Tales from a Middle Place

Tales from a Middle Place

Growing up on the West Coast of the United States at the tail end of the 1990’s technology boom, a strange notion was ever-present; the notion of “the edge”. I found that in the minds of locals living in the Golden State, both young and old, possessing this “edge” was something of a secular cult. Brilliant scientists and rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were “cutting edge”. Big budget film-makers from Hollywood were always bringing their audience “to the edge”. And what successful comedian, or teenager for that matter, didn’t consider their humor to be “edgy”? The “edge” was the place everyone wanted to be, a place at the forefront of human endeavor, the limit of what had been achieved and the beginning of what was possible. The edge wasn’t easy to define, and it certainly wasn’t safe. In fact, as the writer Hunter S. Thompson warned, “the edge” could only be described vaguely since everyone who really knew what it was had already toppled over it. Still, the edge was the place of life, the place where things happened, and the place where people made names for themselves.

Even the landscape of the state seemed tuned to the notion of “the edge”. In California, the featureless plains and deserts of middle America became transformed into a land of fresh agriculture, novel lifestyles, and technological innovation, before finally meeting the abyss of the Pacific Ocean. Here within a narrow strip of tasteful villas, high-tech corporate parks, and cliff-side urban metropolises lay the home of true innovation. The only place where genius could emerge and, as I thought, the only place where interesting stories happened to people.

Yet halfway through my 20s, during an attempt to find my calling with a degree from a university tucked away in a Midwestern town, I encountered a place entirely separated from the hum of those living on the edge of things. This place was neither the dull world of Walmart consumerism nor the fevered swamps of evangelical fanaticism which so plagued the nightmares of blue-state denizens of that era. This place wasn’t even the land of plain and honest folk described in Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon”. It was something apart, mired in its own haunted history, and possessing a quality absent from locations more in tune with the spirit of the age.

Such places are not easy to notice. Indeed, I might have missed it. All universities, regardless of their location, exist on the edge of things. They bask in the glow of the novel and erect monuments of chrome with academic programs designed, as one pamphlet put it, “to push the boundaries of human possibility”. But in this new home, locked in the orbit of one of Michigan’s largest rust belts, a curious individual could observe the seams of the modern world built into the landscape of the Detroit metropolitan area.

Half a century into its decline as a manufacturing capital, Detroit in 2008 was twisting in the winds of a financial crisis that had swept the rest of America. As such, the city was gripped by a stagnation that a denizen of Seattle or San Francisco could hardly imagine. Engulfed in a notorious crime epidemic since the early 70s, the Detroit of the late 2000s had somehow burnt out, transforming into a deserted landscape with a barely active downtown surrounded by miles of desolate ex-urban neighborhoods and industrial ruins. Those still attached to the city who had any money had fled to the suburbs and visited its downtown only for the occasional sporting event, interacting as little as possible with the urban reality that most considered as unfathomable as it was unsolvable.

Then, local news seemed filled with bizarre stories from the city: fully functioning homes selling for dimes and nickels in semi-deserted neighborhoods; abandoned multi-story commercial buildings excavated to find the bodies of long-dead junkies in their elevator shafts; and the humorous story of a local comic journalist completing an 18-hole pick-up golf game across downtown, unperturbed by authorities. The city had become a type of wilderness, embodied, most notably in Ford’s Michigan Theater, once an art deco jewel, now a rain swept ruin with plants growing in between the seats where glitzy theatergoers would have sat fifty years before.

But outside the urban devastation, there remained a manner particular to the region. Burning in the hearts of those who remembered better times was an animation that would be exceptional even in the most sentimental small-town community on the west coast. At first, the attitude came off as a mix of nostalgia and self-righteousness, but it nevertheless contained a warmth and cheer that I have since associated with the term “Middle American”.

Often, Californians traveling out of state expect to find places totally assimilated into West Coast mannerisms spread far and wide by Hollywood. But in some places, one can find folk distinct from the America that left the 20th century behind. This quality was less present in the younger generation, who fled from midwestern cultural attitudes faster than they fled midwestern geography. However, among the older folks, living on the outskirts of the post-industrial strip, or holding down a homestead in an otherwise abandoned urban neighborhood, one could get a sense of what was, or perhaps still is,
“Michiganess”.

