(About a 10 minute read)
Long ago, the Coffee Shop was a hang out for many mildly disaffected youths. They were the kids who didn’t fit in too well, who weren’t always doing what was expected of them, who often had talents no one had noticed or encouraged, or who were simply marching to the beat of their own drummer.
Kyle, for instance, was the son of a wealthy father, but he wanted to make his own way in the world. So he had enlisted in the Army to earn money for college rather than allow his father to pay for his education. He was passionate about poetry and wanted to teach English.
Melanie was from a much poorer family than Kyle, and her only academic interests were mathematics. She paid for the community college by working as an erotic dancer.
Catherine was another mathematician, and she worried about her social skills. She graduated early from high school then stayed in town to mature for a year, rather than head straight to college.
Erin was 15 when she left her parent’s house to sleep on friend’s couches. She did her homework by streetlight for a while. Then she met Jim, a year or two older, who convinced her school was for losers, and life lay in studying the Kabbalah.
Jody was a bit older than most, and a prostitute fascinated with the Third Reich and Phoenician glassware. She’d scored high on the aptitude tests, but drugs, along with being raised in an abusive home, were too much for her, and she left unpursued her dream of becoming an historian.
Luke was raised in North Africa and in British boarding schools before his executive father transferred to Colorado. He planned to leave town soon to study psychology, for he wanted to heal minds. In the meantime, he was both too well educated and too brilliant for his high school classes. So, like many other eccentrics, he found his way to the Coffee Shop.
In the mornings, the Shop was full of business people; by midday it held all ages and walks of life; and by evening it was the kids. One slow Tuesday night I spent a half hour or 45 minutes carefully counting the crowd. My count was nearly 200, most of them people I’d met, most of them kids, most of them misfits.
If anyone loved them all, it was Joe. He seemed to have a knack for it.
A month or so after we met, Joe invited me to go with him and a couple to Valley View Hot Springs. It was the way he phrased the invitation that surprised me. “We need a chaperon”, he said, “There might be trouble. You’ve got to say, ‘Yes’.”
I couldn’t tell at first how serious he was about trouble. Joe was 18 that year, strong, and could handle himself. Besides, he knew Valley View was more peaceful than most any other place in Colorado. He’d been going there with his family since he was five or six. What kind of trouble did he anticipate?
The trouble was jealousy, Joe explained. He’d only recently befriended the couple, and he had not caught on to the guy’s jealousy of him. Thinking everything was cool, he decided to share with them the most spiritual place he knew of. The girl was so enthusiastic to go to Valley View that the guy feigned agreement, and so Joe and the couple had made plans. But in the week between making plans and their realization, Joe was shocked when the girl pointed out to him her boyfriend’s jealousy. That’s when Joe got the notion my presence might somehow defuse the situation.
In the years I knew him, Joe almost never allowed himself to act on any jealously he himself might feel, and I think that might have been because jealousy excludes folks rather than includes them. Joe was all about including people. Looking back, it seems almost inevitable Joe would fail to see the boyfriend’s jealousy until it was pointed out to him.
So, the four of us took a day trip to Valley View. The couple had brought swimsuits, but the guy strangely refused to join his girlfriend, Joe and I in the hot springs. Instead, he said he wanted to look for elk among the pines and scrub oak, and wandered off. I left Joe and the girl talking at one end of the pool, and spent most of the time watching dust devils swirl across the valley below.
It was by no means a bad trip, but I think it was the worse Joe and I ever managed to take to Valley View. It seemed none of us got into the spirit of the place. We left just as divided as we’d arrived. A few days later, Joe and I discussed it. After noting how argumentative the guy became on the trip home, Joe said he felt the girl had spent the afternoon at the pool in some kind of bubble; unresponsive to the beauty all around her; unable to connect with nature; indifferent even to the wind through the ponderosa. “We might as well have gone to the mall”, he grinned.
Joe had been raised a Christian, but a year or two after the trip he committed himself to it. His inspiration was the New Testament, rather than the Old; the life of Jesus, rather than the Ten Commandments. Consequently, his first step was to simplify his life. He gave away his inessential possessions and moved from his parent’s house to a shack. Mostly, though, he emulated Jesus and the Disciples in his heart and mind. It became clear the appeal of Christianity to him was its doctrine of universal love — he was, he told me, indifferent to heaven and hell. Instead, salvation, for Joe, was to learn how to love the world as Christ had.
