Edinburgh Americana

When Is A Po-Boy Not A Poor-Boy?

I am just back from a trip to New York where we were at a meeting of the Better Care Network which was seeking to develop a paper on ‘informal’ care. It was a privilege to be invited to this event, where people from various backgrounds spent two days discussing the practicalities of a draft paper written by Mark Brennan and Pat Dolan.  I’ll post more about the ideas we discussed at the event when the paper is completed and published.

Manhattan is a place that has changed so much since I first visited it as a young man in 1988. For example, the crime rate has plummeted and when you walk round it now feels more like a European City than before. Not as relaxed (day time) or as excitable (night time) as the French quarter of New Orleans, but much calmer than the New York of old, particularly uptown New York.

We stayed in the Aloft Hotel Harlem which I would highly recommend. To some extent, the local Harlem Soul food was able to compete with that we had experienced in New Orleans two years ago.  For example, we came a cross tasty blackened catfish, barbeque chicken, collard greens, mac chees etc.  We didn’t come across any po-boys and that was probably a good thing cause nothing could compete with the po-boys we had in new Orleans – I can still taste them now.  There is just something about the flavour explosion of a po-boy that you don’t forget easily. I love to consume life and a po-boy seems a well matched food for me.

The funny thing is that I have found the term po-boy confusing. As a young man, my favourite novel was Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.  Dharma Bums often involved people being sent out for poor-boys but I had thought these were something you drink – so I was a little confused when our friend Mark suggested that we go ‘eat’ New Orleans’ po-boys.

This trip to New York, we visited a pubs in the Village where people like Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac had been before us. And it was thinking about Jack Kerouac that set me off questioning whether a po-boy you eat in New Orleans is the same as the poor-boy of Kerouac’s books.

So, today I went back to Dharma Bums and would you believe it Jack’s poor-boy was a jug of cheap wine. Maybe my memory is not as bad as I think.

Even better, the poor-boy was mentioned at the start of chapter 1, so I didn’t have to look far. The book starts with the narrator, Ray Smith, sharing a poor-boy of wine with a ‘little bum’ in a box car of a train:

I was pleased. I reminded myself of the line in the Diamond Sutra that says, “Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.” I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection. Since then I’ve become a little hypocritical about my lip-service and a little tired and cynical. Because now I am grown so old and neutral… But then I really believed in the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquillity and wisdom and ecstasy, and I believed that I was an oldtime bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world (usually the immense triangular arc of New York to Mexico City to San Francisco) in order to turn the wheel of the True Meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for myself as a future Buddha (Awakener) and as a future Hero in Paradise. I had not met Japhy Ryder yet, I was about to the next week, or heard anything about “Dharma Bums” although at this time I was a perfect Dharma Bum myself and considered myself a religious wanderer. The little bum in the gondola solidified all my beliefs by warming up to the wine and talking and finally whipping out a tiny slip of paper which contained a prayer by Saint Teresa announcing that after her death she will return to the earth by showering it with roses from heaven, forever, for all living creatures. (Kerouac 1958)

Smith’s companion told him that he read the extract most every day and that he had removed it from a magazine in a reading room in Los Angeles. For me, I’m not a big fan of the word charity but words like wisdom, humility and tranquillity sound like good things to practice.

George Orwell was suspicious of charity. He was particularly scathing of religious groups who used charity in manipulative ways e.g. if they provided tea and food but then forced homeless people to listen to a religious sermon.  I was also reminded of this when discussing the idea of informal support in New York.

I have always believed that selflessness and selfishness are two parts of the same double edged sword. My default position is that I love to help people, I love to be an awakener. Yet, when trying to help people, I am aware that I may also be committing a selfish act.  My way of being can become selfish if, for example, the experience is too much about me, my life or my deeds.  I am also aware, having learned from Kerouac, that if the concept of help becomes a rigid sort of charity – then it becomes no help at all.

I have worked for over 20 years trying to support people to get recognition for their capabilities, their life stories, their life requirements and their ambitions. For that work to have meaning it has to be carried out with humility, with grace and with wisdom.  I’d like to think that most days I have been able to live up to some of those words,.  However, I am also aware that some days I have fallen very short.  Some days I have fallen short and not been aware of it, on other occasions I have wilfully strayed from my root values.  Even now, I constantly struggle to live with humility, with grace and with wisdom but I always walk with the hope in my heart that there are good deeds to be done that will out-weigh our sins.