Thus saith the Lord.

22 Aug

I’ve been reading the King James Bible.

It’s good to read the KJV. As Christopher Hitchens used to say, the KJV and the US Constitution are the only two great pieces of literature written by committee. He’s right there, as is his assertion that to truly appreciate Shakespeare and Donne and Milton, you have to know the structure, the verse, the density, the heights of poetry accomplished by the King James Bible.

The Psalms are for the most part quite beautiful. Certain turns of phrase elsewhere can completely catch me off guard when I deconstruct them, or say them aloud, usually in my bad British dialect. And there is a carefully wrought redundancy throughout both Testaments, certain verses that repeat themselves in a kind of musical mantra that bypass the head and strike at the heart. My favorite one of late is: Thus saith the Lord.

That’s good writing. It trips off the tongue. It sticks.

It’s also at the heart of the work itself, isn’t it? I mean, it refers to the entire act of faith that is the Bible. Here’s a story, here are its words. Who said them? The Lord. It’s been much on my mind lately.

I just finished a somewhat trying three-day tour with forty very old Texans. When I started giving tours of NYC seventeen years ago, senior citizens who came here were in their late sixties and seventies. Routinely now, tourists in these groups are in their nineties. They move slowly, and think slower. I spent the better part of the last three days tracking down four lost cell phones. (I found them all.) Ironically, it was their group leader, a woman in her fifties, who slowed us down the most. She was of an unhealthy weight and the stress that has placed on the tenuous engineering of her knees has brought her to a crawl while some of the eighty-year olds she works for at their local senior center hosting this trip ran rings round her all weekend. Sadly, she set the tone, and her flop sweat and bitching spread like a cancer through the motor coach.

So I tried to keep them all seated, sedated, and hydrated, only stopping to let them relieve themselves whenever we passed clean bathrooms. Like at Trump Tower. I never pass up an opportunity to let forty people piss at Trump Tower.

As such, I was called upon to talk a lot more. Seven hours a day straight, for the most part, digging up stories out of the bottom of my story bag, madly, stories I hadn’t visited in my mind much lately, old saws that got discarded because I forgot to vet their veracity or got sick of telling them or had written them on the template of my mind in such a way that I would always stumble over the same words day after day ten years ago until I finally told myself, “Just stop telling that fucking story!”

And each story has a story. There are thirteen good stories why NYC is called The Big Apple. Tour guides tend to tell their favorite, the one that gets the biggest “Ah-HA!” moment, or a good chuckle. Same thing with Hell’s Kitchen. There’s a bunch of good stories there. As it is my neighborhood, I’ve looked up a lot of them. A whole lot of them. And because I’ve discovered within the past three years that I had a great-great grandfather who once lived on my very own block, mind you, I am particularly interested. Every good story I’ve encountered that had any sea legs reveals itself to be a good story about the Irish.

I used to tell the story of two turn of the Century Irish police officers breaking up an Irish brawl on a dog day of summer in the west forties, complaining to one another of the heat. “No,” said the other. “It is not as hot as hell, it’s as hot as Hell’s kitchen.” That’s good right? You hear a lot of variations along this line.

But about a year ago I read a different account at the New-York Historical Society. The Irish were so maligned as they fled the Potato Famine for the shores of NYC that those already here referred to them as vermin. Boarding houses erected signs that read, “No actors, no dogs, no Irish.” The Irish were third, the afterthought after the dogs. Finally finding work along the commercial docks as longshoreman, it was the awful, gritty neighborhood where I now live that they first found a good foothold. The rest of the city let them stay there, these filthy misshapen Papists, these drudges who were, as the saying went, “Not fit to mop the floors of Hell’s kitchen.”

I love that story for its last line. It sounds so Irish, a story my grandmother might have told of her mother in that same cadence, the same ironic loathsome lightness. It sticks. So I told it Saturday as we drove across West 46th Street.

Today was Monday and we spent the morning at Liberty Island. When I told my good stories of the Statue and sent them on their way to walk around her feet with a specific time to meet back at the dock, I heard one of the ancients whisper-shout to his wife, “We get an hour and a half here and have to spend two hours at Macy’s tonight? Makes no sense.” I had a lot of ammunition to rebut. I don’t design their itineraries, the slow one with the shitty knees does. And were you to spend more than an hour and a half in this baking sun, sir, the dust holding your bones together would blow out over the Upper Bay of New York Harbor. He kinda pissed me off. But as his remark wasn’t directed at me, it was only a technical foul and I let it go.

We spent the afternoon at Ellis Island. I have a lot of good stories there, too. I can tailor my comments to fifteen minutes or go on with enthusiasm for two hours. Truly. I love talking about Ellis Island. I’ve scoured the museum after over a thousand visits, talked to other great guides for years, and read a lot of great books. Immigration is a hot-button topic and a minefield fraught with peril in an election year. Maneuvering the pitfalls is an adrenaline rush. I get very excited there.

I checked my watch upon arrival and decided on my half hour talk, whatever that is. When I decide how long I’ll speak, I can actually see different bullet points pop up in my head. But I will grant you, I am getting older too. Sometimes the next point is fuzzy in my mind’s eye that apparently needs glasses as well. I have to concentrate more these days and I’m easily distracted, by, say, the horns of the departing ferry boats that would give the healthiest among us a heart attack on their best day.

This afternoon, though, I felt like I was on fire, words coming to me easily, fluidly, with a good turn of phrase here and there I hadn’t planned, making some new connections, even ones I hadn’t much considered before, getting laughs when I wanted them, then the somber moment heralded by my actor-y crocodile tears, the crowd moving in to listen as I lowered my voice, weaving words, worming my way into their hearts and better still their wallets. It was magic. I was starry. Until all of a sudden that cranky old man is raising his hand. Right there. Why the fuck is he waving his hand at me, I wondered as my mind began to wander.

I lost my place.

But I kept going, now stumbling over this word and that, forgetting whatsisnames name, you know, electricity, the car, right, Tesla, ums and uhs replacing my former fading eloquence. And still that motherfucker is waving his hand. Finally flop sweat knock-kneed group leader shouts, “He wants to say something.”

So I stopped, summoned a smile, and kindly gestured towards him with outstretched hand, “Yes. Please. Sir.”

And he says.

I was reading recently that when the Irish came here they were treated like garbage and people used to say they weren’t fit to mop the floors of hell’s kitchen.

Picture me staring at him for seven seconds. Count them off in your head right now. Now watch my head ever so slightly cock itself to the right as you see my hand reach out to him once more, the silence devastating. Until I broke it British with:

“Thus saith the Lord.”

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2 Responses to “Thus saith the Lord.”

  1. turnipsforbreakfast September 12, 2016 at 2:12 am #

    Hilarious! Slow overweight people annoy me too (not so much old people, I’m getting too old myself for that). The thing about the KJB is that it pretties up something that is, in terms of content, mostly arrant rubbish – which is good!

    • NC Coot October 15, 2016 at 9:11 am #

      None of us is getting younger. I’m thirty-eighteen.

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