My friend Ricky taught me more than I ever realized. Not so often now, a decade later, but every once in awhile I still do unexpectedly trip over a memory of one of our many late-night conversations that suddenly illuminates some new truth to me. Ricky was in Jerusalem living in Palestinian Bethany, studying at Hebrew University, helping out on archaeological digs, doing so many things I wished I was doing. I was in Indiana and in California, living what I thought was a rather hum-drum life compared to his. But we were both learning and growing in the paths God put us on. Ricky had a love of learning, and we would literally spend hours talking through the night about all the things we were learning about the world and about God. His passion was contageous, and these conversations are some of my most treasured memories. Most of our conversations were very deep, full of the philosophy that two barely adult humans who are probably spending too much time retreating into their brains tend to develop in the dark hours of the day. Maybe one of the most important lessons Ricky taught me was how to organize thought and put it into words. The more I think about it, I see a lot of him in the way I write my blog. Open, honest, transparent, sometimes full of big words but with a fair attempt at using them naturally rather than presumptuously. (That’s more difficult than you’d think. . . a prolific vocabulary is a blessing that comes with more responsibility than you might expect.) Healthy mix of expansive sentences and fragments that get treated like complete thoughts.
Ricky is an ellipses like me, always full of expanding, evolving, and developing thoughts. I’m glad. I have great respect for his ability to explain things; I’ve had a lot of amazing teachers in my life, but he was the best in many ways. Our lives have kept us apart over the last decade in more ways than one but, by the grace and mercy of a God who knows so deeply what we need, he continues to be one of my dearest friends. He might read this, and if he does I expect he will have two reactions: 1) He will want to clarify that he is not a perfect wonderful person, so allow me to document that I know this quite well but will reserve that for a different blog (just kidding). 2) He will cringe slightly yet smile patiently at my constant (and now public) inability to consent to call him Richard, which he has used for a lot of years now. I’m just impossible that way. A few days ago he posted on Facebook a beautiful piece he wrote while people watching in an airport in North Carolina. It was so beautiful that I secured permissions to share it here. So without further ado I present the unedited, unabridged, cut-and-pasted-off-of-Facebook musings of my friend, Richard Greg Rohlfing . . .
All Roads Lead to the Sky
My sister says I would be a good bartender. It’s a strange sounding compliment, but to me, it is a very tender thing to say. One of those dear compliments that fills me with a sad compassion that flares out in color at the edges. You see, there’s no place emptier than an airport. No place more lonely if you let it get to you like that. A couple passes by talking with one another. Smiles of attraction fade across their faces. The girl looks down – as if to see her own reflection in her heart at a moment like this. I think to myself how I’d love to be in love. I’m not sure it’s ever happened and I wonder if it ever will. That’s when I look up and see several men sitting at a round bar in the center of the airport. One guy catches my eye in particular. He’s got a weathered face, but can’t be more than 35. His goatee shoots out and off of his chin like that of a bona fide billy goat. He’s got a baseball cap on, with a bent rim. He looks like he’d be a pretty good looking guy until he smiles, to show that he’s missing several teeth. It doesn’t matter. He and I are just exactly alike. Both lonely in a people-filled place. Maybe that’s why he’s really at the bar. Just to talk to the bartender. Just to have a little conversation and try to feel human and down to earth in the midst of all these strange sensations on the way to planes and the far away places. And that’s why it touches my heart like this…what my sister says. Cause I know what it means to be alone. To long for some kind of home in somebody else. A married couple with two kids run by briskly. The woman at the helm – dragging a wheeled kid carrier. She looks back at the Dad who’s smiling and chuckles a bit. He’s pushing an identical kid carrier with an almost identical looking kid within. It looks like they’re attached until they push past and I see they are just kept in a nearly perfect line by their caravanning parents. As they go by I see the face of the little girl – breaking out in a grin – and she laughs…then giggles…and that recedes into another smile. She reminds me of my niece so far away…but who I will see tomorrow. It’s incredible how much joy a small child can bring. I love her deeply – that small, several pound package of blue-eyed, mostly hairless flesh. I wonder what will happen if I have kids. Will my heart explode? I don’t know how it will be…these things take time…and I’ve always felt that I…we…are running out of that…and into eternity. A young mother runs by…or is trying to. Her son at her right. He is running too. He too wears a baseball cap, but his is much newer than that of the man at the bar…who comes into focus again as they slip away. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they walk. [I have to stop writing because a large white man on the walkway behind me drops his ticket while on the phone. Not sure how I heard it, but I did. I have to shout but he doesn’t hear me…so I chase him down and meet him just as he steps off the electric belt] [[Have we forgotten how to walk that we need these belts? No, I honestly ‘need’ them when travelling. It’s a huge comfort – feeling that motor beneath my feet – pulling my dead weight along]] A mother and daughter walk by. The daughter looks down at her fashionable belt that is looped like a lasso around her awkwardly thin waist. She’s at “that” age and her walk shares it with me. She looks more at herself than where she is planting her feet. Two men walk by in khaki. They are uniforms. They are young men. Maybe ground crew here at the airport. They stand tall and broad shouldered. Their air is crass and slightly competitive. I wonder what kind of friends they are. “You have more privileges when you’re in uniform” says another girl off to my right. A little woman steps by in quick little steps. She is well dressed. She walks in such a way that makes it appear as though her right leg is shorter than her left. She steps right in front of me. She looks around and then quietly mouths “shit” to herself. And then echoes, perhaps because she notices me watching…”crap”. Some amble. Some limp. Some saunter. Others are really gimps. Some lope and are passed on either side…by the shufflers, the long steps, the women who careen their butts as they slide by. Some don’t walk at all, but are carried on transports: An old Indian woman. A black couple. An exotic looking woman walks by with huge hair. Her shirt and jeans are tight. She’s walked by four or five times – every time like she’s really got somewhere to be. It sounds bad, but you can tell who’s ready to have sex… I raise my head again. An older black man in a blue beanie and blue janitorial uniform drifts by slowly and makes my last line laughable. The airport is an ocean. The people are its fish. Each man a new species. The South is truly different. An airport here is the place to be. We in California. We just “toy” with different. Make cults out of it. Reclaim lost identities from ethnic trees we fell off of or out of too long ago to really remember anything at all. But here…in the South…the feeling is that people are really different. Sprung up from different soils and shot out of different stock. I’m not even speaking racially…though that is true too. These people in this airport all came from radically different places. Young mothers are beautiful…radiantly so. Older women are refined. Unmarried women are, as yet, untried. I wonder how badly women want to be wanted. Is it as much as it seems? It all depends. I realize these lines, so many of them naïve. Yet some really seem to be projecting: “do you want me? How bad do you want me?” Perhaps I am projecting my own wants onto them. One thing is for sure…they were made beautiful by the Almighty before things went painfully awry. My favorite feeling is when a party passes by all traveling together. Not even a family necessarily. A couple of couples…a group of friends. Now that is the feeling of family invading this alien place. A much better feeling than staring at a gorgeous girl. The latter isolates because, of course, the desire is to be close to her, get to know her…and that is absolutely impossible in such a place, with no time, no context…and though some men would do and do such things…and are doing so now, everywhere the world over…I can hardly work up the nerve to ask a girl out I’ve known for years. Families are good too. They are a kind of tired joy in this place breaking up the monotony of friendless faces. They too bust up that feeling of alienation. A small girl in a family of five is nearly trampled by a transport. Her Mom calls out to her…exhausted, but smiling as her husband cries after her in a jeering newscaster’s voice: “A small girl dies by golf cart today…” and they go…fading away…as the girl takes God’s name in vain over plastic and chrome: “Oh my God! A toy store!…did you see?!” She has a lisp and no front teeth. This is my final verdict: A couple is good. A family is better. A group of friends / couples / families is best. Most people don’t know when you’re watching. They think you are drifting off – staring out into nothing. Don’t know that a pair of eyes is scrutinizing them. A small girl with a pink jacket and a fat, dirty stuffed penguin falls to her knees. A woman who smacks of Tracy Chapman walks by slowly, with dignity. Large thighs and immaculate hair. “Couldn’t be…,” I think. Tracy Chapman didn’t have a ‘lady paunch’ like that. “But things could have changed…been a while since you seen old Tracy”…I reply to myself. A gray haired man purposefully passing close by the long line of rocking chairs where I am perched. He too is people watching. He smiles at me knowingly. Men in leather jackets. Country girls with large breasts. A young white kid with a black beanie and a tattoo on his neck. His face is angry. His lips are destructive. He’s ready to die, or at least he thinks he is. But he’s not. He’s ready to fight…even that…maybe not. I wonder about his father…what’s the story there? Three siblings walk by. String beans. They are cute. I am rocking slowly in this large white rocking chair. It is comfortable. “only in the South,” I think to myself. There are many things I like here. The south has a bad rap. The Civil War and all that. I might move here just for the Sweet Tea. A very large boy walks by. He has a full fat face. He wears glasses and a blue baseball cap. He wears baggy pants and a fashionable backpack. Despite all this he is as white and nerdy as they get. The thing that sticks out are his fluffy, dirty blonde pork chops that go cascading down his cheeks and under his chin and then – WHAM! – an inch gap where they want to meet. He’s cut the strap short under his chin and it makes a perfect white stripe. “strange styles” I think. Zeno’s pork chop paradox. Some do though. Notice me when I stare. Mostly women, but an occasional man. “Women are more accustomed to being watched,” I think. I think…but I cannot imagine. Several are super-powered in their astuteness. One woman has her head dead set, straight ahead like she is running for the goal line and then exactly as she passes in front of me spins her eyes on a 45 to meet mine. I am amazed. “You’re good,”…I think, but do not say. Both of our expressions show something like respect for an able adversary. I do not look much at the people passing by behind me. That’s not only too obvious, but it’s downright awkward. Those people have the right, the prerogative to people watch me. It’s in the by laws of the People Watching Society’s Handbook. And I don’t want to get thrown out. And…by the way…who ever made up the grammatical rule that one cannot start a sentence with “and”…has never really enjoyed writing and should be severely beaten with a slender switch. (just kidding…sort of) I’ve drifted and my plane is about to take off. I’ve gotta run to make it. The old Indian woman on the transport rides by again. And that same girl…all dressed to kill. Both of them head in the same direction.