The Universal Prayer
by David L. Sirois
I had seven precious dollars, but I badly needed to spend them. One for the bus ride from Medford Square to Davis in Somerville, Massachusetts. One twenty-five for the subway ride to Porter Square in Cambridge, where there is a tiny place called Toad (“never a cover charge”) and excellent music seven nights a week. I could have walked from Davis Square to Porter, but I didn’t feel like walking. After all, the subway stop was almost across the street from the club. I knew I had enough for one cheap beer, but not enough for a glass of bad wine. I wanted to be able to get back home, but might still be short – I’d have to sneak through a subway turnstile, pull it backward, squeeze inside, and then let it swing forward again.
At Toad, the bartender was as friendly as ever. Three dollars for a Pabst Blue Ribbon, three quarters for the tip. And still a dollar left for the bus ride home. Woodpile was playing, formerly the Holt Hopkins Band. They were transcendental, elevating rock, blues and country into a kind of Holy Trinity. While I was ordering my much-anticipated beer, I noticed an interesting-looking man in a suit at the bar. By interesting I mean he looked interested in life and intelligent, as opposed to looking like a lizard or toad. Kindness beamed through his black glasses. He may have noticed how eerily thin I was at the time, though I had no idea that I was. I asked him if he liked the band. He said “Yeah, that’s why I came!” We exchanged names and shook hands.
In between the band’s sets, I told him about the film I was working on. Or actually, the one I believed I was working on. It was called The Universal Prayer, based on the teaching “To work is to pray.” Work as a spiritual offering. It would cover the whole range of work, from underpaid Mexican and Brazilian workers in Greater Boston to corporate bigwigs. From work as drudgery to work as ecstasy. Those were the crosshairs of my aim. He said “That’s amazing. Let me show you something.” He pulled a book out of his bag, telling me it was about the plight of poor laborers. He said it was part of a class he was teaching. I said “That’s amazing! Where do you teach?” “Well, at Harvard. Can I buy you a beer?”
I was more than willing to accept a free beer. Or two, as the case was. I grinned in a self-aggrandized manner as I showed him what I was reading – Paul Valery’s “Poesies”, which I loudly explained I was translating. When a song came up with a particularly lively beat, I told my new friend Renaldo “I have to dance.” So I did, clicking my heels in the air, then moving like a postmodern improviser, real time and then slow motion tai chi meditations. . . I rejoined Renaldo near the front of the bar, whose bizarre generosity urged him to supply me with another beer. But the bartender wouldn’t take his two-beer order, saying “I’m not comfortable serving that guy,” as Renaldo related to me. We were dumbfounded. “Just because I was dancing, I guess that means I’m drunk! I only had three beers!” He suggested we walk 10 minutes down Mass. Ave. to the Lizard Lounge, but warned me, “Whenever I go there, I end up ordering a lot of Champagne!” Sweet anticipation bubbled up inside me. And so we walked.
When we arrived, showed our human identification cards, got our secret bracelets and went downstairs, a band I don’t remember was playing. Maybe it was the Deb Pasternak Band, maybe Jimmy Ryan on his mando-cello. Who knows? I was lost in the mania of the moment, and worse yet, undiagnosed. Renaldo popped the Champagne before my eyes, Perrier-Jouët I believe, and we watched the foam and filled our glasses. Time began to move very quickly, the rhythm of the music, the throbbing in my head, the heady exhilaration of new friendship. My glass kept getting filled and refilled, a rapid blur of bubbles, until I lost awareness of what was going on. A second bottle may have been bought, but I do not know. All I remember is practically crawling up the stairs to get some air, heading outside as a stupefied drunk, and sitting down against the club. I had no idea what to do. I could not afford a cab, the last train had left, and I wasn’t capable of walking home. A group of people outside smoking asked me if I needed anything. I told them my story and they said “Good luck.” They left soon after, and I sat there alone yelling “HELP ME! HELP ME!” No one came.
I sat there simpering until a half-hour or more passed, and began to stagger homeward. I never said goodbye or a final thank you to Renaldo, though I had been thanking him all night. I did feel profoundly grateful for this free high-speed joyride. Fast friendship and fine music, lowbrow beer and infinite footwork. I was weaving down the sidewalk home, realizing I hadn’t eaten, when I got to Davis Square. It was 1:30 in the morning, and I thought about the restaurants there, all closed – the Indian places, The Joshua Tree, McDonald’s, Mike’s, Redbones. . . Knowing I had to head toward Medford, and thinking about Cajun cooking, I stumbled toward the parking lot behind Redbones, where its dumpster was. With a gaggle of furtive glances, I found its chipped blue triangular front. I ripped open the first black bag I saw, piercing four fingers of each hand through the plastic and pulling them apart. A mostly-uneaten piece of cornbread lay there glorious in a sea of pulled pork. I helped myself to all of it, until I began to gag. During this phase of my life, broke and overconfident, I used to steal sandwiches from Store 24 and White Hen Pantry, scoping out where the cameras were, watching the eyes of the cashiers, timing every turn until there was an almost-imperceptible bulge in my pocket. But this was myself in extremis, with no one watching. I don’t remember how, but I somehow made my way to Medford Square.