Once upon a time, back in the 1980s, a group of people entered a cavernous, darkened building on Flatbush Avenue. A flashlight played around the vast interior, revealing dull glints of gilded faces, flaked with decay...plants sprouting from a black, moldy carpet...sprung velvet seats sifted over with dust. The beam was too weak to illuminate more than a hint of the infinitude of rococo columns and alcoves that lurked in the shadows. We stood on a tour of "Brooklyn's Haunted Places" in the padlocked ruin of the Loew's Kings Theater, one of the original "Wonder Theaters" built to transport New Yorkers into a cinema fantasy world. Opened in 1929 and shuttered ignominiously in 1977, the Kings was almost certainly slated for demolition--if anyone in the drifting and dysfunctional city could summon the will to knock it down. The Spouse and I were a young couple on that tour--new homeowners in Flatbush, a place as steeped in myth as it was marooned in decline.
Flash forward almost 30 years. The couple, still Flatbushers, are back, with their 19-year-old daughter, on the opening night for the gloriously restored Kings. The kickoff concert, fittingly, is another indestructible grand dame: Miss Diana Ross, resplendent in an array of glittering costume changes, belting out her catalog of hits to a rapturous crowd of pure 2015 Brooklyn: Caribbean families, hipsters, diva-worshiping gay guys, and newly minted senior citizens who came here for movie dates and graduations from nearby Erasmus High School back in "the day."
Diana praised the beauty of the space: "I feel like a queen! Can we turn up the house lights?" They never went high enough for me to get any shots that convey the red-and-gold palette, but you get the idea:
The restoration is stupendous. (For a good rundown, go here.) The same vintage as Radio City Music Hall, the Kings lacks its exuberant Deco quirkiness, going instead for a dreamlike palatial vibe.
The original had an Old World patina, which has been painstakingly recreated to yield a slightly sepulchral luxe, a perfect prom palace for funky vampires. Walnut paneling, caryatids, alcoves, columns, spin and overwhelm. Imagine sitting here in the depths of the Depression, watching Fred and Ginger (and a newsreel, and cartoons), shown to your seat by white-gloved usherettes.
Speaking of whom, the Kings team on opening night was terrific, doing a firm and friendly job of herding 3,600 of us--a full house--through metal detectors (alas) and to our cushy seats. They did their predecessor Barbra Streisand proud. I expected the politicos on hand, including Mayor DiBlasio (or, as the Daughter calls him, "Mr. Potato Head") and the irrepressible Marty Markowitz (who never gave up hope for the Kings) to babble at us, but they seem to have gotten that out of the way days earlier at a ribbon-cutting.
Here she is, Brenda from Flatbush (my longtime Interwebs handle), descending the grand stair. As we left, a charter bus was filling up (we joked that they had come from Park Slope). We walked home through the snowy streets, past jerk chicken shops and a pawn broker and the construction pit where a new hotel will soon rise on Flatbush Avenue...past Erasmus, whose courtyard hides an ancient building awaiting its turn at renovation...past the Dutch Reformed Church, whose spire has gazed down on this village intersection since the American Revolution...past its churchyard, where slaveholders rest beneath Dutch-inscribed tombstones. Past and future whirled together (not to mention the sensory overload from having sung "Stop! In the Name of Love" with Diana). I hope the Kings signals the resurrection of a Flatbush as crazily quilted as the one we stopped in and love...and not that it heralds the scourge of gentrification that would drive out the very kind of working folks who dreamed and celebrated in its glorious space all those years ago.
I've been sick this week--the cruddy aftermath of a bad cold, mostly, but enough to place me within the nebulous borders of what I think of as "the kingdom of the sick." We know it when we're there, or when another is stuck inside the gates. Unlike dire poverty or hunger, which can seem so alien to our experience, all it takes is a racking cough or a temperature--or the terror of a suspicious lump--to kick us roughly into solidarity with everyone who dwells in that big, dark place; and whenever I leave (or sometimes, when I just pass) a hospital and glance up at its flourescent-lit windows, I feel a surge of selfish joy to be outside, where everything is suddenly more beautiful, free, and promising.
Maybe that's why my defenses, immunologic and psychic, have been down this week at the deluge of horrifying images from West Africa, none more shattering than this one from Sierra Leone, at a "hospital" where every vestige of care has broken down, every shred of human dignity dissolved like the capillaries of this awful virus's victims.The older I get, the more I realize that "human dignity" has come to occupy the summit of my hierarchy of values; this picture takes a sledgehammer to it.
