The Familiarity of Rituals

19 November 2015, San Francisco, California

Yesterday, feeling particularly discouraged by the consistent media pouring forth from the TV, internet and radio I found myself heading out into the streets of San Francisco with no particular purpose. It is in these instances, I find myself taking to the streets, seeking something new, something perhaps a bit adventurous, something that will remind me to be mobile, to be free, to be a tourist, even if I execute these in my own town.

North Beach has always been a place for me to call home. The streets bear the familiarity of my heritage and part-time existence in Rome – the red, green and white flags, the shopkeepers are old friends – recognizable faces in the bustle of city life. The men sitting outside drinking their espressos, quick to offer a “Buongiorno!” and an admiring glance. I circled around Washington Square, head down, glancing around when needed. Weezer trailed behind as I passed the Italian Athletic Club, bidding good morning to Frankie, as he sorted out the twisted Italian and American flags from their positions over the balcony.

I noted the place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the Godfather trilogy, the bookstore that helped incite an indecency trial for Ginsberg’s Howl, and quickly glanced over my shoulder to take in the steps of St. Peter and Paul, where Joe DiMaggio did not marry Marilyn Monroe.

I pretended upon my way to not know where I eventually wanted to end up, wandering the streets a bit, pacing myself as I climbed hills, receded down the other side and quickly passed through the outskirts of Chinatown and proceeded to walk into Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the intersection of Grant Avenue and California Street.

Built over the year of 1853, a few years after the Gold Rush began to consume the surrounding streets, Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral has continued to be an eclectic feature at the crossroads of many historical and geographical eras in San Francisco history. At one time, with the Gold Rush in full swing, the cathedral was completely surrounded by the infamous brothels and opium dens characteristic of the Barbary Coast at the time. Thus, still today under the central clock hanging from its bell tower declare the words, “Son, Observe the Time and Fly from Evil”. An entertaining reminder of the amount of debauchery and sin committed upon the streets.

As one might assume (and they would be correct) given my heritage, I grew up in a Roman-Catholic family where every Sunday I sat within the confines of a stark white Spanish-style cathedral with sky blue domes cusped by brilliant gold crucifixes. I absolutely dreaded Sundays which brought the longest hour of boredom known to child-kind. I could never sit still, playing with my father’s fingers, twisting them into various positions until he strong handled my two little hands in one of his, and I pouted in the fanciest of the week’s outfits and recited prayers becoming more and more indoctrinated, more and more ingrained. And while it may sound like I am leading up to reveal the repercussions and torment this has thrust upon my adult life, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

As an adult, with a belief system that is absent of organized religion, I find solace in churches which has absolutely nothing to do with any formal sense of spiritual dedication. Yet this is not to say if I had been raised Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or otherwise I wouldn’t find a shadow-ridden church comforting.

After a few minutes of quiet observance inside the cathedral, I retired back onto the street and sat on the stone steps, feeling compelled to quickly record the following:

“The whispering and hissing of their complex prayers reached out through the otherwise deafening silence and stillness. I assume they have come to make sense of the state of our world today. I only came because of my consistent search for familiarity. I have no prayers to offer here.

The dark mahogany pews gave an all too familiar creak as one faithful departed and another one arrived. More whispering. More prayers. More questions than answers. The smell, an elixir so pungent one can recall its fragrance even in its absence for an entire lifetime, pierced my memories as hundreds of candles flickered through the shadows.

Is it safe to feel at home in a place so indoctrinated with conflict? So staunch on positions of right from wrong?

The church was so dark, my face could only remain absent from any others who resided in the hallows. The only illumination came from the white candles in little glass jars, bouncing around on the stone faces of the various statues of Madonna. Little isolated altars speckled about. Hundreds of tiny prayers, lit by a small flame, a small indulgence paid, in the dark, hallowed church in the belly of San Francisco’s urban streets. The stained glass windows granted no light, only an eerie glow of blues, reds and golds. Saints, holding their scepters and continuous ornate patterns of colors so clear one could only mistake their brilliance for something heavenly.

I followed my eyes across the carpet towards the altar, in such a deep, smooth, velvety texture of red it almost seemed to bleed. It seemed as if it truly belonged in the regal quarters of a King and Queen.

I offered my own sound to the cathedral’s song – the creaking of the pew as I rose to leave, stepping against the eastern wall to take in my last observations. As I crept along the nave towards the door, the sounds of a thousand cities outside became audible once again.”

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