A couple years ago a former BP machinist named Suel Jones fell in love with a 700-pound white marble Buddha statue carved by a roadside sculptor in the Marble Mountains outside Da Nang, Vietnam.
"I just looked at it, I really can't tell you why, maybe the face, maybe the texture," he said. "I said, 'I just want that one over there.' "
Seeing the statue jogged loose a memory from his time as a young Marine in the country, an experience he still wrestles with. He remembered a day 40 years earlier when he and other Marines had arrived at a small village called Cam Lo.
"There was this little temple there," he said, "blown all to hell."
In the ruins of it, he glimpsed a Buddha, sturdy and pristine amid all the brokenness. It made him think of the way the war had ground down everything in Vietnam, the people, the ancient traditions of the place. The white Marble Mountain Buddha felt familiar. There was something in its smile, as if the Buddha from 40 years ago had somehow made it back to him. He appreciated it now in a way he couldn't before.
Jones bought the statue for $500. For more than twice that, he had it shipped to Alaska. He thought maybe he'd put it in the garden at his cabin in Glacier View, about 100 miles from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. When it arrived, he drove around Anchorage with it in the back of his truck for a couple days. Everywhere he went, the Buddha caused a stir. Strangers approached at red lights and the gas station. Everybody was curious.
"They would walk out of their way to touch it in the back of my truck," he said.
He drove the Buddha downtown to Side Street Espresso, where he's been a regular customer for more than 20 years, so the owners, George Gee and Deb Seaton, could see it. To Seaton, it looked like something that belonged in a museum.
"I almost wept," Seaton said. "It was just gorgeous."
Jones started thinking maybe it didn't belong in a remote garden. He spends half the year in Glacier View and the other half in Vietnam, where he works with veterans' charities, doing projects like removing old land mines and building safe playgrounds. He decided to try to sell the Buddha. He could use the proceeds for work in Vietnam. Gee and Seaton told him he could put it in the shop to try to find a buyer.
It took a forklift to get it into his truck. They didn't have a forklift to get it out, so Jones enlisted friends to move it. They managed to ease it to the ground out front of the coffee shop. But all their ideas for getting it into the shop failed. It was just too heavy.
About then, a couple of muscled bikers in full leather came roaring by on Harleys. The scene with the Buddha stopped them. They turned around, parked their bikes and offered to help.
"They damn near just picked it up and put it in there," Jones said.
And so the Buddha took up residence at Side Street, seated in the corner between the refrigerator and the table with the checkerboard on top. Two years passed that way.
"We didn't have any luck selling it at all," Jones said. "It seemed like it made up its mind it wasn't gonna leave."
The regulars, of which Side Street has many, grew attached to it. They stroked the folds of its robes. Fingerprints dulled its shiny shoulders. A little shrine with candles and flowers grew up around it.
"We're going through so much right now (in America)," Jones said, when I asked him what he thought attracted people to it. There was the economy, he said. And the country's fractured politics. And so many veterans coming back from two wars, trying to make sense of things.
"Anything that gives us a feeling of peace and solitude, we want."
Gee gets up early to draw portraits and write bits of literature on a white board that advertises the shop's daily special. He grew accustomed to having the Buddha there with him during the most contemplative part of his day. The coffee shop has always had an energy of its own, he said. The Buddha fit right in.
"It had sort of a magical quality to it all along," he told me. The kind of quality that charms bikers off their bikes, he said. The kind of quality that might lead a person to ship 700 pounds of marble halfway across the earth.
A month or so ago, an offer came to buy the Buddha. Word spread among the regular customers the statue might disappear. One day two weeks ago, a customer opened his wallet like he always does to pay for his drink, and pulled out $3,000. He wanted to buy the Buddha, Seaton told me. His only stipulation was that it stay in the shop.
Jones accepted. The money will go to Vietnam.
"I was quite surprised, you know, but then I started to understand, I saw that he wanted to share it."
And so it will remain, not in a temple, but in a coffee shop on G Street, looking over the customers as they wait for their lattes and stare at their cell phones, with its fine-featured face and its peaceful, familiar smile.