Literature

Falling Off the Map

Photo by Richard Hinds. CC0/Public Domain license.
Photo by Richard Hinds.
CC0/Public Domain license.

Part One: Kessler

1. 

Something whizzes by my head and on beyond, as I sit on the floor holding the pale green bars of the cell. I twist my neck and see that a flaming wooden match has landed behind me, just in front of the aluminum toilet.

Black drawn pentagram - Nobody knows you fiction

I glance across the small cell block, which the others proudly say once housed a famous group called the San Quentin Six. Kessler is facing me but kneeling on one knee, head down, concentrating on something he’s doing. I stand up in order to see. As it all comes into view, I feel a chill. Kessler, his tall, wiry body poised adroitly in his orange prison jumpsuit, is using some kind of charcoal—more match-heads, for all I know—to draw a large, circumscribed pentangle on the floor in the centre of his cell.

“Kessler, did you throw that match?” I ask.

He tilts his head up until his eyes, looking straight ahead, meet mine. Dark shadows seem to emanate from deep inside them. I feel another chill at this echo of ancient Teutonic magic being practiced across the aisle, seemingly directed against me.

I’m going to break you!” Kessler announces in a cold voice redolent of an emotion I reluctantly recognize as hatred.

2.

It started so innocently. I was living an enchanted life here in San Francisco, shortly after my first pilgrimage to Meher Baba’s tomb in India. In my mind I would hear Baba’s brother Jal’s words, repeated over and over to me as he’d done in Pune: “Everything is false Illusion! Only Baba is real!

A month after our return, Eleanor kicked me out in Miami Beach. I planned to go to Key West. We stayed friends, and she let me sleep on her sofa until it was time to leave. A week before my departure, I happened to mention the year I spent in San Francisco at the beginning of the decade. As soon as the city’s name escaped my lips, I started hearing and feeling the mighty vortex of that city’s energy, as if I was there! I couldn’t see it, though. I was having some kind of “subtle experience.”

I took this experience as a sign and changed my plans. I bought a Greyhound bus ticket and for three days rode west along the southern route, then north to the Bay Area. I spent the whole first day in the city just walking around, from the bus terminal up to Market Street, where I could still feel distant receding echoes of the Gold Rush, and later through Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury, and North Beach.

North Beach bookstore - Nobody knows you fiction

The North Beach area

At the edge of Chinatown, many hours later, I noticed that the sun was starting to sink. I still had no place to stay. I made a Zen decision: I’d check in to the first affordable place my eyes lit upon. On the block across Kearny Street from where I stood, across an alley from the 20-storey Holiday Inn, was an old brick building divided into storefronts. Sandwiched between pairs of these storefronts were green doors, apparently leading to residential units on the second floor. Over one of them was an awning bearing the words, “Amparo’s Hotel.”

Idyllic months followed in a foreign land inside the USA, cocooned within its matrix of indecipherable singsong voices. Each morning I’d breakfast in one of the little Chinese bakeries, enjoying the exotic delicacies, coffee, and a newspaper. Afterwards, I’d sit there sipping more coffee while reading and writing in a notebook. Later on most mornings, I’d take a walk to a museum, park, waterfront, library or gallery. Sometimes I’d sit on a bench and feed the pigeons in postage-stamp Portsmouth Park, where the men gathered to do Tai Chi and play checkers. A little after noon, I’d walk back to the rooming house for a nap and a painting session. I scarcely spoke to a soul the whole time. It felt as if I was living in Baba’s Silence

People doing Tai Chi on street - Nobody Knows You fiction

Tai Chi outdoors

After several months, a letter came from a friend in St. Louis, my hometown, bringing news or at least a rumour that Reverend Clara was being transferred out here, to San Francisco, to work at some kind of shelter. I smiled as I read this. Reverend C was one of my closest friends from the Holy Order of MANS, the little mystical Christian group I’d discovered in St. Louis, which had become my surrogate Baba group.

3. 

Weeks later, I walk across town to see if the rumour is true. I’m wearing a brown, moth-eaten sweater that I got at Goodwill. My face is bearded after months of urban hermitage. I approach the front desk at Trinity House, where the letter said she’d be working with battered women and their children. There’s an adjoining café called Monk’s Bread. I’d stopped in for coffee once, a couple months back.

Reverend C comes walking down the corridor in her sky-blue tunic. Even before I’d known who the Sisters of the Order were, I’d always felt inspired to see them walking in pairs, dressed in those tunics, making their way through even the toughest parts of St. Louis as living witnesses to God’s beauty and peace.

Reverend C has a huge smile on her face, I notice. Same as mine, no doubt. We slide into one another’s arms. After it ends, I wonder, can our embrace really have lasted five minutes? I can feel envy coming from one brother standing nearby, but who can blame him?

4. 

I’m afraid, but also curious. Can Kessler really do it? Is there anything to this pentangle magic? I’ve heard of such things since the ‘60s, but have never seen it practiced. Part of me—a large part—wants to be “broken.” I mean, isn’t that what life is doing to me anyway, especially throughout these last weeks in City Prison, after I kicked the cop?

Being broken: Isn’t that what I signed up for, these last ten years since I first felt Meher Baba’s Love emanating from His picture and realized that all are one? Various names are used: discipleship, “elimination of the ego.” But doesn’t it all amount to being broken?

Since my rash kick to the cop’s knee, I’ve felt someone has been breaking me. Killing me, with a rusty knife, and has left the knife in! I’m an open wound longing for the job to be finished! It might as well be Kessler doing it.

5. 

