Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Good Person

Four or five years ago I was casting about for meaning in my life, living somewhat nihilistically, but feeling hopeful, and grateful even, for my life.  It was an oddly lonely, but rich time of musing. Perhaps I was healing from some subtle wound... or not so subtle wound, I can't really say.  I lived more or less in my head, reading and watching the natural world.  Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset: as Broadway might put it.

I worked at a Courtyard hotel in Bloomington, which the day before I quit, to become a construction worker, I tried to explain to my friend A.J.

"I think quitting is rash, Andy," calmly intoned A.J.

"I am a server, A.J.  The funny thing is, I serve a buffet.  How exactly can you be a buffet server, A.J?  I guess the truth is I serve coffee.  Wow.... can you imagine the pride I feel.  (I swagger here, and act like I'm on the make) 'Actually, Miss, I am sort of like a humanoid airpot.'"

"You make decent money,"

"For the poor, you have that right."

A.J. has an infectious laugh that is really a form of deep generosity.  People who love to bear their souls are attracted to the hospitality industry.  And I think it's telling that such a huge margin of the American economy is comprised of people serving others.  It's looked down on (like a lot of wonderful stuff) but many, many people wake up every day to love others in a formalized fashion, for very little money.

A.J. couldn't persuade me not to leave, so I put a one month notice in.  And I was scared to death, for I only had a very little bit of work in construction so far, and what I was doing was motivated by emotions, not common sense.  In the end, it was an act of self esteem, or, crazy love for my idea of myself.  But it was the wrong way to go about the right thing.  Like a lot of things I've done.  Oh, well.

To this day I enjoy the company of many of that hotels employees: they were like family to me;  another feature of most peoples work: you literally love your coworkers.  Is this the baseline of human social endeavor? We cannot be together without love?

One night I was working in the lounge, a euphemism for the breakfast bar, with some bottles exposed in cabinetry above.  My usual habit was to go to this two dollar bookstore, buy a few books, and pour over them in the "lounge" while I waited for some poor soul to come and buy a beer or chardonnay.  Needless to say, even making eight dollars an hour (plus "tips") reading and occasionally watching Book TV, isn't painful (people would walk in the lounge, and see Book TV on and ask me, "What's that!?"  "It's football in drag," I'd joke, while changing the channel to something unwatchable.)

One night a customer walked in the bar, who like many customers, happened to be beautiful.  I didn't think anything of it, as I had worked for the public for a rather long time, and your evening being punctuated by pretty women, is more or less a fair description of any person not hiding in their house.  In any case, this woman, who's name, it turned out was Deborah, sat down in the lounge, sort of took a glance at her surrounding, and sighed as if resigned to be, yet again, young and bored.

"Wonderin', like me, I suppose, what the heck you're doing here?" I asked her.

"Oh," she looked at me, faking surprise, as if a man would rather be looking at his toes than her. "I just wish I had a cigarette."

"Well," I told her, "I don't really smoke enough to keep a humidor in my pocket, but this being America and all, there is a pack of cigarettes available rather near at hand."

"Where would that be?  And could I have a beer?" she asked, and asked.

"What's your pleasure?" She told me: a watery, insipid, low carb franken-beer, that we very much did stock.

With her "beer" in hand I said, "Here you go, and just sit tight, before you're halfway done with this so called beer, I'll have your...what, let me guess, Marlboro Lights?  (For some reason a lot of fashionable women smoked Marlboro Lights in Southern Indiana... go figure.)"

"You don't have to do that," she said with an edge of real anger.

"You'd be surprised the reason why that isn't true," I told her while leaving.

Rocket science is oftentimes a few block affair (especially in terms of human sentiment.)  The best bartender in the world, is probably the one who can serve ten drinks a second without breaking a sweat (or a glass) but, hey, I was not the best bartender in the world.  I was just a thoughtful midwestern service worker who had to do things, sometimes.  And it surprised even me, what I sometimes had to do.

