I was walking one day recently in the old-fashioned downtown area of one of these cute central Virginia towns, just taking a pleasant stroll, and I remember being fairly hypnotized by a great locomotive passing by more or less parallel to the sidewalk I was traveling on. It was pulling innumerable faded black and yellow freight bins that were beautiful in a way, and I marveled at how the chain of industrial boxes seemed to stretch on semi-forever. They had the responsible clean markings of the companies and plenty of unauthorized graffiti also. It was like a hobo Berlin Wall mega-tramping through the land.
But the containers finally ran out and when they did my ears picked up on another heavy though more organic sound. I traced it to a tall lean old man standing across on a street corner about two blocks down. He was speaking to no one in particular, maybe preaching. The man appeared to have made of himself a cardboard and prophet sandwich, as he wore a stiff dress fashioned out of two pieces of brown board held together at the tops by a long cut of sturdy red twine threaded through four holes and knotted. There were neatly printed messages in bold black ink on front and back.
As I moved closer I realized he was probably blind since he wore dark glasses and a white cane was standing against the big blue mailbox near the curb. I sidled up further and took position against the brick façade of the post office.
He was reciting what sounded like poetry in a deep southern accent, one I fancied could have been forged in Biloxi, Mississippi or Alvarado, Texas or some such far down place. Though his manner of speech might have indicated a charming old black man, he was white, while the inflectional flourishes seemed somehow to belong to a bygone era, like the 1920s or 30s I imagined. The man appeared undernourished, definitely on the skinny side. He was bald in front and up top but elsewhere sported longish hair, with strands of silvery white from the head’s upper back and high sides dancing intermittently in the breeze, sweeping back and forth across his shiny pate and briefly standing, as if in salute, before lying limply back down. He had at least several days’ worth of same-colored facial hair.
The front of his sign read: THE 1990s DID NOT INAUGURATE THE END OF HISTORY, DUH, DUH, DUH. WATCH AND SEE.
The man turned in slow circles, and I soon glimpsed the words on back: OUR DAY AND AGE IS BETTER CONCEIVED OF AS: STILL PRETTY CLOSE TO THE BEGINNING OF HUMAN HISTORY, WHILE CIVILIZATION IS NOT EVEN PUBESCENT YET. JUST WATCH, OVER THE NEXT TEN THOUSAND YEARS OR SO, AND SEE.
By now I was beginning to appreciate that this particular man was unlike many of his counterparts in that he did not intend to announce, or otherwise commentate on, any kind of Armageddon or pending catastrophe. He was not, so to speak, your stereotypical sidewalk wacko.
My interest piqued, I tilted and leaned my head forward to carefully listen:
World’spinnin’ somethin’ fierce nowaday, ’ey?
Or least thass bowt how it seems,
A-whurlin’ ’round evvamore HIGH speed with
All them uhh-MAYzin’ muh-sheens,
Yes, yes, maybe so…
Planet’spinnin’ wick’d fas’ nowaday, ’ey?
Er Innyhow thass how it may seem,
Wut wit all dat broadban’ contraban’ rock
ban’ an’ HIP HOP MAN invay-din’ each our dream
Oh Lordy yes, uh-fraidy so
World turnin’ mighty MAD nowaday, ’ey?
Er ’n’n-ee case thass shur whut it seems,
Turnin’ madder n’ fatter in its orbit,
MAY be startin’ ta fray-nay, BERST at the seams,
Yehp, maybe so, er no…
World’spinnin’ somethin’ SMART nowaday, ’ey?
Er least thass ’bout how it seems,
What wit’ that French Jezwit priest’s no-uh-sphere
Weav’n ta-getha all-arr themes,
No, yes, maybe take a guess,
Noah’s Ark, No-Uh-Sphere…
World’spinnin’ aw-full shawp nowaday, ’ey?
Er leastways thass whut I ’majin,
Az fer ME I sho’ hope that crazy Pierre T’s
O-Mega Point soon ’nuff gonna really happen!
On this note the old man stopped, as if he may have reached the crescendo of the thing or otherwise needed to rest his voice or reflect. He still turned deliberately, broadcasting his sign, and I noted how his diction seemed a mismatch for his written words which had been immaculately produced with no misspellings or anything.
As he remained silent I decided to walk directly over.
“Sir, I very much liked your words, was that a poem of your own?”
He didn’t answer right away but instead took off his dark specs, revealing a pair of spooky, milky and sightless eyes.
