Lew Gardner 1996- Mission Viejo The tall old man came storming into the back area of the huge bookstore where rows of chairs were set up for the poetry reading. “Hey Nasser!” he roared at a slim young poet. “Glad you made it. Haw, Haw, didn’t think you would!” “My family’s in town but I got away for an evening,” the younger man answered quietly. The old man dropped a brackish backpack on the floor and sat in a front row, pulling off his shoes and extending his feet, with one black and one red sock. He had a chartreuse stocking cap on. With his long white hair and beard, he gave the impression of a skinny and very eccentric Santa Claus. People rolled their eyes at each other. I could hardly wait to hear him read.After the reading was over the strange old man was asking around for a ride home. People glanced nervously at each other. Finally a brave young couple offered him a ride. His poetry had been witty and intelligent and it occurred to me that he could be anything from a retired doctor to a homeless bum. He was still an unknown factor to me.
At the end of the next reading I was sitting with a lady I knew in the coffee shop when Nasser and Lew joined us. Lew was being loud and amusing and I was beginning to like him. I admired Nasser, the youthful mystic poet, who refers to himself as Persian – the old name for Iran. He has a soft accent but is very much like an American hippie or perhaps a Sufi mystic. Lew for all his gusto is rather shy and I started plotting how to get him into my life. The poetry reading was only once a month at that time, so I exchanged addresses with Lew, and we made promises to correspond.It was poetry night at Borders again. When I arrived in the back room Lew and Nasser called me over to sit with them. Lew had written a couple of letters to me since last month. It turned out that correspondence was a big part of his life. He wrote regularly to dozens of people, usually four to seven pages handwritten. Everywhere he went he carried his backpack full of notebooks, letters and poems. Tonight there was a large crowd, about thirty people were there. That’s a lot for a poetry reading. I shuffled nervously through my short stack of poems, planning to read. Lew was in his usual top form, loud voice, loud laugh, one green, one white sock, old overwashed T-shirt and jeans. He read one poem, boisterous and amusing, but then switched to something very tender and thoughtful, another new side of this peculiar man. Its called Watching Leah Dance and it became my favorite poem of his. It’s about a young girl dancing..
.. …when her arm
Goes over her head or she bows down
Over her leg
So do 1.
Her face doesn’t change But I do see her eyes Watch her hands. Ah movement
You’re certainly graced by her soul. And so we feel soul moving girl. There’s a stretch
There’s a turn
There’s a hand looking down at the floor Theres awareness everywhere
There that she breathes …
Nasser was the next to get up and read. He is a slim and youthful person. At first I assumed he was a student, he has that boyish, curious nature. But I learned later that he was forty, divorced, has a daughter and owned a sandwich shop. That night he read,
…. Every hope weaves into sail
every dream advocates the winds of destiny
steering motion from eternal now through endlessness absolute …
It isn’t hard to see a rainbow colored with dreams of luminous harmony
it isn’t hard to see you and I in essence are one
and in a thousand fragments of form subdivided.
Lew and I had been writing to each other, but he suddenly stopped and didn’t appear at readings for a couple of months. I was quite concerned and decided as soon as he reappeared I would invite him to my house for lunch, which I did after we had known each other for a little while. I learned that his absence had been caused by a disconcerting and disruptive event that had overtaken his otherwise simple life.
When I fIrst knew him he left the Laguna Niguel house and was living in a tent in a mountain camp up on Ortega Highway, by the famous candy store. Whenever he came to town for a reading, I put him up on the living room couch. I started visiting him in the camp, and conditions were hard there. In the summer there was ankle-deep dust, and later in the season, there was mud and icy chilly nights.
When he visited, we had long hours of conversation. He is very literary and has seemingly read every intelligent novel in print. He would write letters for hours and we would read to each other from our favorite poets, and swap stories from the 60’s.
I learned that he was in his mid-sixties, twelve years older than me. He has nine adult children in Northern California and an ex-wife that he’s not actually divorced from, possibly because of their Catholic background, (Not that Lew cares about that) but more likely he wants to maintain the link to his children, and he has no intention of remarrying anyway.
He built a wooden cot and bookshelf in his dusty, ragged little tent and was perfectly content there. Of course there is no way to lock a tent. His solution was to own absolutely nothing worth stealing. I kind of envied him, he had perfect piece of mind about possessions, and could come and go freely with out the anxiety that ownership brings.