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Auction
by Ric Cherwin

     


I want to share a story that culminated in my being on Good Day New York, whose producer called, saying, we heard about you at the JDRF dinner and would you be willing to come on the show, do a mock auction and talk about auction tips. That's what I did on GDNY Fox, Channel 5, (including doing the weather auctioneer-style) and here's the tale.


I am an auctioneer in addition to my other professions, (musician, singer, composer, producer, psychotherapist, attorney, writer/editor).


This story requires you to not look askance at issues of undying persistence and forthright non-humility.
Also, virtually none of the following fantasy turned reality fairy tale is embellished. And lastly, imagine what it would be like for someone with unrelenting standards (no names mentioned) to have a night, one night, in which those standards relented.


So, some Saturdays ago, I got home from my older son's Little League game at noon and listened to my messages, including one from an Allen Frank saying Jonathan had recommended me as an auctioneer and to call him asap. I left him a return message and heard back from him about 1:15. He said Rosie O'Donnell, due to her legal travails, had just cancelled as auctioneer for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation dinner and they were looking for someone to replace her that night for a star-studded gala for 1,000 people at the Waldorf Astoria. The previous Saturday I had an auction in Philly and the next Saturday I had a singing gig in Florida, but that night I was around.


We talked about my regular fee, which starts at $1,500 and up (way up) depending on the auction. First problem - Rosie does it for free and most of the people involved donate their services. Would I do it for free? Well, I said, paraphrasing Theodore Bikel, performers need to protect ourselves not from sleazy club owners or greedy producers but from ourselves. Because we love to perform so much that we would always do it for free, but we shouldn't, we can't and we won't. It's our work, it's what we do. It’s how we pay our bills.


After two minutes, Allen and I were in sync and he said he would go to bat for me to try to get me money, even if it was as little as $500. He would talk with Ronni, the big cheese. Fine. 2:00 he calls back. No go. They don't want to pay and furthermore, they have gotten Mary Tyler Moore (Oh, Rahb), Lorraine Bracco (Sopranos etc.), Michael Goldstein (former CEO of Toys 'R Us, and a big donor) and Harvey Weinstein (CEO of Miramax) to be the guest
auctioneers and at this point, it would not be prudent to uninvite them. So thanks anyway. Allen stated he had really tried to advocate for me, but to no avail. I said, let me speak with  Ronni and he said he was thinking the same thing. But he said I had to start out by apologizing on his behalf for giving out her cell phone number.


 
After my surrogate apology for Allen, the phone call with Ronni started with her saying before you waste your time or ours, it's not going to happen. We appreciate your willingness but we have these celebrity auctioneers and a big donor and it would be disrespectful to them to not let them do it. And also, twice we hired unknown auctioneers who came highly recommended and they were duds.


I said I appreciate, respect and agree with your concern over both not wanting to renege on your promise to the celebs, and also your concern about me who you don't know from Adam, but that there is another crucial aspect. They are not auctioneers. I am. This is what I do. I raise money. (I didn't go into my other professions.) If they could get $10,000 for an item, I could get $20,000.; if they could raise $50,000, I would raise $100,000, and continued up the chain of monetary command. I also said, in so many words, if Derek Jeter was injured during the fight for the pennant, with one game to decide the season, the Yankees could trade for a great player from another team. Or they could say, let's have Harvey Weinstein fill in at shortstop because he's famous. That would be interesting, but the Yankees would lose, definitely. Same thing here.


I suggested we all do it together, we'll do shtick, we'll interact but I'll do the calling, or we'll alternate, but in some fashion do it together. We talked for about 10 minutes and she was mostly convinced. At that point, she had to get approval from the new big cheese, Kyler. Ronni, it seemed, was subordinate cheese. I spoke with Kyler and had a similar discussion with her. She also started with reservations but softened like brie and said she needed to talk with the committee. Just who was the big cheese.


3 o,clock or so, they call back. Here's what we'll do. You and your wife should come to the Waldorf as our guests. You'll sit at our table with Harvey, Lorraine, Mary Tyler Moore, Allen etc. and watch how WE do it, and maybe next year we'll use you.


