It’s a homely church. Granite exterior, ground level to pitched roof two stories above street-level, a chilly rosette over the entranceway, tasteful stained glass representations of gospel narratives. Inside, the Stations of the Cross are tucked into squat glass tents. The stonework looks medieval, the terrazzo floors bright and unspoiled.
Only the women among the parishioners seem fit to do any actual work. They enter in heavy plaid zipper jackets, ballooning sweaters with banded sleeves. The older women are wrapped in heavy wool scarves. They stand or kneel only if they can, and most can’t. Flesh is piled on their limbs like slush. They waddle, limp, pivot, slouch, and collapse into pews that moan when they meet the wood. They wear sweats, rarely dresses. Some come in muumuus. Those not overweight or morbidly obese wear flannel shirts pulled over the waistbands of loose-fitting jeans.
The women possess a fearsome underclass chic. They not only worked for the clothes they wear but some of them ran the production line in the factory that shut down and moved overseas and disrupted a transition that saw one female generation follow the other like the seasons into the mill. The big sewing machines, the black looms, the long pressing tables, the clean hot smell of steamed cloth. Sweat and steam. They dressed a generation of prom kings and queens, altar boys and communicants (and even a few bar mitzvah boys) in cheap clothing that never wore out. Their kids and grandchildren wore their uniforms to Vietnam and Grenada and got married in their tuxes.
Their fingers hang like chewed bamboo over the pews. They have less trouble kneeling because they are simply tougher than the men. While their sons and husbands were working out over a beef-with-double-provolone at Nick’s or selling swag out of trunks, they were raising kids, running looms, hanging clothes, taking rectal temperatures, cooking, screaming at each other on the front steps, sometimes battling with their fists. They mostly don’t read—cataracts, illiteracy, undiagnosed dyslexia, attention spans exhausted from lifetimes of doing five things at once. Their mates fear them more than anything.
Some in their seventies look a decade younger than the male children hanging at their sides. Sight of them turns the heart in opposed directions. The women seem to have nosed something repulsive here. When they scan the crowd they skip the males, their eyes dulled by old constellations. They are disappointed in the way maleness has left the males. They want something new: the old, the really old, dignified oldness.
The men are dressed as if their mothers were still laying out their clothes. Thin and tubercular or alcoholic, pasty and paunched, guts over unbelted trousers (and an occasional monk’s rope). Pants shiny in the seat from long hours on their own stoops arguing trades and firing butts at strays. Polo shirts open at the throat. Strange lines in the crotch. Occasional gold—fake—pendants, uniformly cruciform, which clip the pews when they rise or sit. Work shirts under nylon jackets with fake down stuffing. They kneel on artificial knees.
They look sick and out of season, as though undergoing bad pregnancies
They shuffle in like little boys with bald spots, bad hearing, dentures, colostomy bags, gum disease, heart disease, circulatory disease. Some mope in the narthex between the holy water fonts and the poor box and religious literature tables trying to look their ages. They can’t, they’re too depressed. They were educated to see the world as lively but fallen and overseen, the metaphysical equivalent of the security state. Their self-consciousness was perfected through decades of erased expressions and Latin masses.
In the standard blue-collar neighborhood’s model of church art, the artist represents tradesmen to tradesmen. Everything is subtly working class. The apostles in the low (concrete) reliefs making up the Stations of the Cross look like gym rats after workouts, punchy, out of breath. There are too many grief-destroyed women averting their eyes—these Grays Ferry women look everything in the eye, and look it down until it’s dead or it confesses—and other than a couple of beefy Romans with pecs modeled on the artist’s favorite film actor or on local gangsters, little is memorable. Stripped and transfixed on the cross, girlish and disturbing, Jesus has strong features but for his mouth, which is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. (“Worrisome,” Hemingway called it.) The Virgin looks like the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio. Martha’s bustline is impressive. The Roman soldier wielding the flagellum is Tony, who owns the corner candy store. Magdalene, stylishly hooded and svelte in a pink shawl, is a ringer for Melanie Griffith. All three women shade lowered eyes, touch pale unlined throats, and look off. They seem to be sharing a secret or about to giggle.
In mid-mass at the point where the sermon is delivered, the young priest walks to the lectern and reads announcements. He reads them badly. His voice is high and blunted by feedback. He syllabicates the names of the recently deceased and sounds like speech recognition software. In him the congregates see either the future of religion or a confirmation of the wisdom of clerical celibacy. Imagine, they think, if he had children. Picture the IQs.
On Monday the girls and boys will go back to school, the women back to their jobs, the men back to their stoops and firing cigarettes at strays. Many worked for one of the industries that existed when America’s neighborhood economy was still industrial and still made and exported things. There was the clothing factory that closed and relocated to a city in the southwest before it was again closed and relocated to Singapore or some other geographically desolate locale. There was the ice cream plant that closed a long time ago and didn’t even relocate, just closed. There were other regional factories—locomotive boiler factories, jet engine plants—where some (too broke for cars let alone car insurance) bussed each morning, places where many worked as security guards, maintenance men, sweepers. All back in the day. The men like to say they’re retired because it sounds better than unemployed, laid off, furloughed, riffed, living off an insurance scam, on disability, or fired.
They attend closely to Vatican successions. They’re relieved when a cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger is elected Pope since it’s about time they gave a German the job. Best run country in the world. What we need now is a little colonel to fix things. If this new guy had grown up in the neighborhood, he would have been plain old Joey Rats.
They hate politicians and love politics. Their parents were registered Democrats, so they registered as Democrats, but after the sixties and the race riots, their parents went Republican, and so did they. They condemn politicians who disagree with the church on abortion though half of their kids either had abortions or paid for one. Politics is what’s in their freezer, whose kid got killed, who’s got a job, who lost a house, how all the bankers ought to be hanged. They talk politics on the church steps, on the sidewalk, on their porches and stoops, on the bocce court at the playground, against the fenders of limos lined up for rides to Holy Cross, against railings, in taprooms where you best believe nobody is enforcing this “no smoking” crap, at the corner body shop under the 25th Street Bridge, in booths at the Melrose (open 24 hours), or in line at the unemployment office where one guy turns to the one behind him (the women still have jobs) and asks Where’d you go to high school? because college was regular Army or, if you were cool, Marines. They grew up corner rats listening to the old guys at the pizza shop, which survived until a mob hit (they hit the wrong pizza shop) closed it. They ran prescriptions for the old Jew druggist until he moved to Florida, the drug store now owned by immigrants with pharmacology degrees and English so bad don’t even dream of doing the prescription over the phone, you’ll end up with poison. On the bakery steps two generations learned pinochle and some version of patriotism until it shut, after going from bakery to boutique to flower shop to hardware to video store, but its steps are intact. (Somebody on the block’s grandfather poured the steps.) Afghanistan, Iraq, 9/11, and Grenada fade into outtakes from ‘Nam, Korea, the South Pacific, the Bulge. They gather there—they still call it the bakery steps, right across from church—and talk war and do lines of dialogue from Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Wire. But deep dialogue, whole pages, How about them Japs bombing Pearl Harbor on Pop’s Birthday? or Middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns! It’s how they spend their time. My parents used to sleep on their steps, they say. The Depression years, when air-conditioning was like sci-fi. My grandmom scrubbed steps. Poor don’t mean filthy. Their despair is profound. It is a kind of wisdom.
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This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry magazine