Instead of taking a quotation from some writer as the point from which to suspend some philosophic reflections on my special place in the universe, today I relate an incident from life in the small apartment house where I stay, trying to excuse the fact that a week has passed without my having translated any thing.
When the policewoman asked me, while Valerie sat bleeding on her sofa, how I happened to know Bug, I realized I could not remember when I had met him. It could have been in a cell of the Oakland City Jail, where I wound up frequently during my days of abusing marijuana last year; it could have been in the county jail over the coastal hills in Santa Rita — they put me there for a month when I swam in Lake Merritt in the summer of 1984 — but I doubt it; the most likely location was right near here along San Pablo Boulevard, home to most of Oakland’s prostitutes and drunks. My bad memory, my overwhelming self-centeredness, perhaps too my lifelong effort to make of myself something unusual and unconventional, has (or have) consigned me to a world filled with people who remember me well but whom I’ve forgotten.
This journal itself comprises my effort, among other things, to work through the bad feelings which gnaw me whenever my companions in life, the other sentient beings in whose company I live, hail me and remind me once more of the attenuation of my sympathy for others despite my professed ideals. Here on these pages my companions are given a literary life which may outlast their ephemeral existence in my self-extinguishing memory.
I can’t say where or when I met Bug, in short. About a year ago he rushed into my room a minute or two before a pair of policemen pursued him into the house, and he tried to climb under my bed. I hid him in the closet and lied to the cop at the door, said I hadn’t seen anything.
You, reader, you who trust your ability to judge write from wrong, can perhaps determine right away the correctness of what I did. It was wrong to aid a thief, a fugitive from an unsuccessful robbery in Berkeley, to escape the grasp of a legal order with which I agree and for the openness, the glasnost’ of which, here in this democratic constitutional republic, I am grateful.
Yet whenever I put myself in his shoes I feel it was a good thing to have done. It was an act of friendship which nurtured an enemy of society. Kindness and generosity will, like the rest of my good intentions, lead me to hell (they certainly did in this case), but because they are the core of whatever little self-esteem remains with me, a middle-aged nonentity forever failing to accomplish anything else, I am halfway willing to take pride in my puny kindness and generosity and roast in remorse for all time as a result.
Now I had a shameful act different from all the rest of my acts of stupidity. Now I had endangered my housemates, and not for show, as a rationalizer of my most criminal previous act, putting my hands around my mother’s throat and demanding to know where she put my marijuana, might allege to diminish the horror of attempted matricide. I was ashamed of my harboring a criminal, and never talked about it. Bug reminded me of it whenever we met. He used to drop by very occasionally, once in two or three months, and if I had a little grass we’d share it and if he had a little grass we’d share. Yes, he’d say, he knew I was all right when I helped him out that time; he used to call me brother then.
Perhaps ten days ago Bug appeared at my door at 3:30 in the morning. The last time I had seen him he had “borrowed” bus fare, and I opened the door with the question “Where’s my seventy-five cents” on my lips, but I never got past the first word. He had a scar with fresh stitches running diagonally across half his forehead, he was dressed in what best be described as rags, and he spoke jerkily, incoherently. He stammered that he’d just been released from the county hospital and showed me the ID bands on his wrists. He said he had been beaten, with a pipe, by six men who robbed him outside the hospital; he had been there two days. He had to see his lawyer and the police in the morning, he said, at 7:30, and he wanted to sleep in my room until then.
I put a blanket on the floor and gave him one of my pillows. In the morning I gave him a bowl of breakfast cereal but I warned him I was not willing to put him up for the night: immediate assistance I was willing to give, but future assistance I promised to refuse. Before he left I asked who had let him in, and he said “the woman down front.”
That had been Valerie. A single mother who works at a linen supply house out in East Oakland. Her mischievous Tasha is bright, cute, quiet: eleven years old, I think. So beautiful is Valerie that she gets the women around her jealous of her; she has girl friends, but she enjoys the attention tight clothes bring her. I remember the three of us doing situps on my exercise board set on the sidewalk, all of us vain about our bodies, late in the afternoon with the sun low in the sky and shadows lengthening. Sure made me forget I am a middle-aged nonentity.
Surely I should tell Valerie not to let visitors in at 3:30 a.m. — there’s my little bit of hell, should have, a mental amendment from rethinking the thought I had then and correcting the verb to the past tense: — then remorse grips that which passes for a soul in my mind.
The next appearance of Bug at the door, Tuesday a week ago, he was barely recognizable from the time before. Stylishly sporting a blue patterned handkerchief on his balding dome, smiling broadly in his brand-new white woven leather sandals, he hailed me hello to share a joint with me, which when we smoked he about fell out, to mimic the spoken way of putting it around here. That is, he didn’t nod out, a more or less instantaneous process of losing consciousness which is symptomatic of heroin use, he instead about fell out, relatively slowly, over about twenty minutes, he fell asleep.
