Monday, March 7, 2011

Obama fix the church

Sunny. And cold again. After a day of rain. Sweeping while I wait for the last plumber to come and do a boiler estimate. Exchange greetings with Gary Greengrass walking down 86th on his day off. Lots to do today. Lots of trash. The steps are littered with cigarette butts, an empty pack.  Remains of an empty take out meal from Trader Joe’s. Bags of clothes. (Please...) And a sleeping bag. Someone is definitely sleeping here. 
Dog poop in front of the church. Uncool. Definitely uncool. Empty vodka bottle. An umbrella carcass. As I’m sweeping, a man walks by and tosses a crumpled paper into my trash can. I look up, smile, carry it to the corner trash basket to empty. He laughs.  
“Que pasa con la iglesia?”he asks, “muchos anos ...cerrado...”       
 “No, la iglesia esta abierto. Todos los domingos...” I’m searching for words.                              
“Is ok, man. Espeak English. I espeak English. I live here 45 years. Right up there, on 87th. Why they wanna tear it down?”                                                                                                                
“No. We were never going to tear it down. Only the church house on 86th. To get the money to fix it up. Takes a lot of money to fix it up. Look there,” I point  out new piles of red dust and pieces of the building washed off by yesterday’s rain. That same old problem.                               
“So who gonna fix it?”                                                                                                                      
“We are, you are,” I smile.                                                                                                        
“Obama,” he says, “Obama fix the church,”  and he laughs.
We shake hands. Introduce ourselves. He’s Gustavo. From Cuba. I tell him about the members of the church who came from Cuba so many years ago. From First Presbyterian Havana. And First Chinese Havana, across the street. He’s intrigued. “Listen,” he says, “I got to get another coat, I’m freezing.”
I go back to my solitary work thinking abut the rally yesterday at Times Square. Long Island Congressman Peter King is opening a congressional investigation into radical Islam. So  we gathered in the rain, Muslims, Jews, Christians and yes, Atheists under banners that declared, “Today I am a Muslim.” No one of us should be separated out. No one religion. There’s enough dangerous folks in every religion to go around.
And I’m thinking about all that needs to be done. Fixing the door to the sanctuary, outdoor signage, a spring clean up day, call Con Ed for a meter reading,install a phone line for the fire alarm... .... It’s overwhelming. I finish 86th Street. Wash off the steps. Go back inside. How long will I wait for the plumber. It’s been over half an hour. Enough.
Back outside, there’s more debris. As I stoop to pick it up, there’s Gustavo again. He’s now in a red down jacket. Chestnut face, wire rim glasses. He smiles again. He tells me his story. Coming  Cuba after the revolution. Just in time for the Vietnam war. Luckily getting into the reserves. Not having to go over. (“Gracias a Dios”). His union. And his long time at Bloomingdale’s. he points to the building on 87th that used to be a Section 8. “There, I live there,” he says. 
I ask him about church. He tells me of where he’s been. Dissatisfaction with the new priest. Looking around for a new one. “ You should come visit,” I say, “todos los domingos a las once
“Who,” he says, “who the priest there?”                                                                                              “Me, “ I say, “I am.”
 He looks at my black down jacket, my Santurce Cangrejeros baseball cap. “I come every day to clean up. Someone’s got to do it.”                                                              
“You do a mass for me? My mother? My family? My friends? My family, all seven, dead in Cuba. All dead. You do a mass?”                                                                                                        
I try to explain what a Presbyterian minister is.                                                                              
“I know, I know,” he says, “so you do a mass for me? For my family?”                                        
“OK. So Wednesday is el miercoles de las ciniezas. We do ashes from noon until one. You come then, we’ll talk.”                                                                                                                              
“All right. I come Wensday. I see you.” He smiles. We shake hands again. And I head north on Amsterdam.

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