I encountered the quality no more fully than in my friendship with Charles Novak, a short balding and bespectacled man in his late 50s living alone in a private dormitory room in the student housing cooperative where I took residence during my career in Grad school. WIth an off-balance gate, a lazy eye, balding gray hair, and an overly polite mannerism that would have, in today’s college environment,  certainly been called out as “White”, Charlie was an odd character to find in a student dormitory mostly occupied by hip 20-somethings. Still, eccentricities and all, Charlie Novak was Michigander in the old sense. And it was from Charlie that I received a brief glimpse into a world that I would have never known otherwise.

Like many of the rust belt’s residents, Charlie’s father and grandfather had worked in the auto industry and had managed to build thriving lives for themselves with only high school educations. As the first of his family to attend college, Charlie carried his parents’ hopes for upward mobility, until an early-life stroke nearly killed him half-way through his degree. Upon recovering, Charlie managed to muddle through his college years with his radical political convictions intact and absolutely no professional ambitions otherwise. And so, after graduation, Charlie stayed put in the socialist living experiment he had joined in the 70s, long after his peers had moved on.

Charlie seemed a man whose development was frozen at the cusp of adulthood, just at the point in life when his father and grandfather would have found meaning in marriage and a stable unionized job. Not that Charlie was morose or distant. He remained ever outgoing and gregarious with a childlike enthusiasm for new things. But, in spite of this, Charlie was stationary. He could not confront the changes required by his own life and times. And so, Charlie stayed put, year after year in the student housing CoOp, as generations of students passed by around him.

But in spite of his eccentricities, Charlie was well-adjusted in one way. Despite his continuing health problems, he had obtained a career driving a taxi across the Detroit Metropolitan area. The occupation was close to ideal. In addition to covering his expenses, the work as a cabbie provided him with a collection of second-hand stories taken from passengers and a nocturnal sleeping schedule which on most days found him eating his dinner with the dormitory’s night owls still socializing long after the regular work-a-day people had gone to bed.

Most of my contact with Charlie came during late nights when a desire to procrastinate brought me to the dormitory kitchen to socialize. There, nursing cups of tea and feasting on dinner leftovers, a company of insomniacs, late-night gamers, night-shift workers and, of course, Charlie collected around the central table to shoot the breeze in the light of a single overhead fixture and the glow of the kitchen pilot lights. Charlie showed up late to these gatherings after finishing his taxi rounds, joining those gathered with a wide smile and a “howdy” before jumping into whatever discussion was underway.

Residents often excused themselves when seeing Charlie, realizing that if they had stayed up long enough for his arrival at the table, it was far too late indeed. Moreover, Charlie’s presence in a conversation marked a distinct decline in focus. Seldom being interested in the more controversial subjects that occupied other CoOp residents, Charlie often shifted the discussion to more human fare, which usually included questions concerning people’s personal lives, local and CoOp history, and Charlie’s own accounts of transporting passengers from one end of Detroit to the other.

Even for one loathe to leave a good discussion, Charlie’s digressions were usually more interesting than the controversies they replaced. Looking back, I remember hearing, in no particular order, a tale of late night witchcraft, taken from one of Charlie’s passengers claiming to be a Voodoo priest; business advice Charlie had received from a local pimp using his taxi to ferry prostitutes to suburban clientele; and an advanced conspiracy theory concerning Detroit’s then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick that Charlie claimed to have pieced together by eavesdropping on political insiders. Other stories included the time that Charlie worked as a temp roadie for the band “The White Stripes” (before they were big, Charlie assured us), and one extended tale of his encounter with a local crystal worshipping cult.

One expected an element of tale-telling in Charlie’s accounts, and this provided his stories with a theatrical dimension. As the last of the gatherers broke away each night, Charlie punctuated the talk with a coda, cheerfully announcing “to be continued!” as the last CoOp denizen retired.  This expression was so popular among those who knew Charlie that “to be continued” became a general conversation stopper in the CoOp, a wink of recognition among the late-night crew and those who knew Charlie in other contexts.

