Sunday, February 8, 2015
Hometown: The Hell Project
In a room adjacent to a Mexican restaurant, 15 Lutherans have gathered to disprove the existence of Hell. They sit at three round tables that have been shoved together to create a triangle of intersecting formica tables. The triangle made from round tables, perhaps, has some significance; maybe this form is a cabbalistic emblem, although I am unable to tell you what it means.
The Mexican restaurant is called 1910 after the year that the Mexican civil war began and it is a dark space decorated with mural-sized pictures of armored trains inching across trestle bridges, wild horsemen in clouds of dust wearing sombreros, somber-looking child-soldiers with bandoliers strapped across their skinny chests, and barricades guarded by armed campesinos, peasant men and women with carbines and machetes. The photographs have a sobering effect. It’s hard to get drunk on margaritas and tequila in this gloomy tavern decorated with images of an ancient war.
A waiter comes from within the tavern and takes drink orders from the Lutherans. They favor Dos Equis and Corona. Sometimes, I order a shot of tequila – alcohol makes it easier to study Hell with the attention that it deserves. Later, the same waiter will come and take food orders – most of the Lutherans will have fish tacos served with a Caribbean-style coleslaw. The Lutherans meet from 6:00 to 7:30 pm. and, after their discussion, they will adjourn to the dim tavern, lit mostly it seems by a TV broadcasting a soccer game played by brightly uniformed men on an emerald green field. In the tavern, the Lutherans will form an orderly queue to pay their food and bar bills before departing into the cold and windy night.
1910 is located in a corner of the old Terp Ballroom, so-named because of the Greek muse of dance. Terpsichore. The Terp Ballroom is a sprawling, cavernous building, its roof blistered up to form a shallow dome above the place where the big bands once played and the crowds of meatpackers danced. It is too close to the river, occupying a low terrace below the dam that leaks the water from the big shallow lagoon constructed to provide for the power plant and the slaughterhouse. Periodically, the river floods and muddy water inundates the parking lots and is wicked-up into the Terp Ballroom. Accordingly, the stagnant air in the old structure is stained with the mildew of a dozen floods, a dense scent of decay and mold that hangs in the air above the three circular tables pushed together and the Lutherans around them.
It is dark in the place where the Hell Project is underway, even darker than in the gloomy bar with the war murals. In sconces along the walls, there are dim bulbs shaped vaguely like pale, yellowish flames and the Lutherans are meeting in a corridor between the tavern’s kitchen and the grand ballroom, a black vaulted space set up this time of year – it is February – for in-door soccer leagues that play on the weekends under the high ceiling and the old bandstand on the stage overlooking the elaborately contrived wooden floor, polished blonde staves of wood inlaid to create a mirror-smooth surface. Nets surround the floor and the goals are set up at opposite ends of the big room, folding tables and chairs pushed against the concrete walls decorated with tile and the remnants of old mirrors.
Not only is it dark where the Lutherans are debating Hell. It is also cold. The corridor leads to the long-abandoned and cell-like ticket-booth between two doors that open onto the street – the Salvation Army is across the road and the Senior Citizen Center. The ballroom is too large to be thoroughly heated in this weather of ice and snow and so the Lutherans peer through the gloom at their Bibles and the textbook about Hell that they are reading and they shiver in their heavy winter coats and when the cold beer arrives they taste it with a grimace: it is pouring cold into cold.
As I walked my dog, I came upon a neon-green flyer stapled to a utility pole at the intersection of 8th Street and 9th Avenue, SE. The flyer was an offer to reward the person who returned a lost cat to its owner. The cat was shown on the flyer, a handsome animal with an intelligent, thoughtful look, a tabby with lustrous fur patterned white and fifty shades of grey. Cats are photogenic. It is much easier to take a good picture of a cat than it is to photograph a dog. There are two reasons for this: first, cats are wild animals, complete in themselves, and, only, incidentally pets – a cat is a monad, as sharp and precise as a billiard ball, a sly, malicious hunter and an agent in its world. By contrast, dogs are always somewhat half-formed and incomplete – they await the presence of their master to become fully animate. Accordingly, photographs of dogs often reveal them as inchoate, lumpy, unformed creatures – even the great Rin-Tin-Tin in his silent films sometimes threatens to decay into a ghostly, shapeless shadow. Second, cats embody the souls of the human dead. By some obscure process, a cat represents a transmogrified human being. Therefore, the savage genius that stares out from a cat’s eyes is always human to some extent.
