Elizabeth Salaam 11 a.m., Sept. 17
- Community Blog
- Agonal Breathing
The Mystery of the Masonic Effigy
“Tweet,” says the little brown bird perched on a parking meter. His shrill chirp cuts through my consciousness. For a brief interval, we share a moment together. I, staring forward with both long-lashed, light brown predator’s eyes; and he, exhibiting natural selection’s solution to the predator: eyes set apart and looking both ways at once. Curiously, spying me with just one eye seems not to suffice; for he looks first with one eye, then the other, then the first again, his head and neck moving so quickly and precisely as to appear like the mechanical workings of a clock. I almost expect to hear a click with each rapid movement. He does not seem to be fearful, but curious. Save for his head and an odd feather now and again lifted out of place by the light breeze, he stands perfectly still. He looks confident, haughty even. I wonder what he is thinking, I muse to myself? “Tweet,” he exclaims, as if in uffish answer to my unspoken query. “Thanks, birdie,” I reply. “Now that you’ve cleared that up, I wonder if you could tell me who stole my framed George Washington portrait . . . and how and why?” “Tweet, tweet,” and then he’s off in a flutter, alternately flapping furiously, then knifing through the air, ostensibly off on an errand of some dire import. “Smug bastard!” I call after him and shake a righteous fist, ending our dialogue for the time being, and garnering bewildered and defensive looks from several people who happen to be passing by on the sidewalk. Apparently, they missed the first part of the conversation. “Sorry. Not you,” I offer with a half grin. So, now I’m “that guy”, I think to myself. There has been a long tradition at the coffee shop—a rule, even, it seems sometimes—that the socially-awkward, the insane, the exhibitionist is the denizen of the few outdoor tables just outside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the establishment. “Cream”, as the coffee shop is named, is nestled on a busy corner of this odd and eclectic “uptown” neighborhood populated with ethnic eateries, a school of massage and holistic healing, a small theatre, salons catering to every taste and expense, small art schools cum galleries, a Buddhist temple and reading room, independent designer clothing stores, a few bars, banks, and kitschy boutiques. Yuppies, artists, misfits, iconoclasts, homosexuals, hipsters, students, the odd "bro", and individuals of all stripes, colors, creeds and beliefs live in this small urban area. Odd ideas, odd art, odd clothing styles, and odd people are the norm, and people in the neighborhood have grown accustomed to an outlandish comment, amateurish song, pungent odor, sudden exclamation, or tirade issuing forth from the cafe's fenestrae as they pass by. An outburst coming from someone as “white-bread” and “normal” as myself, though, causes some form of cognitive dissonance that takes the passers-by a few moments to reconcile. I observe as each person rapidly asks and answers a few quick questions in a mental checklist as he continues on. Was that “bastard” directed at me? No. Is this man dangerous? He seems normal enough. Is it necessary to respond? No. Just a nod. And minimal eye contact. Okay. Cue nod, bend forward and walk more briskly. Some questions are easy to answer. We are barely conscious of our brains ticking them off, making meaning out of sensual stimuli and guiding a constant stream of action. Others, though, needle and bother and corrode. They focus their front-facing eyes squarely upon is and freeze us in fear, or eat us bit by bit unto our end. There are so many questions for me: big questions, little questions, profound and mundane both. Some questions are playful, dressed up gaudily in fruits and frilly frocks and mascara. Some wear the slick, white, expressionless mask of a phantom. Yet others are hard and cold as a little round sea-stone; and then there are ones as amorphous, rich and multi-colored as the mottled patterns created by brilliant light streaming through stained glass onto the coffee-stained carpet of an old church. I seem to spend so much time each day chasing after questions, trying to appease them with answers, or to make them feel irrelevant or forgotten by replacing them with bigger, overshadowing questions. Or is it truly that I am Valjean, chased relentlessly and fervently through the dark alleys and sewers of life by the cold logic and idealism of questions? Certainly, some relentless questions have stolen from me the peaceful tranquility and the life that I desire, much as Javert did to his quarry. It certainly wasn’t a question, though, that stole my Washington portrait, and this is what has been eating at me this morning as I nibble a strawberry anise bran muffin and sip at a scalding double Americano, its bitterness compounded by the morning's perplexities. I'm going to have to get to the bottom of this.