One afternoon in the summer of 1986 I met a German Hare Krishna on Yonge Street in Toronto. He had a golf cap over his shaved-head-and-queue, wore a madras shirt tucked into khaki trousers, and looked startlingly normal for a Hare Krishna. In the mid 1980s his shaved head set him apart, but today he would be indistinguishable from any early middle-aged man in the city, although perhaps a bit touristy in his cap and light clothes. His name was either Horst or Rolf, and he had the sharp jawline and clear eyes that all the Horsts and Rolfs seem blessed with. He greeted me with a big smile and asked me if I'd given some thought to the reincarnation of souls.
I was fifteen that summer and I must have looked like an easy mark, because I got hit up for money or propositioned at least three times a week. Horst or Rolf came along in mid-July, when I was just getting aquainted with my newfound powers of attracting predators and proselytizers. By early June I had lost my fear of them and had decided to enter into limited engagement with each, stopping short of the point when I would be expected to sign up for weekly chanting or sell my body hair (true story - remind me to tell you some time). So when Rolf/Horst the Hare Krishna, the one with startlingly clean tennis shoes, stopped me on the street to discuss the soul pinned to karma's wheel and kicked through the spacetime continuum, I was, as they say, game.
Being fifteen, I knew all that I needed to know about Hare Krishnas, most of which I had gleaned from the elementary school playground. They wore colourful dhotis and sandals, danced around in parks, hassled people at airports. Their chief mission was to invite people back to 'the temple' for a meal, where they would drug the food and brainwash suggestible guests. How they avoided ingesting these drugs themselves, I didn't know, but I was damned sure that Horst/Rolf was not going to lure me to 'the temple'. You had to get up pretty early to fool fifteen year old me.
Rolf/Horst had clearly anticipated my prejudices with his disarming dress and even grin - he had one of those smiles that didn't curve upward but simply stretched clear across his face in a straight line, a feature that should have been creepy but was somehow relaxing. Nor did he try to hustle me into a car with tinted windows and ferry me into the dark depths of 'the temple,' although he gave me a card and told me to come by some Tuesday (did they marinate the food in drugs on Monday? Was Monday the Drug Marination Day?) and 'check things out'. It turned out that what he really wanted to do was read me selected passages from the Bhagavad Gita on the street. You haven't properly heard foundational stories until a Hare Krishna in a white golf cap reads them out in a thick German accent while Torontonians pass by, pausing briefly in pity for me before moving on.
What he also wanted to do was sell me a paperback copy of the Bhagavad Gita for three times the sticker price, which I paid, because I was fifteen years old and not half as smart as I imagined myself.
If there's any moral to be taken from this, I suppose it is that when you're busy guarding your body and soul, leave your wallet at home. Because money will often do in lieu of sex or salvation.
Update: It has become apparent that a few people have misunderstood the tone of my post and offered me corrective information on the Hare Krishnas - namely, that they don't drug people. MY ASS THEY DON'T. I mean, of course they don't. I was in no way trying to misrepresent Hare Krishnas, whom I'm willing to bet are exceedingly nice people, and all those rumours about them recruiting people by means of poisonous blow darts and promises of getting people backstage passes to Creed concerts are all a load of hooey. Likewise the rumours of them sodomizing priests, fixing construction contracts, and flushing the toilet when you're in the shower are totally unfounded.