Warriors and Pacifists
This chapter looks at my struggle to remain a pacifist. It was inspired by actual dialogue with African-American martial arts experts. It includes discussion about the politics of tracking down one’s ethnic heritage and “white” identity.
Green: “Grasshoppers. It’s all about grasshoppers.”
Hark: “You might want to elaborate on that theory unless sounding like a fool is your objective.”
Green: “What I am saying about the homeless is – you remember the fable about the lazy grasshopper that played music while diligent ants worked all day?”
Hark: “You mean the grasshopper that starved to death in winter because stingy ants withheld food as punishment for slothfulness.”
Green: “Or, in the version I heard, the ants gave him a condescending lecture about the importance of hard work.”
Hark: “That would be better than starvation.”
Green: “Well, these homeless people that we serve are like that grasshopper. They made mistakes or bad choices. Maybe they enjoyed life and freedom too much. But, this path led to bad luck and hardship. My point is that the important ethic of the story isn’t to glorify hard work. It’s to decide if you would allow that grasshopper to starve during winter.”
Hark: “I see your point, however, it is the grasshopper that gets punished.”
Green: “This is how your wrong. It was ants that suffered. When the grasshopper died they had no more music. They worked and lived in silence.”
This conversation started prior to an emergency staff meeting. Mormon Charlie was probably going to shout at us for misbehaving again. China Mary brought chocolate to ease our suffering. Green Flake could not eat any because he adhered to Ramadan. I placed one piece of candy in the palm of my hand and, alluding to the 1970s television series, Kung Fu, I beckoned them to snatch the chocolate before I could close my hand. “Quickly, grasshopper, see if you can –” SWIPE! The trick never works with trained martial arts specialists. Hark or Green would snatch it every time. When Mormon Charlie walked into the meeting room it went dead silent. “Why are you all being quiet,” he barked. No answer. “Relax. I got bad news,” he reassured us. He went on to explain that over the weekend Oscar Crosby relapsed. He started using heroin once again after ten years of sobriety. Oscar decided that it would be more responsible to resign rather than struggle with his addiction while still treating clients. His private earthquake struck and he stood at its epicenter. I recalled the yellow balloon full of white powder that he found on Grant Jones. It must have looked delicious after struggling all month to pay rent and overdue bills. Our fallen friend was no longer permitted on site. Ten years of clean living and all the accumulated stability swiped away in one quick motion.
Mormon Charlie also informed us that the emergency shelter would close for one hour so that a mentally disabled client could shower. This client had severe issues that needed clearing up. He had a cocaine addiction and a bad case of schizophrenia. These would not be unusual problems at the shelter, but he also had a pathological fear of water. He could not go near water without a panic attack. In consequence, he managed to withhold from bathing or changing clothing for a period of five weeks. He was a walking 5150 (a danger to himself or somebody else). Mormon Charlie announced that a nurse would bring the client into shelter for a shower. The task was complicated because the schizophrenic did not trust the female nurse to see him naked and his xenophobic nature precluded that no other clients could remain on site during this time. I shunted eye contact with Mormon Charlie because, as a VISTA volunteer, I was the lowest ranked staff member. I worried that I would be elected for the duty. Mormon Charlie insisted on doing it instead. He was a tough man. Besides, the client trusted him most. The man sleeked in under the watchful eye of the nurse. His thick nitrate smell penetrated every curtain and wall. Staff split to their offices in two seconds flat. I worked the shower desk when he arrived. He trusted me for some reason. Basically, we talked about movies until Mormon Charlie arrived. The client had been incontinent during the past five weeks. Mormon Charlie had to cut the clothing off his body. There were scabs and dried blood from all the chaffing. After an one hour session the client finally departed the bathroom. He had a haircut, shave, and smile. He was a new man. Mormon Charlie emerged from the bathroom with a plastic trash bag full of waste. Without a word he threw it into the garbage can outside and went back to work. This was a boss that I could respect.
When the shelter re-opened Grant Jones was waiting to get inside. He had recovered from his binge and wanted to speak with Oscar. He previously applied for a detoxification program and was waitlisted for a bed, but started shooting up again in the long waiting period. The admission process can take months and potential recovery clients may give up the effort once that itch starts again. It took outreach from Oscar to bring him back to shelter. It was an awkward moment, because somebody had to inform Grant why Oscar Crosby was no longer employed. Green Flake intercepted Grant in front of his office., “Good to see you, Grant. Long time no see. Get a cup of coffee. Let’s talk”. Grant shuffled into the kitchen area and poured a dark industrial roast into a donated paper cup and slowly stirred in five packets of sugar. Grant Jones was a white southerner that migrated west to start a new life. The problem was that he brought all his old baggage with him. The addictions that he fled from back home followed him to California. He established friendships with artists, alcoholics, criminals, and junkies. He stole, hustled, and begged to support his habit.
