ELYSIAN FIELDS LOST
They all disappeared for a while. Then Daryl, his mom and their black friend showed up
living across the drive in the next building with a Vietnam veteran named Randy. I had seen them all over there
before, drinking with this guy named Randy on the iron stairwell that led up to his apartment on the house's south
side (facing our yard and driveway). They all seemed to be getting along real well - as long as they had a bottle
to share from. They weren't very far away, but they weren't living right next-door to me in the same building!
Some might wonder just exactly what business it was of mine whether or not so-and-so was living in such-and-such place, but when you've got a scary nest of social reprobates living in your immediate environment, it can have a considerable effect on your quality life. (There's just nothing worse than being scared or feeling uncomfortable at home or at work!) Here's Abraham Maslow's theory of needs at work; you've got to feel secure in your surroundings before you can go onto the next step of progress in your life. So this is why I kept on going over to see the landlady all the time about Daryl and his mom and all the other things. Some can understand this, some never will.
For those who never will, I offer the profile of the typical mass murderer, according to one of the nation's leading experts on serial killers, Mr. John Douglas, the head of a special FBI crime study unit in the 1980s and 1990s, and a person who was reported to have interviewed more imprisoned killers than anyone else in law enforcement. The typical serial killer is a white male between the ages of thirty-five and forty who, because of a long history of personal life failings and occupational failings, has need to manipulate, dominate or otherwise control others. Now, I don't know whether Daryl would be placed in this typical category of this particular type of sociopath, but who knows? Who knows? I know that I was not comfortable with him and his mom living next-door to me. And in the latter part of the 20th century, in such times of adolescent gun-wars, sociopathic serial killers coming out from nowhere, and exponential increases in general crime, you can't be too careful or paranoid sometimes (not in New Orleans, anyway)! You must constantly be aware of who surrounds you on the streets, at work, at home and at your local McDonald's or Lubey's Cafeteria. True, you can't be so damned paranoid and suspicious that you go overboard and cause someone to be unjustly accused or otherwise unfairly suspected of socially detrimental conduct, but you have the singular responsibility of ensuring that you don't end up sprayed head-to-toe with a mad gunslinger's bullets out in an environment which may be as deceptive (and inviting) to you as the mouth of the Venus Flytrap is to a fly, or lured into the layer of some soulless, murdering rapist like Milwaukee's Jeffrey Dahmer. Where do we draw the line as far as going overboard is concerned when we have such grisly occurrences happening around us to people like us? I like to think that answer is as simple as "do what you can when you can." But, of course, it's not - except in New Orleans! But that's just what I do. That's exactly what I did with Daryl and his mom. In America, everyone has rights (or they're supposed to anyway), even irresponsible, social reprobates. There's no such thing really as accountability. So many seem to be able to get around so many things that so many of us others can't for one reason or another. Does your life revolve around getting stinking drunk, picking fights with people you don't know, letting your sense of personal responsibility (and hygiene) go to hell, depending on another (or others) to get you by, or otherwise being a big pain in society's rear end? That's what I perceived Daryl was doing. It couldn't have all been his fault though, not with a mother like that!
A short time after Daryl and his mom got kicked out, he showed up with a shopping cart to haul their belongings out of the yard where the deputies dumped them. I don't suppose that it ever occurred to the 1937 inventor of the shopping cart, Sylvan Goldman, that his creation would not only benefit shoppers a great deal in the future, but also drunken, social reprobates needing to move their personal effects out of the rain! His tidy invention has come to symbolize a lot more than really convenient shopping in the late 20th century. It has become virtually synonymous with the problem of the homeless class in the U.S. It is serving a far greater need now than Mr. Goldman might ever have imagined, bringing their plight to the attention of the rest of the country. But there was Daryl, homeless not by unavoidable circumstances, but by sheer irresponsibility, the effects of his dereliction bastardizing, cheapening and diluting the noble new need of a truly American symbolism. Well, he hauled all of their stuff off and dumped the cart by the street curb. I hope somebody who really needed it found it there.
It seems as if New Orleans attracts vagabonds from every direction, especially from the North. They come down thinking that there awaits some sort of bastion for them, a place where they can wallow in self-dereliction, and not suffer any consequences for it as they would in any place where there is a decent society which expects a minimal amount of input from all of its members in order to exist with everyone's rights intact and free of violation. Daryl and his mom seemed to be in that Northern crowd's number. They were pleased with what they found in New Orleans. They accepted it with everything they had without question. They had complete and total faith in it, for they had managed to get along as well as they probably ever could expect to there. They adopted it as their own, and called it their true home, taking full advantage of the lenient liquor laws to continuously medicate themselves into happy oblivion (this need to warp reality was their primary source of motivation in life apparently). There they were finding comfort in their own abuse and neglect. There they had found a home well-suited to their needs. There they felt free to accept who they were and the way things are, but it never saved them at all from what they really needed to escape.
