For David L., a homeless man in Salt Lake City, broadcasting his thoughts while walking the streets alone is not madness but spiritual practice.
“Something strikes me in my heart, and I start talking out of nowhere,” he says.
David wears black leather boots, khaki green pants, and a black canvas jacket with epaulettes and several pockets. It clings to his brown and shirtless chest. A black nylon blanket swaddles his head in a turban. Up and down The Block David walks, speaking the words of his Father, or trying to, his voice as dry as the Deseret sun, his eyes as bronze as Rodin’s The Thinker.
David is both Muslim and Mormon. "The Quran has all the truth," he explains, but then confides that Salt Lake City, and specifically The Block, is a holy place. The Block is Salt Lake City’s homeless district. David came four years ago from “down south,” he says, to study the ways of the people and the symbols on the surrounding religious edifices.
“I consider this ground sacred,” he says. “I like to get my Block amped up. I like to talk to them about life, about how my Father teaches me.”
It’s hard to tell whether anyone is listening. No crowds gather, no murmurs echo. No amens, no hallelujahs. David leads a solitary existence, keeping to himself, listening, rehearsing his conversations with God aloud while stepping down littered sidewalks.
His sermons are an exercise in improvisation. “Improvise” is from the Latin “improviso,” which means “not studied or rehearsed.” It also means “unexpected”—a surprise. Musicians and poets agree that it’s during improvisation when magic occurs. Only through improvisation can the divine be witnessed or felt. As David paces and speaks, his words get closer and closer to the truth. And when, in flashes, he speaks the truth, he briefly becomes one with God.
David is ever trying to increase and lengthen these moments of oneness.
It didn’t begin that way, though. When David first arrived on The Block, he was a timid, self-conscious shell of a man. He’d scour the streets in search of marijuana scraps. That’s when he happened upon spice, a smokable herb treated with chemicals, often called “synthetic marijuana.” Once legal and sold in gas stations and smoke shops, spice has become the poor man’s “poor man’s” drug. A joint costs $2. One hit can send users into catatonia. David says it’s like taking a big hit of crack on top of marijuana. And it saved him.
“Spice helps out. I had a problem with self-consciousness. Spice helped me to not give a flying fuck,” he says. Then he apologizes for swearing.
While the drug is increasingly responsible for seizures and deaths, David sees it as kind of manna from heaven. Those who suffer at its hand lack the mental constitution.
“Spice made a difference for me because of my mental outlook,” he says.
Most of his sermons are delivered after smoking the drug, and when he is without he is fortunate to experience flashbacks. But the spice high can’t compare with the spiritual high.
“I go out there because I feel something in my heart, this uplifting sense of a high, not a drug high, something far more energetic,” he says.
Still, he keeps his eyes to the street, but no longer for marijuana. Today he finds heroin, meth, and spice, wadded in tiny wrappers. He says these are alms from his listeners. Street dwellers secretly discard the drugs for David's finding. The different colored wrappers convey different messages. A blue baggie, which might contain cocaine, is a benefaction for his sermon on “the Utmost.”
David picks up these discarded drugs with care and gratitude rather than haste. He doesn’t beg, steal, scrounge, or hustle. He depends on almsgiving. And this, too, serves his spiritual purpose.
“I try to not think of anything worldly,” he says, “because then I have that extra oomph when I go out in the streets and talk. You want to say words with authority. I don’t wanna think of myself as this kid out in the streets, so when I step out in the streets I consider myself as an older man, a man that wears a tie, a man that has gone to classes, a man that has talked with many people. And when I look around, I can see this changes how people look at me.”
Even the cops, who are ever-present on The Block, show respect. “I tell the officers, ‘I’m out here on duty, too,’” David says. He’s too reserved to say this directly, though, so he says it with his body language. David carries himself with grace, and the cops don’t mess with him.
David intends to continue his spiritual practice of smoking spice, talking with himself and God, preaching to his ‘hood for at least four more years, or until “my Father tells me I’m done.”
Until it is finished.
For now, he walks and talks, a supposed crazy man, a homeless fiend for the ideal, dressed in rags and speaking his soul to the paupers of the world. A veritable Son of God.
“My Father taught me, ‘When you feel in moments like this, when you want to talk, just know I’ll guide your words,’” David says.
He bends down to pick up a tiny blue wrapper, inspects it briefly, and puts it in his pocket.