A Year of Sundays

My parents were and are still very conservative, and when they were telling me and my brothers about driving, about how to drive properly, I vividly remember my mother admonishing me to put my hands at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position on the steering wheel, to make sure my seatbelt was fastened and secure, all three mirrors were adjusted correctly, gas always above ¼ full, both eyes were on the road and that I was leaning slightly forward in the seat, always driving defensively because everyone else out there wasn’t as prepared and aware as I was supposed to be. And it wasn’t just how they drove automobiles; it’s how they lived life: petrified. They still do. Oh, and no radio, because that was distracting, especially back then with the mechanical push button station preset controls that we all loved to choonk, choonk, choonk so much.

Years before my it turns out ignominious driving days I was working for Kinzey-Angerstein Organ Company, which was headquartered in an old farmhouse and barn across the street, which for sheltered, narrow-minded and provincial me turned out to be a revelation. Actually, it wasn’t a revelation until many years later, when I was able to mentally process and appreciate everything that had gone on right in front of my almost-blind eyes. Hans Schmidt was the master builder, a huge, gentle, and genial German, who had learned his craft before the war, and who actually had fought for Germany, against us, all those years ago. He taught me so much, without even trying, or knowing he was. For example, he told me one day to go up into the loft of the barn, which was packed to the rafters with lumber and get a piece of mahogany for something he was working on, which would “lighten the Sword of Damocles” a bit. I asked him what did that mean? He told me.

He’d be playing Wagner on the stereo, and would be explaining to me who Tristan and Siegfried were, and what was going on in a particular piece of music, and what Wagner was trying to say when Paul DeLille, the flamboyant Frenchman from Fall River would walk in, and make some snarky comment about Gotterdammerung and Nazis and switch the music to Debussy or Eric Satie. Paul’d say something to me like: there’s culture, mon petit, and then there’s CULTURE. I had no idea what he meant at the time. He was such a gifted master craftsman himself, and we had a lot of laughs together, especially about the even crazier Frenchmen he knew from Woonsocket.

 Anyway, Dan Angerstein was the pipe tuner, and he worked in a little air-conditioned bump-out on the back side of the barn, so I hardly ever saw him. But every once in a while he needed to go to a church to tune the organ and I would go along for the ride. Not because I knew anything about tuning pipe organs, but because he needed someone at the keyboard to pull out the stops and push the keys, and he didn’t have a pet monkey. I was just able to do this, even though I would have put even money on the monkey. Do you know that the expression “pulling out all the stops” comes from pipe organs? When all the stops (mechanical levers that open rows of pipes to the air pressure from the bellows so that they’ll play) are pulled out, the organ sounds like the thundering damnation and exaltation of everyone at the same time.

He’d be up in the organ itself, sometimes way up in the choir loft and he’d yell down to me: Pull out the Stopped Diapason and give me a middle C. Now, D, E, F, G, A, and a B. Good. Ok, on the right hand side there should be a Vox Angelica – is there? No. Ok, then it must be a Lieblich Gedact 8’. Yes? Yes. Then give me a C, one octave up from middle C. Great.

I’m working one summer Sunday after mass back around ’70 and Dan comes out to the shop and tells me we have to go tune an organ this morning, and to fetch (I remember not knowing what the word ‘fetch’ meant because I had never heard it before) his tool bag and hop in the Jetta. I say ok. Let me just backtrack a bit and say that I’m probably about 10 going on 2 at the time, as naïve as a nun, and Dan, Paul, Allen Kinzey (the other partner), and Dan’s roommate Steve are all very homosexual. There was never an untoward word or the slightest hint or wink or comment lobbed in my direction. Ever. But even so, it was sometimes bizarre to work there because I had absolutely no clue about love, or sex, never mind gay love or sex, and they would say and do things completely unselfconsciously that turned my unsensual square world upside down in an evanescent instant, without even the tiniest inkling of awareness or intent.

Here’s a perfect example: I get into the car and Dan jumps on I-495 South heading towards Newport at it felt like 100 miles an hour. The speed limit back then was 55. He’s wearing a white singlet, with robin’s egg blue short shorts, and flip flops. His window is rolled down, and he’s flipped the flip-flops off, and has his left foot up on the door frame flapping in the breeze out the window. He’s holding a cigarette in his left hand, between his pinky and ring finger, which I have never seen done, before or since. His right hand is in his lap, and he’s steering the vehicle with his thumb. I’m a nervous hysterical wreck thinking we’re going to crash at any minute, and he’s just chattering away, taking delicate drags on his slender filterless cigarette (Virginia Slims if I remember correctly), and flicking the ashes out the window, as oblivious and easy as kiss my hand. I chuckle to myself every time I think of his slightly louche and lovely insouciance.

