August 15, 2013

The Lesser Buddha (Part 2). ~ Erin Sweeney

Read part one, here. 

The first piece Frank did was Shakespeare’s sonnet #29 with the harmonica, retitling it “Wherefore Art Thou, Baby?,”humming a bluesy riff across the café.

He introduced it by saying, “I think, no, I feel fairly certain, that if Shakespeare was alive today, or rather if he was alive in the 40s and 50s, he would be hangin’ out on the south side of Chicago with Little Walter and Muddy Waters.”

Frank broke out in a Cockney accent and read the sonnet pretty much verbatim, adding only a repetitive chorus of “Wherefore art thou, baby? / Wither have you gone?”

The harmonica was dead-on, convincing you that Shakespeare had the blues, man. At least he did on that chilly November night at Aloha.

After that, Frank went on to his biggest crowd pleaser, entitled “The Floor of My Car is a Taco”. It ended with the lines

“My sanity is a tortilla shell /  Wrapped around / A quivering bundle of nerves, /

And someone’s just taken a bite out of it. / Ohhh… I can’t wait for the next meal.”

I wondered about Frank’s karma. At the end of the night when we passed the hat for him, poor poets dug deep and his fedora was overflowing.

Other poets praised him for his work in the prisons, even called him a saint. His impish smile and sense of fun wouldn’t allow for his registry in the canon, however.

Frank once told me, “Whenever I sit down, someone comes to my table needing help.” He gave it to them.

Officially, he was a drug and alcohol counsellor. I wondered about the work he did, and it made me admire him more. All I got were little vignettes every week from Frank’s life, prefacing his poetry. “This week a girl came up to me, and told me she’d been off coke for 3 days,” Frank kept his head low.

“She said, ‘Frank, I did it. Cold turkey thanks to you, I was able to kick my habit.’ I don’t know how I helped her.”

When he came down from the stage, his brow was furrowed. He bought me a cappuccino and asked, “Erin, why don’t you write songs?” He paused and rubbed my back. “Your poetry has a musicality to it and you make words sing.” I blushed hot at the compliment and he noticed. “Hey kid, you’re good. I can’t wait to see what you’ll be like when you’re older.” I resented the fact I wasn’t older.

If I had been older, I was sure I would’ve been with Frank. He never came on to me or anything, but when you’re an awkward, chubby 17-year-old girl, any attention from a man is enough to make your heart skip beats like rope. It really went haywire when he got my phone number that day and gave me his.

It made sense why he got my number when he called much later after no response, in late March, and told me he couldn’t be my mentor any more. I asked why and he said he didn’t have the time, and I deserved a mentor who could pay me more attention.

We talked for a good half hour on what he’d read so far, and he especially liked my poem “Halo,” which I wrote about another boy my age I was starting to be interested in. He said he liked the ending lines:

“You see poetry is love for me / And in the end / I gave you nothing / I just watched your halo slip / Into the cracks in your smile.”

He said that was fantastic. When we were about to hang up the phone, I wanted to say, “I love you.” But I was 17 and he was 29 now. So I copped out and said, “I love your writing.” He thanked me and said he loved my writing, too.

It was the closest I would get to a declaration of love from Frank.

A week later, a few days into April, I went into Aloha and everyone was crying. I asked Victoria, the hostess, what was up and she said, “Frank’s dead. He was killed in a drive-by at Chicago and Western on the 29th.”

The first words out of my mouth were, “But he was my friend!” Then I began to cry, too. We all held each other that night, and read excerpts of Frank’s poetry.

A man had come down Chicago Avenue on a bicycle and began firing shots. Frank had just moved to the Ukrainian Village, and people warned him it was dangerous. The knife cut further when I heard he was with his new girlfriend of only two weeks. Not only was I hurt by Frank’s death, I was hurt that it was an outsider who got to spend his last moments on earth with him. It should have been someone from Aloha.

Chicago Police caught the guy who did it almost immediately. His name was Guierra. I never found out if he was convicted, how old he was, whom he was trying to shoot when he hit Frank.

It didn’t matter now, that Frank was gone.

I went to the wake, on the far north-west side. Frank’s mother, whom I’d never met, gave me the hugest hug when I told her what Frank meant to me. Again, off the page, I didn’t have the words. I paid my respects to Frank, and as I looked at his face, the make-up making it too tan for early spring, and the suit he wore looking two sizes too small,

I realized that wasn’t Frank. His body looked stuffed, and as full as it was, his soul did not reside there.

At the wake I wore a silver ball chain with the word “chance” spelled out in alphabet blocks. A friend of Frank’s asked me what it meant, and I was vague. I said, “Oh, you know, just the random nature of life.”

Really it meant that maybe karma wasn’t in play in Frank’s life. Things could be random, since Frank wasn’t the target of that shooting. I wasn’t sure what to believe.

In my attempt to make sense of Frank’s death, I reflected on how the Buddhists and Hindus share another common belief: reincarnation. The theory of karma can cycle from one life to the next, so maybe Frank’s death put right some imbalance elsewhere in the universe.

His reward could have come the moment he took his last breath. I was sure it wasn’t in a final reward of heaven like so many at the wake believed, rather a new beginning.

I couldn’t attend the funeral because I was in school. They wouldn’t give me the day off because he wasn’t a family member. So I waited until that weekend and drove the 12 miles to Queen of Heaven cemetery.

It was hard to find the grave, even though they had the marker number listed on his Mass card that I picked up at the wake. When I found it, the earth was fresh and the tombstone wasn’t up yet. I threw the daffodils I had picked for him on his grave. In Victorian times, daffodils stood for respect and unrequited love.

Roses would have been out of place. Roses mean love triumphant and perfect.

And how imperfect was I? Collecting money to buy CDs and put gas in my car while Frank used his poetry to bring out the best in people. Still, standing there I realized I did love him. I loved his poetry, his kindness, and his lust for life. No one in my family had ever died while I was alive, so this was my first brush with death and somehow it hurt more.

You are obligated to mourn when a family member dies, but we make our own families in our friendship circles, too. So it seemed harder to lose someone I had chosen to love.

The following week, some of the poets from Aloha did a radio tribute to Frank.

There, I got to read a poem I wrote for him. I imagined how many more people I was touching than I ever could in small, smoky Aloha. My voice rippled across the airwaves, echoing Frank’s teaching. I knew for once, I had put something out there to justify the reward I had been given.

To me it seemed all the good Frank brought into the world would carry on. It would ripple, and create stillness again in a unified whole after all the good deeds radiated in their circles and stretched outward. The Buddhists also say, either we all get enlightened or no one does.

I like to think of Frank as a lesser Buddha, one who would not stay in nirvana but go out and work in the world.

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Asst Ed: Renee Picard / Ed: Bryonie Wise


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