On Prince Street, in SoHo, behind enormous windows and under impossibly high ceilings, in a brick building on the south side of the street, Gloria and I spent hours talking and eating in what was then called Prince Street Dining Rooms. Of all the many eateries we patronized, this was my favorite and the only one we visited repeatedly. It was an easy walk from her loft on Leonard Street in Tribeca, a bit more of a hike from her later digs on Jane Street in the West Village, but not challenging for a pair of inveterate flaneurs like ourselves. Truly, I remember nothing of the food or the quality of the coffee except that on cold, rainy afternoons, both were welcome. We’d sit at one of the small tables near the front where we could watch the life of the street if we became bored with the goings-on inside the café. The tables were covered with craft paper, an invitation to doodle or draw or paint with ink or charcoal, Prismacolor pencils or Crayola crayons, pastel sticks or sidewalk chalk. By the time we left, Gloria would have turned her half into art. I with my half, not so much. Sometimes, after the plates had been removed and the coffee cups drained and pushed aside, with the drawings completed and the conversation giving away to introspection, we would hold hands across the table. We might exchange a smile or a serious look or a few words of simple recognition. I think in those moments, we were closer to being in love than at any other time during the thirty-eight years between our meeting and her departing, and I thank God that these memories have not evaporated like so many others, like so many wisps of my past under the blinding sun of the future. I sit here in waning 2021 with tears in my eyes listening to Charlie Musselwhite’s rendition of Cristo Redentor. Did I even thank her for those moments? I don’t remember.
In 1993, after fifteen years in the city, Gloria moved to Colorado where she spent most of the rest of her life, having restored an old miner’s cabin in Monarch Pass west of the small city of Salida. The morning of Gloria’s death, a friend of hers wrote, “It brings me peace to know that she accepted Jesus into her life as her Savior about a year ago.”
Christo Redentor. Christ the Redeemer. If you have faith, if you believe, if you open yourself to Jesus, your sins will be absolved and you will gain admittance into heaven. All are eligible (at least under the doctrine of “unlimited atonement”), but you don’t get in for free. Redemption is a transactional business. It requires of you the unqualified embrace of Jesus as the one and only Savior of your soul. For Gloria, this must have occurred mid-2013. She had suffered a catastrophic bicycle crash the previous autumn. Never a prolific Facebook poster, she dropped from it entirely, following that event, until late September, 2013, when she wrote, in part, “I was in a very bad bike accident last November, severely compromising vision. Cannot leave my home, have lost 20 pounds from my already small frame, (now 2” shorter), literally holding onto life by the minute! For those in the Salida area, currently I VERY MUCH need someone I can pay to deliver food to me on Monarch Pass on a random once or twice weekly schedule. Which, at the current time, will make a difference in my survival.”
I can’t imagine the pain she suffered, and the fear, and the shame of being utterly dependent. Add to this the isolation—not only because of her location but also because she was terrified of gluten and believed that gluten-consuming people were contaminated with the stuff, so she could not allow them near her because the gluten they shed made her sick. Contact with all but a “safe” few had to be limited. This was the ultimate iteration of the dismay, of the sense of entrapment and doom, I heard first expressed on the 5th Avenue bus in 1978 when she spoke of the results of her hair analysis indicating elevated levels of arsenic and the price we are collectively paying for having poisoned our environment. During our last telephone conversation, she told me she was so sensitive to gluten that her body reacted if she was outside and a car passed with the windows open. I thought that was impossible, at the time, and reflected a mental state bordering on paranoiac, but I did not argue. I suggested—and continued to suggest until my final email to her—that there were alternative approaches being tried on various autoimmune conditions of the gut, that one of those might help her, and that it was possible there was something else making her ill in addition to celiac disease. She had no idea she had ovarian cancer. She was too afraid of gluten exposure to go to the doctor.
For decades, I have viewed evangelistic Christianity in particular and much of organized religion in general as a scam. During the mid-1970s, when I was in deep psychic distress over the destruction of my marriage, the crosses of guilt, shame, loneliness, and longing that I carried were evident to anyone giving me more than a cursory glance. Of course, I wasn’t the only one in my little town of 5,500 souls who was visibly suffering. Many of these were people I knew personally, and I watched—dismayed and indignant—as they were corralled by eager evangelists. There was a born-again renaissance occurring in those years. New churches were springing up everywhere, and established non-mainstream churches were experiencing rapid growth. With that, congregants from these churches were fanning out to spread the “good news.” I noticed that they seemed especially focused on spreading that “news” to the emotionally afflicted. It was as though they had a kind of radar that enabled them to zero in on the most vulnerable of the unconverted. I found this despicable, a form of predation, and the times I had been personally targeted by these proselytizers I viewed—with one exception—as spiritual assault. I vowed never to fall prey to them, vowed that somehow I would make it through my seemingly endless crisis without surrendering to their seductive delusion. And I did. It took a few years, but I survived that dark night of the soul and emerged, if not improved, as at least no worse a person than when I had entered it. On the other hand, I was young, and I was physically strong and healthy, and I was not staring Death in the eye alone in a cabin at 11,000 feet above sea level in Colorado’s Monarch Pass.
In her emails, Facebook messages, cards, telephone calls, Gloria never mentioned her conversion. Perhaps she thought I might disapprove. Or maybe, knowing my history as she did, she did not want to make me uncomfortable. I don’t know. From my perspective, if I said nothing to deny her perception of being sickened by gluten drifting from people passing in open-windowed automobiles, why would I question the reality of her relationship with Jesus?
I don’t have a problem with Jesus. I have a problem with people pinning their baggage on him for two millennia, and with the deeds that have been committed in his name, many of which are far darker than most of us have the stomach to contemplate…or that there are a thousand paths to his door and upon each stands a barker proclaiming his to be the one true path and warning that all the rest lead to perdition. But who comes to those who have nowhere to turn, for whom every moment is a prison, every direction defined by barred windows and bolted doors? Who brings hope for those whose hope has been extinguished? Call him the son God. Call him an artifact of the imagination. If the result is transcendence and redemption, it does not matter. The stricken soul has a hand to hold, at last.
Why was I crying listening to Cristo Redentor? Because I was thinking of Gloria Brown, and because Charlie Musselwhite blows a helluva harmonica.
Phil Gallos has been a newspaper reporter and columnist, a researcher/writer in the historic preservation field, and has spent 34 years working in academic libraries (which is more interesting than it sounds). Most recently, his writing has been published in The Writing Disorder, STORGY Magazine, Dark Moon Lilith, Wisconsin Review, Defunkt Magazine, and Blueline among others and is forthcoming in AZURE. He lives and writes in Saranac Lake, NY.