“When there’s hell to
pay the morning after,
pray to the heavens for relief.”
“Let us exalt together…”
“Let us affirm together…”
“Let us love together. Brothers and sisters, stand up and embrace each other this morning!”
“See? It’s not my church exactly. It’s not your church exactly.”
“Amen to that,” I said, as Sydney Mendel and I hugged, then released. “But I had enough religion last night, and don’t exactly feel spiritually expressive this early in the day.”
“Shush,” she said, reaching to embrace others around us in the benches. “This is more like the Church of the San Francisco spirit, Kenneth, elation that you can’t deny.”
It was more like the Church of Perpetual Motion. Aisles overran with ‘family’, bright worldly banners flapped up against the sky blue cathedral rafters, from the arena decibel force of horn-loaded loudspeakers suspended high above the altar. Below them, a full-dress dancing choir stepped Motown style with electrifying gospel. Row after row of rocking pews and aisles clap danced to the guitar and organ powered soundtrack, all worshipful, mistified eyes following the roundly dashikied figure bouncing like a colorfast sing-a-long dot back and forth across Dawning Redemption’s ceremonial stage.
“Get close to one another, nobody be coming down on you this morning. Don’t nobody be puttin’ you inna that cage out there, keepin’ you from feelin’ free, thinkin’ free, actin’ free,” bellowed Pastor Tinus Thrall. “‘Cause we gonna blow that nasty cage away this morning…gonna set all you songbirds free, yes we will…”
“I thought you said you weren’t a morning person,” I whispered over to Syd as she shook hands demonstrably, fore and aft.
“How could you not be on a glorious morning like this,” she beamed.
“Ask me this afternoon…”
Truth was, the 5 AM rollout couldn’t have come early enough. I had tossed about from midnight on, agitated by the drainpipe splatter of a passing rainstorm, by fuzzy-headed images of Denise Keiner and Melissa giggling on the porch swing when she once briefly visited Boulder, and what Latin moods she must have been swinging on by now.
This, after an earlier, obligatory all’s-well call to the Chicago folks at home, then a base-touching call to Moon—the latter which found another muffled male voice answering and slamming the phone. But harder yet to sleep through were apparitions of Regina Tzu rattling arms full of sabers down the hallway, kinetic chanting, tossing beatific candles through Denise’s bedroom door.
A chipper reveille call from Sydney, and I was quietly whisking curly little hairs aside, scraping my face with a throwaway razor and brushing as best and quick as I could. I donned my road clothes and waited all ashiver outside in the dark to be rescued, driven away from all that, for I could barely even remember where I’d left my squareback. But from what I did see, it was never too late for the rowdy night riders on passing MUNI buses, never too early for the sulky, solitary dog walkers dragging their mutts along shadowy Golden Gate Park overgrowth across the way.
Before I could finish nibbling at the last of Moon’s snack packing, Syd’s red Fox was honking around 25th Avenue, scooping me up at the bus stop, headed across town on Fulton Street. I’d planned to deliver Josh’s box and Moon’s thank-you gift right then and there, but wasn’t about to fish them out of the squareback in the pre-dawn shadows—leaving them buried under the foldover rear seat, where the agricultural inspectors wouldn’t have spotted them on I-80 West, whatever they happened to hold. So after a sleepy hand grasp, I was resigned to simply retracing the how’s but not why’s of the road trip back out. While I then disavowed my overnight accommodations, she recounted the high-grade disco fever at ‘Dance Your Ass Off’ on Columbus Avenue.
Down drizzle slick Park Presidio, she began prepping me with such pre-dawn wisdom as, this wasn’t Boulder, where it wasn’t who you were but who your parents were that mattered. Here, it was where you lived, as in nowhere near the fog belt. Before I could weigh that hypothesis, she had turned east on Turk Boulevard over to O’Farrell Street, moving on to how she wanted to scope out this church we were off to, intending to paint its pastor and tableau. And how its sunrise service was just unorthodox, nondenominational enough to suit a Catholic and a Jew.
We soon settled on a parking spot outside a fenced-off former taxi garage, a pink spray of sunlight beginning to pry over East Bay hills. And here we were, covering our blind sides through the Tenderloin. Just a block or so more, she’d cautioned, amid the leering Saturday Night afterlife, and make sure we keep our hands on our pockets and bags.
“I mean, what are we doing here this time of day, anyway,” I asked, smack in the middle of Dawning Redemption Cathedral, swivel headed as I was.
“Actually, I probably shouldn’t be here any time of day,” she replied breathlessly, glancing about the raucous flock and rafters, taking note of perspectives. “But with someone like you here, we can do these things.”
