Author’s Note: This story first appeared in Leisuresuit.net on February 21, 2000. I always liked it, and it’s worthy of reprint now. From what I gather, Whatsyourname is still around, taking the concept of Jesus into new territory as the Dude must certainly be somewhere in his 50’s.
"And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?"
-- Luke, 24:13-18
Emmaus is a good ways south of the Coal Region in Northeast Pennsylvania. Down around Bethlehem. And Nazareth, made famous by The Band when Levon and Robbie pulled into for salvation via a new guitar at the Martin factory. All they would have seen heading South on Route 81 was woods, farms, Golden Arches and small towns in the distance.
Had they left the interstate, they'd have been amazed how an approaching town, through tangles of tree branches and telephone wires, resembled some small Eastern European village, with the bulbous, golden domes of Russian Orthodox churches and angled steeples rising over factories and houses. Each town would look the same, but somehow different, as even the blank slate of a shantytown like Shaft or William Penn would mean civilization after a few hard miles of great black slag heaps (soon to be gone thanks to coal regeneration plants). The Molly Maguires traveled these back roads in the late 1800's, before an undercover detective and the hangman crushed their murderous coal miners' rebellion.
The long arms of Philly and New York don't reach this far. The suburban sprawl and six-figure restored barns of the southern part of the state haven't seeped north. I grew up thinking Scranton and Wilkes Barre were big cities to the north but see them now for the even-larger coal towns they are. The one or two ski resorts are miniscule compared to the tourist chalets in the Poconos. West of the Poconos and east of Eden.
"HAZLETON, PA. He appeared out of the blue back in October, clad only in a dirty white robe as he walked barefoot along the two-lane highway into this struggling former coal town. Folks pointed at first as the man with the shoulder-length hair and scruffy beard preached to whoever would listen. Before long, though, many in this largely Roman Catholic community were embracing him as a holy man."
-- "Some See Hope in Mysterious Preacher," Joann Loviglio, Associated Press, January 29, 2000
I can see him now in the dim yellow light of a firehouse hall. The bingo cage and microphone sitting on a card table off to the side of the plywood stage. The firetruck smell of rubber and metal seeping from the garage next door. Creaks and scrapes of folding metal chairs opening on a cement floor. The taps at the bar turned off for this holy night, and the regulars in their baseball hats and blaze-orange hunting vests grumbling. The halo of a Pepsi clock glowing over his head.
Or maybe he's in a field. People milling around him, where they normally gather for turkey shoots and block parties, kids hunting for Easter eggs, and a cover band with umlauts in its name playing Skynyrd and Springsteen in the summer. The faces, hard and round, shadows of the Ukraine and Ireland, with bifocals and wrinkles, rosary beads and little black Bibles clutched in hand, gazing back at this man in nothing but a white robe and sandals in the dead of winter. Turn a six-pack of Yuengling into the blood of Christ. A box of Mrs. T's Pierogies into His body.
According to the A.P., when anyone asks his name, he replies "What's your name?" He says it's part of a Hebrew tradition not to reveal your name to someone until you're their friend. So the locals now call him: "What's YourName". His real name, according to a police affidavit, is Carl J. Joseph, 39. I've seen his face in a picture. Like Christ as traditional surfer dude. Ted Neeley and Willem Dafoe. He's got the look, even a year shy of forty. But where was Christ all those years, after teenage sparring in the temple with the rabbis and before a three-year lunge at earthly authority so burning and desperate even his own followers called for his head? "What's your name" is a Hebrew tradition? It's also a line from a David Bowie song that Pontius Pilate would have liked.
The newspaper says he's been traveling for 9 years, through 47 states and 13 countries. But he's never stayed in one place for so long before. He spoke to 2,000 people once in Hazleton, and it's not uncommon to see dozens of people "standing in a field at 2 a.m. listening to him preach. "He turns over all money and gifts he receives to local parishes, except for sandals he received recently because he did not own a pair of shoes.
"He said he will remain in the area as long as there is a need for his words."
-- from the AP article
I left when there was no longer a need for my words. Or at least I was filled with enough anger, boredom and resentment that whatever I had to say wasn't going to do anyone any good, and I had to go away. Back then I blamed it on the place, that I had "outgrown" it in some sense and had to move on. And maybe that was true simply in the sense of leaving home, wherever it may have been. But I can look back now and see that I had to outgrow whoever I was much more than the Coal Region itself. That sense of abandonment haunts and comforts me to this day. 1978, a good decade before I left. My brothers and I would sit on the steps of a mausoleum in the graveyard by the church. Bagging it because our relentlessly Irish Catholic grandmother had a debilitating stroke, preventing her from attending Mass. Our sister was still going through the motions, although that wouldn't last. Our father was doing much the same, only with the benefit of a car. And our mother was a filthy Protestant, so she was already hellbound and didn't count.
