On a recent Friday, I dined with two men who lived on the street. Then I attended an amazing concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, a concert during which a substitute cellist, a young man I’d never seen before on that stage, impersonated quite plausibly the voice of God in an interlude by the American composer George Crumb. The contrast was instructive.
The street people, whom I’ll call Howie and Daryl, were guests at a dinner provided by Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit charity that serves free meals to needy people at churches in the metropolitan area. Members of my church cook and serve a meal for L&F in the middle of every month, a time between benefit checks when money is tight and cupboards tend to be bare, so our business is brisk.
On this Friday, we served chicken and mixed vegetable casserole over rice; lettuce salad; canned peaches; bread, and milk, water or coffee. I like the fact that this program does not require the guests to sing or pray for their supper; the only praying this evening was a heartfelt grace shared in the kitchen by the servers and offered by George, our nonagenarian senior member. I also like the fact that we are encouraged to sit and talk with our guests, rather than sitting in a group apart and talking about the same things we talk about every Sunday after church.
After I had scooped out close to a hundred servings of rice, the resident director gave me leave to eat dinner if I were hungry, which I certainly was. I loaded a tray and took it to the dining room and joined, with their permission, Howie and Daryl. They were in the middle of a discussion of their day, a rather one-sided discussion; Howie did most of the talking, while Daryl, somewhat impaired, limited himself to expressions of approval or outrage.
Howie had spent much of the day in a downtown park near the Dorothy Day Center, among people they both seemed to know, regulars at the park. Like any community, this one had its share of troublemakers and at least one peacemaker, Howie, who impressed me as someone who was good at avoiding trouble and at calming down troublemakers.
“You’d be amazed,” he told me, “at how many guys have taken a swing at me this week. And missed.”
I said that I’d probably be amazed. Daryl called the troublemakers something unprintable. Then Howie talked about an African immigrant who had been wandering aimlessly around downtown for days with no one to help him. Daryl understood this to be an insult to African-Americans and said something unprintable.
“No,” Howie said, “he’s an African African, not an African-American, and he’s got nobody to help him.”
Daryl subsided. I said that this sounded like an unusual situation because immigrants from developing countries usually had sponsors and resident communities in this country to help them get established. Years ago, I said, I sponsored an immigrant from Africa and another from Asia. I didn’t have to do a thing but promise to take care of them if they couldn’t take care of themselves, which wasn’t necessary as their communities stepped in and gave them the help they needed.
“You sound like a good guy,” said Howie. “And you look like you go to the gym every day.”
Every other day, I said, when I can motivate myself.
“That’s what I need to do,” Howie said, “motivate myself. I’m getting my life together, and when I’ve done that, I’ll hit the gym and get myself back in shape.”
Daryl agreed, unprintably. Then Howie moved on to other subjects: his parents, who live in the area and he’ll move back in with them when he’s gotten things together; a belligerent guy at the park who took a swing at him two days ago; my age, which he couldn’t believe.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “You look like you’re twenty years younger. And you look like you work out every day.”
Something vague in his look, and the rambling nature of his talk, led me to believe that Howie was in the early stages of getting his life together. By this time, I’d finished my dinner, and it was time to help with cleanup. Got to go, I said, rising. We wished one another well, they thanked me for serving and I thanked them for their company. Later I saw them walking down the hall toward the exit, Daryl leaning on Howie. A warm night without rain, I thought; they’ll be able to sleep in the open.
After cleanup, my friend Shannon and I headed for the Ordway Concert Hall, where Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the SPCO played a remarkable program during which movements from compositions by Crumb and by the baroque composer Franz Biber were played alternately. One of the many things I like about the new hall is its intimacy: We members of the audience not only hear all the music that the musicians make, we can clearly see the expressions on their faces and the movement of their bodies as they play, an aspect of live performance that, thanks to the SPCO’s generous concert member program, has drawn me to dozens of concerts over the past two years and has thoroughly spoiled me for recorded performances.