I think of this little girl so often now. As a little girl, I was sick quite a lot. My mother would bring me buttered toast and Campbell's Chicken and Stars soup. If I was feverish, she would bathe me in bed with a clean-smelling solution called Lavacol; the washcloth as she wrung it out in a basin would make a lovely trickling sound. When I got up to drag myself to the bathroom, she would smooth my sheets, and they would be miraculously cool when I returned. I felt only the comfort; I could never have articulated that what was restored also was my human dignity. And at some miraculous moment, I would feel the stirrings of energy, the clearing of the fog, and would start to think about going outside to play. When I did, the world would seem, for a while, to be in a halo of grace and opportunity. The kingdom was forgotten. In my turn, I did the same for my own daughter. Same soup, same trickling washcloth.
I want to be an X-Men mutant, immune to Ebola, and stride in past the men in boots and suits and their chlorine hoses, and lift her up off the reeking floor, and give her clean sheets and toast and her humanity back. This picture is a few days old; she is certainly safe by now in the Kingdom of her Creator, or at least my faith affords me that consolation. But with every mild cough and its annoying cargo of mucus, I now remember her, poor little sister in the dark kingdom, inside the deepest ring of its hellish confines, the "bourne from which no traveller returns." Even the reflexive terror of living in a metropolis where this virus could emerge tomorrow--perhaps on the next subway pole I grasp--does not equal the horror of being alone on that floor.
A Prayer for the Forgotten Dead
O merciful God,
take pity on those souls
who have no particular friends and intercessors
to recommend them to Thee, who,
either through the negligence of those who are alive,
or through length of time are forgotten
by their friends and by all.
Spare them, O Lord,
and remember Thine own mercy,
when others forget to appeal to it.
Let not the souls which Thou hast created
be parted from thee, their Creator.
May the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
I'm so old, I watched the original 'Star Trek' when it first came out. And few episodes riveted me, or remain with me, as much as "Is There No Truth in Beauty?" The plot centered on an alien ambassador, Kollos, who was profoundly intelligent and benign, but whose appearance drove men mad with terror; he was transported inside an ark of sorts by a lovely blind telepath onto the Enterprise. Spock (being Vulcan) can look upon Kollos using a protective visor—but when he forgets to put it on and sees the Medusan face-to-face, all hell breaks loose. (Highlights below.)
This story haunted me, and not just for the delicious terror of gazing on the forbidden. At one point, Spock (with visor) mind-melds with the formless Kollos, and delivers an astonishing speech to the gaping crewmen on the bridge. It permanently impressed me, at age 11, with a profound sense of how bodies can separate as well as unite us. Thanks to fandom and the Web, I looked it up, and it still knocks me out:
"How compact your bodies are. And what a variety of senses you have. This thing you call... language though - most remarkable. You depend on it, for so very much. But is any one of you really its master? But most of all, the aloneness. You are so alone. You live out your lives in this... shell of flesh. Self-contained. Separate. How lonely you are. How terribly lonely."
As a Catholic schoolgirl, I don't think I ever made a connection to the Old Testament God, the One who appears to Moses as a burning bush.
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:5-6)
Nor do I remember thinking of Kollos' observations as a way to imagine how Christ might have experienced His Incarnation.
But I do now, which proves either (a) that Star Trek is awesome no matter how much people may sneer, or (b) in 50 years, this as good I've gotten at theology.
Anyway, back to the Holy Face, the face of Jesus, my Lenten "theme"...what a change from Old Testament to New. We go from a God too beautiful and terrible to look upon, to a God with a human face. And body. For us, infinite consolation and fellowship. For Him, suffering and isolation...along with friendship, joy, anger, pity, all the things we feel. He felt the sun and rain of Galilee on that Face. His mother gazed down on it, his friends recognized and loved it. They looked on it in the dull stillness of death and then, most mysteriously of all, in Resurrection. And then He and the Face were gone.
And now the Face is hidden again, inside one another, where it can still be hard to look without a visor.
Crazy Stable, it's been awhile. The blinding midway of the Interwebs, the Buzzing Feeds and Huffing Pos, the klouts and tweets and trending, can drain the impulse power of the thoughtful blogger. It used to feel fresh and immediate to post several times a week, and the prose felt nice and trim at a dozen grafs or less. Now one feels like a monk in a Scriptorium doing that, and not in a good way.
So naturally, I decided to revive the dormant blog with a Lenten retreat about the Holy Face, and start with Lambchop and Noel Fielding.
I am obsessed with the Holy Face. Well, I am obsessed with the Holy Shroud of Turin, and that leads to a thing for the Holy Face. Hardly original, I know; museums and books overflow with artists' renderings. But it gets me—if Jesus was God, then God had a human face. For someone as theologically impaired as I am, this is hugely compelling. I can't fathom Aquinas, I can't concentrate on the Rosary for more than a few beads...but I can look for a face in the crowd.