“Lordy, you all will get your share of troubles, because your past keeps gettin’ in the way of your present, and you can’t be actin’ on your future!”
“So you keep gnawin’ on all these negatives instead of workin’ on the positives—even though the positives are there in fronta you alla time…
“Well, I’m tellin’ you to forget the past, disposa all those negatives. Forget where y’all comin’ from, ’cause you’re here now, yes you are!”
Sydney had known we were closing in on the place when a block-long blight of steel-grated storefronts gave way to a brief redevelopment clearing, then Dawning Redemption’s mobile unit, as it were. Just outside the church itself, a bluegrass bible revival had gathered around this flat-bed GMC truck, the funkified jug band atop it firing the brimstone of all these stray disciples who’d crowded about the truck, luring in drunk-dry winos and sore, damp loiterers with church-sponsored coffee and pastries all around.
Dawning Redemption’s cathedral was essentially a recommissioned vessel adrift in a polluted sea of shooting galleries, encounter parlors, sticky floored bijous and gun-controlled groceries. About the only thing keeping it afloat was its robust skipper. Reverend Tinus Thrall had painted the former Unitarian temple a heavenly blue throughout in the pre-Haight Sixties, and drawn capacity gates weekly ever since. That streetcorner mob had sung their way into a standing room service already raising the cathedral roof, Syd and me following closely behind.
“That’s right, we gonna storm out them gates. Come down, gates! ‘Cause you see, life’s too short. There ain’t no time betta than this time, ’cause you ain’t got no otha time than this time.”
The reverend and his holy backfield had briskly herded latecomers into the three section abreast pews, which provided all the leg and kneeling room of a refugee smuggling rustbucket bound for freedom in stormy seas. Thus fully boarded, the congregation was gathered right here where Tinus wanted them: lost, hungry, ready to bare and barter their souls.
He tucked his leopard toned dashiki into flared black double-knit slacks and prowled his pulpit as far as his mic cord would take him— treaded sandals laying rubber, jowls gilling, chromed Aviators steaming, tailings of a purple do-rag flying out from under an afro-beaded skull cap. Choir loft spotlights star crossed him from one end of the stage to the other. The DR Choir was rousing, a Redemption Jazz Combo cooking, but notwithstanding the Pointer-stepping ensemble singers and higher power trio, Tinus could have easily spread his cadent gospel without the wire.
“People be talkin’ about the sweet bye and bye. Well brothers and sisters, you in the sweet bye and bye, in the sweet here and now!
“See, we just got one lap on the track. So y’all betta not live you lives like you gonna come back to the starting gate, ’cause I ain’t so sure you gonna be comin’ back!
“And even if you do, might be y’all come back worse than what you are right this minute!”
“Hear what he’s saying,” Syd nudged me. “Sociologize this.”
“How could I not hear what he’s saying,” I said, ignoring the malapropism.
That sobering message had Tinus Thrall cueing his multimedia mixers on the down stroke, one console monk popping red iron pills, dimming the rafter lights; another in the rear loft projecting a large-screen slide show high over the reverend’s shoulder. Floor to ceiling celluloid images scrolled by, a milky, acidy Kodacolor kaleidoscope of kids, kittens and flowers, followed by grainy, overblown snaps of Malcolm, Martin and Medgar, of Selma, Stokely, Angela Davis, Harvey Milk and the Kennedy boys.
The sunburst-robed Redemption choir eventually descended, set in motion stage right with some ‘Sweet Bye and Bye’, doing a syncopated shuffle worthy of the Famous Flames. Tinus sold the entire show with a modified Brown cape of faith routine, a colored pinwheel key light haloing him due left of the pulpit.
“And don’t you be worryin’ alla time ’bout what other people do and got. Or what they don’t got. ’Cause they got theirs—you gotta get yours.
“That’s right, you responsible, you bein’ accountable for your own self! Ain’t nobody doin’ to you, only you’re doin’ to you. So stop doin’ to you and start doin’ for you this mornin’!”
“Ain’t that the truth,” she nudged again, repositioning the small primrose carnation in her Saksy Champagne silk headband. “Are you getting all this down, professor? But you’d be a lot better off if you had your cameras with you now, am I right?”
“All I’m getting out of it is a morning-after headache, to go with my caffeine brain clamp,” I replied, scanning the church’s exposed oak beam ceiling, seven-bulb shaded chandeliers, wall sconces of orange, green, red and yellow flora, while groping for a connection between the sermon and the slides. “And even low-speed Agfa color isn’t up to handling this sensory overexposure.”
