Can’t Say No

by

01/24/2012

Neighborhood: Cobble Hill

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You didn't say no.
You never said no.
You wouldn't even think of saying no.

So, when he arrived at the door of my tenement apartment at 1AM, unexpected, unannounced, I didn't say no. I let him in, against all my instincts.

"Hi. I was at the community center. We just finished working. We were painting and doing construction. I'm exhausted. It's too late to go home. Can I stay here?"

He stood there right before me, Jay Martinez, about 5'10", dark-skinned, a little pockmarked. His hair was close-cropped and curly. His ears were extremely small and curled up at the bottom. He was stocky, but he had a sloppy-full belly that spilled over his belt. Though he looked strong and muscular enough he would always let the other men do the hard work and heavy lifting I'd noticed.

And now, here he was. I had gone to school that day, attended three classes at Hunter, worked at my waitress job on the usual 7-hour shift, taken the subway home to the Court Street station at Borough Hall. I'd just gotten in from a very long day a half hour before. I had hoped to do evening prayers, put on my pajamas, watch a little tv and then fall dead asleep. His arrival ruined those innocent plans.

He was a Headquarters Chief in what was then called NSA. Now known as SGI (Soka Gakkai International), it was and is a group founded on Buddhist principles. Many New Yorkers are familiar with NSA/SGI from their time in the 80s when they conducted huge campaigns to recruit people. They could be found in every neighborhood, out on the streets, handing out pamphlets and intruding upon people with the question, posed with a big smile, "Have you ever heard about Nam myoho renge kyo?"

I had been drawn in not by this method of "street shakubuku" (introduction), but through a girl I worked with, Anna. We were both waitresses in a burger restaurant on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights. She intrigued me. She had a young son, was a single mother, worked for the same tips I did, and yet managed to maintain an apartment in the Heights.

Even more importantly, when everyone else was stressing out about not having a date on Friday night, she seemed genuinely happy and at ease, unconcerned with her single status. She seemed buoyant.

"Oh my God, you will not believe what happened today!" she announced to the lunch shift table as we had breakfast before the restaurant opened. "I was $300 short on the rent. I didn't know where I'd get it. So, I just chanted and chanted Nam myoho renge kyo and what do you think happened? I got a check in the mail this morning - a refund from the telephone company!!! for $296! Can you believe it? Isn't that wild?"

She had stories like this on a regular basis: a friend sending her $50, a birthday card with $100, finding $20 on the street when she had no money for dinner for her son and herself.

I was impressed. It didn't hit me until years later to ask why a young woman with an MA in Psychology (fairly rare in those days) was working as a waitress and not in her own field.

Everything about her seemed to be unencumbered by weighty convention, even her physical being, her lack of breasts (which would have bothered other women), her height (5'1"), her very short hair. She had a Peter Pan quality that men found fascinating.

Anna had tried to introduce me to her "Buddhist beliefs" a number of times. "Maggie, you'd love this." I would never give her a hearing. I thought she was a Hare Krishna or somesuch. When I finally told her that, she cried, "What? No, no. That's a cult!"

And then one day she left one of her NSA magazines open to an article she knew I'd be interested in. She left it right where I'd be sitting to have lunch after the shift ended. My eye naturally alighted on it and I read. It was well-written. My English major prejudice was impressed by the grammatical correctness and fluent style. This was no Hare Krishna klaptrap with appalling spelling and uneven font. This was sophisticated stuff.

And so, I was seduced. One day shortly after she invited me to her apartment to see her altar. She led me to the bedroom where she had a small, unobtrusive altar, laid out artfully with fresh green leaves in a vase, fresh fruit in a wooden bowl, a small vessel filled with water. Suspended on the wall above the altar was what looked like a wooden curio cabinet, in blonde wood. It had an elegant simplicity.

"Do you want to see my Gohonzon?"
"What's a Gohonzon?"
"Gohonzon means 'highest object of worship.'"
"Oh. Yeah. Yes."
"OK," she said in the charming, wry, smiling way I'd become familiar with. She looked happy.

