Sunday, March 1, 2015

i love electric light

I WAS FILLING UP downtown three Februarys ago when he stepped out from under the streetlight. “Hey man,” he said. “Can you help me out with something to eat?” Good sense should have dictated doing the opposite of what I did, but it was cold and he seemed sincere, so I pulled out my wallet and opened it. I would have sworn it was full of singles, but there was only one twenty inside, and all four of our eyes were on it. Two people have never been so sure of the exact contents of a wallet. There was no point in pretending otherwise. I handed him the twenty. What else could I do? “No, man, no,” he said, pointing to the cashier. “I can go and make some change for you.” “Here, I said, I want you to have it.” He doubled over in disbelief and let out a sharp howl. “Thank you,” he said, sobbing. “Thank you.”
     I’m not telling you this story to let you know that I’m the kind of person who gives twenties to homeless people. Like I said, I don’t recommend it, especially at 5:30 in the morning in the middle of downtown Houston. It’s completely inappropriate. Indeed, the situation at the gas station escalated pretty quickly. We were standing at the pump, and the guy was asking me about Electric Light Orchestra — I was wearing an ELO t-shirt — and we were singing the chorus to Don’t Bring Me Down when this other guy steps out from under the streetlight, offers me a small glass pipe and says, “I think there’s something still in here if you want to hit it.” When a third guy steps out from under the streetlight I high-tail it out of there.

WINTER MAKES me moody — irritable, obsessive — so I prescribe myself a bicycling regimen during the darkest months of the year. It gets me out of my head and out of my bed. Three or four times a week, no matter how cold it is, I get up early, before sunrise, bike to the coffee shop and write for several hours. I find the combination of fresh air and exercise — there’s something about being conveyed on rolling wheels thats inherently mood-elevating — has a way of turning a potentially glum gray day on its ear. And out of the house I’m less tempted to distractions. I have a space of four or five hours I can really pour my obsessiveness productively into. Ive been doing it for several years now. The regimen has worked so well, in fact, I now look forward to winter.
     It’s a short bike ride to the coffee shop, ten or twelve minutes, hardly an aerobic workout, but the benefit of the bike ride transcends the cardiovascular and the musculoskeletal. It’s true, bicycling keeps me limber, and learning to turn corners and navigate curb cuts without touching the handlebars builds strength and dexterity in my legs in ways walking or even working out at the gym never could, but it’s more than mere physical exercise — bicycling in winter is a spiritual exercise. It’s learning to dance with the cold. When it’s cold I want to curl up in my cocoon. The bicycling regimen is about short-circuiting that pattern. It’s about embracing what I’d rather avoid.

AND HONESTLY, it’s Houston, so it’s never very cold, not for very long anyway. It dips into the twenties maybe seven days each winter, so it’s possible, with proper clothing, to stay warm even on a bicycle zipping through a drizzle. The ride is a kind of morning meditation. At 5:30 it’s dark, and even though the streets are well-illuminated, I’m always on the lookout for obstacles. I have to be mindful of the surfaces I’m biking over. At the same time, I’m also aware of my larger environment, one ear tuned to ambient traffic noises, the other tuned to the urban dawn chorus. I have a heightened awareness of my posture, leaning forward and backward in my seat, recalibrating my equilibrium as necessary, leaning into a turn, righting myself. My eyes are on the road in front of me, where the rubber meets the road of my life, all senses on high alert. I can’t afford to be in my head. My safe conveyance depends upon it. So bicycling can be an opportunity for the direct engagement of reality, which is what makes it a kind of meditation.
     It took me a while to figure out exactly what to wear, how to be warm enough but also not too warm. I’d underdress one morning — wrists too cold, for example — and I’d reconsider my clothing choices the night before the next ride. I got good at gauging the outside temperature by feeling how cold the glass in the bedroom window was from the inside. Some mornings I didn’t really want to bundle up in all those layers and go out into the cold dark morning, but I did anyway. And it would never be very long once I closed the gate and pedaled away that my decision to take that bike ride was poignantly validated in some profound way. Whizzing through the neighborhood, aloft on my gear-operated cloud, my senses fully open, my whole being in tune with my immediate environment, I’d see or hear something that would shake me awake — bamboo with fresh chirping from what sounds like a thousand sparrows, a man asleep on the sidewalk, a thin blanket barely covering his feet, a parked ambulance flashing its lights nearby, baby bluejays awakening. Bike ride after bike ride, I kept returning to two realizations. One, how distant we are from each other and from nature. Two, I’m not as cold as I thought I was.

A PAIR OF BLACK GLOVES, a pair of gray half-gloves, a gray thermal shirt, sleeves long enough to tuck my half-gloves under, an Electric Light Orchestra t-shirt, rainbow logo on a black background, black silk leggings, black briefs, black tactical boots, a pair of short gray socks, a pair of long black socks, a long gray-and-black scarf, a shorter gray-and-white striped scarf, black jeans, black coat, navy blue bandanna, black knit cap, bicycle helmet — that’s what I was wearing when I saw him the following February.
     I was chaining my bike to the street sign. He was holding the door open for coffee shop customers. This time I had one dollar ready, and I slipped it to him as I walked through the door he was holding open for me. “Man, I love Electric Light,” he said with a very big smile. I know he was referring to the band, but it felt like he was referring to me, like it was me he loved.
     The scenario still swirls in my memory. Im seated at a high table near the coffee condiment station with my headphones on. I see his right hand linger in the air over the cup filled with stir-sticks. I see a black plastic wristband around his right wrist — NO WHITE FLAGS in white capital letters. I remember so clearly how he singled out one stir-stick for selection, how he tore the paper packet of sugar open so gingerly, how the coarse raw crystals tumbled into the dark circle of his coffee, how his coffee steam swirled as he stirred it.
     He felt like he was part of something. I could see it on his face and in the way his whole being softened into a prayer of utter gratitude. He was inside. It was warm. The honey flowed freely and there was cinnamon in the air, and he was going to savor every blessed second of it. He was milking his coffee, literally, for all it was worth.
     I’d left the house in a sour mood that morning, and even the bike ride hadn’t shaken it entirely. I was wondering if all the mornings I’d spent scribbling away in my notebooks would ever amount to anything, or if I’d end up exactly where I’d started years ago, frustrated and misunderstood. Then I look over at him standing there, stirring, stirring, stirring, and hes just so happy to have a fucking cup of coffee and a packet of quality sugar. And I realized how warm my life was, even at its coldest.
     I pulled back the stool beside me and motioned him toward it. “I love your wristband,” I said. When he placed his coffee cup near mine on the table and reached for the wristband, I knew he was going to take it off and offer it to me. I accepted it. What else could I do? Here, he said, I want you to have it. I don’t need it anymore.