In due chorus, the cathedral lights flared up, Redemption gospel singers broke loose by virtue of some harmonic organ chords into an uptempo ‘Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘Ligion Down’. Row after row cast those shackles aside for Thrall, the flock’s odd diversity shining through—Asian, Latino, pink, black, whitey and every mix in between—at least for the moment. Aspiring Hunter’s Point congregated with denominationally slumming Pacific Heights. Brown hugged yellow kissed black embraced white, in an anonymous, unself-consciously innocent sort of way—shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, the chord change setting pews blissfully asway.
Sydney alone wrapped around a neighborhood woman-san, a spindly brother in lavender tunic and urn umber spandex, two spinsters in splashy fruitbowl bonnets and island mau-maus, and a 300 lb. soprano draped in a papaya patterned serape and crown of purple pansies. Saber-tooth combed Afro painted ladies, black jogging-suited Leroys and messianic flower children hooted and stomped, wailed, whistled, clapped and clung—bussed cheeks, rubbed necks and slapped bottoms as if they had actually departed their station, transcended this fruitless plane.
Wild-flowered straw hats, flowing tribal scarves, Aztec-inspired serapes, Pacific Island frou-frous, lily lace shawls, buttoned-down corduroy, hemp-tied talisman robes standing room together in one celebratory freedom train to salvation. Collecting the fares were an all-pro squad of offensive linemen extending long-handled baskets up and down the aisles.
“Stand up to youself so you can be standin’ up for youself—once and for all. Stand right up and be somebody in this big, wide world!
“Create youself a scandal. That’s right, let’s all create a scandal together, a scandal of happiness and love.
“But you gotta start it—right here, right now. Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this a better place, if you can. Let’s sing it together, people!”
“Now that is deep. Amazing, huh? No holding back,” Syd smiled, hooking my arm. “If that doesn’t put you in synch with the big guy, I don’t know what…”
“Yeah, amazing,” I muttered, rubbing my temples. “Think we could split pretty quick or…”
“Oy, Mr. Sociology, there’s just no inspiring some people…”
“Guess I’m just not one for crowds this early in the morning. Plus, there’s no damn oxygen in this place.” Weak-kneed with all this intimacy, I was shaken even further by the ushers’ expressions when I stiffed their baskets.
“If you don’t feel comfortable in this crowd,” she snapped, quickly covering my offertory shortfall. “Maybe you only want to study people like yourself.”
The music deafened, if only to stay a decibel ahead of the chants and foot stomping. Arms, straw, lace and fur flew in all directions, and the heat was definitely on. We tripped over several stubbly Tenderloin curb dwellers who had squeezed into their pew’s end after the starting chimes, me catching a euphoric back of the hand across my chin. An usher directed us through a side door, and there we left a throbbing Dawning Redemption service spiritually sensitized, yet somehow still mangily mortal.
Reverend Tinus continued rocking center stage with his microphone, rolling with the furbelows and glissandos—blessing, right-on smiling at his collection team, grinning mutton chop to peppery mutton chop as the choir and flock launched into ‘Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this world a better place, if you can’ as a tearful, delirious finale.
“What’s that smell,” I asked, as we squeezed around a long, bedraggled line forming outside two rear cathedral doors.
“It’s for the free lunch kitchen they open right after the service,” Syd said offhandedly, getting the picture down for later painting, jotting some notes on her DR program. “They have shelter beds down there for the real down-and-outers, too.”
“Reminds me of how hungry I am,” I sniffed, tracking the aroma of something pullety down a crowded flight of arrow-marked stairs. “I mean, after all this strenuous… religion…”
“Trust me,” she pulled me away by the forearm. “Never want to get that hungry.”
Our conversation maintained a religious tone well out of the rotting Tenderloin, then the full crosstown length of Geary Boulevard. Sydney questioned the reactionary nature of Roman Catholicism in the face of an ultra modern St. Mary’s Church, which lorded over Cathedral Hill highrises like an inverted washing machine.
I noted the proprietary Red Chinese temples and Japantown pagodas on the Hill’s windward downside in rejoinder. Such discourse quickened past Peace Plaza, Syd marveling at Tinus Thrall’s charisma, his reference to scandals and the sweet-here-and-now, while I dwelled upon his mongrel flock. It began expanding to a Judeo-Christian exchange on the Jesus thing in general, and crosses bared and borne in particular. How thorny was the messiah crucifixion scenario, and how the whole Jewish carpenter miracle was so hard to swallow. This latest dose of her free-form directness left me dumbstruck at least to Fillmore Street.