No go, I said. Let me start things off and YOU watch how I do it. I know I'm behaving a bit like a shmuck for being so insistent, but I can't let you make this mistake. Again, this is what I do. It's also an issue dear to my heart as my father, who was sports editor at The New York Times for many years, died at the age of 51 of juvenile diabetes. I want to help raise the money. Also, it's hard to toot your own horn and I know you've been burned in the past, but I'm telling you I'm good at this. I'm funny, entertaining, serious, energetic, quick, aware, and.... I get people to dig deep into their pockets. Here's what we'll do, I urged. I'll do the first item and then offer my gratitude and turn the rest of the evening over to the celebs. If, by some chance, you want me to stay up there and help, of course I will, but if there is no signal to do so, I will depart the stage gladly, thank you for letting me participate and hope that the auction is a bona fide smash. (As I read this, it's abundantly clear that I was incredibly pushy, yet I knew I was right regarding the money-raising issue, and I was much more gracious than this sounds in the reading.)  As for remuneration, when that question arose again, I fought my instinct to say I would do it for nothing, and said, if I do the one item only, I wouldn't accept or expect any money, and that if it turned out I auctioned more items and at the end you felt I was a good addition, even wonderful, but that it didn't make such a difference in the money raised, I wouldn't want a dime, but that if I wound up being an integral part and fulfilled my promise to make a huge difference, then I would welcome and accept any payment, including a handshake and a thank you, whatever they felt was appropriate.


They accepted that agreement, with a "probably it will be ok. Come down, we'll talk and we'll see." Obviously, they wanted to meet me. My tux doesn't fit anymore (Too big!) So, on my way to the Waldorf, I stopped off and bought a tux and the accoutrements. Selecting, altering and buying the tux was also a funny scene, but that's another story.


Meanwhile, my mother-in-law (Sara) is in town from Memphis and was following, along with our half a dozen brunch
guests, the ongoing negotiations. When we were finally going and it was at least possible that I would auction one item, Sara said she would love, love, love to come. I had been reporting on the progress of all the phone calls to Allen, who is serving as my confidant by now, and at one point he said bring your whole family. He may have been kidding, but I don't know.


I arrive at the Waldorf at 6:15 and meet Ronni. Everything is fine until I mention my mother-in-law would like to come at which point she has a conniption. There's no space, no seating for her, this is expensive, we invited you and your wife only blah blah blah. Sensing her dismay, (how pushy can I get) I say Ronni, it's ok, forget it, you're right, it's a non issue, don't worry, it's cool blah blah blah. She introduces me to Kyler, who is as calm and cool as Ronni was excited. Kyler says the final decision has been reached and I'll auction the first item and maybe, but probably not, the second one. (Not a precise final decision, but that's ok.) (I hope you're enjoying this story.) I ask if I should give a short speech as I do before I begin my auctions. No, she says, just go right into the first item (and quite an item, a day with the Yankees at the Stadium, photos, on field, dugout, uniform, culminating in a private pitching lesson from Andy Pettitte.)


By the way, cocktails and pass-arounds (and silent auction) 6:30 - 7:30, including gaming tables,  7:30 - 9, dinner, video, speeches, dancing to a large and terrible band (why wasn't this gig mine); auction at 9.


6:40, I'm introduced to Michael Goldstein. I'll make this interaction short. Suffice it to say, it was clear that he really wanted to be the auctioneer and that my overture of any assistance after the first item was not needed or desired. At this recognition, I said,
Michael, I am at your service. After the first piece, I'm history. I'll pass the baton to you. You're going to have a great time and you're going to do a great job. I'm honored to be able to do the first item. Thank you. (That's virtually verbatim) He loosened up a trifle.


So, I'm walking through the various rooms, getting into my Zen place, making sure my anxiety level stays at it's customary 15% pre-performance capacity (as opposed to it's former 80% dysfunctional level), eating a little shrimp and a few pass-arounds, and having one weak, please, Cuba Libre, ok, two, but both weak.  I walk into the Grand Ballroom and now Kyler is in a bit of a tizzy. The main table, ours, has two too many people (Judy and me). She's talking to a staff person and they're trying to figure out what to do. She hadn't noticed I was nearby. Kyler, I said, I overheard what you just said, please, Judy and I don't need to sit here. I appreciate it, but put us anywhere, it doesn't matter. As a matter of fact, I don't eat before I perform, so maybe my wife and her mother can sit at a table in the back instead of us up here. Oh, would you do that, she said. Me -Of course. Her - Oh, thank you. Me - It's ok if my m-in-law comes? Her -Of course she can come. Of course. Thank you for being willing to move. Two problems resolved. I told Ronni about the switch. She was cool.


