|Jul/Aug 2005 Salon|
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
East of Eden
In Ann Arbor they had this record store with listening booths. It was mostly classical but also chock full of blues and folk. Blind Lemon Jefferson. And Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Singing "Midnight Special." Hank Williams singing, "My Bucket's Gotta Hole In it." And above and beyond that, there was the Rev. Gary Davis Jr. Yes, sir. Twelve Gates to the City. Hallellu.
It was a ticket into a world that had been rejected. We lived in the suburbs. Everybody there was there because they weren't where they came from. We're talking the seventies, here. Black Mariah moving vans came and took entire families and root stock away. Neighbors came and went, interchangeable like subdivisions. We were modern and lived in new houses. We had no roots. We were not rubes.
But the retro music was somehow more compelling. I played among construction sites and attended the real estate developer's erasing of farms. I rooted in abandoned barns and returned again and again to the site of antique milk pails, on the edge of strip malls and convenience stores, as if they were the locus of slivers of the one true cross.
Just between you and me, I hated it. With a hate that has stood for me as a wonder and a caution, and for no reason that I had words for as a child, I approached the heavy machinery—requisitioned to destroy the face of the past of the land, left abandoned and idle among foundations, new developments and highway entrances—approached them willfully and knowingly, and unscrewed gas caps and plopped dirt clod after dirt clod in tanks, causing, I realize now, untold damage. Prepubescent eco-terrorism.
And then there was Michigan. And Ann Arbor. There was the music and the absurd conviction that some of us in some of those days were meant to be witnesses. To remember. Though the memories were hewed and fashioned before we were born. And Ann Arbor was a city that still loved the past in those days, though even then, it was changing and evolving and suddenly there was neon everywhere.
In Ann Arbor they had this record store with listening booths. I learned more about who I was created to be in those booths through ear phones than in any high school pep rally or football game or any high fallutin class I took in seminary in Neeew Yawk City. It was enough to know that life had not begun with the white flight that had shaped every move my family had made since I was five years old. I knew it to be true. I had heard the voices. I saw ghosts. And in my youth and ignorance. Man! There were a thousand voices that were not being heard. And I decided to listen.
Ann Arbor was my ticket out. And those listening booths. In those days you really really had to make decisions about what you spent your money on. I made decisions. I threw my lot in with certain voices. Jack of Diamonds. Matchbox Blues. Samson and Delilah ("If I had my waaaaay! I'd tear this old building down...") I made decisions. I got out. But not without a price.
Ms. Mary Makes Her Debut in Manhattan After Tearing Ligaments in Her Foot
Ms. Mary and I went into the city today. She was feeling slim and walking like a hipster. She had her new shades and new jeans. Walking like an ole twitchy tailed cat. Damn. It's good to see the old strut, after she tore ligaments in her foot, falling hard on a late winter night—night before a family-bank-rolled trip to Jamaica, when the longing for family and the reality of getting old and dying alone, was suddenly and surprisingly larger—larger, that is, for my prideful and strong parents—than the need to be proud and to make a daughter-in-law pay her dues and consequently ignore her—and so Ms. Mary, despite the sea change, was hobbled and humbled in Jamaica; but now on this glorious spring afternoon in New York City, in a whole new Sloop John B, raring to go, just like being a Catholic school girl kid when it's Palm Sunday and you got pageant and palms—and my baby's walking with the rhythm of the halt. Rhythm of the angels. My beat chick. My lady of the train station. My patient one. Damn, if she didn't look good. Yessir.
She had a gift card from Saks and one from the Pottery Barn. I sat enchanted and content on the steps of St. Patrick's and waited on her. 45 minutes. I waited on her. Because I did not consent to actually go inside of Saks. Until my butt got numb and she emerged victorious, replete with bath products and lotions. Mysteries and scents. Lady in command.
I waited on her on the steps of St. Patrick's in a kind of homespun daze and made it my purpose to watch the folks. Fifth Ave. In the fifties. Rich people at rush hour. There were the Roast Beef Smellin' Fart Boys in stuffed suits and yellow ties. There were the Fifth Ave Ladies of a certain age. You just knew they smoked to keep down their weight. And the brown people who live in Queens and Brooklyn on the way home from hours of making others comfortable. And the brown people here to watch the spectacle because... Godammit, we're New Yorkers, too. And God's people, who got colors we don't even know about yet, who come to our church, who have adopted me and Ms. Mary as their own in the outer boroughs of a strange and unforgiving city, until we are at once, not like them and yet homefolks, and by the Grace of God at home. We're all here now. And the hopeful and the hungry. Kids in the great huzzah. The great secret of New Yorkers. Yeah, it's all a parade. We check each other out.
I love this city.
You shoulda seen Ms. Mary though. She was sumpthin else. She was walking like she damn near owned the joint. Shoulda been wearing a new Easter Bonnet to go along with all that shake.
It's enough to make a blind man see. Make a fearful man blush.
You know they tamed this land. They surely did. They fenced it and they owned it. Fortunes were made and lost. When they achieved the connection. Utah with a golden spike. After the Civil War. After the crisis. They fenced it in and they owned it. In their wake. The trains. I mean, I'm just saying. They promised all that they delivered and so much more. Commerce and adventure and loss.
But we took it for our own. We surely did. My people. The trains. We rode them to Californias and mining camps. We got there sooner than on our prairie schooners. We disdained roots and we found new ways to cling and register.
My people are always on the line. Yodelling brakemen. John Henry's widow. The president of the local book club in Downers Grove. Yeah. And the lady from Madagascar who just wanted a place where her kids could be in a Christmas pageant. I am making common cause with the disoriented and the uprooted. I am making common cause with the expats and the huddled. Hell on wheels coming down the line.
But here's the thing. I'm gonna stay here and set roots so that there will be Hollyhocks and Black-Eyed Susans along the rails, along with the smell of creosote and warm rocks, for all the pilgrims.
I ain't going nowhere. No train is going to take me where I need to go. And besides, when the light is just right, and I squinch my eyes a bit—and maybe hunker down and just breathe—this place, with all its history, with all its hungry ghosts and souls and present stake in a future—this place, after there having been so many other places, and no place that is not at the end of the day any other than just the next or last this-place—well, say now—is just about enough holiness a man can stand.æ