Twice I have spent a goodly stretch of bright redolent days in Australia, and both times I stayed in the same little friendly unpretentious hotel on Brunswick St, Fitzroy, and both times I wandered widely around the neighbourhood, ambling through the spacious Carlton Gardens, and avoiding the roaring tumultuous pubs after dark, and finding lovely little cafes and music shops and bookstores.
It was at a little bookstore on Gertrude St, during my first trip, that I met a tall craggy man who told me a story that has niggled at me ever since, for its mysterious meaning; so I tell it to you, and maybe between us we can figure it out.
The tall man worked in the neighbourhood as an agent against poverty, as he said; his employer was a group called the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, which had been founded by a priest in the 1930s. The Brotherhood had lost its religious affiliation over the years, but it remained devoted to doing whatever it could to ameliorate and assuage poverty and poverty's endless attendant ills.
The tall man had worked for the Brotherhood for years, and he long ago had lost any illusions about the overarching nobility of people who were hammered and lost and helpless against addictions and diseases and crisis and tragedy.
While I have met many wonderful and gracious people in the course of my work, he said, people who were so kind and brave under duress that they remain lodestars for me, I have also met hundreds of people, mostly men but a lot of women also, who would snatch any advantage possible, and steal you blind, and lie and cheat and prevaricate, and beat up children, and do everything to advance themselves and nothing whatsoever to assist anyone else.
This is just a fact and anyone who says it isn't a fact is a fool or a liar. But on you go, if you believe that all people have dignity and holiness somehow somewhere within them, which I believe, hard as it is sometimes. Hard as it often is.
I asked him about the most wonderful people he'd met in his work, and he told me some amazing stories, and then I asked him about the worst, and he told me some horrifying stories, and then his face twisted and he told me about the worst of the worst, as he said.
I will call him Mokee, he said, which means cloudy or about to thunder, which he always was. This guy was a snake. Certainly there were reasons he was such a snake, he'd had the childhood from hell, and the system had beat him down good, but he also burnt every bridge possible, and abused and attacked and stole from anyone and everyone who came in contact with him.
It got to the point where even the Brotherhood wanted nothing to do with him, and we never turn anyone away, never — that's sort of the point.
But this guy — even I finally gave up on this guy. I couldn't take it anymore. The final straw was when he stole my car. I got it back, that's a long story, and I didn't turn him in, but I just couldn't deal with him anymore. Felt a little bad about that, but everyone has limits, man. Everyone has limits.
We talked a little more about the neighbourhood, and how it was improving markedly from its old days as a rough part of town, and then he had to go and so did I, and a few days later I went home to America. Four years later I came back to Fitzroy, though, and to my delight the bookstore was still there, hanging in against the tide of our electric times. I got to talking to the owner, and I asked after the Brotherhood, and the tall craggy man who had told me the story of Mokee.
The Brotherhood is still there, and still doing great work, said the owner. I know the man you mean, though I haven't seen him for quite a while — I am not sure he works there anymore. But I'll tell you something about that man. The fella he called Mokee got worse and worse, he dove completely into drugs, and one morning as we went to open the store we found him huddled in the street.
I thought he was dead. I was about to call the police when your man from the Brotherhood happened by and saw Mokee in the gutter. I was just inside the store and happened to see this. Your man stopped and stared at Mokee and then knelt down and felt his pulse, and then he picked him up and carried him up the street, I guess to the hospital. Saint Vincent's is right up the hill there.
And maybe I am wrong, but I thought for a second that your man from the Brotherhood actually kissed Mokee's forehead as he went. Now why would he do such a thing, and Mokee all covered in garbage and worse? But I swear that's what I saw.
I haven't seen either of them since then, and I speak for the whole neighbourhood when I say we sure don't miss Mokee, but I do miss your man from the Brotherhood. He was a good bloke. His only vice was that he barracked for Carlton, but no one held that against him, much.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.