I get my first name, Oscar, from my mother, Lorena, who was third-generation Mexican-American and worked at a pencil factory when her health allowed until she and my father died together in an automobile accident in 1979. My last name, Lucian, I get of course from my pops, Antonio, who was fourth-generation Italian-American and worked twenty years at a sugar plant, which is only right since he really was a sweet man. I was twenty-five when they died, and I had just completed my second year of seminary. I believe they were as proud of me as I was of them. I bring that thought to mind sometimes to comfort me when I am troubled.
The pencil factory closed in 1982, swallowed whole by corporate sharks, the jobs outsourced to Guatemala. Its dilapidated shell burned to the ground in the riots of 1992. Those ruins remain today, encircled by a tall barbwire fence posted every 200 feet with DANGER! signs. Sour-toothed sharks shut the sugar plant down in 1986. Those jobs left for Panama. In 1994 the city razed the abandoned structure to clear the way for a big box store, a "super" store, which launched in 1995 to great fanfare. Local, state and federal officials and their symbiotic corporate sugar-daddies attended a much-hyped opening-day ceremony, and the newspapers gave the event front-page coverage, heralding it as evidence of the new prosperity.
In 1996, that super-duper store challenged the city's tax assessment and was granted a 38% reduction in property taxes by the governor-appointed, business- friendly appeals commission. The potholes in the parking lot today are the size of little bomb craters, posing hazards to customers and the city police cruiser that patrols the store 24/7 on the city's dime.
I needn't remind you that city services are dependent on tax revenues.
When Pops died in 1979, he made $12 an hour as a brand-new union member—30% more than he was making before—with company-subsidized health insurance and a modest pension plan. The average worker at that box store today makes $8.84 an hour. Most of those workers are intentionally structured as part-time, which means they are not offered health insurance or cannot afford to purchase the available plans. Many of those workers fall below the poverty line and need public assistance to get by. Social Security is their pension plan.
It seems to me that their austerity means mucho corporate prosperity.
Following my ordination, I was assigned as an assistant priest to a wealthy parish in an exclusive suburb thirty miles outside the city limits, or about fifty- five miles outside the inner city neighborhood where I grew up. Many of my then parishioners commuted to the towers of big money and global power that reach so high they pierce the clouds on stormy days. Every morning they left their beautiful brick homes and immaculate, irrigated lawns and drove cars with heated leather seats down highways built for their pursuit of happiness, highways leading them around and over wastelands of entrenched misery to the towers' gated parking deck entrances. In the evening they drove their roads home, back over and around the people who live in the shadows of those towering monuments to the American Dream—including the good people of my parish—people who have as much access to that dream as they do the moon. Occasionally, like the odd virus or bacterium that somehow survives the most thorough disinfection, a person like me manages to penetrate the socially engineered obstacles.
Yeah, I escaped, but my younger brothers were not so fortunate. Antonio Lucian, Jr.—"Little A"—the youngest, and Pops' favorite, died in 1973 from a cocaine-induced cardiac arrhythmia. By all accounts it was the first time he did cocaine. He was a Golden-gloves boxer, good enough to maybe turn pro later. He was soft spoken and shy, subject to cry. I never heard him curse. The middle son, my brother Michael, we called Mikey after the kid in a popular cereal commercial. Mikey is serving a life sentence in the state penitentiary for a gang-related murder outside a liquor store in 1974.
Forty-one years served. He couldn't grow a proper mustache when he was arrested; now he has a full beard, white as bleached cotton. Last time I visited, I told him he looked like an Hispanic Walt Whitman—and he is in fact a fine poet, published. A framed broadside of his poetry hangs on my office wall. I am in the habit of touching it frequently. My greasy fingerprints are all over the glass, which I never bother to clean. My fingerprints are my connection to Mikey. . . and to Mustafa. In 1989 Michael converted to Islam. His faith brings him peace, and that brings me peace.
We were close as kids, my brothers and me, separated in age by just three years. I remember us watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, and eating these big overfilled bowls of our favorite cereal, Captain Crunch. We'd spill the crunches on the threadbare carpet and throw them at each other. We got a little rowdy at times, and Mom would holler at us in English as she sang along in Spanish to the Hispanic radio station in her beautiful clear voice while ironing Pops' work uniforms in the little kitchen behind us.
You might be surprised to hear a priest say this, but I don't believe God was directly involved in my escaping. He did not favor me over my brothers. No guardian angel enabled me to resist the gangs, the drugs, the capitulation to despair. In lieu of angels, there were instead mentors from the Church and the public schools, men and women who appeared at the right place and time, providing the emotional support and encouragement Mom and Pops couldn't. These flesh-and-blood angels opened the doors connecting me to my dreams. They held me up when I stumbled. I was born with thick skin, a ferocious stubbornness, and a passion for learning, but believe me, it could have easily gone the other way. The wrong step at the right time to fall, and it could be me in a grave or a prison cell now instead of my parish priest office.