For all the myriad stories told at late-night gatherings, I spoke to Charlie in private only once. Then, wandering into the CoOp’s common area at some ungodly hour following a collapse after a two-day studying binge, I found Charlie sitting alone, long after the other late-nighters had returned to their rooms. Charlie wore a more serious disposition than I ever remember having seen. After receiving an only slightly less enthusiastic “Howdy” and fixing a cup of tea for myself, I sat down at the common table wondering if for once Charlie was too tired to launch into yet another story.

I waited but Charlie said nothing, maintaining a neutral expression. Then after seeing me shift uncomfortably, Charlie broke into a smile and began to talk.

“You know, when I was your age, I thought I would be a writer like Stephen King or something. But it never worked out. I think when you get to be my age and you realize that some people have it and some people don’t.”

“I don’t know,” I added. “You certainly have stories. Did you ever think of writing them down? You could probably make a book out of that.”

“Nah, I don’t have stories, not real ones. Weird things happen to me, I hear about weird things happening to other people, but they aren’t stories like the kind that you put into a book and get someone else to read. Strange things just happen all the time. But you can’t make a novel out of it, it wouldn’t work.“

Charlie continued.

“Stories have beginnings and endings, people learn things, there is a point. Most weird things just happen to people. There isn’t a point. There isn’t even a way to make it sound cool. Probably the weirdest thing that ever happened to me was…“ and here Charlie stopped as if something had occurred to him. After pausing, he started again, this time in a more relaxed voice.

“There was this time, you know, I got lost. People think they know a place, but no one really does. I have been driving around this city for most of my life. I’ve been a cabbie since the 90s. I’ve traveled on every street, every backway, and alley. It’s like the back of my hand, you don’t forget it,  you couldn’t even if you tried. But then…”

Charlie paused again.

“But then a strange thing happens. I think it was two years ago in August, maybe earlier, but definitely summer. I get a call from dispatch for a pick up on Cloverdale. No problem, I’d driven there and back plenty of times. I even know a shortcut. This time, however, as I get off the interstate strange things start happening.

“I remember it starts with the radio getting quiet. The music that I am playing fades away and I remember cranking the volume knob up until it doesn’t turn anymore. Then, right where the radio voices were, there is this piercing sound, softly first then growing louder, like something sharp being drilled through a piece of metal. But somehow the noise is coming from inside the cab pushing out from the back seat towards the dashboard.

“So, I slow down, try to get my bearings, and I realize that I’m lost, totally lost. No idea where I am. I check the street signs and I don’t recognize them. They seem to have names that don’t make sense, and the ones that do I can barely read because as I am there, rolling down the street, the light from the sun starts fading, everything become dim, and I get this horrible panic welling up from my gut. I start sweating, sweating so much that I have to wipe my brow every second just to see ten feet in front of me. And all the while that slow piercing sound is getting louder until it feels like it’s perched right there in the air, right behind my ear, and I feel it pressing against my skull.

“Finally, I can’t go on. I slam on the breaks-don’t even pull over. The car is running, keys in the ignition, and I just open the door and jump out of the cab onto the pavement, like a frog out of a boiling pot. And then the sound stops. It’s like someone hit the mute button and I stand there for probably ten minutes staring at the running car and listening to my heart pound in my chest.

“As I listen, I realize that everything is silent- there’s not a decibel coming from the radio or anywhere on the street. I’ve stopped right in the middle of a city block, but there are no cars, no car sounds even. There are no voices and no birds. There’s just the hum of the cab engine and the wind between the buildings and trees.

“And when I look more closely, I notice not only is there absolutely no one living on the block now, it seems like no one has been living there for a very long time. The street beneath my feet is cracked right through to the earth and in between the line of my cab’s wheels, there are patches of foxtails sprouting up. The buildings are empty, boarded up, with tree branches jutting through windows and roots overflowing the devil’s strip. A few lots are so overgrown that I can’t tell if there is a house or apartment there at all, just huge piles of branches and brambles. And as I am looking down the street, it just keeps going; torn pickets, dying trees, and ruined houses on and on down the line.

