What Good Am I?
What Good Am I? Written by Bob Dylan, sung by Tom Jones
What good am I some like all the rest
If I just turn away when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?
What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky
What good am I?
What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try
What good am I?
What good am I then to others and me
If I had every chance and yet still fail to see
If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been.
What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?
What Good Am I? : The Unofficial Pastor Of MacArthur’s Park
The Unofficial Pastor, Ludwig Strauss, enters MacArthur’s Park.
I moved to St. Sebastian because I had found a job there. At the time, I didn’t realize I had picked the perfect town for me. For instance, the town’s namesake, St. Sebastian, is the patron saint of arrows, plagues, athletes, athletics, sports and soldiers. It is said he was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. Sebastian was known for having encouraged in their faith two Christian prisoners due for martyrdom who were begged by their family to forswear Christ and offer token sacrifice. His aura was said to have cured a woman who had been mute for six years, and that the miracle instantly converted 78 persons. Sebastian is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a tree and riddled with arrows.
Although commonly depicted this way in art, miraculously, the arrows did not kill him. The widow of Castulus, Irene of Rome, went to retrieve his body to bury it, and found he was still alive. She brought him back to her house and nursed him back to health!
The other residents of the house doubted he was a Christian. One of those was a girl who was blind. Sebastian asked her “Do you wish to be with God?”, and made the sign of the Cross on her head. “Yes”, she replied, and immediately regained her sight!
Sebastian then stood on a step and harangued Diocletian as he passed by; so the emperor had him clubbed to death and his body thrown in a privy. But in an apparition Sebastian told a Christian widow where they might find his body undefiled and bury it “at the catacombs by the apostles.”
Because Sebastian had been thought to have been killed by the arrows, and yet was not, and then later was killed by the same emperor who had ordered him shot, he is sometimes known as the saint who was martyred twice. He is venerated in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Sebastian was also said to be a defense against the plague. The Golden Legend transmits the episode of a great plague that afflicted the Lombards in the time of King Gumburt, which was stopped by the erection of an altar in honor of St. Sebastian in the Church of Saint Peter in the Province of Pavia.
What a great story! What a great name for a town! How prescient of me to pick this town to live in! Although I’ve never been a soldier, or had the plague, I have shot arrows (flaming ones to be exact, but that’s another story for another time), and I have been an athlete and played sports. So I kind of think of St. Sebastian and me as soul brothers.
This brings me to the story of how I became the Unofficial Pastor of MacArthur’s Park in St. Sebastian. Let me explain…
To me, public parks are lonely places – like airports, hotel lobbies and hotel rooms, train stations, hospital waiting rooms, nursing homes, funeral homes, cemeteries, and Arby’s restaurants. They are lonely places because they have one thing in common – people continuously come and go (except at Arby’s) – and rarely know anyone else there. If you watch them in these places, not many of them seem happy to be where they are. They are quiet and do not engage other people and they look lonely and dispirited.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you know that I am a middle-aged, gray-haired fat man, with bad knees, bad looks, and a bad attitude, who walks with a cane. I also have a dog named Spot, who at any one time may turn on a small child and eat him. That is one of the main reasons I began walking the dog in MacArthur’s Park.
As I said earlier, parks are lonely places. You see people there all the time, but most of them are passing each other like ships in the night. You see teens using the skateboard park, and with a little observation, you come to realize that most of them don’t know each other. You see children playing on the hideous play equipment installed on the north end of the park, and soon come to realize that the children don’t know each other either, and that the mothers are too busy smoking cigarettes and talking on their cell phones to either monitor their child’s behavior or his safety, or even to play with them. It seems the only time I see an adult playing with a child is when it is the child’s father, usually with no woman around (divorced? separated? Daddy’s weekend to have the little nose picker?; or an adult that looks suspiciously like a potential child molester.
You see people walking their dogs, mostly alone – some say hello – most just beat a wide path around us so that little Fluffy doesn’t get contaminated by scruffy Spot. You see lone fishermen on the banks of the river. You see old men sitting alone on the park benches or picnic tables, smoking cigars or cigarettes, or just looking off into the distance, as if waiting to die. You see the occasional couple walking and looking at the sculptures that line the asphalt path that goes around the park. You see the bicycle riders who, stuffed into their spandex and never having learned any biking etiquette, think you have eyes in the back of your head and hearing like a bat – as they run you down at speed from behind. You see the occasional pair of lovers lying on a blanket on the vast green lawn, lost in their own embrace. (You just know they’re doomed to loneliness in the future) You also see the lone reader, sunbathing on the lawn, or sitting in a lawn chair enjoying a book. You see a lonesome and lost homeless man on occasion – shunned and unwanted in the park.
