On Thursday Nights I take a class at the Junior College. Philosophy 101. I know, I know, you’re supposed to call them Community Colleges, but they’ve only been Community Colleges for, oh, maybe fifteen years. For thirty years I knew it as East L.A. Junior College. It still sounds better to me. Looking up is better than looking down.
This Philosophy class is pretty good. The teacher is young, Dr. Lascola, he just graduated from USC. He still gets passionate about ideas. He doesn’t know this but he trembles sometimes when he can’t make us understand.
He likes to give us puzzles to make us think. The second class he gave us a Zen Koan, it’s like a riddle. He said, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I thought about that, and I gave him the answer. I said, “A tortilla.”
He said, “What?” and I said, “It’s a tortilla. That’s the sound of one hand clapping.” He didn’t understand and I had to explain it to him.
“If you get an old woman,” I told him, “she’s probably from Zacatecas and she’s been making tortillas a long time. You watch her in the morning. The sun is barely up, just a red glow in the east, but she already has the fire going. You can smell that mesquite and then the wet masa. She gets the comal hot and then she rolls some masa into balls and then she starts to pat the tortilla into shape. She doesn’t even look at her hands, she watches the sun taking shape. You watch her hands, they’re very fast but if you watch closely you’ll see that only one hand touches the tortilla at a time. As the other hand touches the tortilla, the first one leaves. They never touch. And yet, there is the clapping noise.”
No se mentiroso. It’s true. You can see this even in the city. You go to an old fashioned place, like La Luz de Dia at the end of Olvera Street. You hear those abuelitas before you even walk through the door. Clap, clap, clap. You watch carefully and you’ll see. The palms never touch. That’s the sound of one hand clapping. One tortilla.
* * *
Philosophy 101 again, our last class of the quarter. Dr. Lascola has steered us through Plato and Socrates and Locke and Hume and Kant and Heidegger and Descartes and sometimes he really made our heads spin. I thought I was a Cartesian for a while, but now I’m not so sure. “Because it is our last class,” Dr. Lascola says, “and you are now much wiser and more philosophical than you were when you arrived.”
He’s twinkling a little. This was his first class here at East L.A. Community College and he feels pretty good about us and the way the class has gone. “I thought I would ask you if there were topics or questions that you would like to return to, now bringing to bear your new-found wisdom.”
Edward Velez raises his hand. Edward is wearing his trademark beret and his trademark baffled expression. Edward has taught art at Garfield High for almost 30 years. He paints very detailed and realistic portraits of big-eyed Franciscan Priests whipping and torturing handsome and naked Chumash and Gabrieleno Indians. The series is called, The True History of the Missions. He’s talented. I actually own one of his paintings but I don’t hang it up. It’s not something you want to live with. What happened to Edward was that one of his students, a kid named Larry Madrid, reinvented himself as Jelly de Clover and became a famous graffiti artist. What he used to paint along the banks of the L.A. River is now documented in gallery shows in New York. He’s been in two museum shows. Edward has been taking classes and therapy ever since.
Edward says, “I keep thinking about that tree you told us about. The one who falls down in the forest, but there’s no one around to hear him?”
“And the question is,” Dr. Lascola says, “Does the tree make a sound? Have you come to some conclusion about that, Mr. Velez?”
“Yeah,” Edward says, “I kept thinking about that tree. I identify with that tree. I think he makes a big noise.”
“Why do you conclude that?” Dr. Lascola asks.
“I think he makes a big noise,” Edward says, “and it doesn’t matter because there is no one there to hear about it. It’s a lot like what happened to me in my life. I’ve done some great things, but it doesn’t count because no one knows about them.”
In the front row, Sylvia Rivera is starting to leak. She’s close to crying but she’s not there yet. It’s what Sylvia does, every last class. “I’ve been thinking about that tree a lot, too,” Sylvia says. “I think Edward is right. I think that tree does make a noise.”
Dr. Lascola beams. This is what he loves, challenging us. “But if there is no one there to hear, how can you prove that there is a sound?”
Chris Muller, all the way in the back row, says, “Suppose you have like this remote-controlled tape recorder …”
Dr. Lascola smiles, “Isn’t a tape recorder a kind of ear? There are no ears to hear, people. Does the tree make a sound?”
Sylvia is nodding with conviction. “It does.”
Dr. Lascola jabs a finger at us, “But how can you prove that, if there is no ear to hear?”
“The tree knows,” Sylvia says. She’s starting to cry. “And so do other trees.”
LOU MATHEWS is a novelist, playwright and short-story writer. His first novel, L.A. Breakdown, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book. His stories have been published in Black Clock, The Rattling Wall, Tin House, The Pushcart Prize and nine other fiction anthologies. He teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.