9 p.m., time for the auction. By now Chuck Scarborough has been added as an auctioneer, joining Michael, Lorraine and me on the stage. Harvey and Mary decided to watch from the audience. Just before the hit, Kyler says to me, nicely, just do the first item. No problem, says I. 


Oh, I had another internal battle which I had been grappling with for 45 minutes. I ALWAYS start my auctions with
a speech. It serves to motivate, loosen up, and gear up the crowd and myself. I don't even know how to start an auction without some kind of speech. Since I had already gotten to this point, I said to myself, be a pro, do it right, seize the moment. I had to give a short speech. I worked it in my head and I was ready.


Michael, Lorraine, Chuck and I were introduced. The woman (another big cheese) fumbled over my name and I had to coach her from the wing. I was introduced as a REAL auctioneer. Michael made it a point of saying he wanted to speak first as he wanted to convey Rosie's deepest regrets at being unable to attend. I said to Lorraine, let me go next since I'm doing the first item. Lorraine, by the way, looking rather sexy in a revealing dress, was more than happy implying she had no idea what she'd be doing up there. Michael apologized on Rosie's behalf and then introduced me.

I looked at the 1,000 millionaires and celebrities in the audience for about five seconds without speaking. Ladies and gentlemen, I said very seriously, there has been a terrible mistake. (Dead silence) Michael said Rosie couldn't be here. Well, he's wrong ... I am Rosie O'Donnell. (In Rosie voice and mannerisms) You must come see Taboo, you'll love it. But, oh, this trial has me out of whack.(The audience is mine)  (Back to me) Ladies and gentlemen, bear with me for 45 seconds,  I have a few things to say (I didn't want Kyler to think I'd become more of a raving lunatic than I already was and that I'd talk for 15 minutes) I'm looking out at you and I'm seeing a most dignified group of people. And those who deal with the ravages of diabetes do so, also, with great and noble dignity. But diabetes is not a disease of dignity. I know because my beloved father, an esteemed editor at the New York Times, had diabetes and died at the age of 51, 35 years ago. In the face of this dreaded disease, he fought to maintain his dignity every day of his life.


Tonight, however, I want you to throw dignity and caution to the wind. We're here to raise money, to battle diabetes. Friends, I want you to bid freely and frivolously, not frugally. If you feel you don't want an item or can't afford it, please, have another drink. (Raising pitch, tempo, mannerisms, I get everyone to raise their paddles, to applaud themselves, I thank them for the privilege of participating in this incredibly important evening) And it's not only about money, but if you stay with us for the next 30 minutes, we are going to have a great time, with phenomenal auction items, unbelievable surprises and an evening to remember forever. (Building) So let's do it, the first item of the evening ............(frenzy time, there's little dignified etiquette in my delivery) let's open up at $5,000. I do my auctioneer patter and shtick and we sell two of the first item for $40,000.   I thank the audience and start to leave. Michael looks at me and mouths -don't go anywhere. He starts the second item, slowly, methodically, and I promise you, the energy in the room collapses like a twin tower. Five seconds into it, he says, Ric, come back, do this one. I come back and bam, the audience is back in the groove. 45 seconds later, another $20,000. I must say, each of the 12 items to be auctioned was spectacular, but I think I could have gotten them to buy my mother's gefilte fish recipe for $5,000 – $10,000. (It is quite good, but by my estimate only worth $50 - $100, tops.)


Third item, Michael starts again, for no more than 10 seconds as I start to depart the stage. Into the mike, Ric, where are you going, get up here. Take over. Bam, same thing. Fourth item, same thing. At this point, I start to make my final exit from the stage and Lorraine, (who was continuing to be very distracting) literally grabs onto me and pulls me back to the podium and says you ain't going nowhere. The next item was a walk-on part to the new Whoopi Goldberg sitcom plus two tickets and VIP treatment for the Emmy's. Off mike, I say to Lorraine, this one is perfect for you, you do it. She whispers. You're crazy; there's no way I'm following you. Meanwhile, I'm pulling her, she's pulling me. I don't know what the audience must have thought. I say let's do it together.  She gets to the mike, does a brief intro for the item, then does a funny imitation of my auction singing scat and says, a la the Tonight Show, Heeeere's Ric. I say, ladies and gentlemen, judging from the energy and drive and talent I am witnessing emanating from you tonight, if you win this bid, you won't just walk on the Whoopi show, but you'll get a few lines, and if you exhibit that same passion and talent I'm seeing here in your part on Whoopi, you won't just be going to the Emmy's as a guest, but as a NOMINEE. The audience is wild. I open the bidding and get gobs of money for it. (Meanwhile the cast of Whoopi came on stage for this item, and after the auction we were hanging and talking, and they invited my family and me to the taping Tuesday, to hang in  the Green Room, watch from VIP seats etc. which we did - 6 of us - and had a great time.)


