Monday, August 22, 2011

Don't Write Like This

A Taste of Redding:  Part 3

If I see somebody reading in public, I always try to catch the title so that I can pass judgment on them and their reading habits.  I assume all people do this, so I am wary about the books I choose to read in public.  When I am reading an impressive book I proudly hold it out in front of me, careful not to cover up too much of the title, so that people can view my erudite sophistication.  I often read what I call escapist fiction, though.  I disappear when I read these stories, able to forget that I have a paper due or an upcoming assessment at work or that the girl who competed with me and lost to be the top student in AP English in high school is about to start her residency and I am just getting around to finishing my undergraduate work.  I hunch over these books, reading from my lap, because, more often than not, escapist fiction is my euphemism for a Star Wars novel.

I was in the midst of finals week and needed to escape from campus and reality, so I sat on a couch at Starbucks hiding my novel.

“Star Wars, eh?” said the man seated on the couch across from me.

I had lost myself in the book for the last hour and forgot to cover the title.  I hadn’t even seen the man sit down.

“I’ve always liked the idea of Jedi,” he continued.  “You know, some people like the philosophy so much that there is an actual Jedi religion.”

“I’ve heard that,” I replied as I studied this enigma I was conversing with.

He was a black man in his mid-thirties.  I judged him to be about three hundred pounds and I estimated that when he stood up he would be a couple inches taller than me.  He was wearing a sports coat with a sweater and tie and had a large, round, bald head and bookish glasses.  I discovered that his name was Cornelius and was shocked at the depth of his knowledge surrounding the Star Wars universe.

I tend to keep this passion secret because even people who love the movies and take the time to know all the details surrounding them, call me a nerd when I open up my library of Star Wars knowledge.  Once, when I was taking some science credits at a community college, I was forced to reveal my nerdy nature. 

It was an astronomy course and I was sure I had everyone fooled that I was actually a cool guy.  At the time, I had dreadlocks and a pierced nose and ears.  I always asked good questions and had interesting things to say.  The professor, however, decided to utilize the last half hour of one of her classes to air her frustration with how Hollywood constantly gets science wrong.  Her ultimate complaint was Han Solo’s boast that he had made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

“Parsecs are a measurement of distance,” she railed.  “That’s like saying ‘I made it from Portland to Seattle in one hundred and fifty miles.’  It makes no sense.  I just wish Hollywood writers would have five minute conversations with a scientist or anybody who has the even the smallest grasp of scientific terms so they wouldn’t make these kind of mistakes.”

She was in error.  Her righteous anger was uninformed by truth.  My hand was raised and I was speaking before I had time to think.

“Actually, a measurement of distance is both accurate and intentional in Han’s boast about the Kessel Run.  Kessel is a planet on which the illegal drug, gliterstim spice, is mined.  This planet is surrounded by the ‘Maw’ which is a vast series of black holes that protects the planet from blockades by the Imperial fleet but also makes the journey extremely challenging to the smugglers who ship the spice.  Though speed does play a part in it, Han Solo’s boast truly is about distance.  The Millennium Falcon has upgraded engines that allow it to fly at a velocity that is fifty percent greater than average hyperdrive engines.  This allowed Han to navigate a course much closer to the black holes than anyone had previously attempted, shortening the distance and possibly even bending space due to his proximity to multiple event horizons, causing the regularly eighteen parsec Kessel Run to be completed in less than twelve.”

I had revealed my nature and the class stared at me as the odd beast I truly am.  I gathered my bag and sheepishly admitted to the silent class, “Sorry, I’m a huge nerd,” as I slunk out the door.

I didn’t have to hide any of this as I geeked out over Star Wars with Cornelius.  We were speaking about more than lightsabers and spaceships, though; we discussed the philosophy behind the fictional universe with both its literary and philosophical implications.

“Recently, a lot of the books in the Expanded Universe have spent a significant amount of time on the subject of philosophy,” I continued.  “They’ve introduced a new enemy race who worships pain and death which is inimical to most philosophies held by the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe.”

“Really?” he replied with honest enthusiasm.

“Yeah, and they do it in a manner that never seams preachy or loses the story like the Dune series did.”

We managed to continue on like this for quite some time—making it the longest serious conversation I expect to have about Star Wars—until Cornelius interjected with a seeming non-sequitur.

“Have you ever heard of the Baha’i faith?”

