A Walter State of Mind

In my family we all went to church and Sunday school on Sunday and prayer meeting on Wednesday night.  Whether we (read I) wanted to or not (not).  It was a Pentecostal church, very conservative, very quiet and proper except for altar calls, which were loud and emotional and required by my parents, and for the times people were visited by the Holy Ghost and would speak in tongues.  People dressed up and put on their best manners. Fun was allowed only in the 20 minute break between services when most of the congregation walked to Winchell’s Donuts a block away for coffee, powdered sugar or jelly donuts, and conversation.

There was another church a block past the donut shop and sometimes I’d ditch our service and go to theirs because it was more fun and not so serious. My parents had spies in our church who would rat me out if I ditched, so it was never a good idea because three sanctioned church services a week were the price I paid to go to a G rated movie with friends on Saturday (or make out in the drive in to a PG).  When I got older I would drive into Watts on a Sunday morning because I could get a black church station on my a.m. car radio and hear the glorious music that was calling to me and still does.  I’d also drive to Monrovia and go to black tent meetings once in awhile for the same reason, the music.  That early music love bloomed into the love of R and B and funk and later rap but it all began in somebody else’s church.

So, very boring church services every Sunday morning into afternoon with the taste of donut still on my tongue.  The minister was very old, small, frail, and hunched over from some affliction. He had the title of doctor and was erudite and very long winded.  There were a couple of opening songs by the choir or songs the congregation stood and sang.  I can remember my father’s beautiful tenor booming above me and my mother’s thin soprano joining in.  And then we all sat down, got as comfortable as possible on the polished hard wooden benches, and shut the hell up. The service would last only an hour or so but, time being relative to how much you are enjoying yourself, it felt like twenty.

As I got older I would sit in the balcony with my friends Margaret and Maxine, twins, who were wild enough to be very interesting.  We would pass notes during the sermon and generally help each other live through it.   We’d sit far enough back in the rows that my parents’ spies on the main floor couldn’t crane their necks far enough to see us.

Into this temple of decorum and absolute quiet occasionally would come Walter.  Walter was an older man, small of build, wearing a rumpled suit, and he was developementally disabled.  He would sit in the balcony during Sunday services, we tried to sit opposite him in the curving balcony to get the best view.  Walter would sometimes bring a transistor radio and listen to the baseball game with the radio pressed against his ear.  The ushers would ignore him until he cheered at a score and then they’d ask him to turn it off.  Sometimes he would enthusiastically pick his nose with a flourish.  Margaret and Maxine and I would almost pee ourselves laughing at him without making a noise.  Once I snorted and covered it with a cough.  Another time someone in the balcony had a gift of the spirit and loudly spoke in a foreign language and another person stood up on the main floor and translated it into English.  Walter apparently was moved by the same spirit let out a loud Whoop! that caused the ushers again to rush to quiet him.

I’ve recently realized that Walter lives on in my brain.  Every time I decide that this is finally the time that I will write every day, or eat healthy for 30 days straight, or meditate half an hour with the oven timer on, Walter makes an appearance.  The sight of a blank piece of paper will make me leave the room trembling,  pan dulces from the Mexican market mysteriously show up in my grocery bag along with the cilantro and avocados I went in to buy, or a song will get stuck in my head for the whole time I’m trying to think of nothing.  I’ll resolve to say only nice things about people or decide that this is the time to set up a daily schedule that I’ll stick to religiously, and here he is again, making a snarky comment in my voice or saying fuck it to all shoulds I just came up with.

Rap blasting in the background, eating an apple fritter, sitting on my spreading ass working a jigsaw puzzle online, these are all Walter influences.  I wonder whatever happened to Margaret and Maxine?

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2 thoughts on “A Walter State of Mind”

  1. We had a “Walter” … an orthodox Jewish woman who had been a teacher at some point, but suffered brain damage and found work as a stevedore. We were never clear how we came to be her “home” but we made her as welcome as we could. I’m enjoying your writing!

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