After the Whoopi item, Mike gestured to me, the night is yours (mine) Basically, for the remainder of the items, Mike would talk for 10 seconds or so, reading from the catalogue and then, say, Ric, take it away and I would reframe the item with ad libs and enhancements that had the audience laughing and bidding the whole time. 

  

The whole time, between items, Lorraine is praising me off mike, as is Chuck Scarborough, saying things like "who are you, I've never seen anything like this." The audience is having a blast and lots of money is being raised. Even Mike was won over.

Anyway, 30 minutes and several hundred thousand dollars later, the auction ended, easily exceeding last year's total with Rosie at the helm. The whole evening raised $3 million.

I left the stage and tried to walk back to my table in the back and it took 20 minutes, due to thanks, hugs, handshakes, yankings to tables, laudatory accolades, statements of disbelief re my auctioneering. It was like I was royalty and everyone had to get a piece of me. I got back to my table, ate the rack of lamb, and was greeted by my table mates in the same manner, none of whom I knew except for Sara and Judy. Rather enjoying all the fuss, I walked back to the front of the ballroom to find Ronni, Allen and Kyler and the treatment continued, hug after hug from strangers, the giving out of many cards, an invitation to come to The Breakers in Palm Beach, (We'll see.) Ronni sought me out and gave me a dramatically long hug - you saved the day, thank you for convincing us, everything you said was true, Rosie sent a note saying she's so sorry, but she promised to do the auction next year. Uh uh. She's out. You're in. (We'll see.) The national CEO, state CEO, Lorraine, Allen etc. men, women, children, animals, it was wild. I was Cinderella. The words people used, almost too embarrassing to repeat without sounding completely narcissistic and needy; it was just so overwhelming. I'm just reporting. And let's face it, it felt great to soak it in.

When I book and/or produce or see one of my plays produced and feel I did a good job, I love it and feel a great deal of fulfillment. And I also enjoy being behind the scenes and seeing others get the kudos. I'm delighted for the opportunity and for the satisfaction of a job well done.

When I perform, (singing, playing, auctioneering, whatever) I need the kudos, and I do get it, usually to a degree that is almost, but rarely quite enough. (My problem) This night was way over the top. This night was enough. I think, in part, because of what I had to go through in the phone conversations to get the gig, because I was so in touch with believing in myself and my ability and the truth and sincerity of my intent, and that I was right and it made a difference. And that I proved it. I laid it out on a platter and said this is what will happen if you use me, and it happened. I had to convince each link in the chain of cheese, and each one heard something, enough, to say, let's give him a try. With trepidation, they all took a chance and they and I were all rewarded. So they deserve kudos as well.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________


                                                                             India
   by Ric Cherwin   


 
   


It was like every other day in northern India - scorching, with the usual non-existent breeze. But it was not a typical day for me. I was getting out. About to ride my thumb into Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and points west on my way back to Europe. One of my first rides was on a camel, one of the last, as a stowaway on a ship, but I’ve gotten ahead of myself. On this, my final day in India, I barely noticed the usual odor, which had taken me months to define - a medley of spice, food, fire, feces, urine, sweat, rotting garbage, exotic plants, cows, water buffalo, monkeys and death - stewed in the heat of 120 degree days. Sure, an undeniable stench, but more like rain drops hurtling from the wings and bowels of Sonee ki Chidia, the Golden Bird - India - where the aroma, water, air, life, death are all the same color - dank - if that’s a color, with a slap of orange, magenta and gold. But let me backtrack.

My room, really three walls and two open holes in the fourth, rents for the equivalent of $2 a month and is even smaller than my former prison cell at the penitentiary in California. It’s about 6 X 4 X 5, the 5 being the height. So standing, or stooping really, is effortless, but also rather a chore. My room rests about eight feet above the water of the Ganges, the Ganga, From the days of Shiva to Nehru, we’ve been taking our daily bath in its brown mystic waters to cleanse our body and spirit, this after maneuvering around and pushing aside the bloated dead bodies which had been placed in the river for the journey to their final destination. My room is situated like this: Out and below the window runs the river. Directly across from the door is a series of small Hindu temples lining the little alley where chanting can be heard throughout the day - Bam, bam, kusir rujo hardum oh, oh, oh, Rama. Down the alley to the right is the burning ghat, the concrete pier where those who can afford it go to be cremated. To the left, on the two-minute walk to the fruit and vegetable market, is something like a "beggars row" where some 20 families and another 50 old, young, men, women, children and cows live in the street. Cast aside, homeless, helpless, hopeless. The Untouchables. Only heaven opens its arms in a welcoming embrace, the ultimate healer, a home at last. Harijans, Children of God, Gandhi called them. Right.


