paradise-teaching

1995: Avenue C

I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.

Throughout high school, I kept these aspects of my brain in separate but equal containers. I could read about the vastness of the universe and existential philosophy while also giving talks at the Kingdom Hall on what Deuteronomy tells us about god’s love today. I found no contradiction in any of this because it was like these parts of my brain operated on parallel tracks, divided by a soundproof wall, so neither part could ever hear or see what the other was doing.

That began to change my senior year of high school, when I was suddenly and silently blackballed by my congregation for growing a neckbeard. Why I did this to begin with is best explained by that there link. Suffice to say, I recognized that growing a neckbeard was a dumb thing to do, but so was shunning me for doing it. What bothered me most of all is the elders of the congregation left it up to me to figure out what I’d done wrong. If any of them had told me to my face, Hey, shave that thing off, I probably would have. Playing mindgames (and playing them in such a piss-poor passive-aggressive manner) made the Witnesses resemble what everyone else said they were: A cult.

My doubts turned into suspicions, and then into resentments, but I wasn’t quite ready to break away just yet. It felt a lot like a bad long-term relationship (or so I imagined, having not yet been in a relationship of any length at this point), where you fear the unknown of being alone more than the pain of staying together. I wanted to find some way that me and the Witnesses could make it work. I was willing to change.

So when I was set to go off to college at NYU, I wrote to the Witnesses’ main office in Brooklyn. I told them I would be at school in the city in the fall and wanted to know the nearest congregation to campus. They wrote back with alarming speed, telling me to go to the Kingdom Hall on Orange Street in downtown Brooklyn. Considering the MTA’s lazy Sunday schedules, that seemed a bad idea.

So I consulted the phone book (yes, this was a long time ago) and saw that there were several Kingdom Halls on the island of Manhattan. The nearest to my dorm was on Avenue C. This sounded exciting to me because my dad had counseled me to not venture east of Third Avenue, which was the start of the No Fly Zone when he was a young man working at the Wanamaker’s Building (soon to become a K-Mart). The idea of a Kingdom Hall on Avenue C intrigued both my brain’s pious do-gooder side and its Ramones-worshiping side.

I owned a Hagstrom 5-borough map that I’d thumbed through for years, imagining all the places I would explore once I was out on my own in the city. I consulted this map to figure out exactly where the Kingdom Hall was, figuring it was in my best interest to know exactly where I was going and not whip out a map in the middle of Alphabet City.

I called the number for the Kingdom Hall and asked when the next meeting was being held. The man who answered told me 10am on Sunday. His voice went up as he said it. He sounded surprised that anyone would want to know this information.

I’d brought a suit with me to school, the same navy blue suit I’d worn most Sundays to Kingdom Hall back home. It was a Goodwill pickup that fit, barely. My arms stuck out a little too much and I knew it looked stupid but I also knew this was my only Kingdom Hall-ready option. The suit had plastic brass color buttons and if I held my arms across my lap during a meeting, the cuff buttons clacked against the jacket buttons like billiard balls.

I had a small collection of dress shirts and ties, one of which was unraveling, with cotton stuffing spilling through the neck like a ruined teddy bear. I hung onto this tie because it had a paisley pattern I liked, so I taught myself how to knot it so you could barely tell it was falling apart.

I woke up early on Sunday, careful not to rouse my roommates. I matched a light blue shirt with the unraveling paisley tie. I stuffed a gilt-edged Bible into my suit jacket pocket, along with my wallet and keys. Then I walked up to 14th Street to await the bus that would take me eastward.

I did not want to do this, but I was doing it anyway. To the Me of the time, this constituted a kind of faith, the idea that doing something you didn’t really want to do would lead to rewards, from god, from the universe, from somewhere.

The bus that arrived was empty, save me and I few older folks with giant shopping bags who looked more like statues than passengers.  As we traveled, I watched the pizza places give way to cuchifrito stands, the Irish pubs turn into old man bars, the tenements lose floors and hunch lower to the ground, the Chinese takeout places spring shotgun glass.

The bus let me off by the Con Edison plant, and I began the long walk down to the Kingdom Hall. It was early September, still warm enough that one block’s worth of walking was enough to start me sweating. There were no other pedestrians to be seen. Avenue C was silent. My scuffed-up dress shoes echoed whenever they touched the sidewalk. If I stepped on a basement grate, it sounded like a bomb going off. Every store seemed to be closed, even the bodegas, and all of the signs were in Spanish, which I did not speak at the time. If a sign did not have a helpful icon, like the washing machine drawing next to LAVANDERIA, I had no idea what went on behind the slammed-shut rollgates.

I passed by a few vacant lots, which all had the cast and smell of something smoldering. One was caged by a chainlink fence, with a sign that said AVAILABLE with a telephone number underneath. The words and numbers were badly faded. No one, it seemed, was interested in starting anything new here just yet, and hadn’t been for quite some time.

I had the whole place to myself. I could tell people lived here, as attested to by the Big Wheels on the fire escapes, the overflowing garbage cans, the smashed bottles I had to dodge every few feet. But they were all in hiding right now, like they were the residents of a beleaguered Western town, cowering from a showdown.

The Kingdom Hall was a squat, wide building. Like the one I went to upstate, it was khaki colored. Unlike the one I went to upstate, the front door was stainless steel and locked shut, a cordon of rusty chains slung through a pair of holes and held fast by a lock the size of a grapefruit. I checked my watch: 9:35, plenty of time to spare.

And then I checked the sign outside the imposing front door, which told me the next meeting, at 10, was Spanish only.  The surprised man on the phone had answered my question quite literally—yes, this was technically the next meeting that would be held here—and left out this pertinent bit of information. Perhaps he assumed anyone attending a meeting in this neighborhood would speak Spanish.

The sign told me the next English meeting was at noon. I could roam the neighborhood for a while, but not for two hours. Certainly not on an empty stomach. I hand’t eaten breakfast yet. My fat-kid mind drifted to the image of the dining hall and a giant greasy bacon and egg sandwich on a bagel.

I knew what would happen if I left at that moment. I knew I would never come back. I knew I would tell myself I could come back on any given Sunday. I knew I’d ponder the idea from time to time. I knew I’d even set an alarm for some Sunday morning in the future. But above all I knew that if started to walk in any direction but that locked door that I was walking away from this idea of god, from this whole world, for good.

I often think about what would have happened if that English meeting had been at 10, or if I’d shown up at noon instead. I like to think I would have fallen out of “The Truth” sooner or later. The mental architecture needed to buffer faith from an intellectual mind would have crumbled eventually. But maybe this congregation would have spoken to me in a way the old one didn’t. Maybe I would have stuck with it. Maybe I would have given talks and become a missionary, become an elder, have a completely different life now, a different family, a different mind.

I’ll never know because when faced with a choice between god and breakfast, I chose the most important meal of the day.