This was the lifestyle he knew most since returning from the Vietnam War. He was illiterate and suffered brain damage from being shot in the head at a younger age. Salaried employment was out of question. He had many issues to recover from. Grant was deadpan honest and willingly confessed to theft and drug use. He volunteered for shelter duties and helped other clients from time to time. This actively established a routine schedule for him. Without it he would heed the call of the wild and return to the streets. He explained that he just needed to occupy his time with something constructive or his mind would wander with the hungry sprint of a poppy horse.
Grant Jones was devastated when he heard the news about Oscar Crosby. It was his fault, he felt. He exposed Oscar to the balloon filled with contraband. He tempted his own recovery advocate. His actions constructed a dangerous stream that pulled his counselor in. Instead of lifting himself up, Grant dragged somebody down to his level. He raced out of the office in self-anger. Green Flake followed him blocking the doorway, “Listen, it’s not your responsibility, Grant. This was Oscar’s demon; not yours. He lost a battle, but he still fights like a warrior”. For a flashing moment Grant calmed down. He understood.
At the same time, Oscar’s relapse made a good excuse. Grant could hit the needle blaming it on guilt. That night in People’s Park a dark reptilian creature spread its wings. The Harpie dripped saliva into Grant’s hypodermic needle as it flew above. Grant performed the magic act that he perfected all too well: he transformed into a bird that could swallow itself and disappear.
The following day China Mary was suspended for one week. She had given a platonic body massage to a client. She was one of those special women with a soul of gold. The client hurt a back muscle lifting merchandise at a temp job. China Mary was a sweet women who disliked pain. She invited the client into her home where she supplied him with homeopathic remedies. She healed him with tea and touch. The conflict was that this act of grace violated policy. Staff and clients could not mix, especially in a home environment. The client, on the other hand, was progressing toward stable life. He held a temporary job and looked for transitional housing. He was one step from getting off the streets. He operated the shower desk as a volunteer at the shelter.
In his view he was nearly staff. He distanced himself from other clients while he identified with paid workers. Slowly he began to seek extra favors like bus tickets or leftover food to take home. These were minor perks for the extra work that he did. However, he also crossed the line by walking into our offices without permission and asking for information about other clients. China Mary was attracted to him as a human being and assisted him in improving his life. They formed a close bond that hinted of subtle intimacy. China Mary had lived on the streets and identified with the client’s lifestyle. The same hands that lifted him from a homeless quagmire also rubbed the aches from his body. The line had been crossed and she was suspended for one week.
However, this was the busiest month ever. Homeless came in from all directions: illegal agriculturalists from the south, disenfranchised industrial workers from the north, displaced farmers from the Midwest, and migrants from across the ocean. They all shifted down to the Californian shelter as if it was the new Ellis island. The dike exploded and nothing held back the flood. We were understaffed and underfunded. Oscar Crosby was on permanent leave and China Mary stayed at home suspended while practicing Reiki massage techniques. I juggled university volunteers who pretended sickness over the telephone five minutes before their scheduled shift. Other university students begged to be released early due to “emergencies” at their fraternity house. Instead of recruitment, outreach, or academic reports; I worked totally on the floor as an emergency needs counselor (a position that I wasn’t qualified for, but cheap labor just the same). I did intake interviews and provided case management. The hectic pressure of each day caused volunteer retention to rapidly decline and paid staff quickly burnt out with overload and exhaustion. At the end of the frustrating week Hark Lay took me aside and pledged to show appreciation that night. He vowed to treat me to a night of barhopping in the neighborhood – my hood; not his. He would be my tour guide. “Hey, Mr. Women Studies major,” he teased, “tonight I am going to get you laid”.
“Which is more useful: a Women Studies degree or an appendix,” Hark joked. “To be honest, Hark, I couldn’t afford to remove either one these days”. I quipped back. We drank at a pub in Oakland and planned to bar hop all the way to Emeryville. The first round of pints was on me, which immediately blew my weekly social budget. Hark treated me the rest of the night. He promised to pay my fare for the journey. He swirled the remainder of his first glass before downing it. He slammed it on the desk and ordered a new round.
Hark: “I am serious. Why did you make such a foolish choice? You must of had a motive behind it. It sounds like a soul search to me, a tour of inner beasts.”