The beggars begin their daily work each morning. As I walk to market, they crawl onto their knees and touch my feet or tug on my shirt. Then a simple, familiar, horrifying gesture - fingers moving to touch their open, empty mouths, before their heads and outstretched palms rise slowly as if reaching toward an unattainable heaven, their eyes blazing upwards into mine. "Sahib, sahib, master, master," they implore, voices limp and dangling like broken limbs. The response, the word you hear over and over from their more fortunate neighbors of the alley: "Chelo, chelo, Go away, leave me alone."


To escape this degradation, I must take the path to the right, along the burning ghat, Often an old-timer, who believes his time has come but can’t afford the wood, will sit near the fire at the burning ghat, perhaps watching a friend depart, but more likely waiting to die, hoping the ghat keeper will take pity and give him the dignity in death he never knew in life, and burn him, after he’s dead. Anyone who isn’t able to pay or pray his way onto the pyre waits along the river bank to die, at a spot about two days journey upstream from my room. When the end comes, his body gets thrown in the Ganga, eventually ending up spinning in a whirlpool directly below my window, face down, bloated, his naked back swarming with buzzards and crows - nature’s recycling - it’s the black birds’ daily feast.

When my friend Jyll flew over to visit for a couple of days and awoke one morning to this swirling sight, she screamed in a death-defying pitch. I jumped up, "What is it, what happened?" She was trembling and couldn’t speak, but could only point to the object circling below. "What, what?" I asked, full of dread, but looking down and seeing nothing strange. She continued to point, her face stricken with horror. And then I realized what had paralyzed her. "Shew, you scared me," I said, now reposed, gazing at India’s driftwood. "It’s just a dead body."

 

As time went on and I started to learn the language, I made a friend - a man who thought he was eighty, eighty-five years old or so. He was hunched over (he fit perfectly in my room) and was a beggar now. He had a sadness, a sense of shame combined with a striking natural pride. He liked to wink. He told a story of having once been young and strong and handsome - he’d made all the schoolgirls giggle, he said. He’d had money and a house and a wife who loved him, and a lot of kids. He said, "Look, some people eat and others don’t. In some places, some people have two cars, a stereo, 20 shirts, 10 pairs of shoes, and... others don’t eat." With a wry smile, he’d place his finger against his lower lip while bobbing his head side to side the way Indians do, as if performing a Karnatic dance. "Then again, we’re told that poverty breeds resilience. When you have less than nothing, the loss of everything is not such a steep descent." Then he winked. "Karma?" he asked, "or politics?" A pause. "Or criminal? You tell me."


At least, I think that’s what he said. See, with my sketchy grasp of Hindi, I was never sure if what he was telling me were his words and his meaning, or my desire for what I wanted him to be saying. But I sure looked forward to sitting with him each day and hearing his tales of glory and woe.


The last time I ever saw him - I couldn’t find him in his regular spot on the row - but searching,

searching,

I found him.

He was sitting,

waiting,

And hoping to go home,

longingly

eyeing the fire,

at the burning ghat.

 

MY FRIENDS


There’s this despicable joke about two guys who are abducted by a hideous band of 200 space aliens - 10 feet tall, pussey, slothy, warted. The two humans are stripped naked, tied up. The alien leader says to the first, "You want death or roo roo?" The guy says, (and who wouldn’t) I’ll take roo roo. For days the guy is tortured beyond any earthly human comprehension by all 200 of the aliens, one at a time. I don’t even care to describe it, but trust me, it’s horrible. Meanwhile his pal is forced to witness the whole thing. So the first guy is laying there barely breathing. The grotesque leader says to the second guy, "Your turn, you want roo roo or death?" The second guy says (and points to brain, knowingly) "I’ll take death." The leader says, "Ok, fine, but first... roo roo."