She knelt down in front of the altar, put a small leaf between her lips, reached up over the altar toward the cabinet and opened it.

I was floored. The scroll before me was astonishingly beautiful. It was a little mandela. I'd been taking a course at Hunter in Buddhism and we'd studied these. They were meditation objects, meant to help the practitioner concentrate, meditate. This one was awesome. In length it was about 12 inches, in width, about 6. It contained only characters - Japanese? Chinese? The characters were gold, printed on a tannish brown background which had some kind of pattern emblazoned on it. It had such presence! Such charisma!

I remembered how our professor told us that, after his enlightenment, even Shakyamuni's detractors were compelled to rise up and greet him respectfully because he had such charisma, such power.

"It's beautiful."
"Would you like to try chanting?"
"All right."
"Nam myoho renge kyo.... Try it. Repeat after me...Nam myoho renge kyo."
"Nam myoho? renge kyo. Is that right?"

And now it was 3 years later. The "honeymoon phase" had ended abruptly the moment I finally acquiesed and became an official member. At first, I'd been treated like the loved and wanted golden child who could do no wrong, whose every move was pure delight. Upon joining, the pressure began.

Calls at 7AM Saturday morning: "Where are you? We're doing a 5 hour daimoku toso (chanting session). You have to be here!"

Calls at 11PM: "Tomorrow morning at 8AM you have to bring 40 sandwiches for the Youth Division."

"Our district has pledged to have 12 new members this month. Do shakubuku (introduction)!"

"We have a target of 150 subscriptions to the World Tribune (organ newspaper). So, your target must be 50. Get on the phone!"»

"No! Of course you can't have a Christmas tree!"

I was 28 when I first met Anna and was introduced to her beliefs. I'd had a pretty difficult life. I'd been a foster child, aged out of the system without a penny to get started in the world and no one to lean on. But I'd been getting things together. I'd finally decided to go to college and was doing it, enjoying it. I was a waitress at a restaurant that was not bad to work at, at all. You could have your meals there. And I had friends there.

Restaurant people were fun: real, unassuming, with an irreverent sense of humor. Whenever you had an annoying customer you could curse your head off in the kitchen and return to the dining area calm and composed. A typical kitchen conversation during rush would sound something like this:

"Shit. I have that asshole again on Station 2. He's trying to impress his date by running me all over the fucking place. I feel like telling her I heard he has a small dick."

Wild laughter.

"I got that cheap bitch. She was here yesterday. Can't she find another place to go? She wears a cashmere coat and leaves me a dollar."

"You're lucky. I got Sam again. He's sloshed."

After the intense pressure of the rush we'd all calm down, turn in our books, count our tips, and settle in for lunch together. It was during one of these lunches that I discovered the NSA magazine.

Three years later and I was a kumicho, a unit chief in NSA. On the first day I was appointed, I was given a list of 30 members who had left NSA and told I was to get them back. "Start calling. Don't forget to get their World Tribune subscription money. Don't forget your target."

I learned immediately, as all members did, that questioning was considered negative and destructive, "destroying the unity of believers." Good fortune was determined by one's fidelity to NSA, one's unquestioning loyalty. In fact, one's eternal soul was connected to being an active member, a true believer.

It was an important element in the life of a true believer to "receive guidance" from a "senior leader." With any life crisis you were encouraged to do this. Senior leaders were allowed, even encouraged, to scold, ridicule, castigate, scream at junior members. A senior leader who wasn't willing to be resented by their junior members was irresponsible.

And so it was that I went for guidance to Jay Martinez when the relationship I was in was not going well. I trusted him. He was a Buddhist leader, revered and loved by all the members. He was there to protect me, to guide me, to keep me from harm. I was safe with him.