It’s a beautiful park, sixty-seven acres of green grass, lush plantings, hundreds of trees – all with little brass plaques in the ground by their trunks, in honor of some dead loved one. The park runs right along the Fox River, and you can see waterfowl, turtles, and even sometimes fish in the water. Occasionally you see a lone Canadian goose, whose life-partner has been shot from the sky somewhere along their travels; destined to lead the rest of his/her life alone, as the geese mate for life. Its plaintive call for its lost mate can continue for hours, for days, for weeks – all to no avail. It is very sad to see that lone goose on the river, in the same place every day, until one day it disappears, and you never see it again. You also see the occasional dead animal – a dead chipmunk here, a dead squirrel there, a dead hawk lying, with feathers splayed on the ground. You see dead Koi floating in the pretty little man-made pond complete with miniature waterfall mimicking a stream; no doubt the victim of one of the little uncontrollables with a stick and no sense and no supervision.
Spot and I walk almost every day in the park. We used to walk ten to twenty miles a week, but my knees continue to disintegrate, and we can only go for less than a mile until I have to sit down to rest. Because we are there practically every day, people have begun to recognize us, and more and more people are stopping to talk. And when they stop to talk, it is never about the weather, seldom about the dogs, and rarely about anything pleasant. They stop to talk to me to tell me their troubles, their life history, or some other sad, private subject. Dr. L tells me that they stop to talk to me because “I am old, look like I’ve known pain, and look like I would have sympathy for them.” He says I exude an “aura of empathy” that makes people comfortable in approaching me.
Because people always stop me and tell me their troubles, I have ordained myself as the “Unofficial Pastor of MacArthur’s Park”; I empathize with these folks, and whenever possible, give them the benefit of my common-sense counsel. For instance:
I’ll be stopped by a young mother pushing a stroller with a young child in it, who will tell me that her husband was laid off of work six months ago, that they just had the baby, and that she doesn’t know how they’re going to live. They are behind in their mortgage; her husband has had trouble finding a new job, and she’s getting desperate. That’s why she brings the little nipper to the park – to have a little respite from being stuck in the house with all her worries. I listen patiently, trying to show empathy for her plight. And I do feel empathy for her plight. She’s a young woman who just needs someone she can talk to. I certainly can’t solve any of her problems, but I can listen. I can’t even give her some good advice; she will have to deal with this on her own, with her husband. Now don’t get me wrong, but, if I WERE to give her advice, it would be something like this: “Stop breeding, go out and get a job herself and leave the deadbeat husband at home to care for little poopy-pants. If deadbeat husband doesn’t find a job within six months – divorce him and take everything he has.”
Or I’ll be stopped by an old woman pushing a stroller with a fluffy little lap-dog in it, who explains to me that the tiny canine gets “tired” walking around the park, thus the stroller, which gives Fluffy’s little legs a rest, as she is getting on in years. As I listen to her politely, telling her how “cute” little Fluffy is, I am thinking, “Lady, either push Fluffy and the stroller down the boat ramp at the south end of the park into the river, or give Fluffy a refreshing drink of chilled anti-freeze when you get home. Both options will save the wear and tear on Fluffy’s little legs, and you will no longer be burdened with the indignity of pushing a stroller with a dog in it through the park – especially at your age.”
Another middle-aged woman will stop me, and with teary eyes tell me her husband just passed away from a sudden heart attack; and that she is walking in the park to seek solace in “Nature”. I do my best to console her by saying I am sorry for her loss, the park is a nice place to be, and walking is a good way to deal with her grief. After leaving her to go on her way, I continue with the advice in my head: telling her “you never know when your time is up, that she’ll probably be better without him, that there are many male widowers in the sea, and that there are plenty of trees and/or park benches where she could have a brass plaque placed in memoriam of her late sweetie. As an alternative, she could always move in with her daughter and son-in-law, or move to a nice retirement community, like Del Webb’s Sun City, where she could take up tennis and swimming, and play cards with the other widows.”
