Squirrels Are People Too
The big buck squirrel that represents the bushy-tailed members of the local free food co-op is railing loudly at the manager of the place (me) concerning the recent shortage of cheap cheerios. As loud railing goes, it ain't much, squirrels being what they are: little. They're the Little People of the trailer park and as such, deserving, I think, of a handout now and then; as the hander-outer I feel bad that I have run out of cheap cheerios but there is not much I can do about it, this shortage of manna.
There are all manner of churches and charitable organizations around the area that assuage their rich man's guilt, I suppose, by occasionally coming by the park to distribute fishes and loaves. Well, it is never exactly fishes and loaves, generally it is those odd brands of canned goods that you never heard of and the kind of peanut butter that may or may not have Korean origins; who can tell? But always there are these huge bags of generic cheerios that are fairly inedible and I don't eat even the good cheerios, the Cheerios brand cheerios, so in my munificence (and not through any guilt) instead of throwing it away I one day tried feeding it to the squirrels and they went crazy for the stuff.
A while back I was fiddling with something at the front of my trailer when I heard a scuffling of feet in the gravel parking lot behind me. Turning around, I saw a nervous-looking stranger standing there with a stuffed brown paper grocery bag.
“Hey,” I said. “What's up?”
“I want to give you this,” he said, holding up the bag. It looked heavy.
“Are you from the church?” This question didn't seem to sit right with him. I sensed a bit of offense taken. He was a small man, wearing thick black-rimmed glasses, the kind that never seem to sit exactly straight on some people's faces; this guy was one of those people. His hair also had that vaguely odd cut associated with mental institutions and correctional facilities. But he had ventured into the Whispering Pines on a mission of charity, and now here I was rapidly robbing him of his warm glow. He was working from a script, I think, and ever am I off-book when encountering strangers bearing gifts. I had a vision of him, sitting in a cell or on a lonely bed in some halfway house, making promises to God about what he would do if he ever got out of here...
“No, I just wanted to help,” he said. Yeah. I had done it wrong. He was definitely on the defensive, now. I wasn't getting my lines right and I was messing up his movie. I don't feel good about it.
|Another Fine Mess|
Once, Long Ago...
My mother was a foundling. She was literally left at the door of the Cloister of the Sisters of Mercy in our rowdy old riverboat town on the Ohio River. Never knowing her parents, she spent a few years in the orphanage on the hill overlooking the river before finally being adopted and taken into the loving arms of my maternal grandparents. When she was a young girl in high school, she could see that orphanage across the way from her classroom window and she made herself a promise: one day she would marry a handsome, noble man of wealth and she would do great things for orphans all the world over, starting right here in her hometown.
It didn't exactly work out the way she planned. I think my Dad was handsome enough, in his sailor-on-leave kind of way, but the wealth part wasn't in it. He was a fireman, a good one, too, when sober, but firemen are not notoriously wealthy. But, luckily for the orphans, my parent's marriage soon broke up and she remarried: this time to an electrician who was also without substantial means; but this husband seemed to her to be, I think, a little more trainable than the sailor/fireman/hell-raiser that had been her first choice. She pushed and pulled and cajoled and coerced my new dad until he was quite a rare sight around the house, what with all the extra jobs and night school classes and employer-sponsored seminars and after a dozen years or so the house was big, the cars were new and the orphans on the hill were, every Christmas, treated to a grand feast and piles of presents.
We privileged sons of the wealthy were required to suit up and mingle with those lost children, a task that grew more and more uncomfortable for me each year. These kids were...different. The littlest ones were cute and lovable but also clingy; it was heartbreaking to see. But the older kids were clearly angry and resentful of this act of kindness and as for myself, I just wanted clear of the whole deal. I didn't like it. It felt like lying.
OPEC to the Rescue
But again, luckily for both me and I like to think, also for the orphans, the OPEC-induced oil embargo of the early '70's wiped out the family business and my parents entered Chapter Eleven and I entered the Air Force. It was the end of being on the giving side of things; it signaled a depressing change for my Mom and her dreams of being the Queen of the Orphans, (something she never quite seemed to forgive my step-dad and the Arabs for doing to her) and yet, she survived the fall. We all seemed to muddle through somehow and charity was something I didn't have to think about anymore.
The Reluctant Receiver
But then I renounced, well, everything, it would seem...wiped out my ownself in my past-middle-aged years by forces I only pretend to understand, although once again it seemed to have some vague connection to Arabs. I commenced to riding my bicycle and doing without and waiting for someone to complain about it; but that never happened. I cautiously peeked around every corner, looking for guilt or some kind of approbation for my new-found lack of ambition and gradually, after a year or so, I realized that I was getting away with it, that I might get away with being a bum and enjoying the handful of years I have left, enjoying the free stuff, the sunlight on my back on a crisp winter's day as I pedal Way Out There, alone on a country road. The free stuff, or the stuff that should be free, like time: time to look back on the mess, the wild dash that is the American Way of spending your brief allotment of years. Now, instead of my life flashing before my eyes at the edge of the abyss, it is scrolling by in a leisurely fashion down through the years and I have been able, a little, to reconcile myself with my families and with those orphans and even, after a fashion, with the Arabs. Well, not so much with the Arabs.