You see, I serve God the master painter, but His brush strokes are broad. I know how hard it is sometimes to believe this heartbreaking and precarious journey is the path of His desire, the path to the fullness of love, but that's what I believe. I don't understand why I feel this way, given all I've known. I don't know why I see this beauty in the world, when I have spent my life bandaging the world's wounds. It doesn't make sense. The only explanation for this is that God exists.
Mom spent Christmas of 1967 at the city psychiatric hospital. She suffered with manic depressive illness, and sometimes she went days without sleeping, followed by days without getting out of bed except to use the bathroom. I remember checking on Pops late that Christmas Eve night, peeking through their cracked bedroom door, where I saw him sobbing on his knees before the statue of the Blessed Virgin resting on Mom's nightstand. Beside him on the floor was an empty half-gallon jug of wine.
Pops drank way too much. He'd start as soon as he got off work, but he never missed work. And he never got mean when he drank. He got happy, hugging and slapping folks on the back, laughing that deep, rolling signature laugh… and then later he'd get quiet, but never mean. We carried him home a lot, Little A , Mikey and me.
We never had a car. Couldn't afford one. We either walked or took the bus or subway, but when the workers at the sugar plant unionized after years of company resistance, Pops could finally afford a vehicle. The key was he had been sober then for a few months, and mom's illness was managed better than ever with new medications. Two days after Pops got his driver's license, he bought a little two-door used Datsun. Mom called me that day to say how happy they were. That night Pops drove her to a swanky Italian restaurant on the northeast side of the city, an area they had never seen before. The receipt shows two bottles of wine were purchased with their meal.
No, we weren't there to carry him home—Little A dead, Mikey imprisoned, and me at an upstate college preparing for the priesthood. On the way back from the restaurant, Pops ran a stop sign, straight into a semi.
If God has literally touched my life, it is through my return as priest to my childhood parish, where I have ministered on the very streets I escaped. When the great Father Luis Ruiz died in 1995, I petitioned the Archdiocese to appoint me priest. What a joyful shock it was when my desire was granted! I had by then become fully aware that there were two faces to America—one healthy, one sick, one printed on money and the other on mug shots. In that wealthy parish, I washed the feet of hedge-fund managers on Maundy Thursdays, and then watched their sons I confirmed go off to universities. On my days off I would drive back to my city, where our sons so often go to prison or to the grave.
The veil of the world gradually lifted before my eyes, leaving me to ask how such disparity can exist. How can one group of people live in such luxury, enjoying all the pleasures and securities of the world, with the means, ownership and control of societal systems to pass it all on to their children in perpetuity, while forty-five miles away another group of human beings suffers to subsist, locked out, penned- in, forsaken, each generation enduring without any expectation of passing opportunity for the good life to their children? Are they where they are in the world because they are inferior beings? Lesser souls? Disfavored by God? Or are they there because the game is rigged against them?
Twenty years now I have walked these streets as the deputy of Christ. Down this crooked line of time, I have baptized and eulogized, married and buried, preached a thousand sermons, offered a thousand masses, heard countless confessions, anointed the sick, administered the last rites in homes and hospitals and on the weeping streets—all the duties of my office. But I have come to realize over these years that serving God involves much more than saving souls; I have come to understand that if the Church—any church—aligns itself with institutions that promote vast inequities within societies, creating internal colonies of the forsaken, institutions that promote wars to profit corporations and their complicit shareholders, sucking dry the resources of the vulnerable, leaving trails of death and poverty throughout the world, institutions run by men devoid of empathy or understanding, men determined to prevent the diminishment of their dominance by any means necessary, then the Church has parted from God.
Let me be clear: I believe those good folks of privilege have been deceived, led down the cliff road by the godless, a road lined with pleasure so shiny its glare blinds them to their sin.
I cannot accept a vision of humanity that places the few in palaces and the many in hovels, and I cannot in good conscious be party to any religious belief whose only remedy to this evil is the good life after death.
I believe their neoliberal Jesus is a lie.
Sometimes this irony, or rather this awareness, this feeling of the irony that I belong to—my life's bittersweet twist of fate and God, punishment and reward, prison and paradise—sweeps across my heart like a dry, abrasive wind, and for a moment I falter; then I remember I am a vicar of love, and I collect myself so I can continue advocating for the forsaken.
I must confess I have become partially detached from the ceremony of my office. I seldom wear a collar. I probably spend more time advocating for the marginalized than I do my priestly duties. I am proud to say I am a thorn in the fat asses of those city and state officials who would turn a deaf ear to the have nots. I vigorously petition in whatever way I can for societal investment in the disenfranchised. I've organized a protest or two, working alongside other civic warriors, walking arm-in arm with the voiceless. I work to register voters and organize transportation to the polls for those who need it. Each year I help conduct a community yard sale, with the proceeds helping to fund local food banks. For the past ten years I have sponsored a softball game between the street gangs at Patriot Park.
