Moodswing - A questionable presence

Fleeting moments of happiness amidst the squalor of poverty

Yesterday I saw someone sitting alone on the freeway. Not sprawled out in the lanes, mind you, but he was resting with his back against the embankment and his legs outstretched across the emergency lane. No car was in sight that could have explained his presence, so I wondered how he got there. Had he been left there by an inhospitable carpooler? Did he escape off the prison work wagon? Did he parachute there?

I thought about calling the police, but the guy was only sitting somewhere he shouldn't have been, and who hasn't done that? In fact, I'm doing that right now, with my ancient laptop plugged into the wall of my doctor's reception area. I'm on deadline and don't have a choice, and people keep looking at me, wondering if what I'm doing is right, whether it's in their place to question my presence. Nobody does, thank God.

And nobody questioned that guy sunning himself on the freeway, either. Maybe that was the point, because people don't bother you much when it means cracking their car doors. So maybe the freeway guy lives in a tent village behind the bushes under the overpass and this was his idea of escaping for a moment of respite amid thousands of people, each safely encased in car metal. So I drove on, picking out places I would pitch my own tent if need be. I found a great location under the I-20 onramp near Pryor Street, but as I got closer, I saw it was already taken. Someone had piled their belongings in plastic sacks atop an old mattress. Damn, I thought as I drove by, it was the perfect spot, and I could be so happy there amid my squalor.

My friends will tell you I'm famous for wanting to live in squalor. In college, I even applied to the Peace Corps with dreams they'd station me in Honduras or something. I wanted to live in a mud hut and become a beekeeper or whatever. I was so enamored with the noble squalor of it all, affirming my place in the village by digging community latrines and spending serene evenings picking ticks out of my armpits.

The Peace Corps rejected my application because of a medical condition that had reared itself the year before. I'd been hospitalized several times because my right kidney had tired of trying to thrive on my favorite college cocktail — a miserable cauldron of poison called Smith and Kearnes, which I think consisted of cream, brandy, Kahlua, lighter fluid and fermented potatoes. The bartender needed protective goggles to mix it. Halfway through my senior year, my kidney decided to revolt by growing stones all of a sudden.

I suffered one attack while sitting on a broken-down train in the middle of the Mexican desert. I had to be driven by ambulance to the Arizona border, where I divulged my recent medical history to the nurse, who eyed me sternly, questioning the brains behind my presence there. "You should have been home hooked up to an I.V.," she said. "You should not have been sitting on that train."

But I was on a quest. Like every idiot college student about to graduate, I wanted to know why the hell I was here, because even back then, I felt I was failing my purpose somehow. I had sold my car to afford the trip to Mexico and later to Europe, where I ended up in Greece at an outdoor taverna called the Zanzibar. There I had found my squalor, all right. I was living with friends nearby, on the beach in pup huts we'd fashioned from fronds, and for a buck, the proprietor of the cafe let us bathe under a shower head he had installed on the side of his building within full sight of the diners. It was probably why the place was so popular.

I spent most of my time sitting at the taverna with a Welsh guy named Simon, where it was our practice to poison ourselves with Ouzo and watch the sunset every night. He was questioning his existence, too. We all were. Why else did we end up in the ass end of Europe, eating little squids with the eyeballs still attached and pilfering fresh water from our neighbors?

Then one evening, the sun set with such furious beauty, smearing such an absolute acid wash of loveliness over the ocean — over our personal piece of the globe — that Simon and I sat at our table transfixed for awhile. I had a brief moment of clarity at that point, with my good friend across from me, and the taverna to the left of me with wet and laughing naked people splashing about, and the ocean to my right, with the sky a silent inferno of splendor, and right then, a novel thought passed through my mind. But it didn't last long, it was just a fleeting moment. "Why are you shaking your head?" Simon broke the silence by asking me.

I didn't say anything and he didn't press me, but the answer to his question is that for a second, I had stopped questioning my presence on the planet. For a second, I stopped questioning anything, and I was just happy to be here.


Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be

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