Everything You Didn’t Really Need to Know About How a Bartender Becomes a Methodist Pastor

Cherished Readers:

Here it is again–both parts together this time since folks were telling me they were having trouble with the whole two parts thing….  New post coming soon.   Meanwhile, a summer repeat all in one piece this time.  Blessings!

A compact park occupies the corner of Thirty-third and Third, a curve in the concrete, etched out for basketball and handball and a few caged trees.  From one of those trees, tucked back off the street in a private corner of that public place, Thomas Patrick Donovan tossed one end of a bed sheet up and over a branch until it dangled down to meet the other end, which circled his neck.  He knotted the bed sheet and stepped off the edge of the park’s built-in bleachers.  Minutes later, he was dead.  But right before he made his exit, he wrote my name and phone number on a scrap of paper and pinned it to his chest. On December 2nd, a detective left a message on my answering machine asking me to come down to the local precinct.

Tom hanged himself on the most New York of all New York streets, an inside-joke and final statement from a blighted city tree in the dark of early winter, and all I could think about was where he got the bed sheet.  I spent sleepless nights wondering if he found it in a dumpster or took it from my apartment.  I even got up once in the middle of the night to check the linen closet, but I’ve never paid that much attention to my sheets, so I couldn’t be sure one was missing.

I had some other questions too.  Everybody’s full of questions when there’s a suicide.  Death carries uncertainty, but suicide hangs on to questions and keeps them circling in a loop like birds of prey.  Some folks give answers, but the answers rarely satisfy.  With suicide, there’s little consolation, but there can be alterations in the view of reality that incite cosmic shift; after Tom hanged himself in that park, everything changed.

At first I couldn’t do much.  In between walks with the dog, I sat on the sofa drinking tea and chain-smoking.  For some reason, which I’ll never understand, the only food I could get down was Swanson’s TV dinners, so I bought one dinner every night from the Moroccan deli on the corner.  At the end of the week, I had a stack of seven blue boxes on the kitchen counter and one spoon in the drain board.  Spoons work better in those plastic, Swanson’s compartments.  After a few weeks, people started telling me how great I looked.

At night, I didn’t want to be anywhere except the bar.  I wasn’t even drinking.  I was just sitting on a stool in a daze, holding court.  Everybody liked Tom, and lots of folks wanted to talk about him and pay their respects.  I was still working at the bar in those days, but all my shifts seemed covered, so I sat.  The place was full of friends, a place where I understood the graffiti penned on the bathroom stalls and knew the names behind the initials etched in the tabletops, so I sat in the corner and lived on condolence hugs from the regulars.

I was behind the bar when I met Tom.   He was hanging out with Nicki, and that should have been my first clue.  Nicki and I split the day shifts.  I took the weekends; she took the weekdays.  Of course, being the two “day girls” would have been enough to set us up as rivals, but Nicki and I had other issues.  We were opposites.  Nicki weighed about 90 pounds—the bulk of it from bracelets, scotch and cocaine.  She ate sushi and sucked on carob coated coffee beans until one o’ clock when she started chilling her first Rob Roy.

For nineteen years, Nicki poured cocktails and blew kisses and staggered down the block and around the corner to her Greenwich Village flat with two cats and a prized collection of matchbooks.  Harry loved Nicki the way he loved all of his employees, like a lenient but frustrated father, unable to control bad behavior, yet willing to tolerate it unconditionally.  Nicki loved Harry in return because he didn’t expect much, and he never fired anybody.  Harry was crazy, but he had great grace.

Harry hired me because he thought I looked like Ava Gardner.  He even called me “Ava’, when he could remember the name.  Usually, Harry just called women “Sweetheart”; there were only a handful of men he was willing to talk to, but the thing that Harry did best was talk to himself.  Harry sat at the end of the bar and had long arguments with himself every day.  He never talked loud enough for anybody else to understand, but once in a while he’d let a word slip out with real volume.  This broke the spell and upset Harry enough to propel him off the stool, out of the bar, and across the street to Mickey’s for a candy bar.  He loved a fresh Baby Ruth, and he remembered which days the candy delivery truck pulled off Sixth Avenue into the neighborhood.  Candy he could remember; he just couldn’t keep track of the beer deliveries at his own bar.

But Harry could surprise you.  Just when you thought he was a muttering old fool, Harry would say something profound.  Years as a tavern owner honed Harry’s expertise on countless subjects; whatever it was, it was never a bad idea to talk it over with Harry.  After he listened and gave sage advice, he never remembered a word of the conversation.  Harry was the perfect listener, so I spent hours and hours talking to Harry about Tom until I exhausted the subject and myself.  Eventually, you have to get up and do something.  I decided to go to seminary.

