On a spring day about fourteen years after my return to the States, I was in San Francisco, walking down a tourist-and-shopper-clogged block of Powell Street towards its end at Market Street, at one of the best-known cable car turnaround points. My walking companion had fallen behind me, slowed by the lure of the store windows that line the block. Ahead of me moved a river of backs, each unique and interesting. My eyes moved from one to the next until coming to rest on what seemed to be the only face heading in a direction opposite the rest of us.
He was wild, very different from the keep-it-together-and-in-crowd that surrounded him. It seemed like he was the only one traveling toward me, because I had locked onto his fierceness. It’s more likely that in order to avoid him, people going in his same direction chose to walk on the other side of the street.
He was the gray-black of charcoal. His coarse and matted hair fired off his head in angry eruption. What was left of a shirt hung open, exposing his chest and belly. His nearly toothless mouth contorted with what could have been either ranting or reveling. Whatever he was doing, its effect was adverse. People ducked into storefronts, moved into the street, sidestepped him with as wide a berth as possible. One man yanked his wife and two children behind him, adopted a fighting stance, thrust what he was holding — something small, maybe a pen or a pair of glasses – out to his full reach and shouted, “Stay back!” Their “attacker” just stopped and casually watched them, smoothly rotating to remain full-faced towards them as the man of the house crab-walked his brood around what he feared and did not want them to understand.
His arms flailed and his eyes flashed. His head pitched and tilted. But it did not occur to me to avoid this roving preacher. I wanted to meet him. What he was saying wasn’t important. I was too intrigued by the power he held, and aware of how differently I was affected than those around us by his looks and histrionics. As he carved his path up the middle of the sidewalk, I kept strolling on our collision course. A smile grew inside me. He had something to say to everyone he passed. It didn’t matter that they avoided his words like they were vomit.
When my turn came he was struck mute. He saw that I was coming and smiling, and I didn’t stop when his odor preceded him by four feet: Rot, urine, and ruin. Beneath the death-smell was a ripe aliveness, a purely organic essence, all the smells that we try to deny with our soaps and perfumes. He was a good six inches shorter than I am. A lack of food — unavailable or unimportant or both — had stripped his frame. Still I suspected he could tap into incredible physical strength if he wanted to.
When we reached each other, we paused only briefly — his mouth slack, me smiling, his eyes burning, mine glistening — then his thick lips spread into a jack-o-lantern grin and the corners of his wet eyes creased. He stepped one foot off to my right as if to pass, then spun on it and thumped his shoulder into the valley where my upper arm and shoulder join. We resumed walking with him alongside me, his weight evenly distributed forward and into me. I met his lean with just enough to keep my shoulders square and course true. He stopped raving. I kept smiling. We kept walking.
We took about six wordless strides. He was electric against my glow. I was glad for his company, ignited and freed where we ran together beneath and through the friction of our bodies. If the Brother had driven a knife between my ribs, if he had done something to leave me paralyzed or in some other state worse to me than death, I do not believe I would have regretted the acceptance and trust of that moment. Together, we were on a bridge to Grace.
And then it was over. He fired off, “Gotta go Brothuh,” twirled away from me and resumed parting the sidewalk. I was warmed and grateful. This was a part of me I enjoyed. Embracing the different and down-and-out came naturally to me. My judgment — my bigotry — was reserved for the acceptable, the cream of the American crop.
I felt appreciation, then affection for Dad in that moment, probably for the first time since he’d died. It took me a couple of years to really understand that he, more than any other person — with Mom in close second — had instilled in me that openness and acceptance. He spoke of it often. He exhibited it occasionally. And he assembled the ideal group of souls with whom to live it.
Dad, by example, taught me much about hatred and love, right and wrong.
And man he could be fierce.
For all of it I’m grateful.
That spirit of brotherhood, which had made the journey from my essence, to thought, to action, returned firmly to essence on my stroll with the angel on Powell Street. God’s messengers — angels bright, angels dark — are everywhere, always.