Me: “It’s hard to talk about. I have seen violence. Lots of violence. I have seen women get raped, beaten, and abused. It made sense to get involved. Maybe it was just a place to put my rage.”
Hark: “It was your chosen battlefield.”
Me: “It’s funny that you phrased it that way. I think of it as a private fight. But, I am a pacifist; not a soldier.”
Hark: “You are a warrior.”
Me: “How can a pacifist be a warrior when there is no combat?”
Hark: “It’s simple. You go where your fight is strongest. Its not about war, it’s how you hold your ground in battle that counts. Strong men can run at the first bomb strike. Weak men can charge into fire to save a fallen comrade. War heroes, like Grant Jones, can deteriorate during peace time. Cowards can prosper during war. There is a difference between soldiers and warriors. A warrior seeks the battle that is hardest. A soldier merely responds to the situation. A pacifist is a warrior if his conflict is the fight for non-violence. If he fights it with honor.”
Me: “Then why is your goal the Marines or Navy Seals? Why not fight against racism instead? Isn’t that a greater battle for you?”
Hark: “No, because I want to take it to a higher level. Racism exists, but I don’t want to stagnate by fighting it all my life. The battlefield I chose is participation in the best ranked military service. I will fight for freedom in other countries.”
The origami of the night unfolded into surprising layers. We visited several bars until we sustained comfortable elation. Food must have been one part of the evening, because I had ketchup smeared all over me. I remember a bus ride. There were wet tables of spilt beer. At one point my hand fondled a breast while tongues danced like a tight handshake. Hark pulled me away from the unfamiliar woman to continue our dialogue.
Hark: “When did you declare yourself a pacifist.”
Me: “I was still a child. There was no ritual to announce it. My father accidentally killed a man on Christmas Eve. I remember the police on our doorstep to haul him away. In his remorse, I recognized how precious life is. There seemed to be integrity in preserving life.”
Hark: “But, you kill insects don’t you. You eat meat. You would defend your family at gunpoint instead of turning your back.”
Me: “I admit I have the capacity of violence. It lurks within. Pacifism is my saving grace. It is the final line that I refuse to cross even in poverty. Without this vow, given my lifestyle, I would have become criminal long ago. I might have assaulted someone or lashed out violently. My potential for violence is full of gray area, and maybe I could explode one day. Maybe I am only a 99% pacifist.”
Hark: “If you are a 99% pacifist that leaves you with one bullet. If you only had one bullet to use in your lifetime, where would you point that gun?”
This question would incubate in the next few years to grow in importance. If I was allowed only one bullet in my lifetime what target would I choose? What would I save that bullet for? The two of us staggered into the dark underworld of Emeryville. It was an area in which all whites vanished at night. They crept into the safe shadows of suburbs. It was a district where whites walked at a faster pace, rattling keys in self-defense, and eyeing reflections in windows to see if they are being followed – raw fear by the dominant race. In this environment many whites carry that single bullet. I had no fear since Hark was my sentinel on this Odyssey into the heart of blackness. I drifted aimlessly ashore on the sails of Charon. Coasting on tributary streams we landed at a foreign coast: a bar owned by Louis Brown. Louis was an African-American man who was a born to fight. He loved to box in spare time. As a youth he joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed in Greece for four years – where he had gone native. He could speak and write Greek fluently.
Hark: “I brought you to this bar to teach you about roots.”
Me: “Yeah. I loved that television series as a child.”
Hark: “Not my roots; yours. You have been tumbling like a weed without a permanent home. Tell me about the roots that didn’t seep down deep enough.”
Me: “My ancestors mostly came from the southern states. They were Irish, Scottish, and French. I suspect that some might have been indentured servants or convict laborers. They never stayed in one place long. On my mothers side they were either Basque, Spanish, or Mexican – depending on interpretation. They were sheepherders.”
Hark: “You don’t realize the privilege of knowing your national origins. Are my ancestors from Senegal or Zimbabwe? I don’t know. My roots as a black man can only be understood anonymously. We came from Africa and we were slaves. My race in America is like a generic brand name.”
Me: “Maybe you can trace genetic blood lines to dig deeper. Scientists are working on a Human Genome project.”
Hark: “But, we are talking about blood now. That still doesn’t tell the whole story. Biology isn’t the only connection to roots. People have secret love affairs and racial mixing is common in the United States. And you should know this, since you are adopted, right?”
