Our minds naturally protect themselves by turning clamor into lullabies, so it can be precarious for the wounded to visit the past honestly. My entire life, including the many years spent cloaked in the vestments of religious service and sacrifice, today lies in flames behind me, but it is the light from that smoldering rubble that is now my beacon, illuminating the righteous path ahead just enough for me to step forward with the resolve and discernment of the ruined somehow unparted from love.
There are many advantages to staying connected to love until the sweet or bitter end, not the least being someone will surely be there waiting to drive you home when you get out of jail. For me this morning that someone was my friend and comrade, Lovely Waters, a beautiful Native American woman of Mohawk lineage. I had spent the previous five months in the dungeons of the city jail, a dim hellish point in space and time they call the Tombs. My eyes were so sensitive to light that when I opened the freedom door I was momentarily blinded. As I paused for my eyes to adjust, the door literally hit me in the ass on the way out, and thus I stumbled away to the mocking howls of my captors.
Lovely Waters waited for me in the Hopemobile, my Jurassic-age Ford truck I used for all those years to feed the homeless at Patriot Park. That was before they criminalized homelessness, before the Church closed my parish, before I left the priesthood, and before I went to jail with Maria Romero Rodriguez for dyeing the fountain waters at the Plaza Gardens blood red in protest of the pipeline carrying the upstate hydraulically-fracked natural gas through the city's poorest neighborhoods to the waiting ocean tankers.
Love Tower used to be Waldorf Tower. The big billionaire Love brothers bought it from the little billionaire, Malcolm Xavier Waldorf III, the same week the Prosperity Pipeline was signed into law by the multi-millionaire governor, whose near-billionaire father for years moored his yacht beside the yacht of the little-billionaire father of the current President of the United States of America, himself a little billionaire looking to be a big billionaire, and who was elected primarily by the votes of men and women who have to borrow money at interest to keep their clunker cars on the road so they can drive to their low-wage jobs, if they are fortunate enough to have one.
Love Tower rises 1,362 feet above the city like a guard tower rises above a prison. Crowning this immense mirrored edifice is a 360°, fifty-foot-high scrolling marquee that lights up like Broadway at sunset with the blinking words LOVE LOVE LOVE elongating, dissolving, then reappearing every 3.3 seconds like some giant robo-hypnotist's charm, so that for miles in every direction the miserable can look high in the sky and get a dissolving neon glimpse of LOVE.
"You look good, old man," she said.
I may be a grape transitioning into a raisin, but my hearing, despite my life-long addiction to incendiary rock music, is uncommonly keen.
"What did you say?" I asked, winking slyly as I gestured offhandedly to the bustling traffic.
Lovely Waters glanced to the near-empty street and winked back. "I hope there's nothing wrong with your eyes now," she quipped, "because you are freakin' stone deaf, my brother."
"No worries," I replied. "I will navigate my way through the world solely by your preternatural insight, Nostrahontas."
She jumped out of the Hopemobile and hugged me hard mid-breath and didn't let go.
"You beauty…and strength," I gasped, "have grown ten-fold. Thank you for being here for me."
She pulled back and smiled, and the hardships of the past seemed trivial.
"What are those," I asked. "Tears?"
"What if they are? And when did you last shower? You don't think I'm tearing up because I'm so, so happy to see you, do you?"
I first met Lovely Waters when she walked into my former church office with Maria one sweltering afternoon as I was finishing cleaning out my stuff. Before me stood a vibrant ethnic woman dressed in faded jeans tore at the knees and a bright pink oversized t-shirt that read: DON'T LET THE MOTHERFRACKERS FOOL YOU. Her long lustrous dark hair was streaked with a few silver highlights and tied back into a tight ponytail. She stood right in my face-right below my face, rather--diminutive in stature, but certainly not in presence, and assessed me sternly while Maria stared at the floor. The facial recognition area of my brain flashed me a wicked spitball curve, momentarily fooling the rest of my brain into believing that this was in fact the reincarnation of my third grade nemesis, school nurse, Miss Wigs, perfectly preserved and now returned to drag me away for my subcutaneous TB re-test.