“Even the sun in the sky is twisted as if it is behind some mist. It isn’t bright and piercing, but faded and uneven like a penny melted into the sky until everything in the background is like a dull dark copper sheet. And as I sit there I get an uneasy feeling, like I’m being watched.

“I look back at the street again. And then I see, right from the corner of my eye, an enormous beast, sitting crouched right behind the bumper of my car. The thing is huge. Its frame is half the size of my cab, and its covered in thick brown fur with mud like it had climbed up out of some hollow in the earth. And I take two steps back, you know, half expecting King Kong, until I see that it’s a deer.

“A deer?” I asked.

“Yeah, it’s a stag. But not one of those whitetails. This thing is a huge animal with a hulking arch in its back and antlers. You could see the mange and patches on its coat where it had gotten scraped fighting a predator or something. The thing is so close I can see the flies buzzing around its shoulder and smell the odor coming off its hide. It’s powerful.  

“And all the while, as I am standing there a few yards away, I see that this creature crouched with its antlers down under the cab, and it’s grinding them against the rear of my fender: back and forth, back and forth until the cab is shaking on its suspension. It’s like the thing is trying to fight the car, and doesn’t even see me standing right there in front of it.

“Now, I have no idea what to make of all this at first. But after a few moments of just watching the creature, mangle the back end of my Taxi, I get this strange notion that the deer, this huge stag thing, is the reason why I’m lost and that if it goes away things will go back to normal again.”

Charlie glanced up before continuing. “I know it sounds crazy right? But that’s the state of mind I am in. And in that frame, I decide, right then and there, that I am going to scare the deer off, shoo this stag back, back to…well, back to wherever it came from.  So, I step forward, start waving my arms about, and shout ‘HEY, YOU!’

“I hear my voice echo across the neighborhood but other that nothing happens. The stag doesn’t even look up, so I take another step closer and yell again. ‘HEY YOU, GET AWAY!’

“I don’t know it if heard me, but this time the stag starts up on its back legs and rams against the cab so hard the entire frame is lifted three feet off the ground. It looks like the vehicle is about to get flipped. And, at seeing that, something snaps in my brain. I run right up to the thing, right up to its flank and yell ‘GET AWAY FROM MY CAB!’ and slam my shoulder right into its ribs.”

“You tackled it?” I asked.

“I know, it doesn’t make any sense! And, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember touching the thing because, next thing I know I am lying on my side on the street, and the stag is walking towards me. I remember lying there, the hooves sound like metal slabs dropping on the pavement. And at once terror wells up from my gut. It feels like the pavement is on fire, and sweat starts pouring into my eyes to the point where I’m not sure which end is up.

“Then as I clear my vision, the stag is there, standing over me. Its hoofs are an inch away from my feet. The thing must be at least seven feet high to the top of its antlers. And as it approaches, I look up at it from its scarred hooves, to the wall of its mangled fur, and then to its face.

“The face is the strangest thing. It’s not normal. Right where its eyes should be there is this brightness, piercing like the sun on an ordinary day. It’s like someone set off a flare just inside the creature’s skull. It is growing brighter every second, overpowering the other parts of the animal until I can’t directly look at the thing, and it seems that the deer’s head is a mask of light set under a crown of antlers.

“I sit there waiting for something to happen. And, at once, the beast raises its head to the sky, opens what I could make of its mouth, and makes like it’s going to call. Everything is quiet for a moment. And then at once, a sound starts rushes out of the creature, like the sound of an ocean, but louder. It’s so that I think the cry might bring the sky crashing down, and I feel the force of it push against my chest with such strength that I think my heart is going to give way.”

