Sunday, July 2nd, 2006. West Philadelphia.
Dick Davis and I are on yet another peripatetic stroll to and through the local Late-Nite Grocer, shopping for cereal, soda, and instant gratification. We’re walking the aisles when a tall, thin, slightly anachronistic-looking black man floats by, carrying a large portfolio in his cart. He has a cane over his shoulder and a giant brass crucifix dangling over his heart. Rich quickly blurts “did you see how intense that guy was?” Yeah and intensity was certainly the word. The image of him burned against the backdrop. His eyes were covered by impossibly dark sunglasses, like a blindman. He could’ve been a voodoo daimon for all we knew.
I approach him by the soda aisle… asking about his portfolio. He smiled,“paintings, man.”
He pulls them out, then and there, and introduces himself as Brother Moses. The paintings are naive but fascinating cuadros of landscapes with cabins, rivers with struggling salmon, abstractions, and beautifully angular, fauve-ish flowers. As we inspect each painting, Brother Moses pours out a Pentateuch-worthy story unveiling its spiritual significance. “See, these salmon swin upstream for the sake of life. They swim, struggle, mate, and perish. They go onto another world…” He points to a smiling salmon, aiming itself towards a paradise visible through a circle of boulders. He paints with a partner, he says. Somehow we assume his partner is the painter and Brother Moses the soft-spoken storyteller, the masterful Solomonic storyteller, capable of sharp aesthetic and spiritual appreciation. But we cannot say for sure.
He pulls his cane around. It has little faces drawn on, found by imagining the smiles and eyes in the grain of the wood. Little jewels are glued in as snake eyes, at the top. “I also make firecracker holders…” He pulls a charred cluster of Roman candles out of his pocket to better explain his trade. A firecracker holder, most often made from wood and cans, is a device that aids the young pyrotechnician aim, light, and hold their explosives safely and effectively. Fireworks of all types and sizes, as well. Roman candles, Black Cats, bottle rockets… whatever you want… brilliant.
I didn’t ask him about his living situation, where or how. Brother Moses was plainly one of Philadelphia’s citizen-ghosts. Not homeless, not mentally compromised, just moving within a hidden plane. He told us stories about Wild West Philadelphia, from years back. Bars. Drugs. Ice cream shops. “There were a lot of drugs back in that day. I mean a lot, man. You could get anything you wanted… My friends and I used to get high right here on this corner…” He then clutched his crucifix. “But I gave all that up. Drugs and women. I gave my life to Christ… and to painting.” As he said “gave all that up”, I could really feel the Franciscan power of his renunciation; something that made God and Christ merely shorthand and signposts for his newfound direction. It may have been, initially, a renunciation of “vices.” Maybe after a period of pain and consequences. But this initial vow had lead Brother Moses to a purity of intent that really seared in his listener. Brother Moses had left behind all the predictable desires and anxieties that drive the human contest; leaving him at liberty to seek other visions. Flowers, salmon, Roman candles, the professional secrets of ninja and basketball players.
But where was he? Was abandoning common desires tantamount to abandoning the commonwealth? Is self-perfection purchased at the price of exile?
I wondered whether I was doomed to become another citizen-ghost, and whether this was limbo or true release. Understand that the renunciation is not so much about foreswearing their enjoyment as disengaging from their entanglements, their pursuant-to bullshit, their fineprint, and their countless self-compromises.
Sex, for instance, is in many ways a very conservative force. Not so much in the wanting or the having, but in all steps and decisions in between. What subtle sacrifices is each Man willing to make in order to stay in the running? It ranges. You have some cunt-struck acquaintances whose every last gesture and follicle have been engineered to attract the opposite sex, and it’s pretty pathetic spectacle. And just when you think that this reductionism couldn’t get any worse, you overhear some roundtable of dudes weighing in on the topic of girls, about big titties or whatever, and it just ruins everything. What really makes this so intolerable isn’t lewdness or animalism— the lewder, the more animalistic, the better— it’s that it lacks any kind of sexual poetics. I mean, if you’re willing to dedicate your life to a pursuit, at least try to enrich and expand on its set of desires. Make it interesting.
Otherwise, you get desires that are so straightforward, Pavlovian, and slot-in-tab. Sexual poetics— which girls are usually much better with— can expand desire, and make a thigh, shirt collar, or tense situation glow with sexual heat. I love participating in this kind of poeticization, spreading libidinal heat into previously cooler things. I love crushes and summertime impulses, double dates with Jonny, clouded judgment, pale legs, tan legs, soft lips, secrets… I love it all. We all do. But there are times— often when I count the hours lost in its pursuit— when the self-evidence of desire falls through. “If I just placed this… aside,” I say to myself, “I couldn’t be as easily manipulated by my own desires, and it would leave me open for… something… else.” I’ll suddenly see the appeal of such clean-burning liberty; the unstoppable, tempered-steel integrity.
But I get the sense that the bullshit is in the contract; the fineprint for our membership in the larger circles of society. Without it, you might find a slot in Human History, but you probably won’t attend too many luncheons and banquets in your own lifetime. You get to enjoy years and years of splendid isolation; the icy beauty of the alienated Self. The only way to find Brother Moses, for example, is to “come around here on Sunday. Sunday nights. I’ll be here.” He usually carries his portfolio with him.
Man, however the straws are drawn, I am on that man’s team.