Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A ghost story

Mr. Gordon was an old-school Episcopalian and a fine organist. What does one do with these people you once knew who now wander in and out of your dream life? He’d been at St. John’s for four decades and seen the parish decline as the local population changed. The fine homes in Passaic Park were now being bought by Orthodox Jews and the downtown was being overrun by Latin Americans and blacks. White Christians were leaving in droves, even the Catholic Poles were moving out. The tiny congregation consisted of a few older white hangers-on, a smattering of middle class blacks, two or three poor families who lived near the big hospital, and the stray newcomer, who usually came once, sampled the spiritual fare, and never returned. It was not a place for god-seekers, you had to have already met the old boy to get what was going on there.

I remember Mr. Gordon shuffling about in his slippers, waiting for me to say something, a ghost haunted by ghosts.

The priest was a middle-aged bachelor whose best days lay behind him -- he’d grip the pulpit with both hands and regale the faithful with stories of the halcyon days in Mississippi and Alabama when he had walked shoulder to shoulder with “my black brothers and sisters” on those glorious freedom marches back in the 1960s. Though undoubtedly sincere, he was completely tone-deaf. The blacks in the congregation stared at him and the ancient whites nodded off. Mr. Gordon would follow the poor rector’s homilies with the stiffest, staunchest Victorian tunes to be found in the blue-bound
1940 Hymnal, tunes which no one in the congregation could follow. The old people wanted silence and the newcomers wanted guitars and tambourines to shake the Lord awake. Mr. Gordon gave them Sir Arthur Sullivan instead. Perhaps he thought it was good for them, like iron tablets.

Outside, Passaic raged: muggings, shootings, litter everywhere, dog shit, the stink of urine, the incessant thudding bass of custom car stereos, salsa, rap, break-ins, the smell of onions and old frying fat, broken windows, pawn-shops with steel shutters, bums and crazy people walking around talking to themselves. Such an overabundance of street life, colorful if you were visiting, hell if you lived there. The priest himself was assaulted twice in broad daylight. “They got my watch and my wallet, but I wasn’t carrying anything but a couple of singles. Still, the second time they hit me on the head with a bat. I had to have stitches. And this was while I was wearing my collar.” After that he holed up in the rectory composing his sermons and kept the church building locked. "You may think it's un-Christian to lock the church, but these drug addicts would come in and steal everything if we left it open."

None of this fazed natty Mr. Gordon who wore a pencil thin mustache, French cuffs, and soft-soled shoes on Wednesday evenings for choir practice and on Sunday mornings for the 10 o’clock service. Quist used to say that musicians lived in their own world. Mr. Gordon doted on the sonorous language of the 1922
Book of Common Prayer and despised the modernized liturgy that would eventually replace it. He loved plainsong, the simplest settings of the mass, and C├ęsar Franck’s magnificent Organ Chorales. He and his quiet wife lived with a stout-hearted dachshund in a two-bedroom apartment in a brick garden apartment complex off Van Houten Avenue. They were a refined couple; the apartment tastefully decorated in an understated Episcopalian manner with a vaguely nautical theme: a model Man ’o War here, a lovely reproduction of a Homer seascape there, two framed photographs of a much younger version of themselves standing in front of a trim sloop, he wearing a cap and holding a pipe, she standing slightly behind him with both her hands on his shoulders. The very picture of a couple in love. They served tea and biscuits and talked about their seaside cottage out on the Island.

"Over the years we've gathered quite a collection of shells. We love beautiful things." It was true, they did. They had had just the one son who died young, his photos hung on every wall, portraits of a smiling teenage boy with deep-set eyes and unruly hair. She reached out and explained, "His death was tragic, a horrible waste, but ever since he died, our lives have been very peaceful. He watches over us." Mr. Gordon sat at the upright piano in their living room and held his hands over the keyboard, listening. His wife refilled my tea cup. "We don't worry about anything any more. We know he will take care of us." She spoke the words with matter-of-fact conviction. Mr. Gordon nodded gently.
We too will soon be ghosts and then we'll watch over you. He began to play Sheep May Safely Graze. I have no idea what happened to them, having left that part of Jersey behind, but, after thirty years, my heart still stops when I hear that piece.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! You and I may be in different professions but our professional experiences have parallels. The business people are “sucking the science and spirit” out of scientific software.
    Venture capitalists and investment analysts often contact me to inquire about the potential size of the market for some type of new software that some professor or entrepreneur seeking funding wants to bring to market. I explain what I perceive to be the likely dynamics of how the technology is likely to play in the market – the opportunities and the challenges. I think this part is easier with software than books.
    I feel that they are barely listening as they continue to insist on the effing number for their spreadsheets–that is, the potential size of the market for such software. I do my best to contain my frustration when I then ask them how often any market estimates for software opportunities have been correct? I am more than happy to give them contextual information so they understand the nature and the implications of the potential investment. But, I refuse to give them such an estimate which (as is in your industry) can not be predicted reliably.
    When I work with the software developers, like books, it is challenging to turn the concept software into “industrial strength” software.
    Also from your posting, I perceive that the “aficionados” in your industry are the people in the trenches. while most of the senior execs are “suits.” The scientific software industry is increasingly dominated by “suits” with MBAs from prestigious universities. When I first started in this industry, it was dominated by people with passion and vision. These pioneers were real scientists and engineers (like me) who had passion and knew what software needed to do to add value. Today, the scientific software industry is dominated by “suits” with MBAs who don’t know “poop” about what they are selling. They hire “consultants” who coach them on how to make effective business presentations. They infuse the presentations with just the right acronyms to make them sound knowledgeable. But, once someone asks a question that goes below the veneer, the response is often embarrassingly vapid to people “in the know. “ Yet, the clueless investment people are frenetically taking notes.
    By the way, I once bought a technical book for $99.95 that gave me insights resulting in $125,000 in business. If the author and I knew that “a priori,” how much would he have charged me for the book? How much is a book work that makes me see the world with greater clarity? ….probably a lot more than I paid for it.

    Sorry for the length but you really struck a chord here. One last comment regarding your reference to the Gulf coast clean up. Yo9u might already no this or heard this, but the U. S. government already has experience housing “oily slime” under a concrete dome. (see http://www.section508.va.gov/images/us-capitol-1.JPG )