That Coffee House of Grace, Part II

by Tom Wolpert on December 22, 2017

          – How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God.

A short rhythmic introduction on the bongos is called for here.

When I was arrested in San Francisco at the age of 16 they brought me to the juvenile hall. My arrest was accomplished on a Sunday, probably October 15, 1967. I was walking along Haight Street from Golden Gate Park to my shared apartment at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. The San Francisco Police Department had decided the time had come to clear the Haight Ashbury of the out-of-town riff raff in general, and runaway and delinquent teenagers in particular. Four large police officers walked along the sidewalk, shoulder to shoulder, with a paddy wagon following slowly behind. Whomever they encountered was searched and, if not capable of giving a plausible explanation about something or another – whatever I suppose struck their mood – was arrested and tossed into the paddy wagon. It was unscientific, it was grossly deficient in due process, it was highly effective.

In my 16 year old blind naivete, I concluded that if I turned and ran away, that would attract their attention. So I decided to walk past them, as if I were the mayor or some other dignified and untouchable person. When I reached them, this ruse lasted perhaps a millisecond. They instantly stopped me, searched me, and found a matchbox of marijuana on me. While they were searching me, with all the probable cause and respect for my dignity of a gang of oversized alley cats. I was explaining to them that I had a letter from my father giving me permission to be in San Francisco. It was a letter he had to write in order for me to enroll in the local high school, Polytechnic, which was more or less the deal between us to allow me stay in San Francisco past the end of the summer. One of the policeman asked me, roughly but with some amusement, whether or not I had a letter from my father permitting me to carry marijuana. And off into the paddy wagon I went, along with the other youthful fools and knaves, and the merely unlucky, who had been gathered up in this sweep of Haight Street.

Music from the television show ‘Dragnet’ would work here.

We were taken to the police station, which was situated in the eastern end of Golden Gate Park near Kezar stadium. Since I was 16 years old, I was shuttled off separately with the other juveniles. I was fingerprinted, had my mug shot taken in my turn, answered a few basic questions, etc. One of the runaways wouldn’t give his name at first, and they roughed him up efficiently to acquaint him with the hard realities of big city police. Once they had their information, we were packed back into the same paddy wagon and ferried to the juvenile hall, or youth detention center, whatever its correct designation was. I knew it was the same paddy wagon because the police had not located all the contraband I was carrying in their initial search of me, during my first ride in the paddy wagon, I had wrapped that up in a trash pamphlet picked up from the floor and discarded back to its spot. On our ride to the juvenile hall, I identified it and one of my fellow miscreants took care of disposing of the evidence.

The youth detention center building was located on top of one of San Francisco’s hills. After we entered the building and went through some intake, we were given blue jeans and white t-shirts to wear and our street clothes were taken away. We changed in a common area, and youthful offenders from other areas of the city were also being brought in. One of them I remember vividly – he looked like he was from Hunter’s Point, had the ‘conked’ hair that was popular with African-American young men at the time, and had a large, new white square bandage on his back suggesting that someone had stabbed him recently. Possibly he was brought directly from the hospital. He looked tough and the juvenile officers supervising our conduct paid close attention to him.

My first cell was small but comfortable. It had one window that looked upward. What I could see were the cables and wires of some sort of telephone or electrical tower, located even higher on the hilltop than our building. I had no idea where I was, in that wicked and beautiful city. It wasn’t upsetting, but it was a very distinct feeling. I did not know where I was and I did not know where I was going, but it was all rather interesting.

Later on that week I had a cellmate, a Chicano boy who confidently told me, after I explained to him that I was going to be returning to Pennsylvania (the youth officers just wanted to get rid of me), that I would be back. He meant back in the juvenile hall; because of space constraints, they had housed me in the ‘B’ wing, for repeat offenders. He understood my short-term prospects in the world better than I did – as it turned out, my subsequent career as a juvenile offender only differed in the fact that I didn’t get caught again. He explained the California prison system to me, since he felt certain that I, like he, would be graduating there in due time. At that time, the California prisons were intentionally racially divided; there was a white inmate area, a black inmate area, and a Latino inmate area. When prisoners went out on the track for exercise, they stayed carefully in their areas. The penalty for crossing into the wrong racial area was severe – he was emphatic, you just did not do that. He explained this all in a friendly and factual manner – he wanted me to be in the know, and he sized up my personality as unlikely for reform.

