This weekend some buddies and I went out for a late night dinner at the wonderfully old school Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. It was filled with USC fans that looked like they were members of the class of 53′, barrel-shaped bellies proudly wearing the red and gold held up tables of food. I was surrounded by their voracious appetites, the men wiping crumbs from their lips and excitedly talking about the game.
Since when did Bob’s become the after party spot for senior Trojan fans?
Even though my friend and I weren’t sharing plates we each held fundamental reservations about both ordering the chicken fried steak. We felt uncomfortable ordering it if the other guy was too.
“What’s up with that?” I wondered aloud. “What does it matter?”
“I don’t know, but if you’re getting it I’m going to get something else,” he grumbled.
“No, you can have it,” I told him. “I’ll get the fried chicken.”
More and more gray-haired Trojan fans arrived and took their places in front of plates of food and their wives as we enjoyed our meals and talked guy-talk while the Saturday night revelers sped by in their dark cars, heading for some apple martini-flavored salvation.
A gentlemen strode in casually wearing sandals, shorts, and a thin white tank top and with the longest, flowingest white beard to give God himself a run for His money. The man’s eyes were tiny marbles set deep in a cheerful face. I could see from across the room they sparkled with a kind of mad joy only found in the truly enlightened, or insane.
And right then I understood the Truth, the one with the capital T , there is no difference.
The saints and the syphilitic both shiver under the weights of their consciousness. The asylum inmates talk in tongue, the churchgoers shout out nonsensically to imaginary people. Rock stars author gospels more in tuned with my living soul than a dusty hotel book.
I used to think this homeless guy near my house was Buddha because he had a round stomach and never talked and had a sorta serene look on his face always. He seemed at peace with his possession-less existence, as if it was by choice, he never begged. Something else unique about the man, he never made eye contact, always aimed his stare at the space in between people.
He was suffering, assuredly, yet somehow for some reason I nominated him my personal Buddha. I looked at him for inspiration, taking some cue on how to be, admiring his ability to sit on the bus bench for hours and not give in to want or boredom, as if he hid a secret in his bedraggled being.
Then one day I passed him a few miles from where he normally hung around. He was stumbling forward with a determined yet faltering gait, as if some immortal beast was nipping at his heels. I was surprised to catch him muttering and snapping at the air around him. He was indisputably mad, out of peace within himself, it was crushing to see a saint of yourself come crashing to earth so predictably.
Since then I’ve left the random idol worship alone, until the man in the tank top with the white beard that ordered pancakes at midnight on Saturday. Just when we were touching napkins to our lips and symbolically dropping them on our plates I turned around and quickly studied him sitting there under the amber lamp with the ridge veins cascading down the chandelier forming an oval over his head, his soul radiating a holy glow. (I’m assuming I don’t need to explain the image he cast.) As he poured maple syrup, he caught me staring, gave me a knowing wink and took his alms with one giant, jaw-grinding bite. His wife sat across from him smirking over his rude table manners. He might not be Buddha, but there was something there to aspire to, a gentle contentment and glow.
Outside, the night hadn’t cooled down at all, it was almost 90 degrees at one o’clock in the morning. How could it still be so hot with the sun nowhere to be seen?
Driving back to the apartment, saying goodbye to my buddies on the sweltering sidewalk, the stars above mere pin-sized dots on the mauve roof of the world, I had a vision of myself twenty years from now, eating pancakes, a long white beard sopping up the syrup, my wife shaking her head at something I said, and I didn’t mind it at all.