Thursday, January 06, 2005

Zen Exercises

When we arrived to run the Mephisto store in 1999, I used the half-hour before opening as kind of a Zen exercise. I swept the sidewalk in front of the store every day. And not just in front of our store, I swept in front of all six stores. And the rain gutter too. And the steps and porch that ran the length of the store. It was how I learned the street. What went on in the mornings, who passed by every day, what time the stores opened around us, what days were going to busy and what not busy. But hey, it was February, we left New Hampshire less than a month before, and the temperature here was in the 70's. Life was fine and dandy.

After a time, the sweeping became less of an exercise and more of a perfunctory chore. I slacked off on it. It was still important that the store and its approaches be as inviting as possible, but the cement sidewalks got grimier by the day, tracked with the dirt that attached itself to the splashed drinks, dropped ice cream or discarded candy from the day before. We tried a few times having the walk pressure-washed and that helped a little but it became a losing battle. The City had planted trees along the sidewalks a year or two earlier. The two in front of the store died, poisoned, it was said, by one of the previous managers of our store so it wouldn't block the sign from the street. The City's response was to remove the tree and leave the sandy two-foot square hole that surrounded it, for people to track through and stumble over. Finally it was paved over with tar, a solution to the problem deemed sufficient by the City.

I kind of miss that morning time back then, when everything was new and exciting. Nick was a regular on the street. Nick Greco was 71 years old in 1999, and lived in Key West for the past 28 of those years. He was the maintenance man at the Southern Cross Hotel directly across Duval St. from the Women's Club. He lived in a room in the back, a room with a small TV and small refigerator, kept neat and sparely furnished. A short, grizzled, toothless man, Nick loved talking and telling stories. He spoke vaguely of a mysterious past in Key West and before that. He talked about when "me and the boys took down the Cubans". He claimed marriages, and children living in places like Cyprus and Gibraltar. He spoke of carrying a badge and wearing a gun. Sometimes there would get to be a faraway look as the story rolled on, like he was remembering it in real time. If he faltered in hos story, a question would be enough for him to regain the thread or to find a new one. Nick loved reading. We exchanged books and discussed them afterwards.

Stan Levin made his way down Duval Street every morning between 9 and 10, with Castro on his shoulder. Stan was a retired auto dealer from Pennsylvania. He traveled the Caribbean at one time, buying and selling rental cars as a wholesaler, and loved Costa Rica. He once persuaded me to subscribe for six weeks to the Tico Times, the recognized English-language newspaper of C.R. Castro was Stan's beautiful multi-colored parrot. He'd squawk loudly on Stan's command, but I never really heard him speak as some parrots do. Stan was usually willing to let someone take a picture of Castro, but didn't want himself as part of the picture. He'd turn his head or lean out the way if he saw a camera pointing his way. I ran into Stan recently. He had to give Castro away to someone who has a female parrot, because Castro had begun to hurt himself, pulling out his feathers, hurling himself, I suppose, from his perch to the bottom of his cage, things like that. Some companion parrots, Stan explained, reach sexual maturity with a great deal of difficulty. Castro was such a parrot.


But I ramble. I set out to say something about how Zen practice, and wind up talking about the sex lives of horny parrots. How Zen is that?

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