Please note that I can still hit a hanging curve ball over your head if you play me in.
Oh, and I also occasionally do a standup routine at a nearby comedy club. Some might say my material is unpriestly. That might be true, but I believe laughter really is powerful spirit medicine. Besides, I can't help myself. Let me tell you the story of when Jesus healed the impotent man. . . I always get a rise from the crowd with that one.
I'm confident it won't shock you then when I say I stay in disfavor with Church officials. Last year in fact I was called before the archbishop, who told me it pained him to even look at me. I immediately headed for the door.
"What do you think you are doing?" he testily asked.
"Relieving you of your suffering, your Excellency," I genially replied as I walked away.
I suspect a cardinal somewhere high on a branch in the Church tree likes me.
Anyway, now that you know a little about me, please allow me to tell you a story drawn from recent events in my life. If the prose seems a bit informal, well, that's deliberate. If at some point during the middle bit you are inspired to laugh, please do.
Remember: laughter sweetens our tears.
My story begins on a snowy, bitterly-cold evening two weeks ago. I was closing down the chapel, feeling weary. The short winter days are always the longest for me. My hip hurt, but trumping that discomfort was my craving for a cigarette. My hand may have trembled just a touch as I reached into my shirt pocket for the butt I had carried since lunch. I then stood there in the dying winter light of the chapel vestibule and lit that cigarette butt, inhaling deeply. As I exhaled, my thoughts drifted to the Johnnie Walker in the bottom drawer of my office desk.
The door swung open and a rangy, breathless figure in a long black coat and a gray Peruvian cap with the sides down and dangling bounded in and stood directly before me. The dark figure reached into a coat pocket and pulled out what I presumed was a knife or gun.
"I have nothing of physical worth to give you, son." I told the intruder, raising both hands. "I can make you a sandwich if you are hungry."
"Oh, no, Father!" the stranger exclaimed. "It's just a phone, see? And I am not a man."
My unexpected guest pulled off the Peruvian cap, shaking her shiny black hair with a smile. She was a real Latina beauty, thirty-or-so, no makeup, full lips and fiery brown eyes. Her hair was dyed red at the tips and cut so it slanted at a precise angle down her forehead, and she occasionally readjusted it with a dignified shake of her head.
"Ahhh," I said. "A phone, yes. The glass is cracked."
"But not broken," she said, quickly adding," I'm sorry for not knocking. My toes are so cold."
"Are you okay?"
"No. . . I mean, yes. I came here straightaway because I know who you are. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I'm not here for the priest. I'm here for the Zapatista. It is well known how you fight the system, how you feed the homeless, how you perform stand up for charity at the Laughing Dog. You make the miserable smile. You resist. Even the gangs respect you."
"Hmm, a Zapatista. . . "
"My mother is Catholic. You have washed her feet on Maundy Thursday… But I'm rambling, forgive me. Listen, I have something on my phone you must hear!"
"Are you Selena Palomino's daughter?" I asked, noting the resemblance after the Maundy Thursday reference."
"That's my mom," she replied. "I am Maria Rodriguez, sir," she told me, extending her free hand, which I shook.
Her handshake was firm, I noted.
"Well, Maria, "it's my honor to meet you." It occurred to me that I held my other hand behind my back, attempting to hide my cigarette, and I brought it to my side, shrugging sheepishly. "I'm curious—what do you mean when you say 'Zapatista'?"
She straightened herself, shook her hair back, looked me square in the eyes and solemnly and firmly said: "It means you fight for the dignity of those who bear the stripes of managed indignity."
I must confess her response quite impressed me.
"Oh," is all I had.
After a short pause, as if to let what she had just said sink in a little deeper, she continued. "I'm familiar with the struggle of the people of Chiapas. It's solidarity of spirit, us and them. It's the same struggle, right? For freedom? The resistance to predation?"
Anyone who effectively uses the word predation in a sentence has my attention.
"Let's talk in my office," I told her. "I need to sit down. My hip tells me it will snow hard tonight. You can warm your toes and I can finish my cigarette. I'll crack the window."
"That shit will kill you," she remarked, nodding at my flamed- out cancer stick.
"Follow me," I replied, waving her on. "Let's hurry—I'm dying for a drag."
I led her around the hall corner to my little office. She pulled a phone charger from a coat pocket, then handed me her coat. I shook the melting snow from it before hanging it on the wall beside the groaning radiator. She plugged the charger into the wall and her phone. The floor creaked as we faced each other from folding metal chairs in front of my desk. I noticed we both wore black jeans and sneakers.