The lost cat was named – you can guess it! – "Bandit." He is male and was last seen on the 1300 block of 8th Street SE. If you find "Bandit" and restore him to his home, you will receive a monetary reward – at least this is what the flyer assured me.
Of course, it is illegal to staple flyers to public utility poles. I am the City Attorney and so, perhaps, I should report this infraction to the police. But... who know? Maybe if the flyer is kept in place for a few more days, Bandit will be restored to his owners. My dog sniffed the base of the pole, apparently used as a pissoir by local pooches. I gazed up and down the street but there was no sign of Bandit.
After the big bands became extinct, the Terp ballroom was closed. For a long time, it was vacant, moldering on the edge of the river. Sometimes, the place was opened briefly for special events and its faded glamor, the beautiful floor and the once-elegant trappings of the ballroom, invested activities undertaken there with a faintly sinister, decadent allure. About thirty years ago, the Austin chapter of Golden Gloves conducted a tournament in the Terp and the public was invited. I attended with my friend, the plumber and scholar Jimmy M— and a woman who lived as a tenant in his farmhouse, Jane S–, also known as "Rocket."
The boxing matches were scheduled for a Sunday afternoon and I was skeptical about the exhibition. Why would I want to see teenage amateur fighters punch at one another? But to my surprise, the big ballroom was packed and drinks were being sold, priced at club prices – that is a a whiskey shot to mix with coke or seven-up for $1.25 or tap beer at 75 cents for a 16 ounce cup, the charges one might pay at a private club like the Elks or the Moose Lodge. Jimmy M— knew the drill -- his father had been a prize-fighter among other things – and he brought with him a paper bag with liter bottles of mix. Girls showing lots of cleavage were selling cheap cigars and the ballroom was clouded with noisome blue and purplish smoke that rose to form a kind of tabernacle above the boxing ring in the middle of the hall. No one was paying any attention to how much people drank; after all, most of the cops in the town were in the hall staggering drunk themselves as well as the mayor and half the city council members.
The Golden Gloves fighters were scrawny little kids from the East Side of town, the part of the city where the meatpacking rank-and-file lived in the shadow of the slaughterhouse, and they were valiant, if incompetent, fighters. None of the child fighters had any idea as to how to mount a defense and so they simply flailed away at each other’s faces, landing punch after punch until the ring was awash in blood. The blows to nose and eyes maddened the amateur fighters and they swung their fists in rage at one another and slipped and skidded in the blood underfoot. Other little kids with black eyes and split lips and nose leaking mucousy blood sat sprawled under the ring, showered periodically with more blood from the fighters on display, and the boys awaiting their turn, the bantam gladiators, stood along the wall, where once girls had lounged decorously waiting to be asked to dance, shadowboxing and hopping up and down nervously. The average age of the fighters was about 13, although some of the boys were as old as 15 and others as young as nine. It was the most savage and degrading spectacle that I have ever witnessed and as fascinating as a fatal car wreck on the state highway, something that once seen can not be unseen, a dismal festival of blind, inept violence and drunkenness.
We were loaded. Jane S– , who was a part-time prostitute, kept demanding more whisky, a drink that she called "Rocket Fuel." Everyone was shouting and bellowing at the baby fighters and the kids stumbled back and forth walloping one another in the eyes and chins and, between bouts, people came out with mops to wipe the gore away. The crowd’s blood lust was aroused. After the show, I saw people fighting in the parking lot, men and women lunging at one another, some combatants knocked-out and lying in the gutter, the chrome on cars crunching as vehicles smashed into one another triggering more fisticuffs in the icy parking lot. At the bridge up river, some drunks were teetering perilously on the guardrails, balanced above the river where bluish and lethal ice floes were floating. Across the river on the east side, in the alleyways around the old Catholic church, gangs were squared-off against one another and you could hear people hooting and hollering in the darkness, mirthless cries that were supposed to sound like laughter but that were instead simply taunts and provocations. Broken glass was everywhere.
