I started the first real job I ever had between my junior and senior years in high school, soon after I got back to DC from my summer program studying chemistry at the University of Georgia. Science was, at the time, still a passion. I was young and logical, but my relationship with logic was not an exclusive one and I was curious about what the mystical world had to offer. Having happily joined the throng of mortal sinners known as lapsed Catholics when I stopped attending mass in eighth grade, I knew the church was not for me. Still, I went back for a couple of years, and what brought me back was not renewed faith but my job as an evening and weekend receptionist at the very church I’d stopped attending. Mrs. Sanders and Miss Gonzalez, the two older church secretaries, whose guarding of the rectory door I was relieving on evenings and weekends, referred to me as “the boy.”
My job during my four to eight hour shifts was to answer the phone, answer the door, and alphabetize the weekly collection envelopes. Alphabetizing the envelopes was, of course, the dullest part of the job, followed by answering the phone to hear yet another voice asking what the mass schedule was. But once in a while it was someone interesting, like the first time I picked up the phone to hear the voice of Mildred C. Wallace. Mildred talked on and on, paying no attention to what I was saying and ignoring my attempts to end–because I was behind in my alphabetizing–what was actually an intriguing, one-ended conversation.
The reason the conversation was one-ended was because it was essentially a sales pitch. Mildred, hinting at what she had to offer our “gentleman parishioners,” and after naming some of the women she had working for her, finally ended her pitch with the clearly but quickly spoken clarification that what she and her ladies were about “is prostitution!”
When I finally met Mildred in person, I saw that she was a tiny woman, maybe sixty years old–though it was hard to tell, because the street can age a person beyond his or her physical years–who always carried bags of rotting groceries with her. In person, she carried on a conversation the same way she did over the phone: oblivious to your response or lack of it, she was all about making the sale. Even if she didn’t have anything or anyone to sell anymore. She was like an ad in the back of a dirty newspaper, an ad that somehow talked. And never stopped talking.
Mildred was just one of my favorite visitors at the church rectory. If my supervisors had known about her, they surely would have put her on the list of people who were not to be admitted to the rectory in the evening, which was when a social worker from the St. Vincent de Paul Society was on duty to help any homeless people who came to the rectory for assistance.
Whether they were trouble makers, thieves, or people who were considered beyond help, the list of people who were not to be admitted fascinated me. So one evening, when I picked up the phone that rang when someone was at the front door and the voice at the other end announced, “This is Rabbi Diamond!”–another person who was on the list of those who were supposed to be forever damned–I immediately said, “I’ll be right there to let you in.”
Rabbi Diamond was always angry, outraged, and incredulous in a waving his arms in the air sort of way. One day when I let him in he yelled, “I’m going to burn this city down!” Whether it was political, cultural, or moral decay, his rants on these topics were things of beauty. And no matter how angry he got when he spoke, he always hit this tone, this note, that seemed to say “we can do this” or “change is coming.” I didn’t know his full story–maybe he was a rabbi of the sixties who took one too many acid trips, the Syd Barrett of organized religion. All I knew was that he was a real rabbi who went mad at some point and ended up on the street. And that even if he didn’t quite elevate being pissed off into a higher state of consciousness or some ground-breaking form of nirvana, he at the very least he turned it into an art.
On those nights when the social worker didn’t show up, which seemed to happen once a week, I’d give Rabbi Diamond money myself. I only made a buck fifty an hour, which even though it was 1974 was below minimum wage, but I guess that was one of a number of things a church could get away with, and one of many things so many of us never questioned. They were The Church–we assumed they knew and did what was best for us. In giving Rabbi Diamond what money I could I did what I thought was best for me, because far from being hard-earned money thrown away, I saw it as an investment in the future, an investment in the continued well-being of Rabbi Jerome Diamond.
And I’d give money to Mildred Wallace. To Thomas Jefferson Isaac who always introduced himself on the phone at the rectory door by saying, “This is Thomas Jefferson Isaac, but I’m also known as Thomas Jefferson Morris.” Mr. Isaac aka Mr. Morris, who looked like the actor Lou Gossett, would tell me he was once a research scientist, a surgeon, a college professor. I’d run into him outside the rectory, too, in Dupont Circle where if I saw him I’d always stop to talk. He’d spend many a day there, sitting on one of the benches, sitting tall, proud, maybe even contented. And if madness was the path to contentedness for some people, I thought, so be it. Amen. Maybe I’d end up there too, one day.
And there was Mary Hayes, the frail thin, old Irish woman with the voice like a nervous child who always said, “Thank you. Thank you very much, indeed.” And Mary Orta, the loud short-haired radical who could never speak of anything but politics and diplomacy and conspiracy. And Rose Conte who sold on the street the flowers she’d picked and who spoke like a mouse and who always seemed like she’d close her eyes and never open them again.
These were the people–not any teachers, priests, diplomats, not even the eccentric fellow students and scientists I’d met earlier that year at the University of Georgia. They had no lucky star shining down upon them, did not live in comfort. They were knocked down to life on the streets, their loose connection to the real world challenged every day. The bright future for them was not that scholarship, that academic grant, not that windfall of profit or stock market killing or that fancy new car. No, the bright future for them was the next meal they could dig up out of what someone else left as trash or through the grace of spare change. The triumph was that they managed to stand, and sometimes even stand tall as if they were on the verge of discovering the cure for cancer or ending this war or that. These were the first people I met the first time I really went out into the world. The first people whom I thought were truly brilliant.
And there was that one time when I was in the rectory office with the Archbishop as the sounds from church were coming in from a speaker that was installed above the office door.
“Do you hear that?” the Archbishop asked me.
“Yes,” I said. Then the Archbishop looked at me, his eyes wide with delight—a kind of delight I was pretty sure I knew nothing about. He kept looking at me, expecting me to go into more detail about what we were hearing. To explain what it was and why it was so splendid. I listened a little longer, thinking it must have been something other the usual Sunday service, but what exactly was different about it I couldn’t tell. Finally I looked at him and, unable to think of any other way to respond, said, “I don’t know what it is.”
“That is the liturgy!” he said, raising his voice. And I thought, The liturgy, as in just another mass? I’m supposed to be in awe of that? The archbishop, I gathered, was shocked–perhaps even outraged–that I wasn’t at all impressed. That the sound of the mass, coming into the rectory office through the speaker, stirred nothing within me.
It was the sort of thing which, in my more vulnerable years, might have disturbed me and made me think I had things in my life I had to set straight. But the thing was, I didn’t care what he thought. What would have disturbed me was if Mildred Wallace, Rabbi Diamond, Thomas Jefferson Isaac, or any those other brilliant people had thought I was a fool. That would have been a sign that I was wasting both time and space and learning little of real significance as I wandered about from one day to the next totally lost, when the truth was that I was only slightly lost.
This is a photograph of the decaying building on John Marshall Highway just before Apple Mountain Road where we take the ramp to I-66 on our way out of Front Royal toward DC. I took this picture a couple of days ago, and the building has been like this ever since we moved here nearly eight years ago. The night before, at around ten in the evening as we were heading back to Front Royal from up north, we saw a shooting star moving south, with us, on 522. Sometimes when I’m driving the memory of one or another of these metaphysicians of the street will suddenly come to mind. Mildred, Rabbi Jerome, Thomas Jefferson—people whom I know must be long gone and lost with all the other memories for which there are so few people or sometimes maybe no one to carry them in their minds or in conversations or the sort of photographs you carry in your wallet. So when they pop up in my mind this way, it’s as if they’ve come back, however briefly, like these sudden flashes of light in the sky. Telling some sort of story, and being brilliant once again.
Photograph by Jose Padua