I’ve tried to tell this story before but I’ve gotten it wrong. So I’ll try again. It’s that important.
In August of 2001, more or less on a whim, I visited San Francisco for the first time. My mother and Bob flew out from New York to meet me, so the visit became a family reunion, which worked out nicely. When you don’t know anyone in town and are stuck doing the touristy things, having your parents around blesses the lameness. All three of us being tireless walkers, nobody griped about the hills.
On our first day of sightseeing, the weather was glorious. The brightness of the sun brought out the brightness of the colors on the Victorian painted ladies, the cleanness of the streets and the general briskness.
When we reached Pacific Heights, my mother wanted to stop for breakfast, by which she meant an outrageously priced bran muffin at some café. Bob and I mutinied, dragging her to the nearest thing to a greasy spoon we could find. It turned out to look like the diners in Plato’s Republic must look. Even the bacon grease could have been bottled and sold at Trader Joe’s for spreading on salads.
I’d just finished reading George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” As the three of us stepped back out into the sunshine, the passage where he recalls life in England before the First World War came back to me, image by image:
It was the age when crazy millionaires in curly top-hats and lavender waistcoats gave champagne parties in rococo house-boats on the Thames…the age when people talked about chocs and cigs and ripping and topping and heavenly, when they went for divvy week-ends at Brighton and had scrumptious teas at the Troc. From the whole decade before 1914 there seems to breathe forth a smell of the more vulgar, un-grown-up kind of luxury, a smell of brilliantine and crème-de-menthe and soft-centred chocolates — an atmosphere, as it were, of eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song.
This didn’t describe the ambience in San Francisco, which was anything but vulgar – sprezzatura, the Italian word for effortless grace, would have done it more justice, assuming it works for places as well as people. But as the three of us set off in the direction of the Bay, it did occur to me that we were living through the peak of something, standing at the top of a very steep hill in more than the literal sense. This was a flash of intuition, not a thought, so I couldn’t have puzzled out its implications if I’d wanted to. Instead, I shoved it aside like a stack of bills.
But the sight of Alcatraz would not be budged so easily. From the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf in early afternoon, it looked black and coarse, a gate crasher in the scene. It mesmerized me. I stared at it for a good five minutes, till I was sure I was looking at the bitter end.
This certainty that everything was due for some cataclysmic change nagged me for the next four weeks. Before work on Tuesday morning, the day after Labor Day, I cycled to the Jamba Juice store for a strawberry smoothie. On the TV above the bar I saw smoke pouring from the Towers, and thought: That must be it.
Very pleasant habits of thought collapsed with those Towers. To that point, like the young Orwell, and – I’d bet – like most Americans, I’d taken “oozing, bulging wealth” for granted, as part of “the order of things.” If none of it had made its way into my pocket, it was only a matter of time. Seeing that monument to our creativity and commerce reduced to dust and ashes by a few flatheaded goons reminded me how fragile everything really was.
Five years would pass before I entered RCIA, and I certainly don’t mean to oversimplify events. There must be a hundred antecedents to my conversion – the first cause of which was Guess Who. But the awful sense of impermanence that followed 9/11 did help to set the process in motion. Over the next half-decade, I carried the maxim “Live every day as though it were your last” to one of its less logical conclusions by becoming a pack rat for pleasure. Then, after sickening of it thoroughly, I began to consider refashioning my worldview around an eternal God and a very old Church.
Not too long after 9/11, the Boston Globe began running stories about predatory priests and complacent bishops. It must have competed for headlines with the debate over whether to invade Iraq, but I don’t recall that it lowered the Church much in my estimation. For one thing, I was a non-parent. Also, working in subprime had made sneaky, self-interested behavior hard to distinguish from wisdom. The message I took away, though without being conscious of it, was that it is good to belong to an institution that is too big to fail — too well-founded to collapse like a skyscraper when disaster strikes.