A few months back, I was at a wedding in Guatemala City. I’d been warned that it would be a full hour-and-a-half-long service. Worse, the acoustics of the room, while friendly to Gregorian chanters, were less so to a speaking voice. As much of this service would be in muffled, aurally confounding Spanish, I knew I wasn’t going to understand a thing.
I was distracted and fidgety even before the service began. This often happens to me in churches. Maybe it’s the feeling of enforced duty. Maybe it is that I feel more disconnected from God in a church than practically anywhere else in the world. For me it often feels like the church building itself is a shield through which radiant thoughts cannot pass.
Still, I’ve trained myself to behave for the few hours every year I’m required to be in a traditional house of worship. But it requires focus and a mental detachment from my surroundings if I don’t want to break out in hives.
And I’m speaking literally about the hives. Something very similar happens when I’m shopping. My hands swell up, my skin gets blotchy. Seeing me in such a state, one could forgive a parish priest or an attentive mall security guard if they assumed I was possessed.
One of my ways of distracting myself when I’m stuck in such a situation is to practice composing these essays. I think of structure, pacing and narrative flow. I try to think of something enlightening, or at least entertaining, to say — and I try to figure out how that thing can be expressed in a three- to five-thousand words. It is part of “the process,” as writers like to say.
And so, that morning, even before the bride walked to the altar to meet her groom, I was already drifting off into another world, thinking about these words you’re reading now.
Above the heads of the congregation, I saw the priest and he saw me. We nodded to one another as he spoke passionately to the grandparents of the groom. His lips were moving and his hands were gesticulating, but due to the aforementioned acoustics, I’ll be damned if I could differentiate between a prayer and him singing gangsta rap. I smiled at the thought that it was the latter.
As the bride entered, I turned to welcome her with the rest of her family and friends, but as she made her way to the altar, I cast my eye around the church, looking for something that might trigger a memory or give form to a story I’d like to tell. Then, when the priest gestured that it was time for the congregation to take their seats, I saw him. One of the altar boys rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and yawned.
My memory drifted back more than thirty years.
As an altar boy in the spring of 1980, I once passed out in the middle of morning Mass. While doing so, I managing to take down a few upright candelabras, one wooden missalette sign and a cut-felt, arts-and-crafts Easter banner.
I was exhausted from a pizza and Pong jag that had lasted until dawn the night before. The “Boop . . . Bip . . . Boop . . . Bip” of the game had so mesmerized me that I nearly jumped out of my skin when the clock-radio broke my focused concentration.
“Oh, Shit!” I thought. “Father John is gonna kill me if I’m late!”
I clicked the off switch on the television. As the tubes cooled, the images collapsed into a bright singularity at the center of the screen. I waited for it to fully disappear (it was very cool to watch), and then bolted out the door.
Both the priests and the servers had a seven A.M. call in the sacristy for the first Mass of the day. By seven-ten we were in our vestments. At seven-twenty I dimmed the house lights, and at seven-thirty sharp we entered the nave of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Binghamton, New York.
As an altar boy, being late or missing the early Mass was not an option. Anyone in the parish so compelled to renew their salvation before lunch could cause a real pain in the rectory if there was a hang-up in the schedule.
As a rule, morning-Massers were a punctilious, guilt-driven and largely Irish-American bunch. I think they had the priests a bit scared.
I was groggy from the start of the service, but was able to stay semi-focused through the Liturgy of the Word and the Responsorial Psalm. I began to fade during the Second Reading, but the Alleluias woke me back up like a cup of cold water tossed in the face. That kept me going through the Gospel, the Homily and the Apostles’ Creed. But once we’d rounded the bend towards the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I was fading fast. My eyes were sagging and the world was becoming disassociated abstractions and cascading images.
The actual passing out happened at the moment of transubstantiation. I was kneeling off to the side, altar-right. Mark, the other altar boy, had just carried the tray that held the cruets that contained the holy water and sacramental wine to Father John.
When Mark reached the altar, the priest mixed the wine with a drop of water and silently recited a prayer. Then, speaking the Words of the Lord, he said, “Take this and drink of it. For this is My blood. He who drinks of it shall have life everlasting. Do this in memory of Me.”
