Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Dharma Bread" by Konrei

Yesterday was a rarity in South Florida, where I live. Although (contrary to popular opinion) we do have a winter season, it is usually short and relatively mild, adding up to three cold weeks in Janfebruary when the temperature at night can thud into the low forties and the days are bright and cool in the fifties. Tourists, though rarely resident Floridians, have been known to hit the pool on Christmas Day.

A pre-Christmas cold snap this week drove nighttime temperatures into the mid-thirties, and daytime temperatures rose barely above fifty all week. Usually-forgotten winter jackets had their Days of Remembrance. I actually saw someone wearing a scarf and a watch cap, though layering probably would have been more effective.

And then there was Yesterday. The temperatures rose into the low seventies, a comfortable breeze sprang up without a hint of humidity, and a brilliant sun shone through a perfectly transparent atmosphere that seemed to cascade like a waterfall from an impossibly blue sky.

A good day to wash the car.

Let me explain: Most Floridians don’t wash their cars, they take them to be washed. A few extra bucks on the gas card at the next fill up will guarantee you a turn in one of the area’s ubiquitous automated car washes, where high-pressure water drives away the memories of miles that accumulate on the rocker panels and front grille, and a little wax goes a little way to restoring the shine you never realized you missed. A few bucks more will buy you hand detailing, as men named Jose and Naresh Armor-All the interior, Febreze the carpet and Windex the glass. Washing a car by yourself is so odd, it seems, that it attracts an audience of neighbors who walk their dogs past you in a rhythmic line, each one secretly wondering Why?

In my case, the Why? is both easier and more difficult to fathom. Ever since a car accident left me dependent on using a quad cane to ambulate, walking has become somewhat of a mindfulness adventure as I carefully weigh each slow footfall. In truth, the accident was only the endgame of a slow loss of function that began when I first moved from New York to Florida and gave up transportation by foot in the face of the increased heat, the relentless humidity, and the greater, more boring distances that had to be traversed. Prior to moving to Florida, it was not unusual for me to walk from Washington Square to East 64th Street in Manhattan, a distance of about two miles, there to gladly collapse on a friend’s couch after conquering a fourth-floor walkup. And this with Cerebral Palsy that made every step worth two in muscular exertion.

Perhaps it was the Northern feel of the day, but I overcame my natural inertia and manfully hobbled out to the driveway, armed with bucket and dish soap, rags and an assortment of clean-and-shine chemicals that would make me recoil in fear if I really understood what their labels were telling me. With awareness of each muscle motion and of the pull of gravity, I managed to cross the rough ground to the outside spigot, turned it on, and hauled the garden hose around the side of the house, muttering very un-Zenlike imprecations at every bush and projection upon which the hose managed to hook itself during my slow passage there-and-back-again.

The word “pain” is really inadequate to describe what I experienced as I bent my back (and legs and arms) to the simple task of soaping down the car. Each movement brought shrill protest from my inflexible, ischemic musculature. My ankles ached. My archless feet protested. A few times I lost my balance, grabbing for the car for support, only to find myself sliding uncontrollably along the soapy surface like a beer on a bartop in a Western saloon.

As I worked, clumsily and carefully, I was reminded of the sixth of Mahatma Gandhi’s Eleven Vows, Sharirshrama, or Bread Labor. The Mahatma was firmly of the opinion that everyone needs to perform some useful body-labor, regardless of the nature of how they earn their “living.” In the West, there is an ingrained prejudice against body-labor. People who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow are somehow seen as not quite as intelligent and less ambitious than professionals whose tool is their mind. The tool in the hand---or the act of picking and boxing fruit in the field---is interpreted as a sign of weakness, even dishonesty. Auto mechanics, plumbers, and migrant farm workers are not seen as lazy, but they are seen as shifty. In the popular mind, they are either creating new problems in order to assure themselves of future work, overcharging for their services, or getting something for nothing, whether they be “illegals” living off the public weal, or Union men costing innocent owners obscene amounts of money in medical benefits and paid vacations.

Bread-labor is the labor of struggle and pain, I reminded myself, the work of a certain day.

Many years ago, Denis, a close friend explored his entrepenurial spirit by opening a company that purveyed fine baked goods, pastries and fancy breads, to the exclusive Country Clubs of Long Island. On a violently rainy day, we were returning from one of the Hamptons-area clubs with a carrier full of samples, not, unsurprisingly, having made a sale to a hidebound Kitchen Manager, who did not even want to take the samples from us gratis.

A little disgusted and very disappointed, Denis and I decided to stop in to Captain Norris’ Bar on the long drive home. Captain Norris’ was only a few miles but a world away from where we had been. A haunt of the “Bonackers,” descendants of the original English settlers of eastern Long Island, Captain Norris’ was the home port watering hole for the commercial fishermen of the area, a notoriously rough-hewn bunch.

Entertainment at Captain Norris’ was sparse: A dusty jukebox with dusty songs, and on Saturday nights, a fiddler who would stomp and holler next to the potbellied stove in the corner. A one-eyed tomcat prowled the premises, appropriately named “One-Eye.” We were visitors when we went there, tourists from the land of Suburbia, and while we were never made to feel uncomfortable, we were never truly welcome.

Except on this stormy day. A beer or two into it, we fell into a discussion about the local fishing, which, it seemed, had been very poor for some time; most of the men were cooped up in the bar this day, unable to fish, and each was quietly worrying about feeding his kids. Denis and I commiserated, telling the fishermen about our lack of luck in the Hamptons. Everyone agreed that the work was hard and the rewards few.

“We have a carrier full of samples they didn’t want,” we explained, and brought a pile of boxes into the bar, an assortment of Napoleons, petit-fours, marzipan, creamcakes, whipped-cream pastries in the shape of swans, and sourdough and multigrain loaves.

There was a moment of silence. “Can we take these home . . . to our kids?” the barmaid asked a little fearfully, as if she thought we would say no.


What followed was nothing short of a bacchanalia. I remember one burly fellow, who laughed maniacally while cramming a swan full into his mouth, the cream slithering down his beard. “We’ve never seen stuff like this,” he told me, tears starting in his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you.”

No, I said, I thanked him. I thanked him for going out every day on an indecent sea that could swallow a man in the blink of an eye to bring me a meal. I thanked him for standing, legs braced against the swells, on a pitching deck in all kinds of weather, tearing his hands with hooks and lines so that I could sit and eat in a warm kitchen. I thanked him for the opportunity to give something back today, to repay his bread-labor with a little bread, perhaps a little sweetness.

What I remembered most of that day, though, as I flopped around my car struggling to clean the rims, was what the barmaid had said: “Can we take these home . . . to our kids?” Because, in the end, the glory of Sharirshrama is not merely in the doing of the work. It is in the compassion that compels us to work for others. By our work, we earn them their daily bread.

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