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“What do you think? I find my guts, get off my butt and get the hell out of there! I run, right off the pavement, off the street, back through the line of houses, and through the space in the lots where gardens had been. I run through the trees and brush, between the brick buildings, and yards filled with car parts and lawn equipment. And all the while, I know that the thing is behind me, following me. It’s not like I hear it coming, I can’t hear anything. But, still, I know it’s there behind me like in a nightmare, following. So, I just kept going and going.”

And Charlie trailed off here before returning.

“I keep going until I just can’t go anymore. I feel my body caving in on itself from running and climbing. I remember thinking that this is it, I’m done for. Either my heart is going to give out or I am going to be trampled under the monster’s hooves.

“So, I stop, turn around, and look back. There, a yard’s length away, is the creature charging forward, leaping over roots and around the pieces of car strewn around the yard. The light from the thing’s head is now so bright that its whole body looks blurred and indistinct. It’s consumed in a brilliance like the creature is a ball of white fire with solid legs and antlers.

“Then staring at the monster, I feel myself evaporate. I don’t tap out, but my will stops. My thoughts stop. Everything stops. And in a second it feels like the creature is approaching in slow motion. The light coming from its body is so powerful it consumes the sky and the buildings, then the yard and the houses. Then even the ground beneath my feet vanishes. It’s like I am floating there with the creature and nothing else. As the creature is there, a foot away from my heart, I put out my hands. I reach out and grab onto its antlers and hang on for dear life. Then everything is blurred.  I am lifted, up and up and into the sky: floating first, then flying, and then falling; off the earth, out of space, and everything becomes dark.

“The next thing, I am laying on the ground in a different world, staring upwards. Everything is still and there is a calmness in the air. I don’t know how long I was out, it seems like hours or days. And for the longest time, all I can do is look up. The sky is cleared of the orange hue and it’s blue like I never remember seeing it, a solid indigo. There is a breeze blowing and I hear bees buzzing around my ears. There’s soft vegetation beneath my back and the smell of vegetables everywhere.

“After a moment, I sit up and I see that I have landed right in the middle of an enormous garden. My backside is on top of a zucchini patch and I have my right hand in the middle of an eggplant that must have broken my fall. I still remember it, like it was yesterday. At that moment, it is like each of my senses is heightened. Every object around me is vivid. The oak trees are greener than I remember them ever being, and each blade of grass seems sculpted. The fences and houses around me, even the city skyscrapers far off in the distance are like a painting. And when I hear the birds chirp, it’s not faded into the background, but distinct, as if I could pick out and point to each song coming down from the trees.

“Then I remember myself, and I stand up in hurry to look for that stag-thing. But the creature is nowhere to be seen. It’s like the whole thing never happened. I can’t tell where the monster went, and more than that, I can’t even tell where I have come from. It’s like I have been dropped right there in the middle of the yard, and everything that happened before was a dream.

“I am there trying to get things straight in my mind when I turn to find this girl standing right there behind me.” Charlie stopped and corrected himself.  “Err… I should say ‘woman’. But she is young, not more than twenty-five with a big sun-hat, khaki overalls, and muddy sneakers. She is there, with a hoe in one hand and a bucket of fertilizer in the other, just looking on quietly and saying nothing.

“For a while, we stare at each other. Then she puts down her hoe and takes off her hat. And I know then that this woman is the most beautiful woman I will ever see. She doesn’t look like a model, she is too slight and her hands are too stretched and calloused for a girl you might see in a movie or advertisement. But there is something in her face that is strange, delicate and old. Her hair is braided and matted with sweat, and those parts that aren’t look like strands of spiderweb.  Her eyes are tired, as if they have seen things that a woman her age couldn’t have experienced, and she is wearing a smile that seems like it must have a story behind it, but probably didn’t.

“I remember she is standing in place with the wind blowing across the yard, and it feels as if the air around her body might crush her but at the same time like an invisible strength is holding her in place against the sky like a suspension bridge.

“And after another moment, the silence breaks.

“She asks me ‘Are you from the police?’, and I say ‘No ma’am. I drive a taxi’.

