Friday, January 2, 2015

"What Does God Want?" by Phoenix Glass - 2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

What Does God Want?


Phoenix Glass

     As I walk north on Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue, I note the businesses and advertisements. DS Fashion
African Tailor offers prayer gowns and ministry robes. Across the street, a church. I think, you can’t beat the convenience of NYC. Dominican style salons, African hair braiding, and barber shops fit like pie slices in between 99-cent stores, pawn shops, discount liquor stores, tax firms, and churches—more churches than I’ve ever seen on a single street. Houses of worship, for God, beauty, and bargains, beg the question: what does God want?

    Does God want us to get great deals, have good hair, drink cheap booze, and pay our taxes? I imagine men and women, arriving at church Sunday morning, saying their hellos before service (the way people stop on the street to greet a passing friend, I assume that this community is tight, that everyone knows everyone). Once the pews are filled, the preacher delivers a sermon warning those with unkempt hair, “God’s view from heaven is the top of your ugly head!”  

    Surrounding sounds are unrepentant: reggae music blasting from African fashion stores and open car windows (more power to anyone who can suffice with a single car window rolled down in 90 degree heat). A dreadlocked mailman pushes his cart toward his next stop, yells out to greet the recipients. He’s across the street, I can’t hear his words, but his cadence is distinctly Caribbean. No one who lives here could feel alone here, I think. The neighborly encounters I witness as I walk are as countless as the slow-moving cars of rush hour. I see a young boy on a bike, and behind him, standing on pegs attached to the back wheel, a younger boy, his tiny hands placed on the shoulders of the other. I wish I had a brother, I think. I ask myself why I don’t live here, and wish that I did.

    Sterling Street, I take a right and search for shade. A white house has been converted into the Grace and Truth Gospel Temple. Three older women sit on the church’s stoop puffing cigarettes. Cigarettes and church always make me think of AA meetings. I wonder if the three women are alcoholics, or just God-loving smokers. I pass a Christian School, which is deteriorating and looks vacant. John Lennon’s lyrics, “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world,” are painted on a mural that covers the school’s fence. I hum the song as I turn onto Franklin.

    No line is drawn marking the cut-off point between Sterling and Franklin; it draws itself instead in the people and the storefronts. Lily & Fig Bakery, an Aveda hair salon, upscale thrift stores and women’s boutiques. Beards are long and bikes are plentiful. This street is tree-lined and quiet as the dead. Everyone walks alone. There are no discounts. There are no churches. God and good deals are nearby if they’re needed.

   Hipster heaven is, like a trend, ephemeral, and by the time I turn onto Fulton Street, the fading scent of vegan scones and artisanal soap is gone. Churches return, along with an abundance of halal food. An awning above a restaurant commands, NO MORE JUNK, EAT HEALTHY, HALAL IS THE ANSWER. I think about ice cream, then wonder what God eats. Halal, I decide. Maybe ice cream on special occasions.

    I pass Alhumdellellah Barber Shop, Abu’s Homestyle Bean Pie Bakery, and Auto Fashion—where one could have their SUV accessorized, its windows tinted, and exchange stock rims for status symbols. Another dreadlocked man pushes a walker with an attached speaker, blasting gospel music. Two men wearing kufis and dashikis talk with a very young, very white police officer. They laugh and shake hands. I wonder if being good with God keeps citizens safe from the police. Then, I think, it’s more complicated than that.

    The very young, very white cop approaches me with a smile even whiter. He asks me if I’m okay, says he noticed me walking around, and stopping, thought I might be lost. I tell him I’m fine, that I’ve been assigned to walk through and write about the neighborhood, so I’m taking my time. He looks confused and asks, “You were given an assignment to walk around this very unsafe area?”

“Yes,” I say. “Everyone’s been super friendly to me.”
“Do you still have your wallet?”
“Yes,” I say, and hope it’s true. “So, why’s this area unsafe? Tell me so I can write it down.” I hold up my notebook and pen.

   No cop has ever looked at me the way he’s looking at me now. He continues smiling, but his warm expression turns to one of concern. He covers his badge and says he’s not telling me anything.

   Too late, I think, and record our exchange the moment he turns away.

   My walk is almost complete. The sun has begun its slow, summer descent. The temperature hasn’t yet dropped, but the vibe on the street is shifting. It’s a familiar shift: less light, more trouble. This is the same anywhere in the world.

       I notice the store before me: Discount Pet Store. I write down the name and beneath it I write, this scares me.
            An old man carrying a cane and scent of alcohol stops and asks me if I’m writing about Fulton Street. When I say yes, he asks if he can read it. I let him.

   He reads my words aloud, then asks, “Why does the pet store scare you?”

   I explain that the idea of discounted pets doesn’t seem right to me. He agrees, and offers to help me get to the bottom of it. On our way into the pet store, he tells me he goes by Big Worm and I tell him I go by Phoenix. Big Worm and I ask around, and we’re told that everything in the store is discounted, even the pets.
            “Why?” I ask. “Are they missing legs or something?”
            No, no. The pets are healthy, they’re just discounted, we’re told.
            Big Worm and I leave the store and decide we were given a bullshit answer. He tells me that I’ll make a good journalist, that I ask the right questions. Then, he asks me for money.
I pull a dollar from my wallet but he sees my ten and wants it. I’m a poor writer, I say.
            “Phoenix, I haven’t slept or eaten for two days, I have a bad foot!”
            “Dude, I’m telling you, I’m poor!”
            “I’m homeless,” he says.
            Touché. I reach back into my wallet for change.
            This is still not enough, so he threatens to remove his shoe and show me his diseased foot. I stop him and give him another five. This, he says, is enough. Then, he says, this neighborhood gets bad at night, but he’ll be my bodyguard. He says, if anyone messes with me, just say, “Yo, you know my boy, Big Worm?” and they’ll leave me alone. Everyone knows him around here, he says. He tells me he’s been shot seven times and lifts his shirt to show me the bullet wounds. He says he’s not afraid of anything.

            I thank him for the offer but tell him I’m done and going home. He offers to show me to the train. As we walk, he tells me to take his arm. I say my fiancé wouldn’t like that. He says if his girlfriend saw me with him, she’d kill me.
            “Great,” I say, “bet you wouldn’t be my bodyguard then, would you?”
            He laughs.
            We reach the station. He thanks me and tells me he’ll look for me on Channel 7 Eye Witness News, that he’ll never forget me. I thank him as well, and say I won’t forget him, either.

As I walk down the stairs to catch the A uptown, I ask myself again, what does God want? I doubt it has much to do with hair salons or churches.


  1. Very colorful! The descriptions couldn't be better.

  2. I feel like I was walking the neighborhood with you, and I could perfectly picture the characters along the way, both people and storefronts and churches
    Good job !