"Are you that crazy ex-priest troublemaker?" she asked me undemurely.
The notion that I would rather double-batter myself and dive into a deep fryer than endure another TB test from Miss Wigs floated unsummoned into my fragile consciousness.
"Guilty as charged," I feebly replied, turning for help to Maria, who mercifully flashed me a wide smile.
Lovely Waters suddenly hugged me judo-style. My chronic lower back ache instantly disappeared.
"I'm just bustin' your ass! What a true pleasure it is to meet you at last," she gushed.
"No-no," I countered, thinking of all that money I had blown at the chiropractor over the years. "The pleasure is mine."
"I'm Lovely Waters," she told me. "Sixth-generation Mohawk Nation."
"What a beautiful name," I noted.
"I was actually born Tammy Woods. I legally changed it to Lovely Waters in 1993. It was either that or Margaret Thatcher. I flipped a coin."
I was seized by the epiphanic certainty that our destinies--Maria, Lovely Waters, and me--were now intertwined in some splendid karmic ménage à trois.
"Oh," I said, feeling a bit giddy. "Good call!"
I instantly knew this interesting woman before me was the real deal, if for no other reason than she was holding hands with Maria. Sometimes I wonder if Maria is not a tad…superhuman, because I have never known another person with such commitment to protecting the sacredness of the Earth and all its peoples and creatures, a sacredness now under relentless assault by those who have reverence for only money and power.
I am fond of saying that the world needs a million Marias. Ditto for Lovely Waters, who brought to Maria and me the sacred knowledge of the Onkwehonwe Prophecy of the Seventh Generation, which foretells the day when, after seven generations of European genocide and occupation, Native Americans will rise up and demand their rights and stewardship over the Earth be respected and restored.
I met Maria three years ago when she burst through the front door into the church vestibule during a snowstorm as I was locking up for the night. At the time she worked as a cleaner at the Waldorf Tower. The night before she had set her phone on record and dropped it in a potted plant in the executive conference room where the fat-cat city bosses were to meet regarding the public outcry after the police killing of two homeless men at Patriot Park. She was so mortified by what she heard when she retrieved the phone the following night that she dropped it, badly cracking the screen. Although we had never met, she was well aware of my community activism, and so she decided to immediately leave her job and walk nearly three miles in a blizzard to see me. Because of her excitement and the broken screen, she inadvertently deleted the recording before we could listen to it together.
I consoled her, and then recruited her on the spot. The following weekend she helped me with my weekly Sandwich Saturday at Patriot Park, where we defied the new city ban on feeding the homeless. I was arrested, fined, and then released, but Maria spent three days in the slammer for giving Judge "Maximum Joe" Potter the business as I was being sentenced.
Coincidentally, Maria is as beautiful on the outside as the inside, a tall thirty-something Latina head-turner, who uses her hair creatively. Her naturally straight black locks variously morph into wavy blond, spiked blond, spiked orange, raspberry afro-perm and straight striped rainbow. The night before we were busted at Plaza Gardens, she dyed her hair red, shaved one side a couple inches above the ear and then combed it all to the other side, where it lay perfectly somehow. I consider this to be one of life's great mysteries. Don't get me wrong, I am thankful to have a full head of hair at my age, but a nuclear-powered comb could not make my cowlick relax, yet Maria's hair obeys her every wish.
"What do you think?" she asked me over coffee before we left on our mission.
"You are an artist, Maria," I replied. "And I am forever a lover of art."
"What about my hair?" Lovely Waters asked.
"How can an art lover differentiate a Picasso," I smoothly answered, pointing to Maria, and then to Lovely Waters, "from a Renoir?"
"Good answer, old man," she told me, and then we all left smiling for the Plaza Gardens.