Reverend Clara and I go out to a Russian deli a few blocks away and talk for two hours, sharing memories of the spiritual community I’d felt mystically led to in St. Louis. No Baba group existed there until a couple of years later, and I’d wanted some spiritual companions. Walking one day in midtown, I’d come upon a new health food store. The vibes in the place felt exceptionally good, in fact so good that the word “pure” came up in my mind. As I browsed, the proprietor came out of the back. I was surprised to find he was an acquaintance from high school. He’d been something of a troubled person back then, and in fact the last time I’d seen him, had come into a restaurant where I briefly ran a juice bar, and asked me to juice two pounds of organic cherries, saying “Maybe this will help me get rid of my bad karma.” Now, four or so years later, he seemed to be shining, like his store.

“Do you belong to a spiritual group?” I spontaneously asked him. He smiled and beckoned for me to come behind the counter. There, he pointed to a sepia picture of Jesus that looked almost like a photograph, taped to the cash register. As I looked, the photo started glowing rather conspicuously. And that was how I found the “surrogate Baba group” that I hung out with for the next beautiful year and a half. 

Many of the Order members were former hippies, like a lot of the “Baba-Lovers” I knew. I even “saw Baba” at one of the group’s meetings! Prior to Reverend C’s coming, the community was led by four sisters who lived in a little ranch house on the south side. Services were held there on Sunday mornings. One day Sister Rose, a dark-haired, attractive woman who smoked a pipe as she gave her sermons, read us the New Testament passage for the week, the well-known one in which Jesus says, “Tear down this Temple and I will build it up again in three days.”

Sister Rose pointed to her body and said, “This is your Temple.” Meher Baba as young adult - Nobody knows you fictionAs I watched, I suddenly saw Meher Baba’s head and face, instead of hers, atop her shoulders. It happened instantaneously. Baba was around 35 years old, the age when his physical appearance was most striking. The vision remained totally clear for around 10 seconds, and then Sister Rose’s features reappeared. Recovering my composure after the shock, all I could think was: those words must be so important for me that Baba actually appeared in order to reinforce my remembering them!

Halfway through that year and a half, the community reorganized and Reverend C came to lead it. I had a few counselling sessions with her over the period. During one of them—to defeat the tendency for counselling sessions to be somber and staid—I sat on her lap as we talked! There was no standing on ceremony with these folks. They embodied the humour and lightness of the Living God!

6.

After Reverend C and I part on the day of our reunion, I go back to my hermit life. I bury the thought of her when it comes up. We’re platonic friends, I say to myself. I’ll see her again “some time.” Pretending to a detachment I don’t have, I try to deny that my feelings are intensifying even without conscious sanction.

Occasionally in life, when powerfully attracted to a woman, I’ve become emotionally paralyzed, unable to either approach or let go. This now begins to happen regarding Reverend Clara, but at one point, I finally feel compelled to go to the phone on the wall in the rooming house hallway. Dialing, however, I feel a stab of terror, and “someone” inside me, stronger than my conscious will, won’t let me finish.

This battle rages several times over the next month. Never able to complete the call, I go on with my daily routine, but no longer with such a carefree heart. Sometimes, now, deep loneliness surfaces, a sense of feeling totally lost, with no one to go to. I believe God is with me, and often continue to feel His presence. But often, now, what Jal had called “the Illusion”—of loneliness and need—also begins to overwhelm me. I try hard to stay creatively busy, but sometimes am unsuccessful.

One night, I do my best to be creative with the isolation itself. I personify the needy part of me as if it’s one of the suffering lepers or masts (God-mad souls) whom Meher Baba cared for during his ministry. The remaining parts of me—head, arms, and upper body—I decide will be “Baba.” The “Baba” in me literally bathes the sufferer in me. Such unconventional acts, in the face of growing emotional isolation and helplessness, are sometimes the best my wits and intuition can come up with. They seem to help somewhat.

7. 

“Vermin like you don’t deserve to live!” Kessler’s angry words abruptly rouse me from my latest reverie. “Starting at noon tomorrow, when you least expect it, there will be more matches whizzing by your head! Landing in your clothes! I’ll scream at you so you can’t sleep, harass you until you beg for mercy! I won’t leave you alone!”

“Have you ever ‘broken’ anyone before?” I ask, a bit frightened now.

“In Vietnam,” he says. “Gooks.” His tone of voice carries an implication that “gooks” are not people. I’m not sure he believes I’m a person, either.

8. 

Earlier on that fateful evening of “the kick,” I’m sitting on a curb out on Grant Avenue amid the hubbub of strolling tourists, traffic, and Chinese-language hawkers. I’m already a bit degenerate, having just pulled a Styrofoam container out of the trash. Being solitary and living around here, it’s easy to get into habits like this. Opening the container, I see two nearly pristine Egg Foo Yung patties, only a tiny bite taken out of one. Why are people so wasteful? I pick one up and bring it to my mouth to taste, then wolf both of them down in a few bites.

Loud trumpet tones blare from somewhere nearby. I turn my head and see a thin African-American man in a suit, blowing jazz, his trumpet case open in front of him with a few bills and some coins lying on its plush purple. Just one more sound in the cacophony here, but suddenly—and who knows why, at this particular moment—something inside me snaps.

I stand up and begin walking, knowing somehow that the life I’ve been living these past months is over. It’s clear I have to walk that half mile to Sutter Street and up its long incline to find her, face her, and tell her how I feel. The feelings have consumed me; I have no choice.

Down the length of Grant, amid laughing couples and paper lanterns, along the congested sidewalk, I stride. Down the steps beside the stone lions at California Street and through the Financial District, then right onto Sutter.

Partway up the hill in the ink-dark night, I realize I need a bathroom. Passing a dirty brown-brick “B” hotel, I walk in the front door and find myself in the small rectangle of the gold-lit lobby. A man behind the counter is talking to a customer. I look around, but fail to spot a “Restroom” sign.

“Where’s the shithouse?” I demand, walking up beside the tourist.

“This is no way to talk!” shouts the clerk in a voice with a European inflection, as he makes a very sour face.