"No wonder your toes are cold," I said, pointing to her shoes.
"Your great grandparents came from Chiapas," she offhandedly remarked.
"They did," I agreed. "What is it you want me to hear?"
"First I need to start at the beginning, "she said.
"Talk till your toes get warm," I told her.
"I was hired to clean at the Waldorf Tower," she began. "You know, temp work. Minimum wage slave. So we took the elevator to a conference room on the 83rd floor, a room so ostentatious Marie Antoinette herself would have blushed. I was then given instructions and a key to the cleaning closet where the materials are stored and left alone. When I finished the conference room, I cleaned and vacuumed the adjacent rooms and hallways as I was told. Before heading back down, I impulsively went back to the conference room and set my phone on record and stuck it in a potted plant."
"That's crazy," I remarked. "Perhaps in a good way."
"It gets crazier," she said.
"The Waldorf is where the biggest sharks swim," I noted.
"We must drain their pond."
"I'm listening," I said.
"When I returned tonight for work, I told my supervisor I had left my phone by accident last night in the maintenance closet on the 83rd floor. My heart was racing. He gave me the key along with a look of disgust and told me to hurry the hell up and go get it. When I got up there, I snatched the phone from the plant, then took it straight into the room's palatial private bathroom and sat in a closed stall while I checked to see if it recorded something. When I heard voices outside in the hallway, I got so nervous I dropped the phone and cracked the screen."
"But you recorded something. . . ?"
"Oh, did I! I only listened to a few minutes of it. That's why I am here. I left immediately to find you!"
"These are city officials?"
"I know you will recognize some of these men. They begin by discussing the recent protests over the police shooting the two children at the park. They joke about our suffering. They mock our humanity. They discuss ways of assisting the protesters to get violent so they can break out their security forces. They are without souls!"
"I want to hear this," I said.
My knees popped audibly as I stood and finished my cigarette, blowing the smoke out the little crack in the bared window. I thought fondly again of Mr. Walker in my desk drawer.
"We'll go to the newspapers, "she gushed, tapping and swiping away as she held the phone at different angles in the thin light."
"You do understand the newspapers are owned by those men who meet at the Waldorf," I commented as she worked her phone.
"It's hard to navigate with the cracked screen," she muttered, tapping and swiping feverishly.
"You walked from there in this weather," I remarked, glancing out the window to the streetlight and noting it had begun snowing harder. "That's a three mile hike."
A few silent seconds passed, then I heard an anguished breath, and I quickly turned.
Maria stared open-mouthed at the cracked screen. She looked at me with a mix of incredulity and despair, and dropped the phone on her lap.
"I just inadvertently deleted it," she said. I don't know what to say. Oh, God. I'm so sorry. I've made a fool of myself."
She stood and reached for her coat, but I gently blocked her with an extended arm.
"Hold up, Maria," I said. "Trust me, I know what a fool is, and even after knowing you for less than ten minutes, I can say with certainty you are anything but a fool. Please, sit down. Your toes will thank you, and so will I."
Maria did sit back down, thankfully. I sensed intuitively she was authentic, and I understand from personal experience that eccentricity sometimes cloaks spirits that shine.
We both examined the phone, but the recording was gone. Poof. I talked her down from her bitter disappointment. We chatted for a few minutes. She knew a lot about me, and I inquired about her. She lived in a tiny apartment with her twelve-year-old son, Justin, just across the river above a consignment shop on Fifth St. She read voraciously, and confessed to library fines she could not afford nor offer any reasonable excuse. A kind clerk usually forgave her debt. Sometimes her mom and sister helped raise Justin.
"I just want him to feel he belongs in the world. I want him to be a vessel of hope and dreams. I want love to collect and connect in his heart. Is there something wrong with me?"
Well, that told me all I needed to know about Maria.
"Would you consider helping me make sandwiches for the homeless? This Saturday. We're talking a hundred sandwiches. I could use a true Zapatista."
The fire in her eyes returned.
"Maria Rodriguez reporting for duty, Señor!"
I didn't let her in on the fact that the city council had passed an ordinance the previous month outlawing the distribution of food at the park. Only licensed, for-profit vendors were now legal. The very system that created the homeless now meant to starve-out their victims and criminalize those who would help them. I had been cited by the police for three weeks running, and was warned I would be arrested this week if I returned with alms for the poor.
"9 o'clock," she agreed, saluting me.
Persuading her to allow me to pay for a taxi to take her home was no easy feat.
"You will work the debt off Saturday," I told her. "I insist."
We waited in the falling snow on the chapel steps for the taxi. I saw her off with a hug.
My apartment is walking distance from the chapel, but it was really snowing by then, and I am no spring chicken, so I decided to sleep on the cot I keep in my office closet.
