For some reason this story has popped out of me about six or seven times in the last few weeks. It has a relevancy to my daily life in Buddhist training and it’s a good story, I’ve got lots of them, some of them a bit truer, than others but all of them true.
Back in the mid-70’s I was standing on the sidewalk in front of a North Beach bar in San Francisco, The Columbus Cafe on Green Street, with three other guys because we wanted to have little more privacy in our conversation.
I was in my late twenties, two of the guys were in their forties and one in his 60’s. The guy in his sixties was named Johnny Fazano, he had been a boxer in the 1930’s and had about 80 Pro fights, and who knows how many “smokers” he may have boxed in. Smokers, are fights that can take place in a hotel room, a basement, some small arena in the country, or any place with room with no professional sanctioning, usually for a purse that’s determined by how many guys are in the various fights and how much was put up by various backers for an array of cash prizes.
(Dean Martin was boxer in his youth and made money boxing in smokers, before his singing career was being formed, he was the only real tough guy in the “Rat-pack”. I digress. BTW, Mrs. Dean Martin, and that’s what everyone in the bar called her, because she was the 1st wife of Dean Martin drank four cocktails every day at a bar called The Hunter Club on Geary St. which was on the street level of The Hunter Apartment building, and that bar was interesting, to say the least. Still digressing)
Johnny was a feisty, angry, old tough-guy who spent many hours in that bar and played a lot of cards at the back table, often arguing with somebody about something. Interestingly, in that bar, there was another guy named Johnny Fazano, same name, different part of Italy, who was the exact opposite in demeanor and behavior from this one (What are the odds? Two Johhny Fazano’s? Super low, that’s what.).
Anyway, there’s four of us out front, maybe 11:00 a.m., and a woman walks past us heading towards Columbus Ave. and she’s one of those people that you see maybe a dozen times in your life, she was stunningly beautiful, in dress, carriage and looks. My head turned as she walked by and followed her path and my little Yearning/Dream Engine was in high rpm’s.
Johnny Fazano’s raspy voice (He’d been punched in the throat many times in his boxing career.), came to my ear as he said, “Somewhere, there’s a guy that’s tired of her.” in an observational but not demeaning way.
I thought. Impossible!
Here was a neighborhood guy talking to a no-show-longshoreman who carried a .45, the best thief/pick-pocket/bartender in North Beach, and me; giving us some some insight into several of the basic teachings of the Buddha.
My lifestyle in those days precluded me living as a Buddhist, but like everybody in North Beach I had read enough noise about Buddhism to be attracted to it, you know intellectually barstool style.
Johhny, at that time was spending some time with a famous San Francisco personality who had made a name for herself in Roller Derby on a national level, he was for sure someone who had been around the block many times, and it was actually a kindness this guy was doing when he made that observation. He was trying to put out some good basic teaching about life and how to look at it in a bigger picture way that maybe, one could actually suffer less by thinking things through on the spot, not afterwards.
He, of course had many ways of increasing his own suffering, and that of others through all the aspects of his anger, but in some ways he obviously had some insight; whether he actually applied those insights to himself is questionable but that was good teaching. Pearls before a swine (by Chinese Zodiac, I am a Pig).
Also, I thought; “What the hell would you know about it, old man?”
Now that I’m older than Johnny was then it’s fair for me to ask myself if I’ve learned anything, from all the good teaching I’ve had on the streets and in the Sangha. I think I have but I also still harbor a lot of a younger me.
I still have unrequited yearnings, but I see the pattern and have a place for them. I still think, “what the hell do you know about it?” way too often and I still wish there were some elegant way out of, “standin’ on the street, shootin’ the breeze an’ wishing I were, elsewhere”. Mentally, you know.
My ideas about this and
That are based on them
And those and why and
When ’n how and should
Gonna wish, I would and
Could, and then, I can see;
Oh, yeah. A dream about
Forgetting. Now, I remember!
It is never to late, or too soon.
You have had an interesting life and met some great characters! I can visualize the scene with no problem at all. And the guys, especially Johnny. I get that teaching–it’s a valuable one, too. Often I see something, though in my case it’s usually a small furry thing or some bit of computer junk.
I spent far too long yearning, after getting sober, at least, why I never attracted the kind of partners I craved. Perhaps I just didn’t try hard enough to “catch,” as we used to call it. Maybe I never learned to flirt sober, just like I never learned to dance sober or do a number of things other people don’t seem to have to “learn,” to be proficient at.
Truthfully, I think it was that people could sense the basic transactionality of my “relating.” At least those with more spiritual growth than myself could sense there was something about me they didn’t want to invite into their lives. Chaos, death, and destruction, perhaps? Smart of them, since even the steps, which taught me how to be real with friendships at least, couldn’t get past the emotional baggage left over from a lifetime of transactional relationships.
It had to make sense. What good was having you in my life going to do for me? What was I going to have to give up to meet your expectations? The line at which I give up on relationships is a high bar indeed. I still say, when the topic of “personal bottoms” comes up, to women (and men) who got clean or changed their evil ways because a partner threatened to leave them, was “Really? I didn’t even look up from the dope I was in the middle of doing as I told them to leave the key on the table and not to let the door hit them on the ass on the way out it.” Then, because anyone in my life was crooked enough to have made another key and was liable to come back and rip me off, I immediately changed the locks anyway. Just in case.
Now that I’m well into the “spectator at life”–perhaps “observer” is a better term–period, where death or extreme disability–like from a stroke–is waiting in the wings, I no longer really have the expectations and attachments that the younger me was always running to or from. It’s freeing just to take each day as it comes, mostly remain in my little comfortable space, trying to achieve more peace of mind and heart by sitting and being aware of my breath. When you can no longer count on your breath to be there for you when you need it, it’s actually comforting to just be aware of it.
And maybe, with enough days, perhaps I’ll learn something. There’s an old story that almost everyone knows that is a good teaching about acceptance and time. The king orders the horsemaster to teach his favorite horse to sing. If he fails, he will be tortured to death in some horrible manner. The king asks, “Well? Can you teach my horse to sing? Or should I just run you through with my sword right now!” The horsemaster searches his mind for a way to answer, knowing that no horse has ever been taught to sing, and he probably isn’t going to manage it either.
But he answers “Of course my King! I can certainly teach your fine steed to sing, and what a joy it will be! However, in all my years of training singing horses, I know that it always takes a year to do a good job. Any less, and you will have an animal that can’t keep a tune and sounds like a braying donkey. If you give me a year, I most certainly will teach your horse to sing!” The King wants to hear his horse singing sooner than that, but he accepts the man’s timeline and hands over the horse, leaving for the castle so he can tell the queen and his courtiers what he will soon have–the only singing horse in the kingdom.
As the horsemaster walks back to the stable with the horse, the stable boy says, “Can you really teach a horse to sing? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
To which the horsemaster responds “Probably not. But much can happen in a year. Perhaps the horse will die. Perhaps I will die. Perhaps the King will die. And who knows? Perhaps the horse will learn to sing.”
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