by John Ellis
This may be more honest than a writer should be, but I’m not sure why the average reader who doesn’t know me should read this post. I don’t really have a thesis or any direct points of application (except, maybe, don’t be an idiot). In fact, after I first sat down to write this, I pressed pause for a few days because I couldn’t think of how to make it a little more universal. Finally, I decided, as I mentioned in another post, that my main audience is my family. As of this moment, I have a great memory. That won’t always be the case, though. And I’d like to leave my children a record of my journey to faith in Christ. To that end, here’s the story about how the unrepentant, self-worshipping John Ellis entered the proverbial pigsty.
In the fall of 2003, with my Jack Kerouac inspired cross-country journey completed, I felt more lost than when I first nosed my car west. Looking back over my journal entries during that trip, journal entries that stop about halfway into the trip, there wasn’t even any attempt to mask my loneliness and disappointment. I was hurting as I made my way to San Francisco. And that hurt was compounded by what I experienced along the way. My time spent in my Mecca, though, followed by the events of the subsequent months, finished the shattering of my atheistic worldview built on the good deeds of progressive ideology.
After trudging the near constant uphill climb from my hostel at Fort Mason to Haight-Ashbury, my first day in the City began with promise and ended in disappointed anger. The sight of the GAP Store mocking me on the corner of the intersection of the most famous streets in counterculture lore was almost too much to bear. The callous, self-righteous mood at the over-priced vegetarian café added insult to injury. The haughty tones of the workers. The unwillingness to engage in conversation by my fellow patrons. And the unexpected hit to my meagre food budget. All – all of it – combined to feed my growing suspicion that, whoever they were, these were not my people and this was not my place.
Sitting down at a table occupied by a female who nodded her approval when I silently gestured at the empty chair, I surveyed the other customers and, based on their expensive clothes, shoes, and other accoutrements, concluded that a $15 dollar vegan sandwich did not affect them the same way it affected me. As my friends and I used to say of the faux hippies of Asheville, NC, “If we had a trust fund, we could afford to sit on a street corner and play bongo drums all day, too.”
My suspicions were proving true; it was all a sham. Rich, white kids playing at being counterculture as an act of rebellion. And doing so on Daddy’s dime. Either via Daddy’s credit card or the expensive degree Daddy purchased for them at the prestigious university that those oppressed by Daddy’s system didn’t have access to. Virtue signaling, while perfected in our current age of social media, is not new.
Ruefully eating my overpriced sandwich, I turned my attention to my unexpected lunch partner. Lacking any pretense of being committed to overthrowing capitalism, saving the rain forest, or burning down mansions, I found her refreshing, to my surprise. Friendly and chatty, unlike “my people,” she was an L.A. based fashion designer in the City on business. “My co-workers and I are having a party tonight,” she said as she wrote down an address located in the Mission District. “You should come.”
Partying with the frivolous, the superficial, and the purveyors of one the worst aspects of consumerism (the fashion industry) on my first night in San Francisco had never entered my imagination while planning the trip. Commiserating in dusty, used bookstores or minority-owned cafes with like-minded souls about the evils of capitalism, the coming doomsday fueled by our individualistic consumer society, and the need to fight for the rights of the most marginalized in society was my expected pot of gold at the end of my revolutionary rainbow.
With nothing else to do that night, though, I told the fashion designer that I would see her later as she smilingly left our table.
The week spent in my revered City didn’t get any better.
By the time I returned to my brother’s house in the East Bay, I was far more disillusioned than I had been when I first had the idea to make the pilgrimage. Church the following day only made things worse.
With the words of the meddling traveler I had met in Denver ringing unwanted in my ears, I begrudgingly stepped inside that small Baptist church and sat in the pew my brother directed me towards. I don’t remember what was preached; I don’t even remember who preached. I do remember, however, the steady parade of smiling people eager to meet me and ask me questions about myself.
After the service, my brother’s friends who joined us for lunch appeared to be genuinely interested in me, which unnerved me. “Why do these weird, deluded Christians care so much about me?” I puzzled.