This alone, however, was not what took me aback, not what left me momentarily in the quiet grip of a measure of consternation; what startled me, if mildly, was the fact that the old man was unmistakably Asian.
“Thank you, young man, for your words of praise. I shall be glad to answer your query, as I am always keen to converse with those who take interest.”
Suddenly the disheveled sidewalk preacher seemed quite refined, almost aristocratic in his attitude.
Several questions began competing in my mind: what was this guy some kind of human chameleon? Had he been channeling that other voice from his glasses or some device installed therein, so that when he removed them a different voice and persona took over? Were there hidden cameras somewhere around hoping to capture somebody like me giving a big protracted dumbfounded reaction—like for one of those shows on TV? Or was the man simply mad as a hatter, accustomed to moving through different identities as fluidly and naturally as when he respired and poked his way through any given day?
He continued. “Indeed, that is an original piece of mine. It happens to be one of my favorites. Actually, it is my one real favorite to say the full truth. It’s to the point that nowadays I always recite this particular poem, although with infinite little variations to keep it fresh—something like a jazz musician does.”
I blurted out, “Man who are you? Where do you come from? You seem to be some type of very interesting guy. Like your very own kind.”
“Oh no, I am not my very own kind. Well to be ultra-super-clear, yes, I am very unique—extremely so. But at the same time, so are you. Meanwhile, I am also you. And, reciting poetry on the street corner as I do, well, I’m sure you could have guessed that I am also Walt Whitman. And I’m Langston Hughes. In fact, to know just exactly who I am just imagine the mother of all human queues. I am Lucy, The Australopithecine, and I’m Peking Man, and even J.C., The Nazarene. And Constantine. And I’m Nebuchadnezzar, and Julius Caesar.”
I was instantly impressed with his pronunciation; he didn’t fall for the “eezer” sound at the end of the name of the great Chaldean King—which is how I had heard the name apparently misspoken, as I was taught, so many times before.
He continued: “And get this: I’m Mohammed Ali and Cassius Clay. And I am Emperor Hirohito and Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay.”
I butted in, “Are you Colonel Paul Tibbets and his mother Enola Gay?”
“Ha ha, yes!” the man exclaimed, obviously pleased, despite the dark connotations such names typically carried. “You’re getting the hang of this.”
“Yes I think so but go on. I’m interested to know who else you might be.”
“Well, I am George Washington, this nation’s Father, and I’m George Washington Carver and I’m Duke Ellington and I’m the Duke of Wellington—you know the one: he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. I’m also Napoleon and—changing tracks—I’m all your favorite actresses: Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Zoe Saldana and Penelope Cruz and Lucy Liu, too. In fact I am anyone you might know of, dead or alive, anyone you possibly can choose. I am the best and the worst of us—I am Rosa Parks and the driver that told her crudely to move to the back of the bus. I am that landscape painter and silly apologist for slavery and co-inventor of the electric telegraph, Samuel Morse, and I’m the peculiar, shy, deservedly celebrated Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. I am even the Nazis and the Kamikazes, but I’m those White Rose kids Sophie and Hans Scholl, and I’m Anne Frank and I’m Oskar Schindler and Irena Sendler, the Pole, and I’m Nat Turner, Ike and Tina Turner, and Nat King Cole.”
“I’m sensing certain themes here. You’re really into music—jazz especially, and history and rhyming, right?” I said.
“Of course I am, I’m no robot. Everyone is into these things whether they know it or not.”
“And I suppose you’re Dr. Seuss? Ogden Nash?”
“Yes of course and Johnny Rotten, Dolly Parton, June Carter and Johnny Cash.”
“Okay, and are you… Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Ashe?”
“What about Serena Williams? You don’t look like Serena Williams.”
“And yet I am her, and Venus, her older sister, and their father Richard, et cetera.”
“You do kind of look like Ho Chi Minh.”
“I am Ho Chi Minh,” the man confirmed, and smiled warmly and continued: “But I’m all the unsung ones, too. The nameless and luckless millions.”
“Wait—let me guess—so not just Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but also the unwashed gritty masses?”
“Exactly right young man—boy you are way ahead of the learning curve! You’ve got some Miles Davis in you. Lookit: I am all those soldiers who stood directly in the line of fire in World War I and World War II, and I’m those who survived the bullets and shells only to die of the pandemic flu, and I’m all those peoples who found themselves hunted and targeted monstrously, and ridiculously accused and battered, starved, bruised—all those who stood excruciatingly with everything to lose. I’m the Native Americans and the Armenians and Kurds, and of course, the Jews. I’m the Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and untold others, I’m the ‘mothers of the disappeared’ like in the song by U2, and I’m Sally Struthers, and—changing tracks—I am every one of the Chinamen, criminals and all, who built up that Great Wall, and I’m every single Mongolian—”
“I’m surprised you didn’t add you’re also Bishop Desmond Tutu back there when you had a nice opening,” I cut in again.