Which is kind of how I felt after a year in India, like I’d just been thru roo roo and maybe I’d
made the wrong choice. Caught between my passion and love for the people but engulfed in the poverty and death and guilt and loneliness and sickness, I had to get out, but first, roo roo. No, but first, I had to find what I’d lost.


After my friend’s death, I came to my senses, leaving me paralyzed and unable to leave my room. In the midst of mortality, I found I could no longer walk near the burning ghat without shuddering, nor face and continue to ignore the hundreds of pleading eyes and outstretched hungry hands which confronted me daily. But what should I do, give a hundred hungry souls a bread crumb to share? Does charity put out the fire or does it extinguish the spirit. I would rather offer anger than pity. Perhaps with anger, can come change, or at least, hope.


I had always disdained those unwilling to look at themselves, but now I wished I was one of them, for when I beheld my face in the mirror, looking back at me, were two dark pleading eyes, outstretched hands and a mouth screaming, "NO." What had I become? Poor and unprivileged as I had strived to be, in the light of that mirror, I saw myself as they saw me.


So, unable to face the poverty and inevitability, and incapable of justifying my existence in the country, I stopped playing music, stopped writing and stopped eating. Sometimes I’d wander out at night once it was pitch black; sometimes I’d sit and wonder what it would feel like to be dead. Usually I’d just sit. Eventually, as I struggled to climb back to level ground, I realized I had to become an American again, like fast, but to do that I first needed to become more Indian, and I needed to work. I gave up my $2 a month closet of a room, moved into the streets and was befriended, and rescued by the friendship. I need to be whole before I can move on.


In some strange ways, India is on the cutting edge of progress. In the U.S., now, there’s designer coffee on every corner - Starbucks. But in India, for the last 5,000 years, there’s been a blanket spread out on every corner with a little man stirring a pot and serving hot tea in clay cups. Chay Bucks. Nunda was 16, a chay wallah, tea seller. Peku, Nunda’s uncle, sold ice in the summer and coal in the winter. "Oh, oh, oh. Paisa doe, barof loe, Give money, take ice," I’d sing from the back of Peku’s bicycle. Krishna was a beggar - didn’t need my help. Baba was one of a score of oarsman competing to row tourists up and down the river Ganges, in his rowboat. I was already engulfed with the river’s power through my daily bath, but now, Baba taught me to conquer its currents with an oar. Fully garbed and coiffed as an Indian peasant, and putting to use my rusty native tongue, I’d approach the tourists: "Come, boat, sit, yes? Ganga." Sort of a Jewish Hindi thing.


With our meager joint earnings from the day, a few rupees - 40, 50 cents - my four friends and I would build a small fire and scrape together a bit of rice, curry and chapati for our one daily meal. An occasional cela, banana, for a special treat after a lucrative day. We were never completely full nor left terribly hungry. Just enough to exist. The five of us slept on the ground under the burlap overhang of Nunda’s chay stall in the alley. Most nights we’d sit by the fire, teach each other songs and share stories. They ate up tales about America. They couldn’t believe how people lived there, that what the four of them earned in a year combined was about what many Americans made in a day. I tried to put it into perspective, explaining how expensive things were, like a cup of tea in New York is two day’s pay in Benares, but that just made Americans seem even more trillionaire-like. After the financial report and avowals of disassociation from anything so hideously American, I’d play Karnatic violin and jazz flute for our fellow alley sleepers, about 30 in all. I learned the language during these months and recaptured myself.

 

BHOO DOO


One night, we met a young Swiss guy, a Christian among Hindus - his name was Christian. He was in Benares studying sitar. My friends wanted to hear me speak English so they called him over and after a few minutes, mostly spent laughing at me, hearing me speak in a strange language, they invited him to eat with us. As is custom, our guest was served first, before we ate anything. When he finished, he was offered more, which he took. By the time he was done eating, after the third offering, there was no food left for any of us. My friends didn’t seem to care. I was livid. They had me say that we had already eaten, and insist that he return for dinner the next night. Later, I took this guy aside and explained how the custom works, that his role is to accept just enough food so that everyone gets an equal share. I explained how no one except him had gotten any food to eat that day. Oh, he felt terrible.


