Saint February

Gold-gray tinging the sky to the east. The call to prayer goes out at four minutes past seven. Cats join in. The masjid is a block away and the cats are next door. I lie in bed and listen for where the azaan that is meant to make you long for God sounds like cats calling for ravishment and who knows, evolutionarily maybe cats did try to sound like crying babies, which they do.

My throat hurts. If I tried to hum with the muezzin or call with the cats, it would hurt. I get up and take eight tablets of yin chiao from a friend who does acupuncture. It will, as she puts it, push the sickness back out through the skin. It worked the last time.

Later, I go out for more provisions, past the Baptist church with minarets; it used to be a Masonic temple. At Tony’s health food store I greet Khan who, like several sons of the owner, works there six days a week. I compliment him on his Om tattoo and he is delighted that I know about Shiva. I tell him that Shiva is actually very important to me and that Shiva Natajara is on my mantel and another Shiva adorns my Christmas tree. His face clouds over. “Wait,” I quickly explain why I think Shiva would be okay being a Christmas ornament. I redirect the conversation to finding broth. But now Khan follows me around the store, entreating me to take that ornament down. He keeps moving to front shelves in my vicinity and is now frankly warning about disrespecting Shiva. I feel like a total idiot religion professor.

On the way home, I pass churches of Pentecostals, Adventists, and Daddy Grace, as well as another masjid. It is February 3, 2011, and no one is surprised that someone walking around in Brooklyn would run into so many brands of religion. What might surprise is that the run-ins pierce and balm in so many ways. The neighborhood does this to some bodies and not others, I guess. But if you have a body that feels like the skin does not hold things in or keep them out, if you are made partly of memories of cuts and sutures, it might do this to you.

Religion is a chain of memory, says the sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger, and catholicité is a palimpsest. Bedford-Stuyvesant used to be all Catholic, and still the most and biggest churches are Catholic. Seven within ten blocks of my apartment. Now I pass one where a few women enter through the side door, the main door being locked on weekdays.

Thirty years ago, I lived far from Bed-Stuy, in a place where every town had a view of cornfields. Thirty years ago, I was going to school at St. Mary’s in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Probably standing in a line. We were always in lines. Lines for changing classes, lines for going to lunch, lines for visiting the lavatory, lines for school assemblies, lines for going to Mass, lines for waiting for the bus at the end of the day. Lines on weekends, too. Line up for your heat at the swim meet. Line up for Rice Krispie treats at the bake sale table. Line up for confession. Line up for communion. In lines, you waited. Waiting was normal and so was the transaction at the end of the line.

But some lines were different, and you anticipated unusual things while waiting. In line to get ashes on your forehead, for example. There was always an emotional chill as the priest spoke mortal words about dust, and a physical flinch to feel fine black palm ash fleck the bridge of your nose. Or, in line to kiss the cross on Good Friday. Making sure to get behind Mrs. Viozzi who is ancient and four feet tall but still kneels on both knees and grasps the cross with both hands and kisses the wood with two full lips, a juicy smack that sounds across the whole nave. In line to have your throat blessed on the feast of St. Blaise…

Crossing Marcy Avenue now, I catch native son Jay-Z’s music blasting out an apartment window three stories up.

Can I hit it in the morning without givin you half of my dough,

and even worse if I was broke would you want me? …

If I couldn’t flow futuristic, would ya

put your two lips on my wood and kiss it, could ya…

I don’t know. Is love deeper than deep pockets? The neighborhood that used to be “Bed-Stuy/do or die” is now “Bed-Stuy/too late to buy” and churches turn into yoga studios at Washington Avenue.

Line up to go to the auditorium to see Jesus Christ Superstar. It was the monthly school movie some winter Friday in 1977. Eight years old, watching girls in sequined hotpants gyrate as the heavenly host, watching Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene drag herself after wooden beams as if she herself were lashed to them, I wanted to dance, I wanted to be lashed, I wanted to kneel and kiss that wood.

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