Friday, January 2, 2009

Gatekeeper


Here we are suddenly in a new year, just 12 months away from another census, and 24 months away from another decade. Has your sense of urgency gone up a notch? I'm wondering if mine has; too soon to tell.
What follows is a piece originally written as a scene in my memoir. It hasn't made the first draft yet, but easily could. Perhaps my loyal writing group can suggest where it fits best, but for now, it goes here. Because we sense our life changing so rapidly to the many new forms of technology that ease into our routine, I thought it best to set this little piece down here. Consider it a short, short story, or an intelligent essay, or a scene from my book, or perhaps nothing more than a story that needed telling.


Outside the Gates


It felt like we were about to pull off a bank job. We were. Our favorite kind, the Dylan, surprise. Like any premeditated act of guerilla theater, preparation was the key to success.
In Houston, the target was usually our local branch of The Bank of Houston. Its downtown location made for easy in/out access. But my hit and run skills were honed in California, where the practice originated. After all, California had the archetypal villain; The Bank of America. By 1970 it was common knowledge that B of A’s majority owners were the Vatican Jesuits. The inquisition metaphor extended from their 51% controlling interest to the dicey morality of the other 49%. The combination of war profits, investments in Apartheid South Africa, and questionable real estate holdings made B of A the perfect target.
The Dylan surprise was nothing like what happened in Isla Vista. In that student community of U. C. Santa Barbara, the Bank of America came to symbolize every oppressive, capitalist and landlord in Gaucho-land. Emboldened by anger and alcohol, students burned the local branch to the ground. I’d seen the branch office on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley transformed from a modest edifice with glass windows, tasteful landscape, and easy access, to something resembling a World War II bunker. No, the Dylan surprise was quick, nowhere near a felony, and quite possibly capable of long term consequences. Here’s how it worked. Enter the bank, checkbook in hand, and confidently walk to one of the available islands well stocked with deposit and withdrawal forms. Usually stacked in neat piles, they’re often available in two colors, perhaps white for deposits and blue or yellow for withdrawals. While undetected, remove a few slips and neatly print one verse from Bob Dylan’s “Gates of Eden” on the plain backside. Bury the slip, or slips, if time permits more than one, deep in the remaining pile with the neatly printed lyric face up. That way, some unsuspecting cog in the great grinding wheel of ruthless capitalism will be treated to a message from the next generation. A message from the future in the words of the verbal architect himself.
In comes John or Suzy Q citizen to deposit their paycheck. Blindly reaching for a deposit slip they come face to face with this set of words:

The foreign sun, it squints upon
A bed that is never mine
As friends and other strangers
From their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly, totally free
To do anything they wish to do but die
And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden


I don’t know what we thought this would do. A transformative experience? A momentary diversion? A warning, eliciting guilt, shame, fear? Maybe just a friendly reminder of the one message that provoked the older generation the most: “We are everywhere.”

There was something special about “The Gates of Eden.” Sure, it had a driving, guitar strumming, and harmonica piercing sound. That wasn’t it. It was all in the baffling lyrics. We really had no idea what Dylan was saying, but leaving portions of “Gates of Eden” behind, like random acts of kindness, was somehow empowering. And nobody was any the wiser. God those lyrics could intimidate. I pity the poor plumber who, upon wading through a sewer all day chanced to draw:

The lamppost stands with folded arms
Its iron claws attached
To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge
All and all can only fall
With a crashing but meaningless blow
No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden


One afternoon, after a frustrating wait for the mail carrier, I rushed down to The Bank of Houston to cash my bi-monthly $90.00 check. The late Friday afternoon crowd was only about 10 minutes away so any Dylan theatrics today would need to be done quickly. After filling out my deposit slip, I snatched another and neatly printed

The savage soldier sticks his head in sand and then complains
Unto the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf but still remains
Upon the beach where hound dogs bay at ships with tattooed sails
Heading for the Gates of Eden


The moment my pen stopped writing I sensed someone approaching. No time to slip this “ace” back into the deck, so I placed it lyric side up right on the top of the pile and moved swiftly to the window of an available bank teller. Completing my transaction, I headed for the door. Curiosity got the best of me in time to see the yellow slip adorned with a portion of “Gates of Eden” firmly in a young man’s grip. He wore a U.S. Army uniform. My heart beat faster. It was rare to see any beneficiary of these poetic gifts in person. Before my exit I watched the infantryman smile, nod in recognition, and neatly fold the slip of paper into his breast pocket. We are everywhere.
That night I listened to the song a few more times. No new insight resulted. If anything, some of the images were laughable. Four-legged forest clouds, cowboy angel, Utopian hermit monks, motorcycle black Madonna two wheeled gypsy queen…man Dylan must have been smoking some powerful dope. But there was one verse that stood out from the rest. I carefully copied it on a small note card and placed it in my wallet just behind my identification.

Relationships of ownership they whisper in the wings,
To those condemned to act accordingly and wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs the lonesome sparrow sings,
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden


Then I added the last two lines of the song:
At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden

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