Before turning in, I took my first anti-smoking pill my doctor talked me into trying. Being too tired to even walk just down the hall to the bathroom sink, I had to chase my prescription down with a shot of that Johnnie Walker I mentioned earlier.
I fell into a bottomless sleep before finishing my prayers.
I had asked my doctor in her office the day before if this medicine came with side effects.
"I wouldn't worry," she told me. "Maybe a dry mouth. Some people get constipated. You may dream, though."
"Oh, I dream all the time," I cheerfully replied.
"Vivid dreams," she said in a deeper tone. Technicolor. Some people describe them as intense, or even. . . unusual."
My doctor is an oracle.
My dream began in an elevator that descended to the 83rd floor of the Waldorf Towers. I was accompanied on the decent by the leader of America's corporate oligarchy, Chairman X, an average-size man in black suit and shoes, thin red tie, sunglasses. His face was deformed, warped and bent like the macabre reflection from some creepy carnival hall-of-mirrors.
"You know I will have to kill you when this is over," he said. "Just business, of course," and then we were in the conference room.
Think the war room from Dr. Strangelove—dark, cavernous yet claustrophobic, a round table with an enormous suspended circular light hovering above like a malevolent spaceship. On the domed steel walls, flame-like stock tickers scrolled incessantly. Supporting the vast monolithic structure were four great iron columns named for the pillars of corporate global prosperity: war, poverty, suffering and grief.
Chairman X sat in an enormous black gothic balloon chair. Around the table sat three mighty captains of finance and industry—Captain Hubris, Captain Avarice, and Captain Psychopath, along with the top dog of the armed forces, Admiral Death. All four were dressed identically to Chairman X, except for blue ties, with similarly macabre faces.
The dream assumed the form of a play.
First, let us give thanks to the source from which all blessings flow. . .
(Solemnly nodding head.) Jesus. . .
(Glaring sternly.) I refer to our shareholders, Avarice.
My bad, X.
No worries. Okay, the invocation before we begin, please.
(Everyone bows their head.)
Power and treasure, the world is our pleasure. Amen!
Power and treasure, the world is our pleasure. Amen!
Alright, as everybody knows, we are here to discuss the unfortunate events yesterday at the inauguration of Wounded Warrior Stadium. Captain Psychopath will let us in on the clean-up, but first Admiral Death is going to explain just what the fuck happened. Before I relinquish the floor to Death, let me remind everyone here what a great company we live in.
(Winking.) Uh, you mean "country," right, X.
(Winking back.) Oops. My bad, Hubris. I meant "country," of course. Anyway, we have quite the mess, to state the obvious. What happened, Death!
Thank you, X. As we all know, this was to be the climax to. . .
(Captain Psychopath laughs loudly.)
What's so funny, Psychopath?
He said climax.
(Shaking his papers as he glares at Captain Psychopath.) The glorious culmination to the festivities was to be the flyover by our F-35 fighter-bombers. Each plane dropped what was supposed to be a "peace bomb," a specially designed Styrofoam mock-up incendiary fragmentation bomb—dead ringers for the ones the Israelis used recently in Gaza—which were to burst harmlessly open in the air, you know, like The Star Mangled Banner—showering the crowd with thousands of little glittery paper American flags. And candy for the kids!
Death, I think you meant "spangled."
I like mangled better.
Hee-hee. You say potato, I say hand grenade!
As you know, a tragic mistake occurred. The peace bombs were inadvertently loaded on planes heading for Afghanistan. A private. . . (Looking at notes.) Jimenez reported the error to his C.O., a. . . uh. . . a captain Adolph Lilywhite, who disregarded the report.
Jesus H.W. Christ! I trust disciplinary action was taken!
Absolutely, sir. Corporal Jimenez was shipped out to Syria yesterday!
Good job, Death!!
Just horrific, what happened.
Yes, yes. 657 dead, 2000 wounded. The country traumatized. Real bombs were regrettably put in those planes involved in the Wounded Warrior Stadium flyover.
I was actually referring to sending candy to the Taliban!
I concur, Psychopath. Thousands of Twizzlers and Kit-Kat bars. A tragic waste.
The President demands a plan of action. The protestors have surrounded the White House.
(Extremely mocking voice.) The President demands a plan of action. Boys, how high can a President jump?
White boys can't jump, X!
But black ones can. Boys, we got us a jumper!
(Everyone laughs harder.)
Slam dunk, X!
The answer of course is however high we goddamn tell him!
Power and treasure, the world is our pleasure!
Enough playing around. We got brunch and a Jacuzzi at ten. So what's the game plan, Psychopath? How do we manage the situation?
We're going to pin this on Private Jimenez. We'll cook up some story linking him to some new terrorist group. We'll claim we're under attack by the godless. We'll call upon all those things we have nurtured in the citizenry from the beginning, all the racist, xenophobic, paranoid qualities that have made America the greatest company on Earth! Then we'll bomb the fucking shit out of someone!
We'll restore some sanity to the world!
You guys rock! I mean it. Now before we adjourn, I'm going to throw a crazy-crazy idea out there and see what you think. We gotta keep our heads on a swivel, boys. What's the game plan if there is ever a…uh, re- revolution?
A re- revolution?!
(Raising hand.) I know!
You have the floor, Death.
The moon! We have plans to mine the moon, right? I say we get up there pronto and make us some underground bases. We'll move our nukes up there, build us some condos, golf courses and shit. Malls and amusement parks. We'll suck Earth dry if we have to. Then if there ever is a, uh, a re-re. . . you know, we'll just escape to the moon, regroup, and then attack Earth!
But if we suck Earth dry, there won't be anything left to attack, right?
So what. We have the whole universe to plunder! We'll spread sharecropper capitalism to infinity!
I think you meant shareholder, Psychopath.
He's right, boys! The universe is constantly exploiting—forever, without limit, without end.
X, don't you mean expanding?
Same thing brother!
(Sniffing the air.) Hold on everyone. What's that smell?
(Sniffing.) It's foul!
(Sniffing.) It's odious!
(Sniffing.) It's noxious!
The stench of fairness!
Power and treasure, the world is our pleasure!
The stink of compassion!
Power and treasure, the world is our pleasure!
It's that priest!
Kill him, boys!!
What a dream! I woke in a sweat, my heart firing like a machine gun. I can honestly say I have never desired a cigarette like I did after that dream, and I immediately lit one, which was not easy, my hand shook so. I dragged myself zombie-like to the bathroom and peed, emptying my bottle of anti-smoking medication into the toilet before flushing. Then I shuffled back to my office and smoked another cigarette. Then I said hi to Mr. Walker.
"Hello, Johnnie. Let me introduce you to another old, dear friend, Mr. Marlborough."
Maria Romero Rodriguez is the world's greatest sandwich maker. I have made sandwiches with the best of them, and she blows them all away. She reported for duty at 9 sharp in blue jeans and a black t- shirt with block white letters that read: BE KIND TO ANIMALS OR I WILL KILL YOU, which I immediately complimented her on. I took her to the little kitchen at the back of the chapel to get started on the sandwiches. The kitchen is a rusty Frigidaire, a gas stove that works when it desires, a tiny pantry, and six feet of cabinets and countertop. I could close my eyes and fetch anything quickly. Salvatore from Rossi's Deli had just dropped off 4 big rolls of bologna and salami, along with 2 blocks of provolone cheese, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, and a dozen bags of sub rolls. Alfonso Rossi still runs his place hands-on at eighty- five. He was a friend of Pops, and he donates all the sandwich materials—plus the coffee, cream and sugar—for my Sandwich Saturdays. I grabbed a roll of bologna and a roll of salami from the fridge, laid them out on the counter, grabbed a couple of butcher knives from a drawer, and handed one to Maria, who immediately began slicing the salami. I set to work on the Bologna. I have to admit that I am pretty handy with a knife in the kitchen, and so it came as quite a surprise when I glanced over to Maria and saw she had sliced twice as much as me, and each slice was as uniform and precise as if cut by a commercial slicer.
"That's incredible," I said. "How do you slice those so quickly and perfectly?"
She looked over at my bologna and smiled." Yours looks good," she lied, and then resumed her art work.
Soon she was going at the tomatoes. She started humming melodiously, then stopped abruptly and said:
"The Zapatistas carry within their hearts a reverence for the world. They resist the irreverence of the predators; they reject power that steals power from others. Don't you agree?"
I looked at her tomatoes and then mine and shook my head.
"What? Oh, yes, I couldn't have said it better myself."
"They checked the metastasizing neoliberal cancer. To get America to sign NAFTA, the Mexican government agreed to amend Article 27 of its constitution, forsaking its commitment to land reform, stripping the campesinos of their constitutional right to own their land. The aim was to force these people—the farmers and the Indians—into the maquiladora sweatshops as wage slaves for the machine. It's the same machine everywhere. Globalization is universal exploitation. You go to the east side of Mexico City and a million people live in utter squalor. You go to the west side and it's the pleasure grounds of the wealthy, whose dogs wear diamonds. The drivers of the machine use the same modus operandi all over the planet. The greedy thieves swallow the flesh of the vulnerable, spit out the bones, grow fatter. They are pestilence. They will swallow everything until there is nothing."
She paused and turned to me, wielding the knife like a conductor wields a wand to emphasize her points.
"So when I say I resist managed indignity; when I proclaim reverence for my world and everyone in it; when I tell you I refuse to be swallowed silently by the irreverent, I am declaring my solidarity with what Zapatismo represents. When I raise my fist, I am not just signifying my opposition to the machine, I am also defining my heart."
