Thursday, November 18, 2010

Unique Configurations


Hmm. Only some left over challah today....

P____ comes to my office. To pick up the papers we’re filing to contest her eviction. She’s from the Indian Asian community of Guyana. Raised two great kids. Works for the Board of Ed. Clearly intelligent and once studied science. And seriously bipolar. With paranoid delusions. Creative, scientific and paranoid. But also blessed with a special presence of the Holy Spirit and an ability to see things before they happen. I testified for her before. She’s angry because under oath I “admitted” I had no way of knowing for sure where she slept at night.

Her landlord has made a good case. She doesn’t come across well in the trial transcript. But how could she? I mean, that’s the point . I wish I could convince the judge that in her apartment she can make it. Without that, she easily becomes a street person. It would be a short journey.


Sunny cold morning. Good to have Amanda back helping again. We’re sweeping. A large African-American man approaches. Young. Pulling a suitcase on wheels behind him. “Getting ready for midday prayers?” he says. “Well, no” I say. ‘What kind of church is this?” He asks.

“Presbyterian” I say.

“Ah, John Wesley” he says.

“Not exactly. John Calvin.”

“Ah yes, Predestination...”

“But it’s all about grace.”

“And the overwhelming power of God. God can save anyone He likes. All of us if he wants. Mussolini if he wants. Any a them. Or none of us if He wants.”

“I agree. It’s all up to God...”

“Nothin we did to deserve it...”

“ I’m Bob. I’m the pastor here.”

“I’m George,” he says. (But not the George who slept here.)

“Look, George, I’m enjoying the conversation, but I’m uncomfortable standing here talking while she’s doing all the work. I’m going to get another broom. Stick around,I’ll be right back.”

And when I get back, he’s gone.

What if we did do midday prayers? Melissa said to do it. Every day.

Back inside, we go into my office. Tracy’s blanket, actually a fine quilt, sits draping the chair he sat in. As if he were still there inside of it. Invisible. We talk about the bedbugs plague. I gather up the quilt in a black plastic bag and take it away.


Back from Melissa’s installation in Rochester. Lots of her members ask about West-Park because she preached about us last week. There’s much on my mind. Uncertainty about a Presbytery meeting. Trying to think through a strategy. Worried about money. All as I walk down the street. When I get there, it’s amazingly clean. Someone has been here. It must be Deacon James Clifford.

There’s drama on the 11 bus parked in front of the church. Voices raised, multiple threats made. Disrespect of women is mentioned. Old women shake their heads. Older men are muttering and trying to intervene. Anxious white folk exiting the bus. Police are being called. Two men exit shouting. Threatening the bus driver from outside. She dares them to step back in the bus and “make her day.” She calls the police once more. Then leaves the bus stop.

I call James. He’s just back from the hospital. Says he’s about 35% over the “walking pneumonia.” But before he went to the hospital today, he stopped by to make sure that everything was ok. I tell him we’ve got to show up at the same time some day.


A quiet, sunny, crisp fall day. Everything clean. Deacon James doing a great job. One day after Presbytery agrees to let our plan move forward. Vulnerability, danger and all...we will move ahead.


On my way up 86th Street from the subway, I see Marty. He’s sitting on the steps of the Belnord, the historic apartment building across the street from the church. (Matt Damon lives there...) He’s not yet been rousted by their security staff. In his watch cap and one eye open and the other squinting, he resembles Popeye. When I ask him what he’s doing, he always says “collecting tips.” He always sat on the steps of the church until we closed and the homeless encampment began. They scared him. His father was a famous Rabbi named Kaplan. Lived in the Bronx when it was Jewish. Marty is extremely intelligent and has been bipolar for years. Mainly coherent, though sometimes not. He lives in Capitol Hall on 87th, one of the last remaining SRO’s on the neighborhood. I realize I’ve been avoiding him for too long. Part of my embarassment about the building. It’s time to reconnect.

“Hello,” Marty.

“Hello. Reverend. Hey, I saw the doors of the church open last week....”

“We’re open every day.”

“The they let you open them? Is it legal? The law...the police...”