“Never,” I admitted.

“It’s a belief system that credits all faiths as steps towards truth and human enlightenment.”

“Oh, an ‘all truth is God’s truth’ sort of thing,” I respond.

“Exactly,” he said excitedly.  “Each religion speaks to the truth of God and it is only by studying all beliefs that we can find enlightenment and unify humanity as a whole.”

I hadn’t expected this well dressed stranger to proselytize, and I had never imagined that any conversation about Star Wars could segue into a religious debate, but I enjoyed the discussion’s odd unfolding.

“But most religions claim that they possess the only means to heaven.  How can both Christianity and Islam be correct when they each blatantly state that the other is wrong?”

“Well that’s a matter of human misinterpretation,” he responded quickly.  “Moses, Mohamed, Jesus, even the fictional character of Obi-Wan Kenobi are great prophets that all preach peace, unity, and enlightenment.  It was their followers who twisted the messages into exclusive religions.  That’s why I subscribe to the Baha’i faith; it seeks to unify rather than exclude.”

If this conversation had occurred a couple years previously, I would have been offended by the casual comparison of the Son of God to a fictional Jedi.  Before I could respond, though, we were interrupted.  

An unkempt young man about my age entered, shrugged off his backpack, and flopped bonelessly on the couch next to Cornelius before exchanging an intricate handshake that included slaps and fist bumps that bespoke of familiarity. 

“Yeah,” slurred the stranger, “the world would be better if people were more together, you know?  More unity.”

I assumed that this guy was the reason Cornelius was waiting in the coffee shop but he continued to look at me expectantly so I replied, “Unity is good and all, but it sounds to me like Baha’i strips the interesting mystery from religion and simply brings it to the level of philosophy.  How is there room for God or faith when humans hold the key to their own salvation?”

“That’s just it,” he replied.  “Religions have to lie that we need God, because that lie is what gives them power.  Humans only use something like ten percent of their brain.  Just imagine what we could do if we used our minds to their full potential.”

“Yeah,” interrupted the stranger, “this guy knows some stuff.  I just met him but he’s the shit.  And you,” he pointed at me nearly falling off the couch, “you’re a fuckerhead.”

“Buddy,” Cornelius said holding out a hand to stop the newcomer or perhaps to keep him from falling to the floor, “I don’t know you but we were having a nice conversation before you arrived, so please stop interrupting.”

“I’m Hamilton,” the young man stated.

“That’s a name I don’t hear too often,” I offered, in a friendly attempt to overcome his obvious animosity.

“Named after the president, fuckerhead” he responded proudly.

“You mean the Secretary of State,” Cornelius corrected.

“No, I’m on the ten, see,” Hamilton replied as he patted his pockets looking for his wallet briefly before giving up.  “Think I forgot my wallet.”

“Listen kid,” Cornelius said, raising his voice, “you’re obviously high on something, your pupils are saucers, so sit quietly and calm down while we continue our discussion.”

I noticed for the first time that his eyes were all pupil.  I admired Cornelius for his observation and worldly wisdom and was glad that he considered me a worthy conversationalist.

“Where were we?” Cornelius considered.

“I’m twenty-two,” Hamilton spurted, a step behind, “and I just had a drink or two this morning.”

“Whatever you say,” Cornelius responded dubiously.

“You’re gonna give me a ride home,” Hamilton demanded.

“No, I’m going to pick up my kids from school.  In fact, I better get going,” Cornelius said to me as he got up to leave.

“Pick em up on the way,” Hamilton stated as he retrieved his backpack.

“I don’t want you anywhere near me,” he responded with disgust.  “What makes you think I would allow you to be near my kids?”  To me he said, “It was nice meeting you, Andrew.”

“Thanks for the conversation, Cornelius,” I responded and shook his hand.

Hamilton was getting worked up and I thought I’d save the Starbucks employees the hassle of dealing with him.  I had five inches and about a hundred pounds on him and I figured that if he got too out of hand I could always sit on him so I said, “I can give you a ride.”

“Fine,” he replied and stomped out the door.

“My car is the white one over there,” I pointed, directing Hamilton through the patio where people sat enjoying the afternoon sun.

