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Ruining It for Everybody, Jim Knipfel's 3rd memoir. An anti-spirituality spiritual manifesto.

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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Going to Church

The book party wasn't the nightmarish, soul-sucking trauma these things usually are. That was especially surprising, given that this one, for some reason I couldn't exactly fathom, was taking place in a fancy Midtown "soap, tea leaf, and plate" emporium and that I couldn't smoke (though I tried).

No, it was okay. Morgan and I saw some folks we like and hadn't seen in awhile. By the time they flushed us all out of there around quarter to ten, we were more than reasonably snockered. We'd had a few beers in us by the time we first showed up--we felt it necessary--but after arriving, given that it was a fancy soap store, we were forced to switch to wine, and lots of it.

I remember not leaving the building the way we came in, but somehow instead ending up in the basement, wandering dim hallways, pushing through emergency exits and climbing darkened cement steps until we finally fell out through a side door to find ourselves on a chilly cross street.

We stood there a moment, weaving, as Morgan got her bearings and I lit a smoke. Then, holding each other upright, we stumbled towards the lights and traffic of the nearest avenue. Maybe it was Fifth, maybe Sixth. We weren't really sure. Once we figured that much out, we moved on to figuring out where the nearest subway was.

"We're in the what," I asked, "the 50s?"

"Yeah--53rd, I think. Maybe 56th. We'll find out."

"Okay then, I think we need to head south."

We reached the corner, crossed because the light was with us, and began heading south, the lights and the traffic and the other pedestrians wavering wildly.

We were silent for awhile, concentrating on our walking skills, when Morgan said, "I wonder if St. Patrick's is open."

"Huh?" I asked.

"St. Patrick's. I wonder if it's open."

"You'd think it would be, wouldn't you? Sanctuary and all?" At the same time I was saying that, though, I was thinking about Charles Cohen--the punk from Delaware who killed his parents and, while fleeing the police, spent a few nights sleeping outside the locked doors of St. Patrick's.

"I want to go inside," Morgan said.

"I guess we can go find out," I said. "Y'know--if they're still open." I had no real idea where we were at the time, what avenue, even, or what time it was. But what the hell? "What time is it?" I asked, holding out my arm so she could read my watch. She took hold of my shaking arm and held it still for a second.

"A little before ten."

"Well, then," I said, not knowing what the time would have to do with anything, "let's take a peek."

At the next corner, we crossed whatever avenue we were on and doubled back.

"It's open," she said a few minutes later, as we stumbled up the sidewalk, "but it looks like they're getting ready to close up."

"Then I guess we should hurry."

Still trying to keep each other upright, she led me up the steps and through the massive, open doors into the warmth and the quiet. All my years in town, I'd never been in St. Patrick's before. Never saw any real reason for it, I guess. In fact, the only New York church I'd ever been inside was one in my own neighborhood, after I was conned one Sunday morning into walking an old lady down an icy sidewalk. I walked her two blocks to her church, then inside and up the aisle to her seat in the front pew. Then I turned around and walked out again without once looking up.

As it is, I know precious little about Catholic ritual, even though I was surrounded by Catholic kids growing up--and even having attending mass twice in my teens. That's why I was surprised when Morgan stopped by the votive stand, where dozens of candles flickered.

"Give me the change you got from dinner," she said.

I reached into my pocket and began pulling out bills.

"No, no, no--I mean the change."

"Oh." I replaced the wallet, reached into the other pocket and pulled out a small handful of coins and handed them to her.

I heard them plink into a metal container, then she pulled a candle off the stand, lit it, and put it back. She was quiet for a moment.

Morgan isn't a religious woman--at least not in any traditional sense--but she lit the candle with a distinct reverence. There was no smirking irony about it at all. And somehow, when she did it, I understood.

"Who was that for?" I asked, as she took my arm to lead me inside.

"My grandma," she said. "I could light one for your grandpa too, the one you were close to."

"Oh, that's okay. I don't know how much he'd appreciate it. But thanks."

She led me up one of the side aisles, describing things as we went.

"...and there are the big video monitors, and..."

There were a few other people in the cathedral, but not many. Our footsteps and voices, hushed as they were, echoed around us. I could hear a few other whispering voices but could see almost nothing at all.

Morgan walked me to the altar, where we stopped and turned around.

"I wish you could see the organ up there," she said. "It's amazing. This whole place is amazing. Maybe you'd be able to see a little more of it if we stopped by in the daytime at some point."

"We could do that. I'd like to see it."

She led me back down the center aisle, and I began to get a sense of the space around me. It's strange--if it's hushed the way St. Patrick's was that night, you can still get a sense of the space around you, even if you can't see. It's almost as if you can hear the space and feel it on your skin.

We reached the votive stand again and headed for the doors. Just then, a man came inside and said, "You have to take your hat off."

"Okay," I told him as I pulled it from my head. "No problem."

Five steps later we were outside, and I put it back on. Then we went looking for a train.

I'm hardly a religious man. I wasn't touched by God while I was there that night. But there was still something--something good and beautiful, even touching, about stopping into St. Patrick's--and stopping into St. Patrick's all sloppy drunk--on a chilly Autumn night, about lighting a candle for a grandma who meant something to you, about just being there for awhile. I don't know exactly what it was, but it was one of those moments, like sitting in an old empty bar you'd never heard of or getting your feet wet in the ocean for the first time--that'll stick around for awhile.