Returning with the cigarettes, I noticed her beer was nearly gone, and her eyes had that subtle sheen that a humans take on when you start to go from detached from the notion of having a drink, to somewhat more compelled to continue with the intoxicants.  An ex girlfriend of mine used to term this state of being, "sparkly."  Sadly, she learned to distinguish such stations off the cross from her father, a expansive lush.  My customer took a Marlboro Light from it's pack, and flicked her Bic.

"I suppose I don't need to tell you, Maam, that smoking is not legal within public buildings in this town.  We have, being a Courtyard, a lovely hibiscus scented courtyard, which I'd love to show you, should you wish to smoke."

"You can't even smoke in bars?"  she said.

"I've afraid the health of the average Bloomington alcoholic has markedly improved.  Who knew?"

"That's ridiculous."

"When I'm a few beers into tipsy, I will usually agree.  But, as a so called bartender, I enjoy being able to  smell the musty remnants of yesterdays wine."

As we walked to the courtyard, she wrinkled her nose.  For the first time, I looked at her face, and its unique beauty, mixed with her personality, which due to a surprising arousal within me, seemed less grating, and contentious, and more a product of some strange heartfelt discernment; a kind of taste, or aesthetics.  Need I admit I felt this attractive?

I opened the door for her, exaggerating my intent with a small bow, as if I were Sir Galahad.

"Please," she groaned, though a very slight smile passed her face, as any clown intends.  "Wow, it is nice out here.  Can we sit at this table?"

"Ah... " I said, groaning inwardly, possibly that I had confused her.  "Come on, I thought you needed a place to smoke a cigarette.  This is the prettiest ashtray in the whole world.  Sort of..."

"What, Andy, eager to get back to that pile of worn out books?"  she was smiling now in a manner not common to strangers.

"I'm not eager, no, though there is nothing wrong with those books."

"Just sit with me," she said, with the strange flowing ardent confidence of someone who rarely admits to, but knows things will come to them.

"Well, since you asked nicely, I suppose Daniel will attend to my typical lack off expertise at this bartending thing," I said, sitting down.

"Just because your work doesn't usually involve doing anything, doesn't mean your bad at it."


"Jesus, said to the Pharisees, 'as to rules, there are only two: Love God as no other, and love others as you would have them love you.'"

"Yes, I like that quote.  And like me, if memory serves me, like me, in the Scriptures, He was more or less always in the red." I said.

"You like to joke about Jesus Christ?" she said, with feeling.

"And everyone else I admire."

"I doubt your mockery is in earnest, if you are a Christian."

"My, ah, jest, is no mockery, and I am not a Christian." I told her.


"You heard me.  And I like Jesus words... I can't imagine my life without a Christ.  And let's face it, humanism, while reviled by so called Christians, is more or less a body at an impasse with Jesus' infectious sentiments.  He represented us to the world ruled by power, and seems to have provided a different reason for living.  I'm grateful for that."

"So grateful, huh," she said, "that you deny his sacrifice, and refuse to believe.  Thanks for your testament, Andy."

"I am not a believer, Deborah.  Yet, I see reason to believe and smile upon his compassionate example.  I cannot fathom explaining the Golden Rule to a people who believe in agency and power alone.  Much less can I imagine compassion from a people who believe that through belief alone, they might claim it.  Belief is a worthless fashion to me.  It may come and go.  But compassion is desperately difficult to pin down, and seems to me to be owed, by my people, mostly to Jesus Christ.  We should be grateful, but even that, seems separate from belief."

She grabbed my hand, and bent forward, full bore, protestant evangelic mirth.  "You are a lovely soul, Andy, and Jesus knows this.  He works within you whether you know it or not.  I know that you can feel Him, as I do.  Why are you afraid of your feelings?"

"It is true, Deborah, that I am afraid of my feelings." How amusing to say this, just then, but such is the plight of any man, most places but the privation of his own home.  "It is not true, however, Deborah, that I have a problem with the concept of an active, present Jesus Christ.  It is only that I believe his active presence to be socially constructed, and a critical part of a world formed of many, many different perspectives: none particularly dominant, but all in service to compassion.  It is an old joke to imagine Jesus on earth today, and I think that joke has its power in the difference between the way we live and the way we wish we could."

