Waiting for Nausicaa
I had bought two cups of coffee at the Get-n-Go on the corner of Milton and Leonard. Normally, I got one, but this morning I had impulsively decided to buy one for the homeless guy I saw sitting on the bench across the street from the store. I didn't really know why. It probably had something to do with the argument with Maria the night before which stemmed from her desire for me to rise up much quicker in the firm than I really felt comfortable doing. For one thing, it would mean stabbing my boss in the back, and I really liked him.
Me and this homeless guy had waved to each other every day as I drove downtown to work. The bench he sat on was about two hundred yards south of the K Street overpass where another homeless person, a red-headed lady, had set up shop using a red milk crate for a throne and a blue shopping cart to hold her possessions. I waved at her too, but she rarely, if ever, acknowledged my existence.
I pulled my shiny brand new Benz over to the curb careful not to block his view of the street and got out carrying the cups of coffee.
"Hello, I was wondering if you could use a cup of coffee this morning?"
He looked up me and smiled. He was probably, at least, in his late seventies and wore his hair in long gray ponytail. He had bright blue eyes and gray stubble on his chin, and his smile revealed several missing teeth.
"Well, I have never been one to turn coffee down, if that's what you mean." He reached up and took the cup from me and gestured for me to take a seat on the bench. I sat down beside him.
"I have creamer and sugar too," I said patting my pocket.
"I'll a take a couple of creamers if you got them. Never liked sweet coffee. My mother used to drink it straight black; too bitter for me." I watched him pour the creamers and handed him a plastic stirring stick.
"I don't like sugar either. My dad drank it straight black too, the hotter the better."
"Thanks for the coffee. I know who you are too. You wave as you go by every morning. You are the only one who does. I noticed you too because of that pretty car." He nodded in the direction of the Benz.
"Yeah, she's pretty I guess."
"You don't seem to be proud of it."
"Oh, it's not that. It's a perk of the job. Company wants me to present a good image. So, they pay for the lease." I saw his eyes give me a up and down, so I added, "They give me a clothing allowance also. Got to dress nice for the clients."
He laughed, "Hell, that's something I ain't gotta worry about. I do try to keep it clean though. Down at the Mission they have a wash machine I can use, and a shower, and a locker I can keep a change of clothes in, luckier than most I guess. He was dressed simply in clean but worn pair of blue jeans, a blue sweatshirt covering a gray t-shirt, and a pair of white tennis shoes.
"You dress like I used to dress in college, very comfortable."
"Yeah, you dress like I used to dress when I taught college many years ago."
"Is that right? What subject did you teach?"
"The Greek classics and Modern American Literature."
"If you don't mind me asking how did you go from teaching college to sitting on a bench on side of a street. I know it's a personal question, but I'm curious. That seems like an awful big transition."
"I don't mind answering, but first I have to ask you a question. Are you proud of that car?"
The question took me back, I had to think a little on how to answer, "No, not particularly. It's a car. I'm not even really that proud of everything I had to do in order to be driving a vehicle like that. I'm Gordon by the way." I reached out to shake his hand."
He took a drink of coffee, sat the cup down, and warmly shook my hand, "Benny. If you had answered yes, I wouldn't tell you my story, but since you didn't, I will."
Benny told me that he had once been a professor at a prestigious university teaching the Greek classics and modern American Literature. According to him, he kept rising and rising and gaining more fame and fortune with each year.
"My problems all began when I wrote this goddamned book that I am almost famous for, a work explaining the mysteries of great god Zeus to the layman. It sold very well for a while. I went on book tours and was invited to lecture all of the world. I had myself a car that would put that one to shame. Yeah, my problems started after that damned book."
"I don't understand. Sounds like you were doing very well."
"That's the problem. The thing that the ancient Greeks hated more anything else was hubris, and I fell victim to it big time." He looked at me with defiant eyes as if he was expecting me to argue with the statement.
"Were you proud of your successes? Was that what it was? That would only seem natural."
"My excesses you mean. I took pride up a level. Got to the point that I felt that I knew more about the Greeks than they knew about themselves."
"How did it all fall out? What happened " I relaxed on the bench, and got more comfortable. People were driving by and looking at us and wondering what the hell I was up to talking to this old man. I didn't care. I really wanted to know Bennie's story.
"Them fucking Sixties! I debated a well known student radical on the subject of was mythology relevant enough to maintain a space in the modern college curriculum. The student, who was actually quite famous at the time, was a total asshole, a complete lightweight human being, but someone who looked good while being a lightweight. Do you know what I mean?"
That made me laugh, "Do I know what you mean? You just described pretty much our entire celebrity class and most of our politicians too?"
