The Neighborhood

Even with my limited understanding of meditation and spiritual matters it seemed to me that this “let’s all get high and meditate” approach had more to do with getting high than in finding inner peace or a relationship with the divine. So I guess I was a little disappointed in Harold who was sort of like Tom’s guru.

“Harold, I thought you are supposed to have a clear mind when you meditate.”

“No man. Or, put it the other way. The pot can make your mind clearer by helping to discard wayward thoughts. It can help you reach a higher state.”

“I would like to be able to reach a high state without drugs.”

“Didn’t you hear about Ram Das in Be Here Now, man, when he gave his guru a whole handful of LSD and it did nothing? Relax. Let the pot help you go deeper.”

That sounded like bullshit to me. I was getting tired of it all anyway, smoking pot, losing energy, drinking at night and not doing anything in the darkroom we had worked so hard to build.

Harold talked about India, how it was the font of all knowledge and how he was “called “to go there and was saving for the trip, a trip of a lifetime where he would “find his guru” and be “led to enlightenment”. We listened to that with interest because a lot of people were going to India and many interesting stories were coming back about their spiritual experiences. We knew India had a deep religion and a history of spiritual seeking going back thousands of years. We encouraged Harold because we were curious about what he might find there. We were all looking for something. He was our scout!

A photography assignment came along. I went up to New Hampshire for a few days to take pictures of Franconia College way up in the White Mountains. Franconia College was one of the most experimental of colleges in America at that time. You could do anything there- play chess naked and smoke pot, worship the pagan gods, stuff like that. The president was the youngest college president in the country, about twenty one or two- Leon Botstein. He was also a conductor, a serious musician, one of those prodigy types. So I went up there and took some pictures and met another photographer doing the same thing for another newspaper group. He was just back from Biafra in Africa and was not in great shape on account of what he had seen- starving children and crazy violence.

While all the love and drugs and kumbaya was going on, the world was continuing to suffer its steady stream of calamities- things like the Biafra situation and the Vietnam War, a war that tore the nation apart and made the veterans ashamed and want to hide. Their post-traumatic is still a fact of life today. It was hard to reconcile peace and love with the nasty stuff they saw and did over there in “Nam.”

I took my pictures, visited with the war torn photographer, and got high with the director of admissions and wondered about the future of this college which actually had been temporarily shut down because of a drug scandal. I was only away for a couple of nights but I got a message to call home and Caroline was on the phone saying somebody had gotten into the loft and tried to rob the TV.

In the hall outside the door to our loft we had an old dresser with hats and gloves for the cold weather and other things like that. Since it was just us and Maddy and Jean upstairs we felt secure about keeping things like that out in the hall and Rose, the landlady had put the iron grille on the downstairs door so all was fine, right? Not right, because Caroline had a bad habit of leaving her keys to the loft in the dresser and had somehow forgotten to lock the downstairs door to the street. An enterprising thief had gotten in, climbed the stairs in the middle of the night, gone through the drawers and found the keys. Caroline heard something, emerged from the bedroom in her undies just in time to see the thief with the television in his arms. He just put it down and took off.

I got home from Franconia as soon as possible and everything was relatively ok. Caroline was not too shook up. For one thing we still had the TV! But there was a new event on the block.

Caroline said, “Rick, you have to see the dog Tom found. He is really funny.”

“Oh,” I said.” Where did he get him?” I like dogs very much but Atlantic Avenue did not seem to be the kind of place where a dog could even survive. We didn’t see many dogs around or people walking them like they do up in Manhattan in the fancy neighborhoods.

“He found him with a coat hanger around his neck tied to a stop sign.”

“Oh no,” I said and headed down the stairs and up the street to see this orphaned dog.

Tom was there in the shop with “Pig Pen” as he called him because when he got him he was a wreck and a mess, foul; and who could blame him the way he had been treated. Tom called him “Piggy” and black Kenny had helped him get him in the bathtub for a scrub down. Piggy was medium sized, like a smaller lab but with curly hair and a moustache like a wire haired pointer or terrier of some kind- a mutt! He must have had quite a bit of standard poodle to him. He looked like that, and he was smart for sure! He could have been the inspiration for Tramp in Lady and the Tramp. His personality was splendid and his brain was on fire. He could have been a circus dog or celebrity like “Skid Boot”. He could walk on his back legs and balance that way so he could be up and looking at you almost eye to eye and in Tom’s case I think “Piggy” was looking down at him! I have never seen a dog do that. Tom loved him and Piggy just fell in to the whole scene like he had been born into it. He never had a collar. He would hang around the shop, accompany Tom back to the apartment, disappear into the neighborhood on his own for hours, and then show up like he knew exactly what was going on all the time.Tom enjoyed talking to him in his high pitched nasal vibrato:

“Pig Pen you mother fucker. You are a disgusting creature. You just pissed on Mrs. Lopez’s RCA!” And Piggy did that! Tom would laugh. He loved him.

“Pig pen you dirty dog, “ Tom would shriek, laughing at the same time,

”I am going to sell you to the Korean Restaurant but those cheap bastards probably won’t pay much because you are a skinny fucker, Pig Pen. You need to fatten up. Ha ha ha ha ah!”

We had a lot of fun with Piggy. Black Kenny loved him. Kenny was old, looked maybe older than he was, but old all the same. He had come from the south like so many, getting away from Harold Crow segregation and rural poverty. He knew country things, about dogs, and cooking and raising vegetables and so forth. That was in his background. The move to the city hadn’t been too kind; he was down on his luck, just scraping by, but we all liked him. Tom let him sweep up the shop and gave him a few bucks and a joint as an extra treat once in a while. Black Kenny called it “griefer” instead of “reefer.” He would say,

“Oh Tom I comes to woik so down, Tommy, so down, and then I smokes that “griefer” and I could kick a bear’s ass!” O yes!

He lived with Aretha whom he called Urethra. She was pretty and younger but dying of some unknown wasting illness. Kenny spent a lot of time talking about her, worrying about her. He really cared, but also, I think, she gave him a place to stay and some food in exchange for doing errands and cleaning up the apartment. Caroline was concerned about her. The “mother of mercy” part of her personality made her want to visit Aretha and see if there was something she could do. So we told Kenny and he agreed to take us over to see her about ten blocks away on the other side of Flatbush.

It was a basement apartment you got to from the outside walking down underneath the apartment building which was worn and humble but not a disgrace. The apartment was just a couple of rooms but clean, not bad. Aretha was there on a big king sized bed, sitting up, propped up by pillows and in her nightgown. It was late in the morning so one had to wonder if she was going to get up at all. Kenny pulled over a couple of chairs so we could talk with her in a comfortable way. He was looking down and shaking his head.

Aretha was a very pretty woman, much younger than Kenny and thin but not emaciated. We had a good visit talking about nothing much in particular and we asked if there was anything we could do for her.

“No”, she said, “y’all are nice to care about me. Kenny tells me the stories about ‘y’all over there on Atlantic. Y’all are nice to him. He’s a good man. I don’t know what I would do without him.”

“It looks like you should eat more”, I said. “Can we get you something to eat?” I was at a loss as to what to say.

“You are sweet, honey, “she said, “but I am ok. Really I am. I am comfortable and I have enough money to get by ok with Kenny helping me.”

He was sitting down now too, and just kept looking at his feet and shaking his head. It was a strange situation to see someone pretty and relatively healthy not wanting to get out of bed. It was clearly her choice. She seemed to be dying peacefully and slowly for no apparent reason.

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