by Troy Allan
But there always exist in society some men and women
whom the Fool touches, who respond to the Fool.
For the Fool awakens the Fool in others,
but in many the Fool is stifled or sleeps. […]
The Fool is the essential poetic integrity of life itself,
clear and naked, overflowing in cosmic fun;
not the product of intellectual achievement,
but a creation of the culture of the heart.
A culture of the genius of life. […]
It is the joy of the original Adam in men.
It occurred to me, perhaps in the last few days, that holy fools walk in our midst. Like ghostly images that float in and out of view, the holy fool seems to crouch around every corner. But, in my smugness, I will often step by with my nose caught in the air. For me, the term holy fool conjures figures of Eastern Orthodox aesthetics dressed in dirty rags that sit with clasped hands in the cold. But I realize this is perhaps wrong. Cecil Collins’ painting of The Sleeping Fool, affirms a fool not from the Orthodox tradition, but as a person, not unlike myself, with eyes closed in contented reverie neither asking for or seeking attention. And as Priscilla Hunt adds holy fools “make the hypocritical Christian uncomfortable enough with his unexamined faith to recognize and honor Christ in the holy fool.” When I stop and examine my life, the holy fool turns me inward to my ridiculousness and produces humility. That is, I see the holy fool as a mirror.
It was just past two when my family and I finished our burgers and fries at Burger Meister on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, California. We voted to escape Pacific Grove, and make the two-hour trip north to the East Bay. Before we left, I received an email regarding a five hundred dollar rent increase. I don’t have an extra five hundred dollars a month for rent. I worried as I looked at my children, our home, my wife. As if I received a blow on the chin from a heavy weight fighter, the request rocked me off my heels and I felt thrown against the ropes with no place to turn. “How could they do this?” I asked. In a desperate moment, I suggested we should “get out of town for the day.” I assumed “getting out of town” would take my mind off of things, ease the blow. But, by the time we arrived in Berkeley with the traffic, the expensive of gas and the “How much longer?” murmurings from the backseat, I was in a worse place than before we left. I began to lose my vision. But, “the Heavenly Father desires that we should see,” said Ruysbroeck, “and that is why He is ever saying to our inmost spirit one deep unfathomable word and nothing else.” But what is that word? Today, I think the word is “frustration” or perhaps a better word, “disappointment.” Why, I wondered, was God teaching me this word today? After parking, I fed the meter and spotted my reflection in the car mirror. My face was long and my shoulders drooped. It was as if I could not stand straight. I did my best to act happy by pointing out some Buddhist art in a store window, but my daughter took my hand and asked, “Daddy, are you okay?” I don’t remember if I answered. From across the street, I saw a teenage girl holding her dad’s hand and I feared or wondered what kind of day he was having. He looked happy, but what was under the façade? Could his daughter see through him? “Will you hold my hand when you are a teenager? I inquired. “Yes, Daddy, of course.”
The streets in Berkeley were bare that day and they stank of a strong flowery perfume. Most of the students had gone away for the week and the locals were indoors although the sun was sparkling. Spring rested on the city. The blossoms on the trees looked larger than normal. The city overgrown with grass and tall weeds added to my distain. Heavy winter rains produced a rich growing season unlike years past. The rains encouraged the seeds that had laid dormant in the cracks of the pavement. The encouragement to flourish must have been intense as the city looked like vegetation would overwhelm it any minute: a dystopian future where the weeds and grass eat the vacant city. “Doesn’t the city care about this?” I challenged. “What a wreck! I guess it matches all the garbage and homeless camps along the freeway.” And like the grass and weeds, my happiness was overwhelmed by my poor attitude and frustration with the world. My attitude needed weed killer.
We went to Burger Meister only because our favorite place in Berkeley, Farm Burger, a cool farm-to-table joint with a convivial atmosphere had closed. I would have rather gone to Farm Burger, but Burger Meister would have to work. We push through the front doors and hustle past the homeless camp out front. A smile meets me at the counter. Nice, I thought. The smile was a development from how the day was going. But suddenly, after I ordered the meal, the girl with a grin attached to her face, handed me the bill for sixty dollars. I stood with my hands in my pocket. My eyes met the girl’s. Burgers and fries for sixty dollars? I had kept everything back until this stage and like a garden hose with a kink, the pressure was too high and I broke open at my weakest point. “Sixty dollars, are you kidding me?” The girl at the counter in her black pants and stained red shirt carefully spelled out, “Yes, Sir, sixty dollars and fifteen cents… please.”