So for each day of Lent, I will post something about the Face. I'm easing in with this quote from surrealist comic Noel Fielding; it's a warm-up line he uses in his indescribable stand-up gigs. Delivered in his adorable British accent, (usually after having called his audience "cheeky otters"), it only seems to mean nothing. But it strikes me as touching and profound, a daring declation of human solidarity and vulnerability. (Which stand-up is.) I decided to let Lamb Chop deliver the line because she, too, has a face, and a fine one.
And if everyone's off Travoltifying their name or checking in on Grumpy Cat, I will enjoy hanging out with some hardcore Catholic geekery all by myself. My blog's still ad-free, so I don't have to say things like THEY TOOK A PICTURE OF THIS BLOODY SHEET...AND YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.
Or you could join me; I guarantee we won't be trending.
'Not So Bad After All,'
Says Co-Author 20 Years Later
[Not the New York Times, May 22, 2013] Trendy claims may sell books, but when it comes to medical advice, boring may be beautiful, according to Brenda L. Becker, the persistently obscure co-author of Week by Week to a Strong Heart. The book, which the perennially unknown medical writer ghost-wrote 20 years ago with Yale University hypertension authority Marvin Moser, MD, remains best known in her mind for its rock-bottom production values (thanks to a shoestring budget by Rodale Book Club, its publisher) and for Moser's insistence on maddeningly cautious medical advice at a time when oat-bran books and Dean Ornish's guru-like prescriptions for meditation and vegetarianism dominated the health best-seller lists and enriched their authors.
Published in 1992, well past the height of the public's first wave of obsession with cholesterol and heart disease and just before the statin era began, "Week by Week" sank out of sight after its brief book-club life span expired—although, Becker recalls, Moser never stopped believing that some day the public would tire of "miracle cures" and flock to their common-sense plan for gradually healthier habits. In the ensuing decades, she admits, she came to dismiss the book as a dated hack job, one that eventually yielded her "somewhere in the low three figures" in royalties. Now, however, upon rereading one of her several author copies (stockpiled once friends began refusing to take the extras, even as gifts), Becker acknowledges that her co-author may have been prophetic in his insistence on affordable, low-tech health interventions and incremental change.
Nor is the book as dated as she had feared, Becker adds, although Moser's rather laid-back approach to cholesterol risk has been replaced by aggressive prescribing. (Maybe too aggressive, according to a trickle of new safety signals about statins.) Countless other new medications have been introduced, of course, and some aspects of cardiology, such as understanding of the mechanisms underlying atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome, have advanced greatly. The obesity epidemic has exploded since the book's publication, along with drastic measures such as Lap-Band procedures. But the book’s premise remains remarkably sound, if spectacularly uncommercial: Common-sense, simple improvements in diet, exercise, and risk-factor control can save your life.
Certainly, the book’s primary author would seem to be a good advertisement for his own advice. Becker, who has not been in touch with Moser for most of the years since its publication, recently “Googled” him, expecting to find a respectful obituary for a clinician and researcher old enough to remember Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death by malignant hypertension—or at least to read news of a retirement crowned with professional laurels. She was astonished to discover that Moser, now 87, is not only still alive and honored with a named award by the American Society of Hypertension, but still actively teaching at Yale. His familiar, George Bush the Elder-sounding voice invites callers to leave a message with easy, Locust-Valley lockjaw authority that Becker remembered well from marathon editing sessions. She recalled that Moser, for all his high-profile schedule as a hypertension talking-head and his relentless presence at prestigious medical meetings, was first and always a compassionate and practical advocate for his patients. And, while Becker ghosted much of the text, he did pen its best line: "I have reversed cardiac arrest with a chest thump on two occasions, once on a tennis court and once on an airplane."
Becker, no spring chicken herself, has recently been put on a high dose of an expensive new statin for her high cholesterol; the drug, she says, has left her with muscle cramps and weakness. Having reread the book and been surprised by its evergreen (if totally unheralded and unremunerated) wisdom, she left a message for Moser and got a prompt callback. His advice: Try a cheaper generic like simvastatin. "It's a little less effective, but take a few milligrams more." His other advice: Let's get somebody to re-issue the book!
Meanwhile, Becker recommends snapping up a rare copy of the original, which can be found on Amazon and other outlets starting at $.01...plus shipping. Do it for yourself, not for her; she hasn't gotten a royalty check since the George H.W. Bush administration.