When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, New York, there were two Christian bookstores that we went to often as a family. One was there in Brooklyn, on Flatbush Avenue near Avenue J or K, if I remember correctly. The folks who worked there recognized us and greeted us warmly when we arrived. I would walk around, touching Bibles and books, looking at games and cards, and would eventually choose a comic book or small plastic game of some sort. My parents would often purchase "tracts," those little pocket sized booklets that they would hand to toll takers on bridges and highways or leave with tips at restaurants. Even though I had read all of those little "Chick
" booklets dozens of times, I couldn't resist rereading them and praying the prayers at the end of each one, just to be sure I was saved. When I think back on it as I write this, I can still see the flames in hell and the sweaty agony of its occupants. Perhaps I should pray that prayer one more time... Just to be double and triple-sure.
The other Christian bookstore we frequented was in Manhattan, on 43rd Street near 8th Avenue, just blocks away from the Port Authority bus station. Back in the 1970's, that area was not the theater district that it is today. Back then, the only theaters over there were pornographic ones. There were prostitutes standing on nearly every corner and drug addicts slumped in nearly every doorway.
At least that's what I heard - because when we walked through that neighborhood, my mother would repeat these words, over and over, like a well-worn mantra - "Look straight ahead. Don't look to the right or to the left. Look straight ahead." Which is exactly what I did. I looked straight ahead.
When we arrived at the store after walking from the subway station, I could finally exhale and relax. I could look to the right and the left in that huge store. I could look up and down and all around. I could gaze unrepentently at all the posters, the books, the games, the cards, the tee shirts, the tracts, the cross jewelry, the stickers, the records, the 8-track tapes, the cassettes, and the bumper stickers. That store was one of my favorite places to wander.
I'm not sure how long we would spend there on our visits, but it never felt long enough. There were always new things to thumb through and consider, new tracts to read, new jewelry to covet, new Bible studies to do. But sure enough, the call would ring out, "Come on, children. It's time to go." And then, as we exited, the phrase would resound, "Look straight ahead."
Looking back, I realize that I needed to see all of that stuff my mother wanted me to look away from. I needed to see the prostitutes and drug addicts. I needed to see the alcoholics and homeless. I needed to see their desperation, their pain, their fear, and their humanity. I needed to see them and they needed and deserved to be seen.
Looking back, I realize that "look straight ahead" became the mantra for the way I lived much of my life. I looked straight ahead when my classmates suffered with anorexia and bulimia in high school, when I should have gone over to them, sat with them, and asked them how they were and what I could do to hope. I looked straight ahead when a high school classmate, from her bathroom stall, pleaded, "God, I hope I get my period today." I was incredulous - "What? Why on earth would you want to get your period?" It took me far too long to figure out why she would wish that on herself. I looked straight past and then down at - with unhidden superiority - friends from college who talked about problems with their boyfriends, sexual transmitted diseases, and then showed clear signs of what I now know to be bipolar disorder. I was too busy looking straight ahead, looking over, looking around, and then looking askance at them to be of much assistance, aid, or support.
Thanks be to God that I ran into enough of my own sorrows, my own fears, my own hopes that my period would arrive, and into the angry face of a woman whose husband I had engaged in an adulterous affair with, that I could no longer look straight ahead, except at my own self-righteous, prideful, and merciless mirror. I broke that mirror in Madrid during the fall of 1986. Who the hell did I think I was?
Nowadays, I am trying hard to not look straight ahead in an effort to avoid the sorrows of those around me, but rather I long to look into the eyes of the lonely, the drunk, the separated, the divorced, the fearful, the angry, the bipolar, the depressed, the adulterous, the hypocrite, the imposter, the fallen, the broken, the lost - in other words, I am looking into as many pairs of open eyes as I can, trying to stifle my tears of compassion, offer a listening ear, a strong shoulder, and my unflinching attention towards each person I encounter. One saying that my daughter and I coined about three years ago is this, "Everybody's got something." It's not as eloquent as Plato's statement - "Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle" - but it works for us. And it has humbled us, silenced us, and comforted us countless times.
Nowadays, as I drive through our lovely area in South Charlotte, I imagine that behind those heavy, strong doors are broken families, some facing bankruptcy, some dealing with school problems, joblessness, marital crises, abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, hoarding, and cancer of all kinds - the same things that people face behind weaker, less ornate facades in other areas of this and every city. I watch other drivers in their cars and wonder where they are heading - to a doctor, a lawyer, the supermarket, to work, in search of work, to the hospital, or to a hospice. I know that each of them, each of us, is struggling with something, is wishing for easier times, is praying for a miracle, for healing, for peace, for an end to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, the Presidential campaign trail, the voting booth, and within their own homes and hearts. In church, in the aisles of Trader Joe's and Harris Teeter, while pumping gas at Sunoco or BP or Marathon, while checking into and out of hotels, placing orders at restaurants, or waving to the mail lady as she comes down the street, I am no longer able to simply straight ahead. Sometimes I wish I could, quite frankly, because it's getting harder to hold myself together when I think of all the ways in which all of us are trying so hard to hold ourselves together all the time.
Nowadays, I wonder how many times I've said that phrase,
"Look straight ahead," to my children.
Hopefully, not many.
PS. I just did a quick Google search, and that Christian Publications store on W. 43rd Street is still there! I may have to take my daughter there when we are in the city this summer. What a walk down memory lane that will be.