“She asks where my taxi is, and I say that I don’t know. She asks me if I am hurt, and after thinking about it, I say that I’m alright. Then she invites me in for lunch, and we walk back to an old brick house just behind the yard under an enormous tilted oak tree with flaky bark. Inside, there is a kitchen with stripped walls and buckets of paint and plaster on the floor above torn up tiles.

“Lunch is borscht made with vegetables from the garden. It is delicious, but not too delicious. The food is not some symphony of flavor but feels like a piece of the background, as much a part of the environment as the sounds of summer birds outdoors and the feel of the patchy wood table where I am sitting.

“My host fetches her own meal and we talk. I learn her name is Sarah, spelled with an “h” and that she was born in a Detroit suburb in the 80s. She is from a military family, and during her childhood, she moved around every few years. She even got to live in Germany and Japan. After high school Sarah had things figured out, going to an Ivy League for pre-law, before a fascination with Urban homesteading brought her back to Detroit to manage a farm collective in the city.

“I talk to her more about the town, how it has changed, how it hasn’t, the weather that year-typical stuff. But all the while, I feel like there is something important lurking right behind the conversation we are having. My mind is tuned into something like I am hearing a message break in from outside the universe. And I know with certainty, that I am at a turning point. There is something I need to hear from this woman: some piece of wisdom that she must impart at this time and at no other.

“I wait for this girl, this girl who I don’t even know, to say something. Something profound. I am hanging on her words. But our conversation just sticks to the mundane, the city, the weather, the details of gardening. It goes on, and I feel an urgency building. Then I ask her the only question I can think of.

“I ask her, ‘When you came back, back here to Detroit did you come back for a reason. Did you feel like you were coming home? Was there something here?’

“And at this, she shrugs and says ‘No’. She tells me – and I remember this, she tells me ‘Places aren’t that different. Life is the same. There are people, houses, streets, driving to work, doing chores. Things aren’t that different anywhere.’

“That’s what she says and I can’t think of anything more to ask. The moment passes.

“And after that not much more happens. I finish my meal, get my bearings, say goodbye. Then I find my way back to the street where I had stopped the car. It wasn’t even that far away and my cab was still open, engine idling with the keys right there in the ignition. I guess the only thing miraculous that came out it, after all, was that I had managed to leave an open car in Detroit for several hours without it being stolen. And so, I drive home, drink some tea, make an appointment to see my doctor and, well, that’s that.

“Quite a tale,” I said, seeing Charlie had finished.

“It’s a strange one.”

“Did you ever go back. Try to find the street and the house again?”

“I found my way there a few times over the years. I didn’t see Sarah. She probably moved on to something else.”

“And the neighborhood where it happened?”

“Just somewhere. Somewhere in the middle of Nowhere.”

“The story has everything: mysterious omens, a battle with a beast, and a beautiful woman at the end”

“But, it’s still not a real story,” Charlie replied.

“Sounds like one to me.”

“But nothing happened, I didn’t fall in love, I never saw that girl Sarah after that. I didn’t get a new job or move to a different state. I didn’t meet God or the devil. I didn’t change my religion or even change my morning routine. I just went home and things went on as usual. You know? Weird things happen.”

The dining room was quiet for a moment as I chewed on the words, listening to the sounds of the dormitory building settling into itself. Then I noticed that Charlie had dozed off and I stood up from my chair. Charlie snapped back.

“Oh-I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.” He chuckled as he got up from the table. “You know, there is probably more to all this, but, like I said, you get to my age and just living through it is enough. You can’t spend time trying to figure it out.”

“Perhaps it’s ‘ to be continued’?” I offered

Charlie smiled. “Yeah, Dave, it’s ‘to be continued’ “. Then he shuffled out of the hall to retire for the night.

Things did continue. A year later I finished my degree, moved back to the West Coast, and got a job at a Silicon Valley company. I changed my politics. I changed my attitude. I even found religion. All the while, Charlie stayed put, just where he had been for the previous three decades. Yet, years after moving away, as my memory of Michigan grew more distant, I was still reminded of Charlie and his stories from time to time.