I had no affection for Burger Meister and was ready to leave before we had sat down. Before I paid, I turned and looked outside past the streaked glass, past the weeds, past the grime, and noticed the homeless. I felt disoriented in a battle between feelings of fortune and hopelessness. What could I do to help those on the street? Turning back, as if awakened, I jammed my debit card into the card reader and punched in my pin. I didn’t include a tip. The young woman handed me the receipt along with a number attached to a stand. Her smile vanished. I deserved the frown. I had earned it. It was not her fault. She had not set the price of the food, told the landlords to raise the rent, or turned the street into a homeless encampment. Why? Why did I do this? It was as if a heavy blanket was being placed over my soul. Simone Weil explained, “where affliction conquers us with brute force, beauty sneaks in and topples the empire of the self from within.” Now that I think about it, I was being overtaken by affliction. I should have looked for beauty.
Burger Meister, a Berkeley icon, distinguished for its avocado bacon burger and hand-cut fries, was nasty. The employees had not swept the floors, greasy prints marked the windows and food spotted the old tables. The windows looked as if someone, after eating their burger, ran for the exit, but missed the door leaving a greasy trail from the top to the bottom. Someone in the kitchen sounded as if they were working to fire up an old Ford pickup truck. I guessed if the greasy floors and dirty tables didn’t make us sick, the cook in the back would. I thought about the year we lived in Berkeley and how my attitude was different today.
In 2015, I studied comparative religions at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. My family and I became acquainted with the busyness and difficulty of the city. And although we would play rock-paper-scissors to determine who ran to Safeway’s for ice cream, we enjoyed our life in the city. It seems we always came into contact with the most fascinating people. For example, a shaman once asked me if she could restore my knee as she saw I walked with a limp. “I’ve been watching you for months,” she said. She tracked me for what had to be a mile but I finally outwalked her. And once, there was the day a man used the park bench as his toilet while engineer students from The University of California, Berkeley, played a muggle version of quittage. With old broomsticks between their legs they would chase each other through the park. There was the ancient Asian woman that ate paper and there was a small company or tribe of shady homeless guys that lived in front of Popeye’s Chicken. While wandering to find lunch, we watched a man in a clown suit yell a sing-song profanity rap at a teenager who had mounted a tree. And, let’s not ignore the supermarket cart full of creepy oversized Frozen dolls that seized my daughter’s attention. “Look, it’s Anna and Elsa!” This, I suppose is what makes Berkeley such a fun place to live and visit. To me, it is what happens when Jeopardy meets Survivor.
But today, things were different the city was ugly. It confronted me, even backed me into a corner. Everything looked depressed, dirty, maybe designed to destroy me. In front of Burger Meister was a homeless man with his butt sticking out of his underpants. And after our lunch, I knew I would need to navigate this mess with my family. We ate our sixty-dollar grease and left the restaurant. Near the man with his pants off, I saw two men sitting at a retaining-wall debating the purpose of the man with the “white ass.” I stood at the door and listened. “Why would he hang it for everyone to see?” they asked as they looked my way. The everyone they spoke of included my children. Once again, I took my daughter’s hand and quickly moved by the man. If you can imagine a family on a bear hunt but instead of sticky mud, it was a white naked ass.
The image disturbed me: a grown man lying on the ground with his trousers off. “Why was that man’s butt out of his pants?” my daughter asked. In response, I rolled my eyes so far back in my head I thought I might have a stroke. I had no real answer. “I don’t know, because, I guess, he doesn’t know better,” I said. But I think the man does know better or at least knew better at one time in his life. I guess I should have done something, but what do you do with a man and his naked ass? I could have dropped to my knees in prayer or maybe, like Annie Dillard suggested, we just keep walking and when my left foot hit the sidewalk I shout, “Glory,” because what else can I do?
I walked and my walk was heavy, weighed down by worry. I kept a hold of my daughter’s hand for a long time, as if she was holding me up; as if I had just jumped off a merry-go-round. There is only one thing that can save this day, I thought. As we walked up the street, we were setting a course for our last and final destination: the vegan cinnamon roll bakery.
Then I saw them, the holy fools, but this was not my initial impression. More fools begging for my money. At least these guys have on pants. From out of the vegan bakery window, I watched the two young fools. They performed a sophisticated dance. It was not a dance like you may think, there was no music, just movement. The man nearest the bakery stood at a planter used as a table. He arranged two Starbuck cups in front of himself and in front of the other man. He then put a glass, a little larger than a shot glass, on the table. From his backpack he removed a clear glass jug with water and placed it on the makeshift table. The man on his right, the man wearing the long purple trench-coat, drew a sandwich from his grey duffel bag and with graceful movements unwrapped it. I say sandwich, but it was like a flatbread grilled cheese: maybe a panini.