We come up over the Pell bridge and there’s the church steeple, topping the town, silhouetted against the Newport sky. I remember it being white, and immaculate. We spent all afternoon there and the organ was magnificent. I heard that same lovely sound this morning when I went to the service at Trinity Church, almost 50 years later, to see if I, the remembered inflections, or anything else had changed. Everything and nothing had. Which kind of reminds me of a T. S. Eliot quote: “I had seen birth and death but thought they were different.”

Why did I go to Trinity Church this morning you might be asking yourself? What you really mean is: why did I go to any church this morning even though I haven’t been inside a house of god for forty years? I’ll tell you: I went because I think I’ve realized that why time goes more quickly, or seems to, when we’re older is because we lack novelty, and the childlike wonder to recognize the astounding and improbable immensity of our everyday lives, of life itself, here, now. So instead of going off on goose-chases to other places to find the novel and the interesting – after all, “Heaven is where I’m not” quipped Jean-Paul Sartre – I thought I’d try to have a closer and more careful and less critical look around the backyard of my own soul, so-to-speak.

One of the ideas I came up with to accomplish this philosophical awakening is to go to a different house of worship every Sunday right here in the City of Newport, and try to open my mind up to the benign differences and indifferences I see and hear: ingurgitate, purge, and then regurgitate. Maybe I’d find enlightenment, have some bright-light epiphany, convert, and then confess like Augustine. Or fall in love with a catholic girl, or maybe improbably get struck down by lightning. I might even learn something useful. Starting January 1st – A Year of Sundays, I thought I’d call it, after Updike.

First foray on the spiritual journey wasn’t very promising, however, or maybe it was, of other things, unplanned and not altogether unwelcome. I was riding my bike down Spring Street, minding my own business, of course, when I saw the doors of the Congregation Church on the corner Pelham flung wide open and the most heavenly sound coming out. I stopped and went in. Heavy black curtains hung in the narthex and it was funereal dark. What? There was a small woman sitting at a small desk to the left where the curtains were parted slightly, and I could hear the music and see rectangular slants of colored light slashing through. I walked over and asked her what was going on. She said a tea party.

I looked in and felt like I had gone down a rabbit hole. In fact, I had. The church was devoid of pews – instead the nave was bare of chairs and a theatrical, it’s-a-small-world-type tea party was set up front and center instead. The balconies were filled with a rapt audience. I originally thought the harlequin who waltzed in was Willy Wonka, but he was really the Mad Hatter, tap-dancing his manic insanity, and he wasn’t happy when he saw Alice suddenly dash in from the wings, or me.

Seriously, the church had been closed for years as a church, but open as an event space, and the Island Moving Company was performing a Sunday matinee of Shostakovich’s Alice in Wonderland. Entertaining enough, sometimes surreal, at once unbelievable and believable, touching, beautiful and funny – a choreographed interlude from and for mundane lives. And not so different than a religious service in the same place at another time might have been. Some of the dancers were ludic and sublime. I might even have had an impure thought or two.

But back to Trinity Church this morning. The Right Reverend James Jelinek gave the sermon based on his reading of Isaiah 42: 1-9:

 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

My chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

He will bring forth justice to the nations.

His thoughtful gist: Jesus was a servant/leader, not a Warrior King, and the Jews were confused by this, since this didn’t fit their idea or ideal of what a leader should and had to be. He also made it very clear that Jesus meant to cause pain – looking into the mirror was painful, and that’s what Jesus wanted us to do – but he never meant us any harm. I loved that idea, and thought of recent discussions I’d had with my son. Harm is qualitatively different than pain, and that he’d been confusing the two. The Reverend then urged our politicians to be honest and serve the people, not their own agendas and desires, and for us, the voters, to hold them accountable. He didn’t rant, although he said he wanted to, and almost did. He said we should all try to get along together, Muslim, Jew and Christian. Which sounded to me like Anne Frank saying she thought people were, at heart, good. Only she never said it, and it’s not true. I actually think it’s a dangerous idea, one of the worst platitudes ever, if I were to be totally honest.

