Saturday, November 20, 2010

Jesus Christ Looked Just Like Me


Heading to the church after an early Saturday morning meeting with our city council member, Gale Brewer. Time to share the plans we’ve been developing with her. Time for her to see our growing community support. And time to continue to remind her of the promises made during the landmarks struggle. Her promises to raise $20 million dollars for West-Park. And that in the last days of that struggle, the political rhetoric changed from trying to save the church building to the commitment to see the church continue as a church, not just a building but a mission. That in some ways our fates are tied together. Ted and I feel the meeting went well. She too is amazed at how the atmosphere around the church has changed and that we’ve reconnected with Gary Greengrass.

I open the doors to the church. And there on the steps is George, back again. “Good morning, George,” I say, “I’m cleaning up now.” “Does that mean I’m in the way? I’ve got to move?” “Yes.” And so he gathers up his cardboard, his pillows, his backpack.

“So George, did you sleep here last night?”


“How’d it go?”


“Anything happen?”

“No. Why? Did something happen? Last night? Before? Why are you asking this? ” A tone of suspicion is rising.

“No, just asking.”

“ Where’d everybody else go? Like the Mexican guy with the shopping cart full of bottles and cans...”

“Ricardo, he’s gone.”

“And the guy with the baby carriage.”

“Don’t know him. Gone too. And Tracy’s gone.”

Tracy? Was he here again?”

I have never actually had a conversation with George, just scattered questions and responses, usually in a tone of gruff disdain on his part. The word glowering comes to mind. His response to the name Tracy is the first sign of empathy towards another human being I have ever seen from him.

“Yes Tracy was here..”

“He was here for a few weeks...”

“The reachout people came one time, looking for him. Asked me if he was around. I said I didn’t know. They said they’d found his daughter, somewhere in the midwest. Wanted to find him...”

“They came and found him here. The reachout people. I think they’re all right.”

“The reachout people?”


He smirks at me. “Oh yeah, they’re good. “Can I help you?” he says in a falsetto voice. ‘Yeah, they’re good.”

And then it’s like a floodgate has been opened. The words come pouring out rapid and flowing. It’s his story. Or parts of it at least. Talks about living in Brooklyn. Having a woman there. Working unloading trucks for the New York Times. Union issues. FBI. Seemed like time to come back to Manhattan. Hung out on Broadway. Sitting on a bench on a traffic island.

“They offer me a job. Security. Told me I’d have to wear a uniform. Didn’t have one big enough. I said could I wear my poncho? They said no. These reachout people, rather see me on SSI, your dime, than working...made me see a witch doctor say I was a nutcase. I was working, understand? Yeah, SSI for my leg that swells up, not my head...”

He talks of being forced into the mental ward at Bellevue. “When I went in, I could play chess, I could beat everybody, analyze things, think things through. Then they put me on medication. Next thing you know, I’m noddin out like I’m on heroin or somethin, droolin like an old man and weak as an AIDS motherfucker. That’s what medication do. Fuck medication.” And he spits for emphasis. “Sides, that’s crazy. Black people don’t get mental illness. It’s a proven fact. That’s all about you. We all descendants of slaves. Can you imagine, slave go massa, massa I can’t go to the fields today, I’m depressed. Massa go, too bad, nigger, I replace you. Bim, bam nigger gone, nigger replaced. A depressed nigger is a dead nigger. I’m proof. I’m homeless. You got to have a good head to be homeless, don’t make it otherwise. A depressed nigger is a dead nigger.”

Then it’s economics. “Two wars goin on. No jobs. What’s up with that? Used to be war come, you jump up and down and go, yay, war. There gonna be jobs. Look at Roosevelt, JFK, even Vietnam. Now we got war, no jobs. Now we got two wars, no jobs. What the fuck? They know exactly what they doin.”

And global warming. “How old are you 50’s, 60’s?” I tell him 61. He says,
“Remember when we was kids? Come Thanksgiving time, you be wearin gloves, be wearin mittens. Like over the river and through the motherfuckin woods, yo? The horse know the way through that snow, motherfucker, yo. And last week like spring here. Ain’t right. ”

I’m starting to wonder where Jim is. Left my cellphone indoors. What if he comes to the 86th Street door and can’t get in? Doesn’t come around front? What then? In the middle of my conversation with George our good friend Ellen, probably on her way from services at B'Nai Jeshurun comes over and gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Tells me to say "hi" to my family.

