Tuesday, June 19, 2007

getting out

Large black cop at corner table, getting ready to leave. Holds up Bible and book with pigs in the title. "This is great stuff. This is right where I'm at, you know?"

Small old Indian man with cane and checkered pants: "What is that book?"

Cop: "This here's about the Spirit."

Indian man: "What Spirit?"

Cop: "The HOLY Spirit."

Indian man: "Oh yes! When I was a boy in Madras, a French priest came to our school, and he sang this song 'Come Holy Spirit' in my language. I am so drawn to that! I love this Holy Spirit!"

The cop, the Indian man, and the Ethiopian coffee shop ladies banter about handcuffs for a few minutes before the cop leaves. The ladies go back to work (having been chatting with the Indian man about the friend he visits every day in the nursing home, and his next trip to India, while I eavesdrop shamelessly from behind Syme's Roman Revolution.) The Indian man asks what I am reading. We strike up conversation and he tells me,

"I was never married, but I used to tell people that I have two women in my room. They ask what are their names. I say, MUUUUU-sic -- I love music, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky--and books. I read, I read, oh, I read everything. I lie in bed and write in notebooks. See? [pulls out notebooks] I write down what is inspiring and beautiful, and I read it to my friend Sonya [in the nursing home]. We are friends fifty years! She is Lutheran; I am Catholic; she is a beautiful, beautiful woman. A beautiful soul. She is not interested in sex either so we can be such good friends and talk about everything."

He says he likes to read about the great philosophers, and he always skips to the end to see what they did and said at their death. He tells me about Plato, Pascal, and Voltaire. "I don't say I am not afraid. Everyone is uneasy about the unknown. But what I know is so beautiful! and when I have done what God gave me to do, I am ready!"

I ask what he did before he was retired (he is 83). For the next twenty minutes he tells me how he was a teacher in India and came to Chicago without a green card. After a job transporting mail on the railroad, he managed to get into Loyola for a masters in social work because the head of the department knew the priest he had studied under in India. Then he was alternately a teacher, a social worker, and a missionary of sorts (I couldn't always understand his English). He talks with deep emotion about the priests who had mentored him. "They gave me so much; GOD gave me so much, I must give to others, to share the love of God, the love of Jesus. I don't want to waste any minute of my life! People say in letters, you are a leader, well, you know, a leader is someone who loves other people and lifts them up to do more than you yourself have done. Jesus says this, you know, that his disciples will do the works he has done and more also. This is a leader."

He shows me a poem he is writing about the Holy Spirit, and a campfire song written by his boyhood mentor.

I need only nod and smile understandingly to keep the flow of words coming. I half-watch for closing time so I can leave, but am also moved by his warm-hearted enthusiasm.

The Ethiopian coffee-shop lady tells him about someone in Africa who is 140 years old. "He eats honey every morning! Is so good for you! Keep you strong." She goes across the street to buy him a loaf of bread ("Whole wheat. Is better.") so he can eat honey on it.

I leave to collect my vegetables from the farmers' market before it rains, happily reminded how many interesting people there are in the world, and how worthwhile it is to occasionally venture out of the house to find them.

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