Relics

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

On this hungover Monday morning, a story about my first experience with the liquid fire I’ve come to know only too well.The first time I became very intoxicated I was visiting a little village in Italy called Assisi, home of the St. Francis of veneration fame. I acquired a very funny souvenir there, a little statuette of a red-cheeked monk passionately playing an alto saxophone. What was he playing? In my mind I always imagined it to be something like a Maceo Parker tune; a pious monk just whaling out like one funky motherfucker. Like Pass the Peas, Pass the Peas. I got a kick out the – irreverence? No; if anything it was the reverent way it echoed the same beautiful juxtaposition resonant throughout that old country. If you’ve seen the Coliseum, situated there against the skyline of Rome, amongst office buildings and parking lots and jazz music and wifi networks, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s not an alien thing- it all belongs. And there’s a certain reverence in that.

I was on tour in Italy with my high school a Capella choir. Our high school had a reputation for very good a Capella choirs plus a Capella choirs are necessarily easy to tour with given the inherent lack of equipment and whatnot and so our choir traveled with some regularity. I was rooming with my good friend Bob, an amazing fellow who is now rumored to have a tattoo on his right shoulder that in fact says tattoo, and, as I then found out, has for most of his life slept at night in the clothes he intends to wear the following day, allowing him to wake up not more than one minute before he must leave. He simply wakes up at the sound of his alarm, stands up, and walks right out the door. He shared my particular affinity for circus peanuts and spreading rumors that certain of our classmates secretly wore wigs. Yes, we were good friends.

On this particularly warm afternoon in the lovely Assisi, a town that time forgot, Bob and I were overcome with a great thirst which, considering that he and I were exactly two-thirds of the first tenor section – we were late-blooming sophomores – is a very disconcerting thing indeed, as the choir was to perform that very evening and our throats needed to be kept in finest of shapes and the only other tenor was Chris, a gregarious autistic fellow who was sweet as pie in his inadvertently perverted way but had no sense of pitch whatsoever, and so it was imminently important that Bob’s and my thirsts be slaked.

And so, being the culturally inquisitive sorts that we were, we headed out of the hotel and down the road to the little market. Wanting to choose something genuinely Italian, we selected a couple uniquely shaped glass bottles with nothing but the inscription Campari Soda blown into the glass and containing an effervescent red liquid.

Having borrowed a bottle opener from the concierge, Bob and I returned to our room and opened what we anticipated to be extremely delicious sodas (of the pop variety) and took greedy, unsuspecting gulps. After the ensuing coughing period, we wiped the wetness from our eyes and Bob, quite red-faced, said Whoa. This tastes like fire. Sure does, I said, myself equally, perhaps more, crimson. Since I had once visited the Coca Cola factory in Atlanta Georgia where, at the conclusion of the tour, you are invited to taste colas from around the world, I knew that some countries preferred altogether nasty flavored sodas. I relayed all of this information to Bob, while hinting that, being very culturally curious fellows, we should try to enjoy our sodas best we could. And so we took another drink, and another, and another. Hey, the more I drink of this, the better it tastes, Bob said, like it tastes good to me now. Hey, you’re right. I said. See, it’s just an acquired taste, replied Bob. We sure acquired the taste fast, I said. We sure did, said Bob. And, as we slowly drained our bottles, we began to laugh quite uncontrollably. How long we laughed – and indeed what else we did – is anyone’s guess. Time and memory are tricky enough when one isn’t drunk. Eventually the laughter and revelry slowly gave way to a sort of hazy, awake but not exactly aware state, that now all too familiar state of post-drinking, pre-sleeping consciousness. It was in this semi-lucid but blissfully happy state that Robert S., a fellow choir member, a preacher’s son, who we would just a few days later forever corrupt by introducing him to the truly Roman institution of late-night porno freely available on euro television, found us when, upon receiving no response to repeated knocks on our hotel room door, entered our room. Guys? He said. Guys! Guys what are you doing? You don’t even have your robes on. Come on guys. Guys you gotta get up. We gotta go. I came here to see if you wanna walk over together. Everyone is leaving. Walk where? Bob asked with that blissful indifference that has come to haunt and tempt the drunkard in me. You know, to the basilica. Basilica? Yeah, you know, like the church. Oh right, right the church. Jorge, Bob said, we gotta go to church. Oh, oh oh right, I said. Oh oh oh right Bob said. We slung our feet over the edges of our respective beds and slowly with that sort of caution and disbelief, though none of the joy, a cripple miraculously healed has upon walking for the first time. Guys, seriously come on. Ok, ok, we said and slumped toward the door. Guys! What about your robes! What is wrong with you guys? Oh oh right. We grabbed our robes, which we had responsibly draped neatly over a small chair before we had indulged ourselves in so much soda, and headed out the door.

Robert S. was of course understandably confused if not a little concerned even. We weren’t exactly non-nonplussed ourselves, considering that we were for the first time drunk and unaware that this was in fact what was happening. One could not say, however, that we were unhappy in this state. Bob and I walked to the basilica in such a fashion that we were paradoxically walking straight forward but also toward one another, all the while mumbling and laughing an attempted explanation to Robert S. about the Italian soda pop and something something.