The next night, he eats his first portion. Fine. My friends insist he has more. He refuses. They insist. He refuses. A final gentle, even meek insistence. "Cana, cana. Eat, eat." He acquiesces. We watch him eat. Food’s all gone. Now he pulls me aside. "These guys are the most beautiful, selfless people I have ever met in my entire life," he says. "They don’t have a home or enough food for themselves and yet they want me to eat, even to finish their food. And they’re happier having nothing, so I can be satisfied." Shmuck, I think to myself 
"They’re not happy," I tell him. "They’re hungry, and so am I. It’s a ritual. You have to just eat yours, and then stop." He doesn’t get it. He thinks they’re Gods or something. I tell my friends, "Look, this guy is an idiot. He’s not going to stop. Give him one plate of food and that’s it. Don’t offer him any more." They look at me like I’m crazy. They don’t get it either. Meanwhile, I’m bucking 5,000 years of ingrained custom coursing through their veins - compassion, forgiveness and non-attachment. How could I compete with that? And how could they possibly get it?  But, we were family. They knew, they didn’t understand for a second, but they knew I was pissed.... and hungry.


Next day, we see the Swiss guy walking in the alley. Nunda calls out, "Hey, Bhoo doo." Every one of twenty faces in the alley immediately turns toward Nunda, except for Christian. "Bhoo doo," Nunda shouts again. Christian turns around. Everyone is aghast. See, in Hindi, with the exception of Bhen chut, there is no lower term to call someone than Bhoo doo, which means, literally, ‘half wit.’


"What did they call me?" Bhoo doo asks me. Oh, I was so tempted to tell him. "Buddha," I say. "They like you so much, they want to call you Buddha." He is touched beyond belief. "These people have nothing and they are teaching me so much, and now, now they call ME Buddha. In my life, I will never forget this moment." I translate our conversation. Everyone is dying laughing, including Bhoo doo, who is beside himself with joy as one by one, all the Indian gods in the alley come to meet and bow to the foreigner: "Namaste, Bhoo doo;. Namaste, Bhoo doo; Namaste Bhoo doo." I hardly minded that he ate all our food again that night.  
It wasn’t the last time I had to beg them not to serve so much food.



AUR CANA NAHIN


As I readied for my journey out of India, my four friends all took me to their villages outside Benares, to meet their families, to have me play my flutes and sing and to eat mounds upon mounds of food, a two-day orgy of non-stop eating and music. First, lunch in Peku’s village. We gathered in a circle, sitting on the floor, of course. As usual, the whole village stood behind me, the exalted guest, watching and smiling. We were served by Peku’s wife who I didn’t even know existed. The rich fragrance of spice and frying vegetables all but obliterated the usual bouquet of India’s smells.


First came the appetizers, served traditionally, on a banana leaf: Samosa, pakora, papadam, with the usual condiments - tamarind, garam piaz, all kinds of chutneys, followed by mulligatawny soup. By now, I’m stuffed, but next came the main courses - about a dozen different vegetarian dishes, representing every color of the Indian rainbow from purple eggplant majesty, to the fruited vibrant orange of papaya to the deep green plains of spinach. I was expected to eat it all. They piled it on one dish at a time for me to gorge upon as the throngs watched: saag vindaloo, kofta curry, mutter paneer, chana bajee, alu gobi, mulai kafta, bhindi tikka masala, chola subji, dal, chowel, biryani, raita, and the breads - poori, paratha, kulcha, chapati, nan. Then deserts - rasmali, firni, gulab jamun, kulfi, and chay and slices of fruit - cela, suntra, ananas, am, and on an’ on an’ on.

Where did all this food come from? How could they afford this? Ten times I pleaded. "Aur cana nahin. No more food. Bahod acha, sub tik heh. I’m full. I am very full." They just laughed as if I was making a joke. At last, Peku stood up. "Let’s have music," he declared. At this point, I could not breathe or move, let alone blow into a flute, but 150 villagers gathered around me with excited anticipation. So play I did. I had learned their music, but Peku wanted me to play my blues and jazz tunes for his bhai - his family and friends. I’d occasionally sneak in the flavor of the snake charmer, throwing in some Indian ragas. After I played, for a couple of hours it seemed nearly everyone got up to sing or play an instrument.

Finally, Nunda suggested we move on as his family was waiting for us in his village, the next town over, about a two-hour walk away, where they would have... a feast waiting. On the walk, I begged, "Please, Nunda, I can’t eat any more," but that would have been an insult to his family and so, was dismissed. After we arrived at the village, I had to sneak off, throw up, and eat another 20-course meal, followed by an American Indian concert. It was like that for two days in four villages. Tears, weak limbs and more tears.