The evening service was no better. In fact, to my horror, I found myself enjoying the after-service volleyball game. An unreserved enjoyment I hadn’t felt in years. The trip to Denny’s upon the game’s conclusion found me steering into the newly found acceptance and, shockingly (to me), the love I felt from these judgmental, fundamentalist Christians. For the first time in years, I felt like I was appreciated and wanted for me and not for what I had to offer nor how I could be used.
The next morning, as I left the Bay Area on the way to my next stop, I couldn’t shake the warm smiles, the tender hugs of goodbye, and the genuine assertions that they had been happy to meet me and that they would be praying for me. Again, the words of that busybody traveler in Denver played in the background of my mind. To make matters worse, I didn’t want to leave. Which confused me and made me angry.
Driving south on I-5, I unsuccessfully fought back tears. Hurting, confused, and angry, and without even really thinking about what I was doing, I drove past my intended next stop and the next and, instead, drove straight to San Antonia, TX.
Over 1,700 miles and 30 hours later, I collapsed into my cheap motel room and, for some unknown reason, called my confused brother. In my sleep-deprived state, I confessed my feelings to him, which made me angry at myself when I woke up the next morning.
“Telling him how much you loved being at his church and meeting his Christian friends is only going to give him and the rest of the family undo hope, you idiot,” I scolded myself.
My anger with myself met my growing worldview disillusionment causing my internal struggle to begin to grow into a destructive rage.
Making my way to my parent’s house in Pensacola the following day, I found myself with an unplanned large amount of money in my bank account (large for me at the time). Having cut my trip short by about 3 weeks, I had close to 1,500 bucks remaining. Instead of doing the smart thing and leaving it in the bank, I began to burn through it in riotous living.
Over the next week, I basically camped out at Seville Quarter, the famed nightclub where I had bartended for a brief time that previous winter. I quickly learned that $1,500 isn’t as much money as I had believed when I began my program of wining and dining newfound acquaintances of the female variety. By the end of that week, with my bank account nearly tapped out and assurances I had made to a few of my new acquaintances coming due, I made a retreat to Greenville, SC where I had two jobs and a free place to live waiting for me.
Returning to Greenville had not been high on my wish list, but beggars can’t be choosers, as the saying goes.
With my anger and despair growing, I unsuccessfully attempted to blind myself to my situation by engaging in evolving self-destructive acts. Waking up in unfamiliar places surrounded by strangers became the norm.
By early November, I had worn out my welcome at my free place to live. Finding myself living in a seedy motel populated by pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers, I gained entrance into a world I had only ever heard about. With two service industry jobs, I always had tip money in my pocket, and so, whenever I was there, I learned to expect knocks on my door throughout the early hours of the morning. For a very brief time, it was exhilarating being the center of attention and surrounded by those whom polite society is only ever exposed to via the glamorizing lens of movies and TV. But, as already stated, my feelings of excitement and adventure were brief.
Not long into my time at my new digs, I found my ex lying on her kitchen floor in a pool of her own blood. She had slit her wrists the wrong way, and so I didn’t believe that there was any immediate danger of her dying. I was concerned, though, that if left alone she’d try again. After a very hurried trip to the closest CVS for thick bandages and medical tape, I spent the night on that kitchen floor while she sobbed on my shoulder.
Over the years since our marriage in 1998, we had both taken paths that led us far from our conservative Christian upbringing. Her path was littered with substance abuse and the loss of jobs. To be fair, she carried emotional and physical baggage that no one should ever have to carry. And it was baggage that I had made heavier during our short marriage by my fumbling and, frankly, self-serving attempts to carry it for her. We spent our few years as a married couple taking turns wounding each other.
And, so, even though we had been incredibly bad for each other, I still cared for her and believed that her downward spiral was at least partially my fault. My new place of residence also gave me insight into her trajectory.
Sitting on that kitchen floor, already filled with growing rage at a God I still didn’t really believe existed and furious with the hypocrisy of my progressive worldview, I also began to become angry at the world in which my ex and I were beginning to occupy. Over the course of that night, as we cried and talked and fitfully slept, the exhilarating romantic view of my life among those whom I had convinced myself were real life versions of Steinbeck characters and a life which I believed I had led my ex into was stripped of its appeal for me. My eyes were opened to the ugliness of where we were and where we were going. That night, all pleasure was shorn from my world.