Well, what could I say? Maria preached to me, the preacher. Can I get an amen?
"Let me tell you about my dream from the other night," I said.
We got everything prepared, packed-up and loaded into the Hopemobile. The Hopemobile is a 1989 Ford truck that used to be white. If you just considered looks alone, you could say the truck itself didn't radiate much hope. You might even say a prayer that it would start, let alone drive, was in order. But it's not the vehicle but the mission that radiates hope.
The morning was crisp and bright beneath February-blue skies. The Hopemobile started right up and drove pretty damn good for a dinosaur. Like me. It's eight miles from the church to Patriot Park, but it's a gauntlet of traffic and stop lights, so it usually takes twenty minutes or more to drive, which means I had plenty of time to let Maria in on the deal fixing to go down.
"I will go to jail with you!" she proclaimed with revolutionist fervor. "This is why I reported for duty!"
"You will not do anything of the sort," I admonished. "I forgot to ask, but do you have a driver's license?"
"Good, because you need to drive the Hopemobile to the jail and wait to give me a ride back when I'm released. I'm usually in and out."
I felt I should lighten the mood a bit, turn the conversation to something trivial to release the tension.
"How tall are you, Maria," I blurted out without thinking.
"Me? Oh, 5'9"or so."
"I used to be 5'9"," I said. "Now I'm 5'7" and some change. "My goal is to make it to 5'2"."
She chuckled. "Why limit yourself? Why not set your goal at 4'11"?"
It occurred to me then I had perhaps met my match.
We pulled into the usual spot at the park—the parking lot beside Swan Lake. The lake is really a big pond, and it was partially frozen. In the summertime they rent kayaks and paddle boats. There is a big fountain in the middle that is spectacularly illuminated at night. The grounds are landscaped with beautiful trees, shrubs and flowers. If visitors from outer space were to land there, they would mistakenly assume they had landed in a paradise. If they wandered three miles down the road, they would see boarded-up storefronts, streets, bridges and buildings in various states of disrepair, groups of the disenfranchised congregated on trash-littered street corners, homeless men and women sleeping on piles of garbage. If they took the wrong turn, they could be mugged or murdered. They could search forever and never find illuminated fountains. In place of beautiful trees and flowers, they would find only weeds growing amid broken glass in the vacant lots, or ivy engulfing the shells of abandoned buildings, like the old psychiatric hospital where Mom was.
The forsaken were waiting: Mary, Carlos, Omar and Mateo, Adelito, Aliyah, Jessica, Barry. There were new faces, some smiling, some not. The Pryor family waited in their home, a '98 Subaru. A baby cried from the car.
We came with two coolers filled with sandwiches, and a full 80 cup commercial coffee dispenser I got for free from one of my older parishioners. Maria lowered the tailgate and started setting out the cups and spoons, the cream, sugar, mustard and mayo, while I greeted my old friends and introduced myself to the new folks.
"Attention, everybody, atencione!" I shouted to the crowd. "I want to introduce you to Maria. I think the sandwiches are even more delicious today because of her. Give her a big hand!"
Maria gave a charming smile and a little curtsy to the group just as two police cruisers pulled up.
"Don't worry!" I shouted. "I'll handle this. Come on up. Maria will help you." I turned quickly to Maria, who glared at the police. "Put away your sword, Peter," I told her. "I need you to feed our friends. Remember what we discussed."
"I'm familiar with that story," she said. "Peter at least got to strike an ear, right?"
"No ears today, Maria. Just sandwiches and love."
"I'll be waiting at the jail," she told me.
I strolled over to the police, who had just exited their cruisers. I recognized William Mahoney. His father was a cop who had sometimes worked nights as a security guard at the sugar plant to earn extra money for his family. He attended Mom and Pops funeral. I knew I would ride to jail uncuffed in the front seat.
I greeted them in a chipper tone. "Good morning, gentlemen. Sergeant Mahoney. Beautiful day, isn't it?"
"You know what I have to do, Father," Sergeant Mahoney told me.
"Like I said, Bill, it's a beautiful day."
"Who's the new girl," he asked.
"That's Maria, my new assistant," I replied.
"We have to cite her," he said unenthusiastically.
"Can I have a second?"
I walked over to Maria and said, "They will cite you. But you can finish our work here. Be cool."
She made a fist, gave me a quick hug and smiled. I turned and waved to the crowd.
I turned and waved to the crowd: "See you next week!"
And then I went to jail.
"I'll go before a judge Thursday," I told Maria as we drove back to the chapel from the jail following my release. "They will fine me and perhaps wag their little finger my way. I want you to be there, but whatever you do, do not say a word when the judge is present, OK?"
"Of course," she replied. "No problem, chief."
