Hoping for that Post-Apocalyptic Coffee House of Grace

by Tom Wolpert on December 13, 2017

If Christ is for us, who can be against us?

Being in the world, but not of the world, occasions some interior conflict at times. It is possible to avoid some of that conflict by giving everything a soft and fuzzy focus; that avoids the harsh criticisms resulting from a spotlight, glaring and unforgiving on the people and acts who are in the world. But that isn’t really love, either. When you put a soft and fuzzy focus on someone or something, you aren’t really loving them – you’re just making a polite response to avoid conflict, while you pursue your own ends. You can get tired of the soft and fuzzy focus because you love too much, or because you are too angry, or caustic, or outraged, or simply hate, what you see around you. A writer from the 1950s, William Burroughs, wrote a book called Naked Lunch, because he wanted people to see what was on the end of their long newspaper forks – in those days, the press was more likely to put that soft and fuzzy focus on things. Burroughs probably did it for the angry reasons, not the loving ones, but he still had something to say. He spent time with some other writers I have read, including Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac.

I am sitting in the poetry section of the Barnes & Noble bookstore on a snowflurry day. I’m about to start reading Allen Ginsberg‘s poetry. Part of my story is tucked into the corners of his long poem Howl. Part of my story is tucked into the first eight chapters of the Apostle Paul‘s letter to the Romans. I can’t always put the two together.

I love my evangelical church. She preaches the doctrine of God‘s grace and Christ’s redemption from a solid Biblical foundation. But there are two cultures in America. Once one of our pastors was preaching about being punished for doing something that wasn’t really wrong. His example involved getting a detention in high school for going up the wrong staircase with a friend. It was the only detention he got in high school, blemishing an otherwise perfect record. He took an informal hand raising poll of the congregation. It turned out the majority of the congregation had never got a detention in high school. I knew the other pastoral staff would have had similar experiences as teenagers.

I was a teenage runaway in 1967 to the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. I was 16 years old. Most likely I had more felonies and misdemeanors in 1967 at age 16 than the whole pastoral staff of my church had detentions in their entire high school careers.

Somewhere along the way of running around the country as a teenager, doing the wrong thing, hitchhiking, misbehaving here and there, getting into scrapes, I fell in love. I fell in love with America.  Not exactly the America of politics and political strife and name-calling. Not exactly the America of National Geographic, and beautiful photographs, well-staged, perfectly focused and exposed. The America I fell in love with at a young age was some crazy hipster buried at the margins looking for angels. The America of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and mean William Burroughs. The America of some vacant lot near the Los Angeles airport when you’re hitchhiking through and spend the night rolled up in your jacket. The America of some coffee house in San Francisco called the Blue Unicorn where your friend Gary takes you to buy what you shouldn’t have. On the way he stops to go into in an Episcopal church on the top of the hill and he bows and genuflects. Then we leave to meet the gypsy witch, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Later on I will cross a mythical River in the Redwoods, and I will reach to heaven for mercy in a rented room on Castro Street, years before milk ran in the streets.

My America is lonely 1968 side highway and roaring 18 wheelers a little before dawn on empty highway hills. Their headlights are battlefield searchlights. Their diesel noise is a warning and a roar. When they pass the wind sweeps by with criminal ferocity. The smell of diesel fumes is acrid and penetrating. Driving anonymous death is behind the black windshield. They do not stop for lonely teenage hitchhikers. The Pennsylvania night is quiet after they pass, thick with dew and stars.  After, crickets chirp away in praise to God.

I cannot put all these fragments together. Allen Ginsburg’s poetry is full of drugs and visions. I do not have illusions about drugs. My brother, Lynn David Wolpert, died of a drug overdose in 1988. There was so much in him, so much that got lost. He was 34 years old. His death broke my father’s heart. Jack, born Isador Jacob Wolpert in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, died two years later. Their deaths transformed our lives like a pair of 500 pound bombs. Out of the wreckage of it all I became a lawyer. But generally it was a 25 year tragedy.