“Yes, it’s legal...never was illegal. We’re going back in.”

He ponders this.

“Do you still live at Capitol Hall?” I ask.

“Yes, I’ve lived there since 1990.” He looks up at the New York Black Yankees cap I’m wearing today.

“Like I told you when I first met you, Reverend. My father (and the word father sounds like it only can in the Bronx) would come home after his sermon take off his yarmulke and put on a baseball cap.”

“Any particular team?”

“ No, just a multicolored baseball hat. He was good friends with the police and firemen. They always gave him hats...”

I remember a conversation we once had. I’d find him on the steps sometimes with papers and a pencil writing in tiny letters. I’d ask him what he was doing. “i’m figuring, figuring” he’d say. But this time he looked up and saw my Pittsburgh Pirates hat. “Say,” he said, “did you ever see Clemente?”

“Yes, he was my favorite growing up.”

“So tell me. If Clemente was so good, why did he play right field instead of center?”

“Easy,” I say, “because of the unique configurations of Forbes Field.”

He laughs and looks at me. “Yeah, that’s it. Unique configurations, that’s the right answer, unique configurations.” And he laughs.

Today he looks up again. “There was a minister friend of my father. Gave him my first three wheeler..How are you doing, you know, financially?”

I look at him, shrug my shoulders, hold my hands out, palms up.

“That minister, he told my father, ‘look Kaplan, you better sign up for Social Security.’ You know, you should consider that, at least look into it while you have time..”

I consider my answer. “I’ll do that,” I say. “Marty, take care, ok?” He waves good bye. Walking across the street to the church, I’m thinking of unique configurations.

          • * * *

At the church, James Clifford is already at work. He’s wearing his Korean War vets hat, with service pins on it. He’s got a brand new broom and a dust pan.

“Reverend, guess where I had to go to get this. All the way to West End and 89th. I have a porter friend over there. I’ve been borrowing things from the place next door, just walk in, borrow them”

He’s referring to the prewar condo next door, where the manse used to be. Top floor. Eleven rooms, five bedrooms. The year I came here, before we arrived, the church sold it for $850,000. It’s worth around $4.5 million now. Sigh.

“The porter, there, Spanish guy. Got angry with me. I’m not sure what happened. Had to go all the way to 89th where I have another friend. You need to get me some keys.” He’s right. We agree to meet again tomorrow at nine.

As I’m walking up the street, I hear a voice. It’s my neighbor, Gary Greengrass, the owner of Barney Greengrass: the Sturgeon King. After their early beginning in Harlem, in 1908, they’ve been here on Amsterdam since the 20’s. They supplied sturgeon to everyone from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Larry David. And been on television shoes from Seinfled to Sex and the City and movies, most recently Revolutionary Road.

Well, ok, I’ve been avoiding him, too. Probably haven’t had a conversation since 2008 when he set up a tent under our awning to celebrate his 100th anniversary. I always used to send him flowers on Rosh Ha Shana. The homeless encampment was hard for him, scared his customers. And I felt helpless and well, ashamed. He’s been “on my list,” I’ve felt ready to reconnect.

“Reverend, “ he says, “I’ve been wanting to thank you. We’ve been seeing you here everyday. It makes a difference. It doesn’t smell anymore. It’s clean.”

I tell him about our daily clean ups, my office hours. No more encampment.

“So are you still looking to sell?”

I tell him our story. Our hopes for a Centre for Spiritual and Social Transformation. The tough road ahead. He nods in sympathy.

“Listen, what’s it gonna take to get that scaffolding down? How long’s it been up there? Ten years? Fifteen?”

“Eight,” I tell him, “Only eight,” I smile.

“What is it, the outside? That red sandstone? What do they call that?”

“Red sandstone,” I say. He laughs. And I describe the public safety issues. Our city council member’s promise of at least $11 million. The special fund at the Landmarks Conservancy.

“So listen, if it’s not coming down could I put something on our side, just to let people know we’re here?”

“Sure,” I say, and tell him about our plans to open up for the Crafts Fair and other activities. We shake hands. Awkwardness over, relationship reestablished.

I walk up the street. Thinking about unique configurations.

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