In the second of Jim Gabour's fictional sketches we meet Rodrigo, once an upstanding Chicago attorney, now one of the 'Unimportant People'.
Rodrigo, stands motionless on the French Quarter sidewalk in front of his paper-encrusted place of worship. His eyes are fixed on the product of his last hour’s labor. Rodrigo is searching for clues that he knows are close by. His fingers are covered with torn ribbons of paper. Held to his flesh by a cracked crust of white school paste. Red marker ink stains his hands all the way to his wrists.
“Stamen,” he says deliberately.
The pause in construction had begun only moments before.
Rodrigo, well into his sixth decade of life research, is carefully examining the unfamiliar runes identifying illustrations in the “CAA to DZERON” volume of Professor O’s All-Fact Encyclopedia.
The Encyclopedia is a curious guide to world civilization, produced in the Orient for inexpensive by-the-volume sales in that revered center of learning called the American supermarket. Professor O had obviously preferred the spirit of scholarship over either real research or proofreading, occasionally rendering his work less marketable though no less interesting. For instance, in spite of its Stateside target audience, only the text of the entries is translated from his original Korean language manuscript. Information below the rudimentary illustrations remained in Korean. To Rodrigo’s delight.
The polished black leather brief case tucked under his arm is full of additional Encyclopedia volumes, a half dozen rolls of wide brown plastic wrapping tape, scissors and string, glue and gum wrappers, cracked cat’s-eye marbles and left-over yatcamein noodles in a manila envelope. Rodrigo looks very learned and in touch with the world.
Except that he is not wearing any shoes.
His foot-long white goatee, and to a certain extent his clothes, are clean and fluffed. His ebony face, neck, arms and hands are hairless and well-maintained. But as he stands at the edge of what business world exists in this city, Rodrigo’s bare feet are causing the early morning suits to roll their eyes heavenward. With the continued heat, they are to a man still in the official old money summer uniform, even though it is well into the fall. Pastel-striped seersucker, top to bottom. Glossy black wingtips.
As soon as the first week of May passes by, it is officially summer in New Orleans. Out come the seers and suckers. The suits in the latter category. Rodrigo in the former. With his bare feet treading the paths of commerce.
Rodrigo does not speak English exclusively, or even as his primary choice. He prefers to communicate by blending his native language and obscure tribal dialects with the more melodic sounds of the animal kingdom. His words may have no direct source in either the ancient African tongues of his ancestors or the conglomerate patois of more recent generations of West Indians. Even so, his utterances sound primitive. Powerful. Bantu ululation and Guernsey mooing often enter the same declarative sentence for emphasis. He is flexible of speech.
For years Rodrigo has given his friends brown plastic bundles as supplementary communication. No one knows exactly what is in the heavily taped forms. That is what makes them feel so powerful. Rodrigo takes much care in applying dozens of layers of brown wrapping tape to obscure objects whose identity will never be revealed.
The last few months it has finally dawned on the gentle Rodrigo that he might possibly be speaking a language different from that spoken by the other inhabitants of this planet Earth. His circle of acquaintance is severely limited, even among his own kind. And although many people know of him, or nod their heads to him in passing, less than a handful have ever spoken with him. So Rodrigo has taken to another means of passing on concrete clues to whatever mind-boggling vision he wishes to communicate.
It is actually a place to pass on clues. A boarded-up window on the face of an abandoned Decatur street shoe factory has become The Church of Rodrigo. All sorts of people go there for an occasional taste of enlightenment. Rodrigo is quite proud of that.
He had not planned any overt message for the window today, and try as he might to put another snippet of encyclopedic information on top of the pink flyer – the entry for “Esophagus” was cut out and ready for the pasting, as was the well-illustrated “Stereopticon” -- he could not do it.
“Pistil?” he announces quizzically.
“Polyurethane?” he wonders aloud.
Rodrigo acquired most of the volumes of his massive, decades-old Encyclopedia in one giant trade. Rumor has it that the purchase involved as many as five hundred pounds of aluminum cans, gathered singly from roadsides. Whatever the price, Rodrigo now has fifteen precious volumes stashed at the end of a blocked drainpipe.
The mystic works hard all night every night reading those books, often grunting and moaning with revelations near sunrise. Then, early in the morning before anyone else is up, Rodrigo goes down to his window, the boarded-over window most of the street people have come to call his Church. In about an hour, he pastes up what he considers to be the exact bits of knowledge from the All-Fact Encyclopedia that relate to that day’s planetary involvement with the rest of the Cosmos.
Some people come to the church every day for fresh information. Rodrigo does not begrudge members of his flock who need to commandeer a loose scrap when the message strikes deeply into their psyches. Generosity is a guiding force with the unassuming street thaumaturgist. In spite of this pilfering, the plywood window is dozens of pages deep in places.
Weather and human wear and tear have placed some very amazing facts in apposition, without the original author’s conscious participation. This day “beguine” is explained next to “anticyclone”. The All-Fact, as usual, acts as a catalyst of, rather than a repository for, for facts:
BEGUINE -- a dance native to the island of Martinique. Named for Lambert le Begue, known as the Stammerer, who founded an order of lay nuns in the Low Countries around 1100 AD. Related to the rumba and mambo, the dance can be continued over a period of several hours, and sometimes, days. Within the context of this larger time frame, the beguine is said to simulate the effects of an equal period of sexual activity. The steps have become very popular on French and Dutch islands in the Caribbean. So much so that proponents of the dance have organized politically in the second half of the twentieth century. Their rallies are recognizable principally by a looseness of the limbs below the waistline. See also: TANGO, CORNUCOPIA, UNICYCLE.
ANTICYCLONE -- a recently-synthesized modern antidote to the turn-of-the-century psychotropic drug Cyclone, used to induce clockwise circular walking patterns in laboratory animals. Anticyclone has been found to invariably bring on counter-clockwise walking. Also, a fruit drink served in the French Quarters of the city of New Orleans in the United States. Said to induce similar effects. See color plate XIV, page 167, “Venomous Fruit Drinks of the Northern Hemisphere”.
Rodrigo has a brother who shows up in town once in a while, offering him a return to a real home and bed up North. Most of the street people have encountered the brother once or twice over the years. That also-gentle man is a pleasant, well-to-do African-American businessman who wants to take Rodrigo home. Take care of the poor deluded soul. Rodrigo won’t have any of it.
But his brother still comes to town every few years, tells anybody who will listen that Rodrigo was once just fine, an upstanding Chicago attorney. That he had beat the Man at his own game. Was a pillar of the black community. This same Rodrigo one day left a cigarette burning in the conference room where he had been dictating a memo on tax shelters for minor entertainment celebrities. A married couple who were hosts of a regional radio talk show -- “Dave and Linda Edelman Love the Lovelorn” – and a suit over their “sin-sational” on-air divorce fisticuffs were the final straw for him.
Rodrigo had promptly stepped off the edge of the universe and disappeared for thirty-odd years. He was thought dead until his brother saw a picture of him in an Associated Press feature -- “Notorious Street Person in New Orleans Speaks His Own Language” -- and came south to rescue him. But Rodrigo had forgotten Chicago and his brother, though as always he was very temperate and polite in refusing to leave his present circumstances.
Recently Rodrigo has himself taken to attending a more regular church at the Chinese Methodist Enclave in the Lower Quarter. Not totally “regular”, but as close as Rodrigo gets. The congregation of mostly older oriental women, with little or no English, love to hear him pray and sing in his native tongue. He merely walks in and participates when pointed to. The ladies bow to him and smile, since they have no language other than a spiritual reverence in common. They also feed him.
In return he has given the Enclave a total of fourteen of his plastic-wrapped gift objects. The ladies have arranged the heavy forms on a side altar, as a shiny brown cloud around the feet of St Peter. They have taken to speculating as to the contents. Each package is now labeled in delicate Chinese calligraphy: “fluttering starry moth”, “branch of wisteria bloom”, “chilling September raindrop”, “3/8-inch socket wrench”. The churchgoers change the labels often, as the mood strikes them. Rodrigo knows he has found simpatico spirits.
His fans all acknowledge that Rodrigo is a bit magical. That he is the big-bellied laughing Buddha -- people are constantly rubbing his stomach for good luck. Rodrigo’s abdomen protrudes in much the same manner, right out from under his four-sizes-too-small 1973 New Orleans Saints t-shirt. ‘73 wasn’t a great year for the Saints or Buddhism, as most fans of either will recall. But he remains both stoic and happy on his own.
Maybe that’s why the Chinese churchgoers like him so much. And he does love those ladies’ shrimp fried rice. One of the ladies had even overheard him say the actual words “shrimp fried rice” one day.
It was in the midst of a discussion of the contemporary glut of oil wells and lack of alien fast-food on Pluto, as best she could discern.
Next week: Pant Karma