As I stood on the street corner, someone told me that, although the Golden Gloves bouts were awful and degrading, it was nothing like Doc K–‘s "ball feast." Doc K– was a large-animal veterinarian and each February, around Valentine’s Day, he hosted a customer appreciation banquet for the swine and cattle farmers that comprised his clientele. Doc K– kept the testicles that he lopped from the animals owned by his farmer-clients and he froze them en masse so that they could be thawed each February for the big "ball feast." The testicles were fried in batter and served with cole slaw and potato salad washed down with vodka and brandy and whisky or, if you preferred, free beer. Prostitutes were imported from Milwaukee to dance and work the crowd and no respectable women were allowed anywhere near the function. Doc K– rented the Terp ballroom for the annual party and people who had the pleasure of participating in the banquet said that it was like nothing that they had ever experienced, that it was a combination orgy and drunken feast with illiterate swineherds savaging one another over indifferent Black prostitutes in the toilets and parking lot, always one or two knifings, it was said, as well as a couple of fights with combatants wielding broken broken beer bottles and the half-naked girls wandering around with huge green fans of twenty-dollar bills in their g-strings.
Later, an evangelical church rented the place and renamed the Terp the Vineyard. The evangelical Christians erected three huge crosses in the vacant lot next to the ballroom where the old bowling alley had been torn down after a flood destroyed the building. The crosses remain in that lot, now proscribed any further development, because it lies on the city’s flood plain, big splintery specters painted dark black to signify Jesus’ suffering and death. The evangelicals were led by a charismatic pastor who cast out demons and healed the sick and, sometimes, people in the congregation babbled in tongues. I knew one of the parishioners, a fat, balding man with a pear-shaped figure who had once been a woman before his sex change. The fat man was bitter because no one accepted him as either a man or a woman. He prayed to be saved, but, instead, told me that a demon had entered him and spoke from his belly and, although the devil was periodically cast out of his bowels, the evil spirit always returned. A few years before the Vineyard closed its doors, the fat man killed himself.
Then, the Mexicans bought the place and used the ballroom for their southern Minnesota indoor soccer league and there was a tax service in one of the side rooms of the big structure, Merida Tax that catered to immigrants, and, later, several resourceful young men established a restaurant 1910 in the building.
My friend killed himself the morning before Valentine’s Day. The Catholic priest concluded that the suicidal act was committed as a result of illness that had disordered my friend’s mind and so he was buried in consecrated ground near the big cross where an alabaster Jesus hung above the graves.
In fine weather, my friend used to come and talk to me while I sat on the front porch reading. Four or five months after his death, a large tom-cat appeared beside me on my front porch. I had never seen the animal before and it wore no collar. The cat was beautifully marked and had piercing tourmaline eyes. The animal wanted to sit beside me on the porch and rubbed itself affectionately against my legs. Everyone in the neighborhood liked the cat and so people put out food and milk for him. The cat was remarkably gentle and friendly. In the Fall, we were concerned about the cat’s well-being. The widow of the man who had died had been feeding the cat and, sometimes, in cold or wet weather, sheltering it in her basement. One day, the dead man’s mother, who lived on a farm in Nebraska, came to town. She took the cat with her back to the farm where it probable still lives.
Students of Hell find themselves very quickly immersed in deep and icy waters that are uncharted and obscure. The Bible is mostly silent on the subject of Hell. Generally, Jesus speaks of Hell in terms of destruction by fire, that is, as a force that does not torment so much as it destroys and purifies. There is really no scriptural evidence for the notion of Hell as a physical place where souls are eternally tormented.
Theology abhors a vacuum and clever men have debated the concept of Hell from the time of Origen, who thought that all men would be ultimately saved, until the present. Implicated in the study of Hell is the notion of the Manichean heresy that animates the apocalyptic books of the Bible, enigmatic phrases in the Pseudepigraphia – what does it mean the Jesus preached to the dead as noted in First Timothy? Who are the antediluvians bound by chains in deepest darkness referenced in Jude? Are they the Nehillam? Are souls mortal? How can a soul exist without the living blood since as Leviticus 17:11 tells us the "life is in the blood?" What was Jesus doing on Holy Saturday? Was He harrowing Hell as some medieval scholastics thought? Or was He suffering with the damned in Hell as John Calvin believed? Do souls sleep during the thousand year reign of the Anti-Christ? Where do they await the final judgment?
We know nothing of Hell. The Bible tells us what heaven is like. The Holy City of Jerusalem is there in a place where the sea has ceased to be. The Holy City has walls built of sapphire, agate, onyx, carnelian, beryl, topaz and, of course, the hardest of all substances, jasper, a stone that is adamantine. "There will be no more night" and the inhabitants of the heavenly city will need neither lamp nor sun for the Lord God will be their light and they shall bathe in the river of the water of life that flows perpetually from the altar of the Lamb that sits before the throne of God.
In the end, the Lutherans engaged in the Hell project concluded that there was no such place. I don’t know if the missing cat has yet been found.