By Bernie Suttle
I never thought I’d end up naked in a church pew.
All great accomplishments or defeats start with just one step. Mine was more of a lurch. At seven am, dressed in nothing but a pair of shower shoes, I open the door of my fourth floor apartment to pick up the newspaper. It isn’t there. I step out a bit farther than usual to look down the hall.
Then the damn cat springs out the door. I lurch after it. The door clicks shut and locks behind me. A unique circumstance. What to do? Seek cover. How? Where? I could try my neighbor.
“Good morning, Mrs. Brown. How are you today?” Smiling to engage and distract her from staring where she shouldn’t, “Could I use your phone to call my wife? It’ll only take a second.” With great restraint her fearful eyes would drift downward. No, that wouldn’t work. The elevator; I’ll take it down to the ground floor to the super’s shop; get his passkey. “Yeah, four flights down to sanctuary. No, wouldn’t work; other passengers would ask, “What floor?” while speculating about my purpose.
Aha! The stairs, never have used them. They are mandatory for emergencies. This is an emergency. Four floors down to safety. I pull open the door by the elevator marked, “STAIRS,” and plunge in for my descent, vigilant for any discarded clothing, paper, whatever would cover my need. Going down stairs as fast as possible I arrive at the third floor landing. The door can’t be opened from inside the stairwell. Nor will any doors from any landing open to the apartment house. Security precautions. Protection against burglars and naked men wearing flip-flops.
At the bottom of the stairwell, thank God, the door opens, only to the outside. Oh, no! But what choice do I have? I peek out the door. Across the narrow alley is the side door to the Church of the Wayfarer providing a sanctuary from the dynamic city, a place to rest, contemplate, and rebuild spiritual strength for the fight against the world’s chaos. That’s for me. I go for it. The door opens. Quiet, darkness and calm greet me. I turn to the left, towards the altar, flip-flop down to the first row and slide in.
Well, here I am, naked in a church pew. The chapel seems empty, thank God! I consider lying down, to hide. Better not. People may come to the front, see me and ask, “Is this pew taken?” They may think I’m a homeless person and call the police. It may not be a crime to be naked but it is a crime to be homeless. Better to sit up straight so my bare back will show this pew is occupied. I look for a prayer book or hymnal to cover myself. Nothing. I speculate people approaching from behind saying, “No, Dear, I think we’ll be better off on the other side. No, never mind why, just believe me, we’ll be better off over there.”
I’m safe, at least for the minute. The temperature is not too hot, not too cold, Goldilocks, just right. Except for the squeaking when I adjust my seat no one should be bothered by my being here. The whine of the back door tells me I have company. I am sitting at the end of a pew, legs crossed at the knees, elbow on the end of the pew, chin in my right hand, eyes closed hoping for anonymity, when the sharp end of an umbrella spears me. Miss Priss is wearing tri-focal, wire-framed glasses, a dress from a thirty-year-old Sears Roebuck catalogue and sensible shoes. A straw sailor with a blue ribbon tops her off.
“Here, take this.” She hands me her red umbrella with black fringe around the edge. “Cover yourself up ‘till you get some clothes. Leave it in the last pew when you are through with it. I’ll pick it up later.” She throws it at me and leaves.
I’m non-plussed but grateful as I head for the door. How should I use the umbrella to cover my front, my back, my head or my face? Finally I hold the blossom end in my left hand and twirl the handle end in my right thus shielding my nakedness from any of the faithful on my left. I must look like a Radio City Rocket twirling my black-fringed, red umbrella by my side as I pass the pews to exit the church.
It is seventy-five feet to my apartment building going out the front church door to the right. By twirling the umbrella while flip-flopping I perform the cadence for a Gene Kelley bit. I start to whistle Singing in the Rain to my syncopated step. With deep gratitude I see Morris, the apartment house super holding the door open for me as he says, “Good Morning, Mr. Bolton. Did we forget our key again?”