“I need the shithouse!” I demand again, far past all moorings now, refusing to honour the lies that comprise polite euphemistic language. The man shakes his head disgustedly, apologizes to his customer, and points towards a winding, tiled stairway at the end of the lobby. I walk towards it, descend, and relieve myself. Returning, I pad back through the lobby and out again into the shadows, without a word.

It’s several more blocks up the long hill and then down a bit, to Trinity House. Approaching the lighted building, I pull open the door and enter without hesitation.

“I need to see her! I need to see Reverend Clara,” I tell the young man at the desk. “My name is Martin.”

9. 

I think back to my first days in the cell block after recovering, somewhat, from the initial shock of incarceration. Being here is one of those things I believed could not happen to me. Settling into this life after the first few days, though, I began to think that maybe I can “bring Meher Baba with me,” as he said to do wherever we go. Bring him even here—more than simply repeating his name silently, which I’ve continued to do. Life goes on, on the far side of whatever once seemed unimaginable, including even, no doubt, death—until you finally, in some lifetime, become the Life Eternal that is all that truly exists.

I’d tried to tell the guys on this cell block about Baba: Kessler, lethargic Davey with his “white Afro” in the cell next to him, and massive, muscle-laden Ray in his orange jumpsuit, a professional football player of some kind, in the cell down by the block entrance.

I don’t remember how the moment came when I was able to bring up Baba naturally. Maybe it was Jimmy’s complaining once more that there are no TVs in the cells here, and no cheese puffs and chips, all of which he apparently had free access to during a previous incarceration somewhere.

I’d seized the opportunity to try to inspire my fellow inmates. I’d read once about a soldier in the Indian army during India’s war with China in 1962. Deep in enemy territory, he had inspired his comrades to great bravery by telling them about Meher Baba, the God-Man. Afterward, the whole platoon had been motivated to call on Baba with all their hearts, and they’d safely made their way through enemy territory and back to India against enormous odds.

I’d spoken up in what may have seemed a non sequitur to the others, hoping the force of my words could make it fit into the group conversation. “There was a man named Meher Baba, who lived a life like Buddha or Christ in India recently, and did spiritual work that will change everything on Earth. He said his work will raise human consciousness from Reason to Intuition. His life was absolutely selfless. He worked with the poor, the mentally ill … and once, while visiting America, he had himself driven to the gates of Sing Sing prison, to make inner contact with an inmate.”

Jimmy and Ray had tried to shout me down, but Kessler, the natural leader of the group, had shushed them. “Listen to him!” Kessler had admonished. “He’s saying something important!”

How had things degenerated? In the end, I hadn’t been able to stay bravely in my heart like the Indian soldier. The noise of the whole prison, which could be heard in our block; the 24-hour lights; the endless chatter of the guys near me, who were like boys who’d never outgrown their games of cops and robbers—all of it had been too much. I’d remained a middle-class, Jewish suburban mama’s boy. By now, no doubt, I was clinically depressed. I longed for Kessler to carry out his plan. Anything that would deliver me from the chaos that now reigned in my mind.

10. 

Coming down the corridor on my second visit, Reverend Clara isn’t smiling.

I want to make love to you!” I say, somewhat relieved to declare myself, even as I remain unable to wrap myself back up in appropriate language.

She responds with three words: “I’m getting married.”

Her mention of marriage immediately fills me with guilt at what I’ve already said! It’s too late to take that back, but my raw need and desire quickly slide underground. I realize she hasn’t been idle during the weeks I’ve spent wrestling with the telephone. I’ve known that the sisters and brothers of the Order observe a year of celibacy, after which they’re free to marry. Was she already engaged at the time of our first reunion? I sense the answer is no, but that’s water under the bridge. All I can do now, if I care at all about her, is express my support.

“That’s wonderful!” I say, a happy well-wisher now. “Well, will you come to our deli haunt and let me get you a sandwich to celebrate?”

“OK,” she says in what seems a friendly tone. “Go on over; I’ll be along in a little while.”

Back out in the night, I wonder at this turn of events. Will I be able to cope? A block away, I push open the door of the deli and sit down at a table. No other customers in the place. I pick up a San Francisco Chronicle that’s been left on another table, and glance at the front page: January 31, 1979, it says, under the thick black print that reads, Khomenei Returning to Iran. Today is Amartithi! It’s the 10th anniversary of the day Meher Baba died—”dropped his body,” as close disciples say. What a strange coincidence that on this special night I feel myself breaking inside, watching all my bridges collapse.

After 15 minutes, it begins to sink in that she isn’t coming. She’s afraid. Why didn’t she just say that? Maybe she intended to come, but then a supervisor ordered her not to. I pick myself up and walk out yet again, the bells on the deli door jingling behind me.

Back in the lobby alcove at Trinity House, the desk man is quite stern. I stand there, not knowing what to do. A tall, kind-looking brother in the brown tunic that the men wear comes and stands, facing me, in front of the security table. “You really need to leave now,” he says. “If you don’t, I’ll be forced to call the police and have them arrest you for trespassing.”

This isn’t at all what I had in mind. I really did just want to get her a congratulatory meal and to part as friends.

I walk away from the brother, into a large, dimly-lit room to the side of the alcove. Looking up, I see a dome with beautiful stained glass and a circle of gilded, painted angels up near the top. Back at the security table, I can hear someone dialing a telephone and then speaking in a low voice.

A few minutes later, the front door opens. Four San Francisco cops in dark blue enter the room and stand near me. One or two have mustaches. They look like giants. Guns bulge from the holsters in their belts. The tall young brother comes in and whispers to them. Two other brothers, one with a look of contempt on his face, follow him. 

“I’ll ask you one more time,” says the soft-spoken brother, turning to me. “After that, I’ll ask the policemen to escort you out. Please leave right now.”

