“I Should’ve Made A Left Turn At Albuquerque”

01Dec09

Here’s another story about an unusual situation my wife and I encountered while traveling, that happened in part because of Robin’s multiple sclerosis.  

About 15 years ago, Robin and I took a vacation in New Mexico.  We absolutely loved it.  You have to love a state that not only has the roadrunner as its Official State Bird (beep beep!) but also has an Official State Question.  That sounds rather metaphysical, but it really isn’t – the question is “Red or green?” which refers to the color of chili that you want with your food.  New Mexicans being pretty laissez-faire folks, there is no Official State Answer, but many locals we met suggested “Christmas” (i.e., both sauces). 

We used Santa Fe as our base and took side trips to Bandelier National Monument, Taos and Chimayó – beautiful scenery and great food! 

Of course, all good things must end – after 8 days we found ourselves at the Albuquerque airport, waiting for our Southwest Airlines flight back to LA.  Robin wasn’t in a wheelchair at this time, but she used a quad cane to walk. 

 

When you’re disabled (or flying with someone who is), you get to “pre-board.”  George Carlin once asked, “What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?”  To compound the linguistic obfuscation, the pre-boarding announcements tend to use vague euphemisms for disability like “those passengers requiring special assistance.”  Hey, I’ve got your “special assistance” right here buddy. 

Anyway, to make sure we could pre-board easily, we got to the airport ridiculously early… at least by 1994 standards.  Post 9/11, everyone has to get there ridiculously early. 

Robin and I took the first 2 seats next to the gate entrance and waited.  We were talking when I became aware of a large, older man who was slowly approaching the gate.  He was about 6 foot 4 and appeared to be Indian – East Indian, not Navajo or Hopi as you’d expect to see in the Albuquerque airport.  This gentleman definitely caught my attention – not only was he tall and hefty, he had a long, flowing beard and was wearing a turban and a gleaming white robe.  An emerald-cut ruby, about the size of a deck of cards, hung from a gold chain around his neck.  He supported himself with a gold-tipped walking stick. 

All of that would have made him pretty hard to miss.  But he wasn’t traveling alone.  Far from it – he had an entourage of about 3 dozen men and women with him.  Almost none of them appeared to be East Indian.  They were Caucasian and much younger than him too – in their 20s and 30s.  However, by far the most noticeable thing about this group was their attire – they were dressed in the distinctive “uniform” of Sikh Dharma.

How did I know that?  Well, I used to be a vegetarian (why I became one in 1974 and why I stopped in 1984 are stories for another post).  When I moved to Los Angeles in 1976, The Golden Temple of Conscious Cookery – run by folks from Sikh Dharma – became one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants.  The Golden Temple was located in the Fairfax District, where lots of Orthodox Jews live.  It was quite interesting to watch the 2 groups mingling along 3rd Street – the Jews in black and the Sikhs in white.

The garb worn by this entourage was, as I said, distinctive.  For the women:

  • An elongated, cylindrical form of turban – let’s just say you wouldn’t want them to sit in front of you at the movies
  • White or pale yellow tunics over long, loose-fitting skirts or pants
  • Cowboy boots (a New Mexican touch, I presumed)
  • Rings and other jewelry adorned with gemstones

For the men:

  • A more traditional, helmet-like turban
  • White or pale yellow kaftans over loose-fitting pants
  • Socks and sandals (clearly, not a New Mexican touch – more reminiscent of pasty English tourists on the Costa Brava)
  • Rings and other jewelry adorned with gemstones
  • A ceremonial dagger

This dagger, the kirpan, is 1 of 5 visible symbols of being a Sikh.  It was also, even back in 1994, a visible source of concern to airport security.  The guards were firm but respectful – you cannot wear daggers on a plane.  There was a brouhaha as the kirpans were collected and inspected, and the security guards tried to reassure the men that they would return them upon arrival in Los Angeles.

I watched this scene unfold and noticed that the group had divided into order-givers and order-takers.  The order-takers fluttered around, kowtowing to the order-givers, who in turn fawned over the big guy with the big ruby, who didn’t say much.

Robin was not amused by this spectacle.  “Who the @#$% are these people?” she whispered to me.  “The women look like Coneheads.”
 

I had to laugh.  “Funny, it reminds me of something out of Gilbert & Sullivan.”  By now their leader was standing only a few feet away from us.  I motioned with my head in his direction and whispered, “He’s ‘Pooh-Bah’ from The Mikado.”

A Southwest Airlines employee made the pre-boarding announcement.  As I turned to help Robin stand up, Pooh-Bah began shuffling towards the gate entrance.  He was cutting ahead of us in line!

Robin and I looked at each other… both of our jaws dropping.  Given his physical stature, this guy was pretty intimidating.  I let him just barely pass us and then grabbed Robin’s arm.  I maneuvered her as close to Pooh-Bah as I could, cutting him off from his inner circle of acolytes.  We got some nasty glares from a few of the turbaned men, but I refused to budge.  “Not so tough without your daggers, are you?” I thought.

We handed over our boarding passes and headed down the jet way bridge towards the plane.  I tried my best to keep us between Pooh-Bah and his minions, but eventually one very earnest fellow passed us.

The cabin was configured so that the first 2 rows of seats were facing each other.  Pooh-Bah and his eager underling took the adjoining forward-facing seats.  I hate sitting backwards on anything that’s moving, but nevertheless I squeezed into the inner seat, facing Pooh-Bah, and Robin sat in the aisle seat.

