On the ground floor again, we breathe a sigh of relief as we spot the bus two blocks away ready to pick us up to go back to the mission. On the way to our mobile haven, we pass pawn shops armed like fortresses, lurid adult bookstores with XXX ratings, filthy-looking lounges, a stark store-front church.
Then we spot a gargantuan black woman with a red satin turban and purple robe–a bathrobe? a graduation gown? She’s “preaching” about Jehovah God in the middle of the sidewalk. I think she’s preaching until I see she is holding an upside-down Sears and Roebuck catalog as her bible and then inhale alcoholic fumes emanating from her body. We try to go around her, but this frightful creature grabs me by the shoulder in a death grip, and I am spun round and round in dizzying circles. There is little I can do to resist the grasp of this drunken prophetess. “Hazel, Hazel, help me,” I call out with a voice that feels somehow disconnected from my body. Hazel is astounded too and stands there immobile. I fall onto the scorching pavement as the woman lets go of me mid-air. By now Brother Paul and Sister Lois have raced up the street to our aid.
Someone deposits me across two empty seats on our bus. I am aware of heads hovering over me as a blurry hand wipes my face with a cool, wet handkerchief. We are going back to Brother Ernie’s mission on Eighth Avenue for lunch. It’s quiet for a few minutes. Then Brother Frank leads everyone in singing “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There” as we bounce across the avenues.
But I don’t join in. My head is buzzing with the pain of too many unanswered questions. Did the church elders know about the risks and think that telling us would discourage us from going? Did they come here innocent and ignorant like us and also get a rude awakening? Why didn’t Brother Ernie, now almost a New Yorker himself, give us more pointers?
Back at the mission, I have recuperated enough to eat our meal of home-made egg salad sandwiches and chicken corn soup brought up from home in ice chests, relieved that I have survived the jungle of Harlem.
BLUSH Contest closes tonight, October 2, 2013, at midnight! Here’s the link to the Contest Rules for a chance to win a copy of Shirley’s memoir:
During our teens, my church friends–Miriam, Gladys, Hazel, and I congregate at each other’s houses after church on Sunday night for ice cream, chips, and stereo music: Songs from the West, anything byMantovani, and The Singing Nun. We would rather have dates like Janie and Thelma, but since we don’t, we pretend that this weekly ritual is fun.
One of our other faux definitions for fun includes cultivating an acre of tomatoes. The youth group from church farm tomatoes on a fertile plot of land near Bossler’s Mennonite Church called The Lord’s Acre. We plant, water, weed, and harvest the tomatoes, giving the profit to missions. Another mission outreach is in New York City, where Ernest Kraybill, one of our deacon’s sons, drives taxi during the day and pastors a small mission church in Harlem. Some of us, along with young marrieds, are getting ready to board a bus and distribute gospel tracts in the Big City. A year ago, the freshmen from E-town High took a field trip to New York. Radio City Music Hall with its sunburst fan of a stage is my favorite memory: seeing the Rockettes was a dream come true for a sheltered girl from Rheems. After the show, we saw a movie–yes, an actual MOOOOOVEEE in dynamic sound and Technicolor, featuring Barbara Stanwyck, the very first movie star I had ever seen performing on the silver screen. Her flawless skin and hair, impeccable makeup, and a cream, cool voice mesmerized me.
On what turns out to be the hottest Saturday in August most of the teens and young adults from Bossler’s plan to spend all day Saturday bringing the gospel to poor, needy heathens in the inner city. It’s summer-time, and I wear my sheer voile lavender frock, so I won’t feel overheated with a modest cape over the dress. We are leaving in the early morning about 4:30 am, so we can spend the day giving out tracts in apartment buildings all over Harlem, With Hazel, my seat-partner, I board the bus for the 3 1/2 hour trip to New York City. Garbed in the plainest of clothing and christened with our white Mennonite caps, we are out to convert the world.
On the bus, we talk and doze, and doze and talk our way to the exotic lights, thrumming noises, and foreign smells of Harlem in north Manhattan, a neighborhood of about 1/4 million people. After we arrive, we proceed by twos among the tenement building in the concrete jungle of the 18th block of Harlem, armed with nothing but gospel tracts and innocence. Like the others, Hazel and I are assigned one tenement building with floors upon floors of apartments. Our strategy is to walk all the way to the top and do our distributing on the way down.
“Whew, it sure does stink in here!” The odors of stale air, dried blood, urine, and burnt cooking assault our country noses on the way up. There are beer bottles, Schlitz and Black Label–some broken, I notice, strewn on the landings between floors.
“Did you hear that?” I ask Hazel as we both witness a full-scale brawl going on inside one of the apartments. The sweaty-looking door-opener snatches a tract from our hands.
“I can’t believe these words,” Hazel comments as we gape at the graffiti on the pock-marked concrete walls: Call_____ for a good time . . . Go to #x!*X you dirty niggers . . . . Undaunted, we manage to bless all the other apartment dwellers with our fliers as we descend. More screaming and yelling. Things are really getting violent on the other side of the wall.
“Are we going to make it out alive?” I wonder. But things are about to get even worse.