He then raised the chalice towards heaven. That was my cue to jingle the sanctus bells indicating that the miracle of transubstantiation had occurred.
But that morning I didn’t jingle the bells. My mind was drifting into soft focus and my thoughts were abandoning the physical world. As Father John was calling upon the power of God, I was pitching slowly over to my left, dreaming of sledding down a long hill in the forest with my brothers.
The descent was glorious. We were on a toboggan, gaining speed. My older brother J.P. was in the front. I was in the middle. And behind us was our younger brother, Ed — still with the stickling arms of a child wrapped around my waist. We accelerated like a cold wind falling from a high place. Everything was peaceful and rushing. And then, at a thousand miles an hour and with the terrible suddenness of final judgment, we hit a tree.
There was a crashing sound in my ears and I startled awake in the middle of a cartoon-like mess. Psalm numbers were strewn about. One of the candelabras had fallen against the banner celebrating the return of Christ, and the banner was beginning to smolder. I attempted to jump up but (as will be familiar to altar boys around the world) the back of my hassock caught on the heels of my dress shoes and I garrotted myself when I attempted to stand. That dropped me immediately back to the floor, gasping for air.
I reached back and hooked a finger under my hassock hem and freed myself from the holy wardrobe malfunction. Then I popped onto my feet and lunged in the direction of the rapidly blackening felt upon which the candelabra was resting. I grabbed its stem and yanked it, sending a tall votive candle with a brass cap rocketing towards a couple in prime pew position.
The husband shielded his wife while he said something for which he would later need to seek absolution. I had managed to spill most of the wax on myself, and I waved my hand around before pressing it between my legs to suppress the pain of a burn I was just beginning to sense.
Then I noticed that there was absolute stillness in the church. The parishioners’ eyes were darting back and forth between me and Father John. I turned and looked up at the altar and saw the priest glaring at me, the chalice still above his head and a GET-ON-WITH-IT look splayed across his face.
I fell to my knees, scrambled around for the bells and at last, jingled away.
“Amen,” said Father John.
“Amen,” repeated the congregation.
When Mark came back from the altar a minute later I said to him under my breath, “Oh my God, did you see that look he gave me???”
“Dude, you’re in so much trouble. When Mass is over, you should just book it,” said Mark.
I didn’t book it. Father John was actually pretty cool about the whole thing once he’d had a chance to calm down. But he did give me a stern lecture on the sacred nature of our duties and the need for a good night’s sleep. Then he had me apologize to the husband and wife I’d inadvertently accosted with hot beeswax.
They were friendly and forgiving enough and Father John was fundamentally a good guy. But by that point in my life I didn’t buy the “sacred duty” stuff anymore than I bought the need for a good night sleep. I was an altar boy that day because, several years before, Father John had literally twisted my ear until I agreed to join the ranks of St. Thomas’ servers for Christ. Once I was in, my parents wouldn’t let me quit — but like it or not, I was quickly outgrowing this faith.
(That was a natural break in the story, so I decided to check in on the wedding. The couple was kneeling in front of the priest as one of their friends read from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. “Love is always patient . . .”
I returned to my memories.)
As a little kid, I’d bought into the stories of heaven and hell because everyone else seemed to. For a while, when I was around twelve, I’d even considered dedicating my life to the seminary and priesthood. Mind you, that was before I noticed just how inexplicably good Amy Eaton looked in a pair of Levis.
But by the day of the Holy Pratfall, I’d already started to believe that much of what went on in this building was hokum wrapped in opprobrium. Opprobriokum? It certainly sounds Latin.
I remember when my doubts about religion began. In a fifth-grade CCD class we were asked to color in a workbook page entitled, “Who God Loves The Most.” The page was something like an archery target and in the bull’s-eye were the Roman Catholics — the most loved of all people. The next ring was reserved for the Episcopalians, if I remember correctly. Then there were different, more distant rings labeled Lutheran, Baptist, Anabaptist, Methodist, Calvinist, Adventist and on and on. There were maybe a dozen of them. But the target was circular and the page rectilinear, so there was some space left over in the four corners where the editors were kind enough to write JEWS, JEWS, JEWS, JEWS.