I listen carefully for the voice of Jesus in his voice. The first few words are kind, and I’m ready to go out the door like a lamb, but as I prepare to comply, his voice pulls back. I hear a trace of enmity. He’s not detached. He doesn’t understand, and he can’t completely disguise it. We stand there, a tableau under the timeless angels high above. I wait for a moment, to see once more if someone will ask me in a spirit of genuine brotherhood, but no one says another word.

Arrested man wearing handcuffs - Nobody knows you fiction

I give the tall young brother a push—not hard, it’s only symbolic, but so that he feels it. Two cops move forward to grab me. As they do so, I kick one of them in the shin.

Suddenly, the policemen are lightning in the form of bodies, springing towards me, all four of them, 25 feet [about eight metres] of height and probably 900 pounds [approximately 400 kg]! They grab my arms, legs, back, and stomach, and pull me out onto the dark and noisy street. They slam me onto the sidewalk and rapidly cuff my hands behind my back. It’s all over, almost before it began. I lie there hog-tied, in the ruins of my life.

11.

I continue to wait for Kessler to put his plans into action. When noon, or approximately noon, comes the next day, my expectancy rises. But nothing happens. Nothing happens that night, either, or the next day. The day after that, I get up my nerve and address Kessler.

What happened?” I demand. It’s obvious that he isn’t carrying out his avowed program.

“I decided you weren’t worth it,” he says curtly. It’s the ultimate snub. I’m not even worth breaking.

Things begin to happen very quickly a couple of days after Kessler’s dropping of his plan. At around 10 in the morning, the guards come to take him away. He’s been using a set of law books that he’s had on a shelf up on his wall, pursuing some kind of appeal. Today the verdict came in. He lost.

“Pack your things and be ready in half an hour,” the guard warns. Right on schedule, they’re back.

“You can’t do this!” Kessler shouts. But they can, and they do. They carry him out, and in another minute he’s gone, as if he’d never been there.

The day after that, word comes that I, too, am leaving. Lindstrom, the big-bodied, green-uniformed guard who seems to detest me more than he detests the bank robbers and murderers, comes to tell me I need to be ready in 30 minutes. I’m being sent to Napa State Hospital for observation.

Jimmy and Ray don’t even say goodbye. Tom, a shy, bearded fellow who joined us recently, rumoured to be charged with arson after a fire in his rooming house, and whom I’d tried to stand up for when the others had taunted him about being gay, looks my way and nods.

I’m still not “broken.” “Baba,” I say inwardly to the One I continue to try, at least, to make my constant companion. “When will it all end?

As usual, these days, I hear no reply.

Part Two: Limbo

1.

Napa State Hospital

Yes, I’m here for observation, I guess. After the van drops me off and I go through intake, I’m allowed to phone my parents to tell them my new location.

“Hey, that’s wine country,” Dad says, in an attempt at humour.

Indeed, though, the picture window in the day room looks out on lovely fields and vineyards, leading to hills upon hills, all in varying shades of green. But the hospital is not a tourist resort. It’s more like a mansion of neglect. The cavernous gymnasium has been transformed into a huge dorm filled with green cots. I guess this is the only way they can house everyone.

A skinny, long-haired inmate who resembles Tiny Tim walks around every morning with a beat-up guitar, playing and singing the rock song “Gloria” to wake everyone. A ragtag entourage follows him, and their shouts of “G-L-O-R-I-A!” get almost all the late risers off their cots. It’s rather charming.

There’s little supervision here. In the week since I arrived, I haven’t had a single interaction with medical personnel. There aren’t even many orderlies.

In the day room, against Nature’s gorgeous backdrop, an inmate named Rocky monopolizes everyone’s attention with a never-ending narrative of his past exploits. A Seventh-day Adventist, he relates everything he says to “Jehovah God.” One day Rocky’s not there, and the scuttle is that he’s escaped. The next day he’s back, holding forth once more. His latest adventure and new notoriety don’t improve his storytelling skills, and I decide to avoid the day room. With only a little exploration, I discover there are small rooms, with their brick walls painted in institutional light green, that no one ever goes in. It’s possible to actually get some privacy here!

I lie on a beanbag pillow that’s in one of these rooms, looking at a painting on the wall of a man fishing in a lake. After a while, the rod starts to bend. It appears the man’s hooked a fish. What’s going on? Things begin appearing on the walls, too. Are these hallucinations? There isn’t anything scary about what I see. It’s a bit sad, though. The pattern of brick and mortar morphs somehow into a kind of animated cartoon. I see a swamp, a great sad swamp with big cypress trees, their lower trunks sunk in the water. A figure in a little rowboat is plying the waters, propelling the boat with an oar or a pole. The figure looks something like Winnie-the-Pooh. He’s extremely forlorn—just so lonely—as he continues to pole through the monotonous swamp. Wherever he goes looks just like where he’s been. It seems there’s no end to this, and no one anywhere to help, or even to meet or see.

It doesn’t require higher math to solve the equation of whom this forlorn figure might represent.

Will I ever get out of this limbo? Since that night in the city, I’ve felt as if I’ve slipped underground, into some kind of parallel world. This began as soon as the police tackled me. I don’t know how to assimilate it all. Memories come at night, as I’m lying on my cot in the silent gymnasium, trying to fall asleep.




2.

I’m taken in a van to the Hall of Justice on Brannon Street south of Market, fingerprinted and photographed, and then led to a large holding cell that’s part of San Francisco city prison, located in the building’s basement.

This cell holds at least 25 men, maybe as many as 50—all kinds of men, but many are “biker types,” big, bearded, and motorcycle-jacketed. A lot of them are sitting around a great oaken table in the centre of the cell, making a tremendous din. It all seems more like a celebration than a sober response to having been arrested. The whole scene feels like something out of ancient times, like the publicans in the days of Christ.

I have no idea how to behave in this milieu. There’s a paperback novel in my jacket pocket, one I began a few days ago. I find a little space on the bench that hugs the bars all the way around the cell, and sit down to read. The noise, though, makes sustained concentration impossible.

