SUNDAY, JULY 18 -- All around town... and all through my mind...
I HAVE A FRIEND WHO, I suspect, often wakes up in the morning, gets dressed, and then meticulously strings himself with barbed wire. Last week he leaves me this voicemail:
“Do you ever give away a free ride just because someone asks for one? Or is it always just all about you?”
-- The reality is that people rarely ask me for a free ride, but when they do, I often -- not always, but often -- give them one.
-- And yes, of course, it’s always all about me.
ALPINE TERRACE -- 8:30 AM -- A young woman carefully descends the stairs of a freshly-painted, three-story Victorian up near Buena Vista Park.
In the soft early light she’s a vision. Dainty, pearl-blue, thin-strapped sandals which expose bright-red toenails... Pre-faded, sky-blue designer jeans... A snow-white, short-sleeved top with elastic cuffs that squeeze her sapling arms just above the biceps... Polished–looking skin the color of lightly creamed coffee... Shiny black hair that falls past her shoulders...
She’s going to Fourth and Townswend to catch a train to Menlo Park where today she’ll be watching after the two-year old, six-year old, and eleven-year old children of a family that is attending an enormous Silicon Valley picnic. She looks Indian, but her accent is…hmmm…well…it’s not Indian.
Me: “I grew up near Washington, D.C. May I ask where you grew up?”
She: “South Africa.”
Earlier this year she graduated from high school, next year she’ll be studying law in London, and in-between she is having a gap year. Three months ago she flew to San Francisco, which, she says, she has been enjoying in the extreme. This is her first time away from South Africa.
Me: “How did you choose San Francisco?”
She: “I didn’t choose San Francisco -- San Francisco chose me.”
Me: “And how did San Francisco choose you?”
A year ago she had registered with a South African au pair agency which matched her up with a family in San Francisco. “That first family was impossible,” she tells me, “and I had to tell the agency that I just couldn’t work there. But now they’ve placed me with a family that’s been working out just great.”
Me: “I’m fifty-eight. May I ask how old you are?”
I want to tell her: You have no way of understanding how fortunate you are. To be walking down the steps of that house, halfway around this big lovely planet from the place where you grew up, in that miraculous healthy body that you undoubtedly -- like all young people, like me when I was nineteen -- take for granted. Food to eat. Fashionable clothes to wear. Money for a taxi. Parents in your corner. A gap year. Law school. A great life stretching ahead… We -- all of us -- we take so, so much for granted…
Instead I say, “What a great age to be out having an adventure.”
She: “In three months, I feel like I have already changed so much. Grown.”
Me: “Have you been homesick?”
She: “Not at all. I have a brother and I do miss him, but I haven’t been homesick.”
I am the father of a single offspring, a thirteen-year-old daughter whose departure from home is starting to loom as though it were scheduled for tomorrow morning. “How are your parents doing?”
She: “I think it’s hard for them, but they know this is good for me and they’re doing their best to accept it. I must say, I was sorry to miss the World Cup. All my friends tell me it was just fantastic, and it made them realize what a great country we have. They all say they now feel proud to be South African -- and these are people who never talked like that three months ago.”
Me: “You do have a great country. In 1989 I hitchhiked from Johannesburg to Capetown.”
She: “You hitchhiked?”
Me: “I did. I went down along the Garden Route -- beautiful...”
She: “You were just…traveling?”
Me: “I was also writing a book.”
She: “What was it about?”
Me: “It’s the story of a trip-around-the-world I took -- through the Philippines, India, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa -- knowing that at trip’s end I would invite one person, one of those three billion people on this planet who live on less than two dollars a day, to visit me in America for one month -- my treat.”
She: “And you did that?”
Me: “I did.”
She: “And did you get the book published?”
Me: “I did.”
She: “That’s fantastic! I want to read it. Please tell me its name…”
TOWARD NOON, at SFO, I pick up a thirty-eight-year-old black man with a set of golf clubs. Like me, my fare is a native of the Washington, D.C. suburbs. His mother works for the Veterans Administration. In January of 2009, on the night before Obama’s inauguration, my fare and his mother and two hundred other VA-connected people attended a dinner with Barack and Michelle, where my fare found himself talking directly with Barack.
Me: “What sense did you get of him?”
“A regular guy. He seemed like a regular guy who’d...who’d just decided to…to try to do something great.”
I tell my fare a too-complicated story about how my best childhood friend had a cousin named Barry. I never met this Cousin Barry, but I heard a lot about him over the years. And I’ve heard a whole lot more in recent years, as Barry shocked everyone in my friend’s family and, indeed, everyone in the entire world, by growing up to be Barack Obama. How about that!
