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Underground Religion

So I get on the #1 train at 86th Street, plop myself down on a seat in a half-filled car. I immediately notice a nice-looking, well-dressed young man -- black overcoat, black slacks, black dress shoes. And then I notice him surreptitiously eyeing the nice-looking Puerto Rican fellow a few feet away from him on the same bench-seat. The young man in black glances around the car, never really focussing on anyone or anything, then his gaze is drawn back to the Puerto Rican fellow. The Puerto Rican fellow seems vaguely nervous, perhaps a little vigilant, I can't quite tell. The young man in black runs his eyes up and down the athletic form of the Puerto Rican. He seems on the verge of saying something. I await the drama.

Then I notice the black plastic name tag pinned to the overcoat of the nice-looking young man in black: "Elder ______ ______, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints".

So the plot in my head changes course. The dramatist in me recognizes this as "perception shift". Is this adolescent elder going to find a way to sell his wares to the nice looking Puerto Rican fellow? This could be interesting: Salt Lake City meets the Big Apple.

Sadly, the young Puerto Rican fellow hops off the train at 59th Street. Another mishandled scene. But wait! A big-boned Caribbean woman gets on and takes the place of the Puerto Rican fellow. A change in cast. The young man in black sits up a bit straighter, hesitates briefly, then takes a running leap of faith.

"Hello," he says to the big-boned woman, "how are you this evening?"

She smiles, nods, and with every fiber of her being lets the young man know he should mind his own beeswax. The young man in black relaxes a bit, sits back, checks his watch.

Okay, nothing going on here. I let my gaze wander down the car, changing channels, looking for the next entertainment. I notice another young man dressed in black, and I also note the black plastic name tag pinned to his overcoat. Ah. A missionary team working the same car. I watch Elder #2 surreptitiously eyeing three young people across the aisle from him. The youngsters are talking animatedly, laughing. This second baby-faced elder studies them, first one, then another, then the third. He's looking for his opening, but even I can see he will never find it here. It's hopeless. He seems a bit undertrained for this job. Or maybe it's just that it's their first night out, working the trains as a team.

Now... I've been riding the subways of New York City for nigh onto twenty years and I've seen a lot of weird stuff going down, but I don't think I've ever seen a Mormon missionary team working a subway car before. Still, among the catalog of things I've seen on the subway over the years, this is pretty low on my Scale of the Remarkable. It barely registers, in fact, and I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought but for this...

Earlier in the evening, as I was beginning my journey at Union Square, I passed a group of people who had set up a number tables with some strange looking contraptions on them -- electronic-thingies with large calibrated dials and two metallic tubes attached to each by wires. There was a sign: "Free Stress Test". Several copies of Dianetics were on offer. As I passed by, a woman urged me to take ten minutes and discover how stressed I really was. I noticed a fairly unstressed-looking fellow sitting before one of the electronic devices, gripping a metallic tube in each hand, closely watching the needle on the calibrated dial. A young woman was sitting next to him explaining the results of his test, giving him The Bad News, I suppose.

A bit further on, I noticed a man and a woman huddled together and holding up a sign: "Free Kabbalah Classes".

Okay, look... there have always been fervently religious people flogging their beliefs on the streets and subways of New York, but I mean, come on. This is different. This is organized. This is looking like a series of spiritual campaigns. If this keeps up, my Metrocard will become the functional equivalent of a doctoral degree in Comparative Religions. What's next? The conductor on the #6 parading a sign up and down the aisle as we approach  City Hall: "The End of the Line Is Near!"

I prefer your secular subway lunatics. They generally keep their urgent truths to themselves -- behavior deeply symptomatic of their tragic afflictions, of course, and I wish we had better ways to help them, but still. At least they have the grace to leave me to my own delusions as I ride.

Guys... listen... thanks for the offer of help with my spiritual life and everything, but the thing is the subway only seems like a placeholder for my seedy interior life. In fact, it's just an ordinary railroad. With notably crappy scenery.


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It always amuses me that these adolescent missionaries are called "Elder" so-and-so. Elder is a very different rank - to the extent we have such a thing as ranks - in my religion.

Also, the juxtaposition of your two scenarios makes me thing dirty, dirty things about these pairs of fresh-faced young men, far from home. I think I'll go write some slash. Or outright porn, who knows.

You make it sound as if I was suggesting some sort of untoward subtext, or something. Which I was.

That's the thing, see. In the old days, all this subway eye-action would have led me to think an instance of what the ladies over there on 9th Avenue call "a date" was about to occur. Now it seems this sort of thing could lead to the horn of Moroni, or whatever that thing is supposed to be.

