Monday, December 27, 2010

The third day of Christmas: The snow lay on the ground"


Walking down Amsterdam is an adventure. Shoveled blocks alternate with rough deep snow and mountains where the plows have gone by. As I near the church, I see that a path has been shoveled down our block. Then I’m shocked to see George’s feet sticking out from his portal. I’m half afraid to look and maybe find him buried in snow, or worse.

But there he is, calm as always.
“George, are you ok?”


“Did you spend the night?”

“No. I was forced out. They picked me up and took me away.”

“Who? Where?”

“The police. To St. Luke’s.”

“So was that ok?”


“So who shoveled the sidewalk?”

“Your neighbor, Barney Greengrass.”

Just as I suspected. I tell George I’ll be doing the steps now. I tell him I’m surprised to see so much snow, I thought the scaffolding would catch most of it. He tells me the wind was wild, from the west, blowing every which way, filling the street and steps with snow.

I start with the steps. I keep finding folded up newspapers under the snow, like others had come up under looking for shelter until the snow got too heavy. I finish all the portals except where George is. He moves his encampment, picks up any trash around his space. I finish the steps and head for the sidewalk. I give Deacon James a call. His doctor’s appointment has been cancelled. Lingering walking pneumonia and all, he comes and joins me. Together we shovel towards 86th Street.

After an hour, he tires. I can see he needs to head home. I tell him to go warm up, I can take it from here. I decide to dig into the mountain blocking the crosswalk to the other side of Amsterdam. As I shovel, inch by inch through 2-3 feet of snow, it begins to feel like a metaphor. The almost insurmountable financial odds we’re facing. The overwhelming work that must be done to bring a congregation back to life. Well, we have kept living, but back to growing vitality again.

With each shovel full, I’m growing angrier. Yes, our Council member Brewer has been to every event we’ve had, always spoken supportively. But she won the landmarks vote by convincing the politicians she could deliver on at least $11 million. Advocacy groups swore they’d come through. The statements are on public record. In all honesty, it’s been over seven months. Around $11,000 has been raised for external repairs. The Friends of West-Park and Landmarks West! have promised $100,000 to get the insides going again, but at the price of a promise not to seek to reverse landmarking by any means. There are both integrity and practical issues around that. The clean up day felt great, but it’s been too long. Time runs short. Where are the other politicians? Who really cares? Where is the community support group? Why am I shoveling all alone against a mountain of snow? What kind of romantic fool was i to believe that presence alone would bring support? That someone would see me and join in?

In the past, this was the job of our then handyman, Israel Sanchez. I remember the blizzard years ago when he and I dressed in work clothes and tackled the snow. As we shoveled and talked in Spanish, people walked over and around us as if we were not even there. With this sense not of appreciation, but entitlement.And I realized that in blizzards, it’s the support staff, the janitors and doormen the busboys and kitchen staff who always have to make it through the snow so that the rest of us can enjoy our “snow days.” From the far reaches of Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens they make it in no matter what.

Today, some step right over me. Some get annoyed if they find me in their path, the one I’ve just cleared. I want to say, “get a damned shovel.” Some say “excuse me,” some actually say “thanks,” and amazingly two or three say, “thanks for making it safe, “ or “thanks so much for making me a path..” I’ve reached my peak of cynicism when I hear, ‘Do you work here?”

It’s a father and son carrying snow shovels. “Yes, “ I say.

“Are you the minister?”


“Are you sure you’re not just some guy the minister pays to do this work?”

“No, I’m the minister.”

He looks at his son. “Then I suppose we should help. I don’t want to but we will.”

“That would be cool.”

“So you must be a cool minister. How far do we have to go?” I point east on 86th, the length of our building, “anything you do’d be great.”

“All right then, let’s get started.”

And as i continue to dig away at my mountain, they do the whole length of the building. I look up and see what they’ve done. I walk over. “Thank you so much,”I say. “Listen,” the man says, "I could buy a snowplow, rent space from you, we could both make some money.” I ask him where he could store it. He points to the church, “inside.” I say, “Let’s go take a look.”

So he and his son come inside with me. I take them down into the bowels of the church. And there, in the boiler room we see it: a Murray Elite snow blower. “That’s it!” he says. I tell him it hasn’t been touched in three years. He says it looks great. Needs gas. Maybe oil. Check the spark plug. “I think we’re in business”he says. “What the hell happened here?” So I tell him our story. He stops at the boiler. “What’s the deal here?” So i tell him. “You gotta check that out” he says. “Bet It can be cheaper.” So I offer to send him the report.

Upstairs, we talk. The son is red haired, glasses. Toboggan hat, down jacket. Guilford College, a Quaker School in North Carolina. Has been to Israel and the Friends School in Ramallah, wants to go back and do solidarity work. I tell him about my oldest son, Micah. They ask what kind of church this is. I tell them, ask about religion. “I don’t care so much for religion,” Ben, the son says, “I just want to help.” “I’m Catholic, the boy’s mom, Jewish,” Chuck, the father says, “we married Ethical Culture.” I tell them I’ve done lots of marriages like that. Have one myself. Chuck tells me of his long journey here from his start in Corvallis, Oregon to his current home in Harlem. Back on the street, I say to Ben, “my favorite kind of people have issues with religion. Just want to make things better. They ask the right kind of questions.” We exchange information, decide to see where this might lead. I say thanks again and they’re off.

There’s still too much to do. I call home, ask for help. Nate will be here soon. Andrea tells me to take a break. I stop into Barney Greengrass. One of the servers brings me a fresh coffee. “It’s hard work, “ I say. “tell me about it,” he says, “I started my day shoveling your sidewalk. Along with the boss himself, yeah, Gary.” ‘Thanks,” I say. And I thank Gary for all he’s done today. “Looks like it snowed,”he says.

While I’m waiting for Nate, I go back to talk with George. “How wide you gonna make that?” he asks, “single file?” and laughs.

“No, at least two by two.”

“Like the motherfuckin ark,” he says, laughing, ”gotta be big enough for two of me.” The he tells me of his snow shoveling days, the “wide ass paths” he made and then the city plows coming by and “fucking everything up.”

I ask, “Aren’t you cold?”

“Nah,” he says, “I’m good. Listen, last night, that thunder and lightning and snow. You been around, ever see the like?”

‘No,” I say, though a friend from Oklahoma where I lived ten years will remind me that there, anything is possible.

“That was apocamotherfuckinlyptic” he says. “Say what if an earthquake come in behind that snow,the earth open up, buildings fall in the ground, heating systems go all to shit, everyone running around like they don’t know what the fuck is gojng on, I be here, the warmest motherfucker of them all, I be prepared.”

And I have no doubt, if the apocalypse were indeed to come, George would come through intact.

Nate arrives. We finish off two great tunnels, two great pathways to cross Amsterdam and to cross 86th. We widen the lane on Amsterdam in front of our building. The sun is shining off our work. I feel something close to happy. I put the shovels away. Lock up.

“You take care, George, I say, and he nods in response.

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