Back about ten years ago I would go Sundays to my brother Paul’s house, giving him what at the time I considered an opportunity to indulge in an (or his) insufferable patriarchism, and after a big holiday — not high holiday, just regular holiday — meal Paul would always want to watch a football game on TV and I would always fall asleep after eating, as regular as a clock. Do I share a propensity to fall asleep with him because we both smoke marijuana? This is the first explanation that comes to mind; besides, it was four o’clock in the afternoon and I could let him nap for an hour without jeapordizing my doctrine of you-can’t-sleep-overnight in this room.
About nine o’clock Valerie Stopped by. She brought a glass of wine with her. Her male visitor brought his toddler and a bottle of wine, and she knows I drink wine but never buy any so she brought me a glass. Isn’t that a good deed, Lord? To bring a neighbor a treat? That’s what the angels will use to pave the way to Hell . . . isn’t it a wonderful world?
Anyway, whatever the validity of Leibniz, I accepted Valerie’s offer with pleasure and she took a seat at my two-seat kitchenette table. Bug lay on his back, snoring, the TV chattered, the sun set, and we two talked. Before she left to go back to her room Valerie drew my attention to my other visitor, and I told her I had just decided to tell him his nap had lasted long enough. I shook the bed by lifting one end — had to do it three times before he got up — and told him he couldn’t stay, but I gave him (after he pointed out he had not asked) my thick wool hunting jacket, for he wore no coat. That left me two light jackets and the down Parka my sister Margaret sent me, for when it rains.
The following night, Wednesday about eight o’clock, I met Bug at the front door. My very first words reminded him of the refusal to grant shelter: “If you are hoping . . . ”
“Actually, I came to meet Valerie,” he answered smoothly, for he had asked me the name last time of the woman who had opened the front door twice to him.
Valerie herself was at her door. “I can’t see you now . . . ”
I had promised an introduction. “Valerie,” I interrupted her. “This is Bug. I’ve known Bug for about a year . . .” trying to convey distrust in what was a reluctant delivery; supposing myself to be saying something by what I wasn’t saying.
“Oh, it’s been longer than that, Mike!” brightly laughed my visitor. And he was right, it has been closer to two years.
“But I can’t see you now, I’m expecting a visitor, Valerie smiled while she repeated herself. I kept silent and went up the stairs to my room. Bug kept silent and sat down on the stairs.
For a long time I sat silent in my room with the door open. After twenty minutes I heard the door open and close at the front of the house. To be safe I should have gone forward — oh but would it have made any difference at that point.
At two o’clock in the morning I opened the door of my room to Valerie, beaten and throttled, stripped of jewelry and puffy-eyed from repeated blows on her eyes, her tears and her blood trickling down her face.
Bug assaulted, beat, and robbed Valerie as soon as she mentioned my name to him. Through a bruised throat that had been choked for over an hour, she said she could hardly believe how much Bug hated me, how much he wanted her to tell me that he had done this to her.
So there are the fruits of my friendship. Will Gabriel and Raphael open the Pearly Gates to this poor devil of a sub-sub, the interminably procrastinating would-be historian of preRevolutionary Russian importation of Western European physical sciences, if I say that I’m better than this passionate hater of homosexual feelings within myself? Shall I rather be given entry into Paradise because I did care for this man and admit sympathy for him even now? That which nearly killed Valerie, that was noble of me?
Lie down with dogs and you get up with fleas. Everyone interested in my success as a human being advised me to choose my friends with care, and my inner self-hatred, or perhaps my quasi-Marxist love of double negation, drives me to see what good i can find in society’s insulted and injured, instead.
Personally I am in pain, now, thinking about this episode, but I persist in my repudiation of pragmatic ethics. I can understand Bug’s ingratitude because I myself fail to return the love others have shown me. Now I have a taste of how my elder brother Paul felt when I treated his help as insufferable patronizing. Just as the quotation from Confucious — the “o” is not usually included in his name, but what the hell — suggested earlier, Bug’s behavior shows me what to reform in myself.
And Valerie, who has continued to treat me with the same friendliness and good cheer since I betrayed her by introducing her to a man I knew to be a thief, Valerie shows me qualities of charity I would do well to imitate.
As for the larger question of the inner motivation pushing me into disastrous personal relationships, I can only plead guilty. Doubtless I reject sound advice. I stubbornly persist in dangerous habits, befriending those of low self esteem being only one among a host too numerous to mention. I do not reject the good and choose the evil for love of evil, and so do not see myself imitating the theological symbols of ungodliness, the devils; rather, I reject the good and live with evil so that when it does happen that I find beauty and truth it is a discovery so unexpected, so hidden, so private that I can claim it for mine alone.