We were lucky that we were, having practiced and performed various variations on this strange theme since we first engaged in this sort of pageantry lo so many years ago, sufficiently accustomed to ordering ourselves and filing into the front of a sanctuary on cue as to do it without thinking. The old basilica was small, perhaps it could have seated one hundred and fifty people or so at capacity, about twice the size of the audience in attendance on this particular night. The audience – all strangers to us, who quite literally saw us walking down the street and followed us to the church to hear our music – waited with a quiet but earnest and eager patience, a patience that has never known obligation. It is the sort of patience that only aged and tired countries know, countries that have fallen and risen again like a man made stronger by a brush with death. The sacred music they came to hear that night resonates their souls, their shared memories, ancient modes and harmonies in weathered ears sending distant overtones that echo to the very beginnings of art. What they heard that night in Palestrina is something I will never hear. And not just because I was drunk when I was singing it to them.

Of course, singing would be quite an overstatement of what I actually did during this concert. As an old tradition our choir swayed to the music as we sang, not exactly in synchronicity with the tempo, but as if the sound waves repelling from the walls were nudging us just a little, putting us in motion like a pendulum moving through water, its inertia subject only to phrases and fermatas. Luckily for me, in my inebriated state and swaying for quite a different reason, this provided a good cover for the first part of the concert. However, as the concert wore on, the soporific effects of soft candlelight and sacred canons took their toll, and my swaying became increasingly dramatic, the period of my inverse pendulum widening without will. This, as mandated by science, caused my swaying to move slowly out of synchronicity with the first basses flanking me, so that I was more or less just sort of bouncing aft starboard as if on the moon with my feet strapped down. And then, about three motets to the end, I just gave up and slowly leaned forward, resting my head on the head of the second alto in front of me. Sometimes when I look at living ants carrying dead ants, I think that perhaps the dead ants are not dead at all; perhaps they are simply wasted. How much does this well-known practice of the ants resemble the good fellow carrying his smashed buddy up the steps and into his room? I felt a deep sense of this cross species brotherhood, this leaning in nature, as I swayed as if I were one with the second alto; where she swayed I swayed.

In Italy, they don’t clap between songs. When a song comes to an end, the final harmonies, the Picardy third or the plagal cadence, are allowed to live out their existence, echo, sometimes with a delay of six seconds or more in the larger cathedrals, and fade, echo and fade, becoming sort of evanescent before assimilating into the acoustic miasma somewhere near the ceiling. In an a Capella choir, when you cut off the final chord of a work, the choir ideally stops singing in a sort of wave, from the sopranos to altos to the tenors and finally to the basses, so in effect the lowest note of the chord is held an almost imperceptible amount of time longer than the highest note. It just sounds better when you do it this way. Because traditionally the upper voices are concentrated more closely together than are the lower voices so when the basses hang on that last note a nanosecond longer it gives the chord a gravity, like a washer tied to the end of the string on a helium balloon, the voices of the women wandering up into the rafters but, even in their faintest echo, never allowed to float away altogether. The Italians understand the beauty of this acoustic death, and the reverence one should show it. They only clap at the very end of the concert. And even then, it isn’t the uproarious frenzy of hand smacking we Americans are inclined to engage in egregiously even between the movements of a symphony.

We filed out of the basilica. I stumbled along, thankful to be en route to a bed. Maybe it was the booze, maybe the lull of reverent voices (gods speak in song), or the quiet of the night in this time capsule town, a rare quiet we no longer know, a quiet without even the buzz of radio waves passing through cell phones and satellites, but I slept one of my best sleeps that night.

So deep did I sleep in fact, Bob and I awoke only when, once again, Robert S. banged loudly on our hotel door. Guys! The bus is about to leave! What have you been doing! Hey, guys! Get up! Robert S. was an anxious fellow, an anxiety that extended in a genuine way to the plight of his fellow man and drove him to worry on the existential and pragmatic behalf of others in the way that the devout Christian is wont to do. Through squints Bob asked Robert S. what he was in a tizzy about. The bus is leaving and you guys are still in bed! If you don’t hurry up you’ll make us all late and I don’t think the Pope is gonna be too happy about that so you guys better hurry up. Come on! Oh oh oh right, Bob said, the bus, the Pope. Oh oh oh right, I said. Bob leaped out of bed, already dressed of course, putting me at a great disadvantage, time-wise. Stumbling through the consciousness penumbra I would later learn is called a hangover, I haphazardly clad myself in the nearest articles of clothing, threw my robe and stole into my bag a crumpled mass, a sacrilege of the choral order, and the three of us began a hastened peregrination to the bus. Halfway down the hall I stopped, ran back to the hotel room, and grabbed the two empty bottles of Campari Soda, that strange and magical elixir, so as to later remember why exactly it happened that I slept through most of my audience with John Paul II.

