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Thank You, Mr. Phillips - by Cliff Walker

By fall of 1986, I had suffered three bouts of serious illness in as many years. Now, an infection had taken most of my hearing, and sixteen plantar warts on the soles of my feet made walking very painful. I had no income.

I was squatting in a crawlspace on SE Stark -- unbeknownst to the store owner. Baloney Joe's* was a cruel joke. At the Saint Francis Kitchen, a palmed bottle of Tabasco always brought warm smiles at the Latinos' table.

During a similar episode in the late 1970s, I'd become a Christian in a momentary lapse of critical judgement. Wrong move! This time, however, I was determined to make it under my own power, keeping my self-definition intact.

I spent my hours unlearning the things religion had taught me. The County Library had some great books: Evolution books by Stephen Jay Gould and the "Warfare" set by Andrew White. My favorite was Hyam Maccoby's "The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity."

Often I'd go to the Pine Street Theater to work in exchange for a seat. One night, Utah Phillips sang the Wobbly songs of Joe Hill. I mentioned to him that I didn't have $4.00 to pay for a copy of his lyric book. He gave me one and signed it "Solidarity." I loved the hymns with revised lyrics, like, "Hallelujah! I'm a bum!" I would go eat at the Rescue Mission just to request those hymns and sing the new lyrics loud and proud.

In all this, I never lost my sense of self-worth as I had done in the Church, letting others do all of my thinking for me. I endured some extremely tough, death-defying times -- and I am still myself.

I hear Utah Phillips has grave health problems. I know my life is better because of him. So if you know him, tell him thanks for me.

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    • Notes:

    • Footnote: * Baloney Joe's was a secular homeless shelter in Portland, Oregon, inspired by the work of the late Mitch Snyder. They so celebrated the lifestyle of the "tramp" that the more dedicated you were to pursuing this lifestyle, the better off you were with this agency.

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Copyright ©1996 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon