An Encounter with the King of St. Thomas

Standing water winds along the edge of the road like a shadow. It’s gray and fetid, but the plants don’t seem to mind. Roots of wayward shrubs show their stubby ankles above the glassy film. Insects cause a momentary vibration as they land for a drink.

Up ahead, a bare tree reaches a gnarled hand toward the sky – a plea for rain, perhaps. Or a gesture of reverence for the momentary train of clouds passing by.

A sudden cackling stops me in my tracks. I try to locate the sound.

There, up the green-spotted hillside, his black tail feathers stand erect and sprawled out like a palm frond. He bobs his head, flashing a red crown, and paws the hot dirt menacingly. You are the true king, I say out loud. All hail the rooster of St. Thomas. I feign a bow.

He crows again as I mosey down the road grinning. “Good afternoon,” I say, as is customary, to passersby. They respond in kind except good comes out sounding like guhd. It strikes me as a much prettier word pronounced that way.

The air is thick with salt and steam, as the midday sun bakes everything in her path, including my shoulders. I can’t wait to cool off.

-vignette from a walk to Coki Beach, east-end St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Dusk

Pastel light in hues of marigold and lupine lull my eyelids, seducing slumber.

With a shiver at the nape of my neck, I feel dusk tiptoe in, and I welcome her. She is a wrinkle-eyed crone wearing a hoop skirt full of pockets. Pick one, she dares me. I close my eyes, slip my hand into teal corduroy and touch something oblong and worn on the surface, like driftwood (*). I can hear the tongue of the ocean shushing against the sand and frothing into peaks and crests, valleys and planes. The smell of salt spray drifts in through the open window.

I’d like her to stay a while and paint the sky inky-indigo blue but it’s a fading slate instead. I watch as dusk swirls her skirt and out of the folds soar stars and planets. Black velvet lands gently atop trees and hills, rooftops and sidewalks; a backdrop for jewels.

Before long, she kisses my forehead and just like that, she is gone.

*a note about the symbolism of Driftwood from Chris Maser:

“Driftwood” is a vision from beyond language, beyond any possible embodiment of meaning in a word. It symbolizes the Eternal relationship between wood and water, between forest and sea, between life and death. It symbolizes the ever-present moment, which is at once the past, present, and future–here, now, in this nanosecond contained. “Driftwood” is but an infinitesimal glimpse into the wonder and mystery infused in the human psyche from the outer reaches of Infinite Creation that we call “the Universe.”

     

Spare Change

His words came out strung together like they were separated by dashes instead of spaces. Spare-any-change-thank-you. Spare-any-change-thank-you. Spare-any-change-thank-you.

It took me a block’s walk to decipher what he was saying. The hurried rhythm of his chant tap-danced in my ears as I turned the corner toward Pioneer Square in downtown Portland.

A young man in a tan leather jacket leaned against the black iron gate of the Pioneer Courthouse and casually thumbed through his phone. A few feet away, a woman wearing an oversized pink sweatshirt rummaged through a shiny, silver garbage can.

Was it the moodiness of a gray, winter day luring me to further analyze, or were the man’s words about more than just pocket money? Instead of asking for coins, what if he were asking for real change? As in: Can you spare to make a change? Thank you.

Three blocks later, while waiting for the crosswalk to turn, a man sitting in a wheelchair suddenly burst into song.

“I’m so tired of this world, I feel like I could bust!” he crooned to a surprisingly cheerful melody. His weathered, tan skin stood out beneath a white baseball cap.

We made eye contact and his lips parted into a sheepish smile; a beige, unlit cigarette hung from his bottom lip. It was like a confession, and I was his witness. I returned his smile, and then crossed the street, feeling both humbled by this tiny moment of connection and weighed down by my own sadness about the way things are.

And so on my bus ride home, I wondered what it would take to shift our culture of  individualism to one that truly cared about the well-being of the collective. As long as we keep failing to recognize how simply another’s position could have been ours, we deny our shared vulnerability in an uncertain world. (A flurry of bad luck and our lot could be quite different.)

Maybe things will change in 2019, maybe they won’t; but today I was reminded how a simple walk through the city can prompt us to consider whether or not we can, collectively, spare any change.