His name is Steven, he told me as we greeted one another from our comfy seats at the local bookstore. He wore a blue beanie pulled down low over his forehead. Grey hair spread out over his ears like angel wings. His chest-length beard was white as the first burst of an azalea. His muscular thighs pulled taut at his faded jeans.
“I have never owned a car,” he said. “That’s my mountain bike out there.” He pointed. “The red one. I’m kinda of proud I never owned a car.”
“It’s great for the environment,” I agreed. I thought but didn’t say that bike fatalities are not uncommon around here. But, then again, more fatalities happen out on Highway 97.
He was thumbing through two books. “I’ve read all of Charles Bukowski’s books.” The other book he held was one I knew – the most recent one by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“He just turned 100,” Steven said.
“Yes,” I replied. “NPR did a great interview with him. Did you hear it?”
He shook his head. No radios on those mountain bikes, I reckon.
“I’ve been to City Lights Bookstore,” he said. “I always hoped I’d meet Ferlinghetti. Did you know he lived above the bookstore?”
“I’ve been to City Lights,” I replied. “It’s a great bookstore.” City Lights started out selling nothing but paperbacks. It was the poet Ferlinghetti that propelled the bookstore to international acclaim via an ACLU-assisted First Amendment obscenity case for the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL.
“Are you a writer?” he said.
“I was homeless on North Beach for many years,” Steven confided. “I’ve been clean now two years.” If I had to guess, I’d say Steven is in his mid-60s.
“How’d you get clean? AA?”
“Nah,” he said, leaning back into the chair. “A woman. I go to AA sometimes, though.”
“It’s great you got clean,” I replied.
“She taught me a lot about the importance of good nutrition,” he said. “She taught me about nutritional yeast. I love that stuff, and plant-based eating. People don’t understand how important good nutrition is for you.”
There we were in the middle of another juxtaposition. Steven was touting the benefits of good eating, having been homeless and having struggled with addiction. I love moments like this.
“I have to be careful when I read Bukowski now,” he added. “Like this book. It’s all about his drinking.” The book is indeed titled On Drinking. “I’ve read most of these stories in other books of his. I have to be careful when I go out of town, too. I do better with routine. Going out of town can get me into trouble.”
It’s probably easier to not travel too far if you are only traveling by bike.
“Ken Kesey lived over in Eugene area,” he said. “I met him once.”
Like many people around these parts, I, too, have been by Kesey’s old place. I have friends who live down a country road from where he lived.
“You got to meet him?” I asked.
“Yeah. He walked me around his place, pointing out the cows, telling me stories.”
The first time I read Ken Kesey’s work was in 1973 in Ms. Hussey’s Humanities Class at Columbus High School. She assigned me the part of Nurse Ratched and said I read it so well, Ms. Hussey said I ought to talk to Mrs. Burns about going out for one of the school plays. Ms. Hussey didn’t have a clue that I wasn’t acting. I really could be as bitchy as Nurse Ratched. I had a good model to work from, Mama was a nurse.
I connected with Ms. Hussey again a few years ago. Back in our CHS days, Ms. Hussey was what would have surely been considered a progressive. She took us Baptist kids to the Jewish synagogue. She taught us about the different religions of the world. She introduced us to art and theater and great books and the world at large. She made us realize that not everyone thought about the world in the same way. She listened to Elton John and wore pants and jackets with neru collars in the era of polyester baby-doll dresses. She was the closest thing to a hippie we had at Columbus High.
I don’t know what happened to her but sometime between 1974 and 2014, Ms. Hussey became a gun-toting conservative. She was a different person. A less likable person. The world she had opened us all up to had closed in around her. She was a tried and true Republican.
Life is hard. People are meant to be cherished. I will always be grateful for the lessons Ms. Hussey taught me at CHS. I had no idea when she called upon me to read from Ken Kesey’s work that one day I’d join my dear friend as we walked down the country road past his home. I had no idea then that one day I’d meet a Bukowski-loving ex-addict who had the joy of hearing Kesey’s cow stories first hand, and then repeating them to me. Of course, back then, I had no idea then that one day I would stand alongside Steven Sorrentino & Amy Krouse Rosenthal as we each read from our works at City Lights Bookstore, but, yeah, that happened, too.
And if you had told me then that one day Ms. Hussey would be a rabid conservative I would have said you didn’t have a clue what you were talking about. No way would Ms. Hussey align herself with someone like Trump.
But I have come to believe that perhaps the very best thing that can happen to any of us is a hard life. What was it that Lincoln reportedly said? “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”
The more certain we become, the more judgmental we become. The more judgmental we become, the more distrustful we become. And the more distrustful we become, the scarier the world becomes and the people in it.
And it simply impossible to cherish people you fear.
I may never run into the guy with the navy beanie at the bookstore again but I will remember his stories for a long time to come.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press).