At night they would play AM radio loudly for us, reverberating through the halls, and one song, ‘Get on Up’ by the Esquires was very popular. All the African-American boys would sing along with it, together doing the falsetto – “Hey You! – Get on Up!” echoing in the hard tiles and concrete halls of the facility. There was a real joy there, singing in prison is always a little spiritual and soulful – the echoing acoustics of prisons being what they are. My stay there was about a week; I read a couple of books and otherwise found it not too difficult. My father sent plane fare, and the juvenile officers handed me over to a policeman who escorted me in handcuffs to the San Francisco airport. I remember getting some startled looks from people as we walked through the concourse, but I wasn’t embarrassed at all – I had the joie du vivre of many youthful offenders. It was an assertion of my coming out in the world. Our first trip to the airport was a bust; apparently the airline had not been informed that there would be a juvenile passenger not accompanied by an adult. We went back the next day and the officer boarded me carefully, for the flight back to Philadelphia. I didn’t know what was coming next, but that was okay too – none of my friends had a more interesting summer than I did.


  A short Gregorian chant is called for here.

Shortly after it became a Christian, I was taking a computer programming class at Villanova University to get an undergraduate college degree in their evening program. Villanova was a big bustling Catholic/secular university with big modern buildings, programs, lecture halls, leafy trees, green commons, athletic teams, gymnasiums, big time booster clubs, etc. It also had a large chapel, and if you used your senses carefully, the slight fragrance of Augustinian monasteries and monks and chanting and places and experiences that are much older than America. It was Villanova who compelled me to read religious books and take religious studies to graduate; not apparently being at all concerned with ‘safe spaces’ or disturbing me with new thoughts or ideas. If you wanted to graduate, you needed, as I recall, nine semester credits in religious studies. Since by then I had many credits from my disorganized undergraduate career at San Francisco State and then at Villanova’s evening program; they let me ‘test out’ of the religious credits by doing the reading and taking a final exam.

I was 29 years old. In those days we learned computer programming with punch cards. The facility we did the work in, the computer laboratory, was in the lowest level of the science building. While I was fumbling with the cards, I had the distinct feeling of floating. It wasn’t frightening, but it was as if I had taken a step off a cliff and was floating slowly down through the air. It was an interior sensation, a spiritual sensation. The spiritual life was new to me; religious faith was new to me; Christianity was new to me. I was beginning to be sensitive to the fact that choices have consequences. My feet were on the ground and the punch cards were in my hand, but my soul was telling a different story. I didn’t quite know where I was going to come down, but it was a gentle feeling, experienced in a building dedicated to science at a University founded out of a belief in God.


Flute music is called for here, perhaps adapted from Charlie Musselwhite’s Christo Redemptor.

At the age of 66, I have become a boy again. Like any boy I want to grow up to look just like my father, God, who is immortal, invisible, dwelling in inaccessible light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.

I lift up such prayers, and who appears with kind eyes but Jesus – I imagine him dressed rather like a workman, who opens the cell and leads us off the hilltop where we are amazed but baffled, incarcerated yet fascinated, to a very ordinary place where we find in a mundane punchcard mystery the arms of God.

Reading Allen Ginsburg’s early poetry is spiritual, but not comforting. Poetry may be full of demons or full of grace. I would rather be like a cat on a hot tin roof, like a manchild let loose in the strange world, but with my eyes wide open to see what is good, than to find nothing spiritual in this world but ghosts, graves, shadows, lost loves, fire-filled judgments, dungeons, partings, prisons and death. God does not have to judge and shatter the world to be present in it. My Father has appeared in my life to hold my soul in loving arms, with the unseen power that makes a flower grow in the most unremarkable way, to be astonishingly beautiful.

Now we should hear the gentle and distant echo of a ram’s horn, harp and lyre, timbrel and dancing, from an ancient people who have maintained an ancient psalm.

We have mutual existence now, God and I, He the everlasting Creator, I the created, worshipping my Father, dwelling together in eternal love and fellowship. All this in the Holy Spirit into Whom I enter, and Who has entered into me, through the shed Blood of the Lamb, in spiritual mystery, through paths untraceable, over depths unknowable, in paddy wagons, hilltop juvenile jail cells, airport terminals, brochure-photogenic college campuses, basement computer labs, places seen only once in a lifetime and places seen every day.

I now know where I am. I’m at my kitchen table. The sound is the ordinary sound of my refrigerator. God may just as conveniently order my universe, hear my prayers, accept my worship, or ordain the entire galaxy and all its doings from my kitchen table as anywhere else. At every point of geography, physical or spiritual, to be present with God is to centered, to be at home. Jesus could enter my home accompanied by a thousand angels with flaming swords, but it would be hard to seat them all at the kitchen table. He is just as powerful, and I love him just as much, if he enters quietly by himself.

Your music should be heard here.

You also are invited into a secure place. I have not arrived at it without a journey. You also are welcomed into the safety and security of the love of God.

Ageless, timeless, extending forever in every direction,

centered on and with our fellow traveler, the Future Man, Jesus, our King,

holy, flowing with pure communion for a wandering soul,

our existence uninterrupted,

here at both the end of the road and the beginning of the journey,

where love has no end.

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