Baba, Baba, Everywhere!
Dick’s Last Resort in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina was the last place we expected to hear folks talking about God; it was the kind of place where you were likely to find yourself seated under a bra stapled to the ceiling. Pastel stalactites of lingerie hung down in a semicircle around the bar, dangling evidence that real people had sat on barstools and unhooked themselves there; that lady golfers had said, Can you help me with this, honey? and then like magicians pulled cups and straps through their sleeves.
Dick’s was also the kind the place where if you looked quickly at the crowd you might mistake them for hungry Klansmen at a KKK luncheon. A full half of Dick’s patrons, men and women, grandmothers and children, dug into their buckets of coleslaw and barbecue wearing three-foot-tall cones of white butcher paper on their heads, each cone’s pointed top rolled into a ball that resembled the reservoir tip of a condom. On every hat an embarrassing sexual factoid had been written in black magic marker: “I shave my crotch”; “2.5″”; “I’d rather be eating her.”
“Don’t mind them,” the bouncer shouted when we stopped in for a much-needed drink in the least spiritual place we could find. “They’re just the Dickheads. They come for the atmosphere, but stay for the abuse!”
The Dickheads whoop-whooped in their pointy hats; there was nothing they loved more than for the wait staff to be rude and sarcastic with them. It was the theme of the place, in fact. Apparently, it was fun.
We’d pulled into town a few days before to check in for a week’s stay at the Meher Spiritual Center, the “home in the West” of the late Indian guru Meher Baba, believed by many to be the “Avatar of the Age,” the latest in an endless parade of “corporeal manifestations of the divine.” Baba “dropped his body” in 1969, but as seen in the videos frequently shown at the center, he’d been a manifestation with a kind, almost silly manner; one of his most popular teachings consisted of pulling a hard candy from his pocket and winging it at one of his followers. He tut-tutted around with a jolly gait that seemed to forget the heft of his barrel-wide body, and this, combined with his oversized eyes and long, sloping nose, gave him a resemblance to both Charlie Chaplin and the Hindu elephant-god, Ganesh. He heightened his mystique by communicating through a ouija-board-like slate, which he twirled and bobbled as smoothly as a Harlem Globetrotter and on which his long fingers could spell words nearly as fast as they could be spoken. In response to questions about his spiritual identity, Baba tap-tapped things like, “I am God in human form. Of course many people say they are God-incarnate, but they are hypocrites.” To which a Dick’s employee might have replied, “Thanks for clearing that up, Babar.”
There were at one time as many as a million devotees of Baba in India and thousands in the United States. Their numbers had dwindled, but several hundred still lived right there in Myrtle Beach, by day running alligator tours and sea captain carving emporiums, by evening walking the winding paths of the compound, an exquisite piece of land with oceanfront, woods, and a freshwater lake, given to Baba by a wealthy follower decades ago and now valued at $50 million. Baba had been fond of tooling around the lake in a Venetian gondola donated by another fan, but besides boating and strolling there’s not much to do there, and very little ritual to partake in. Devotees make due by trading Baba stories, modeling Baba scenes in clay and making Baba pictures, in oil or charcoal or colored macaroni. Baba Lovers, as they call themselves, believe with the sincerity if not the fervor of first century Christians. Bereft of the teacher but still enthralled by his memory, they are touched as deeply by his image as they are by the words he left behind. A portrait of Baba hangs on every wall of every building at the Meher Center. Baba’s eyes don’t need to follow you as you walk across a room; there are so many pairs of them that he never misses a thing.
One generation removed from their master’s physical presence, the loose community built around the Meher Center is now engaged in a tricky negotiation between its desire to spread Baba’s message and his directive that his teachings not be used to start a religion. How do they do it? Easy, they act like nothing’s wrong. Baba saw all this coming, after all, so they just keep hoping he will work it out. In the meantime they sing Baba songs; do Baba dances; sit in Baba rooms filled with Baba chairs and think Baba thoughts. Like any religion that doesn’t want to be seen as “merely” a religion, they start teaching Baba early on, so the word and the man will be bred in the bones.
In the Meher Center library there’s a children’s book called Baba, Baba Everywhere, the first page of which shows a kid’s drawing of a brightly colored cup of alphabet soup. “Baba, Baba in my soup,” the book begins. On the facing page, Baba’s features float in a dark broth: two intense black eyes, a great big nose and a mustache that would have been enjoyed equally by Frank Zappa or Josef Stalin, all surrounded by little yellow Bs and As. The next page reads: “Baba, Baba, on my stoop.” Here’s Baba on concrete stairs watching two girls play hopscotch. “Baba, Baba in my hair.” There’s Baba peeking out from a forest of wild brown and blond strands. “Baba, Baba Everywhere!” Baba as wide eyes on a wildflower, as a hooked nose on a water bug, as a smiling sun, as a whistling cloud, as a mustache on a breaking wave.
The Baba world looks like the world the rest of us see, with a slight but significant difference: If it’s all Baba, it’s all good. Baba Lovers don’t want the world, they just want the world to be more than it seems. More meaningful. More intentional. Just plain more. Keep turning pages in “Baba, Baba Everywhere” and you’ll find Baba as the air you breathe, Baba as the ground beneath your feet. Look down and he’s looking up: eyes, nose, mustache, and an impish grin on a globe shaped like his head. It would be scary if it wasn’t so cute. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Which brings us back to Dick’s. When we asked for a seat in the “No Dickheads” section, the bouncer pointed us toward the bar. We were less than a mile from the Meher Center’s gate, and we couldn’t resist asking the locals what they thought of having the sometime home of God just down the road.