"You're just afraid... and that's it."

"No, I'm not afraid.  For example, I would dearly love for you and I to be subject in some obvious fashion to His demands.  For the dice playing dipshits of the world to have their scams revealed for what they are.  For the folks in line at the gas station to feel Him and throw their lottery tickets on the ground, say nothing of the whole enterprise of "winning."  You ever won, Deborah? Was it compassion that had your fist in the air?"

"This would be a good time for another beer," she said.

"In deference to the chains of modernity, with humility, I concede," I said, and exited briefly the humid, but lovely heavy breeze of the courtyard's evenings yellow light.

As I entered the hotel, I encountered my manager, Daniel.

"I can see some customers are always right," quipped Daniel.

"If confidence is being with the truth, Daniel, far be it from me from dissuading her."

"Oh, I'm confident you'll screw this up, Andy."

"Thanks," I said, and found another bottle of grain alcohol and water, masquerading as beer.

As I returned to the courtyard door, Daniel was still standing there.  "I see your interested in what's out there, I told him.  "Being Filipino you could give her a chance at a two hour conversion, for her corn fed cause."

"Even with my girlfriend back home, Andy, I still know what I like to look at. Are you looking very hard?  Should you need a leave of absence for an evening, I'm sure your record will save you should I be so swamped with customers, that your leaving gets found out.  Though it won't."

"My, er, customer, is thirsty, sir.  I bear water... and thanks for the offer."

"Holler if you need a wingman!"

"She just needs someone to talk to, Daniel, and I guess I would like that as well."

"Yeah, right."

Deborah was exhaling another Marlboro light into the air.  She looked as relaxed, and comfortable as an aunt or grandmother upon my return.

"I don't get it," she said, "you respect, and understand the importance of Jesus, and compassion, but don't  believe He died for your sins."

"Yes, I think that more or less describes the arrogant secular humanist.  I've never met one that thinks Jesus is a joke.  But what does your belief animate?  A better world?  You hold Him responsible to the evils you cause? Do you beg His forgiveness, or take it for granted, in a shell game of so called 'faith'?"

"I never take Him for granted, and screw you for even saying that.  My belief helps to carry His gospel.  Surely that's in His stead, not in my own.  His relationship with me changes my life, and molds it to help me be less like myself.  I'm not playing a game.  I was born a girl and became a woman, and now I have choices.  I can't imagine making them without Jesus in my life.  And I don't beg anything of Him... His forgiveness: it's been there since long before I was even a glimmer in my mothers eye."

"Look, Deborah, I think you are an earnest and caring woman. I don't doubt like most of us extremely, almost pathetically, lucky winners in the world, you don't wish the world was a better place. I just think it's a little odd, that at the very moment in this world when our lives are probably more capable of bringing agency and light, and love and mercy to the entire world, we choose to very publicly fall into meditation on such abstractions as "belief."  We could be working for commonsense good.  Working, giving, and living outside the construction of our nationality.  One group of people in the world, all deserving the blessing of all those who came before us to make us richer than even they could have ever guessed.  You hear all the time: the economy is doing great!  But what are we, and what is this economy next to the obvious admission that the economy cannot touch those very many souls who are not doing great?  I'm happy to celebrate Jesus Christ.  I'm just allergic to the notion that our greatness is somehow due to our thinking of Him and us contractually.  We can live more to His example, without borrowing it, at virtually no cost, as a kind of entitlement. Nobody can deserve Jesus, least of all the Christian who should know better.  You know, Amazing Grace!  What's amazing?  Our bored liturgy would have you believe it's anything but.  You, Deborah can be found, but I don't think we can "find" it.   It is our fallen nature to always be lost. And it is as good a description of the world we live in, as I can imagine, that you and I, at this hotel, over a drink, should see ourselves as anything but deliverers of a confusion: never an answer."