Tennessee Williams referred to New Orleans as his "spiritual home," whatever the hell that's supposed to mean. (Of course, he could never bring himself to live there for any substantial length of time!) And what an array of soulfood he found there to feed his creative fancies (or, should I say "fantasies"?). Just like all the winos and vagabonds whose soulfood is found in a bottle, he found his in New Orleans. Empty spirits are the only kind found both in a bottle and in most of New Orleans! All those winos and vagabonds can't possibly be looking for truth in their bottles, because that's exactly what they're trying to escape from. But sadly enough for them, how true is the statement "In vino veritas!" And, if in vino veritas - literally "In wine there's truth" - then the sight of Daryl's mother at the bottom of the concrete steps so often, lying there with the physical and mental agility of a simple protozoan, must surely have been a statement of the ultimate truth about people in general.
As Daryl and his mom adopted New Orleans as their own, so were they adopted into New Orleans and its "culture." Both of them were perfectly Northern and quite Germanic, with not a hint of the South, nor French or Spanish culture or attitudes in them, yet they fit right in. But, of course, they were American, and New Orleans, though it may be known as the "Queen City of the South," and though it's permeated by all things French and Spanish, is also quite American, being as much a product of the North as it is of the South. It is part Old World and part New World, part American and part international. But what it is mostly, and what those like Daryl and his mom like best about it, is that it is, like some old tom cat who is king of his alley, just a mixed-breed with hardly any right whatsoever to get high-nosed about anything. It may be proud, but it's still just a mutt.
This is reflected by the company which is kept within its parameters, like all the winos and vagabonds. But there are quality vagabonds, so that's not to say that they're all bad. At least there used to be quality vagabonds in the world. The great French writer, Rimbaud, was just such a quality vagabond. He may be rightly referred to as the king of vagabonds. Here was a man of high stature who wandered about the earth to learn and to grow, painting with words in fleeting clarity symbolic hallucinations of life, and weaving magic spells of sensations superior to thought. But the drunks attracted to New Orleans only want to dull their senses and forget about life! Yes, those who are regarded as paganistic in other places, but who find a comfortable niche in New Orleans, seem intent on warping reality to suit their particular needs, making such warping of reality another accepted hallmark of life in the Big Easy. Their credo must go something like "Never mind if it bothers anyone else, if you've had it so bad that you've got to treat everyone else like crap, then go ahead!" (Of course, that's not to infer in any way that such people are even capable of carrying on with such a high-caliber practice as living according to credos.) The best of them sober wouldn't be able to replicate the very worst of the boringly clear and vivid, cynical and depressed images of life produced by a certain other French wanderer/writer who comes to mind, Baudelaire. (If that's the case, then it's best that they all stay stoned out of their minds!)
Too much alcohol often makes things seem cheaper than they really are. Too much alcohol can tend to make one take everything that one is blessed with for granted. Life itself is made to seem worth considerably less than is actually the case when viewed through the bottom of a booze bottle.
But alcohol is only one of countless addictions which entice and entrap humans. We so often find ourselves in less-than-desirable situations, and it is somehow in our nature to want to escape from uncomfortable conditions. It's as if we're somehow not meant to suffer, and we somehow know it deep, deep down inside ourselves, as if there's some vestigial sense that might be surviving in our souls from some long ago form and purpose of humankind. I'm not talking about pure instinct, or even reason or common sense. I mean something for which we no longer have a term or reference, as if there's an ancient variable missing from our human spiritual make-up.
So many of us seem to be so driven to replace something missing in our lives, something we actually have no conscious awareness of, like this missing variable - let's label it as we seem to do with every missing variable, and call it X (as in 3 + X = 7; as in LIFE + X = PARADISE). Our variable X comes in so many packages - food, cigarettes, etc. It is the X in sex, as with those who are addicted to or who use sex as a form of escapism. It is the X in X-MAS where it has replaced "Christ," a sacred name to many of us who are sickened by its repeated abuse by those who utter it ad nauseam in their attempts to convince themselves and others that it is yet another way to escape from that which they can't fully understand - life.
Understanding the big picture is what we seem to think it's all about. If we can't understand something, we fear it and we want to get away from it. I'm sure there is a lot to life which simply has nothing to be understood by us. This has to be realized, or we'll all go crazy. The magic answer to tough questions like "Why?" is "Because!"
"Why are planets round?"
"Because that's the way they turned out."
"Why do you have to conjugate French verbs eight-gillion ways to say the same things that we have three or four ways to in English?"
