Street Bench Zen
Commonplace Newsletter #56
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I can still remember the guys face, his expression, his posture, his clothes. I never knew his name, never spoke to him even, but there he remains in the recesses of my memory, vivid.
He was homeless, or at least unemployed and on the fringes of society, I assume, given that he sat on the bench near my building, every single afternoon and for the whole afternoon through, with a plastic carrier bag of Kestrel SuperStrength Lager and a pack of what smelled like Carlton Red Superkings or Lambert & Butler. One of those brands that are cheaper than your Bensons, your Silk Cuts, your Marlboros. The fancy smokes for people who have security and prospects and goals in life.
Now on the face of it this sounds like the prelude to a grim tale, as daydrinking and recreational carcinogens are usually lazy narrative devices for foreshadowing tragedy. But not today, friend.
Because our unnamed protagonist was perhaps as close to enlightened as any man I have ever seen. And as I sit here on my own bench, some 200 hundred miles away from our protagonists inner city throne, I feel moved to talk about this man for a while. While sitting on this bench of mine- one of half a dozen oases on my daily StudentLand constitutionals- watching the gentle sway of overgrown grass and weeds jutting between the paving slabs at my feet, The Man came to mind. So let’s pay a little homage to The Man.
Like I said- Kestrel, cheapo cigs, bench, daytime. But there was more to it than that. See, although a writer can get a lot of mileage out of props and signifiers (choice of outfit, choice of drink, choice of meal, choice of music), they can never tell the whole story. Even in a world as branding-drenched and commodity-obsessed as ours, the things we hold and carry and use will never form the totality of our character. Once they do we are lost, both in literature and in life.
So our man sat there every day, as I said, with his cans and his smokes. But it was the way that he sat. Words that spring to mind are repose, regal, meditative, wise. There was no newspaper rustling, no unintelligible muttered threats, no panhandling, no darting eyes and schizophrenic self-talk. Just stillness, silence, and calm as he people-watched.
There’s a line in the film Rumblefish where protagonist Rusty James proudly looks across the pool hall to his big brother The Motorcyle Boy. Rust says to the guy he’s with ‘I'm gonna look just like him.’ To which the guy retorts, ‘No you ain't baby. That cat is a prince, man. He is royalty in exile.’
And that’s our man to a T. A prince. Royalty in exile. Enjoying the black Kestrel tin and the proletarian smoke like they were a flute of Veuve Cliquot and a Montecristo. He took his time. He gave passing toddlers- who were drawn to him- a barely perceptible eyebrow raise which always made them giggle, and he gave dogs- who were also drawn to him- the briefest of strokes when the nuzzled up to his trouser leg. The parents weren’t nervous, the dog walkers weren’t aggrieved. There was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be repulsed by.
His aura was like a force field, people’s posture altered when they were in proximity of its radiance. That sounds like hippy nonsense but I saw it with my own eyes. Felt it as I gave him a casual backwards head nod and he gave me a beatific half-nod in reply.
A man of the people, maybe, but our guy was a loner though, or at least he kept his own council. Alone but never lonely, as they say. Which is a rare thing. See, the homeless, the destitute, the down-and-outs- however you want to phrase it, such people usually run in groups.
In StudentLand where I now live, the homeless ‘problem’ seems to be growing and it always presents in the form of groups of around six (presumably) abode-free daydrinkers sitting on the pavement outside various Tesco Metros and the like, laughing and arguing. Sometimes they seem to be having a real good time. Sometimes it all degenerates into squabbles and namecalling and stumbling fistfights with their obligatory uncoordinated cider-fuelled haymakers. But bottom-of-the-ladder street-drinking is nearly always a group activity, is my point.
You couldn’t imagine our prince among men in a pack, though, couldn’t imagine him raising his voice or causing a scene. He had that sun-squinting, quiet, Man With No Name vibe, and come to think of it he bore more than a passing resemblance to that long, lean Spaghetti Western archetype. For all of the clear cut drawbacks of the way he lived his life, he seemed to have something figured out in life, something profound.
I was often tempted to try and figure out what was behind the countenance, to broach the guy in conversation, to sit besides him with my own plastic bag of SuperStrength lager (or malt liquor as I believe they call it in America) and see if he wouldn’t take me on as an apprentice. A disciple. But I never did.
They say never meet your heroes, and perhaps their is wisdom in that. Perhaps our man was merely a down on his luck late-middle-aged drunkard and the enlightenment that he exuded was simply a product of my overactive imagination. You’ll observe that the expression of being deep in thought and the expression of being very sad are essentially the same, which is a thought that most thinkers don’t like to think about. So perhaps it was simply that. But I don’t know, man, I’m pretty sure he had figured life out in a way that few ever do. You could just feel it. A king in exile.
Maybe he realised that this whole thinking thing is for the birds and that beatific expression of his, rather than being of sadness or of deep thought, was really the expression of the absense of thought. Because that’s what the zen masters say it’s all about don’t they, it’s about getting the monkey mind to shut up.
And I think that’s what our man was able to do. And if so, the least appropriate thing to do would’ve been to disturb him from his inner city street zen.
The best thing to do, I figure, as I stand up from this bench and stretch out my neck and shoulder blades, it to remember that such things states are possible, if only for fleeting moments. And sitting alone on city benches does seem to be a part of that equation.
Here’s to you, our king in exile.
Until next time,
Alumni Essay of The Week
Alumni Simon posters this great short piece on screenwriting earlier this week. It mentions Schraders Transcendental Style in Film which I love and which I once blatantly cribbed from for an essay
Comment Of The Week
Plenty to choose from, but I particularly liked this one from Paul. I’ve noticed that even things that Paul says in passing have a way of really making me stop and think and take stock. It’s quite a gift, he has. Check out his SubStack btw.
Private Community Post of The Week
Usually this is very close. Not this week. I mean just look at this beautiful depiction by John of what our cult is about.
If this genius art doesn’t inspire you to pay $7/mo to access the Premium SubStack and join us over at my discord then I don’t know what will.
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