Sitting there, I realize a few things. My kick and subsequent arrest were certainly a catastrophe, but however calamitous they may have been, I’ve now recovered a sense of Meher Baba’s presence. I also know I’ll lose that in this chaos if I’m here long. It will drive me mad. There seems to be no way to think, meditate, or calm the mind.

Internally, I ask Baba what to do. The seeming answer comes from the pages of my novel, The Lost Weekend, which is about a man’s recovery from chronic alcoholism. In the section I’ve just finished, the protagonist has been on a binge. Sober again and contemplating the ruins of his life, he, too, has had a realization: “No one is going to do it for me. The only one who can do anything about my situation is me.”

But what can I do in my situation? I know I have a legal right to a phone call, and so far, I haven’t been offered one. If I call my parents in Missouri, they’ll surely bail me out. But I’m just not ready to tell them what’s happened. The evening has left me too shaken up and ashamed.

There’s only one way I can think of to get out of this cell. It seems absurd, but no matter how many times I go over things in my mind, nothing else comes. The idea is this: If I wade into the crowd with my fists flying, someone will probably call the guards and they’ll put me in solitary.

I’ve never been one to fight, even in childhood, but the courage to at least mock-fight is what I believe the situation demands. I may not have been brave enough to risk possible rejection and phone Reverend Clara, but the consequences of that have already occurred. “Now” goes on. In this “now,” a terrible new challenge seems to loom.

I stop thinking. The time has come for action. I say Baba’s Name to myself, stash my book in a pocket, and walk forward toward the centre of the cell, fists flailing indiscriminately at the bodies I pass. I make sure not to look at faces, only try to land the punches.

After a little while I hear someone shout, “Guard, guard!” I keep on slugging, but before long, two burly guards noisily open and enter the cell. They grab me and pin my arms behind my back. A young man with a wounded expression comes up in front of me and shouts to the guards, “He just walked by me and hit me! I didn’t do anything!”

The guards push me forward, out of the cell. One of them leads me to an elevator, to another floor, and then down a corridor. He opens up a door and says, “Chill out here awhile.” I enter, and he closes and locks the cell door. My plan has worked.

Solitary jail cell - Nobody Knows You fiction

I have no sense of the sequence of time after that. The solitary cell feels like a precious blessing. I can think! Three times a day, meals are delivered by a prison “trustee.” One of them looks at me in a tender way as he brings my tray of eggs, toast and coffee the next morning, and exclaims, “Soon we’ll be in paradise!” before exiting and locking the door. Was he some kind of angel?

Sometimes it’s impossible to tell whether it’s day or night. At a certain point, though, they do turn most of the lights off, so that it’s possible to sleep.

My second night in solitary, one of the strangest experiences in my life takes place. I’m sitting there thinking, meditating, and “talking to Baba,” when suddenly, a beam of light begins to project from each of my eyes, as from a movie projector. An image takes form on the wall a couple of feet in front of me. On this “screen,” I watch a scene unfold.

A couple is walking through the desert, to the village well. They appear to be betrothed. They are dressed in apparel that seems to indicate they live in the Middle East. The woman is balancing a large water pot on her head.

As they reach the well, another figure appears, coming up over a large sand dune. His bearded face appears first, then the rest of him. He is wearing a white robe trimmed with red. He beckons to the young betrothed couple. The young woman runs to him immediately.

The young man, on the other hand, takes a step toward him, then hesitates. He retakes the same step and then hesitates again. He continues to do this, repeating the action several times, yet getting no further. Then the scene begins to dissolve. The “beams” from my eyes quickly disappear, and the room is back to normal.

What did I just see? Clearly, the man coming over the hill  was Jesus. Was the younger man “me” in a past life? I flash on someone who, I get a hunch, might have been the young woman. I intuit that the young man is just too attached to his life, possibly involved in his father’s business.

How can something like this happen? Where am I in the great stream of life, and where can I go from here? How can I get out of here? I call out to Meher Baba from the deepest reaches of my heart, as I’ve regularly done ever since my first experience of Him eight years ago.

Of course, no one comes to deliver me, and the next day the guard who brought me to solitary returns and walks me to the cell block that will be my home for the next month or so.

3.

After another week at Napa, I’m told to report to the loading area again. It’s late in the day. This time, I’m the only passenger in the van. Night has fallen by the time we arrive back in downtown San Francisco. We’re not near the Hall of Justice, but on the other side of Market. I hear sirens nearby, as you so often do at night in the city. We’re pulling alongside a large building that looks like Saint Francis Hospital, and in a moment I see a sign confirming that it is.

The van drives into the garage and parks. I’m led into the building, to a tiny room with a bed, where I lie for several hours, totally disoriented, with no clue what’s going on. Finally, someone comes and says, “It’s time to go.” We walk back to the van and it drives through the city some more. Half an hour later, it pulls into yet another hospital garage.

“Where are we?” I ask the uniformed man leading me inside.

“St. Mary’s.” He takes me to another room with a bed. This one is a little bigger. By now it’s late at night, and I climb into the bed and go to sleep.

St. Mary’s, it turns out, is adjacent to the Haight-Ashbury district and close to Golden Gate Park, at the other end of the city from downtown. As with all such institutions, it embodies its own variations on the general theme. The floor which constitutes the psych ward is a study in modernity—the opposite of Napa. The day room here, the environment in which patients are expected to spend much of their waking time, is an enormous, impersonal and windowless cavern in the centre of the ward. Entering the vast room the day after my arrival, I feel I’ve been swallowed up like a speck. I have an impulse to go and look for myself! Furthermore, once in here, there isn’t much to do. I no longer have a good book, and may not even have enough concentration left to read. I don’t care for cards, puzzles or daytime TV.

I’m sitting alone at a table wondering how to pass the time, when two people around my age approach me. “Hi, I’m Ruth!” says one of them. I look up and see a tall woman with black hair and bright red lipstick.