"Because that's the way the French have been saying things for well over a thousand years (and habits that old are damned hard to break)!"
Just because! (It's a simple approach, but it pretty much keeps me off the bottle all right.) Our need to understand may result from the absence of our missing spiritual variable X. Maybe we're trying to find it when we're trying to find out every little mystery there is about the universe and existence. Maybe this is what physicists are trying to get to. Maybe that's why there's a new religious guru popping up every ten years who manages to take a lot of people for the financial ride of their lives in places like the U.S. and Great Britain. Perhaps we're driven to recover X and be whole again. But, unfortunately, to be able to ever do that, we must be able first to understand that which we cannot and never will in our earthly form. Someone who gets something stolen naturally wants to recover it. But in the case of our missing variable, we can only assume that we ever had anything there in the first place to get stolen. We have no proof of it; it's as if some of us are ransacking the house to find something because we walked in one day and felt that something was out of place for some curious reason or another.
So, some of us start feeling as if something's missing from our lives, and we find a replacement for it in the form of an addiction. But the substitute never really fills in the gap; it just makes us forget that the gap's there. That's all that some people really need, like Daryl and his mom with their booze. They could have been more content; the problem is that they never realized it. So they drank up and believed in it. They believed what the booze did for them. They believed in New Orleans because, as I said, it seemed to them to be a place where one is free to put all of one's faith in a bottle (or, more recently, in a crack pipe!). And when one believes in something so much, one grows to love it absolutely. It becomes an obsession, a whirlpool that lures and hopelessly swallows those who are too taken with it to fight the currents drawing them nearer and nearer. No one's vision is as distorted as that of somebody who is in love. Those who are in love with something, someone or someplace (like an addiction, like themselves or like New Orleans) can see only what they like to see - that which they love so much, and nothing else.
Sometimes the whirlpool sucks them down so hard that it shoots them right down to the rocky bottom and kills them, keeping them forever that way. But sometimes they escape its vacuum and come back to the top, badly bruised and ravaged from the disappointment of regaining their senses. They're the lucky ones! (Maybe it's fairer to say that lucky ones are the ones who never get drawn down in the first place.)
I feel it's safe to say that if you're not feeling at least a little pain in your life once in a while, then you're not really living. Without pain, there can't be such a realization that comfort can be had. Without pain, you have no way to gauge whether or not you're feeling. And if you're never knowing if or how you're feeling, then you might as well be dead. Surely, all of us who have pain are living, and to try to cover it with something, like an addiction, is like playing dead. And when one plays dead, one may be able to fool others, but not oneself! (And if you can't fool yourself that way, then there's no sense in trying to escape reality like that - the situation is still realized by you, the person to whom it matters the most!) So we should be glad if we experience some pain every once in a while, or maybe even all of the time, because that means we're alive and real (sort of like getting pinched to be sure you're not dreaming), and doing what it is that we're supposed to be doing here on earth - living.
Those of us who are able to realize and accept the fact that we have pain are the ones who are of the most use and, therefore, value to our fellow human beings. We are the ones who are most able to recognize that others have such pain, too, and, accordingly, are able to help others and each other deal with it. Those who won't admit they experience pain, and those who try to mask their pain with addictions and other such behavior, are no less valuable than the ones who recognize their pain, but they're certainly a lot less useful to society as a whole than those who can and do realize that their pain is shared. They're dead - dead carcasses lying in everybody's way, being a nuisance for everyone to have to go around all the time and making things in general unnecessarily harder than they have to be. They're that way mostly by their own choice of actions as premised on their moral responsibilities to themselves and their fellow human beings. That is to say, if they need help and it's not offered to them, then they have the moral obligation to everyone to ask for it and to accept it in good faith when it does come around to them. There is just no place for any who choose to keep their pain to themselves by hiding it in a foolhardy attempt like trying to replace it with such an illusory proxy as an addiction. Likewise, those who can help are also morally obligated to extend aid in good faith where it is needed.
Some might be wondering just what this pain is that I'm talking about. Well, it comes in a broad spectrum of intensity, from the pain of breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or getting an "F" on report card, to losing a child in an automobile accident, or losing your job, your home, or your only dream in life. I'm talking about everything from finding yourself bald from cancer treatment to finding yourself alone. I'm talking about everything that hurts which you have learned something from that you can pass on to others to make their ordeals with it less stressful. Life, indeed, is like a battle field sometimes, full of land mines. Our biggest defense is ourselves, and how we can comfort and help one another through, navigating safe trails for others which we know to be clear of obstacles from having passed over them ourselves.