"If we are lucky," she said, leaning close to me and placing her hand around my neck, "then that is a gift from God, don't you think?"

I couldn't argue, in a physical or verbal sense with this iron trap argument.  So I nodded.

"I agree, Andy, that I am lucky.  I love the way you deny credit for the sacrifice of Jesus.  I suppose I hadn't thought of it that way, so thank you." And she embraced me, in a manner not common among strangers, even touchy feely one's like me.

We "parted" to a degree limited by the dictates of the term.  Our hands still upon one another, her hand on my shoulder and one on my bald head.  It felt warm, and wonderful in a manner known to all.  My hands her upon her shoulder blades.  My eyes fixed to the contours that a plastic surgeon must study to have any purchase in the vagaries of her field.  For once I was convinced of the genius of such a fetish.

"You dwell on things to take them apart.  But does it ultimately do others the good you wish for them, Andy?"

"No," I told her, resigned that a lie would be revealed through any other choice of words.

"What can we dwell upon, tonight, then..."

My hands approached the fullness of her question.  My thumbs stroked the full ellipse of their degree of motion.  My mind released the potion of sentiment and principle, to take up the entirety of a new mystery that was this person: beyond the capacity of it's usual hope, and "understanding."  Our steady breath beneath the undying yellow sodium light.  

There was so much that I could have said.  So very much I would have liked to.  But even for this silly man, it was obvious that I had abandoned my obligation to my ridiculous job.  And truly: if something was passing between me and this woman, could it not stay for a sober day of reflection?  Was it as enduring as the truths it pretended?  It was, I knew, my curse to wish to discover as much.

I enwrapped my arms about a woman who I could no longer so much as see, but feel.  I think I saw her briefly through eyes that she had probably been trying to conjure for me anyway.  As if in winking appraisal of such a poltergeist, I stepped between fate, and ourselves, with a few words as naked as they were unwise.

"You are a good person, Deborah.  And I wish I knew why."

And with that I released her.  To turn to the stupid vagaries that did not include a long night of discovery.

"What?" she said, with surprise, and confusion.

I touched my nose to hers, and as her chin swept to an acceptance that was as heartbreaking as it was doomed I told her the same.

"I'm sorry, did you say, 'You are a good person'?"

"It's a hard habit to break, honey."

"Can't we just go somewhere?"

"Well... are you any good at washing glasswear?"

"You're joking."

"Only on Wednesday, when I'm on the clock."

"Come on.  I'm not so serious about what I said.  We were having fun."

"I don't know how to thank you, save what I'd very much like to do.  That said, I'm gonna probably wish I was dead when I reach the cold embrace of my bed tonight.  So you can comfort yourself with that image for the rest of your life."  I slid my hands around her one last time and told her again that she was a good person.  I could just tell.

The next morning I was serving breakfast, or coffee rather, in a fantastic improvisation of a human airpot.  At some point a beautiful woman, probably comparable to most who pass through the hotel on any given day, came up to me.

"Andy?"  she said.

"Deborah, good morning.  I hope you had sweet dreams."

"Well, my best memory was long before I fell asleep."

"I admit some trouble with my bed as well."

She smiled, ruefully, and retrieved a folded note from her smart suit blazer.

"Should I wait till you are gone to look at this?" I asked her.

"No.  You can look at it now."

I opened the note, and scrawled in the maddingly gorgeous calligraphy of her well practiced hand was her name address and phone number.  "I was hoping this would be of some use, to such a lost soul as yourself."

"Thanks," I told her, and gave her a hug.  Which was nothing unusual in my business.

"One last thing... I thought about it for some time, last night, but I have to ask?"

"What's that?" I said.

"Did you tell me I was a good person, last night?"

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Thao grew up in southern Vietnam... her parents what could be considered middle class for their time (she was careful to mention, things have really changed.)  She went to public schools of course, private one's being more than out of reach.  She used to really like math she mentioned casually, when trying late in our coversation on a flight to Dallas from Albuquerque, to weigh the benefits of a job she enjoyed as a Chemical Engineer, in Corpus Christi, with the diminishment of an old joy, now used, like a childs stuffed animal, beyond recognition.