“I’m Chris!” says a curly-haired man in a maroon sweater. Chris has a rather severe rash on his face, and he’s smiling—big! Ruth smiled, too, during her greeting, but Chris just keeps his toothy smile, as if it’s frozen on his face.

From then on, the three of us become companions, almost as if we’re on a ball-and-chain gang, by virtue of the fact that there’s no one else remotely near our age and capable of interacting.

“I work for the Chronicle, Ruth says. She sounds as if she may be telling the truth. She’s intelligent, well-dressed, and has the “grown-up” appearance a Chronicle reporter might. She has one trait, though, which unnerves me and makes me unable to imagine anyone wanting to be around her much. To almost anything you say to her, she replies with, “No, actually…” and then goes on to set you straight about how things really are.

Chris says he’s a street performer. He does a card trick for us. Then he begins sliding cards around in a Three-Card Monte manner. I don’t know what he did that got him into this place, but I get the feeling he’s been on the street a lot, maybe living there.

After a couple of days Ed, the bearded orderly who tries very hard not to disturb anyone as he pads from place to place, brings a new patient into the day room, an Asian boy who is probably 12 or 13 years old. He’s dressed in jeans and a dark button-up shirt. Ed introduces him as Pak.

Pak speaks no English at all. He works on a puzzle Ed has given him, alone at a small table. But after a while, he abruptly stands up, walks a little way forward, and looks like he’s about to enter some kind of a runway. You can feel there’s a whole world of invisible objects and people he’s bringing here from memory. He stands before some sort of imagined audience, raises a fist in the air, and shouts, “Pak wing chow!” After a little while, he walks down the imagined runway. Then the scenario dissipates, and he goes and sits down again and resumes working on his puzzle. He repeats this ritual every hour or so.

I have the impression that Pak’s behavior is more of a cultural than a psychiatric phenomenon, and that there’s just no other place for them to put him. As he speaks no English, I’m not able to find out anything definite. I could ask Ed for more information, but I’m not exactly on top of the world, myself, and it would take more energy than I have.

Memories from city prison keep coming back, at night, when I’m alone in my room.

4. 

A wispy, bearded fellow named Tom has joined us in our cell block. He’s gay, or at least the other inmates say he is, and taunt him about it at night. They also say he burned down his rooming house, and they make noises like the ghost of the person they say died in the fire. I don’t really know if any of their patter is true, but one day during the half hour we get for exercise, I’m down at the far end beside the cell of Ray, the tall, muscular guy who is, or was, a pro football player. He shouts, “Fairy!” as Tom passes by. I walk into Ray’s cell and say, “Why don’t you leave Tom alone? You know, we all have a female side; we all have a gay person inside us!”

I’m kind of proud that I’ve spoken up, but before I know it, Ray, without saying a word, shoves his huge fist like lightning into the side of my face! I fall down, almost into his cell’s toilet. But the funny thing is, I’m laughing! I’m laughing because—because it doesn’t hurt! I’ve almost never been hit in the face, in my life. Whatever fear I might have had of it, I realize, was ridiculous! It happened so fast! The sensation was so clean, somehow, that it was practically fun!

Nevertheless, from now on, I’ll think twice about even talking to Ray.

Another day, at exercise time, I’m allowed to walk in the area beyond our cell block. A husky, mustached fellow in a red prison jumpsuit joins me as I pace. He starts talking to me, putting an arm around me as if he’s my older brother. He says, “They got nothin’ on me! They say I killed this guy and buried him in the landfill. I been here six months. I got my lawyers on it. You stick with me, I’ll take care of you.”

Exercise period ends after he’s gone on for about 15 minutes. I’ve held back the one question I wanted to ask:“Well, did you kill him?” But who’s going to ask a possible murderer a question like that? That’s the way it is in here. The threat of violence lies behind just about every relationship. It’s yet another force working to shut a person down.

Another memory, from the “enchanted” period before “the kick,” is almost unbelievable now. Yet it’s just how it was!

One night, near the end of that life, I’m jogging through the city and go into an open Texaco station to ask the night attendant if I might use the bathroom. He’s a nice-looking English fellow about my age. His name is Eden Hutton. We strike up a conversation, and I mention Baba to him. Eden is clearly a seeker of Truth. I was able to sense it after just a little while. I invite him to visit me in my room sometime, and a few evenings later, he comes. 

There’s a particular reason I want him to come. He’s a nice fellow, in fact just about the only real friend, or potential friend I feel I’ve made during my six months in the city. I want him to feel what I feel in my room: the wall! I have one entire wall covered with posters of Meher Baba and glorious nature photos that also feature profound Baba quotes, such as, “Love is essentially self-communicative; those who do not have it catch it from those who have it.”

The thing is that for several weeks, as I’ve built this “collection,” it’s taken on a life of its own. There is Light—there is, in fact, Love—coming off this wall, almost all the time, rising like a great natural force! It bathes me, it feeds me … and yet, before Eden arrives, no one else has ever been here to see and feel it! It’s like a Wall demarcating the world of form from that further Beyond of God’s formless Love! When I lie in bed at night, awash in it, I feel I’m the most fortunate person alive!

Eden comes, and I put on a kettle for tea. While it perks, I take him to the wall. It’s not far to go, as the room is small. He stands before it, taking it in. And then I see … I see, with my physical eyes, a pink cloud rising up from the wall, or possibly from one of the photos. I watch it hover in the air a bit, and then go straight down into Eden! Right into the top of his head!

Exactly what did I just witness? Was he aware of it? I refrain from saying anything about what I observed, nor does he mention anything. We have tea and talk a bit, and then he leaves.

Shortly after that comes, well, “the kick.” I never see Eden again, and there’s a very good chance I never will.

5. 