That Thursday I stood before Judge Joseph Potter, AKA, Maximum Joe. He would throw the book at you, make you pick it up and carry it back to him so he could throw it again. He looked . . . gassy.
"You know, Padre, I assumed that when you got old you'd wise the hell up, but I was clearly wrong."
"How can it be a crime to help the unfortunate?" I inquired.
"I keep telling you, Padre, the Lord helps those who help themselves. But you don't seem to get it," he intoned, wagging his finger petulantly.
"No tepees ups, tu honor, estaminet trabajando en ello!" Maria Romero Rodriguez shouted from the third row.
"Who said that," Maximum Joe demanded, scanning the courtroom with a raised brow.
Maria stood and raised her hand. "I said it," she told him undemurely.
"In English!" he barked.
"I told you we are working on it, your honor."
"How nice. I'm finding you in contempt of this court. You can work on it a day behind bars."
I turned around and gestured to Maria to not say another word. The bailiff was already cuffing her. I was not surprised she ignored me.
"Usted es el problema, y nosotros somos la solucion!" she shouted as she was led to jail.
"Let's make that seven days, sister," the judge said as the door closed, then he looked menacingly my way. "What did she just say?"
"She said you are the problem and we are the solution," I replied, shrugging innocently, imagining the delicious cigarette waiting for me to light as I walked down the steps away from the courthouse.
"That so," the judge remarked. "Well, she's going to jail and I'm going to have lunch and a Jacuzzi. As for you, I fine you $500. Anything you want to add, Padre?"
"Have a nice Jacuzzi?" I offered with a faux smile.
"I have a plan," I said to Maria between puffs as we walked away from the city jail, strolling down the sidewalk westward on 14th street.
The judge had reduced her sentence to time served after 3 days. Must have been the Jacuzzi.
"Where's the Hopemobile?" she asked.
"It wouldn't start. It's in the shop. Today it's the Nopemobile. Brag on mule and it will lay down on you," I blurted out, realizing I had just quoted my gramps, who had quoted his pops, who actually owned a mule.
The weather had turned spring- like. The late morning sun burned like a happy face gone supernova in the vast blue sky above the Waldorf Tower. The snow had completely melted, save for a few tiny, dirty piles in sheltered spots. Maria carried her long black coat over her shoulder.
"You mentioned a plan," she remarked.
You'd think she'd be a bit bedraggled, having lived in a dungeon for three days, but the spring in her step matched the weather.
"I've decided to expand Sandwich Saturdays to a seven-day-a-week operation," I explained. "This is based upon you accepting my offer of employment. The wages suck, as do the benefits. Actually there are no benefits. Anyway, I've applied for our vendor's license. We'll need to get a health inspection for the kitchen, and we might need to make a couple modifications to the Hopemobile. Let's just say our prices will be highly competitive. Like a penny for everything. We are a customer-friendly enterprise, after all. We'll make sure to have a bucket of pennies located strategically nearby. What do you think?"
"I think I see beauty in the world," she replied, resting her hand on my shoulder for a few steps before adding, "I accept your offer of employment. And you are wrong about the benefits."
We turned east on Washington St., passing the ruins of the old pencil factory, where I paused and turned briefly for old times' sake. Some folks say you shouldn't look back, but if you don't you'll never navigate towards a better future. Before we came to the projects on 12th St., we cut through an alley to Lincoln Ave. to avoid possible trouble.
I cautioned Maria to be alert for used syringes lying on the ground.
"I am always cautious, Oscar," she replied. "It's only prudent. But like your book says, I fear no evil."
I turned to give my new comrade a thumbs-up, and it could have been an illusion, a trick of photons passing through the atoms of air—or just the eyes of an old man—but I swear I saw a light surround her face.
There are too many sharks in the world and not enough swans. Too many people are locked out, penned in, pushed away. Too many people live hard so a few can live easy. This world is way heavy on suffering and way light on fairness and compassion, but the Hopemobile is on the road. If you look carefully, you can see it on the horizon. It may be just a speck now, but every day it grows larger. Like me. Once I stood 5'9", but today I am 5'7". I grow shorter every hour, but I am taller today than yesterday, because Maria Rodriguez is a Zapatista.
I just can't give up. You see, I have sweet dreams for this world. I have sweet dreams for the children to come. You can say it is foolish to dream, but I know better. Dreams come true through belief in the dream, and then through working for what you believe in, and so it is no joke, brothers and sisters, when I say to you: give me a million Marias, and I will give you a million reasons to believe sweet dreams come true.
Kent Monroe lives in Troy, New Hampshire with a damn fine woman and a motley gang of rescued cats and dogs who get along just fine. His poems, essays, and stories have recently appeared in The Write Room, The Missing Slate Magazine, Your Impossible Voice, and Gravel, among others.