We sat in the front row, center, two or three yards from Kopatchinskaja’s bare feet. I was impressed, as always, by the virtuosity of this group that plays together so beautifully, often, as on this night, without a conductor keeping time on a podium.
I was particularly impressed this evening by Jay Campbell, the young cellist in the chair usually occupied by the orchestra’s principal cellist. He looked to be about 15, though given the sonorous precision of his playing, he must have been at least 10 years older. During one of the Crumb intervals, over the eerie sound produced by string players bowing wine glasses filled with varied depths of water, he played a long and somber melody that Kopatchinskaja had earlier informed us was the voice of God.
I was impressed by the intensity, the beautifully contained passion of his playing, the controlled passion of Apollo rather than the orgiastic release of Dionysus, though no less passionate. The intensity of his concentration, the movements of his body and the almost dancelike way he moved with his instrument as he played all spoke of years of study and practice and performance. Clearly, this young man had gotten his life together, and the results were beautiful and moving.
Late that evening, as I tried to put the disparate pieces of my day together, I had the usual thoughts about inequality in American society and the inequities that bring it about. Although the cellist may have overcome great obstacles in acquiring his skills and his position, it’s likely to the point of certainty that he has enjoyed great advantages that Howie didn’t have: marketable skills, the support of family and community in acquiring his skills, the accidents of race and class and gender. In a word, privilege.
Yet privilege doesn’t explain the inherited skills and aptitudes and mental health and just plain good and bad luck that separate the cellist and the street people. No striving after social justice can right this inequity; it just happens. And an awareness of my own privilege often produces condescension when I’m dealing with the “underprivileged.” The labels get in the way of seeing who they are, who I am. This is not to mention the resistance of the privileged, particularly the older privileged, to the suggestion that they’ve had anything handed to them.
I’ve found it more enlightening to think about what the cellist, the street person and I might have in common, and what impresses me in this instance, since I’m doing it myself, is putting the pieces together. The cellist puts together his years of training, his tens of thousands of hours of practice, his inherited talent and whatever in his life gave him the passionate intensity he brings to his music, into those few sublime moments on the Ordway stage. Howie avoids fights and soothes anger and shows compassion for people less fortunate. And I try to reconcile my observation of poverty and disorder with my experience of high culture, refinement and order.
Putting the pieces together. Integration. Integrity. That’s what we have in common, what we as human beings do. And because of a demographic accident, I am blessed with a greater variety of pieces than many people have. There were no college teaching jobs when I finished my graduate studies, so I spent 10 years as a janitor, complete with a low-pressure boiler license. Outside of the academic bubble I’d lived in since the age of 5, I worked with people who’d never read a book but who possessed great mechanical intelligence and people intelligence.
And in the course of the volunteer work, the mentoring and tutoring and foster care that I did in those years in order to feel useful, I met people struggling to get out of poverty, struggling with alcohol or drug addiction or with their own dark compulsions. In an inmate visitation program, I befriended a former family man with a good-paying job who had run a child prostitution service out of his suburban kitchen and was his own best customer. He was deeply sorry for what he had done, and he yearned to do it again. Prison was the place where he belonged, he told me, the only place where he and his potential victims could be safe from his compulsions, the place where he had found a kind of integrity I could not in my middle-class academic world have ever imagined. Thanks to him and to the other marginalized people I have known through these volunteer programs, I have a large and varied collection of pieces to put together, and a clarity of vision for putting them together I would not otherwise have had.
Integrity. Getting our lives together. Making a coherent narrative of our lives. It’s what we do as human beings, what the disparate three of us were doing identically that remarkable Friday night. And I see that, of the three of us, the one who may have been closest to what our lives are all about is Howie, the guy who ducks punches and calms people down, who spreads the word about men more in need than himself. Blessed are the peacemakers, after all, for they will be called children of God.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.