Men are a bit different, especially the older ones. When they approach me, they don’t start right in on their troubles. First, they have to talk about dogs, and how they once had an English Springer spaniel as a kid, and what a great dog he was, blah, blah, blah. With these guys, Spot wanders as far away from them as the leash allows (26 feet if you’re interested), and finds something more interesting to do. After such small talk comes the deluge – the knee replacement gone bad, the recent removal of an appendix or four feet of their colon, their need for cataract surgery, a recent heart attack, whatever.
When you have a special aura of empathy, what can you say to these people that will make them feel better? Nothing really, they are just looking for a bit of the “I’m sorry to hear that.” from a stranger, or “I’ve heard of that before, and people have gotten through it over time”. But what I’d really like to tell them is that “they should think about the good side of things: the bad knee replacement? Well, you’ve got another knee don’t you? Removal of the appendix – no one needs that anyway! The loss of four feet of one’s colon? Look on the bright side – the plastic bag at your side works quite well – and you will never have to use the park’s “restroom” again. Cataracts? There are many people in this world who go blind and learn to do amazing things – even use ATM’s! Had a recent heart attack? Be happy you survived this one – the next one will probably be fatal.”
Young men almost never stop me, except to ask for a “light”. I tell them I don’t smoke – and don’t they know smoking will kill them? Idiots.
Others will stop me to show off their extensive knowledge of the area – the history of how MacArthur’s Park came to be; or how much St. Sebastian has grown over the years (Duh!), or how they have lived in St. Sebastian all their lives, and still live in their parents’ home. I nod politely, move slowly away from these people, look at my watch, and explain to them that I have a doctor’s appointment, and that I’m sorry, but I have to go.
Occasionally, a bible-thumper will stop, usually while I’m picking up dog poop, thinking this is a good time to corner me into coming to Jesus. At these times I wish I had a highly trained Schutzhund – a German Shepherd dog that will attack on command, instead of a floppy eared, goofy dog. I respond to these people by giving them a direct opinion, with no equivocation: “Do you see what I am doing here right now? And while I’m doing it do you think I am interested in hearing about your superstitions? And, by the way, if you have any decency left in you, you would respect my privacy while I use my cane as leverage to pick up this $%#@, and, by the way, you should stop going around trying to force your beliefs on others – it’s very rude and intrusive to do so.”
Absolutely, with no equivalent I can think of, are the people with children that approach us. Actually, that statement is misleading – it is usually the unattended little bunnies that approach us – rushing straight at Spot as if he were a stuffed animal. Being a good Pastor, I try to warn these little horribles that the dog is unused to little tikes, and may try to take a bite out of their little snot-filled noses. That warning doesn’t stop them. With no parent around to watch over their safety, they rush the dog, go right up to him and wrap their tiny little arms around his neck. Struck with horror and panic, I try desperately to get Spot away from them as quickly as possible, before blood is shed. But knock on wood, Spot has been a complete gentleman whenever this happens, and to date no child has lost a nose to pick. I look around for the “parents” of these undisciplined little monsters – but usually find them hundreds of yards away – smoking cigarettes and talking on their cell phones. This is where I lose my Pastor-like qualities and think, “These people should never have been allowed to breed, and should be shot on sight – or at least beaten severely with a cane.”
A man, who dresses in Alpine hiking clothes, complete with leggings, a six-foot tall walking stick, what looks like lederhosen, a long white beard, and a huge, crumpled straw hat, has also stopped me on occasion. He introduces himself to me as “Tom – The Walking Man of St. Sebastian”, and tells me that that is his occupation – to wander – kind of like Diogenes – all around St. Sebastian to see what he can see. I listen politely and tell him how interesting that is. Inside I’m thinking, “What a crazy old bastard! Could I be seeing my future?”
So what good am I as the “Unofficial Pastor of MacArthur’s Park”? I like to think that just by listening to these people, and showing a bit of empathy and understanding of their troubles, helps give them an outlet and some comfort that they can’t find elsewhere. In addition, it has become a favorite place of mine in St. Sebastian. Despite the interruptions, I do get a measure of solace from being in the park. Spot and I have a special bench by the river, with a beautiful view, and best of all – away from the walking path – where we sit and ponder the Universe together; he in his dog way – nose to the ground sniffing of scents unknown to man, me – sitting on the bench listening to the birds sing – gazing at the sunlight rippling on the river, as if dappled by the gods of the Universe.