That may have been the first time in my young life that I ever “called bullshit” on something. It was prima facie absurd, even to my 12-year-old brain. I didn’t know many Jews, but my grandmother was a secretary at Temple Israel for years, and Rabbi Hurwitz, seemed just as holy a man as Father John. He always treated us nice when we went to pick grandma up after work. I remember thinking, “this is crazy,” and yet everyone else in the class just went on coloring, so I did, too.
There was another (far less hateful) instance several years later that made me shake my head in wonder at the credulity of the other folks in the my church. Father John had us altar boys in a classroom for a lesson wherein he was making a huge deal out of St. Patrick describing the “Mystery of the Trinity” to the Irish. As he went on, he drew a giant shamrock on the blackboard.
He said, “You see, boys, as St. Patrick explained to the Irish, there are three Gods in our faith. A Holy Trinity. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.” He pointed at each leaf that he had drawn in turn. Then he made a circular motion around the image on the board representing its totality and said, “But they’re all really One God. Just like the shamrock. It is three and it is one. It’s a mystery, but St. Patrick made it clear.”
I remember thinking to myself, “Dude, that’s not a mystery. It’s a metaphor.”
But again, all the other altar boys just nodded their heads. I did, too, but something inside me realized that if this was the level of spiritual questing we’d be doing here at St. Thomas Aquinas parish, I was gonna get real bored, real fast.
Unsurprisingly, not too long after all of that, I finally left the church for good. Over the course of the years I continued to seek God, finding him mostly in high alpine lakes, fields of lupines and fireweed, lover’s eyes and in the stories of travelers at the end of their ropes. Over the decades, and with each new quotidian miracle uncovered, each roadside dharma bum encountered, I grew more assured of the righteousness of my path. And I developed a worsening allergy to being confined in a church.
(Back at the wedding the priest was saying something to the couple that was little more than an undulating wave of vowels by the time it reached my pew. But I was able to pick out the theme. He was speaking about the lifelong commitment of marriage and how, from this day until their last day, they would be together in the eyes of the Lord.
I guess I should have seen this coming. I knew that “until death do us part” is standard-issue context for a marriage ceremony, but it still caught me off guard. And though I really wanted to get back to drafting the story in my mind about allergic reactions to church, the events of recent days were now all over me.
I was thinking about Shanghai.)
If I had my druthers, I would far prefer to think about Shanghai in a bar, or down at the beach, or up in the mountains where those lupines grow. Someplace I could get drunk and holler. But here it was.
The day before the wedding, I’d found out that my friend, William “Shanghai” Pearce, had died. It was a shock, but not a surprise. Shang had ridden himself hard for years, and it finally caught up with him.
I’d met Shanghai six years before on a night when I was working the front bar at Café No Sé. There weren’t many tourists in town, but a dozen or so locals were chatting with one another and enjoying having the place to ourselves again after high season. Robin was working the back bar, but he had few customers, so he’d stuck his head through the doorway and was listening to the music. Thom and Willie sat in their corner seats, singing the blues.
Willie had just strummed the intro to May the Circle be Unbroken. Thom was digging through his briefcase to find a harmonica in the right key. As he pulled one out of the rack, Willie started to sing:
I was standing by my window
On a cold and cloudy day
When I saw the hearse come rollin’
For to take my mother away.
Then, just as they were getting to the chorus, a whirling, grinning, radiating crazy man exploded into the bar. The look of him was odd to the point of being cartoonish. He was wearing a blue workman’s shirt with a patch above the left pocket that read “SINNER” and one above the right that read “ASSHOLE.” His hair was combed back, greaser style, with a bit of a pompadour on top. He was slight, tight and hard. His skin was brown leather, with a touch of grey. He was covered in tattoos. If he had any teeth left in his head, they were hiding way in the back and far out of sight.
I couldn’t judge his age. Either he was over 65 and the alcohol had pickled him, or he’d just gone 50 and the booze had aged him well beyond his years. If I hadn’t been around Antigua for a while, I might have grabbed the baseball bat we keep for security, but after half a decade behind a Guatemalan bar, you get a sixth sense about strangers. And this one was alright.