AS I’M UNLOADING my fare’s golf clubs in the driveway of a luxury apartment complex on Daniel Burnham Court, a white man wearing a snazzy black tuxedo raises his eyebrows toward me and gives a slight nod. Soon we’re headed downtown toward Infinity Towers, those mold-green luxury condominium silos that have sprung up to block a pedestrian’s (or a cab driver’s) views of the hills.
My new fare has an accent I can’t place until I ask him: Russian. Eighteen years ago he came to the Bay Area to study electrical engineering at UC-Berkeley, and then he stayed…
His cell phone buzzes. He answers Dah and then has a long conversation, in Russian, with a woman to whom he several times says the word horosho (good).
My mother and her siblings and my grandmother all spoke Ruthenian, a language similar to Russian, and when I was young I used to wonder what “horror show” they kept on talking about -- and why?
My grandmother never learned English, but she did manage to teach me one bewildering Ruthenian nursery rhyme,* and when I recite it for my Russian speaking passengers -- as I like to do -- it most often delights (but occasionally also bewilders) them. Now I think: When my fare finishes his call, maybe I should perform?
And then: Or maybe I shouldn’t? My mind has been chewing on my exchanges with the golfer and the Indian woman (hers was a free ride -- $10.30) and examining them in the light of my friend’s barbed voicemail message. Why, I wonder, do I feel compelled to tell my stories, to perform my rehearsed little pieces? Am I trying to make myself look important in my fares’ eyes? In my own eyes?
Some time ago I realized that I’ve accomplished pretty much everything I ever hoped to in life. Or at least enough of those things so that my ego, if it were rational, should emit nothing but a continuous sigh of satisfaction. But no ego is rational, and few are quiet for more than an instant. Mine seems to exist only to constantly remind me that Really, buddy boy, you haven’t done enough, you don’t have enough, you are definitely not good enough -- and no matter what you do or how hard you try you never will be.
But several years ago, after stumbling upon the works of Eckhart Tolle, I began to entertain the notion that it might actually be possible for an “average” human being -- and even for our entire species -- to wake up, to become “enlightened.” Previously I had assumed enlightenment to be a province accessible to only the rarest of humans. Enlightenment wasn’t something one could induce or accomplish. Either it happened to you, or it didn’t -- either you had it or you didn’t -- either you were special or you weren’t. Somewhere along the line I recognized that this “out-of-reach” filter was the same filter through which I, when I was younger, viewed people who had accomplished things that I considered way beyond my own grasp: parachuting; running a marathon; circling the globe; authoring books. I believed that to accomplish any of those things, one had to be rich or brilliant or some sort of metaphysical superhero, but I long ago proved that one does not.
As Tolle’s thoughts on the present moment began to sink in with me, I began to suspect (and to hope) that enlightenment might be possible for anyone -- for you certainly, and even perhaps for me -- and that the key to that enlightenment lay simply in developing one’s awareness of the present moment. Every one of us has a present moment -- this moment -- but are we awake to it? Or are we on autopilot, hypnotized by reruns of our past, dazzled or terrified by our imagined futures? And, more specifically, what about me, this so-called Brad Newsham fellow? Am I awake to the present moment?
Very, very rarely.
Or quite possibly: Never.
Just recently I’ve come to regard my addiction to stories -- other people’s stories or my own -- as an impediment, perhaps the key impediment, to my waking up. Even seemingly benign addictions come with a downside, and lately I’ve been seeing how my love affair with stories takes me “away.” Instead of being present, I am almost always capturing and digesting someone else’s story; retelling, reframing, or reinventing stories from my own past; or fantasizing about my imagined future. I’ve started to think that I might be wise to trade all of my stories, if I could (and all of your stories, too, if I could), for a simple awakening, for an unrevokable, permanent enlightenment.
But, I realize, even this -- this earnest saga of a yearning for enlightenment -- is nothing but additional Story. (Is it ironic, or is it just sad, that I’ve so far spent twenty-five years in a profession whose real currency, no matter what it says on the meter, is Story?) And every time I side with Story over Presence, aren’t I actually voting for my ego, voting to allow it to co-opt, to nudge aside, my higher nature -- I’m voting to be hypnotized.
This morning I wasn’t really present with the Indian girl, but my ego certainly was -- bragging about my hitchhiking, my travels, my writing. And the “Cousin Barry” story -- that was just my ego trying to one-up the golfer. And now, what would I accomplish by performing (yet again!) my little Ruthenian ditty? Maybe, I think, maybe today I’ll just let it slide…
Two blocks from Infinity Towers my tuxedo-wearing fare utters a final horosho and clicks his cell phone shut. I allow him a moment of silence, and then ask: “What does your day have in store?”
He, quickly: “Wedding.”
Me: “Family...? Friends...?”
He, not so quickly: “Me.”
I turn around for a look. He’s got an eye twinkle and, around his mouth, a little smirk.
The smirk goes full grin. “Yes.”
Me: “This afternoon?”
Me: “Are you nervous?”
