Fiction: Sholem Wrestles an Angel

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July 30, 2014

And how,” Sholem asks, “do I learn to listen past the pitch and just reach into my pocket and give, without thinking about how it will all go to booze or drugs? ‘Give to your holy brother,’ You said, ‘Just give, as soon as you are asked and without pause for reflection.’ OK. I hear You. Yes, I will do this thing.”

Sholem’s internal monologue is sometimes addressed to an avuncular divine being in whom he does not really believe, sometimes addressed to the memory of his dead father. Sometimes he’s talking to Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, a kind of every-Jew, flawless in his ability to see life’s momentous beauty in the very heart of oppression. Sometimes his listener is a God of place – the little hill, the lake.

Without these moments of communion it’s hard to think how he’d survive the guttering flame of longing that flutters like angel wings against the doors of his heart. This one thing, this barely accessible flitter of hope, is why a stranger’s heart ultimately moves toward Sholem rather than away. The God of El Cerrito, the Little Hill just north of Berkeley, watches until Sholem’s train plunges into its hillside burrow.

“Once upon a time,” Sholem continues, “I had dinner with a homeless man.” The God of the BART-ways cocks an ear.

Sholem with his cart full of wares balances on the train with a wide and confident stance, but his body sways with a motion like prayer. His body language signals that his intention in meeting the homeless man was righteous: his fist clenched on the hanging strap is the eternal Jewish display of ire and chutzpah against the tyrant King Adonai.

Kathackle kathack bump bump screeeeeeeeEEEE!

Sholem is hard of hearing, but his hearing aids are at home because they make his ears itch. To a man with hearing loss, the world can present some strange playlists. For instance, the intolerable screech of the BART car on its tracks can approach the sublime. Wind across the brushed aluminum surface of the car can sound like a choir singing a note and its minor third simultaneously, moving up and down a ghostly atonal scale as the car speeds up and slows down. The symphony is released into the atmosphere when the train moves on elevated track, and then strangulated within tunnels where it is forced to ever higher pitches.

Sholem’s troubles seem larger in the face of this aural assault. He despises the fake sense of urgency a simple noise imparts to his journey. The choir his brain projects onto this cacophony is made up of the children of angelic fathers and demonic mothers, their beatific notes shot through with the clanging of a smelter in Hell. His imaginary choir keeps up its tune as he worries over his recollections of dinner with the homeless man like a monk with prayer beads. He has hope for the merit of his Good Deed, and he imagines his attorney can use Dinner with Homeless Pete as evidence for the defense when he faces the Tribunal we have been taught to fear at the end of our lives.

It was a rainy and cold early evening, winter, years ago, when a slightly thinner and much wealthier looking Sholem approached Pete, a middle-aged homeless man who occupied the corner near the Nations diner. Sholem had worked up his courage to ask if he could buy Pete a meal.

Pete asked, “Are you looking for a blow?”

Sholem is not a prude but he is shocked to realize sex might be the string attached when a man purchases a meal for another man. He said, “No, I wanted to share dinner because I have some extra cash.”

“No blow?”

Had he mis-heard? Did the man want cocaine? Before Sholem could respond, Pete said, in a manner that suggested it might be what Sholem would want to hear,“Jesus is my lord and savior.”

Sholem replied quickly, with a measure of frustration poorly covered by a grim smile, “I’m not looking for anything from you. We don’t have to talk. I’m not here for sex or to save you. I just wanted to help out with a meal. Feel free to talk, or not.”


So what if the guy didn’t say thank you or goodbye? It didn’t hurt, but Sholem felt like a ghost. Was this the way giving was supposed to feel?

He speaks again to the God of the BARTways, his listener: “I hear You saying, ‘How does giving feel? Giving feels how you felt when you gave!’ Wise. Eminently practical. But I think if I had done it right, I would have felt better. Less conflicted. If I had given without limitation, wouldn’t I feel good? Like, if my impulse was entirely yetzer ha tov, the good impulse, wouldn’t I have handed over a room in my house–and my credit card too?”

The screeching of the train over the track pries a hole into Sholem’s statement before his imaginary end-of-life tribunal. The sound of the train intrudes. If sounds could be sensed through the nose, this one would be smelly. Perhaps this is what a thousand volts sounds like when it travels through the collector shoes poised over the electrified third rail and down the length of the car. Perhaps this is just wind on aluminum. Other passengers don’t notice, as they are plugged into their devices, but to Sholem the wall of sound is danger that mounts as redemption nears, the kind of middle-passage road music appropriate both to travel and to our sojourn on this Earth.

He makes a last ditch effort to justify himself before the retreating Judge.

“I have to draw the line somewhere. If I shared my house or credit card I’d be opening myself up to theft, violence, financial ruin. I know that means I think homeless people are violent thieves. But I have had friends –people I loved and cared for—who stole from me and hit me; it is not possible for me to believe in the goodness of strangers. OK, now I have to stop talking to you because You make me feel … “ he pauses abruptly, remembering something

“Whoops, I mean, because I feel … “ he continues.

“I statements,” he reminds himself, “Remember the I-statements. Blaming a Figment is no good, … .” And then in a rush of frustration he says, “I feel like I will never be able to do a pure or utterly right or entirely true thing, ever. So enough. You, I will talk to later.”

The Tribunal is gone. His mental shout falls into a darkened, empty corridor that howls with the wind of invisible transit.

As the BART train slows, the mystical choir does not wind down into something we feel like putting our arms around, and Sholem’s enigma remains unresolved. Noise and thought are snuffed out by a final screech of breaks on wheels and the train halts at Lake Merritt station.