“Well he didn’t really fit there in that litany, but anyway you thought of him for me, didn’t you?”
“Yeah you’re right, sorry.” I shook off a slight sting of embarrassment. “So now, what about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who you mentioned in your poem? Are you him, too?” I pronounced the ‘Chardin’ part in greatly exaggerated mock French style—saying Sharr-dahnnn, utilizing a simple but effective trick my father taught me as a kid.
“Of course,” he replied, “I am him and he is me. But more importantly, so are you he too. So are you the patron saint of the internet and great proponent of the phenomenon of man and describer of the divine milieu and promoter of Omega Point, or Point Omega, and the rediscovery of fire as love.”
Just then it dawned on me another train was noisily, rhythmically hurtling past us. It was strange I hadn’t noticed its approach or heard its telltale whistle before; I had been so absorbed with the prophet.
“I see. So, you are me, of course, and I am also everyone?”
This time he only nodded, just the once.
“Well I know something of Pierre’s philosophy. I just didn’t expect to run into him, you know: you, today. But hey I’m glad I did.”
At this the man put his glasses back on and let a smile only just begin on his face.
Slowly the amused expression grew, and grew and grew more still, until it started to look like one of those Cheshire Cat grins, and I was seized with the unsettling thought that at any moment my fascinating man might disintegrate into patterns of smoke.
And perhaps inevitably, this is precisely the moment I awoke.
Laid out on my back limbs spread willy-nilly, I came to terms with my new state of wakefulness by opening my eyes wide and taking several deep breaths. I focused my stare on the broad blades of the ceiling fan turning dutifully, mechanically, stupidly. I began reviewing the dream, scrolling back through, pausing here and there and marveling at the vividness—of setting, of the man my mind had invented and his surprisingly coherent rhyming sprees and startling straightforward assertions. I thought about how I was sketchily conversant with the life and work of Pierre Teilhard de Sharrr-dahnnn, but it wasn’t like I had ever been his number one fan or anything.
Perhaps God had planted the dream in my head and was telling me something like he used to do with the prophets. For a couple minutes I tried to work out what it was the Lord might be communicating, in between stretching and eye rubbing and great gaping yawns.
Maybe I was being called to quit my cozy job as movie theater assistant manager—easygoing and rewarding as it could sometimes be (with free popcorn and movie viewings, not to mention plenty of interesting people coming through) and take to the streets in the manner of my dream poet. Perhaps I was supposed to look deeply into Pierre’s philosophy and theories, prepare to revitalize his work and name and then steadfastly and creatively propagate the fruits of his far-out attempted fusion of Science and Christianity. Something like that.
By the time I was standing over the toilet, however, I’d decided the best I could do, maybe, if even that, was to someday write an account of the dream. Well, unless Yahweh was going to hit me with another such vision and this time provide clearer instructions; if he did that then I’d almost definitely have to start shopping for some heavy-duty permanent black markers and some strong string, and one of those tri-fold cardboard presentation displays they carry at Staples, and start thinking of how to break the news to my friends and family that I had been called by the Boss On High to be a sidewalk warrior evangelist—although a really cool and likable, sort of more modern one, so not to worry too much, and so on.
I finished up and stepped to the sink, washed my hands cursorily. As I toweled them dry, I looked myself square in the eye in the mirror and said, “Anyway it’s true. You’ve definitely got some Miles Davis in you, my good man.”
But the face looking back at me through the looking glass seemed unsatisfied; and after a moment, it spoke. “No doubt but you also got in you some Frédéric Cho-paahnnnn. Not to mention some George Sand and some Amantine Du-paahnnnn, and then every member of Duran Duran and—changing tracks—some Caravaggio, Van Gogh and Rothko, some Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, and….”
Warren J. Cox lives and writes in beautiful southern Virginia, where he also works as an editor and artist. Beyond creating, he is passionate about human rights, animal welfare, and tennis. His work has appeared previously in Eunoia Review, Ducts, Intrinsick, The Creative Truth, Haiku Journal, Fluland, and Empty Mirror. You can find him on Twitter @WarrenJCox