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 César 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.