Over the years my photo appeared many times accompanying various articles, some somber, some topical, in the city newspapers. A picture in the Times captured my model-thin mug during my hunger strike for affordable low-income housing in 1996. Then in 2003, in the Leisure section of their Sunday edition, the Times also ran a picture of me fanning on a curve ball during one of the One Blood charity softball games I sponsored between the city's major street gangs. For two decades I have carried in my wallet the laminated photo from the Post's Metro section of me administering the last rites to a tiny brown princess struck down in a schoolyard by bullets sprayed randomly from a passing car. In its About Town section, the Post also printed a picture of me in 2009 doing standup comedy at the Laughing Dog comedy club. The framed picture that now adorns Maria's living room wall came from the Daily News' Religion section in 2012, which shows Bishop Loveless grinning like the Cheshire cat, his arm draped around my shoulder five minutes after he had told me that if I fucked up one more time he would serve my balls on a plate to his Dachshund, Charlemagne. But I had never made the front page of any of the city papers until I got busted with Maria. There I was-hi, Mom!--being hauled off to jail by the city's bowling league Green Berets, smiling like a sugar-addled preschooler as I flashed a peace sign with red-dye-#5-stained fingers.
I am especially fond of the Daily News' take on the events:
Disgraced former priest caught red handed!
The Daily News used to win Pulitzer prizes for investigative journalism, tirelessly and courageously rooting out all manner of graft and corruption. That was before the billionaires made America safe again.
Headlining the front page above my Bozo-award-nominated article was a journalistic piece-de-resistance regaling the pomp and spectacle of the upcoming Prosperity Pipeline Celebration Gala at Love Tower. The sub-caption below the accompanying photo, obviously ghost-written by Salvador Dali, read:
Buxom Beauty in Patriotic Thong Jet-packs from Love Tower
I have taken the liberty here to reprint without permission part of the aforementioned disgraced-former-priest article. Some things you just can't make up.
Oscar Lucian, the ex-Catholic priest and longtime community social activist, was arrested yesterday at the Plaza Gardens, along with an accomplice, Maria Rodriguez, for what police spokesperson Polly Graff described as a "poopload" of serious crimes, including vandalism, disturbing the peace, assault, trespassing, and resisting arrest. According to Graff, at approximately 10:10 AM, bicycle-patrol officer, Harry Fingers, responded to the vigilant citizen sisters Myrtle and Irma Crab's whistles for help. Upon arrival at the scene, Officer Fingers found the accused and the Crab sisters engaged in what he described as "a damn good cage fight." The Crab (short for Crabilinski) sisters, who immigrated to the United States from Georgia in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, literally blew the whistle on Lucian and Rodriguez with their Make America Safe Again whistles, which were recently issued to millions by the newly expanded Homeland Protection Agency.
According to Fingers, the disgraced reverend had poured an unknown red liquid--later determined to be non-toxic--into the fountain water. The well-groomed and dexterous bicycle patrolman credited a well-placed cane strike from Irma Crab for knocking the container from the priest-turned-vandal's hands before he could fully empty the contents into the fountain. Homeland Protection Forces also recovered several banner-like objects placed at the scene by Ms. Rodriguez. When pressed for details regarding the banners' message, Polly Graff replied, "Just, you know, weird Indian koo-koo love the earth crap. You know, bull-doo like that."
Saturday's arrest marks a new low for the former clergy member, who ex-Governor Bryce Pilaf once called "the flashlight in our dark-dark closet." Lucian and Rodriguez both refused medical treatment, and were transported to the city jail. Their arraignment is scheduled for 9AM Monday morning before Judge Joe "Maximum Joe" Potter.
City spokesperson, Sunny Machiavelli, told the Daily News late Sunday night that cleanup of the Plaza Gardens had already been completed, and that the incident would not affect the Prosperity Pipeline Celebration Gala scheduled for Monday at nearby Love Tower.
Wow. Somewhere in this exploding universe, Edward R. Murrow just did a backflip through a flaming hoop held by an elephant executing a ballet pas de chat.
This is obviously not the same institution that published the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Ramos Papers, which in 1978 exposed the covert corporate/CIA operations in Latin America that orchestrated violent coups in poor vulnerable nations, assassinating or exiling democratically elected leaders and installing right wing puppet dictators. That venerable institution, which by that time couldn't catch a whiff of the Fortunate 500, was bought out in 1992 by Bullyboy Entertainment for three-hundred-million dollars, which then sold out in 2001 to the barely-a-billionaire Cash Ransom for 50 million, who then sold it for 20 million in 2013 to… (trumpet sounds) the Love Brothers, who immediately turned the papers' focus to the slanderous, the tawdry, and the patently untrue--and subsequently laughed all the way to the bank…err…their bank.