I drift off to sleep, aghast at how far I’ve fallen, from a bed at the edge of the known world, so to speak, refreshed by waves from the Transcendent, to this recent life in hell. I have—or had, since it’s back among my things at the rooming house that have likely been disposed of by now—a book called We’re All Doing Time, about how to transform a prison cell into one’s spiritual ashram. Easier said than done, at least in my case.

Chris is an unmerciful tease. He’s pretty good at his Three-Card Monte, and I’m still near the end of my emotional rope. And that smile of his—grinning like the Cheshire cat, no matter what he’s saying or feeling! He makes verbal asides and then just smiles as though someone else has uttered them.

I’m trying to see through his sleight-of-hand one day, as Ruth watches. Suddenly the game seems to turn into some kind of manhood test. I guess wrong a couple more times. He says “Not the brightest light, are we?” I try and miss again, and I begin to feel raw. This time he says, “Afraid to call a girl—at your age! Scaredy-cat! Scaredy-cat!”

I’d confided in him about Reverend Clara, but not in Ruth’s presence. Something in me suddenly becomes too much the victim, the bottom dog, for me to bear. I watch my left fist thrust out right into Chris’s face.

Emil, the orderly on duty in the day room, immediately calls in an alarm. Three more orderlies came running in. They pin me down—not quite as roughly as the police—but they sit on me so I can’t move.

“Sorry,” I say recovering a bit. None of these recent behaviors are things I recognize in myself, but how can I explain that?

“You’ll be on close watch for 48 hours,” Emil says.”Someone will be two feet [just over half a metre] or less from you at all times.”

Nichiren Buddhist temple - Nobody knows you fiction

Nichiren Buddhist temple in Japan

Tom, my first shadow, is someone I haven’t seen much of before. He doesn’t brook any nonsense and doesn’t seem to have a sense of humour. When his shift ends, Kevin comes on. Kevin is a short Asian fellow who carries a little handbook of Nichiren Buddhism (Nichiren Buddhists are the people who chant ‘Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo”). He’s very confident, and espouses a very simple doctrine of Spiritual Reason.

“You just have to keep putting ‘good karmas’ into life,” he says when I ask him about his book. “That will offset all the bad karmas from previous lives.” His little discourse leaves me pondering once again how my “bad karmas” got me into this negative cycle, and how to begin again to put in the “good karmas,” at which I seem to be failing miserably. Kevin’s “reasonable Buddhism” is not really different from what Baba teaches. It sounds so simple and obvious, the way he describes it.

Kevin, though more approachable than Tom, also has to play his strict “shadow” role, and the next two days are among the most unhappily claustrophobic I’ve ever spent. Having someone I didn’t choose in my intimate space gets very old, very fast.  I’m allowed to go into the toilet stall itself without my shadow, but he stays right outside. Other than that, he’s all but handcuffed to me. He can’t enjoy it any more than I do, but he at least gets paid for his effort! Everything they do at St. Mary’s seems born of some weird permutations of Reason. However, I will definitely think much more before slugging anyone else, no matter what the provocation.

Finally, 48 hours are up and the shadow is called off. The relief is palpable. Chris and I are back to being friends, as much as you can be friends with someone whose face is confined to one expression. He seems to curb his insults from then on.

Day follows day and week follows week, and the stir-craziness grows.

6. 

The stay at St. Mary’s lasts much longer than the one at Napa. In fact, there’s no clue how long I’m going to be there. I’m not sure of my precise legal status or the progress of my case to trial, but it’s pretty clear I still have an assault charge pending, and remain a ward of the justice system.

In this venue, I’m at least able to speak regularly with my parents. After I’ve been here something more than a month, Mother tells me she and Dad have decided she’ll fly out and see if there’s anything she can do to expedite matters downtown.

She puts up at a smart little hotel on Market Street. For the first couple of days, she shares her suite there with Agnes Baron. Agnes is a longtime disciple of Meher Baba who administers Meher Mount, a property dedicated to Baba that’s located outside of Ojai, in southern California. I’d reached out to Agnes by phone from prison, and in response, she’s hitchhiked up to San Francisco solely to see me. She comes to the hospital with Mother, and the three of us go out to lunch. I’m not really myself, and haven’t been for months, but I’m touched that this busy lady whom I’ve never met face-to-face before has come such a distance for my benefit.

The next day Agnes has to leave, to get back to her land, but Mom comes to St. Mary’s every day. The hospital lets me leave in her company, so long as I’m back by 8 p.m.

I’m still submerged beneath many tons of emotional avalanche, but Mom hasn’t come all this way for conversation. She just wants to help, in part because she feels guilty. She believes a lot of my problems in life are due to an abusive atmosphere at her mother’s apartment in New York City, where she and Dad lived while she was pregnant with me. Of course, I don’t remember being an embryo, and tend to think of my current problems as self-created. Still, I’m glad my parents are actively on my side. You hear all sorts of tales about parents who “wash their hands” of troubled children, and I’m not entirely sure I’d survive that.

Haight-Ashbury area, San Francisco - Nobody knows you fiction

The Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco

At dinner in the Haight, the day after Agnes’ departure, Mother says, “The city has a hold on you!” She’d been downtown earlier and found that indeed, the justice system has its teeth in me and doesn’t want to let go. Either they don’t distinguish between “symbolic” kicks to cops and those intended to injure, or else I’ve become a mere number in a bureaucracy.

After that, when Mom’s not with me, she’s back down at the Hall of Justice working the case. I’ve been arraigned on assault charges. There’s no guarantee that there’s anything at all she can do, beyond taking me to lunch or dinner.

One rainy morning, she and I take a cab and go to visit a couple of psychiatrists who live in the same residential neighbourhood. She’s trying to salvage my mind as well as get me out of virtual jail. Compared with my mind, though, even the justice system is simple.

