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The Wind Chest

“Are you going to church?” asked my mother over the phone.

“I don't believe in God,” I said.

“That's no excuse. There are wonderful ministers in New York City.”

That's about as ancient a desire as we get around here. The wish for the good preacher—not the youth pastor with his guitar or the nervous seminarian but the berobed man standing behind a dark pulpit, flanked by a massive unadorned crucifix and the organ pipes, fed by a wind chest, the lowest flue pipe big around as a fat boy and taller than a phone pole. The smallest the size of a baby's thumb.

Once, before there were movies, an affiliated Protestant, visiting the city for business, pleasure, or family, would make sure to visit the appropriate pantheon of stained glass (erected by corporate titans as reminders of the real deal; NYC is not the place for mother-churches as much as rich-uncle-churches). The sermon witnessed there would not be simple thunder and visions of torment; it would be a trip to Jerusalem with layovers in London and Paris. This way the tourist, seated on his pew, redeemed a tour of the Babylonian fleshpots. His local preacher, marrying, burying, would always after seem provincial.

I have not of my own will been to church for fifteen years except to witness a marriage or conversion or to hear a eulogy. But I imagine the ministers in Manhattan and upper Brooklyn are of a fine urban quality, widely read, buffed like driftglass by both internecine Protestant warfare and interfaith community events. I imagine salt-and-pepper men and women with draped sleeves hinting at wings, dispensing wisdom with that warm presbyter's smile. On weekdays, white collar fresh from the dry-cleaner, they visit the light-yellow high-rise apartments of widows who still have drawers filled with gloves. After that, above a lunch table as white as their collar, they truly enjoy the company of a benevolent parishioner: ordering from menus on cream paper, drinking ice water with their steak. I do not want to imply that these ministers would look down on a laminated menu. But when you are asking someone for $800,000 to turn the vestry into a welcome center you don't go to T.G.I. Friday's® for Chimichurri Sliders.

After hanging up the phone I did think about it but I did not go to church. That moment when the middle-aged deacon on usher duty sincerely welcomes you is just too painful to contemplate; I would feel a vile snake taking his or her slightly-wrinkled hand. Instead I went to jury duty and sat in the pool, trying hard not to bitch to myself about this very basic and simple requirement of democratic life and failing.

From jury duty I expect drab rooms and bossy factotums pushing us from place to place. I expect to climb slate stairs dimpled by millions of soles and to stand in hallways with burgundy linoleum floors and look out of dirty windows onto far-below asphalt courtyards. But today at the metal detectors they politely relieved me of my camera and gave me a receipt (the camera in my phone they ignored); I was then gently brushed aboard an elevator.

In the waiting room Diane Sawyer, like a flight attendant explaining what to do in case of sudden landing, appeared on two televisions to inform me of my civic duty. She was the stewardess of justice. There was free wireless networking, and a sign asked me to let it be known if a water fountain failed or if I experience any unpleasantness in the bathroom. Every time we were reminded, whether by television or loudspeaker, of our civic obligation, we received two apologies for the inconvenience, and I found myself very worried. When the surliness is stripped from our system, when the jurors are treated as valuable clients instead of stinking cattle—or more specifically treated like customers instead of citizens—I'm saying, if the state can't take me for granted and abuse and ignore me, but instead must cherish me and treat me as a favored son, then haven't we shit the collective bed? (Or maybe I'm overthinking this; I did, after all, happily Twitter my jury experience. And Mo promises that it still sucks to be a juror in Manhattan.)

I was sent to small, crowded room 8 and told my number was 7. A woman in the pool had the middle name of Raspberry. The oldest man in the room said he worked recycling computers. The shortest woman wore a wig. The prettiest girl read Failed States by Noam Chomsky. A few miles away, on Wall Street, flanked by Trinity Episcopalian, the market was crashing, or surging. In Albany the new governor of New York state, a blind man descended of Harlem royalty, stood next to his pretty wife and confessed to many affairs; it emerged that he had dispensed much of his legislative wisdom in one particular Days Inn, and it was revealed, touchingly, that he had, after full confession, counseling, and reconcilation, taken his wife, who had also strayed, to the very same hotel and there, we can presume, they fucked Christian forgiveness into each other. In Philadelphia Barack Obama would soon give a major speech on race.

After lunch I was told that I would have no part in resolving the complaint that Martin Gonzales brought against Abraham Shelman and sent back to the comforts of the larger jury pen. There I watched Barack Obama, flanked by two flags, deliver a speech about race; the sound was off but the subtitles were on, forcing us to read through the random misspellings and odd homonyms. He was explaining why he would not disown his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

So. I went to church whether I wanted to or not.

Eventually they let me go and told me I didn't have to come back for years, and gave me a piece of paper. In Columbus Park I took some pictures: of the three huge green shamrocks festooning the columns of the Borough Hall; of the monstrish Victorian fountain filled with bronze toddlers; of the bust of Robert F. Kennedy on its pedestal; and of Christopher Columbus standing atop his high column. Slightly north and uphill from them all, closer to the post office, is the monument to the legendary eloquence of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (restored with support from the Church of the Pilgrims and Broadway United Church of Christ in Manhattan and reintroduced in 1988); Beecher's adultery was the story of the 1870s, a nationwide torment of salacious self-examination compared to this last painful week of Spitzer's wenching.

I walked down the stairs to the Court Street R train behind a middle-aged man. When he was halfway down the stairs he noticed something and turned briskly about and raced back up the stairs. What had made him run was a woman with curly black hair, handing out pamphlets. I descended and without stopping took one from her hand. It was printed on cheap paper, and the title, superimposed over the image of a jigsaw puzzle, was “Is something MISSING in your life?”

“Are you saved?” she asked as I passed. Her voice was brittle and urgent. “Yeah,” I said (what I always say when asked), “sure I am.”


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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