we can turn right on Texas and that will take us straight down the hill into Mission Valley.”
For a moment, she changed the subject. “How much do you think a cab will cost for you to get back?”
“I don’t know exactly. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“Yes I do. You shouldn’t have to go out of your way to drive me all the way to my hotel without at least having cab fare back. Do you think five dollars would do it?”
“Probably. Sure. That should do just fine. Now here’s Texas Street. We turn right here and you’ll see Mission Valley in just a minute.”
As we came out of the steep cut into the Valley’s bright lights, I could feel a little of the tension go out of her. Not all of it; she wasn’t home free yet, but for the first time she had more than my words to give credibility to my story. She was actually being conveyed in the proper direction. We crossed I-8, turned left, negotiated the winding street route until it curled back under the same freeway we had crossed over just minutes earlier. The Holiday Inn’s sizeable parking lot and plentiful lighting welcomed the Lincoln like a long lost son.
Suzie’s concerns vanished completely; she now knew her instinct to trust me had been one hundred percent correct. When I had trouble figuring out the unfamiliar door locking controls in the big luxury car, she leaned across my lap to set the locks in a gesture that displayed total trust. I felt grateful to the Mahanta and to this lovely channel of the Sugmad, as full of happiness as Soul can be. It is said every man has his price; I can be bought with trust.
“Thank you so very much.” She pressed a five dollar bill into my hands, preparing to dash for the lobby and a doubtless much relieved husband. Her eyes spoke volumes.
“Thank you,” I replied, and I meant it. “it’s been a pleasure to be able to help.”
It seemed unlikely an affluent individual like Suzie could grasp the true state of my finances, though one never knows what another person may have experienced in life. At any rate, I had no intention of spending my newfound wealth on cab fare. From the low-even-for-me state of thirty-seven cents, my material riches had vaulted to an incredible five dollars and thirty-seven cents. Not even steep Texas Street Hill could daunt me on the five mile walk back to the apartment. Breathing deeply and sweating profusely in friendly night air, I topped the grade and turned left to make the loop back to Adams Avenue. A song yet unborn began stirring in its cosmic womb, a joy expressing itself through an elated Eckist in the gentle depths of the city:
There is beauty in the stars
Joy is in the sun
And I find myself a-singing one more time
One more time!
The Eck is strong within me
There are races to be run
And I find myself a-singing one more time
For our readers who may not recognize terms like Eck, Mahanta, or Sugmad, the definitions can be found in A Glossary of Eck Terms at Eckankar.org.