The whole thing is way too confusing for a man of my meager understanding. I'll just get off at 14th Street, thanks.

The great Dutch singer/songwriter Maarten van Roozendaal has a wonderful song about this subject, 'Red mij niet' ('Don't Save Me'), which you can see and hear at http://www.maartenvanroozendaal.nl/video/redmijniet_320.htm

I've been meaning to translate the text into English for some time now (as an exercise), and thought this was an excellent occasion. Ahem, the unauthorised subtitles:

Put a rock under your pillow
Light a candle if you must
Kill a lamb
But don’t save me

Put a funny hat on
Push little notes into a wall
Predict the future
But don’t save me

Grow a long beard
Go on, grow a long beard
But don’t save me

Put a dress on
Go on, put a fine long dress on
But don’t save me

Reconstruct your church
Send your children into war
Read palms until your eyes fail
But don’t save me

Take vitamins to ward off cancer
Let the fire wash your hands
Adorn your forehead with a dot
But don’t save me

Your heaven
that is my idea of hell
heaven with you in it
is hell to me

Point your bottom at the sunset
sing the same word for days and days
Get abducted by an alien
but don’t save me

Carry torches through the city
Say you’ll succeed if you have faith
Prostrate until your knees are ruined
But don’t save me

Let me be in my confusion
My cluelessness is all I have
Decadence will see me surely
Heading for the end of time

Singing loud and going nowhere
with no mission and no goal
With my sins and with my values
Maybe fearing for my soul
Leave me stubborn in my blindness
Leave this godless song to me
Go on, raise your hands to heaven
But don’t save me

When approached by these sorts, I merely allow a slightly shocked expression on my face and respond that I consider my relationship with the Divine to be far too personal to discuss with strangers and go back to reading my book. Usually works.


When approached, I just generally 'accidently' let the dogs out. The dogs are a golden retreiver and a miniature dachshund, so it isn't as if they're going to rip anybody's throat out or anything, but getting them back in resembles a Marx Brother's movie and by that time, the religious impetus seems to have been squashed.

But I've never heard of Mormons doing missionary work on the trains. That does seem odd. Everybody I knew from outside of New York seemed to think that the subways were so scary and dangerous that they needed to be avoided at all costs.

I love the subways, though. And all the odd ways to get from one line to another at, say, Canal.

But here's the thing I didn't tell you...

I'm dying to stop by the $cientology table and take their Stress Test, just to hear their pitch.

(Somebody stop me before I goof again...)

marrije, thank you for the link to that song. I like it. I always like being intro'ed to new music from far away places. I wonder if that was written pre- or post- the Van Gogh murder. And thank you for the translation. The phrase he repeats several times at the end is 'Red mij niet', right?

I guess my response if approached is mostly to just not be bothered with it.

I actually don't mind this stuff. In principle. It's just that it's getting to be like a God Trade Fair down there. They should just go ahead and set up booths with attractive wall displays and festive bunting.

Hm. Come to think of it, I guess the Dianetics people already have...

Mike said: "I wonder if that was written pre- or post- the Van Gogh murder."

The song was written long before the murder, Van Roozendaal won an important prize for it in 2000. And that makes me wonder why you wonder :-). I notice I have hardly any idea of how People Abroad (in this case, you) see the things that are going on here. I'm not sure how much sense I'm making of it myself.

And yes, the repeated phrase at the end of the song is 'Red mij niet'. Doesn't he have a great voice?

marrije: ...Van Roozendaal won an important prize for it in 2000. And that makes me wonder why you wonder :-).

You know how Americans are. If it didn't happen here, it didn't happen.

You ask about his voice... he does have a good voice, but the funny thing is, it takes me a couple of times listening to it to recognize that. I think part of having a "good voice" has to do with how the voice in question carries the words. And when I don't understand the words (I don't speak Dutch, but I know a guy who does!!) part of my "good voice recognition" subroutines are crippled. I get stopped at the words I don't understand. Apparently I have to listen a couple of times to get those subroutines to kick back in.

Well said, Mike. Van Roozendaal doesn't have your classic 'beautiful' voice, it's kind of raw, and I think part of the attraction for me is indeed the way he puts feeling into the words, this whole range of anger/cynicism/boredom/incredulity he manages to bring across. But that hinges on understanding the words, yes. I find I can't listen to more than a couple of songs at a time, because the voice coupled with the lyrics is that powerful. Then I have to switch to playing some Britney Spears :-)

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