As I was leaving the church after the service, the Reverend Alan Neale came up to me and said he hadn’t seen me before and welcome to the church. He had a British accent so I asked him if he was Church of England. He said, yes, originally. I think he said he started out at Oxford, and then he asked me my name. I told him. He said that’s a great Christian name. I said I was a saint. We both smiled.

Walking through Queen Anne Square on the way back home, I see this bag man sitting on a camp stool with his wrapped packages and boogaloo and beer bottles arrayed around him, a scruffy seaport Diogenes. I notice he’s wearing a baseball hat that has a hand-written sign taped to the front that says: KNOW IT ALL. I stop and say to him, if you know everything, tell me something that I don’t know. He says, without missing a beat: the U.S. Government invented selfies. I asked him what for? He said so that they would have a picture of every American’s iris. I continue on my way, a bit different way, perhaps, and Springsteen springs to mind: Listen to your junk man, he’s singing, singing.

I looked up the Episcopalians when I got home and they were indeed Church of England until the American Revolutionary War. They split off because the clergy couldn’t continue swearing allegiance to the British Monarch, who was head of the church, ever since Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and made himself the Pope of sorts. The church describes itself as “Protestant, yet Catholic” and my take echos Robin Williams’s “Catholic lite – same rituals, half the guilt.” The most unusual thing for me was the three-tiered wineglass pulpit smack-dab in the center aisle, blocking the view to the altar for many of the parishioners. Huge and looming, it wasn’t even used – the reverends used a small free-standing podium placed on the floor directly in front.

The other notable difference from every church I’ve ever been in, is that there are luxurious booths, kind of like designer cubicles, that you get all to yourself. An usher walks you down the aisle and opens the door to one and closes you in. Each was about 8’ square, with 4’ high sides, and padded benches that were comfortable as hell. There were hand-embroidered cushions, wall-to-wall carpeting and everything oozed cozy. The missal was The Book of Common Prayer. I felt like I was in a first-class cabin on an airplane, and was kind of hoping for a stewardess or usher to come by with a bag of snacks and ask me what I’d like to drink.

Oh, and I didn’t mean that hell comment literally in the last paragraph, it goes without saying. I’m just reading now on the Washington Post website the breaking news that The United Methodist Church, as of last week, has decided to split into two denominations in an attempt to end a decades-long and bitter dispute over gay marriage. A “Traditionalist Methodist” denomination will continue to oppose same-sex marriage, and the remaining stump of the church will permit same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy for the first time in its history. The church has long been divided ideologically between the more conservative members, who are the majority at around 54%; the liberal leaners, who account for about 15% of the total; and the church in Africa, which seems to favor the traditionalists, opposing for the most part the (American) church’s liberal beliefs on sexuality. The divide in the church reflects the divide in America: evangelicals are against same-sex marriage and view gay behavior as sinful, as per the Bible; Black churches have historically been fairly conservative and traditional; and mainline Protestant churches, which tend to be theologically and politically more liberal.

The 3 or so million Episcopalians living in America are wealthier, more educated (having more graduate and post graduate degrees per capita, 56%, than any other Christian denomination), and are disproportionately represented in the higher reaches of American business, law, and politics than any other Christian denomination. They are the third wealthiest religious group in the U.S., behind the Mormons and the Catholic Church. But their numbers are dwindling, down from 3.5 million members in 2008 to the 3 million today, due mostly to attrition and low fertility rates. Revelations on a sunny Sunday morning.

And whatever happened to Dan the Organ Man, you may be wondering? I looked him up last summer and finally found him – he’s now living in Hendersonville, NC, and still tuning pipes and sashaying a slightly slower swish, swish around town. I went to visit him on my last visit to cackalack country and we had a fun and fond reunion. I never knew his backstory, so he told me that he grew up in bible-belt Texas – his father was a very strict military man – and he joined the air force and got married right out of college.

He was stationed in San Francisco and started to go to some of the bars in the Castro District with a friend and realized, in his own words, that “sailors were quite delicious.” He struggled with this for a while, and then ultimately realized that’s who he was. He eventually got enough courage up to tell his wife, so he took her out to dinner to break the news. He said he had something to tell her. She said she had something to tell him. He said you first. She told him she was having an affair with her boss and was going to leave Dan for him. I’m not making this up.

January 14, 2020 — Johnny Mustard