He had this sense of passionate emergency about him. He looked like the devil, but he radiated playful goodness. Toothless as a crone, he still had a 10,000-watt smile that made everyone in the joint a bit lighter of mood when he arrived.
I’m not sure if “dervished” is a word, but it should be. It describes perfectly the way he entered the room. He cleared the 20 feet or so from doorway to far corner in the flash of an eye. But as he did, he managed to give me a wink, order a beer, remove and unzip his satchel, pull out a ukulele, grab a stool from the bar and spin into it — all in time to meet Thom and Willie before they’d gotten to the beginning of the next verse.
And he caught them perfectly on the harmony, stretching out his neck like he was being pulled to heaven by a head strap with his ass still nailed to a chair.
Lord, I told the undertaker,
“Undertaker, please drive slow.
For this body, you are hauling,
Lord, I sure hate to seeeee her go . . .”
I figured he must be an old friend by the way he jumped in with the band. I assumed he was someone who they’d played with back in the day and had just now returned home after long years on the road. Or maybe prison. Willie moved over to give him space at the microphone and they sang together like cowboy troubadours for the next hour or so, trading songs, turns and lyrics.
John, the owner of the Café, signaled me to open up a bottle of mezcal and pass it around on his dime.
There are nights when John and I trade glances over the customers and nod our heads in unison. It’s our way of acknowledging that we lead enviable lives down here in the tropics. Our job is to continue providing the space for magic to happen of its own natural accord. And on some nights everything clicks with a suddenness that staggers you a bit.
It was that kind of night.
When Thom and Willie took a break, the odd, little man came to the bar and ordered another beer.
“Hey there barman, what’s yer name?”
“I’m Michael. Mike, if you’d prefer.”
And then, for the first time of a few thousand, he said to me, “Well, dammit, Maaah-kel, has anyone been bottling for them players tonight?”
I’d never hear the term before, though I knew exactly what he meant. I still use it today when it comes time to scratch up tips for the musicians.
“Not yet, I was gonna do it in the next set.”
“You mind if I do?” he asked.
“You, my friend, can do whatever you want. Cheers.” I cracked his bottle and set it in front of him.
“What’s your name?”
“My friends call me Shanghai.”
“Where you from?”
“Here and there. Lately, Texas.”
“Here’s to you, Shanghai.”
(The bride and groom were standing. The priest was blessing them. Looking around the church, I saw that a few people were getting out handkerchiefs. The ceremony was almost over. But now that I was thinking about Shang, I wasn’t quite ready to come back.)
As it turns out, Shang had never once set foot inside Café No Sé before that night. He’d never been to Antigua before in his life. He knew neither Thom nor Willie, but as water finds its own level, he’d managed to show up at our doorstep. When the bottle that John had me pass around got to him, he took a swig, and passed it back to me.
“Down the hatch, Maaaah-kel!!!”
Shang was different than most folks. That much was apparent from the jump. But he also fit into Café No Sé like it had been built specifically for him. He was one of us, if a bit farther down the road of dissolution. And after that first night’s meeting, he and I knew we were born to be brothers.
Shang moved around quite a bit. He’d be in Antigua for a while, then up at the lake, then back in the States for months at a time, but whenever he was in town, I’d come down to the bar to look for him. Then we’d drink and talk and sing. The conversation was generally narrative and personally historical. There was a healthy surfeit of balderdash and even a shake or two of utter bullshit, but never an outright lie. And around that frame we’d discuss the normal stuff for a couple of sojourners at a bar — life and meaning in a universe built of spare and broken parts.
Shanghai might have looked like a two-bit outlaw — and he was not unfamiliar with an assortment of cons, schemes and contrivances to keep him afloat in something one might call the “alternative economy” — but he had a questing soul and a depth to him that was more convincingly holy than most of the priests I’d met in my life. He really loved being alive, and being alive meant sharing stories, joys, music and insights that might flash into the darkness. And by those flashes, sometimes we’d see a way to navigate the world a little closer to love and kindness.