An older man sat at a table along our route.  He was reading the paper and smoking a cigar.  One of the chairs at his table obstructed our path slightly and Hamilton stopped to push it out of the way.  His actions were slow and normal at first, but then it was if he had a muscle spasm and flung the chair the last few inches.  The table rocked and the man’s drink fell on the ground.  His hands began shaking the paper with surprise or rage and the cigar fell from his mouth as he slowly repeated “What?  What?” 

Hamilton continued walking to my car as if nothing had happened.

“Uh, I’m really sorry sir,” I stammered.  “I just met this guy and I think he’s sick or something so I am taking him home so he doesn’t cause a scene here.  I’m sure if you explain what happened to the baristas inside they’ll give you another drink.”

“What?  What?” was all I heard as I quickly followed Hamilton.

“Aw man, did you just apologize for me?  I don’t need you apologizing for me” he shouted angrily.  “Did I spill that Grandpa’s drink?” he reversed abruptly.  “I should go back and apologize.”

The older man was no longer on the patio.  I assumed he had gone inside to clean up and call the police.  Hamilton may have been an idiot but I didn’t think he was a criminal, so I hurried him into my car and said, “Don’t worry, I explained everything to him.  We need to go.”

“So, where do you live?” I asked as we pulled onto the street.

“Let’s go to the mall!” Hamilton exclaimed.

“No, we can’t go to the mall.  You don’t have your wallet and I don’t have any money.”

“Why don’t you have any money?”

“I’m a poor college student.”

“Oh, you go to Simpson?  I live right by there.”

I was glad to have a direction, but was a little concerned that someone who was on potentially dangerous drugs lived close to the conservative Christian campus.

“Hey, drive up next to that car,” he said pointing to a small yellow truck.  “I know those fuckers.” 

I obliged him as he rolled down the window.  As we drew alongside the truck he leaned out the window, waving both arms and flipping off the truck as he laughed and yelled senselessly.  The elderly couple looked shocked and took the first available right turn.

“Oh shit!  I didn’t know them, but they sure got a kick out of me,” he shouted as he continued to flip off the roadway.

“Mind if I smoke?”

“Knock yourself out,” I responded. 

I was beginning to question the wisdom of giving Hamilton a ride home, but I figured that even if he got us pulled over, the truth would get me out of it and my passenger would sober up in a jail cell.

“You do drugs?” he asked abruptly.

“No, I’m clean.”

“Good, good . . . ever do meth?”

This question seemed unnecessary in light of my previous response but I clarified anyway, “No way, meth is a seriously bad drug.”

“Good, if you liked meth I woulda been pissed.  I woulda, I woulda beat you up if you liked meth.  Meth is bad, it’ll fuck you up.  It’s bad, but sometimes . . . sometimes it’s so good,” he concluded in an enraptured sigh. 

“Ah,” I thought sanguinely, never truly realizing the implication of this revelation, “he must be high on meth.”

“I had this roommate once, found out he was making meth in his room.  I beat the shit outa him before kicking him out but . . . but man we did have some good parties back then.”

He swung his face next to mine and blurted, “You know, I’m about five seconds away from ripping that nose ring outa your face.”

I had lied to him before.  I had done plenty of drugs in the past and felt like I could understand the fluid reality of his thoughts.  I hoped that if I confidently put forth the reality that what he said was a joke, he would believe that he had been joking, so I chuckled and said, “Gee, I sure hope you don’t do that.”

He continued to stare at my nose as he growled “No seriously, man.”

I finally began to admit to myself that giving this guy a ride had been a bad idea. 

“Don’t worry,” I continued with a nervous chuckle.  I reached up a quickly flipped my crescent septum ring up into my nose.  “See, it’s gone, no problem.”

He was quiet and motionless for the first time since he had stumbled into my life.  This lasted for about twenty seconds before he erupted.  “You better tell me where the fuck that thing went before I go looking for it.”

I realized that my size advantage meant very little in the confines of my car.  “It folds up into my nose, see,” I stammered as I revealed my nose ring.  “Out, in, out, in.  Not everyone wants to see my nose ring so sometimes I hide it.”  I left the nose ring hidden hoping he would forget about it.

“Here’s the school, so where do you live?” I asked to distract him.

“Right there,” he said as he pointed to a shack on the edge of campus.

I pulled into the driveway and he got out.  Holding the door open he turned and said, “When I first met you, I thought you were a fuckerhead.  That black guy, he was cool, but you gave me a ride and you know what?  You’re still a fuckerhead, but thanks for the ride.”

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