The original plan had been for the three of us to take the subway to Freedom Drive, and then walk the two blocks to Plaza Gardens. Because of the beautiful weather, however, we decided instead to drive the Hopemobile and park by the river about a half-mile away from Plaza Gardens. I brought along a bottle of delicious Pinot Noir, and Maria made a couple of her gourmet sandwiches. After our mission, we were to picnic by the river beside the blooming Yoshino cherry trees.
Just as we pulled into the riverside parking area, a car pulled out without looking and tapped us in the left fender. The driver insisted on calling the police, despite the fact that a midge's landing would have generated more kinetic energy than the, uh, collision. So we quickly decided that Lovely Waters would stay and deal with the collision, while Maria and me walked to Plaza Garden and carried out the mission. No problem.
We each wore our DON'T LET THE MOTHERFRACKER'S FOOL YOU t-shirts, Maria's white with pink letters, mine a manly black with white letters. Slung over my back, I carried 32 ounces of concentrated #5 red food dye in a an old wine skin I had last used at an Oasis concert at Patriot Park back in '98. Maria carried in her baggallini four towel-sized fabrics silkscreened with the Native American Ten Commandments. I was to pour the food dye into the fountain water, while Maria hung the silkscreened banners. Just good ol' simple Sunday morning social activism. Drop a little dye, hang a few banners, then depart for a gourmet lunch and a nap on the sun-dappled riverbank.
We strolled into the Plaza Gardens. What a glorious day! Colorful azaleas, roses, tulips and lilies lined the rustic brick walks. The spec trees could have been holographic images from a glossy magazine cover. Songbirds crooned their greatest hits. The glistening green park benches appeared freshly painted.
It was surprisingly deserted, though, given the weather. In fact, it appeared there were just two other people besides us in the entire garden.
"I think we should wait for more people," Maria remarked.
I confess to being slightly deranged from the romanticized notion of a delicious picnic lunch and subsequent sunny siesta.
"We should get back as soon as possible," I quickly replied. "I didn't like the looks of that maniac that sideswiped us!"
I led the way to our objective, the Plaza Gardens' thirty-foot-high, three-tiered ornate copper fountain.
Maria pulled the banners out of her hippy-dippy baggallini, which I call the Black Hole, because, like an actual black hole, it really can hold an infinite amount of matter. She handed me a banner, which I unrolled and then stuck on the fountain using the little sticky Velcro squares she showed me how to use. Then I stepped back to admire Maria's beautiful silk-screening:
I glanced behind me to the only other people in the garden, two adorable elderly women sitting together on a park bench. How sweet. In fact they were identical twins, two cutie-petutie geriatrics dressed in what appeared to be nouveau Russian peasant chic: sturdy cotton dresses and babushka-style scarfs tied beneath their chins. Such rosy, joyful cheeks--just delightful! I had a fleeting pleasant vision of them sitting beside some pastoral dacha, milking tiny goats and humming Georgian folk songs.
And it seemed they were interested in my beautiful banner. In fact they both stood remarkably fast for old women, and as they spread out in an obvious flanking maneuver, it occurred to me that the black canes they carried were for more than just walking.
I fumbled with the wineskin before twisting the top off just as one of the Crab sisters tapped me on the shoulder with her cane/nightstick.
"Nyet, nyet!" she spoke/croaked.
I heard a commotion Maria's way. I looked over and saw her attempting to ward off the assault of the flanking twin. She actually grinned as she played banner tug-of-war with the nursing-home samurai, who began pummeling Maria with her cane, and I recall mentally admonishing Maria for humorizing a decidedly unfunny change of events. Hyperbole be damned, this was the Big One!
If you have never directly experienced catastrophe, I assure you from personal experience that it is the sum of events that, once set into motion, proceed with the imponderable speed of atomic fission.