Rev. Adams was the only human being on the planet who wasn’t shocked by my decision.  A few people laughed out loud and then seemed disappointed there wasn’t a punch line, and several were too confused to ask any questions.  But almost everybody voiced an opinion, and more people than I would have guessed seemed to take it personally.

On the bright side, tips got better and the regulars stopped cussing as much.  Their manners improved; they made less noise and fewer complaints.  As though they suddenly imagined me both their bartender and their Sunday School teacher, they one by one took advantage of quiet moments when finding themselves mostly alone at the bar, they were ready after a few beers, to confess their doubts and explain their views about God, organized religion, and why they hadn’t been to church in twenty years.  There’s a good chance that in the first few months after mentioning seminary, I heard more stories about the traumas of being dragged to church as a child than any other person in the history of the world.

A few of the regulars bought me presents to remember them by, including Trailway’s Jack, who drove a bus for Trailway’s and bought me a cigarette case—an indication that the idea of seminary wasn’t really getting through.  Of course, Crazy Fred backed him up and brought me a bottle of Irish whiskey.

Besides the gifts, a few of the regulars swore that if I left, they’d be looking for a new place to hang out.  Half the bar asked for my phone number, and two Italian tourists that I’d never seen before became terribly upset when they got it into their heads that I was going to a nunnery.  I’m still not sure if they were for it or against it.

After a fortifying trip to the ladies room, Nicki bought the bar a round of drinks, made a seemingly endless toast in my honor and cried, and plenty of people didn’t care if I went to seminary or Timbuktu.  After a few beers, I started thinking about Rev. Adams, so I left my own party early and went home to check the Internet.  It’s never hard to track down an old preacher.

A few days, much prayer, and a bus trip to Baltimore found me on the steps of my childhood church.  Rev. Adams beamed down at me from the concrete landing.  Retired for over a decade, he still seemed full of life and laughter, and for a moment or two, I felt like a child again, comforted by the thought that my pastor was still here. “I’ve been waiting for this for years”; he reached out for my hand and chuckled.  “For years and years.”

Rev. Adams looked like the unexpected comic relief and the merciful shepherd rolled into one.  A sober Falstaff, a pious Friar Tuck, he loved God and his people with courage and compassion and an inexhaustible joy that billowed out in fits of laughter and brought light back to dark corners, but he could be fierce in the cause of righteousness and wise like the serpent when protecting his flock or setting one of his lambs on the straight and narrow.  In a way, my adventure began because Rev. Adams made me think about God in new ways.

Long ago images of my childhood church overflow with romantic clichés.  Rain is beating on the windows, and the light is dim.  It feels like candlelight and mystery and shared secrets.   Yet, it couldn’t have been like that in reality; I know that memory can be a tricky thing.

Yet, as uncertain as I am about the setting, I clearly remember the moment I heard an answer, and a door opened in my mind.  That’s exactly how it felt, like a door swinging open, inviting me into a new room—a door and a room that I never knew were there, opening into theological possibility.

“We’re made in God’s image”, Rev. Adams declared to our small confirmation class, “but I don’t think that means we look like God.  God doesn’t look like your father or your mother.”  You could tell by the expression on his face that he wanted to give just the right answer.

“We are created in God’s image, so like our Creator—we can create and love and dance and play”.  He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. “God is a mystery beyond our understanding, but God is love.  And God can be a wonderful mystery for us to explore.”

And in that moment, the door opened, and there was a new room in my mind full of Divine possibility, and my image of God grew bigger; it stretched out to an endless horizon of God-mystery, and it filled me with excitement and hope and longing; and in the stillness, I heard God calling my name, and my adolescent soul knew that God had always been there, and it was good.

The year I turned twelve, I stood on the front steps of the Violetville Methodist Church and listened while a smiling Rev. Adams patted my hand and told me I’d make a good minister one day.  The idea took root in my heart and my brain and my soul, and it grew while I grew, even while I made martinis and poured beer.  And then Tom hanged himself with a bed sheet of unknown origin in a park on Thirty-third and Third, and the Universe shifted.  And a path was revealed that lead back home.

Rev. Adams paused on the church steps and smiled again.  He looked smaller and brighter with the marks of age; less hair formed a white halo around his head, and an arched back pushed him slightly forward.  We were older, much older, both of us.  “I’ve been expecting you.”   He chuckled as he navigated the last step, and off we went for a cup of tea.

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