I became a Christian in 1980. My life was pretty much a mess. I read Martin Luther, who said we could be justified by faith. Then I read Jesus, who said I am the Bread of Life. I met God then and there, and have never looked back.

The Bible speaks deeply to me. I treasure every word. God is speaking to me. Jesus my Lord, who died for me, is speaking to me. I am half-Jewish. This is our word, our soul, for a thousand generations. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my Savior’s word will never pass away.

But then, so also does the profane, spiritual, sensitive, perverted, soulful, visionary, sinful poetry of Allen Ginsburg speak to me. The conflict only arises when you stop putting a soft and fuzzy focus on things. And the places in his poetry – so many people and beautiful places. He writes of the secret clandestine geography of the country that I love. It is not a National Geographic photograph, and it is much more than two political parties snarling at each other.

I am like a character in a William Burroughs novel – the Not There Kid.  After so many years, I am still on the Road. My Jungian memories come rushing down. I see you America – I see your corner grocery stores that my grandmother Sarah Wolpert operated in Roxborough in the depression to feed and educate five children. I see the doleful Philadelphia prisons where I volunteered and Kimberton halfway houses and food pantries and causeways in Tampa and gritty Chicago underpasses and the gulls over the Chesapeake in Virginia and Flagstaff train tracks and flat roofs in 1971 Cambridge, laying down roofing paper, tar and gravel under a broiling New England summer sun but you’re 20 years old, lobster-bronzed and invulnerable. I see your cornfields with a bazillion swarming midnight gnats in Ohio. I see the Potomac where there is Washington’s plantation home and a slave graveyard too, and I see the Mississippi and the clubs in New Orleans. I see your storefront churches tucked away everywhere. I hear your music, and I hear your hymns. America – I see you- you cannot hide from me. I am in love, and do not know what to do.

My love for you America is not diminished by the passage of time. It is not diminished by sobriety; it is not diminished by intoxication. You are breathtakingly beautiful America, even when you are rampaging buffalo crazy, sometimes just plain mean, and sometime extraordinary in every sense of the word.

I drink tomato juice and vodka. The waitress here in the mall in Exton is very nice to me, even though I am old and a bit odd. I have no shortage of sins to confess. I am in love with God, and do not know what to do.

When she was a girl my mother, Florence Huxtable Wolpert, known forever as Jimmy, traveled up and down the Mississippi in the summers with her father, an engineer who worked for a company dredging it out. When I was a boy with geography lessons my mother would describe the places- but then she would grow impatient and wistful – you have to see it! she would say, folding closed the geography book. And she wasn’t looking at me when she said it. Her eyes were on fields of crops growing along a mighty river thirty years and a thousand miles away, and a father and a country that she loved. The men are discussing Roosevelt and the New Deal, and my mother is a young girl curled up at the edge of the circle, listening raptly to what her father says and his big ideas. He liked alcohol too, and she inherited that from him as well.

She met my father on a blind date in Minneapolis when he was a dental officer in the Army in WWII. He started flirting with her, a heart-stopping beauty, before he even realized she was his date. When she passed away in the nursing home her eyes opened so wide. My wife Erma said – see, she saw that everything you were telling her is true! When Erma and I were in the early years of our marriage we would go into Philadelphia to clean her apartment; an alcoholic’s appalling bathroom is America too.

When I lived in San Francisco I spent a lot of time at a coffee house called the Meat Market. It was on 24th street in a converted butcher shop. I need another coffee house today. A Post Apocalyptic Coffee House of Grace. I will read Allen Ginsburg. I will say noisy prayers. I will be openly odd, and flagrantly distracted, by things religious and by things secular. I have collected my memories of America like trading cards. I will remember those who have gone before. Who can comprehend these things? The parts don’t always fit together. But I am not in a hurry. If I put these fragments together too quickly, I might be careless and discard something of value. Perhaps my abilities are not sufficient to the task. Cappuccinos alone cannot carry the day, even stirred with beat poetry. Love though, will give rise to hope. Despair is not suitable for me, a man in love.

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