From Sarah’s Journal:
Arrived St. Paul Sat. morning, Aug. 9th. Went to Hotel Lowry, had baths, relaxed, then had lunch. Then we took a ride by auto bus for four hours all over St. Paul and its twin city, Minneapolis; both cities were very beautiful, especially their parks and Minneapolis has the most wonderful number of beautiful lakes. After dinner we went to see Wm. Powell in “For The Defense.’’ Very good. We left St. Paul Sat. night at 10:40.
When we boarded the B&O for the long ride through the high plains to our first “real’’ destination – Banff Springs in the Canadian Rockies - the ladies quickly excused themselves to prepare for bed, which I gathered was a pretty elaborate process. Doc and I went to the observation car, to drink in the cool night air and, also, because Doc wanted a smoke before bed.
We stood there for almost an hour, neither of us having much to say.
Doc had smoked one of his last Havanas down to the nub and was beginning to stretch his arms, a dead give-away that he was ready for bed.
“Doc, how old are you anyhow?’’
“I’ll be 60 on the third of December,’’ he said.
“Hmmm. Let’s see, in 1959, you’ll be….heck, Doc, you’ll probably be dead by the time I’m born.’’
Doc chuckled,. He stood, stretched again, then gave my shoulder a squeeze.
“And Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Doc, said, quoting the scriptures. “I’ll have to ponder that one in my dreams, At any rate, good night, Mr. Smith.’’
I was tired, too, but my head was too full of questions to consider going to bed. So I stood alone on the observation deck, looking into the void as the B&O clicked across the star-less plains.
I was wondering the same thing you are probably wondering: how it came to be that I would find myself here, on a passenger train rumbling across America in August of 1930.
Do you remember the scene in the movie “Gone With the Wind,’’ when the camera pans out over Atlanta after the battle? It is a long shot and as the camera pans out you see hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers, strewing the landscape for what seems like acres and acres. When I first saw that scene as a boy, it really bothered me. The scale was so massive that it seemed more real than imaginary.
That’s sorta how I felt, like I was an extra is some sprawling 1930s epic movie. At every turn, I expected to bump into Jimmy Cagney or William Powell or maybe even Groucho Marx.
But this place was too far big to be a movie set. And I never saw a camera or heard a director yell, “Cut!’’ So that left only two possibilities: This was real. Or I was nuts.
As I sit here on the observation deck of this west-bound train, it has been about three months since I dropped in to 1930s America. I cannot tell you anything about the precise moment it happened.
All I remember is waking up in a white room.
Morning light streamed through the big windows, all of which were fitted with a lattice-work of iron, to keep folks from jumping out the fourth-story window, I suspect. A long row of twin beds stretched down either side of the big room.
Every where you looked, it was white - white bed linens, white walls, nurses in white uniforms with little white nurses caps, men wandering aimlessly down the long rows of beds in white gowns. Everything white, except for the orderlies, black men in, you guessed it, white jump suits.
It took some time for me to get any useful information this place. The nurses and orderlies simply went about their tasks – which consisted mainly of feeding patients handfuls of big blue pills or forcing us to drink down little cups of vile-tasking yellow liquid - while gently ignoring my questions.
My fellow patients were not of much value, either. Most were either mute or given to senseless babble. One guy, though, a fella named Tom, seemed to be able to string together a few coherent thoughts.
“Where are we?’ I asked.
“We are in the court of the Great King Xerxes, may He live forever,’’ Tom said.
“Oh,’ I said. “Thanks for clearing that up.’’
To tell you the truth, I was less curious than you might imagine for someone in my position.
The last thing that I really remember, before this white room, I mean, was riding my bicycle down Priest Ave. in Tempe, Arizona on a chilly February night, wondering for about the billionth time how my life could come to this – a middle-aged man with no real home, no real prospects. A man alone, 1,500 miles from his two kids. A man who didn’t seem to belong anywhere, or to anyone. A man who had squandered every talent, every opportunity. A felon. Who could have ever imagined it for this middle-class son of a fine, God-fearin’ family?
There is a line from an Eric Clapton song that kept running through my mind: “Lately I’ve been running on faith. What else can a poor boy do?’’
My friends and family all tell me to hang in there, that things would get better. You have to have faith, you know.
\ But as the weeks turn into months and months turn into years, you begin to wonder first, if things will get better and second, why should they?
We kinda like to think of America as a class-less society, but I think we are fooling ourselves. I think most of us live in a self-imposed class system. Rich people expect to be rich, cannot really imagine not being rich. Poor people imagine winning the lottery as they buy a dream for a dollar and a cold 40 for a buck-seventy-five. Middle class folks dream Lexus, buy Buick.
I’ll give you another example of what I mean. A few months after I got out of prison, I went with one of my pastor friends to visit a woman who had called to say she needed help. We drove down to her apartment, located in a dingy complex in a grimy section of central Phoenix. We stood there in her little hovel of an apartment and listened sympathetically as this 60-something woman told her pitiful story.
Her brother, her only family, had died recently. The two had shared the little apartment. He worked as a janitor, their only source of income. Now, what would she do?
We told her we would drop off some groceries and enough money to pay her rent and utilities that month. Of course, we prayed for her, too.
Do you want to know what we prayed for?
First, let me tell you what we did not ask the Good Lord to do for her. We did not pray that God would give her a good job - preferably as a newspaper columnist – with a nice home in the suburbs and a reliable, late-model car. We did not pray that she would meet that certain someone, the kind who cares about you all the time and not just whenever you happen to pop into their minds.
We did not pray, like Jabez, that He would “bless her indeed.’’
We prayed that the McDonald’s down the street would be hiring.
I guess when it comes to some people, you don’t expect Providence to get all carried away.
When I think about that day, I am ashamed. I wonder: What if God gives to you only what you ask Him to give to others - you know, sort of like a corollary to the Golden Rule? It would serve me right, I reckon. It would also explain a lot.
So, yes, I’ll admit it: For the longest time, I expected to be restored to that middle-class life that, for some silly reason, I felt entitled to. I figured I’d pay my “debt to society,’’ then I’d get my stuff back.
But that hasn’t happened. As time passes, it’s easier and easier to doubt that I’ll ever get my stuff back.
So there I was before just before I woke up in that white room. What a scene it must have been: A beat-down middle-aged man pedaling through the darkness for whom running on faith has somehow become running out of faith, which only serves to add another dimension of guilt. Losing hope seems a betrayal of all the kindness and support of those friends and family.
After you have failed yourself, you start in failing others And when that happens, you begin to guard your thoughts.
You do your best to sound optimistic.
What else can a poor boy do?