We see my assigned St. Mary’s doctor at his home. He’s an intelligent man who keeps his case notes in a stylishly-worn leather binder and wears patches on the elbows of his sport coats. He also wears a perpetual sneer on his lips that makes me think of Pontius Pilate, and openly scorns anything I say that smacks of spiritual optimism.

Walking the several blocks to the second doctor, I trail behind Mom as if she’s a “Show Mother” and I’m her little stage protégé. This second man champions the “orthomolecular” diet that’s supposed to re-balance a person with massive doses of Vitamin C. But I’m like a baby chick, just glad to have some warmth from the mother hen.

Another day, I visit her perfect little hotel on Market Street, and we have lunch in an exclusive cafeteria next door. As we’re going through the line, I hear the head chef scream at a young worker, “You need more red in that display!” It’s as if the fellow has committed a capital offense. Yes, that’s how it is, I tell myself as we dig into the sumptuous food. Part of me isn’t even that anxious to return to such a world.

Mom brings “the good life” with her wherever she goes. It’s a comfort, although, unfortunately, a small one.

7. 

Finally, the breakthrough in the case arrives, via what seems an unlikely route. My parents haven’t been able to make any impression at all on the legal system. No one is interested in taking another look at my case.

As a last resort, Dad phones a man with whom he was close friends way back in his army days, someone who, upon re-entering civilian life, married a San Francisco heiress and became one of the city’s best-known philanthropists. Dad hasn’t even spoken to him since attending his wedding years before, but decides one day to give him a call and tell him about my predicament. As he continues outlining the bleak situation, he mentions the name of the judge who has been assigned to the case.

“He lives right down the street from me!” is his friend’s surprised response. “We’re good friends.” Soon after, Dad’s friend visits his neighbor, the judge, and explains that I’ve never been in trouble with the police before and that no one was injured by my soft kick.

A few days later, the wheels of the system begin to turn. The charges are dropped. I’m released in the custody of my mother, on the condition that I leave the state.

American Airlines plane at St. Louis airport - Nobody knows you fiction

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport

I’m in no condition to object to my release on the grounds that young men from the inner city are not privy to such boons. I accept the unlikely coincidence that has produced this result as divine grace. My release resolves one problem, but I remain deeply depressed by the experiences of the past several months. I don’t know whether my sanity, let alone my enthusiasm for life, will ever come back. If I’d remained amid the chaos of either prison or hospital, though, I’m pretty certain there would have been no chance for recovery, at all.

Part Three: The return

1.

Dad picks us up at the airport in St. Louis. I entered the prison system at the end of January, and now it’s high summer. After a big embrace with Dad and a stop at a restaurant, we drive the rest of the way to the house where I grew up. Familiarity is a small comfort as I see the maple trees I know so well lining the street, and begin reciting to myself the litany of families’ names going up the block.

Martin's family home - Nobody knows you fiction

I enter our large corner house through its heavy oak door. I walk straight up the stairs, get into bed, and basically, don’t get out again for more than a year.

The defeat of the past six months is so profound that I’m totally unable to face the world. Waking each morning as the light enters the room, I close the blinds and lie there with eyes shut. My parents go out to their jobs and come home, and I still haven’t moved. I’m always shocked that a whole day has gone by. It always seems like a few hours at most.

Mother and Dad don’t interfere, except to stipulate that I visit a psychiatrist weekly. One of them comes home that first day and drives me to the office of an old friend of theirs, a rather aged man whom, I feel, tries to treat me with platitudes. Once I’m back home, I return to bed.

My parents may believe at first, “He’ll do this for a week or two and then start living again,” but I don’t. Continuing my escape through shut-eyed confinement, I daydream or nap-dream, ruminating over the recent past or the distant past, going through various mental scenarios, or indulging in self-deprecating interior monologues—first for those first couple of weeks, then for the rest of the month, and then the month after that and the one after that. My doctor tells me, after a month or so, “You’re like a concentration camp survivor who is released, but doesn’t get better.”

During the evenings, I venture into my parents’ bedroom and watch TV with Dad. I detest most of the shows, with their preposterous plots and canned laughter, Barney Miller and Welcome Back, Kotter being somewhat more intelligent than the rest. I sit on my parents’ bed, with Dad nearby in his easy chair. The chaos put out by the TV is nearly as mind-numbing as prison, but I sit here like a little boy because being near Dad in this way is my only form of human contact.

On weekend nights, Mother joins us. One Saturday, the film Midnight Express comes on after Saturday Night Live. It’s about a young American incarcerated in a Turkish dungeon. As we watch, I begin to feel myself dissociating from my body. I hadn’t known that a film could trigger a psychotic episode, but suddenly I find myself plunged into emotional darkness and panic, psychologically back in city prison! I sit rigidly in front of my parents, until I finally find the words to communicate the nature of my problem. They turn off the TV and put in a call to my doctor. In time, the experience passes.

2.

Around 13 months after my return, some life slowly begins to stir in me. An old friend, who has been phoning occasionally to see if I want to go out for lunch or dinner, calls again. For some reason, this time, I say yes. His gentle companionship is a good re-introduction to the world.

I begin actually getting up in the morning—listening to the Larry King radio show, with its interesting topics and guests. I even phone in once to make a comment. This is a big step beyond lying there with my eyes closed. I begin going for walks and reading books, and attending a weekly discussion group that my friend belongs to.

As recovery progresses, Mother asks me if I want to volunteer at a Montessori-style preschool in an African-American church in the city. A lady she knows from her library job is on the board there, and has mentioned this opportunity. I begin spending a few hours a day at the Ascension Episcopal Church, under the direction of a very wise and kind teacher, Mrs. Alice Esters.

The company of the children is medicine to my spirit. One morning, a few weeks after I’ve started, as they lie on their cots at “rest time,” a little girl named Tiffany calls out in total innocent trust, “Mr. Martin, I’m so glad you’re here!”

Her words leave my heart echoing and my eyes wet. I know I’ve come back from hell.