 

 

THE EMERALD CITY


But after a year of seeing the people not eating animals because they’re sacred and watching the animals starve to death, then seeing my friends and everyone else getting sick and starving, that’s bad enough. But now, I’m just
recovered from malaria, amoebic dysentery and a bad case of boils, but I’m still shitting water 12 times a day and thinking, ‘that’s normal’, and walking like this... (the little tramp)... and figuring it’s OK ’cause Chaplin does it.


From deep within, I realize, I have to leave or die. But how do you say good bye when you know you’ll never see your friends again. In my mind, I really felt like Dorothy. Oh Nunda, I think I’ll miss you most of all. I mean, once you’re back in Kansas, there’s no way back to Oz. My friends had one request of me. In our final moment, Nunda implored, softly, "Hume bulna nahin. Don’t forget us." A stake through my heart. I had heard those words when I’d left prison the previous year, "Don’t forget us brother. Don’t forget we’re still in here." And I’d heard them just the prior month when I’d gone down to Bangalore to say my final good bye to Philomena.



PHILOMENA


Putting aside Bhoo doo’s Western European colonialist condescending, romantic need to think of Indians as gods, Philomena was a God. Part Gandhi, part Sophia Loren. Her spirit, her smile, her laugh and her eyes were like a raging fire, as was her cry. The very first time I ever saw Philomena, I wanted to go up to her and say, "God, I love you." She could nurture until it hurt. She nursed me through malaria; when I was covered with head lice, she picked them out of my hair one by one by one, until she was infested. Philomena worked from morning to night. She had four gorgeous devoted children, and a bum of a husband who used to regularly beat the crap out of her. How I hated him. I was glad when he died. Philomena mourned. It’s virtual treason being an impoverished widow in India – a life sentence.


In those rare moments when Philomena rested, she would sit with her hands clasped, folded on her lap, serene. I asked her about it. She smiled. "When my hands are not busy working, I must... keep them together. If I let go... (She releases them in anguish); I have to clench them tight... (bringing them slowly back together) to keep them safe. I’m holding futility. I struggle with my soul. I reach for victory over inner suffering. But a hand emerges to
stop me, to remind me - hum garib, shardi, buk lekti heh. I am poor, I am cold, I am hungry... I will never know anything else. This is my life. Karma. Better luck next life.



"Sure, my fire burns, and I will never let anyone put it out. But where is my victory? Do you hear my voice?" she asked. "Always," I answered. Then she wailed in a deep moan with a sound I didn’t know existed in humans. "That’s rage," she said. "You won’t hear it from me again. If I let it out too often, I won’t be able to stop. Me usko bi mere hat me rukta hoo. I keep that in my hands, too."


Philomena had talent and beauty, but she wasn’t an actress. She had a brilliant mind, but would never be a doctor or professor; she couldn’t read or write. She could hold you in a trance but she was no gypsy or sorceress. Philomena could heal and teach and enrapture you with her soul. What she did, in fact, was cook and clean for a group of Americans studying in Bangalore and passing through. She was our servant. It’s not what she wanted to be but she was lucky to have the job. I couldn’t leave India without seeing her one more time.


So, from Benares, I hitchhiked 3,000 miles south, back to Bangalore, to say good bye to Philomena. We went to her village, her birthplace. I played a farewell concert which turned into a wild jam session with some incredible musicians. We had a celebration. A South Indian feast of thali, masala dosai, idli, rasam, sambar, roti, you get the idea. Philomena packed me with food to take on my journey back north and out of the country. Finally, it was time to go.


We walked in silence until Philomena did what was a brazen act in India. She took my hand, kissed it and pressed it to her cheek. "You are my son," she says. I kissed her hand and held it tight. "You are my mother." Laughing, crying, sobbing, really. "Mujee bulna nahin," she whispers. I nod. "Look at me. Listen." And she repeats, slower, louder. "Do not forget me." The corners of her lips stirred into the tiniest, the saddest of smiles. She turned, walked away and didn’t look back. I never saw her again.


To this day, I have not forgotten any of them, my brothers in prison, my bhai in Benares, my Philomena. They guide the blood to my heart and have helped direct my footsteps. I’m sure they would be happy to know they’re always with me. But looking back, I realize they meant something else, something more. "Don’t forget me." It means don’t let me down; it means don’t eat all the food; it means don’t let me go hungry; it means please get me out of here. It means I want to let loose my hands. It also means my heart breaks sometimes. I’m afraid that when you get right down to it, I forgot. I once knew what to do and I forgot. Perhaps there’s a little Bhoo doo
in all of us.