We got dressed up every Sunday morning, left at quarter to nine, and hung around talking about rock stars and school. Occasional parishioners passing by would glare at us. They didn't know teenagers like being glared at. We lived. The parish priest at that time was later nailed for possessing child pornography, and he was in the pictures, too. The church folded a few years back. My friend George bought it for a song. He didn't want any freaks moving in next door.
Here's a picture I clipped from a local newspaper and held for years before it turned too yellow: a group of Catholic school children re-enacting Christ's agonizing walk up Calvary Hill. Roman centurions in wire-frame glasses and shag haircuts, bearing plastic Star Wars lasers and trashcan lids. The Virgin Mary in a headband and two-tone saddle shoes. Christ, a pasty-faced 12-year-old, bearing his cardboard cross, wearing a white sheet and a pair of Nike running shoes. They do roughly the same show in Gordon every Easter, only with adults. What I always wondered: If this reenactment were to be authentic, shouldn't most of the crowd be bawling out taunts like "King of the Jews" and "crucify him" and throwing stones at "Christ," even if they're only styrofoam chunks painted to look like stones?
"SHENANDOAH -- Gary A. Moses, 42, said when driving to Mahanoy City on Friday, he saw What's Your Name walking the road. 'It was bitter,' he said. 'It takes a lot to walk in these conditions with sandals and a robe,' he said. He stopped to offer him a ride but the nomad refused. 'His reasoning for not taking a ride is he said that's how he meets people.'
-- "300 Hear Nomad's Message," by Stephen J. Pytak, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, February 2, 2000.
The only Buddha I meet on the road back there is a guy named Buddy. Rumor has it he spent an afternoon hanging out at the bottom of a swimming pool as a boy, and is lucky to be alive, but is slightly brain damaged as a result. He thumbs it everywhere. It seems to be his purpose in his life. You'd have to be nuts to pick him up. He has a shock of red hair, and his rocking body motions let you know something's slightly off. He's often wearing a bright red Philadelphia Phillies warm-up jacket. No one knows where Buddy goes. He just goes. And he never gets there. As Woody Guthrie must have known every Dust Bowl backroad, Buddy surely knows even the abandoned, dilapidated mining roads in the Coal Region. Buddy's going to be there long after What's Your Name is gone. I suspect one day he'll be thumbing my hearse as it passes on the road to the cemetery. Then again, much like Christ, Buddy has more reason to fear the motives of those nearest him than the capricious whims of omnipotent rulers:
"TAMAQUA -- The 27-year-old Tamaqua man who allegedly robbed and repeatedly stabbed a hitchhiker with a screwdriver Wednesday morning remains today in Luzerne County Correctional Facility in lieu of $75,000 bail.
Tedd Richard Fredericks, of West Broad Street, was arraigned before District Justice Joseph D. Zola, of Hazleton, on charges of aggravated assault, three counts of robbery, simple assault and theft by unlawful taking or disposition. The victim, Harold 'Buddy' Klinger, also of Tamaqua, was treated at Hazleton General Hospital for numerous lacerations and a broken right hand. Klinger is originally from the Ashland area, according to Tamaqua Police Chief George B. Woodward, who said the man is known for hitchhiking and panhandling in the Tamaqua area.
According to the affidavit of probable cause filed by Corporal Brian S. Tobin, a state trooper at Hazleton, the attack was initiated when Fredericks offered Klinger a ride for $6 when he saw him standing along Route 309 near Tamaqua. Tobin said Klinger knows Fredericks because they reside in the same apartment building, so he agreed to the ride. They then picked up Fredericks' mother in Hometown and took her to work at J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills, he said. After dropping her off, the two drove back to Tamaqua for gas, then headed back to Hazleton, he said.
'They drove on Interstate 81 and got off at the Hazleton exit,' said Tobin, who spoke with the stabbing victim. 'Klinger said they made a couple of turns and didn't know where they were. Then Fredericks stopped the car to go to the bathroom.' Fredericks then exited the vehicle and opened the trunk. He called Klinger to the back of the car and asked him if he did drugs. When Klinger said no, Fredericks began stabbing him around the head with a screwdriver, Tobin said. According to Tobin, Klinger didn't see the weapon at first, but when he started to get stabbed by Fredericks, he attempted to flee, but the attacker jumped on him and continued stabbing.
