The Jesus Man
For a very long time there was a man who preached on the streets of my Upper West Side neighborhood on Broadway; a black man—actually, coffee-bronze would be a better description of his color. I’d say, when I first became aware of him, he was in his early sixties, though he might have been a little older; it was hard to tell since he was in such great shape—thin, erect and energetic. He always wore the same outfit: a faded gray-green suit, a clean white shirt, brown tie, and black shoes. If it was cold he wore an old-fashioned knee-length brown cloth coat. His clothes had obviously been treated with great care for a long time; regularly cleaned, ironed, and carefully hung-up—and I’m sure his shoes had been shined so many times they must have been as thin as paper. He had short, cropped, silver hair and his skin had a polished look to it—burnished, no doubt, by the years he had spent on the street in all winds and weathers. In his right hand he held an old black-leather covered bible, sometimes brandishing it aloft as he shouted (with a trace of an Island accent) at the top of his lungs. And what did he yell? “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”—over and over again. Occasionally, in some secret shift of internal inspiration, he shouted, “Glory! Glory! Glory!” Sometimes, after a burst of perfectly spaced yells, he’d stop and laugh a little in secret pleasure—and when he was especially carried away by the spirit, he’d do a little dance step, a slight dip of the knee, bob of the head, shuffling of the feet. “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” “Glory, Glory, Glory!” Step back, slide the leg, dip of the shoulder… “Ha Ha!”
One time, as he was marching up Broadway, waving his bible and shouting, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” I saw some black kids from the neighborhood walking towards him. They were wearing hip-hop-type gear, long sports jerseys, baggy new jeans, thick chains around their necks… They got up within a yard of him and started to dip and weave to his rhythmic shouts. He smiled a little and dipped a little in response to their moves. They laughed and called out; he shouted back—a little circular dance there for a minute—dipping, weaving, shouting, calling, laughing—then the kids swirled around him and moved on. The Jesus Man stood for a moment, chuckling to himself. Obviously the kids had tickled his funny bone. Most times though, the Jesus Man was in no way amused. His shout was fierce and strident, “Jeeesuss!!!”—a prophet crying in the wilderness; a particular Upper West Side wilderness of fast food stores, multi-national nannies, drug addicts, thirty-year old bankers, self-absorbed cell-phone blatherers and the sad parade of old, poor and homeless people making their way up and down Broadway. ”Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”
Though the faces of business and commerce changed over time; family restaurants to Starbucks, independent video stores to chain drug stores, barber shops to phone stores—the Jesus Man was always there, steady and predictable. He was as much a regular part of the ten or so blocks that were his turf as the flocks of screeching junior high school kids, booming SUV radios, roadwork drills, construction machinery, and ear-splitting sirens. Once in a while you’d see him on the bus handing out cheap little stapled tracts from a bag he carried over one shoulder—the fires of hell and all that. I’ve heard people say they’d seen him on the subway too.
…It was interesting that the Jesus Man only shouted out his message on one side of Broadway—the East side. No matter how much he might inhabit some other-worldly realm, he still seemed to be under the sway of the then prevailing cultural norms and racial make-up of the neighborhood. The area on the East side of Broadway was where he carried out his mission; that part of the neighborhood—despite the increasing mix of gentrifying whites and influx of Chinese students and professors from Columbia University—was closer to the Latino and Black population which spread eastward from Broadway to Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. These were mostly working people, living in small well-worn four-story buildings and housing projects, some of whom who might have found the Jesus man’s style of preaching not unfamiliar. Likewise, the Jesus Man obviously knew that the West side of Broadway, spreading toward West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, was predominantly—though not exclusively—the land of middle and upper-middle-class whites. This is where, in addition to career teachers, social workers, and mid-level civil servants, you found the shrinks, stockbrokers, lawyers, and doctors —people who could pay thirty-five hundred a month for a two- bedroom apartment or two million for a new condominium. The only concession the Jesus man made to this lack of geographical coverage was to sometimes stand on the East side of Broadway and shout directly at the West side. “Jesus!, Jesus!, Jesus!”
Now one way to look at it, the Jesus Man was just another, poor, sad Broadway nut—carving out a niche for himself among what is surely one of the largest collection of outcasts, oddballs, and just plain loony people gathered in any one place in this country. Had the Jesus Man done time in mental hospitals? Maybe, I don’t know. But what if he had? I would certainly be the last one to judge him; between me and my friends, neighbors and acquaintances, there have been many a stay in various hospitals and millions of dollars spent on therapists, treatments and medicines.
Sometimes you didn’t see or hear from the Jesus Man for days, even weeks, then, suddenly he’d re-appear. Usually you heard him before you saw him. “Jesus!, Jesus!, Jesus!” You could hear his shout from blocks away—as piercing as an ambulance siren or a train whistle. His voice, like Superman, was able to leap tall buildings at a single shout. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” Where had he been, I wondered? Where did he go when he wasn’t out on the street? Had he been traveling—had he been called back to the great central church for further instruction? Maybe his mission took him to the streets of some other nearby city—Jersey City or Newark—or maybe he was doing a spell in a locked ward somewhere. Well, whatever the reason for his absence, it never lasted that long—almost before you could miss him he was back on his beat.