Benny smiled, "Well, I kicked his ass up and down that day. There wasn't a single point where he had anything remotely coherent to say. He actually wanted to replace the classic courses with the likes of Huxley, Kerouac, and Gibran. I agreed that they all had something to say, but to ignore those wondrous things that came out of nowhere at the very birth of human consciousness is the height of absurdity."
"Someone once told me that every generation has to decide for itself what they will carry forth into the future."
"My point exactly. He wanted to ditch the very things that we have deemed to be some of the most important thoughts that humans have ever entertained because they just got too heavy to carry. He trapped me with a question about how I could prove that we needed mythology by taking one of the myths and adapting it to explain the political-social movements in vogue at the time. All the youth in the audience cheered and applauded. What first alerted me to my own peril was that many of my colleagues joined in the applause."
"What did you do?"
"I told him that to do so would prove I knew nothing about the subject at all, and I asked him if I could use a Christian teaching about the 'casting of pearls' instead."
"Damn, that took some guts. It's funny, but I bet it took guts to say out there with an already hostile crowd."
"Yes, it did, but in the moment before I answered, the knowledge of all my sins up to that point passed through my brain in an instant, the strangest thing I have ever experienced. And in that instant, I understood that my future hung in the balance. I could have easily gave him what them wanted, or I could tell the truth and lose everything."
"It was just a debate."
"I lost my job because many of the people at the university sided with the impudent fool. Things fell completely apart; The book quit selling because of the bad press. I started drinking heavily and fell into a bad dream. When I finally woke up I was still drinking heavily and teaching remedial English at a local junior college. My wife had left me for one of the idiots who said I had no right to call the fool a swine. And now, since there's no longer any great love of the classics, here I sit washed ashore in deep-soiled Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, who are near kin to the gods." He waved at his surroundings, shrugged and then continued, "I'm living in a halfway house right up the street. I've been sober for over a year, and I sit here because it's quieter than at the house and most people are content to leave me alone."
"Why didn't you just stick to teaching Modern American Lit?"
"The same reason why I told that idiot to go fuck himself. The Greeks were about self discovery, the modern stuff just tells about how we fucked it all up. Besides too many of the writers were self-absorbed whiners who twisted the myths that they told to their political outlook. The ancients would have laughed them out of town, or pelted them with rocks. I taught it for awhile, but only after I explained what the Greeks had to say about things."
"Surely, it couldn't all be bad."
"There's a few, like McMurtry or Pynchon."
I nodded in direction of the red-headed lady up the street holding court in the shade of the underpass, "What's her story? Anything like yours?"
He smiled grimly, "In a way they are all like mine, it's been the one benefit of living in a bad dream. You recognize that everyone is living in the myth, and that everyone needs their own chapter of the Bible, or at least the ability to know which chapter best explains what is happening to them, but, with Annie, it's mainly just her love of the goddesses and Morpheus. On some days, she's Athena, on others, she's Isis, and then on some others, she's just Medusa. It all depends on if she's taking her meds."
"Well, I think that I'm going go talk to her for a moment, if you don't mind."
"Why should I mind?"
I went and made my peace with Annie, as he called her. I could see him watching us curiously. I was lucky because I caught her on a day that she was channeling the Greek goddess of wisdom. To most people, what she said would be considered the incoherent babbling of paranoid schizophrenic addicted to opioids. I figured it was worth deciphering.
I walked slowly back over to where Benny was still sitting.
"What did you tell her?" he asked.
"I asked her if I could offer some money to support the upkeep of her temple in exchange for some divine guidance. She gave me twenty dollars worth of guidance, a bargain, I guess." I then handed Benny a fifty.
"Why?" he asked, "I don't normally ask why people give me money. You, Mr. Shiny Car, I'm going to have to ask,"
"Is it true that the Greeks believed that one does not have a dream, but one sees the dream and that dreams helped form and were considered a part of the reality of things?"
His eyes lit up, "Exactly! I find it amazing that you know that."
"I know that this is going to be hard to believe, but I was there that day you destroyed that pompous jackass. In fact, up to that day, he was a friend of mine. I was in your class a long time ago. Tell the truth, I didn't recognize you either. I've been unhappy for a long time. I was starting to have nightmares of my own. You've actually done me a great favor then and now."
We talked some more about the past and the present, and when I left, I looked back over my shoulder and asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his day?
He shaded his eyes as he looked up at me, "What I do most every day. Sit here and wait for Nauusica to appear."
I was puzzled by the reference, "The beautiful virgin? What's she supposed to do?"
Benny pointed his finger at me,"Someone needs to brush up. She's going to set me on the path to home."
I remembered. "Well, in the meantime, you don't mind having coffee with another wayward son?"
Benny laughed and shrugged his shoulders, "Anybody who ain't too proud of his shiny car and has enough sense to want to know what Annie's got to say, is welcome anytime.
I got into my car, waved at Benny, girded my loins. and proceeded into the heart of the city. This time Annie waved back.