It wasn’t until we reached the parking lot that I realized it was still dark, that the time was not quite 5:00 am, and that not too many hours had passed since the inadvertent imbibing of the previous evening, explaining my lingering stupor and Bob’s very vocal insistence that everything and everyone around him was a Boophus. We stumbled onto the bus, passing in and out of lucidity as we rolled through the countryside toward the Eternal City. Perhaps, I think now, being half drunk is the only authentic way to experience the Latinum countryside.

The first thing that struck me about St. Peter’s was how seriously Italians, and indeed the basilica itself, took the whole thing. As a true Millenial American, I am genuinely shocked by anything that’s earnest and not at all self deprecating. I was disappointed, honestly, as I had expected there to be a number of souvenir carts and what have you selling Papal memorabilia. I had my heart set on acquiring some sort of faux Pope hat to exhibit ironically while shopping at Wal-Mart or whatever, but when I got to St. Peter’s I saw there were no such vendors. In fact, the only stores in the vicinity selling anything Pope related were stores selling actual Catholic sacraments, rosaries and what have you. Not even Pope soap on a rope. Had the Christian Church been founded in, say, Cincinnati, merchants would have made fortunes from selling Pope key chains and shot glasses and miniature personalized license plates and yes, Pope hats; but alas, there were no such tchotkes for sale in the city of the saints.

Catholics, tourists, pick pockets and newlyweds were quickly filling the square. We made our way toward the front, where our choir had been assigned seats from which we would assail John Paul with our piety and our song. The frenzy of a crowd in waiting, the shifting shadows of Doric columns and the watchful eyes of carefully placed snipers did nothing to abate my headache, once pounding at a leisurely andante but now clipping along allegretto, fortissimo and with heavy accents. And then a sudden hush befell the gathered masses as we turned, in an almost choreographed fashion, to face the back of the square where Pope John Paul II, in all his Papal and tall hat glory, was escorted toward the basilica in the famed Pope-mobile, as his glorified golf cart has come to be known. Some Pope, Bob said. Sure is, I said. Just look at that hat. Boy I wish I had a hat like that. What a Boophus, Bob said. The crowd received the Pope as they might a rock star. Quite frankly, I thought this gratitude a little misplaced, seeing as how the Pope hadn’t produced so much as a decent single during his long tenure as ruler of Christendom. I mean, this wasn’t Jesus arriving; it was simply the Catholic with the tallest hat. Though I suppose we revere a good many people simply because they’re revered; a question begging phenomenon but one that seems to explain a great deal of fame cult, now doesn’t it.

When he reached, finally, his throne at the head of the audience he spoke a few inaudible words of Latin before some staffer told us it was our time to sing. We stood. The Pope personally chooses all the songs choirs sing to him; it’s a major perk of the job’s benefits package, I imagine, up there with infallibility and a pension package that involves, among other things, eternal life. And so we sang. Praise to the lord our god who over all things so wondrously reigneth…. It’s an old William S. Bennett tune that almost no one has ever heard. John Paul was hip like that, being into obscure local music. It certainly wasn’t the hymn I would have chosen if I were Pope, but hey, each Pope to his own I guess. After about two minutes, the length of this short motet, our primary purpose for traveling halfway across the world – to sing this song to this old man – was complete, and we were seated. With his head cocked to the side, sort of resting on his right shoulder and his tongue just slightly outside his mouth John started reciting liturgy. I couldn’t help but think about how much he reminded me of the dementia residents at the nursing home my dad worked at, old and mumbling about some sort of imaginary nonsense in a sparsely punctuated monotone. Not long into this monologue, still recovering from alcohol withdrawal, I fell promptly asleep, right up there in the front row of the papal audience.

I awoke some time later, completely confused. Where the hell am I? Oh oh oh right, the Pope. Why are all these people standing and crying? Why are they all holding up bracelets? I asked Jaci T., a first alto seated to my right, what in God’s name, no pun intended, was going on. Through impassioned tears she told me the Pope was giving apostolic blessings. Turns out he just gives these things out rather willy-nilly. I didn’t have a rosary or any other sacred object for that matter, but I was not about to leave St. Peter’s without a sacramental of my own. And so, after a search through my backpack, I pulled out my most sacred object, my favorite saxophone reed, a Vandoren 3, one of those magic, perfectly symmetrical reeds without any air gaps or coarse grains, and held it high into the air so it could get good and covered in blessings. This seemed to me a much more pragmatic use of the apostolic blessing process. Now I had a magic saxophone reed that would undoubtedly give me supernatural rocking abilities. I have no idea what people do with their magic blessed bracelets.

Of course, I could never bring myself to actually play with the reed after it was blessed. It was too sacred now; plus, what if it didn’t actually turn me into a badass motherfucker? That would have been a disappointment of quite literally biblical proportions. So the reed remained in a little plastic case on my shelf, in between an empty bottle of Campari Soda and a statuette of a monk playing funk. I couldn’t have known at the time that these objects would so aptly become my icons and relics: an empty bottle, a profane object made sacred and a sacred object made profane. Drugs, music, cynicism – these have been my holy things, the mediums through which I have communed with the gods and the demons. John Paul is dead now, and for that reason only is he closer to this mystery existence, despite his theater, despite his haptic healing and pimped out golf cart and infallibility, despite his hat.

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