When Bittersweet Seems Ideal
Preface: I have an affinity for laundromats. They’re like a refuge, an oasis of sorts. In fact, out of economic necessity, I just applied to work at my favored franchise location in Indianapolis. (Read http://hubpages.com/hub/Observations-From-Deep-Within-the-Tan-Suds for reference.)
What follows happened on a brilliant Saturday afternoon in mid-March, 2010, at the Pronto Laundromat in Gallup, New Mexico. To the NRA-Walmart guy from Arkansas: this is 100 percent reality, although it would be far more comforting if it wasn’t. What transpired recalls a lyric from Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones: "I thought you wanted my money, but instead you plundered my soul."
Finally, I have readers write to me, “Too much of your stuff is depressing. Write more funny stuff.” I don’t make the news, I just report it. If life was always happy, I’d just write about that. Hopefully, the story that follows will provoke some thought.
The extra-load washer costs three dollars a pop and looks like something delivered by UFO during the late 1940s. Gleaming chrome glistens, with a circular glass door; the kind of machine Stuart Little got trapped in before Gina Davis pulled him out. I’ve got the silver machine loaded, have slammed the twelve quarters into the slots and am just sitting down with mp3 blaring all troubles away when a man sits next to me, uneasily violating my personal space bubble. There are ten empty seats down the row that he's opted not to take. I assume that he’s about to ask for money, which commonly happens here. Junk, masqueraded as art or jewelry, is commonly hawked throughout the laundromat to anyone white, whom the Native Americans presume to be tourists. Bootlegged DVDs of dubious quality are another favorite item for sale at $3 per. So I’m wary. My antenna is up. Eyebrows are arched. But things aren’t as they appear. They’re far worse.
After closing the door on my washer, moving the water temperature setting from the default cold to hot - laundromats have gotten smarter/greedier - I had just sat down, and shielded by an anonymous protective zone of sun glasses and earphones, I felt safely secured. Random thoughts cross my mind, trying to remember who sang “Bittersweet,” the haunting tune from the mid-‘90s. I ponder what Selma Hayek is like as a person. My solitude was abruptly ended when a Navajo man, maybe 25, maybe 30, tapped on my arm. I cringed behind shades but do my best to hide any annoyance and attempt to turn on an engaging persona. For too many years I’ve been an abrasive bastard and now I am trying to mend my ways.
“What’s up, Holmes?” I say, bracing to be hit up for alcohol cash.
“Where are you from?,” the encroacher asks meekly, unsure and almost stuttering, stammering. I resist the urge to say, “Let’s cut to the chase, dude. I pay steep child support on three kids. I got no cash for you. I've barely got enough quarters to get my favorite college sweatshirt clean.” Instead, I tell him “Indianapolis” and manage a slight smile.
“Do you like it there? Will you go back?” His words are painfully labored. He seems to realize he’s venturing into extremely unsafe terrain somehow. I piece together at about this time that this man isn’t operating on all cylinders mentally. He doesn’t seem drunk, or smell like booze for that matter. I wonder if it’s meth, or maybe a past history of meth abuse. A product of fetal alcohol syndrome? That’s possible too. Who knows. His brain seems cooked though. Maybe there is a learning disability here that’s been compounded by substance abuse. I want to hear how he sounds speaking Navajo, to see if there’s a discernible difference. The thought passes but something here is palpably askew, decidedly off kilter.
“I don’t know, dude. I want to return – my kids are there, but my job is here, ya know?”
He asks if I like it here. He tells me he’s never been anywhere. I believe it. The Pronto Laundromat seems like a daunting excursion for him.
Then, unexpectedly, as my clothes near the rinse cycle, his face changes and it seems that he’s no longer talking to me at all, but to himself somehow through a distance.
“I used to drink and use drugs. When I did I’d take little boys and girls and do bad things.”
There were no words. Just a vacuum. He’d blurted it out quickly but softly and now I was left hollow, stunned, as if I'd been punched hard in the throat.
Instinctively, after maybe ten seconds, I say, “That’s not good.” My voice has a parental, reprimanding edge and I’m “scolding” this broken stranger. He already knows it's not good. He is obviously haunted, squinting into the distance. Does he even remember what he’s done? Later that day, when I related this exchange to my friend Chris, a talented artist, frustrated football coach, and my Zen confidante on the Reservation, he said, “Man, I would have said ‘Get away from me’ when he said that. Why didn’t you get up and walk away?” Chris was disgusted.
But walking away would have changed or solved nothing. Yes, it is completely repugnant to think of children being sexually abused. It’s grotesquely abhorrent beyond comprehension. But it had happened and my walking away from “the problem” seemed the worst possible move. Things moved too fast for that reaction, in any event. It was like a dysfunctional ping-pong match…..repulsion, concern, some desire to help, understand, all in the blink of an eye. The man talking to me was clearly diminished, and it no longer seemed to matter whether by his choices or not. I wondered what abuse he had endured. I’m not excusing what he had done by any means, but my mp3 player couldn’t become my refuge again now. Escape? To what? There was no escaping anything now.
The man continued talking, not really to me, but to who or what? Himself? The voices in his head? Again, I had no clue. I can’t emphasize accurately how much I failed to grasp in this exchange. I didn’t see him as “the encroacher” anymore. I don’t know exactly what or who I saw him as by this point. Part monster? Sure. Anguished tortured soul? Certainly. But there was more. I wanted to ask if he ever saw the children he had hurt, but I didn’t. His squinting became more pronounced and his brow furrowed deeply. He seemed to be searching for something he could neither see nor fathom.
“The bus for church comes and gets me every Wednesday and Sunday.” He seemed slightly positive. (Note: Christian missionary work around the reservations is extensive. “Indian Bible schools” abound.)
I coax him a bit. “Does it help?” My voice was slightly hopeful, devoid of scolding mode. I wanted the church to help him. I wanted that bus to come get him every Wednesday and Sunday like clockwork. I wanted him to never harm another child. I wanted him to gain some kind of solace from something. I wanted him “cured.” Yes, I know it was a naive and simplistic thought. Hope is like that – dangerous.
“Yeah,” he said in a distant whisper. He was a million miles away.
“That’s good,” I said, sincerely but in a tone as if I was talking to my five-year-old son.
And that was it. I had reached a capacity for dealing with this. Truthfully, I didn’t know what else to do or say. And as Chris suggested, now I had to walk away. So I took my damp wash the twenty feet across the Pronto Laundromat to the bank of dryers. The man remained seated, quiet and still. I put my mp3 player back on and turned the volume to maximum. I stole one more glance at the tortured encroacher and then he was gone. He looked trapped deep in thought, perhaps confused and pained. Confused and pained almost certainly describes his victims. Inside the Pronto Laundromat, I think how messy this world can be.
And I had been afraid he wanted to shake me down for some loose change. If only.