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                                       politics + culture

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

woolworths: 1985

Some time ago, way back in 1985 to be exact, I was asked by my ethics teacher to say a few words to an assembly about what Jesus meant to me. At the time, I was coming to the position I have today: one of respect for the historical and spiritual person, and those who follow his justice teachings...but one of estrangement from organized religion. Here's the gist of what I had to say:

Back in 1985 there were still Woolworth's cafeteria counters around this country. If you were the type of high school kid who was into Flannery O'Connor or William Saroyan or Carson McCullers...you might find yourself sitting at one of them...an undulating series of "U"'s behind which waitresses served grilled cheese sandwiches and patty melts and poured coffee... reading away at your book...perhaps a story by Delmore Schwartz...among the fixed income retirees who tended to congregate for the lunch time specials.

Cities can be brutal. Recessions can make that brutality more visible. Woolworth's was a place where that reality would show.

Sixty, seventy and eighty-year-olds in the 1980's had lived through some of the worst that our nation had to offer. Difficult times. Wars. Depressions. Dislocations. Segregation. Years where two nickels rubbing together in an otherwise empty pocket meant you could eat that day...and the next.

Yet my colleagues at Woolworth's would show up every day in hats and coats and dresses whose style were decades old...and sit, perhaps smoking a cigarette, with their peers. They often looked at the world with the long stare of those making their exit...those on their way out. And because the shape of the counter was a "U"...you often ended up sitting across from someone...quaintly, almost like you were sitting together in that old America where we all were neighbors even if we didn't know each other's names...a U.S.A. of Edward Hopper and Gary Winogrand....of Diane Arbus and Gordon Parks...of WeeGee and Raymond Carver.

Looking out at my classmates in 1984, I didn't have much to say about Jesus that day. But, having told them the same story about Woolworth's I just told you, I did say this...if Jesus isn't that woman smoking a cigarette and looking down the butt-end of seventy years of hard living in a lonely world...then Jesus doesn't mean a thing.



  • See what I mean (ref comment on yesterday's open thread). I have nothing to add. You have a wonderful way of (in this case) expressing an idea and a feeling in an oblique manner. It is never said directly, and perhaps cannot be, yet it can be startlingly clear. I understand what you are saying in my gut, not my head. It is never described in the words you have written, yet comes through like a hammer in the feeling it evokes.

    What can I say to that? You either get or you don't, and I'm not even sure that the people who get it get the same 'it' that I did. And how can I comment on it when the attempt to explain what I am talking about would only cheapen your writing?

    By Blogger ilfindor, at 1:54 PM  

  • i saw some person's sig on dKos the other day that said "if jesus was born today, he'd have been born in the superdome. "

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:20 PM  

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