Personal and Otherwise — July 10, 2014, 12:15 pm

God Lives on Lemon Street

An ex–Jehovah’s Witness visits Watchtower headquarters

Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower building, Brooklyn. ©© Clemens v. Vogelsang (Flickr)

Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower building, Brooklyn. ©© Clemens v. Vogelsang (Flickr)

Tucked beneath the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge, beyond the serviceberry trees and hedgerows of the Bridge Park Greenway, across the blacktop of Furman Street, the House of God awaits. Nearly 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the world call the collection of buildings Bethel, transliterated from the Hebrew, Beth El, “House of God.” Its tall red sign, a city landmark for decades, looms over the skyline: WATCHTOWER. The building is also home to thousands of volunteers who live on the premises, all in the service, among other things, of printing the most widely circulated magazine on the planet: 46 million every month. I was supposed to live there, too.

When I was a small Jehovah’s Witness boy living in Queens, Bethel was Oz-like for me. I mean that with all the awe, utter hopefulness, and mythic fear with which Dorothy and her friends had approached that magical city. My earliest memory of visiting there, at six or seven, has my family walking those incredibly clean streets as if beyond them were a protected place, separate from the broken cement outside of Bethel’s borders. But mostly I remember the street names: Orange, Pineapple, Cranberry, and Water. Such nature! God lived in a concrete Eden. I remember Lemon Street most vividly of all, so bright and perfect. I can still see my father pointing at the sign. So this was where God lived.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are mostly known as a nuisance, especially on a Saturday morning. But I can promise you this: they mean well. As a kid I spent countless weekends knocking on doors, and was told several times to get off the owner’s property, etc.; but in retrospect I can say the overwhelming majority of people were kind, open to (brief) conversation, at the very least respectful. Delivering sermons to strangers is a lifelong effort for the Witness. It’s why Bethel exists in the first place: to provide that ministry with Bibles and supporting literature. It’s also, for the boys, an essential stage in the process toward becoming a preacher, a minister, and one who gives longer and longer sermons to congregations. So while it might seem exotic to some that I was a minister at a very young age and continued to minister into my late teens, it’s simply a normal part of the Witness life.

By my mid-twenties, however, things had changed. Drastically. I had not only stopped witnessing, I had left the church. As a family we’d left New York and moved to Atlanta. And then I left Atlanta. I fled my family — I pulled a typically adolescent-male maneuver and ran away. I ran for years, actually, and lived for various reasons, and for various stretches of time, in Southern California, Mexico, Seattle. I then bounced back and forth between Atlanta and New York, and then settled in New York for good, some ten years ago, and spent the subsequent decade waiting tables and tending bar. I worked in old man Irish haunts in Queens, and at upscale velvet-roped wine tastings in Manhattan. I worked for restaurant chains that force to you wear a button on your ill-fitting polo shirt. I wore colorful corporate flair. It was a long and transitory time, marked by loneliness, guilt, and confusion. But mostly it was marked by avoidance. I avoided my family, and saw them not nearly as much as I should have. And I avoided thinking about the very thing that sent me running in the first place. Even in my writing. Because I’d always been writing. In fact, it was literature that first got me questioning my given place in the world. I wrote in the mornings, before working late-night shifts. I wrote on weekends. I wrote about everything under the sun, except for what really mattered, my religious heritage. Though my family and I had long since reunited, and our healthy relationship had become a priority, I did my best to forget the beliefs I’d left behind.

Bethel, however, always remained in my periphery. I could see the Watchtower sign from East Manhattan, where I worked at a fancy nouveau-American bistro (now closed), and when I took long brain-clearing walks and runs along the East River walkway.  I’d left the church, yes, but Bethel had endured, becoming a symbol of my past failures and unresolved fears. I pointed to it many times, saying to friends: “There it is . . .” The usual response was a shrug.

Last year, at age forty, nearly two decades after I left the church, a friend of mine, Amber, also an ex-Witness, suggested we take a tour of the Watchtower facilities. We joked about how weird it would be, but soon decided it was something we simply had to do. On the train ride there, we talked about the mythical place it held in our memories, the powerful grip it had on what we imagined ourselves to be and once were. It was a clear day and warm. I regretted wearing a jacket as we walked from the station and out among Cranberry, Pineapple, and Orange Streets. (No sign yet of Lemon, which I’d have to scope out on the way back). Amber and I approached the entrance, and I pulled from my pocket a small pad I’d brought for taking notes. The building stood there, faceless, emerged from the earth. I took a deep breath and held my notepad like a charm.

Amber went in ahead of me. She seemed so confident and comfortable. She’d only left the Witnesses a few years before, but had successfully resolved her divorce from the organization in a way that I, in twenty long years, hadn’t managed to do. I lagged behind, my shirt sticky with perspiration. Leaning against the cool glass door, I saw the lobby teeming with people in their Sunday best, marching past with books and clipboards in hand. All on a mission of nonstop smiling efficiency, it seemed. Beside a large sectional sofa, Watchtowers were fanned out on a table. I walked over and sat, feeling hot. Amber approached the front desk, and I marveled at her. She was just plain cool. I was jealous. And then I felt like throwing up, so I headed for the men’s room to pull myself together, pressed my face against the cold metal towel dispenser, and fainted.

I woke up on an impeccably clean white floor and caught my breath. I wondered how long it would be before someone came in, and I sat there as the seconds passed. Minutes? Nobody came. I stood, and when I stood I saw something remarkably unremarkable. The color of the walls: beige. The walls were beige with maroon trim. And I thought of the congregation restroom I knew as a child, and of the congregation restrooms I’d seen in other cities — all precisely this same shade of beige. There had to be a storage room deep in Bethel’s depths housing how many cans of Bethel Beige? I opened the door and looked at the lobby carpet and walls: so much benign beige. Suddenly, I was calmed by how banal and bureaucratic this place was — how unthreatening in every way. I found Amber, and we took the tour. It lasted an hour or so, and we met some lovely people who’d traveled thousands of miles to be there. We watched instructional videos. We looked at printing machines and informative placards. We left.

It was midday, and on the street outside I saw a friendly looking young man, clearly a Bethelite. He wore an inviting smile and a beige two-piece suit. White shirt. Tie. Remembering my earlier mission, I asked him if he could point us toward Lemon Street. He said he was sorry, he wasn’t familiar. Was I sure I had the right name? I checked the subway map, and Googled fervently when I got home. Nothing came up. It had never existed at all.

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Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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