This may be something that only barhounds know — and it is certainly something that I wouldn’t have learned if I had hewed close to the teachings of the nuns in my CCD class — but there are some folks out there that are so cracked and broken that you can see the light of their souls leaking through. That was Shang.
Over the years Shang and I discussed our beliefs in love and redemption a lot. I told him about my Roman Catholicism and how I’d once been that good little altar boy, but had ended up fleeing the Church decades ago. He told me he was raised Mormon, but had left that faith for many of the same reasons.
Still, in our conversations, we both figured that Jesus was likely a pretty good guy, and if this barroom were a church in Judea a few thousand years ago, we could easily imagine him buying a round for the Disciples after a long day of fishing in the Galilean sun. The way we figured it, Christ was much more a patron of the bar, or maybe one of the musicians, than a cop out looking for sinners to toss in the drunk tank for the night.
“Dammit, Maaaaah-kel! If he’s the God of Infinite Love, then why in the hell would He want you to stop enjoying yerself just when the party is picking up?” Shang asked, somewhat profoundly, one of our last nights together at the Café.
I told him I couldn’t think of a reason, and we both took a pull of our bottles of Victoria. And now that I think about it, that may have been the first time I ever considered just how nice it feels to share a metaphor about what God is like with a friend.
Father John and St. Patrick had their Shamrock. Shang and I had a loose-living, guitar-playing, round-buying, semi-Buddhist Jesus. Knowing that someone else agreed was comforting.
(The couple were now reading their vows. First the groom, then the bride. I kept an eye on them, but returned to my own story on the inside. I had a farewell to offer.)
The last time I saw Shanghai was a few months back. He’d finally found a place he wanted to make his new home up at the lake. I tried to talk him into Antigua, but he demurred, saying, “Maaaah-kel, dammit! I’m a country mouse. I kaint take this big city livin’.”
When I saw him, he was heading back up north to rally his family into possibly making the move with him. Also, he had been drinking too hard again. I think maybe he knew his number was coming up.
He swung by my house to drop off a ukulele for my friend Mercedes. He’d heard her sing at one of our recent parties, and thought she should have a uke to knock around on when the mood hit her.
He handed me the instrument and gave me a hug. I told him I was gonna miss him. He said, “Dammit, Maaaah-kel, I’ll miss you, too.”
Then he headed down the road.
I figured he’d left town right then, but he must have doubled back, because the next morning I found a note he’d pushed under my front door. It was written on a blank page ripped out of the back of whatever book he was reading. It said:
“Michael! Dammit! Thank y’all again for the night on the town. Night on the town? You’ll see. It’s a blink of the eye. Goin’ to the church-house to get a little grace. Isn’t it a pity my hat don’t hang on the same nail for too long.”
It sure is, brother.
I never got to ask him what he meant by “Goin’ to the church-house to get a little grace.” Maybe he was actually part of a faith community up north. If so, then they must have been an odd and beautiful collection of folks. Maybe it was just a signal that he was going back on the wagon for a while to save his own life. Or maybe he was speaking in the grander themes. He did that often, and better than most.
Dammit, I miss him.
But I didn’t have any longer to ponder. Family and friends erupted in joy as the couple were pronounced husband and wife. They were both so beautiful. So happy and full of love. They were coming down the aisle holding hands. Cameras were flashing. Grandmothers were primping their granddaughters and the bride flashed me a smile as she passed.
I felt so good being around so many kind people. And I was glad that Shanghai was there with me, too. Then it struck me, that for all of my allergy to churches, if you just think of them as places where people can go to be together, then they’re maybe not so bad after all.
The crowd filed out, as is custom, front pews first. When it came time for my row to follow the recessional train, I paused for a second . . . then genuflected and made the sign of the cross. I hadn’t done that since I left the faith three decades ago.
I didn’t do it for Christ. I didn’t do it for Father John. I didn’t do it for the couple that got married, or even for Shanghai. I did it because it was a way to give thanks in this place that would pass unnoticed. The grace I was feeling in that church house was private — between me and God.
If I were in a bar, I would have raised my cup in the air.
Miracles are where you find them.