We were at Spare Time Bowling, in Northampton, when I overheard Bernie’s daughter, Alisa, say to her son, Milo: “You know the times of Easter and Passover? We do a Seder at Passover and also go for service at the Meetinghouse on Easter, right? It’s like people make special time for God. They pray, they meditate, they celebrate freedom. Do you know what your Grandpa Bernie used to do? Your Grandpa Bernie liked to go on the streets. That’s where he went to find God.”
He began to go on the streets in 1991, and especially loved to live on New York City streets during Holy Week. It was often still cold in New York, especially at night (I remember one retreat when it snowed during the day).
I did a few of these with him so I remember the procedures. We always spent the first night in Central Park, the entire group together. A cold mist gathered one year, and I remember lying on a flattened carton (we all got good at gathering cardboard flats), my head enveloped by mist. I had just moved, was exhausted, and slept like a baby in that wet fog even as others walked around, wide awake due to the chill. They woke me up at 4 and said, “Let’s get going.”
“Why?” I complained.
“If we don’t walk, we’ll freeze,” was the answer.
I got up to my feet and discovered that the night air was clear and cold, while the mist was low on the ground. I had a wet film on my face and my hair was sopping wet.
We’d walk and walk, collapsing often on benches at the old Thompson Square Park in Lower Manhattan. We talked to street folks, getting info about where to stay dry, warm, and avoiding the police, and begged for coffee. The police were all over train stations, especially Penn Station, rousting everyone who didn’t have a ticket.
We also fell asleep on subway cars, only we had to beg for money to get through the turnstile. I don’t recall any of us jumping over the turnstile, but that may have happened.
Some people found it gimmicky; at first, I was very skeptical. Eventually I got accustomed to putting a sweater and extra pair of socks in my backpack, a hat, a small umbrella, a roll of toilet paper, and going with him. In addition to taking these items, Bernie would add a staff (it was 10 miles of walking from Yonkers to Central Park) and, of course, a cigar, which he would smoke in dribs and drabs throughout our days together.
He would sprawl on one of the benches, lighting up, and survey Thompson Square Park like it was his personal kingdom. Now that I think of it, you could have put him in a zendo, one of Donald Trump’s mega apartments, or on a bench on the streets and he seemed equally comfortable. But he was happiest on the street.
He loved the freedom from clocks and appointments (none of us could wear a watch or carry a phone), the lack of structure, the pragmatic concerns of where to eat, sleep, and use the bathroom; he seemed to feel freest in those times.
We would do a Buddhist liturgy, The Gate of Sweet Nectar, in which we would vow to feed all the hungry ghosts, and he loved scrounging around for two pieces of metal which he could clang together to evoke the sound of bells, or a small branch to knock against the wooden bench for the sound of drums. We would make a lot of noise and chant: Now I have raised the Bodhi Mind. The mind of enlightenment, the mind of compassion.
You might snicker and say, “Tell that to the really homeless people living on the streets with no home to go back to at the end of five days,” and you’d be absolutely right, that’s a very different case entirely. You could stand on the side and shake your head, say this is silly, even frivolous. I can speak only for myself and share a little of my sense of how Bernie experienced it.
He experienced going on the streets as freedom. He experienced it as generosity, the generosity of the streets. “All the Buddha’s riches are at our feet,” he told me over and over. Sometimes it wasn’t the riches you were used to, so he could improvise with rocks or twigs to take the place of bells and drums, and he knew how to darn that brown samue jacket he liked to wear.
He knew how to talk to street people, hanging out on the benches under the sunlight as though that was his usual life, not days full of office appointments and concerns about projects and budgets. He more than any of us, grizzled and walking with some trouble, looked like he’d lived there all his life.
He had bad knees for many years and few people understood how much they hurt him in those retreats, especially when there was rain (and there always seemed to be rain), how he’d come home limping, take ibuprofen, need to rest. It didn’t deter him from going out again and again, till he finally couldn’t.
But even then, when life got too much, when he felt weighed down by the complexities of running things or when our own relationships wasn’t going well, he’d warn me: “One day I’m going to go on the streets and never come back!”
And I’d say, “Okay, just don’t forget to take that 50-inch TV screen you insisted on with you.”
He’d mutter something, yell for Stanley the dog, and together the two would go into the car for a ride, Bernie lighting up his cigar. And that would be the end of it.
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