Me: “Right. The first six months of my life are a mystery. There are hints of physical abuse, maybe an abandoned father. There are many secrets related to my biological parents, but for me it is just a question of finding a missing chapter. The only thing I know for certain is that my biological parents were Greek and Swedish.
Hark: “Do you identify with Swedes or Greeks?”
Me: “Only to a limited degree. I love their food and music. I am drawn to Greek culture especially, because I look Greek. But, I need to keep distance. I could never have a Greek girlfriend given my adoptive roots. There are mysterious genetics involved and I don’t need any Opedial tragedy to complicate life. Overall, the roots I identify with are what you call ‘White Trash’.”
Hark: “Why would I call you ‘White Trash’?”
Me: “It is who I am. My ancestors share an impoverished background. My parents grew up dirt-poor. My adult life tastes like poverty. Debt grows on my roots like rhizomes gone bad.”
Hark: “White Trash is not about poverty. It’s about quitting. White Trash refuse to appear on the battlefield. They just vent on weaker targets. They give up trying to improve. Even wealthy whites can be trash if they gloat in spoiled privilege rather than invest in self-respect. You have an university education. How can you call yourself White Trash? Show yourself some respect!”
I eventually ventured to the bar to ask Louis Brown for two shots of Ouzo. The music of Styx was playing on a jukebox next; an odd selection for an African-American nightclub – maybe Louis was just mocking me. I saw him pouring himself a shot of Ouzo earlier. I attempted to surprise him by greeting him in Greek and unleashing the few words that I remembered in the language. Louis Brown was not impressed. He berated me about sloppy pronunciation and delivered a stern lecture in fluent Greek. To top it off he greedily claimed to be out of Ouzo – refusing to share his private stash with a non-Greek. “You are not a real Greek. Prove to me that you’re Greek,” he admonished. I wanted to kill him. I went back to the table empty handed. Hark Lay looked disappointed in me.
Hark: “All of Africa will be free before we can get a lousy cup of ouzo.”
Me: “Louis Brown ditched me. He probably served in Athens instead of Crete.”
Hark: “I’ll get the drinks. You dance with that woman who is flirting with you.”
Me: “She is black. I am white. Are you sure she is flirting?”
Hark: “C’mon think like a warrior. Go out there and liberate your white hips.”
Me: “I’ll give it a try. What fun is a revolution if you can’t dance to it.”
I approached the woman with slow apprehension. I wondered how to get her on the dance floor. Then I started thinking: the dance floor is the battle ground. I am the big bad soldier. Look at me, yeah, you know I am tough. I can remove staples with my teeth, baby. I could slide the wooden planks right off the floor with my moves. Yeah, watch me shake it, girl… She’s joining me now… That’s right, I am a fearless soldier, your Greek titan. Hit me with arrows of love. Uh huh, I see you girl, with your long painted fingernails, with your dark eyes cool as spiraling smoke. I am shaking it with you sister. Watch your powerful titan twist you in circles as if this floor is our own private boat. Yeah, you and me girl, we be connecting like my fingers around this glass of beer, like that cigarette pressed against your lips in a hot red glow. Watch me spin my hips with my eyes closed. Ohhh…look at my hips rotate like a diamond encrusted hubcap. Look at your courageous warrior… oops, song’s over.
When I opened my eyes Hark Lay and Louis Brown were laughing at me. Hark mocked my stylish moves, “Has anybody ever told you that you dance like, how should I phrase this gently, well…you dance like a fool – and did I hear you saying ‘we be’ to her”. Louis smiled as he filled four shot glasses with Ouzo, “Be nice to my man. He drinks, he dances, and he flirts with women – sounds Greek to me”. The four of us made a toast to the passion of life, then Louis Brown taught me to dance his way – in the Greek style. Somebody selected a classic Rembetiko on the juke box. Louis placed his arm around my shoulders and taught me the steps. Greek men dance together, often in a circle, and the emphasis is placed on movements of the feet. We sort of danced sideways, crossing our feet, leaning forward, squatting from time to time, and bracing each other to stay balanced. I found it strange that I learned about my Greek roots from an African-American man in Emeryville, California. When we finished Louis poured all of us another shot of Ouzo. He threw his glass at the wall afterward, shattering it, and I repeated the action. “Now let the party begin,” he shouted as the music switched to James Brown. The floor exploded with dancing. Funky, jazzy, soulful sounds is all I remember clearly from the rest of the night. In fragments, I recall the Pantheistic pleasure of merging mirth, music, and muses. The hard day at work melted away. My theories about race and pacifism dissolved. Words and motion intermixed. We fed the grasshopper who played all night.