God was no match, my mother said, for the devil and Herbert Hoover. : Stalking Bums and Atheists

My mother always considered bums to be godless people, else why would they be bums? Folks who believed in God, she often reminded me, were not without home and sustenance, except for those rare instances when a Republican was in power and evil ruled the land. God was no match, mother said more than once, for the devil and Herbert Hoover.

I suppose that's what I had in mind one day recently when I hung around Santa Monica's Palisades Park looking for atheists and homeless people, as they are called by liberals (except for my mother).

Normally I do not spend my days searching out atheists, but I had heard that a booth in the park manned by Atheists United had been wrecked by hymn-singing Christians who, in the grand tradition of 13th-Century crusaders, decided not to forgive and be merciful and turn the other cheek and do-unto-others. They opted for a little smashin' and trashin' instead.

The reason I know they were Christians is that one of them is quoted as having said upon first seeing the atheist booth, "Jesus is coming and he's not going to like this."

He returned later with a friend and, as instruments of Jesus, took the place apart.

Al Martinez John Edwards, one of those manning the booth, described the pair as "wino-types" who made up hymns ("One, two, three, God choses me") as they scattered tables loaded with pamphlets enumerating the benefits of atheism and the evils of religion. A modest example of the latter warned, "As you look to heaven, clerics rob your money, reason, freedom and self-esteem."

At any rate, I spoke with Edwards for a while. He's a good-humored man of 39 who works as an environmental engineer for the Air Force, one of the great reason-enhancing organizations in the world. Nothing enhances reason like a Sidewinder missile.

Edwards does not deny the existence of God; he just doesn't believe in one. It is a way of saying that in the event someone should book God on "The Phil Donahue Show," thereby proving his existence, Edwards will reconsider his position, which God, I am certain, will appreciate.

Atheists, however, vary in their attitudes. Some flatly proclaim upon knowledge gained from mysterious sources that there is no god of any kind, period, and all we can believe in is what we can touch, such as Big Mac hamburgers and Trivial Pursuit games. Others suggest there might be a god for everything on Earth, a whole congress of gods who legislate the future, in which case God help us all.

But I'm not about to get into the middle of that debate, so I left John Edwards to see if I could find the Christian wino-types who made up hymns and smashed up booths manned by atheists. That's how I met Larry.

He was standing by a bench at the Santa Monica Pier alternately playing a harmonica and singing, while stomping one foot vigorously. He even stomped his foot while he hustled loose change from passers-by, a technique that proved pathetically ineffective since a guy who clomps away in a steady rhythm without any music going on is suspect, to say the least.

Larry made up his own songs, which is what made me think he could be the one who, as God's singing surrogate, went after the atheists. One of his songs dealt with "a sunny day and frogs under the pier at play." I don't think there are frogs under the pier, but then lyricists are allowed some poetic license.

I came to admire Larry almost instantly because when I asked him if he were homeless, he replied, "No, I'm a bum." I like that kind of forthright self-description. I didn't ask him if he were a wino since John Edwards didn't say the assailants were actually winos but only wino-types.

I was also attracted to Larry because when turned down in his request for loose change he shouted, "God loves you anyhow!" When he was given money, he clasped his hands before his face in a prayer-like manner and said, "I'll pray for you." On one occasion someone gave him a cone of cotton candy. Larry promised to pray for him then threw the cotton candy away in disgust the minute the donor walked way.

When I asked him if he were one of those who had wrecked the booth of Atheists United, Larry vigorously denied it. However, he said he had heard of the attack and, in the name of the Almighty, approved of it.

"Didn't Jesus beat the hell out of the gamblers in the chapel?" he demanded.

"Something like that," I said.

"Well, then," he replied, smiling triumphantly.

Larry had been a good Christian as long as he could remember. Much longer than John Edwards, for example, had been a good atheist.

"If you believe so strongly in God," I asked him, "why is it you don't have a job?" I was remembering what my mother had told me.

"Job?" Larry said. "Who in the hell wants a job? I've got everything I need."

In that sense, I suppose, bums and atheists don't differ much. They've both got everything they need.

When I left Larry, he was stomping his foot again and singing. When I left John Edwards, he was still covering his bets by saying there wasn't a god, but on the other hand, if there were. . . .

And the frogs played happily 'neath the Santa Monica Pier.

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