Of course, there will always be those who never listen to anyone warning them that they're headed for a mine field, even if those giving the warning might have had an arm or leg blown off in that field! Many are those who won't or just can't get it. It could be raining chicken dung, and they still would go out without a hat or umbrella. Some people just keep going in the same direction, even though the road for them may have ended long ago. And when presented with solid evidence or proof, they either hear, but choose not to listen, or they see, but don't bother to take the time to look at all. Stupid idiots! So many could help so many others in pain to get relief, but so many of those who experience the pain won't let them! Well, that's their problem then. But, unfortunately, as I've said, it can turn into everyone else's problem, too. It's not the problem of those who try to help, though - not until they themselves become spiritually jeopardized and/or fatally discouraged by the haphazard non-heedfulness of those whom they're trying to help until they reach a point where they no longer can bear to give any more help. Then it becomes their problem - a big problem - and everybody else's, as a result.
Oh, but for the issue of belief! What and whom can we, should we believe? If a stranger tells you that you're headed for a land mine, do you believe him? If a friend tells you the same, what then? Do you choose to believe one and not the other, or both or neither?
If only we could believe everything we hear, how easy it all would be. No doubt would ever hinder our progress. No suspicion would ever jade our trust in others or ourselves. We could confidently march the straight path of truth, never needing to make decisions, as life would be as easy and as quick as connecting two dots on a smooth plain with a single, graceful line. And we, ourselves, would also never raise any suspicion or doubt - we would be perfect. And that's where the real problem comes in; we are certainly not perfect. This existence in which we live acts as the keenest magnifier of our collective imperfection. How unfair it would be then, if everyone believed everything; the flaws that each one of us has which should justly be exhibited in this life would never get brought to light for others to observe and regret. We would all be deceitful to one another, and some a lot more than others in our present condition.
But we are not living in a blind existence that could make liars of us all. And it is our task to make choices, whether that is what we care to do or not. We must choose from what we are presented with (which isn't always very clear), and we must act upon those choices that we are able to perceive. We must be selective with our actions, making sure that our decisions are as sound and right as we can. That's all we can be realistically expected to do. Those who don't follow in this manner are being deceptive. When a decision or choice is made in the right way and it turns out to be wrong, then it is still right because it was made the just way.
So, choice is a key element in decision-making while we trudge through this existence, an element which is primarily influenced by what we are brought to believe (I say what we are "brought" to believe because none of us can really come to believe anything without help). Belief is the master of choice.
Does belief itself have a master? Behaviorists are inclined to say that action or behavior rules belief, that certain beliefs are taught or otherwise formulated in the context of certain behaviors. Belief and behavior - can the two really be so easily separated and categorized so distinctly? I'm inclined to think it's not so. I don't think that one can exist without the other's influence. An example would be the ritualistic behaviors associated with most religions. Faith in anything must be attributed almost equally to both belief and acts of devotion.
Another good example of this may be found in human sexual orientation. Does a heterosexual act heterosexually because that's what he or she believes is correct and natural? Does a homosexual believe that his or her sexual orientation is correct and natural because that's how he or she feels most inclined to behave? (We know that there are heterosexuals who believe that homosexuality is not correct and natural, and because of this belief, they act in ways towards homosexuals which are not considered correct or natural by anybody's standards!) Here, I think it's safe to assume that both forces are at work with both types of sexuality. Perhaps the best proof of this is with the third sexual orientation, bisexuality. The bisexual believes that one sexual orientation is correct and natural in one situation, and that the other is appropriate in another. Actions and belief do not polarize bisexuals as they do homosexuals and heterosexuals.
In any event, there's no disputing the fact that people can be influenced by other people and by situations in their lives to believe certain things and to act in certain ways accordingly. In the case of the addict, a belief has been fostered that the addiction is needed and that, in turn, can perpetuate the addictive behavior (or the addictive behavior has brought about the belief in itself). This is what I see in people like Daryl and his mom. I can't really make the distinction between whether it's belief or behavior that keeps them in the condition they're in, but I can see it, nonetheless. Anybody who has eyes can see it; no particular credentials are needed to recognize and diagnose that which is destructive and, therefore, wrong. Even a three-year-old knows that a drunk daddy is a bad daddy when that drunk daddy hardly ever lets the real one out! So, is it surprising that one neighbor can know that another neighbor who is always drunk is bad (or wrong for never letting the real, sober neighbor out)? No indeed! Drunk Daryl and his drunk mother were wicked entities because they hardly ever let real Daryl and his poor old mom out to enjoy the real world.
This can happen with anybody, and it can happen for a whole host of reasons. This is why we need to learn to read the signs that seem to be so carelessly scattered all around us. They seem to be scattered carelessly, but they're really not. They're just not in the order that we expect to find them in - or that we'd prefer to find them.
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