He: “No. My fiance is nervous enough for two or three people. I will stay calm.”
Me: “Where is it?”
He: “A church. Over in the Castro.”
Me: “What time?”
He: “One o’clock.”
I look at the dashboard clock: 12:16 PM. “Do you need a ride?”
He: “We have one. Thank you.”
We’re stopped in front of his fiance’s view-blocking condominium silo. I punch buttons until my meter goes blank, and I say, “You can not pay me.”
He: “Why not?”
I turn around again. He’s grinning hugely now. I grin, too, look him in the eye, shrug, and repeat: “You can not pay me.”
He laughs. A deep and rich and healthy and extended laugh -- the idling engine of a strong, perfectly-tuned race car.
He laughs again -- one little tap on the accelerator. “What’s your name?”
“Brad. What’s yours?”
“I’ve never had this particular conversation with anyone before, Ee-gor.”
He laughs. “Me either!”
And then Igor thanks me, shakes my hand, opens the door, and goes off to his new life that starts in forty-three minutes.
SHORTLY AFTER TWO PM, I get a call from my neighbor, Dawn, who lives five doors down the street from me in Oakland. At 1:05 this afternoon she and her husband, Jay, and their two kids (I’ve known Cole and Tate since very shortly after their arrivals on Earth) are watching the A’s game on tv when they decide, on a whim, to ferry over to San Francisco and spend the rest of this beautiful day wandering like tourists. Right now they’re calling from the ferry, mid-Bay.
These Hey-are-you-driving-your-cab-today? calls almost never work out, but I like it when they do. By 2:45, the four of them are piling into my cab in front of the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. For a while, we talk baseball. The four of them report that the As have just finished off a four-game sweep of Kansas City, and I tell them that I’ve been listening to my Giants try to do the same to the New York Mets.
This year the Giants have arranged for new season ticket holders (I am one) to personally meet with one player of the ticket holder’s choice. Yesterday was the day, and my daughter and I got to spend a few moment -- maybe ninety seconds -- alone with star pitcher Tim Lincecum. Four hundred and fifty other new season ticket holders received this same special treatment yesterday, and by the time my daughter and I sidled up to young Tim (he’s twenty-six) he had already been signing autographs for an hour and a half. Still, I can think of nothing he might have done to be more gracious:
He made eye contact first with my daughter and then with me. He thanked us for coming to the event and also for standing in line for so long. He signed my daughter’s Giants scarf and the bill of her Giants cap. Two nights earlier we had watched from our lofty seats in Section 302 while Lincecum threw a complete-game shutout, and yesterday when I mentioned to Lincecum the liner he smacked that night (and which would have been a sure double if the left fielder hadn’t zipped over toward the corner and snagged it), he chuckled and then chitchatted with me like we were old friends, until the Giants staff moved things along.
In the middle of telling this story to Dawn, Jay, Cole, and Tate, I catch myself. Will there ever be a time when I can just live my life -- and then let go of it? Will I ever stop regarding life as, mainly, a story-generating opportunity? Will I ever be fully present to, fully awake in, any particular moment -- or will I always be living with one eye and ninety-nine percent of my consciousness roving for ego-enhancing, dramatic possibilities?
At the base of Coit Tower, I say good-bye to my neighbors. (Dawn offers me money -- today, as usual, no one has asked for a free ride -- but she and her family are nonetheless this shift’s third freebie.) As I wind my way back down Telegraph Hill I note the white sails of at least one hundred yachts, pregnant with breeze, tipping halfway over, and looking like so many quill pens dipped into the ink-blue water of the Bay. In the distance, bridges unfurl gracefully under a cloudless sky that gleams like a blue teflon skillet.
In North Beach, the twin spires of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul look almost too perfect: they might be the façade of a movie set. The hundreds of people milling on the square’s green lawn -- they’re strolling, or doing tai chi, or perusing the framed canvases of a weekend art show -- might be movie extras waiting for the clack of the director’s “action” signal. And me? I’m the central casting cab driver, the grizzled-gray white guy rolling down Stockton toward Union Street, past the Washington Square Inn...past Cafe Divine...nearing the end of a ten-hour shift behind the wheel of Green Cab #914.
I’m tired -- that is a given.
But am I awake...?
*MY GRANDMOTHER’S BEWILDERING RHUTHENIAN DITTY (and you must imagine for yourself the corresponding hand motions: my babushka/grandmother tugging at each of my fingers, from my pinkie on down to my thumb, to which she always gave a delighted little pop):
In phonetics: Mama zrah-vella KAH-shoo. TOH-mah dallah, TOH-mah dallah, TOH-mah dallah, TOH-mah dallah. TOH-mah ho-RO-hah porah-zallah. POOP-da-betsa!
Mother made some porridge. She gave this one some, this one some, this one some, this one some. This one, she pulled off his head and threw it in the oven!