"George, give me a minute. I forgot my cell phone, be right back.

“It’s the end times, brother.” And then he goes apocalyptic in a Biblical visionay exegesis that’s a mash up of Azuza Street Mission Elijah Muhammad Louis Farrakhan Black Hebrew Nation Rastafarian and George Clinton Bootsy Collins PFUNK. A history of the black man from the Hamite African tribes of Mizraim (Egypt), Canaan, Libya and Ethiopia. How the black man so-called negro turned away from God and was sent into exile, into slavery into Babylon (uh, not Long Island) as punishment. “But what if Marcus Garvey come back, give everyone passports, bring in airplanes, say we all flyin away. You think that happen? Nah, no way. Never let that happen. Anyplace we go become the next superpower. Why?” “Because of the labor, creativity and gifts of the African-Americans,” I say. “Yeah,right. Sides, you all be bored if we went away. We sing for you, make you laugh, dance for you. Run up and down fields for you. We entertain you. We are American culture. Blues, jazz, rap...We laugh and talk loud on buses and subways and scare your ass. We disappear in the night. We keep life interesting for you.We be gone, you be bored.”

“End time comin.” And he says, “What’s the unforgiveable sin?”

“Taking the lord’s name in vain, “ I say.

“No,” he says, “blaspheming the Holy Spirit. It's different. You know what blaspheme mean? You know what leperers are?”


“Yeah..but not like you think. Not like today. it's like’s when you lose this, “ he pointed to his arm, “and become that” and points to my hand. “The Jesus you got is blasphemy. Jesus Christ looked like me. Wooly hair, the Bible say, just like me. You know I’m tellin the truth. You went to school.You read it. But you keep it hidden. That Jesus you got in there,” he points inside the church, “is a historic figure. The bastard son of a pope. That’s who that is. He fuck women, men, girls, boys...He don’t care. That’s why the Catholics worship the right one for them, he’s a pedophile.” He continues on. Been nearly a half hour of stream of consciousness so far. “ Fuck that Martin Luther King. There’s got to be retribution. God’ll do it. Insurrection, then race war. You can’t stop it. And you can’t escape it. Jesus said some of this generation shall not pass until the son of man has returned. But no one around that old. And he not there. I figure must be reincarnation. Ain't no one been here that long..but our spirits have... we feel like's we been here that long.. so..we been here before. ”

Jim has arrived. Time to leave the apocalypse and go inside to work. I tell George that I’m heading in. Tell him to keep warm. He laughs. “Look at me. Do I look cold?” And I see his layers...sweater, coat, jacket, Palestinian kaffiyeh around his shoulders, sweater, jacket, poncho, camouflage hat with ear flaps, knit pullover cap....No George, you don’t look cold.

            • * * *

Jim, Holly, Marsha and I are there to prepare for the upcoming clean up day scheduled for December 4th. Going room by room marking what’s garbage, what stays. In the old lobby, Marsha looks depressed. “It’s a crime what happened to this church,” she says. I agree. Later working in the session room, sorting things, I say, “Look, I know how you feel. For years, I felt defeated. Like we kept trying to find a way to get this done. Before we moved out. And never could. It was always like this. Too few people, too much stuff..We finally just walked away. Waiting for some future. And every time I’d come in here, I’d feel beaten again. But not today. In two weeks, there’s going to be a whole crew here. And a dumpster. And all this crap is gone. Gone. Then we can breathe, can start over. For the first time in years, today i feel hope."

Marsha and I find a collection of old love letters. Sweet, affectionate,caring...Written by a man who loved. Kept by a woman who knew she was. Wondering how they came to be here, in the middle of the ruins of this church. “I’m the wrong person to be doing this, “ says Marsha, “I can’t put these down.”

Holly comes to me excited. She's found what looks like a tintype or photograph from the early part of the last century. It's of a little girl. She's seen ghosts here before, including the pastor who had committed suicide on Christmas Eve. "Remember the little girl I told you about," she says, "the one I saw in here? This is her...this is what she looked like..."

Finally we’re done for the day.

Walking back up the street, I say to George, “Have a good afternoon, George. Enjoyed the conversation...” He nods quietly. A hint of a smile.

I hear his voice behind me, “Yo, Jesus Christ looked just like me.”

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