Because what turned my head was what followed closely on the heels of a now all but boarded-over music shrine that she wanted us to sightsee, roughly one-third of the way out the Geary Expressway into the Western Addition. There, in the shadow of, yet dwarfing the hallowed Fillmore Auditorium stood two large, grimy religious assembly halls, side by side. The first, more majestic church proved to be Korean Pentecostal.
The second, an even grittier, mausoleum-like former satanic Scottish Rite of Freemasonry sanctorum—once named for a founder of the Ku Klux Klan—seemed a bit too mystical to nail down.
“It’s sort of like Dawning Redemption, only without the Sunday sunrise service,” Syd said haltingly. She’d recently had a new in-dash cassette deck and surround sound speakers installed in her Fox, and busily loaded a Joni Mitchell tape, eyes caroming between the Pioneer player and Geary Underpass’s outbound surface lane. The ‘Hejira’ album came up, a long track called, ‘Coyote’.
“Then why didn’t we go there,” I replied, slightly turning down the volume, easing into Joni lyrically bounding between a lonely studio and some idyllic upland ranch. I craned to note a scattering of rather animated revelers outside the tomblike church conversion over across Geary, the one with maximum steel bar security, a strange, crooked roof cross and minimal signage, something about ‘Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ Denominational Brotherhood’.
“Sorry, Charlie. I read where most of them packed off to some South American jungle a few months ago,” she gunned ahead, rejoining the medianed Geary speedway west of the underpass, climbing Presidio Ridge past Divisadero toward the Masonic Avenue tube. “They were reportedly on the run from a slew of investigations of guns, drugs and money shenanigans.”
“Great, we miss a service with decent hours, plus a lot more breathing and leg room…”
“That’s not the half of it. I hear the whole sect is your basic worm farm. Believe me, there’s good charisma like Tinus’s and bad charisma, like trying to poach from Dawning Redemption’s flock. Namely Peoples Temple, which is headed by some weird hick preacher from Indiana by way of hinterloping through Mendocino County. Reverend Jim Jones has everybody in town kissing his feet, City Hall on down.
“Typical city politics, if you ask me, he’s even got Mayor Moscone and Willie Brown in his back pocket by delivering ghetto voters on a collection platter. But then New West Magazine ran this expose last summer claiming that PT was a nightmare cult full of sex, drugs and mind control—more separating followers from their valuables than bringing the faithful together, with a lot of beatings and brutality to boot. Rumors were flying like crazy even before I left for Europe…”
This and the album’s ‘Strange Boy’ track, which Syd shuffled to, silenced the religious debate past a Christian Science between Steiner Street and Park Presidio, not to mention the hulking ice rink-turned-rock Mecca known on countless live albums as Winterland.
From there, we papered over our differences amid a rolling Geary Boulevard blur of neighborhood synagogues, Sikh temples and Islamic mosques, fundamentalist storefronts, heavily shrouded sacrificial sects, churches of Natural Grace, Perfect Liberty, God in Christ, Household Faith, Divine Mahi Kari, the Star of the Sea Parish, and Vineyard Christian Fellowship that seemed to be sprinkled along this broad, bleached-out commercial corridor.
From the multicultural clutter of drug and food chains, of mom & pop, gramps & granny ethnic bakeries, Irish bars, Russian and Asian cafes, print shops, mattress discounters and corner cleaners of inner avenues, we green lighted all the way out to the breathtaking ocean sweep of Point Lobos and El Camino del Mar.
All along, we were rolling in uplifted spirits through Richmond District clutter, across the once Pueblo Lands of San Francisco, by this time, with more ‘Hejira’ reel to reeling on the deck, strains of ‘traveling in some vehicle’ to ‘sitting in some café’.
“You were talking about that pastor guy who was in the news,” I asked, at about the Russian Holy Virgin In Exile Cathedral—the one with the huge gilded onion bulbs on top. I nonetheless curiously rebounded like a paddleball back to that Fillmore-Steiner Street scene. “What… rumors? He’s from the Midwest. It’s just a church, like all these other…”
“Wrong, Peoples Temple is something else. I think something pretty twisted and corrupt, way beyond your old-timey religion—not about gospel music but singing the blues. I’m serious, Kenneth, God knows what really goes on in there…”
“So how’s their food?”
“On the rubber greasy side, far as I can tell…”
“Yeah, well, where we off to?”
“To the dawn of pure creation, and the end of starvation as we know it today…”
Care for more?
Chapter 29. Brunch with a view does
wonders for the appetite and attitude, then
a scenic stroll proves more peptic to the soul…