As a religious person, people sometimes ask if I have had some encounter with the divine. No doubt they are looking for a story like that of Saint Paul being thrown from his horse by a voice from Heaven. Unfortunately, as someone who obtained their theological positions from dusty tomes and ruminations about metaphysics, I don’t have much to offer in the way of a good tale.

Still, I listen to other people’s religious experiences with rapt interest. From flashes of light, to voices, to more advanced visions of angels and saints, the stories fascinate me, even as I have no reference in my own life. The stories are human, and, at times, inspirational. But still, there often seems to be something missing, a dimension of the divine which remains undescribed. And when hearing of encounters with the divine, my mind returns to Charlie’s tale of a celestial stag chasing him across the ruins of America’s last forgotten metropolis.

I had hoped to see Charlie’s story captured in a hipster-style podcast like NPR’s StoryCorps or “The Moth”. Although I saw little chance of Charlie ever achieving his dream of becoming a writer, it seemed that someone with more literary flair might bring his story to the public and give it new life.

Seven years later, when meeting with an old school friend, I heard that Charlie had passed away. Carried off by another stroke when sleeping in the dorm room he had taken residence in 40 years earlier, he was laid to rest alongside his father and mother on a plot in Romulus, Michigan. His late night tales would no longer continue.

News of Charlie’s death struck me more deeply than the death of someone I had not spoken with for the better part of a decade should have. But more than his stories, I found my mind returning to the mannerisms and character Charlie had shown me when we lived in the same dormitory building.

It is true that Charlie was a lost soul in his time, never meeting his potential and shirking from the challenges of the world. Nevertheless, he possessed a singular humanity. In my travels since, I have encountered many men and women of intellect and spiritual development who achieved humility and spiritual awareness through years of discipline. But the way of Charlie Novak, was that of effortless warmth, as if he had, through sickness and circumstance, lapsed into a grace that he could neither explain nor comprehend.

Perhaps what was missing in Charlie’s life was a conclusion, a direction to frame the sundry events that had occurred to him between his birth and death. While no man can know what befalls a soul ultimately, I feel inclined to write a coda, not for the life of Charlie Novak, but for his stories. And while it may be presumptuous to impose a theme upon tales that manifestly had none, I can offer here what little Charlie was able to teach me through his stories told in the early hours of the morning.

As humans, we are driven to reach ever upward, for ambition, for worldly meaning, and for progress. There, we are told, lies greatness and fulfillment. But while these promises tantalize us, they are ultimately unattainable. And those living through our modern age are not slow to uncover the bitter truth.

Yet we persist in our endeavors out of fear. That which is static perishes. What is slow is ended by the merciless logic of Death and Darwin. Therefore, we flee to the edge of things, to the boundaries of life, and to that which is new and novel. And when we cannot flee anymore, we build temples to honor gods who tell us salvation lies behind the next cutting-edge gadget, the next political campaign, or the next revolutionary social reform. We work diligently, yet while we never speak the name of Death, he is there behind us as we walk upon life’s precipice.

But the God of the meek stands apart from our struggle. Fearing no death, He descends to the center, to those living in the valley of the shadow of death. And within humble souls, like Charlie Novak, He brings virtue and wisdom that is practiced even where it is not preached. Those on the edge of things seldom suspect the unconscious holiness of the middle places.

And in all of this, I see some small mercy for humanity when our age recedes, and mankind is forced again to look back towards the home it abandoned. Time passes, and like all things striving for prominence, our modern world will depart from history. Then arising from the center, crowned with horns of light, and animated with the force of a new resurrection, the living God will charge ever outward.

One Reply to “Tales from a Middle Place”

  1. I’m trying to picture a stag crashing into Seattle. I can’t. Its the organic experience of Charlie’s. ..there’s is no manufactured edginess.. Too real (or surreal) to “immortalize” in a tattoo parlor…Much is said about the pursuit of modernness…but it’s really just a vastly predictable and rather boring trajectory, isn’t it? There something oddly reassuring about his experience in the urban jungle of decay…not sure what it is at this moment..rebirth, perhaps.?

    Lovely essay.

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