I remember now that we took the R train from Court Street to 75th Street in Bay Ridge. I thought how ironic it was to be returning to Bay Ridge, from which I had fled for my life, to seek enlightenment. But my sponsor, Ellen, assured me that I could chant for anything, ANYTHING, fulfill my personal desires and create world peace at the same time.
I remember that we got off the train and walked to 77th Street on a lovely Spring night. I noticed when we arrived at their apartment building that it looked rather shabby for someone purporting to have ‘fortune’ in their life. Old garbage cans, some with the lids off, some stuffed to overflowing were planted right outside the window of the first floor apartment we were heading to.
I remember the smell of his greasy hair. We were all pushed too close together. Even if I wanted to leave, I couldn’t have done it without making a big commotion. I would have had to somehow struggle to my feet from the very uncomfortable kneeling position I was in on the threadbare rug.
My calves were already asleep, aching and hurting with the unfamiliar pressure of my body weight resting on them in the position we were told is quite normal for believers in Japan to adapt for hours at a time. They had faith, we were told. They had character, we were told. They were selfless, we were told. Then, even if I embarrassed myself by struggling awkwardly to my feet, clambering over people to reach the hallway, disrupting the “sacred” ceremony, I would have to find my shoes quickly amongst the twenty-five or so pair in the hall.
We had been instructed to remove our shoes, Japanese-style, in the house. The whole thing was embarrassing. I hadn’t been prepared to remove my shoes. I wondered if my feet smelled. Certainly, all around me, people’s feet smelled. Awful.
People were so close you could smell the chemical in their deodorant activating – a peculiar, sickening odor. You could smell their hair, unwashed after a night of perspiration. You could smell their breath, not yet rank. It was simply that you could pick out distinct notes: tuna fish, hamburger, mixed with breath freshener. It was an enforced intimacy, unnatural. Too close. Too close.
Jay was leading “Gongyo”. In the annoying way he had that was to become so familiar to me, he led it very slowly, very ceremoniously, as the priests did on special occasions in the Temple. He loved the sound of his voice. One never knew just how long he would carry on chanting. Normally, the leader would chant for 10 minutes – a lifetime when your legs are asleep. But Jay would always draw it out for an extra two or three minutes. Why did he do that? I always wondered. Was it to show off his piety? Or to take away any shred we had of remaining self-determination? Or to display the power he had over us?
Whatever resentment I felt I had to squelch. Holding resentment was verboten, especially for a leader praying too long! How could I? What kind of believer would resent that? In Japan, we were told, they chanted for hours. In Japan, we were told, they had faith. In Japan, they were selfless.
Finally, Jay, upon whose back my eyes were fixed because I was waiting desperately for a sign that he was about to end, began his final drawn-outochants: “Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamuuuuuuuuuuu…” He extended them as long as possible. When the last one faded out, we all breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into more comfortable, relaxed positions on the floor.
Several people jumped up and began a rousing “spontaneous” opening song, accompanying their singing with cheerleader-like movements of the arms. In the small room it seemed strange, even bizarre. Another verboten thought. I was Ellen’s guest and I had already been severely and very publicly chastised for having the audacity to criticize.
The song leaders were now calling out something that sounded like “Aay Aay O! Aay Aay O!” Everyone in the room followed along, spirited on by the leaders. They sat down and someone else immediately jumped up and shouted:
“Welcome to a meeting of NSA!”
**The NSA is now known as the SGI.
Mary O’Connell is a native New Yorker, raised in Brooklyn. She has contributed to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood previously with her story A Force of Nature.