Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pastoral For A Homeless Guy

In 1973 I was 12 years old and prime audience for the popular movies of the day. At that age, suspending disbelief in a movie premise was easy, and comprehending the subtle adult references was not too difficult, and something I secretly hoped to see.

'73 was a veritable treasure trove of movie going delights, producing many films now considered part of American Culture: American Graffiti, The Sting, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Exorcist, Poseidon Adventure, The Paper Chase, Sleeper, Serpico, Enter The Dragon, Westworld, High Plains Drifter, etc., etc. Yet for me the most profound movie was the futuristic Soylent Green. It was the "Bladerunner" of its day. Not only did Soylent Green appeal to many of my 12 year old interests, it presented an idea about life that has stayed with me to this day.

The movie starts out as a basic murder mystery set in the future. But Detective Thorn, played by Charlton Heston, stumbles onto a bigger mystery, a mystery that no one wants solved. The year is 2022 and the world has fallen apart. Nearly all the planet's resources are depleted. Nothing seems to work anymore. The world cannot support the population that has grown out of control. People live in cars on the street as readily as they do in apartments, all of which are dilapidated. The world is irreparably polluted. Strawberry preserves and hot showers are luxuries only the wealthiest can afford.

In overcrowded living conditions Sol and the detective Thorn are roommates. Although I don't think the movie reveals how these two meet, they have grown close, like father and son. Sol tells Thorn stories about the way life used to be, before overpopulation and pollution ravaged the planet. Thorn dismisses these stories as just so much old man talk and exaggeration.

Arguably the most profound scene in the movie is when Sol goes home. In Soylent Green, "going home" is a euphemism for submitting to voluntary euthanasia. Sol, played by Edward G Robinson, is an elderly gentleman who longs for the old days, and once he learns the secret of Soylent Green, feels there was no longer a reason to go on living. Sol walks into a building completely unlike anything seen in the movie thus far. It is a clean facility, uncrowded. Fresh air circulates and soothing music plays over the intercom. After providing some basic information and preferences, Sol is escorted into a room prepared just for him. The room is bathed in his favorite color, orange, and his favorite music plays, classical, "light" classical. he lays down on a raised bed, drinks the "kool-aide," and waits to die. At this point Thorn arrives to witness Sol's last moments.

Beethoven's Pastoral begins to play, and a giant movie screen opens up before Sol, showing him spectacular scenes of nature, the nature that no longer exists, the nature that he tried in vain to describe to Thorn: deer playing in a forest, a meadow blanketed in flowers, an ocean teaming with fish, etc.

Sol asks Thorn, "Isn't it beautiful?"
With tears in his eyes Thorn replies simply: "yes."
Sol: "I told you."
Thorn: "How could I have know? How could I have ever imagined?"

In that moment, a truth greater than both of them is revealed. Sol is vindicated, and Thorn is struck with the awesome responsibility of this new knowledge.

You can watch the scene on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbJTBBoDFH0

At the end of Sol's life, the truth was revealed. His vindication was all the more bittersweet because the truth, beautiful as it was, had been destroyed long ago. There are obvious messages in this scene, warnings about what may come if we don't protect our environment. But there was something else that spoke to me on a more personal level.

To look at me then, I was your typical 12 year old boy. But there was something else, a problem within that prevented me from truly being typical. No one could see it and I couldn't explain it. I tried talking about it to my parents, but they dismissed it as normal childhood angst. As this problem grew more severe they insisted I only lacking proper character. If I stopped being so lazy and put effort into it, they said, I would be able to overcome this problem. But, they didn't understand what I was up against, and did not want to know. Their reluctance to help me deal with my problem seems, in hindsight, like avoidance, like they did not want to admit there was a problem. I felt trapped and alone. I needed help and could not get any. As much as they denied I had a problem they constantly chided and reprimanded me for not living up to my potential.

The anxiety I was experiencing made it increasingly difficult to talk to people, made it even more difficult for people to understand me. The emotional pain and social isolation grew worse as I got older. As a teen, I became a loner. As an adult, I became homeless (for more info, see the page link above on Asperger's Syndrome).

I have a memory of a thought from so long ago that I don't recall when it first came to me. I remember hearing that when a person dies, everything becomes known, all the reason's why people are they way they are, why they do the things they do. This scene in Soylent Green echo'd that sentiment. And I took solace in it.

During this scene the grand music of Beethoven's Pastoral was playing. The music became synonymous with the hope that the truth of my problem eventually come to light, that I would understand and overcome this problem. I would be released from all the pain and confusion, the guilt and despair that has plagued me all my life.

Fast forward from 1973 to 1987. I have been homeless for 5 years at this point, and my best attempts to escape it, first by joining the Navy, and later by attending college, have failed. Still, I not given up, but was pursuing the next opportunity.

I have always had an interest in the arts. To me, the arts are a means of connecting with others, a non-verbal communication that helped me transcend my inabilities to connect with people. I figured out early on that I did not have the skills necessary for creating music, or for painting, so I took up photography. Miraculously, a couple photos I had taken while in the Navy survived my last descent into homelessness. I submitted those photographs in a request for membership into the Nashville Artist's Guild, and was subsequently accepted. This boosted my spirits enough that I decided to clean myself up a bit. I went to a facility for the homeless run by the United Methodists known on the streets as Ken and Carol's. This was when it was still located on 4th Ave South. I got a hair cut, took a shower, and put on clean clothes. Then I went down to River Front Park, where, on that day, I met a young lady who would eventually become my wife, and then ex-wife. But before all that, she helped me get off the streets and into a decent apartment. I'm not really sure how I was able to overcome my problems with social anxiety enough to become married. But I do believe, though, that it was at the root of our relationship's ultimate demise.

She played piano, and her grandmother had a keen interest in classical music. So, when an opportunity came to get tickets to the Nashville Symphony I was able to take her and her grandmother. I had never been to a live performance of a symphony before and I was amazed at what I heard. Over radio and television speakers you just don't get the same effect. I had never known sound to be so tactile. The strings sounded like velvet.

Understand too that I knew almost nothing about classical music. I listened to classical when it was on TV or the radio, but I never caught on to the names of the music or the musicians who made it. So, you can imagine my additional surprise when the Nashville Symphony that night played Beethoven's Pastoral. Soylent Green came back to me, as did every other emotion and secret longing associated with that music.

Fast forward again. In 1995 we divorce. By '96 I'm homeless again. In '99 I worked my way back into an apartment of my own, but two years later the store I work for goes under and I end up homeless yet again. In 2002 I begin blogging about my homeless life, using computers in the newly built downtown library.

One day, someone stands outside the library passing out free tickets to the Nashville Symphony. A homeless acquaintance tells me about this. I rush over to get the last ticket. I go to the Symphony and blog about it. Someone in Michigan reads the blog post who happens to know someone working for the Nashville Symphony. They talk. I then get an email from someone at the Nashville Symphony. And, they bless me with tickets to the 4 performances of my choosing.

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