A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
“Imagine yourself larger,” said His Radiance.
Stopped me in my tracks.
“Imagine yourself larger. You are everything you’ve ever hoped to be, but you’re afraid to let yourself be it. Free your mind. Imagine yourself larger.”
I imagined myself warier. Hanging around in a college town you’ll pay if you let your guard down. Things are not always what they seem, after all, and that’s the point. The bohemian enclave on the left bank of every university in America is a little Accidental Disneyland where distraction is the main attraction. So even as I approached His Radiance, I backed off mentally.
He was not a pretty man, particularly, but something inside him was beautiful and subtly seductive and, I thought, very, very dangerous. He was Hispanic, and he held himself like a king. He was wearing a radiant white linen suit in the hot summer sun, and the contrast of the bright white against his brown skin was stunning. His sleek black hair was swept straight back from his forehead and his teeth were straight and white and perfect.
In truth, he made me think that this might be what god would look like, if any god of any religion had ever managed to grow beyond the age of three. I called myself an idiot for thinking that, but I thought it anyway.
“Imagine yourself whole. Rid yourself of every drain on your energy. Purge yourself of doubt and fear. Stretch yourself to reach the completion of your life’s destiny.”
He was standing in a little cobbled alleyway between a New Age bookstore and a fern bar, and I wasn’t sure whose wares he’d been sampling.
“Imagine yourself glorious. You are an immense soaring bird, and the Earth is your toy, not your tether.”
And you can only spit so much before you hit your own shoe: I wasn’t buying a word of it, and yet I sat down on a bench to hear His Radiance out.
“We are not here to crawl. We are not here to grovel. We are not here to plead and suffer and mourn.”
“Yeah? What we here for then, stick?” The Gangster said that. He was a spindly black kid, maybe seventeen. He was wearing white jeans and a blue sweatshirt and a baseball cap turned sideways, and everything was large enough to fit two or three more gangsters at the same time. He had walked up and stopped to watch. He walked like he had a permanent shoulder injury.
“We’re here to dance,” said His Radiance.
“Hey, yow! I can dance!” the Gangster said. He began to prance around, his presumably injured shoulder dipping closer and closer to the ground.
“You could if you’d let yourself.”
“You sayin’ this ain’t dancin’?” The pitiful little boy struck a menacing pose.
His Radiance smiled radiantly, forgiving everything in advance. “You behave that way because you’re so afraid. But you don’t have to be afraid of anything. Nothing that matters can hurt you, not if you won’t let it.”
Bars. Buses. Parks. Subway trains. Stadiums. Living rooms. Everywhere you find a bully and an audience, social intercourse is ruled by this law: Bad things will happen if you name a bully’s fear.
The Gangster started prancing around again, only this time there was a knife at the end of his good arm. “You sayin’ I’m afraid, stick? You sayin’ I’m afraid of you?”
“It’s not me you’re afraid of,” said His Radiance, not moving, and seemingly not afraid.
“Yeah, well, then who?”
“Who are you trying to silence with that knife?”
Stopped the Gangster in his tracks. For a moment, anyway.
“Imagine yourself finished,” His Radiance said. “I have nothing to give you, and there’s nothing of mine you can take. You already have all you need. Dare to seize it. Dare to live!”
The Gangster folded up his knife and put it in the pouch of his sweatshirt. He said, “You crazy! You crazy, man…”
He tried to saunter away, but just then Officer Unfriendly grabbed him by the dipped shoulder. “How many times do I have to run you down?” he asked. Accidental Disneyland is a sales tax bonanza, after all, and the locals will do anything to make free-spending Yuppies feel safe.
“I didn’t do nothin’!” the Gangster insisted. “You oughta bust this stick. He crazy!”
“Come on, Crazyman,” said Officer Unfriendly. “Over at the stationhouse you can show me your permits.”
“I am licensed by my sovereignty. You are, too.”
“I tol’ you he crazy!”
And I just sat there and watched as Officer Unfriendly took a hard grip on their elbows and pushed the two of them away.
And I was still sitting there when a homely little college geek slumped down next to me.
Freshman. Homesick. Lonely. Afraid. But there was more than that. He was a farm boy from head to toe. Black, razor-cut hair redolent with some kind of tonic. A cheap cotton-poly plaid shirt. Black jeans, not Lee, not Levis, not even Wrangler, but Dickies – the fashion statement of the unfashionably frugal. Clunky, scuffed leather shoes over grungy grey-white socks.
And there was still more. Because someone had treated that poor boy terribly. He sat there looking at nothing, his elbows on his knees, his clunky black back-pack still slung over his shoulders. He wasn’t weeping, but it might have been better for him if he had been.
And I knew exactly what had happened to the poor little jerk. He’d come from a high school of thirty or fifty or three hundred students, a place where he had amounted to something in his own strange way. And now he was enrolled in a university of thirty thousand and he was less than nothing. Infra-geek, sub-human.
And a moment before, an hour before, a day before, someone had said so, said it in a way that had hurt him right to the core. And, though it’s absurd to say it, it seemed as if he were becoming smaller and smaller right before my eyes…
Hanging around in a college town you’ll pay if you let your guard down. But everybody’s gotta take a side.
I touched him gently on the arm to get his attention. I said, “Imagine yourself larger…”