The man nearest to the window, wearing a dirty faded black sweatshirt, grubby acid washed jeans and worn-out converse shoes, took the empty glass and turning it over cut circles in the sandwich. When he would cut, the other man would distribute the circle sandwiches evenly between them. The leftover crust was ripped apart and each man given his share. Once the cutting and dividing ended, the empty glass became the center piece and filled with water. The ritual ended and the men ate and drank. They took turns with the water glass, without once touching the cups from Starbucks. Thinking back on the incident, the exchange seemed to be a kind of i holy street communion.
I noticed the man in the purple coat had a wonderfully strange hairdo. His har was dragged in from both sides to the top of his head and then braided with pendants which drooped in front of his face. It reminded me of a deep-water angler fish, something you would see in a nature film. Although I could not hear what the men were saying, I sensed they were debating something significant. In my imagination the men were rehearsing a play or discussing the latest Facebook feed. Maybe discussing a prayer? But my shadow self took over and imagined them speaking of how to get their street corner back – their hunting grounds. Perhaps they were scheming to take my money when I left the bakery. Maybe they wished to steal my daughter and sell her like an incident in a movie I once saw. I was sure whatever they were planning was inappropriate. Simone Weil was correct. Imagination clogs the cracks through which grace might pass. I seem to always think the worse and yet God continues to forgive me.
So, at that time, because of the force of gravity pulling me into the muck, my mind placed these men in the ranks of homeless beggars: riffraff off the streets. I was already angry at the world and these two were my new targets – easy prey for someone feeling down on his luck. But something was unusual. Something was not adding up. The men appeared not to ask for money or to bother other people. I found their ritual and their clothing odd, but fascinating. They were standing in the tall grass waiting for something.
“Sir, your order is ready,” came the reply from the girl behind the counter. Her voice, alarmed me and jolted me back to reality like the girl at the burger joint. “I have one regular cinnamon roll, one Chia flavored cinnamon roll, and one package of mini cinnamon rolls. That will be…”
“Please, don’t tell me the total,” I said with a smirk. “Here is my card.”
“Sure… Thank you for coming in.”
“My pleasure. I’m certainly hoping these are good.”
“Absolutely! Here, let me give you a paper bag to carry all of that.” A free paper bag in California is a big deal! A very big deal.
“Thank you. That is perhaps the nicest thing anyone has done for me all day.” There was some light being let in from under the blanket edge.
“Your welcome. I hope your day is amazing!” She handed me the bag.
I took my free paper bag and cinnamon rolls and walked out the door. The air again was strong, you could nearly taste the blossoms, it was bitter.
“Daddy, what did you get?” my daughter asked as she caught at my pant legs nearly knocking me over.
“Cinnamon rolls!” I held up the bag as if I had killed dinner for a hungry tribe.
I took her hand and prepared myself to walk by the two men. I believed they would beg for money or say something about my daughter or make a vulgar comment about my wife or maybe even hang their butts out of their pants. I was bracing to tell them to get lost or… and I am sad for what I am going to say, but I was going to tell them to get a “fucking job!” I don’t usually curse, but I was charged with lightening and I had had all day to prepare for this moment. My eye captured the eye of the man nearest the bakery. He quickly chewed his circle sandwich and struggled to speak. He held up his hand in a thumbs-up expression and half swallowing, came the words that transformed my day. Exactly as Dillard points out, that her entire life she was a bell, but never realized it until at that moment when she was lifted and struck. This was my ringing. The words that made him a holy fool and made me realize just how selfish and hypocritical I can be.
“Nice hair cut man!”
I did not know what to say. The only remarks that came out of my mouth in a collision of emotions was “Thanks, man.” I tried to process what else I could say, I looked at his hair, it was nice too. But I couldn’t find the words – I was so shocked by his kind sincerity that I felt time stop. It was as if the man was sitting in contented reverie.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
Time started again. We walked past the men and my son ran to my side “Dad, you try’n to flex on me?” He laughed a little teenage laugh: the kind that makes me swell with joy. “Did you hear that, Dad? They like your haircut!” I hand my wife the white paper bag and take both children by the hand. Through the tall grass, as if continuing our bear hunt, we march side-by-side down the street. As if we were walking with Annie Dillard, we shout, “Glory!” and “Amen!”
Troy Allan is a professional Chaplain, Essayist, and Professor. He holds multiple graduate and doctoral degrees in Pastoral Counseling, Comparative Theology, and the Humanities. He is currently finishing an MFA in creative writing with a forthcoming book of essays: "Why Must These Things Be?" Troy and his family enjoy world travel, the outdoors, and quiet time watching movies and reading books. Troy currently calls Pacific Grove, California home. To read more about Troy visit his website at www.troydallan.org or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/troy-d-allan.