'Fredericks then took approximately $380 from Klinger and drove off, leaving him behind,' Tobin said."
-- "Tamaqua Man Charged in Stabbing," Chris Dean, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, 2/3/00
There are strange things about the Coal Region reporters will never pick up. Having been born and raised there for 20 years, I'm not even sure I have. Forget about the accent, a strange, guttural mix of Irish and Slavic. I can't imitate it, although I sometimes drop hints of it when back there for a few days. Mahanoy City is famous for always being on fire. And for once having their Christmas tree right in the middle of the main street, and it would invariably get wiped out every few years by a drunk driver. Old coalcrackers pronounce it "Mock-annoy." Shenandoah is the heart of the Coal Region, if not the head. "462 da fuck" is a popular local saying, the town's area code, stated with profane emphasis. What amazes me about What's His Name--how he didn't get locked up in the hoosegow for vagrancy and then given a ride to the edge of town the next day. This unnerves me. Makes me feel like King Herod, and the pharaohs before him. Are people in the Coal Region easily led astray? No. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find people more stubborn. I know the hardcore coalcrackers, the factory workers who never make the papers unless it's holding a trophy or the antlers of a dead buck, are having a good laugh over What’s Your Name. But I would say that as in any small town, curiosity runs wild in a situation like this, and it doesn't hurt that What's Your Name is pushing all the right spiritual buttons. I'd imagine a majority of the audience at his shows are Christians; the rest just want a piece of the action. And they see a man who is not Christ, but gives good scripture anyway.
I've known Paul Rieder for a few years now, a gentleman farmer in the wilds of southeast New York state who's also a fine musician. One of his songs is called, "Jesus Died at 33- 1/3." He and his wife, Heidi, have traveled extensively, and it's his habit to keep journals of these trips. It was Paul who brought my attention to What's Your Name's saga with the AP article that has touched off a media frenzy, with Time, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and ABC News hot on the trail. He sent me the AP article, along with his journal entry from a trip to Mexico:
Palenque and Misol-Ha, Chiapas, Mexico
It takes a bit to find out how to get to the waterfall at Misol-Ha without spending a lot of money. Everybody seems to want us on some kind of $50 package tour with all the tightlipped sunburned Germans. Finally, we decode the local schedule and get on a chicken-class bus--telling the driver "Crucero Misol-Ha" a few times so he'll remember to stop there—and slowly wait for the bus to Tila to fill. It's an ancient school bus painted bright blue (inside and out).
About half an hour in the bus stops in the middle of the jungle--not a building or path in sight--and on gets a white hippie guy dressed only in a thin blanket--the polyester kind found in bad motels. He sits down in the aisle up front. I know immediately that he's getting off with us.
So of course it's just the three of us there at Crucero Misol-Ha for the two miles or so to the water. He starts up a friendly conversation--he's American. Did we know there was a Rainbow Gathering at Misol-Ha this week? No, we did not. Turns out he's been on the Rainbow trail for six years now--no vocation, no money, and unless he's hidden some back there in the jungle, no clothing except a blanket. He expounds his philosophical position--he's essentially a holy fool, constantly moving around (Central America these past six months), going to these gatherings, sleeping in the wilderness and eating whatever he finds. (Maybe the Mexicans feed him 'cause he looks like Jesus.) He asks us what we do and Heidi says we're farmers--he thinks she said "performers," then laughs when we correct him, singing to himself, "Am I a farmer, am I a star?" We chat some about farming. He asks us our names.
"Paul and Heidi. And yours?"
"Um ... Paul and Heidi. And you are ..."
Aha. I laugh and he laughs too. It seems that What'syourname is his nomde-Rainbow -- sort of a litmus test for a person's tolerance and humor.
We arrive at the falls: it's a much grander, jungly version of Hamilton Pool in Texas, a big collapsed grotto with veils of water pouring into a deep cool lake. It's around 95 now and very humid. Looks like the bulk of the hippies have taken off. What'syourname has a baggie with his passport and some money, but he doesn't have enough to pay the entrance fee at the park, so we pay for him. He then gives me all the money that he has and won't take it back, saying that he's held on to it for too long anyway. I'm wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do with this hippie's pile of pesos, if I should buy him a drink or something. But there is no one around selling drinks. What'syourname dives in the pool, blanket and all, and that's the last we see of him.
P.S. There's a picture with the article, and it's definitely the same guy. I feel like I should send him a couple of pesos.