I confessed to him all my hurt and despair over the broken romance, along with details. He was like a father. After this, he began turning up in odd places and at odd hours. I didn't question it. I was flattered: I felt special. This important man wants to be friends with me. He's so busy and a father of 2, a husband, a Headquarters chief and yet he makes time for me.

So, at 1AM, I wasn't completely surprised. He'd come other times, once in the afternoon, once around 5PM or so. But he had never asked to stay over. What was I to do with this request in my little apartment? I had a tiny bedroom with room only for a bed, and a pull-out couch in the living room.

It was awkward. He sat on the couch awhile and recounted his day. I was so tired. After about an hour he asked if he could take a shower.

"Sure."

He came out of the bathroom wearing only a towel. That's when I finally realized his true intention. I scrambled around frantically thinking what can I do, who can I call. It was 2AM. My friends would all be asleep. And what would I say? What could they do? He was a Headquarters Chief! You didn't say no!

"Do you mind if I lay down?"
"No, go ahead."

What would Anna be doing now? Could I call Liz? 2:05 AM. Don't call anyone. You'll be disturbing people. Just avoid him. Wait him out. He'll go to sleep. Maybe you're imagining things. He's married. He has 2 kids. He's a Buddhist. Wait him out. Clean the house. Study. Sort out your finances. Do the dishes.

I vacuumed. I did the dishes. I cleaned, dusted, sorted. I attempted to study. After a long, long, long time he called out, "When are you coming to bed?"

When I heard his voice, so strong, so awake, so insistent, everything inside me collapsed. I knew I was defeated. I was exhausted and completely alone. It was 4AM, the darkest hour of the night. There was no one to call to, no one to help. And you didn't say no to a leader.

Afterwards, he got up, dressed, and went home. Suddenly, it was not so far away that he couldn't make it there.

The days that followed were days of despair. What had I done? It was all my fault.

After 3 weeks I could endure it no longer. I needed help. I went for guidance. Since my problem involved a Headquarters Chief I went to the most senior leader in New York.
In slow, almost whispered tones I told him what had happened. He was Japanese-American. He listened with a sympathetic face, deep brown eyes, tilting his head compassionately toward me. Finally, he spoke, after a long silence in which he seemed to be deeply and wisely ruminating.

"This is your karma. Be glad he didn't use violence."

I left the center that day determined to turn this negative experience into something positive. In the days that followed I chanted more and more to expiate my negative karma. At every meeting I saw Jay. He gave "final encouragement." I saw him giving guidance. He led prayers. He bantered with members. He was introduced as an important leader and an excellent role model. All the time I struggled with my anger, disappointment, hurt, shame.

One day I returned to the New York senior leader to speak with him about my "negative life condition" and to ask why nothing had happened to Jay Martinez. Again, he looked so sympathetic. He seemed so compassionate as he considered my situation.

And then he said, his long lashes lowered over his half-closed eyes, as if rousing himself from deep meditation, "You must protect the organization. You understand? You must never tell anyone about this."

M. O'Connell grew up in Brooklyn. For a time she was a member of NSA/SGI.

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§ 4 Responses to “Can’t Say No”

  • Paul Louis Macchi says:

    The author did an excellent job painting a picture of how a cult can wear down the wills of its members to the point where they may agree to do self-destructive things. The story also highlights what I would say is a cultic attitude which pervades society at-large: the belief that it is appropriate to cover up heinous actions in order to protect the reputation of a group, church, school, business, government, etc.

  • Arnine says:

    You go, girl! Good for you for writing this, Maggie.

  • Alexandra says:

    Maggie, I am so moved by your story. I feel so sad for you and for what you’ve been through, and I can tell that you have such great resilience and strength. Congratulations for sharing your experience and being so transparent about what it’s like to be in a cult. You are a strong and beautiful woman.

  • greg romero says:

    thank you for sharing maggie. i also go way back. more people should speak out. this is not nichirens buddhism, it is the fault of nsa/sgi . buddhism is true. sgi is not and never was.

§ Leave a Reply

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