Erroll Garner and Dinner at Church

Jun 19 08:21 2005 Roger Wright Print This Article

Connecting Erroll Garner and a Holy Meal

“The next time you put on a dinner,Guest Posting don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors. The kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out. The misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be---and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned. Oh---how it will be returned!”

Luke 14:12
“The Message” Translation

The soft summer rain dinged the black plastic lids of the garbage bins in the alley out behind the church as the man with the shopping cart and the battered blue Cubs hat just picked out of the gutter whistled the first two bars of “Misty” with a resonance that would have made Erroll Garner--who wrote and recorded the song the year that I was born --break into a big old smile.

Almost dinner time. A holy celebration coming.

Erroll Garner would have been 84 this week. Brought back by Clint Eastwood in the 1970’s to play his tune in Eastwood’s movie “Play Misty for Me.” Today it’s hard to separate Garner’s masterpiece from the cheesy lyric added later by somebody else. (“Look at me. . . .I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree . . . .”)

Hard to lift out and hear Garner’s tune. Unless you are Clint Eastwood, you really know jazz and are world class good at what you do.

Either that . . . or you’re in the alley out behind the church. Then the tune comes gentle as the rain and the holy meal just about to start.

In that alley right off a rush hour Damen Avenue, the man parks his shopping cart off the beaten path next to the chain link fence. Two black labs just bursting with life in the yard on the other side of that fence bound up to investigate; barking and sniffing.

Chuck, who is explaining the job to me in the natural rhythm of one born to be a leader, says “Now it’s OK if folks leave their shopping cart here. That cart’s their home. Gotta make sure it’s safe.”

Chuck and I circle though the alley, back on to Grace, right on Damen, ending up at the front of the church. “So that’s it,” he says. “Making sure we’re a good neighbor.” Back in front of the Damen Avenue door, which leads down to the Open Pantry and the hall where the meal is just about to start, we see the two men waiting, sitting in the stoop of the house next door.

Stepping north across the alley, the golden tones of “Misty” still reverberating out for all who care to listen, Chuck and I get to do something subversive and radical. We get to say and then motion with our arms “Hey, come on over here!”

“Hey, come on over here!” A message that run in direct and total opposition to the divisive cry of “Hey! Move along! The call of “You are on your own!” that permeates the very fabric of our world.

“Hey, come on over here!” Like an alien shriek, or maybe something soft as the man whistling “Misty.” A phrase as bizarre as church itself.

Five words to describe what evangelism really means, “Hey, come on over here.”

Looking straight at one man and then the other, I say, with a smile in the words:
“I’m in charge of standing around. It’s my specialty. You guy’s want to help?”
The two men guffaw. Chuck silently pronounces me trained for the task. He turns and goes back inside to finish preparing the meal.

Chuck had supplied me with a trash bag. So I say to my two fellow sentries, “Guys, I forgot to tell you that sometimes I just suck at standing around. Don’t do it well at all. So I’m gonna walk around and pick up trash. If you see anybody in the alley, or a neighbor’s front steps or yard---will you tell them, “Hey, c’mon over here? You know, make sure they know they’re with us?”

“You a crazy man!” one of the men smiles.

“Sometimes I am good at standing around. Sometimes I just can’t!” I wave, walking away, bending down to pluck an empty potato chip wrapper out from under the rose bushes and stuff it in my litter bag.

The rain picks up just a little. Still light. It sweeps that soft melody of “Misty” out from the mouth of the alley on to Damen Avenue, and it covers the full east side of the church like a musical offering to all the hymns inside. Then the blended rain and the melody sweeps right back out to the car clogged city street again.

Floating down the parkway on Damen, somehow still fluttering despite the rain and the music --- a napkin---never used. A foot from the ground. I grab it just before it lights on to the wet grass.

And in grabbing the napkin, in the rain, hearing “Misty”---I am back at my first holy meal.

It’s at a Burger King.

Mr. Punnett was presiding. And we were all carefully spreading napkins on the orange and tan plastic seats bolted to the floor. My sister and I, Mrs. Punnett, Spencer Punnett, who was around ten just like me. His brothers Ian and Eric. In later years, I would be proud to be called “the other Punnett brother.” We had just left the Christian Science Church. There was something that carried on from Church to this meal. Like Sunday school and the meal in the Burger King were all the same thing.

Now back up on Damen in the rain. I pick up the last of the litter; ask my two new friends if they are going to help other folks stand around. They say they will work on it. And I go down into Fellowship Hall to see if there’s anything I can do to help before I make my next set of rounds.

Inside, the meal s just about to begin---so I go up and motion my two fellow sentries inside.

Walking through the door and into Fellowship Hall. There is a purpose in this room. The quiet, Lutheran dignity of the work,--- the service--- as Trudi and the others who form the living historical bedrock of this one street corner church in Chicago. That dignity and order washes over one just by walking through the door. I whisper a mispronounced high school German phrase to myself. “Arbeit macht des lebens suiss.” (I think I remember it meaning, “Work makes life sweet.”) If you asked anybody who was serving here, what they were doing or why they were here, they’d tell you they were serving dinner. That’s it. Why even bother with such a question?”

To the observer though: “These people are making history”

And in seeing the order imposed so gently on the room, one senses how that order soothes the troubled souls gathered here for the meal.

Order. Rules. They are not always fun. And they are rarely as gentle as they are in this room with the rain whistling Erroll Garner’s “Misty” outside the windows.

Mr. Punnett had rules. Back during one of the times I lived in the Punnett basement, kept company and kept warm in the most brutal Chicago snows by a friendly throbbing, ancient boiler; I was truly surprised and schooled by one of the rules. It arose in preparing for a visit from Laura.