His experiment with Christianity lasted a couple of years. When I asked him why he was no longer a Christian, he told me he still believed in God, and perhaps even that Jesus was Christ, but he could not have faith in them so long as people were sent to hell.
Joe worked at a greenhouse. One day, Joe spoke of his growing distaste for weeding. “They may be weeds, Paul, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted. It feels terrible to kill them.” Some part of me agreed with Joe — at least with his notion that all living things have value — but I still felt weeding in a greenhouse was justified by its necessity. I thought to myself he’d soon enough see that necessity and reconcile himself to killing weeds.
A day later, however, Joe found a partial solution. He began transplanting the weeds. At least he began transplanting the larger ones. He did it on his own time, after work, because he didn’t think it was fair to charge his boss for the extra time it took. There was a large, bare mound of soil out back of the greenhouse and he was transplanting the weeds to the far side of it, where — he hoped — they would thrive.
I was a bit taken aback. On the one hand, it ranked among the craziest things I’d heard of a friend doing in some time. But on the other hand, looked at a little more rationally, it wasn’t self-destructive, it was harmless to others, and it preserved life. I didn’t think Joe’s project would last — I thought he’d grow tired of it — but I rather admired him for asserting his good convictions in a world where there sometimes seemed to be too few good convictions.
Two months passed before Joe brought the subject up again. My first reaction was surprise he was still transplanting weeds. But then he explained his boss had found him out. Of course, he expected to be fired. Yet, after he’d told her everything, she’d only laughed and smiled, and told him he was a good worker, that she loved him, and that she would find other work than weeding for him to do.
Something happened one day to make me see symbolic meaning in Joe’s actions. It began when Laura called to ask if she could come over and take a shower. She was a homeless kid who kept a few items of clothing at my place and sometimes dropped by for a shower or a meal. She was heavily into drugs, and I never invited her to stay too long, because I didn’t want my things to start disappearing.
That evening, I got her fed and her feet massaged, and then sent her off to the shower. She told me she’d been partying, and that after my place, she wanted to go back and party some more. It wasn’t long, though, before she’d fallen asleep on the couch. I thought about her while she slept.
Laura was nineteen, and she hadn’t a regular home since she was thirteen. She’d never met her father, a man who left before she was born. At thirteen, she’d gotten into a fight with her mother’s boyfriend. He swung a chair at her. A leg caught her in the belly and ripped a seven inch wound. She ran from the house and never returned.
The wound didn’t get sewn up, and the scar was huge. I’d run my fingers along it once, and somehow the memory of that furrowed, lumpy scar tissue was still stuck in my fingertips. When I thought of Laura, I always thought of that scar. And that’s what I was thinking of when Joe’s words came back to me: “They may be weeds, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.” It was somewhat like a minor epiphany: Joe would understand the tragedy of Laura better than anyone — if for no other reason than Joe had a knack for a certain kind of love.
There is more than one kind of love in this world. The kind Joe was most interested in is inclusive. That kind of love does not seek to jealously wall off a little private garden for itself. It is neither possessive nor jealous, as was the guy at Valley View. Nor does it demand to be loved in return — for a love that wants love in return must exclude some from being loved. It was the promise of that inclusive kind of love that attracted Joe to Christianity. It was the realization that some are excluded from God’s love that caused Joe to lose his faith.
I believe it’s rare for most of us — especially when we are young — to think of love as an excellence. That is, as a thing one might learn how to do to the best of his or her ability. Instead, we think of love as something requiring little or no talent, practice, or skill. We suppose it comes natural to us, and so we spend our time waiting for it without doing much to help it come about.
Every kid at the Coffee Shop had his or her own mix of talents and skills, and many of the kids had an excellence. Kyle, for instance, was a gifted poet. Melanie and Catherine excelled at mathematics. And Luke was a born psychologist. But I think Joe’s excellence was his ability to love.
Sometime ago, Joe moved up into the mountains, where he met a woman and settled in with her. He lives up there now, in a small mountain town.
Originally posted November 27, 2008