Downtown Prophets

The age of prophets never ends. There are always prophets. When times are good, they haunt bookstores and coffee houses and publish small-press books that no one’s ready to read. Because when times are good, nobody’s looking for fresh answers. They think they’ve got life all figured out.

But in bad times people do want new answers, and prophets heat up. Their small-press books get good reviews in the thoughtful magazines — in the back pages, but nevertheless. They make short appearances on public television, after 10 pm. The Utne Reader reprints one or two of their essays. Videotapes of their lectures show up on YouTube.

And they make speaking tours. Which is why Rhumba and I were listening to a slender, intense man talk about the union of cosmic consciousness, love, and economic reform.

And he made it work. Money separates us, we were told, because it makes interactions distant and impersonal and even abusive. How much better to have a community of people who you serve, and who serve you. Not for personal gain, but because it’s what’s right. And what we’re built for.

The sound system, sadly, wasn’t built well at all. Rhumba’s hearing lacks clarity; she couldn’t understand the prophet. “I’m going to go buy some shoes,” she whispered. Her completely recyclable dress sandals had, sadly, begun to biodegrade. We were downtown; five shoes stores lay in a two-block radius. This town just loves shoes.

We smacked lips, and off she went. From his seat on the floor, a dreadlocked neo-hippie in a basket hat asked with his eyes, “Is that seat free?” I motioned him into it.

The place was packed. Santa Cruz is a college town, and politically aware. Its citizens believe, many of them, that the current economy rewards and celebrates the worst instincts in mankind – and that civilization suffers for it.

Up on stage, the prophet gathered steam. Our economy should be an endless giving of gifts to one another,he said. We all feel that something is missing in society, and that is the idea that community, and a just economy, are one. Our wealth should not be what we own, but in the talents and resources of the community of which we are a part.

“But it’s a difficult leap to make, isn’t it?” he asked. “To give up the idea of absolute ownership and cast your fate into the hands of others?” He knew his audience: mostly over-50, educated, economically comfortable. A few old and young hippies could be seen, but in the main there were grizzled academics, tanned matrons wearing organic cottons, and alert seniors with snowy hair. Call it “1969” – with the original cast.

Keeping with his own credo, the prophet had charged no admission, taken no fee. But donations were welcome to offset the expense of bringing him from the East Coast. At the door, a basket literally overflowed with twenty-dollar bills, and higher.

I wanted to hear the prophet’s specific prescriptions for a new economy, but it was not to be. Instead, local speakers mounted the stage to describe their own programs to promote community-building and resource-sharing.

There would be a full panel discussion at the end, but we were two hours in; and I have a short attention span. I became restless.

And I did have a complaint, one i have of many well-meaning college-town movements; the community-building efforts all sought to build communities among well-educated, well-heeled white people. I know they don’t intend to stop there, among their own; but so often, it seems like they do.

Rhumba reappeared. The neo-hippieDownt gave up his seat without a word.

“Didn’t you get new sandals?’ I whispered.

“I’m wearing them,” she said. They looked about like her old sandals; but then, sandals generally do.

“What happened to the old ones?”

“I told the manager I didn’t want them,” she said in my ear. “I asked if he’d recycle them. But he said that when people leave their old shoes, he just puts them outside the front door at closing time. They’re always gone the next morning. People need them. So that’s what’ll happen.”

We stayed a little longer, then I motioned to Rhumba that I’d had enough. “Wanna go?” I asked softly? She nodded.

We silently made our way out the door. And I did wonder and hope, as we left, that a utopian world of tight-knit gift-giving communities will have enough heart to give gifts to strangers.

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