Kathackle kathack. Bump.

Sholem and his cart are disgorged from the underground with an escalator full of travelers into the planes of an Oakland cityscape. The stars are hidden behind washes of muted color.

The BART entrances sprout up, eerie as Morlock holes, with evening-darkened denizens sitting on benches near an overgrown box-hedge of bikes. A man paces furiously past, shouting about an important meeting into an imaginary cell-phone. A stringy homeless teen feeds the remains of a packet of French fries to a pudgy bulldog. A young couple pools pocket change for beer. An apartment tower, a crowd of brownstones, and the triangular main building of Laney College frame the vignette. A well-managed tide of cars roll through the traffic lights on every side.

Sholem wants to draw the scene, certain it holds the answers to his questions if he looks at it long enough. The technique would be pointillism with tiny .05mm colored drawing pens and the Shekhinah’s shape would be drawn in dots of Egyptian Blue. The way Sholem envisions the image, you can’t see Her by looking directly at the drawing – give it the old side-eye though, and Shekhinah, helpmeet of absent Adonai, is swirling onto the canvas. Take one glance, and Her cloak occupies the same space as the teenaged boy’s hand. Look again, and Her sad and lovely face occupies the same space as the crazy man’s imaginary cell phone.

In the midst of a forest of concrete and glass that mute the street noise on the urban floor, Sholem and his cart joggle over Oakland’s pavement. His walk leads him along a complicated root network of conversations that stretch out, over and through the City and her paths, and suck the moment’s experiences as nourishment. Sholem heard only the surface-feeding roots, the nearest and loudest voices. Snippets of misheard or partially heard conversation were a second tune in his hard-of-hearing playlist, a sound palette through which lives were woven together in unintended patterns. In this moment, he could not hear words, but the sound of a plea for spare change with an extended hand as he moved past a stringy-haired, whiskered white man in oversize dark clothing.

“Do you have any spare change” sounded like “ ’nee chaaay?”

Two steps past the panhandler, a voluptuous woman in cutoffs and a scoop neck leopard shirt screams at a tall bald man in long basketball pants, an oversized tee and stoplight red high-tops.

“You’re out of my house tonight, nigga!” which through the filter of Sholem’s improperly vibrating eardrums sounded like, “Y’out mah howsnah!” The tall man backed up a step before speaking his conciliatory response to the petite woman. Sholem heard, “Baby umma mara na sha” as he moved past.

He passes Laney College and the Oakland Museum of Art in a fragile silence created by the temporary absence of cars and of people other than himself. The squeak of his left front cart wheel makes the only sound.

Silence is often called ‘empty’ in books, but to Sholem it is always full. A geography of silence is mapped to the shape of the airspace surrounding the abandoned Kaiser Center Auditorium, which had brought the strange and the wonderful to Oakland since 1914, but remained unused now due to a parking shortage. The building’s shapely Beaux arts architecture provided 7 noble entrances with pedimented doorways where the wind pooled and sounded around statuary and arabesques. When one listened closely, the mouth of the helmeted goddess standing in a bas-relief orchard expelled the long held breath of history. The roller derby’s grunts and shoves mixed with the Ringling Brothers talkers and an echo of the elephant’s trumpeting call. The shocked outcry of an audience of policemen crescendos in reaction to the death by heart-attack, mid show, of swing performer and paroled wife-murderer Spade Cooley. The nose added its tricks to the sensory mirage to waft popcorn and hot dog relish and cheap beer to the burgeoning parade of silence.

But as Sholem’s eyes swept down from the heights of the grand archways his vision of what was gives way to graffiti covered mattresses standing end to end in the form of a cave, and cardboard boxes opened out to form walls of an adjoining domicile. Dirty piles of possessions are neatly stacked in one corner. A scent of piss and unwashed bodies hangs like fog. Abandoned during the day the space carries a silence that was expansive and sleepy, but with the night, drug infused perceptions and police sirens persist.

Sholem’s pace slows through the burgeoning silence. Urban spaces carried psychic weight that placed a burden on his heart. Whether or not he knew the history of a place, it walked alongside him dragging chains ponderous as the ghost of Jacob Marley, begging for a moment of his time. Sholem listens, not because he was a good man, but because his nature had afflicted him with ears unable to hear the ordinary. Because ears are ears and hearing happens whether or not there is anything to be received in audible frequencies. Sholem heard what few were able to hear. Those conversations that filtered into the deepest taproots of the city have done so as long as populations have gathered here. And the City’s incomplete use of these nutrients produced these aural byproducts. So, Sholem heard the belches and farts of the city as it moved into the future.

He emerged from the silence abruptly into three way traffic as he came to Lakeshore Avenue on the southeast corner of Lake Merritt. How many people in cars? 70, 80, 100? Each with their lives, their stories. Noise in audible frequencies can be a blessing.

Sholem and his cart are settled in contemplation of the Temple of Homelessness he’s just paid homage to, waiting for the traffic light to change. A brown-skinned man dressed in faded blues, a formerly white t-shirt and sole-blown cowboy boots walks up to the crosswalk. He sees Sholem and his shopping cart, recognizes homelessness, digs into his brown paper sack and hands Sholem a container of blueberries.

The light changes before Sholem can refuse. With confused gratitude he puts the berries in the cart full of messenger bags he plans to sell, and runs across the street as the light turns from green to yellow. Cowboy Boots is fifty paces ahead but Sholem abandons his cart and runs, a handmade messenger bag clutched in both hands. When he catches up, winded, he slings the bag around the neck of the cowboy and pants out, “Thank you!”

Sholom runs back to his cart, his heart broken open.

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