I held my trembling hand out over the fountain water and began pouring in the food dye, but that Crab sister witch knocked my wineskin from my hand before I'd even emptied a cup in. I heard a blood-curdling scream and turned to see the other old crone's cane had somehow snapped in two, and Maria was now engaged with her in what amounted to a knife fight. This is when I turned and looked my demonic Crab sister in the face. Let me tell you--she made Medusa look like a supermodel. How could I have mistaken Satan for Miss Daisy?
Both Crab sisters began blowing those infernal Make-America-Safe-Again whistles they carried around their necks on red-white-and-blue lanyards. Piercing, shrieking, ear-drum-bursting whistles. Those decrepit shrews had the lungs of racehorses!
Lovely Waters arrived just as Delta Team 666 was finishing "processing the enemy." There must have been a hundred security personal there from various agencies, all tricked out in fancy special ops battle gear. I never realized there were so many morbidly obese commandos.
I should now note for the record that the Plaza Gardens' fountain waters were not actually dyed blood red as I falsely claimed earlier. Because of that old hag Irma Crab, the best I could manage was a Bazooka-Joe pink. Bazooka Joe was a bubblegum popular with Baby Boomers when they were still kids and had yet to grow up, become fruitful and multiply, then go forth to BOOM! the entire fucking world. The gum wrappers had little comics printed on the inside featuring clueless, moronic characters dishing out lame advise and insipid jokes, just like any corporate board room today.
While we were chauffeured to the pokey, Lovely Waters tiptoed through the tulips back to the Hopemobile, which was the right thing to do, of course. After all, if we all went down, who would feed our cats, Einstein and Crazy Horse?
It's a decent drive from the jail to our apartment, which is much closer to the projects than the brownstones.
Life hit me on that drive home. Hope and fear circled me like invisible opposing moons. I felt like that dried sponge you find every five years when you clean out the cabinet beneath the sink, so I closed my eyes and let the freedom soak in. I found myself longing so badly for home--our two-bedroom apartment above the Nickel Pickle consignment shop on Fifth Street--that I swore to never again complain about the sagging floors, the cracked plaster, that rusty, wobbling stairway/fire escape, or the First-World-War-era plumbing. That mouse that randomly poops in my sock drawer is another matter altogether.
Every night the previous five months, deep in the moldy belly of the city jail, I had suffered the same terrible nightmare. I dreamed America was run by Wall Street and the big banks and the oil companies and the insurance companies and big pharma and the entertainment and arms industries. While the people marveled at the latest scandalous celebrity selfie, institutions of profit had slowly purchased, and then employed, America's democratic institutions: Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, the press and universities, so that over time, corporations not only made their own rules, they made all the rules. Believing that they were superior beings, rich men made waste to whatever profited them. They perceived their debasement as their gift. As their wealth and power swelled, society decayed, yet these billionaires felt no responsibility for their assault on mother earth and her peoples. To them, the unemployed, the uninsured, the homeless, and the refugees were all parasites feeding off their success.
In my nightmare, the exploiters had become so diabolically adept at perception management, the exploited saluted them. As war became increasingly profitable, even the poor celebrated it as the righteous and necessary birthplace of heroes.
In time, the exploited assumed their masters' contempt for empathy. They lost their capacity for reverence. Pipelines wrapped the earth like chains. Prisons became hot investment opportunities for the wealthy. Wilderness lands glowed at night from space like metropolises from the thousands of fracked oil wells burning off the unwanted gas.
The exploited came to believe austerity was their just penalty for coddling the weak. Fairness and compassion became the language of losers.
They became blind to their ugliness. Psychopathy became a leadership quality, and folks defined existence in terms of survival of the fit, where the superior baby would grow into a man or woman who would cut their own mother's throat if necessary to become a winner.
On the final night of my incarceration, a great black wave rose in my nightmare on the horizon, boiling high above Love Tower, and I shouted to the Great Spirit:
"Yes! Oh, yes! Come quickly and wash the wicked from our earth!"
