Monday, April 9
Maybe they were going for the ironic sell.
It was already dark, and the night splattered with harsh orange streetlight, and the air was barely cool to qualify for October, much less the November evening that it actually was. I'd been by World Boutique before, down in the quotidian little clot of high-rises south of Washington Square that is one of the few bits of New York that could truly be anywhere in the United States: a scraggle of trees, a strip of shops, and some contemporary condos from the Bob Newhart era. New York is filled with slivers and side-street vistas that call up emotions of very specific Elsewheres of Proustean intensity--the suburban, modern outskirts of Rome; Boulder, Colorado; the vast emigrant flatness and fastness of Chicago; and a few sidelong glances amid Soho's blocky brick Victoriana that, under the cold blue sky of late fall, could easily have been a prosperous Midwestern downtown. But La Guardia Place is one of the few spots that could be anywhere. It's the sort of place you associate mentally with dentists and opticians.
World Boutique, though, is unique even by New York standards. It seems like the place the hero would go in an end-times kick-butt movie to meet a shady priest contact and find out why the Secret Nine wanted to add the Holy Grail to the collection of bowling trophies in their Underground Den. I'd found it while searching for a crucifix; the place sold military surplus and religious supplies, I imagined, to bobo NYU students, the sort who own "Jesus is my Homeboy" shirts and watch South Park. One big plate-glass window was filled with semi-modish clothes, flapped fur hats, and a vague memory tells me something about novelty socks, but the other window was what caught my eye: an enormous San Damiano crucifix; a shelf full of amorphous, blobby plastic patron saints in melted Lifesaver colors helpfully labeled with their patronages: Depression? St. Dymphna. A side-table with a chalky Michelangelo Moses had a few mezuzas on it.
Inside, the left hand was Spirit and the right hand the body. A large harshly-lit glass case was filled with more blobby saints, Miraculous medals, prayer cards, and a truly alarming Madonna of Częstochowa bust. Glass cases behind were stuffed haphazardly with cruciixes, old icons with heavy pewter covers, kitschy St. Martins de Porres, enameled crucifixes gleming under warm electric light, miniature censers on chains as delicate as necklaces, and a Romanesque-looking silver item with a card labeled in black Sharpie ink stating it was the "Chalice of the Last Judgment." I had missed that particular episode of the X-Files (Die Wahrheit ist irgendwo da draußen), so I didn't ask. A bunch of crucifixes hung all over the wall, some of the plain and grubby, one a ceramic monstrosity of Gaudiesque ingenuity, all red, chalk-white and ultramarine green. The sales-lady, chatting with a stubby man in Russian took down the brass one I'd asked about. Fifty bucks. It was a possibility. Maybe I'd do better on Ebay.
I'd pawed around before, and found a case way in the back filled with cheap fraternal order swords back behind a rack of peacoats and army BDU jackets. I still couldn't find the perfect crucifix, and so I stepped back out into the evening with a polite thank you. I was pleased to hear they closed on Sundays.
A few blocks north, Washington Square was placid that evening, darkness splashed with broad swathes of light. A broad band of fluorescence ringed the top of the Washington Arch, abrupt chiarosciuro and pure white. A street magician, surrounded by a knot of flaneurs: "I want to create the illusion of an audience, so move in on closer and take a seat, since this is a ten-hour show." Shadowy silhouettes here and there in the murky evening, pleasant strolling couples, indistinct but hardly sinister. I noticed a couple of white-topped navy guys in officer's uniforms chatting with a mother and daughter team.
And then another knot of silhouettes against the harsh backlight of the arch, young folk, cheerfully chatting, a few even boisterous. I thought they were foreign police cadets at first, dressed in an unfamiliar blue busdriver sort of uniform, the boys handsome-gangly in their red cap-bands, shiny brims, shoulder-straps and ties; the girls prettily prim, squeaky-clean in standard-issue polished-up pumps, modest military-looking skirts and jackets with little squared shoulders, little round WAC knockoff hats. Then I saw the words on one of the men's caps, SALVATION ARMY, and big white S's on their collar tabs. I stood and watched them, boys and girls still in cautious little sex-segregated knots, chastely pleasant, scrubbed and pressed. This was their shot at the big city, to conquer it, or at the best try and wrap their heads around this strange and amazing and muddled place. One bolder young man was talking with a few city girls of an absurdly glossy and precarious prettiness in surprisingly non-functional down jackets and Uggs, but nobody appeared to be making any converts. It was hard to tell.
I moved on in the darkness. The Empire State Building was splashed with floodlights, bright red the color of melted cherry popsicles dissolving into its spiky black square-shouldered silhouette. Were they here for the week, for the month, for business or pleasure? I seem to recall that the Salvation Army's officer training school was located in a painfully trendy outskirt of Chicago only now beginning to be colonized by more normal souls, and wondered if they felt at home here, or felt out of place there. I'm not sure what Salvation Army officers do on their missions. I'm not even sure what they believe, besides a vague memory of Guys and Dolls. Wasn't it Guys and Dolls that had the Salvation Army chick in it?
It was warm and pleasant this evening, and I got to thinking as I walked north along the sidewalks splashed with orange from the streetlamps. Their presence, whether or not they actually caught any souls, was the ultimate point. It was like the rather lonely little knot that I sometimes see gathered on the edges of Grand Central Station with a cardboard backboard and a crucifix and a tattered sign saying "Catholic Evidence Guild." I don't know who sponsors them, I've never even said a word to them, but they're always there. They may not make a single convert, but they remind the world we still exist. You can't get rid of us.
Maybe not as flashy or irritating as the Hare Khrishnas, but their presence preaches by itself. (If our friends at the Institute ever want to strike out into a new missionary field that might utilize their liturgical skills, they will look into the heretorfore unknown practice of Catholic Street Annoyance) but they're there, patiently waiting to be counted.) Like like the Salvation army boys and girls, or like cops idling on the corner, or a university Eucharistic Procession crossing the quad as sunbathing college-students look on in puzzled wonder, it's just that they're there.
Missionary work is tricky. Too much too soon and you lose your audience, or occasionally you get eaten. Too little and you don't have an audience to lose. But in the city, there are so many Catholic memories and monuments and silent witnesses--whether like the Evidence Guild or, however unintended, like the crucifixes, smoky-faced icons and menorahs cluttering the incongruous World Boutique down on La Guardia. Sometimes somewhere it is good enough to simply sit there on the subway as a very ordinary hieroglyph of the divine Presence, make the sign of the cross, wear your cassock or your capuce, turn your Rosary over in your fingers, and remind the world streaming past that you--and God with you--is still out there, waiting and ready.