This seating arrangement is not especially comfortable under normal conditions; it was much less so for me that day, being knee-to-knee with this tall, stocky man.  As the plane filled, members of Pooh-Bah’s retinue continued to scurry about, directed by whispered commands from his de facto aide-de-camp.  Luggage and parcels were being shuffled around different overhead compartments in what seemed to be a random manner, but everyone involved acted as if it were some sort of solemn ritual.  This kerfuffle went on for so long that it delayed the departure, which didn’t exactly endear the group to their fellow passengers or the flight attendants.

Finally, we took off.  I strained to get one final glimpse of New Mexico through the small window of the plane.  Robin’s attention was focused elsewhere.  Her birthday is in July, so her birthstone is the ruby and she couldn’t take her eyes off of the humongous one that was resting on Pooh-Bah’s chest.

This did not escape Pooh-Bah’s notice.  He smiled beatifically at Robin, touched the gem with his index finger and said, “This… this is just a trinket.  They,” gesturing towards his followers seated in the rows behind him, “are the real jewels.”

I found it hard to take that comment seriously… it reminded me of when a woman receives a compliment on her dress and says “What, this old rag?”

When we reached cruising altitude, Robin removed her quad cane from beneath the seat, where she’d stowed it for takeoff.

Pooh-Bah pointed his finger at it and proclaimed “No good!”

Robin was taken aback. “I need it to walk,” she said.

Pooh-Bah wagged his finger.  “4 points… no good!”  Then, he held up his walking stick.  “A single point on the earth,” he declared profoundly.

Robin gave me a slight poke with her elbow.  I turned towards her and she rolled her eyes.

A moment later, Pooh-Bah solemnly announced, “There are 3 things that you must do in life.”

In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney relates the following anecdote, which occurred during The Beatles visit to Rishikesh, India:
“Once he [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi] had to get into New Delhi, and a helicopter came to the camp and landed on the beach down by the river.  We all traipsed down in our kaftans and then it was: ‘One of you can go up for a quick ride with Maharishi.  Who’s it going to be?’ And, of course, it was John.  I asked him later, ‘Why were you so keen to get up with Maharishi?’—‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘I thought he might slip me the Answer.”  That was very John!”1

So there I was, high over Albuquerque on a jet to the Promised Land, having my own version of a helicopter ride with the Maharishi.  What the heck, I thought, and leaned in – the better to hear what the 3 things that you must do in life were.

“You must walk,” he said, and tapped his stick on the carpet.

I leaned in a little closer.

“You must talk… and”

I looked him directly in the eyes.

“…you must say nothing.”

Appropriately, Robin and I sat in silence for most of the remainder of the flight.

So… what have we learned?

  • Consider the source… what sort of spiritual insight would you expect from a guy who butts in line in front of a disabled woman.
  • Don’t bother about “the Answer” until you figure out what “the Question” is.

When in New Mexico, that Question remains “Red or green?”

Later…

  1. Copyright © Apple Corps Ltd. 2000

P.S.  For any readers who think that I’m out of line, mocking people’s religion:

  1. I didn’t mock the religion, I mocked people’s behavior – what they said and how they acted.  Yes, I also took a few cheap shots at how they dressed.
  2. Sikh Dharma is an organization that many Sikhs view skeptically.  Don’t take my word for this, read the following article about Pooh-Bah from Time Magazine:
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,915413,00.html
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4 Responses to ““I Should’ve Made A Left Turn At Albuquerque””

  1. 1 JIm Laffan

    Dorn: Pooh Bah was right. Learning to talk without saying anything is a spiritual exercise both lawyers and yogis learn to master before leaving the ashram for the real world. Practiced long enough, it utterly empties the mind of all thought—a necessary condition for achieving enlightenment, easing your conscience or becoming an idiot.

    As for which jewels feel more precious rubbing themselves against the yogi’s chest, after reading that TIME magazine article you cite, I certainly can’t fault Bhaj for his honesty:

    “Bhajan has repeatedly been accused of being a womanizer. Colleen Hoskins, who worked seven months at his New Mexico residence, reports that men are scarcely seen there. He is served, she says, by a coterie of as many as 14 women, some of whom attend his baths, give him group massages, and take turns spending the night in his room while his wife sleeps elsewhere.”

    So what have we learned? EVERYTHING, man. Even that mystics get to their plane seats even before pre-boarders. Spooky.

    Best to Robin. Jim

  2. 2 jallebrand

    Rude guru who speaks in riddles while blithely assuming his own supreme enlightenment, with chests of treasure, who gets his ass (and other erogenous zones) kissed all the time by fawning nincompoops – sounds like some CEOs I’ve known, and a few that have walked away rich from faked and ruined enterprises.

  3. 3 ted

    4 points no good… but story great! And holiday theme! (Christmas chili)

  4. Michelle McFee – beloved friend of 35+ years and ex-roomie – pointed me over here, I’m presuming for two reasons:

    1. I write novels for a living, and she knows how much I appreciate good writing, and

    2. I’m in year eight of my own relapsing-remitting MS diagnosis.

    So far, haven’t needed the cane (and only occasionally a wheelchair, mostly when travelling). But I suspect that, had that been me Ruby Dude had tried cutting in front of, I would have found an excellent use for the cane, possibly one concerned with reaming out a fistula the gentleman with the ruby probably hadn’t thought he’d ever need Zen to deal with.

    Thanks for this. It’s a marvellous piece, and my best to your wife from a sister sufferer.


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