All I wanted to do was get home, fall into bed, and decompress. Tomorrow was visiting day for the jail's female inmates, and I couldn't wait to visit Maria, who still had a month to serve for telling Judge "Maximum Joe" Potter to "go hump your gavel, your Honor."
As we approached home, I told Lovely Waters the story I heard from the processing deputy earlier that morning.
"A deputy at the jail told me that a maintenance man who works at Love tower told him the Love brothers have an infrared telescope at the top that they use to spy on the city below. He said the man had seen them at night directing workers to move the telescope here-and-there, then painstakingly peering through the lens to the streets below, occasionally barking orders into walky-talkies to their private security forces on the ground. He swears they sometimes carry on with this all night, right up until the sun rises."
"What the fuck are they," Lovely Waters quipped, "vampires?"
"You will apologize immediately for slandering vampires," I admonished, and we shared a hearty chuckle.
Lovely Waters, unlike Saint Maria, always laughs at my jokes, and therefore has, not surprisingly, risen right beside Maria to the top of the beneficiary list in my will. Well, that's when I get around to actually making a will.
We parked the Hopemobile in our $40-a-month spot behind the alley. Lovely Waters excused herself to run a quick errand, and I trudged up the swaying stairs, fetched the key from the hanging petunia and let myself in.
I had fallen hook, line and sinker for the oldest trick in the book. On the positive side, I still had a pulse.
To this day I honestly don't know how the floors didn't collapse. Some of my ex-parishioners I didn't recognize in their leis and goofy party hats until they spoke, but we all had a jolly good time. A joyful tear or two was shed, a few by Maria, who of course was there front and center.
I took a nice long nap with Einstein after our friends left. I lured him into my bedroom with canned mackerel artistically drizzled with its own natural Au Jus. He will not eat if the presentation is poor, you see.
I awoke to the sound of Einstein furiously clawing his scratchpad, which doubles as my bedroom door.
I shuffled into the living room and plopped into my trusty, decades-old recliner, AKA, the King's Throne. Maria and Lovely Waters lay watching TV from opposite ends of the sofa, legs entwined.
"The king is back, ladies." I drawled.
"Indeed you are, sire," Lovely Waters replied. Her hair spilled over her shoulders onto the snoozing Crazy Horse. She looked…lovely. "Perhaps his majesty is interested in his lowly subjects' little plan?"
"Folks are being fooled, Oscar," Maria chimed in. "The world suffers. We need to find creative ways to snap people out of their trance."
"I see," I replied. I pressed my thumb right on the precise spot on my cheek that quack chiropractor assured me would instantly stop the involuntary tick I get in my left eyelid when I get stressed, but it only made it worse. "So what's the plan?"
"We're all going to parachute for peace!" Lovely Waters gushed.
"Think of the creative possibilities, Oscar!" Maria added.
"That's crazy," I said. My eyelid spasms shot off the chart. "And who is the mastermind of this insanity?"
Their glares quickly became unbearable.
"Please," I said. "You know I am terrified of heights. I get panic attacks at the top of the stairs."
Lovely Waters sat up, clutching Crazy Horse to her bosom.
"Well, I'll tell you who didn't mastermind it. That would be the mastermind who led us into the Crab sister ambush!"
For the first time ever, my healthy eyelid began twitching.
"Oscar, it's all in your head," Maria said. "You can piggy-back Lovely Waters the first couple of training jumps."
"That's right, old man," Lovely Waters reassured me. "Besides, at your age, what are you afraid of?"
I wish I could tell you my reply, but, after all, I used to be a priest. What I can tell you, however, is that fate is at best an iffy proposition. You follow your heart. Despite everything, you love all you can. You do what you know to be right. You never surrender, but sometimes along the way you just gotta go with the flow and hope it all doesn't end in a toilet flush.
I mean, what can I say?
Kent Monroe lives in Troy, New Hampshire with a damn fine woman and a motley gang of cats and dogs who refuse to obey the rules. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Your Impossible Voice, and Mandala Journal, among others. His article "America the Brutalful" made the Missing Slate Magazine's short list for the Pushcart Prize nomination in 2015.