Teaching Street Meditation

Cigarettes sucked to the butt, lie dead on the sidewalk like flat white and orange cancer worms. Not my ideal place to meditate, but I’ve committed to 2 hours of sitting on this grungy street in the Mission District of San Francisco. The handwritten sign above my head reads Free Meditation scrawled with one of my son’s purple smelly markers. I’m surrounded by a small legless dog, its toothless owner, and a woman muttering to herself. They are waiting to take a free mobile shower thanks to the nonprofit Lava Mae. I had some kind of fantasy that the cardboard box campers, hungover, strung out, would sit with me, close their eyes, allow me to guide them through some mindful breathing. Instead the first hour is me and them, the guy blasting AC/DC on his cassette player boom box, a mom with two toddler children sitting in my guest meditation chairs, and a homeless kid talking to himself about fairies. I close my eyes, breathe in the secondhand smoke, try to ignore the broken needle on the curb a few feet away. The Lava Mae staff encourage people to sit with me. We are offering meditation today Charlie, want to try it? They ask the toothless man. But Charlie just looks through me like he’s on his 3rd tour in the ‘Nam. They all ignore me, like they ignore the Back in Black screeching out into the foggy Saturday morning air.

I try to meditate, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes catching glimpses of people throwing their used towels into a bin as they trudge away to get dirty again. Then this guy sits down next to me to dry off after his shower. My altruistic heart skips a beat. This is what I’m here for, to save someone, to be an example of peace, to add hope to the psyche of the streets. He’s tall, maybe 6’6, light skinned, African American, carrying a large blanket like a cape, like a king. You meditating man? He asks. Yes, would you like to sit with me? I say, almost sounding like Linus speaking about the Great Pumpkin. Nah man, but that meditation stuff is some good shit, I like that shit, but I came here to get my ass clean. His eyes look at me clearly, no booze on his breath, no weed smell around his edges. You’ve meditated? I ask. Yeah, meditated, yoga, visualization, all that shit. We talk about his hoops career, (he played divison one ball in college), his ex-wife, his old job selling cars, his race (Man, I didn’t discover my blackness until I was like 20, I was raised by white folks who’d adopted me), his descent into crystal meth. I ask him about living on the streets. Dan, man, I never miss a meal, I sometimes walk 12 miles a day from place to place. I sleep wherever, in a tent, in a box, on the bus to the casino up north. I don’t ask him if he’s still using, but my money says yes. You want to get off the streets? I ask. Yeah, but I want someone to write my story. I was a pro baller in Europe man, fuck, people need to know about this shit. I look down at my watch, an hour has passed talking with Dennis and my time is up. I grab my sign, say goodbye to the Lava Mae people, then to Dennis. I want to give him my card, meet with him again, write his story, save him from his end, but all I can manage is, really good to meet you, stay strong. With that he is off, clutching his blanket, a giant of a man, almost elegant, owned by addiction.

I get home and immediately go to my computer. There he is, averaged 9.7 points a game his senior year, his LinkedIn profile shows his last job as a car sales manager near Sacramento. He was telling the truth, I think. A real man, a real human being, off the grid, gone, maybe forever.

One Foot History

I remember being in front of the classroom; leg shaking slightly, the sweat was no longer just in my pits, there was a wet ring expanding to the size of a sand dollar, darkening my Arrow shirt. On the board in my handwriting, Violence is the answer. The words simply arranged to spur discussion, debate. We were moving towards studying General Sherman and the Civil War, the scorched earth policy. Weeks later we’d compare Grant to Truman, and the dropping of the A bomb, but I always started with probing student psychology, trying to get kids talking and thinking out loud. Still on one leg, Raymond was also sweating, we were 20 minutes into class, his leg was wobbly. Raymond was the center for the football team; he kept coming to class late, my pleas falling flat. 11th grade, 16, 17 years old, and they were all systemized, stigmatized; I was the face of the public school bureaucracy, handing out tardies. Raymond was a tough, kinesthetic kid; I needed to lose the script. “I bet you put your foot down before me,” I said when he came in late again. I wanted him to do push-ups, but that seemed like a step too far, now we were in this one-foot thing together. “Violence is the answer, if Gandhi got shot, he’s dead, then what?” said Patricia. I hopped over towards Brian who had his hand up. “People talk about peace, but what about us making nukes? Only peace because we might blow someone up,” he said. “How many of you could burn someone’s house down in front of them, watch a child’s teddy bear become smoke, you holding the torch yourself?” I asked. No one said they could do it, they’d almost forgotten about Raymond and me, we were all in the present moment, thinking about destruction’s role in history. “There are no rules in war,” Phil said. “So, if you could, you’d poison the water supply for the entire South? Kill all the toddlers, dogs and horses?” I asked. Phil started to squirm. “No, no, there should be rules against that.” “But why?” I countered. 35 minutes into class and Raymond was puffing, flushed, swaying, about to topple. He finally put his foot down, gave me a grin, and sat down at his desk. My face was dripping sweat, I jumped over, shook his hand, “please don’t be late again.” “I won’t,” he said. I stayed on one foot for the rest of the 55-minute class, the bell rang, they walked out still debating, I heard one of them say, “violence isn’t the answer.”