…One summer morning I got up early, almost at dawn, and went outside to escape the trapped feeling of being stuck in my little rear-of-the-building apartment; looking to see the sunlight just begin to touch the highest floors of the buildings, listen to the birds for a few minutes before the traffic noise began to drown them out. And who do I see as soon as I walk out of the lobby of my building? The Jesus Man! He was coming out of the subway on 103rd Street. He was nattily dressed as always, but this time wearing a sporty-looking straw hat. He could have been just stepping off the plane from some Caribbean holiday. Over his shoulder he was carrying his soft-leather black briefcase, no doubt filled with tracts and, of course, his ever-present bible. He had the air of someone who had just knocked off work—finished the night shift somewhere and was heading home.
I crossed over and followed about twenty feet behind him. He went into the Yemeni candy-and news-paper store on 104th Street. I walked to the open door and saw him in front of one of the refrigerated cases, making a decision about a purchase. I didn’t want him to think I was spying on him so I kept walking past. Three stores down I propped myself up against wall and waited. A minute later he came out of the store and passed by me, cradling in his free arm a bag of Doritos and a small bottle of Gatorade. I followed slowly behind him as he stepped up Broadway, the sun starting to light up the sky now. After another block he turned the corner onto a side street, walked to the middle of the block, then went down the steps to the basement apartment of a run-down brownstone. I stood at the corner, looking at the building. Gatorade, Doritos, basement apartments; all these common, earthly things…
I wondered what his life—not his life on the streets, but his home life—was like. Did he live alone or with a brother or sister or son or daughter? What did he do there in his room while he waited for the call to go out onto the streets again? Did he pray, read magazines, watch TV…?
I felt disappointed. Why? I wasn’t sure. I guess I always wanted (or needed?) the Jesus man to be somehow supernatural, above the everyday things like food, drink and shelter; the things we regular mortals needed in order to survive. I guess there was enough of the superstitious and yearning evangelical in me to want him to be something more than just another human struggling with psychiatric problems…
Time moved on—more children were born, more old folks died, and the neighborhood changed, subject to the inexorable movements of populations, fashion and commerce. Now it was all phone stores, nail salons, vest-pocket banks and fancy restaurants. More condominium towers went up and the streets were more crowded and noisy than ever. I began to notice that the Jesus Man made fewer appearances on the street; instead of every day or at most every couple of weeks, now you’d only see him every couple of months. And when you did see him, his clothes didn’t seem as carefully kept and he himself seemed thinner, less energetic. Though he still cried out for Jesus and Glory, his voice had become weaker.
I felt sad that he seemed to be winding down. When he was in his prime, I often thought he was nothing but a plain nuisance—another one of the city’s ten-thousand-and-one irritations. In fact there were times when I actually wished he’d come down with an illness that would keep him off the streets so I wouldn’t have to hear his manic shouting. Of course, human nature being what it is, now that he was clearly on a downward slide, I missed his ear-piercing yell. Whatever else he might have been, he was a predictable, integral part of my neighborhood and I have always been averse to change.
A couple of weeks ago, it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen, or more specifically, heard, the Jesus Man for quite a while. Because I’ve had so many troubles of my own in the last couple of years—and the city being the constantly renewable source of intrusions and outrages that it is—the man had completely faded from my consciousness.
I wondered what became of him. Maybe he was permanently committed to a state mental hospital, or maybe he just get old and died. Or—looking on the bright side—maybe he simply retired—received word from headquarters that he had done his part and he could take a well-deserved rest from his labors. Even now, he could be on some porch somewhere in the Islands, reading his bible and sipping a cool drink. Well, wherever he is—on earth or in heaven, I miss him. He was a pain-in-the-ass but he was at least a recognizable individual in the midst of an increasingly impersonal, almost inhuman, landscape; a fractured world of dark scaffolding, perpetually torn-up streets, construction sites and endless hordes of people rushing to and fro, blabbing away on their cell phones and other devices like a great tribe of gibbering monkeys.
In the end, maybe the Jesus man didn’t save anyone—maybe the only one he saved was himself. If he hadn’t shouted his message out on the street, he would have had to shout alone in his room, unconnected to other human beings. Worse, if he wasn’t shouting, he would have been silent—and nobody who burned the way he did could endure silence for long. That’s something I understand very well. For the time he was preaching he was somebody; maybe a somebody who was regarded by almost everybody with irritation and amusement, but that reaction no doubt proved to him the absolute necessity of his mission. Whatever his motives or his level of success, he was calling out for salvation, and that’s something—especially during the times of our greatest suffering—we all yearn for. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!