I came to a street named Quarantina and decided to sit on the lawn by the Santa Barbara Junior High. I was listening to our newest Noble Laureate in Literature on my iPod which I had resurrected for a moment just such as this: The intersection of Desolation Row just off from the Gates of Eden. I saw a distraught woman with triplets trying to move her own circus from one place to another. She seemed more than equal to the task she had signed on for the rest of, at least, 18 or so years. She thought at least part of her plight was funny. She was cooing and coaxing the three little people in their complicated wheeled couch.
Teenagers, ear budded and intent, skateboarded, navigated the root eruptions and the street corners without wheel chair rampettes. Dogs barked behind hedges and all sorts of fences, walls, and barriers. There were signs pleading for any information about misplaced or escaped kittens and cats. A woman, tattooed, hung over, and tired, asks me for a dollar, and, in exchange, she tells me she “played the flute in middle school.” The homeless guys were packing up for a day on the move. Pot clouds wafted down toward Quarantina, and it was another beautiful spring day in November.
I went to CVS and walked the aisles of ointments, sutures, canes, tablets for sleep, and elixirs for awareness. It’s all about hope, commerce. We hope that the tablet will soothe or still the itch. Promises of lustrous hair, perfect nails, and conditioners murmur from within plastic dispensers, and we hope we can be restored or spared — if only for a while. I don’t know if there is anything in that place that anyone really needs.
So I went down to the Museum of Art to get my fair share of serenity and oils and watercolors in cool marble halls where docents linger and people stare at walls, but I didn’t make it past the atrium where a giant Buddha lay. It was one of the sleeping ones. His eyes closed (not really), and his ankles crossed above bare feet. He was black and about 20 feet long and, for the museum atrium, new. I got close enough to see that this Siddhartha was a balloon, a sort of Asian bouncy castle, made plump and in shape by a quiet engine in a distant room. He didn’t seem to mind this curious incarnation having, I suppose, been through so many already. I liked it very much. He was there after I made the rounds of English landscapes, and it seemed to me that he, and I, were in the right place at the right time.
I came back a week later, and, of course, he was gone: deflated, eviscerated of the air that gave him shape. Very likely he had been flattened and sent off to another museum or a rock concert or a warehouse. He had done Buddha work — reminding us of how change is the stuff of life and that we have been and will be different, new, triumphant, pathetic, or weird. I wouldn’t allow myself to mourn the passing out of my world of the Balloon Buddha who had other shapes to become and other places to become variations in. I walked home up east on Anapamu and thought about my grave and this week’s epitaph (when they tell you that you have cancer this becomes part of your daily regimen) — “After all that (my urn will read) this.” I am still struggling with punctuation here. Should there be a period or a question mark after the “this” . ?
Below, Ralph, '70, taught Senior English at the Dunn School.