Laura, a long, pressed blond hair, blue eyed daughter of a Rhode Island expert on arcane forms of venereal disease, was a “friend.” What that meant, back as the closing days of the 1960’s stretched on to the early 1980’s, was that you put the word “friend” in quotes. And then you’d say, “No, really. We are really just friends.”

I was totally infatuated with her in that way that often keeps young people at the “friend” stage. Infatuated in that way that should somebody have told me she liked to put baby kittens in sacks and twirl them around her head (which looking back might not have been all that far from the truth) ; but if somebody had told me that, I would have made up a reason why that was OK. So a visit from Laura was a big deal.

And seeing that Punnett’s house was small, I volunteered to sleep on the floor. Right next to my bed, which I of course would give to Laura.

That sleeping arrangement of course never happened. Thanks to Mr. Punnett. I remember his greeting Laura though as if she were absolute royalty. All through the visit he was as nice, Mrs. Punnett might say, “he was “as nice as pie.” No one could have been nicer. But of course there were rules.

In Fellowship Hall in the basement of the church, I had been given the word that one big rule was to stay out of the kitchen. “It gets too crazy in there.” I was told.

So as I bend down to peer through the serving counters and in to the kitchen, I just have one question. “Kathy, I ask, I’m watching the alley outside tonight, but it’s pretty quiet. Anything I can help you with here?”

“Sure,” says Kathy, who is running the show with Chuck. “We might be short a server. Hang on a second; we’re almost ready to go.”

And as I watch, I see the kind of operation that comes when every silver cylinder of a gleaming clean machine is firing full speed ahead. An operation run so well that you know just by looking that the work had been started long before this second in time.

Mary Beth had mapped this out on the level of an executive chef. There was a structure and an order here. Kathy and Chuck were the perfect people to make this machine run, pulling this wonderful meal out of the ovens –smells permeating the place making the long gone souls of the German founders smile and say “Ahhhh!”

Geoff and Ruth making the service line work, joining in and now the four of them, Kathy, Chuck, Geoff and Ruth were like some sort of small orchestra just humming along. The plates presented like art, out through the service counter.

Trudi and the crew now serving the good stuff. The warmth of this food just reverberating off the walls in the same dignified way that man in the alley’s whistling Misty had blended in to the music of the rain.

The service now done, and the meal now in crescendo; everyone was eating.

I went back outside in the soft rain to make my rounds again. No stray souls in the alley or the yards. No one on the front steps along Damen.

Turning the corner in front of the church. Sitting in the front seat, passenger side, of the car, door open his legs splayed out in the gutter, sun glasses and a pork pie hat in the rain.Staring up a tree branch and mumbling.

If Erroll Garner had been the man back in the alley smiling---the man in the passenger seat of the white station wagon with an Oklahoma license plate was Thelonius Monk. And he looked just as serious and angry.

So I said to Monk. “You eat yet?”

And he answered in a mumble on an accent that said Caribbean more than it said Oklahoma.

“I am looking at the branches of the tree.”

Then he starts a diatribe where no one word seemed to have a relationship to the one that came before. At least none that I could hear. At one point I break in to the monologue and say, “You are welcome in the church!” and he answers with an indigent, West Indies anger, “I am not a shoemaker!”

Chuck comes out to take a quick break and greets the man with the immediate respect and honor of the street. The kind of greeting where the words don’t even matter. A greeting that says, “I know you are there. And I am offering respect.”

But the man keeps rambling. We listen and nod for a moment or two, then say, we have to get back in side.

The Caribbean Thelonius now clear in his angry words, “Wait! Come back! Don’t go!” And Chuck answers as a matter of fact. “We got work here. I’m sorry. We don’t have time for this.”

And as Chuck and I walked back inside, he says, “That’s a lot of rum he’s had tonight. Maybe rock cocaine.” Shaking his head. “Out of control. Too bad.”

I remembered once being out of control. It was autumn. A midnight bus bound for Chicago pulling up to the tiny station at the fringe of old Beloit Wisconsin. A crumbling Beloit Corporation factory belching third shift smoke and noise.

Across that 90 mile stretch of what was then mostly starlit open farmland till the electric lights of O’Hare heralded the coming of the big city. No rock cocaine. But there was an awful lot of cheap cold Huber beer subsumed that night and I had done my share. Rolling into the old Randolph street bus station, a seedy bright neon 2:00 am. Then up on to the El Train for rumbling trip up to the Linden street station. In the shadow of the Bahai Temple. Near the lake in Wilmette.

It was now 3:30 in the morning. No one up but me. And there were no trains or buses that went any further. I had no real way to get home on my own.

So at 3:30 in the morning---I woke up every Punnett in the house with that phone call. They knew who it was. Mr. Punnett of course said it was OK for Spencer to get in the car, come get me.

And bring me home.

Now back outside the church in the soft rain on Damen, Mark—from Church—walks up.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I ask. “What are you doing here tonight?”

‘Oh, I just thought I’d stop by, see how things were going.”

And as the greater family who had all sat down to eat this holy meal together tonight drift out on to the street and off by foot or bus, the lovely sounds of Ruth’s piano drift out too. All of us so well fed in so many ways.

Mark and I stand and just chat. About everything and nothing.

Back in the alley, Erroll Garner’s notes of “Misty” still sound even as the rain slows down.

A small gust of wind blows the church door closed and it automatically locks.

“Uh oh. I say. How will we get back in?”

“Don’t worry,” says Mark.

“We have a key.”

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Roger Wright
Roger Wright

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