“Weirdest thing,” the bartender said. “Never heard of it until yesterday.” His name was Frazier, a thickset guy in his late thirties, wearing a goatee, a blue Hawaiian shirt, and denim shorts to his knees. He liked to put his leg up on a case of beer and lean in while he talked. “Live here thirty years and don’t know a thing about the place. Then yesterday I find out there’s a girl here who knows all about it. Hold on just a minute—”
Frazier came out from behind the bar and disappeared into a forest of Dickheads. Two stools down, a chubby girl in black jeans stubbed out her cigarette and blew smoke in the air. She turned to us and said she’d heard us talking about religion. She was raised Southern Baptist, she confided, but now she was a witch.
“Oh really?” we said. “Is there a Wiccan community around here?”
A few minutes later a red-bearded, red-eyed giant appeared behind us. He sized us up, looking us over with eyes as big as our heads.
“You the guys asking folks about religion?” he demanded.
We both nodded, starting to rise and puff out our chests — it’s an instinct, you know — even as we eyed the door.
“My name’s Barry and I live on up near Bolivia, North Carolina. We got some Buddhist fellers up there now and they’re just the nicest bunch a guys you’ll ever meet. They got a crew that go out weekends, clean up litter and road kill on the roadsides.”
Barry swayed a little as he spoke, left to right, forward and back. Maybe he was just excited to be talking about the Buddhists of Bolivia, but he looked like he was going to fall on us.
Just then Frazier came back with a pretty young blonde in tow. Close cropped hair and a dimple in her chin, she was holding a waitress’ apron; her shift had just ended. Tattooed on her right arm were purple grapes so carefully drawn they suggested a Greek statue; it was hard to imagine her making the crass remarks Dick’s was known for. She knew all about the Buddhists of Bolivia, though.
“I brought them some donuts once, and listened to their prayers for a while,” she said.
“Because they only eat what you bring them.”
Frazier put a beer in front of her and made the introductions. Her name was Liz Wilcocks and though she was no longer an everyday Baba Lover, her parents had been among those who’d moved to Myrtle Beach to be near him.
“So how did it feel to grow up at God’s summer home?” we asked.
“Who? Baba? Oh, it was no big deal. I mean, people thought he was God and all, but it wasn’t so important. Some of the Baptist kids in town said it was devil worship, but the worst they did was make fun of us on the bus. I never thought Baba was God, but being there made me curious about those kinds of things.
“Like once I tried astral projection. I had to stop, though. I was pregnant with my daughter, and I was afraid what would happen if I left my body and couldn’t get back. I didn’t want her in there alone.”
The next day Liz visited us at the Meher Center, where we were staying in a cabin on the lake. She brought her two-year-old daughter, Zoë, a daffodil-blonde with chubby cheeks and a dimpled chin, just like her mother’s. Liz took Zoë everywhere but Dick’s; she was a single mom. At the center, she pushed Zoë through the woods in a stroller, guiding us through scenes from her childhood—ping pong in the Baba rec room, hide-and-seek behind Baba trees, stalking alligators in the Baba gator pond—as she rolled Zoë to Baba’s playground. There Zoë slid, swung, and scooped up fistfuls of sand, but what interested her most was the screen door of the gazebo at the heart of the playground. She leaned the whole of her weight into it, pushing with muscles she was just learning she had. “Come on, Farthead, you can do it,” Liz coaxed. When the door budged open a few inches Zoë giggled and clapped her hands against the weathered wood, letting go just long enough for the door to swing back toward her, bumping her down to the gazebo’s floor. “Oh Zoë, you’re fine,” Liz said. “Can you try again?” Zoë scrambled up, small pink hands pounding at the wooden door like it was a drum. “Push it, don’t hit it, Zoë,” Liz said. “You can get through.”
Liz didn’t know yet what she’d tell Zoë about Baba. “It’s true,” she said, stretching to catch the door with her hand as Zoë ambled onto the porch of the gazebo. “Baba is everywhere. I just don’t know why we have to talk about him so much. Okay, maybe people think he’s God; great; move on, you know? The world’s bigger than the Meher Center, and it’s sure as hell bigger than Myrtle Beach.”
She glanced over at Zoë, who had turned around to be sure her mother had seen what she had accomplished. “I just love looking in her eyes,” Liz said. “I love looking at what’s ahead for her.” Then she stopped talking long enough to catch Zoë from falling down a shallow step outside the gazebo.
“What I was saying last night,” she said, taking us back to Dick’s. “I’m going to try it again. Astral projection.”
“I don’t know. It seemed close to what I’m hoping to experience.”
Liz smiled and looked across the lake at the dunes separating it from the ocean. “Not Dick’s…” she said, and we thought of the hanging bras, the condom-capped patrons, the neon beer signs in the window. “Not all my nights in a bar…” She had been working there for five years.
Finally she answered: “More.”
“Baba”; “more”—not different names for God, but different names for longing. More, more everywhere. But only because it was nowhere to be found. “Baba, what is life?” a follower once asked him. “Life is a mighty joke,” he answered. We could hear the Dickheads laughing.
Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau were co-founders of Killing the Buddha. Together they wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible.