Saturday, July 12, 2008

jim is dead

Jim is dead and the brief mention of it in our local paper drew 35 comments, 31 of which were expressions of shock and dismay that the iconic Tulsa hamburger joint where Jim's body was found had closed its doors.

There was much angst and discussion of what it means for the local economy that the famous Ron's Hamburger Heaven was no more. The wailing and rending of garments over the loss of the hamburger restaurant was sincere, I'm sure, and on another day, if it were not my friend found dead in that building, I might have joined in, at least in spirit.

Happily for Tulsa burger eaters, it was discovered in the ensuing discussion that Ron took his big grill elsewhere, leaving the tiny little storefront on 15th Street because it was too small and too old. Ron's thrives and Tulsans breathe easier.

My friend, though, he's still dead. He was a lawyer for the Indian tribes in Arizona 25 years ago. He fought hard on environmental issues. He was a big hearted man, smart and quirky and funny. I met him only later, after he arrived in Tulsa and was living at the YMCA, a comedown fueled by the stress of his work and the alcohol that helped take the edge off of life. He was proud, though, of the work he did and of the nickname he was given by the Indians: Little Prairie Dog. He was never certain about the origin of the nickname, whether it was because of his wild eyebrows and thick golden hair, or if it was just a term of endearment, for he was dear to them, I don't doubt him on that.

He was dear to many of us, even with all of his eccentricities, the breaking waves of a profound mental illness that he tried to strongarm into remission. We were gardening on the day his disease first stood up and looked me in the eye. Sitting in the back drive, transplanting seedlings and moving them to the hoophouse, we were lazily planning the dinners we'd have midsummer when the eggplant and squash, onions, tomatoes, and basil were in their full and fragrant glory. Jim was, as I am, a fan of ratatouille put together from vegetables minutes from the garden. We worked and laughed and talked of gardening and AA and wilderness lands, politics and God, food and how it feels to find a love that's true.

In the midst of it all, Jim stopped, looked up and said "Yes, I understand and I will." What? A mourning dove sitting on the roof of the house had directly spoken to Jim. I missed the avian communique and dismissed it as a new agey spiritual kind of thing. We were all spiritual seekers in the mid-'90s, and anything was possible, maybe even a verbal dove.

A few months later, Jim got a message that he was to clean up downtown Tulsa. He would arrive at meetings 10 minutes before closing hauling the bags of trash he'd picked up on the way, railing at the slovenly habits of Tulsans. Eventually, dark forces began to oppose the cleanup and Jim felt and looked hunted, and yet he persisted, perhaps finding in that action some semblance of the environmental work he did before his brain betrayed him.

He came out of it enough to recognize that he needed to get out of the YMCA, get some kind of steady work beyond mall food court duties. I helped him get a job where I worked. He was eminently qualified ~ overqualified ~ to do child support enforcement, but he loved it. He felt useful and he was profoundly moved by the plight of the children in need. He worked for them, ever the advocate of the underdog, always with an open heart and the wish to help.

Some days at noon, he'd head out to converse with the trees ringing the parking area. Occasionally, he'd prune them, speaking in reassuring tones. His coworkers withdrew. He appeared one day with hands dyed blue to the wrists. No explanation, none asked for, but blue hands when meeting with the public as a representative of the State? Not acceptable. Write-ups ensued and his deterioration continued. The little house he'd purchased on the west side became his haven. I'd see him on his bicycle riding to and from work, shaking his head in response to the conversations he was having with himself.

When he lost the job, he lost his insurance, of course, and he lost his house and the last time I heard from him, he was laid up in one of the 11th Street motels, a flophouse the last line of defense between wounded human being and living on the street. He called to ask if I could spare any "fresh organic vegetables from your beautiful garden." It was February, and I had barely put in onion sets. I had nothing. The calls came in for a couple of days, "if no vegetables, perhaps some plant starts in case I can get established somewhere in time for a garden."

I guess he did get established in that abandoned building half a mile from my "beautiful garden." It hurts my heart to think of him alone there, so close to our home, where he spent many happy times. I don't know yet what killed him. I am not sure a lot of official attention will be paid to a homeless man found dead in an abandoned building. I called the police department's chaplain to help them find Jim's next of kin. I left one message about Jim's family. And then I called back, just to say that Jim mattered, he did.

I wanted someone official to know that Jim mattered to a lot of people. That he was loved. That he had a community. I am too familiar with the indifference of some police officers and I wanted them to know that Jim contributed to this world, that he was everything I'm telling you, and that the loss of Jim really is a loss. It is.

People die every day and homeless people, the invisible souls who exist in abandoned buildings and alleyways, who pass out on sidewalks and roll their carts into neighborhoods where messy lives are not met with approval, they die all the time. In this country, it seems we have to be attached to something before we're of any value. We need to be planted in a home, connected to a job, a school, something that assures others that we are of some account, that we are not dangerously untethered to normal society.

It's easy to get annoyed with them, those men and women with their signs on the corners, the ones we just know are only looking for enough cash to drink, the ones we imagine go home to their tidy houses in the suburbs, having put one over on us by playing on our sympathies and raking in more money than we do. It is easy to dismiss them, to look at them with hard eyes and the certainty that they created whatever led to their downfall.

Maybe. Sometimes. And many, many times not. I am of the belief that it could happen to me, that I could be sitting in the garden only to find myself being addressed by a lily or a robin. I know too many people, perhaps because of my AA affiliation, who were living normal lives until they weren't. In an instant, the line is crossed and then it vanishes and life is forever altered. I can see myself in ragged clothes, pushing a cart filled with all that I own, collaring anyone who will listen to tell them what the lily said, of the robin's warning.

My friend is dead and he mattered. There are Jims everywhere in Tulsa and I expect each one of them matters to someone, somewhere. Maybe to you. I hope to you.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

L. F. Eason III, american hero

It's easy to forget what principle and conviction and honor look like, but this man reminds me. Mr. Eason, an employee of North Carolina's Agriculture Department, refused to fly the flag at half mast after the death of avowed racist and bigot Jesse Helms. In return, he was forced to take early retirement from a job he loved.

My hero of the day, L. F. Eason III. If only we had public financing for elections, this man could take his courage to Washington and take on the lowlife scum oozing all over that city.

Update: NPR interviewed Mr. Eason; you can listen here. Predictably, he's had a death threat ~ "thinly veiled" ~ via newspaper comments responding to one of the articles. Otherwise, he reported that people have been very supportive. Could there be hope for us?

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