Monday, March 1, 2010

* * MY FRIEND FRANK DeWITT * *

Shift #32

SUNDAY, MARCH 28 -- Sacramento/Fillmore to O’Farrell/Stockton -- $8.05

You might say, “I know I am an immortal spirit,” or “I am tired of this mad world, and peace is all I want”--until the phone rings. Bad news: The stock market has collapsed; the deal may fall through; the car has been stolen; your mother-in-law has arrived; the trip is canceled, the contract has been broken; your partner has left you; they demand more money; they say it’s your fault. Suddenly there is a surge of anger, of anxiety. A harshness comes into your voice; “I can’t take any more of this.” You accuse and blame, attack, defend, or justify yourself, and it’s all happening on autopilot. Something is obviously much more important to you now than the inner peace that a moment ago you said was all you wanted, and you’re not an immortal spirit anymore either. -- Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth



IN 1974, while I was very much enjoying my then-life as a frugal, wandering, twenty-two-year-old hippie, I came to know another young man, twenty-three-year-old Frank DeWitt, who was making a very nice salary playing professional basketball in the south of France. In college I had been an enthusiastic but absolutely ordinary basketball player, and you can easily understand how I envied Frank -- his lanky six-foot-five-inch frame, his regular salary, his dazzling skills. I loved watching him rip a rebound off the rim, blast full speed down the court with the ball yoyoing up and down at his side -- right hand, left hand, didn’t matter -- and then whip a no-look pass to a cutting teammate or pull up to drain a long, soft jumper or knife through the defense and launch himself back at the rim again. Star of his high school team, captain at the University of Virginia, Frank was drafted and went to rookie camp with the Buffalo Braves of the NBA, later toured Europe with a couple of all-star teams, and was now living on the French Riviera where, a few months after I met him, he would lead his team to the regional championship.

It’s perhaps less easy to understand Frank’s claim that, in his own way, he envied my life. I saw myself as an all-but-broke drifter, wishing I had a marketable talent, or at least an income. But Frank thought he saw a care-free guy not tied to a schedule, not even to a basketball schedule, a guy who had spent the past two years drifting around the US and then Europe, reading lots of books, filling lots of journals, watching lots of sunsets, earning bits of money here and there by doing a little of this, a little of that. At night Frank and I sat around with a small community of other expats, sharing the faux-dramas of our short lives and envisioning much bigger, much greater dramas ahead. Frank and I usually outlasted all the others -- once, each night for a solid week, after everyone else had faded away, Frank and I yacked until dawn, slept until sunset (Frank’s extra bedroom was a road-weary hippie’s dream), joined everyone else for dinner, and then started over. (Sometimes Frank had to get up “early” to go to a practice or game, poor guy.) Toward the end of the basketball season Frank and I headed off on separate dramas -- him toward cheering throngs in packed gymnasiums, me toward the quiet and empty mountains of Afghanistan -- and then on to lives which turned out differently than either of us imagined…

We haven’t seen much of each other over the years, but email and cell phones have recently given our friendship new life. We’re a couple of old dudes now, each staring down the barrel of sixty. Frank lives in the house where he was raised, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; I drive a taxi in San Francisco. Before my morning shift heats up, I often call Frank on my cell and we talk, sometimes about all the turns our lives have taken, about wasted opportunities, or about how our own mortality has begun to stalk us, but mostly about the writings and ideas of Joseph Campbell, Deepak Chopra, and, my favorite, the “enlightenment scholar” and spiritual teacher Eckhard Tolle.

Tolle -- and I paraphrase quite liberally here -- says that we really don’t have pasts, don’t have futures, all we’ve really got is Now. Our egos want to maneuver us into believing that we have these great, detailed, important pasts, and even more important futures, but it’s all a con job. The ego’s function is to trick us into believing in, over-valuing, and hyperventilating about “our lives,” which Tolle says are actually nothing more than ego-created illusions. We can go beyond the illusion, we can escape the ego’s constant, hypnotic chatter, by waking up to the only thing we’ve really got -- the Now.

And how does one do this? How does one ditch this mostest cleverest of tricksters, the ego? How does one enter and remain centered in the Now? Tolle says one does this by paying attention to one’s body, and the primary portal to awareness of one’s body is through awareness of one’s breath. This breath here now. And this breath, too. And then this breath...

All that other stuff? Bullshit! All we’ve really got is this breath we’re breathing right now. And this one. Also this one… Pretty sophomoric, you might say. Not much one can add to such a line of thought, right? But if Frank and I stir in a few stories on the side, we can talk about this stuff -- awakening, enlightenment -- for an hour, easy, and what we always come back to is the Now. And this breath… this breath… this breath… and this breath

How did we not stumble upon all of this during our late nights in France thirty-seven years ago?

And why am I telling you this Now?

No particular reason. It’s just that this morning, a few minutes before 7 AM, I’m sitting in my cab across from the Noah’s Bagel shop on Fillmore in Pacific Heights. I haven’t had a ride yet, nor have I had coffee, and now I’ve got one ear on the dispatch radio, hoping for an early morning airport, and one eye on the front door of Noah’s Bagels, which opens at seven sharp, and I’m telling Frank a story I heard twenty years ago, a story about the time Werner Erhard, the founder of the est training and Landmark Education, dropped in on a group home for troubled, whacked out kids in Hawaii... when I see a guy half a block ahead walking in a trajectory that looks designed to…

“Oops,” I tell Frank, “I think I might have my first fare. Maybe… Maybe… Yep... Hey, I’ll have to finish this later.”

Frank is used to my sudden departures. “See ya, Newsh. Good talkin’ with you.”

My fare is headed downtown, to Macy’s. He’s a young guy from London, with a chiseled British accent. He’s been living in the States for ten years, in San Francisco for three and a half. He works at the Boudine’s Bakery in the basement of Macy’s.

Me: “Are you a baker?”

“No, I’m on the management side.” He, too, sounds like he hasn’t had any coffee today.

I ask: “When you were growing up in England, did you ever imagine you’d someday be riding down Post Street in a taxi at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning to get to your job running a bakery in San Francisco?”

“Even last night I didn’t imagine this. We spent the night doing laundry and watching t.v....” -- I imagine a beautiful American girlfriend, seduced by my fare’s accent -- “and I was very much hoping to sleep in this morning. I wasn’t planning to go to work until eleven, but a few minutes ago the phone rang. The oven has broken down again. An oven usually lasts about ten years, and this one’s about eleven years old. Already we’ve spent enough on repairs to have bought a new one. And when it’s broken, we can’t bake our own loaves -- we have to buy them from the Boudine’s at the Wharf or the one out in the Avenues, and that costs us more money…”

It doesn’t sound like much fun, and my body reports that in fact everybody should be having some fun this morning. When I tell my fare about my (and his) free ride, I mention that I particularly like to give my free rides to people whose days seem like they could stand a change of rythym. My fare’s sleepy-looking eyes and his sleepy-looking face conspire themselves into a sleepy-looking smile. “Well, thanks very much,” he says. “That’s very kind. I do hope it works.”

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