Wednesday, July 12, 2006

What It Is...

by F. T. Rea

On a cold January morning, 15 years ago, bright sunlight lit up the thin coating of freezing rain that had painted the city the evening before. In the crisp air a slender middle-aged man, a freelance artist/writer, walked at a careful but purposeful pace on the tricky sidewalk. The ice-clad trees along the street were dazzling, as seen through his trusty Ray-Bans. The wooly winter jacket his girlfriend/roommate had given him for Christmas felt good.

Since the freelancer couldn’t concentrate on his reading of the morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, he left half a mug of black coffee and a dozing cat on his desk to walk to the post office. He hoped the overdue check from a magazine publisher was waiting in his post office box.

Anxiously, he opened the box with his key. It was empty. He shrugged. An empty box had its upside, too -- there were no cut-off notices in it. With his last 20 bucks in his pocket, the freelancer hummed a favorite Fats Domino tune, “Ain’t That a Shame,” as he headed home.

By the end of the workday the freelancer's mission was to finish an 800-word OpEd piece, with an accompanying illustration, and drop it all off on an editor’s desk. With the drum beat for war in the air he wanted to focus on the inevitable unintended consequences of any war. Yet, with the clock ticking on his deadline he was still at a loss for an angle.

In 1991 the country was mired in an economic recession. The national debt was skyrocketing. War with Iraq was looming, it seemed all but inevitable. Pondering what demons might be spawned by an all-out war in Iraq, to be discovered down the road, he detoured a couple of blocks to pick up a Washington Post and a fresh cup of coffee.

Approaching the 7-Eleven store the freelancer noticed a lone panhandler standing off to the left of the front doors. The tall man was thin and frail. He wore a lightweight denim jacket with a hooded sweatshirt underneath. Snot was frozen in his mustache. His heavy-lidded eyes were an unhealthy shade of red.

During a time when a much younger version of the freelancer had run a night-life business, in which he dealt with the public, he had determined his policy should be to never in any way encourage panhandlers to hang around. The rigid policy -- not even a nickel -- had lingered well after the comfortable job was gone.

On this cold day it wasn’t easy for the freelancer to avert his eye from the poor soul’s trembling outstretched hand. Not hearing the desperate man’s hoarse plea for food money was impossible. When there are always so many lives to be saved in our midst, the freelancer wondered -- why do we have to go to the Middle East to save lives?

Inside the busy store the freelancer poured a large coffee. Fretting profusely, he snapped the cup’s lid in place. It was one of those times when the little freelancer with horns was standing on one of his shoulders, while his opposite -- the one with the halo -- was on the other, both offering counsel.

The freelancer's policy caved in seconds later. Still, he decided to give the panhandler food, rather than hand over cash to perhaps finance a bottle of sweet wine. What the hell? it might change my luck, he thought as he smiled.

Trying to max out the bang-for-the-buck aspect of his gesture, the freelancer settled on a king-sized hot dog, with plenty of free stuff on it -- mustard, chopped onions, relish, jalapeno peppers, chili and some gooey cheese-like product. Not wanting to push it too far, he passed on the catsup and mayonnaise.

Outside the store, the freelancer found the starving panhandler had vanished. So, the crestfallen philanthropist took the meal-on-a-bun with him as he walked, softly singing a Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” With his strides matching the beat, he kept to the sunny street to avoid the slick sidewalk in the shade.

"There’s somethin’ happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I gotta beware.

I think it’s time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look, what's going down."

A line from that song’s last verse -- “paranoia strikes deep” -- suddenly snapped an idea for the OpEd into place, which launched an instant mini-mania. A block closer to home an image for the illustration occurred to him. He picked up his pace and began whistling a jazzy version of “For What It’s Worth.”

Back in his office/studio space, rather than waste money, the freelancer tore into the feast he had prepared for a beggar. The food scared, or perhaps offended the cat, who fled. Between sloppy bites the artist wiped his hands off and sketched furiously to rough out a cartoon.

About an hour later the heartburn started. Eventually, it got brutal. The freelancer pressed on. He wrote about the way propaganda always works to sell war -- every war -- as glorious and essential to the everyday people, who risk their lives. That while the wealthy, who rarely take a genuine risk on anything, urge the patriots on and count their profits.

Thinking of the war that thinned his generation out, in Vietnam, he wrote: “After the war the veterans are largely ignored, even scorned.”

The freelancer lamented the popular culture having gone wrong, so there was no longer a place for anti-war protest songs. He wrote, “Where are today’s non-conformists? Today's questioners of authority? Nowhere! Conformity? It’s no longer an issue.”

The freelancer turned in his work at 4:50 p.m. An hour later his sour and noisy stomach had finally calmed down during his second happy hour beer. When he recounted the tale of the stuffed frankfurter, and the Buffalo Springfield song, and the belly ache, he made it seem mildly funny to those gathered around the elbow of the marble bar.

In his element, the freelancer’s audience of familiar faces laughed and groaned, on cue, when he finished his tale off with, “Oh well, a panhandler, a dash of paranoia, a dose of heartburn, and another deadline met. What can I say? -- I suppose it was all, ahem, for what it’s worth.”

-- 30 --

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