TRAVELS WITH ‘CHARLIE’

by Kelly Liyakasa

When your name is Jeff Bridges, irony can be expected.

The fact that you sport faded blue jeans and prayer beads on your wrist as regularly as you don your Dolce & Gabbana suit to pick up your Academy Award.

The fact that you were a slacker in “The Big Lebowski” before you were the star, albeit one that fell from country grace, in “Crazy Heart.”

The fact that you’re in Yonkers one day and on a Boston film set the next.

The actor and his small entourage exit an SUV with tinted windows across from the Maitri Center for individuals with HIV and AIDS on a less-than-Hollywood block in southwest Yonkers.

Bridges has that unmistakable star quality.

Like he isn’t trying.

Like he just happens to roll out of bed every day at 6-foot something with the presence of a Greek god and the personality of a jolly giant.

“I’ve seen him before,” Maitri client Audrey Wilson tells me as the rugged star readies to chat with a small group at one of Greyston Foundation’s facilities. “Bernie (Glassman) had a party two or three years ago down in the city. I’m from the Bronx. I went down, sang, and Jeff sang. He had his keyboard. We talk about singing together.”

He had a ponytail three years ago, she tells me.

Not now.

Now he rocks long tresses of gray and dirty blond, which he frequently combs with his fingers.

“I made these little heads,” Bridges says with semi-naughty smirk, playing with a ceramic sculpture he holds in the palm of his hand. “This is such a complicated thing to talk about. I like to do ceramics and I always had a hunk of clay left over. I found myself making these little heads in sort of an aimless place. I kind of let my hands rip. Before I knew it, I had a whole slew of these little guys and they all had different spirits.”

The one he’s holding this particular day goes by “Charlie,” and Charlie has traversed the globe with his “Head Keeper” Bernie Glassman, an American Zen master, founder of global social advocacy group Zen Peacemakers and the community development organization Greyston Foundation.

Charlie was given to Glassman for his 70th birthday by supporter Bridges, an avid Zen Buddhist himself.

“I mean, it was just a lump of clay, I thought nobody would love the head as much as I do. But I thought every now and then, it’d be nice to give my friends a little head,” Bridges says before an intimate gathering that promptly erupts in embarrassed laughter. “Hey, that’s your dirty minds, not mine.”

Bridges’ Head for Peace, a fundraising effort for Zen Peacemakers, urges Head Keepers to take their ceramic heads on spiritual journeys.

Charlie? Well, he’s been to Auschwitz and among the untouchables in India.

“If you walk into their shadow, they can be killed,” Glassman explains. “They’re very poor, a little like our homeless. And Charlie will spend a week helping them to design and build businesses, health services and schooling.”

Bridges is creating 18 families of heads, which individuals can sponsor for $10,800 a head. Sponsors receive a head, a photographic book chronicling the collection of heads and access to a website where they can record travels with their own Charlie.

Read more about Bernie Glassman and Jeff Bridges’ Head for Peace atzenpeacemakers.org. Then learn about local social advocacy efforts at greyston.org.

Greyston Foundation does good for Yonkers and the world

“Bernie is a humble savior,” Floyd “Mustafa” Bailey tells me. “He places people out there to help those in need wherever he be around the world. That body, mind, spirit, harm-reduction thing. When you come here, you may be drinkin’ and druggin.’ They don’t push you out. They enlighten you to what harm the drugs is bringing you. Over time you stop using. Over time you start living. Over time you start giving back.”

Bailey first set foot in Greyston’s Maitri Day Program in 1999 after a life of hard blows that began on the Lower East Side, which led to a stroke and a fight to detox at Yonkers General Hospital.

“I couldn’t go into 30 days, because I had a failed kidney, and I had to go on dialysis,” Bailey explains. “Someone (from Greyston) came over there and talked about a Maitri program… I was like a worm. I was angry. I was messed up, bitter. But I felt the love. Now, all this time being here trying to give back. It’s a family, a wonderful place.”

Bailey has a warm smile and strong handshake.

He and Bernie Glassman embrace like they’re brothers.

In spirit, they are.

“Maitri itself is a direct translation that means love,” Glassman says, or, “meeting you in the wholeness.”

The Greyston Foundation of today is a $15 million integration of for-profit and nonprofit entities that provide employment, housing, child care, workforce development and health care programs to the disenfranchised.

It all began with the Greyston Bakery, which now churns out 20,000 pounds of brownies each day from of its waterfront plant in Yonkers.

Greyston brownies can be found in ice cream purveyor Ben & Jerry’s products.

“Ben & Jerry’s is now owned by another company, Unilever, so we send half our product to Vermont and the other half to Holland. So we are now an exporter,” says Steven Brown, president and CEO of Greyston Foundation.

The $8 million for-profit company trains and employs more than 50 workers who face barriers to employment.

Business can be a “force of social change,” says Glassman, a onetime aeronautical engineer. “Many nonprofits felt that making money was wrong. I couldn’t believe it. You can combine profit and nonprofit” to build a sustainable model.

In addition to work opportunities through Greyston Bakery, there are after-school programs, 200 units of affordable housing and an underlying mission to help those served forge their own “path.”

It all goes back to this Glassman mantra, “If people are sick, the society is sick.”

In his own words

“It’s simple. I did this because of people. There were people that were homeless. There were people out of work, people who were sick. My understanding is that there is nobody outside of yourself. Meaning, I was sick, I was HIV, I was homeless, and when you know that that’s the case, you have to take care. It’s very simple. People get better: It’s wonderful. And some people don’t: They die. But it’s the people. It’s nothing other than that.”

– Bernie Glassman, founder, Zen Peacemakers, Greyston Foundation, Yonkers

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