Unbeknownst to me, though, that night was really just my entrance into the pigsty.
A few weeks later, I left that seedy motel and moved in with a co-worker. From a human standpoint, that ended up being a mistake, but that’s for another post.
Two other things happened that swung open the gate to the pigsty.
In early December, on my night off, I started a fight while hanging out at the bar where I worked. That was the first event, and it led to the second event.
For some reason, that night found me in an especially bad mood. To make matters worse, those around me were friends of the girl who had decided that she was my girlfriend. She annoyed me, but she was always available. Her friends, though, not only annoyed me but served no purpose in my life. And on that night, they were all drunk while I was sober.
I don’t remember his name, I may have never known his name, but his friends called him The Clap owing to his frequent visits to the health department. For some stupid reason, he seemed to delight in his nickname, a fact that only increased my disdain for him. That night, drunk and sensing my edginess and dislike for him, The Clap began needling me. About being an ex-BJU student. About how much he wanted to sleep with my “girlfriend.”
“I’m going to do it,” he taunted me as he drunkenly poked his finger in my chest. “You’ll only find out about it after you get the clap from her. Then you’ll know that I did it.”
Already furious that my carefully curated image as a non-Christian had been jeopardized by his teasing me about Bob Jones University, his taunt and poke were too much for me. In my head, I knew that he was just teasing me, hoping to rile me up. I knew that I should just let it go, but all the anger that had been building up spilled out.
Losing my temper, punching him in the face, and starting a fight cost me my job that night. But the evening wasn’t over.
As my “girlfriend,” a smattering of her friends not too angry at me to still hang out with us, and I left the bar, one of the girls who was almost too drunk to stand took out her keys and asked who was going to ride shotgun. My “girlfriend” wisely deduced that I was the only one in any condition to drive and attempted to snatch the keys from her friend.
Stumbling into oncoming traffic, oncoming traffic barely missing her, the drunk girl evaded the attempted theft of her keys and made as much of a beeline as someone in her state can make to her car. My “girlfriend,” who wasn’t sober herself, followed, pleading with her friend to let me drive. Letting out a torrent of cuss words at her friend’s laughing entrance into the driver’s side of the car, my “girlfriend” jumped on the hood and began pounding on the windshield. Still laughing, the drunk girl started her car and backed it into the street.
By this point, a crowd from the bar had gathered. As people became aware of what was happening, the noise and flurry of activity elevated. Amongst the loud and profane attempts to get the drunk girl to see the folly of her actions, I heard one of my now ex-coworkers instruct someone to call 911.
Considering the overall drunken state of the crowd and the fact that I just been kicked out of the bar for starting a fight, the cops were the last people I wanted to show up.
Jumping into the street, I began punching the driver’s side window as the car lurched forward, my “girlfriend” still clinging to the hood. Screaming at the top of my lungs that the cops were coming proved far more effective than my failed attempts to shatter the window. The car stopped. Pushing the drunk girl into the passenger seat, I growled to my “girlfriend,” “Get in.”
Driving to the drunk girl’s rented trailer in Simpsonville, I stewed in my anger while my irritation was pushed higher and higher by the drunken perspective on what had just happened being shouted in my ear by the car’s occupants. By then, the near tragedy had become a comedic event for them. I knew it wasn’t. And I was sick to my stomach and what my life had become.
That night was the last time I saw most of that crowd.
Owing to my actions prompted by my lost temper, I needed a new job, the second important event. The next day, I showed up at a theatre I had worked at multiple times. As “luck would have it,” to borrow a subtext from the Book of Ruth, they were in the middle of casting a show and offered me a part.
The money was far less than what I had been making at the bar. A fact that led me to make decisions a few weeks later that I meant for evil, but that God meant for good, to borrow the words of Joseph. As a complimentary piece of the puzzle that was the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart and life, that show also brought me into contact with someone who helped complete the destruction of my atheistic worldview while introducing me to an alternative. And while I believed that I was escaping a world and life that was ugly and destructive, little did I know that my growing anger that culminated in that bar fight actually set into motion the events that would take me into a much darker, violent, depraved world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just entered the pigsty.
Soli Deo Gloria