One recent Friday your columnist started out from San Marcos after five days with his disturbed son — maybe ten hours’ sleep, total. The whole five days. Fear and heartbreak inform the ride to Carlsbad; the trip down the coast, a thing of beauty it is from the train’s window and much of the rest of the night into Saturday morning. Fear, heartbreak, and raw nerves, waiting for the sheriff’s department or some North County cops to cuff his kid and haul him to the ward. Never mind.
Let us start the column at around 2:50 a.m. the following Saturday morning. The guy writing it is standing in front of the 500 West hotel (formerly the YMCA) in downtown San Diego, smoking a cigarette because he can’t do it in his room. Costs $125 if he’s caught. A shadow, a cut-out silhouette walks west on Broadway toward him: hulking, black, and beefy. A gentle voice comes from the shadow. “Got another cigarette?”
“Sure. Got about 10, 11.”
The man steps into the illumination of a streetlight, tries to smile. “I haven’t had one of these since 2005.”
Hand him the cigarette. “Man, why would you wanna start this up again? I’m trying to ditch the habit.”
“Just one of those nights,” he says.
“Yeah…yeah. I know what you mean. Say no more.”
Remarkable people were at the Carlsbad station that Friday in the early afternoon. We were all waiting for the 2:55, and it was only 1:05 p.m. Cheryl, for one, the ex–sports writer, a generous woman who gave me some money; I was short the fare. Don’t ask. And Robert Richardson as well, a gray-haired gent with, I assume (didn’t ask), his grandson: cute five- to six-year-old. Then there was Josh.
Josh is 35 years old, a Romanian and Italian Jewish man from New England. He is deeply tanned, bearded, handsome. He has walked 40 miles from San Diego and can go no farther on foot: military property. He stands at the crossroads, as it were, trying to beg a ride. A painter, sculptor, and poet, he recently exhibited on Venice Beach, where incognito actor Michael (“Kramer”) Richardson announced to passersby, “Here is the jewel of the boardwalk!” Kramer took photos of the work.
Conversation came easily. An autodidact after some college in Rhode Island, Josh is also a Buddhist. Fiercely intelligent, gentle of manner; after some 40 minutes of philosophical intercourse on the platform, your columnist is presented with a gift. The book is smaller than a standard paperback, worn and ink-stained, the Shambhala Pocket Classic is Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha. It is clear that Josh has carried it for some years, hitchhiking many miles along the Middle Path.
“I couldn’t accept this. This is obviously something that you...”
“Not a debate.” He smiles. “It is where it belongs, I think.”
I am thinking of Earl Brockway, my high school Asian Civilization teacher who, in 1966, gave me The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. The yearbook for that year contained a black-and-white photo of my 15-year-old self at my desk in the front row, head bent forward, presented for decapitation beneath Mr. Brockway’s uplifted Samurai sword. The sword image summons another of my son brandishing one like it at sheriff’s deputies in Vista some years ago during a psychotic episode. The smile I had felt seconds ago I sense fading. Circles. A circle dance of memory.
I tell Josh about Mr. Brockway, Alan Watts, the yearbook, the sword, and my son. He tells me, “You’ve had a few lifetimes just in this one.” His smile displays very white teeth (for a smoker; “When I can get ’em; when I can’t, I do without”). “ ‘Vainly I sought the builder of my house...through countless lives. I could not find him.… How hard it is to tread life after life!’ ” He has just quoted the Buddha. Has he memorized the entire thing?
The train arrives on time. I tell Josh that it is payday, Friday, and offer him the floor of a hotel room for the night, but he does not want to return south. We express genuine pleasure at our meeting and exchange email addresses. I intend to stay in touch. That is my intention. I have, in general, good intentions, the road to perdition. That last phrase was and is the title of a fairly good movie with Tom Hanks. In it, costar Paul Newman has the line, “Sons were put here to trouble their fathers,” or something much like it.
Beauty winds past us beyond the window of the train. In 50 minutes I am downtown. The office, the bank, then 500 West Broadway, where I pay too much and deposit too much, but I need to sleep.