Jesus Is Just All Right With Me
Why does it make people feel good to give things to the poor? Jesus, probably. Do other religions practice charitable giving? I don't know. When I was a beach bum in Ft. Lauderdale we used to work a kind of Jesus hustle. Those were the days of the Jesus Freaks, God bless 'em, and every couple miles there would be a shabby storefront advertising Christ on the windows and free peanut butter (with maybe jelly) sandwiches and kool-aid inside. With proper scheduling and a little slight of hand one could obtain fair sustenance and the Word on any given afternoon before heading back to the beach where we worshiped the One True God, His Majesty the Sun. On Sunday afternoons there were free kegs of beer and wet T-shirt competitions at the Button Lounge and really, as I scroll back through the years those were the days I would like the scroll to get stuck on.
Gratitude the Best I Can
So I put on my best humble/grateful face and say “Hey man, thank you so much! My goodness, the missus (Daisy the Yellow Dog) and the kids (squirrels) will sure be grateful for this. God bless you!” It doesn't work. He can tell I'm not really grateful. He knows that this wretched orphan could care less and I have robbed him of whatever reward in Heaven Here On Earth he is seeking. And you know what? The squirrels won't be grateful either, later, when I dump a bowl of stale cheerios into the squirrel feeder. They figure it is their due, as the Royal Squirrels of the Whispering Pines Trailer Park. They have no idea that I am secretly fattening them up just in case. Miss Daisy? She is an aging yellow lab and a whole jar of Korean peanut butter is indeed a gift from heaven, and in fact she is effusive with gratitude and wiggling and dog kisses as she endeavors to ascertain if there might not be more.
But Daisy is a dog, and dogs are of a higher spiritual nature than humans.
A Varmint On the Porch
And now, in a brusque show of not gratitude but rather outrage at the dearth of cheerios in the feeder, I am being berated by a fat squirrel-boss for my sloth.
And also am I thinking of Jesus. Didn't he hook everyone up with a little wine? If those store-front Jesus Freaks had put out a little Mad Dog or Boone's Farm instead of dixie cups of kool-aid they would have had a far larger turn out, rest assured. In fact, I now feel a little like Boss Squirrel (who if he don't shut up and get off the porch is in for a rude surprise: I'm trying to type here)...I find myself feeling a little resentment. If an odd little man with bad vision and a questionable haircut were to show up with a brown bag containing a jug of the squeezings of Ernest and Julio, my gratitude would be real indeed and we might even share a glass or two, embracing each other in the warm glow of human fellowship and kindness. Isn't that what He would have wanted?
I don't know what those orphans wanted. We never shared a glass and got to know each other properly. I am fairly sure, as I scroll back to those days, that what they didn't want was to be reminded by the Queen and the young Prince about how bad things would be the other 364 days of the year. You could see it in their faces. So could my Mom. It broke her heart and she never understood. But then, like most people, my poor Mom never had the time to sort things out, to scroll back and take another look.
Wrap It Up (I'll Take It)
That noisy squirrel, sensing my gentle malevolence concerning his making of such a racket, has gone off in search of charity elsewhere. I wish him luck in his quest. As for myself, His Highness the Sun is out and it is time for the Old Prince to take his bicycle down from the wall and venture forth. I seem to be, these days, on a quest myself, if not in search of charity, then perhaps...
I think what I am looking for is to reach a place where I can find in my heart a feeling of honest gratitude. I'm not there just yet. In fact, there is a lot that I'm a bit pissed about, just like that squirrel who didn't get his cheerios this morning. For whatever reason, I have time, at this odd juncture of my life, to take a break and sort things out. I am taking that time as a gift and using it the best way that I know how. I'm riding my bike. I pause and listen to conversations that I am not a part of, but that I hear all the same. I'm working the Jesus hustle, taking whatever bits I get and wondering why I don't love my fellow man all that much. But I'm working on it. I go around penniless, but that part doesn't seem to matter. In fact, it may be what makes this work possible. Money ain't in it.
As though working a broken Rubik's Cube or playing out a hopeless hand of Solitaire, what I am up to is reconciliation, a twisting and sorting and working toward that place where, as I close my eyes the final time, it will not be for the coming of cold-hearted night but instead it will herald the rising of the sun. I think that is it. Maybe...Yeah, that's it.
Whispering Pines Trailer Park and Squirrel Sanctuary.