That said, she had a confrontational look, mixed with an incredibly ingratiating demeanor, that had a man believe she could slice you and dice you with plus signs, and multiplication one's too.  And don't even get her started about making a difference (she'd make a difference outa you.)  She had been merely hiinting in the manner that long conversation, that rambles the mansions of two strangers hearts, can provide an instance of small false confessions... if only to prove to herself, and with a certain squint of her eyes... myself... that what she believed, and what she said, weren't separate matters but dynamic all across the equal sign of our time together.

And it wasn't long... maybe one and one half hours.

So growing up she'd done well enough in school not to be ejected from the unnatural selection process that provided that few with what the many desperately needed: opportunity, a future, and dearest of all: security.  Food for the table from a hand that could be counted to provide it.  Thao was careful to point out that such a thing was almost unheard of: and going hungry all too common.  Even though, she was, as it were, middle class.

Her mother worked full time and came home to cook her three meals a day. "I was terribly spoiled.  But you know, I never would say, 'I love you mom,' and she wouldn't say that to me either.  In Vietnam the family is everything, and it goes without saying that you do what you must for your family without thanks, or words of love.  My brother is a PHD candidate in a Paris suburb, and the moment he received a grant for his Masters degree, he sent me nearly all the money, so I could leave Vietnam and attend college in the US.  Were it not for my brother I would not be here.  I had the tuition, but I could never have eaten, or paid my rent."

"How did you come to Albuquerque?" I asked her, now confused by this timeline that seemed to include college in New Mexico for a few years, and some period of time, from what she had casually mentioned, in Fargo, North Dakota.

"So did you see the movie, Fargo?" I asked.  "Was it like that?  I've never been there."

 "Oh," she said, "it's exactly like that!"

"Murder and mayhem in a white wedding winter?" I asked.

 "Well.... " she said, "definitely a white wedding winter.  Not so much murder... its was winter that was killing me.")

"But why, New Mexico? I'm an American, and I really had no idea what New Mexico was until my parents moved here, from Indiana.  I thought it was more or less cactus with a hispanic accent, or something, you know?"

"I was hosted by a family in an exchange program in high school.  Cultural exchange.  They were such wonderul people, I called them Mama and Papa.  They took me all over New Mexico, to California.  I remember seeing, with them, the Grand Canyon for the first time!  Can you imagine?  From Vietnam to the Grand Canyon!  They became new parents.  So I came to them this Christmas."

"Your Mama and Papa?  Here in Albuquerque?"

"Yes.  I left Fargo, to attend the University of New Mexico for the remainder of my undergraduate studies.  I have no intention of doing graduate work in Chemical Engineering!"

"Sounds like you have a tendency to make wise decisions!"

"Things are going well."

"So, your Mama and Papa, where did, or do they live now?"

"Are you aware of the mountains east of Albuquerque... The East Mountains?"

"Well, I wasn't until my parents moved to Sandia Park."

"Your kidding? Sandia Park... your parents live in Sandia Park... that's where I lived."


"That's where my exchange program was.  With Mama and Papa."

What a lovely woman to talk with on the way home.  After we exited the place, Thao asked if I would walk with her to the next gate, the predictably insane distance.  We got on a train together, and stood their chatting.  She with an almost sterling silver can do positive attitude, and I my usual sarcastic, gee whizz self.  In some ways two stereotypes... ambition and jaded indifference.  

My stop came first.  We clasped each others hand goodbye, and the longing in a strangers eyes, after connection, came to me once again.  The roads so endless, and the crowd so many.

I stepped from the train, and looked back to see her looking upon this last moment with a man she only knew as Andy.  Then Thao was rushed to the future in which she so fiercely seemed to believe.

(Though, in all fairness, it can't be that difficult to find a Thao, Chemical Engineer in Corpus Christi.  Something tells me she leaves an impression, wherever one might find her.)