It was the night before Thanksgiving, 2006. I was walking the three miles and change home from the ASU student library, where I’d been using one of the public computers. North of the Mill Avenue Bridge spanning the Tempe Town Lake, the scenery turns almost bucolic, with the desert of Papago Park, to the North and East, practically spilling onto the sidewalk. It also turns almost pitch black.
As I approached the parking lot of the Rolling Hills Golf Course, I saw an old, black gas-guzzler — a 70s relic judging by its ungainly body design – idling by the entrance. Someone called from the passenger’s side. In his tone I thought I heard menace blend with playfulness in a way that put icicles in my stomach.
Reversing course sharply, I walked back into the darkness about 100 yards, where I watched and waited. With the street deserted and the wilds of the park fenced off, there wasn’t much else to do. After three or four minutes, the car pulled out heading northbound, away from me. I resumed walking, congratulating myself a little on my street smarts.
The car must have made its U-turn somewhere beyond the point where Mill curves westward into Van Buren. Before I’d taken 100 steps, it pulled up alongside me, and the man in the shotgun seat jumped out and yelled, “Give us your shit.”
There were two of them, and they were burly. The one now looming over me sported tattoos too crude to boast of a respectable provenance. I can’t remember what or where they were — either a teardrop by his eye or some arcane symbols on his knuckles. As “shit” was not a bad description for my personal effects, which included two cell phones with no minutes remaining and an ATM card for an overdrawn checking account, I handed them over, honor be damned.
That, more or less, was the beginning of my life as a Catholic. Two weeks later, on the second Sunday in Advent, I reported to my first Mass.
Even now, almost eight years after my baptism, the idea of my joining the Church seems so bizarre that I can’t help digging for explanations, if for no other reason than to create a coherent story that I can recite to myself. Whether it makes a good story or a bad one, this harrowing encounter with a pair of footpads was the immediate trigger. God moves in mysterious ways.
What message God sent through this pair is a harder question to parse. It wasn’t anything so stark as “Et in Arcadia ego.” The transaction of my goods in exchange for my safety was over so quickly, it never occurred to me to fear for my life, although maybe it should have. When the crooks jumped at seeing me pull my cell phone out of my pocket, apparently mistaking it for a gun, I realized they were tweaking their balls off on crystal meth.
Anyway, in those days, Arcadia looked pretty far away. I was between jobs, having learned the hard way that I lacked the hand-eye coordination – or spatial reasoning or whatever – to operate a self-propelled belt loader on an airport tarmac. Burglars had made off with my computer several months earlier, not too long before the head gaskets on my Ford Taurus decided to melt down completely, leaving me with a $1,200 repair bill. I was walking because there was no other way for me to get around.
Nor would I resort to that other cliché, hitting rock bottom. True, thanks to poverty, I was in one of those periods where my socks and underwear, along with my blue-collar clothes, were unraveling, from heavy rotation, even as they sat on my body. My business-casual wardrobe, untouched since I’d left the white-collar world, moldered deep in my laundry hamper. (To that first Mass, celebrated at a Newman Center, I wore my job-interview suit.) Still, the real dregs of existence – homelessness, jail, forced institutionalization – remained a comfortable distance below.
No, what made me choose that moment of all moments to follow the Spirit’s prompting was something much simpler. I had been using the Hayden Library computers because there was no more wholesome place for me to spend my time. I think I just needed a new place to hang out in – one that closed down a little earlier, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting jumped on my way home again.
I happened to be in Tempe yesterday just as night was falling. Passing by the AMC Theater complex, I had the idea of seeing Creed. But the earlier showing ended around nine and walking so late past the Rolling Hills Golf course just seemed like a bad bet. I’m a little healthier financially these days, and a little less needful of cheap hospitality. If a mugging pushed me to convert, I wondered, would a second mugging make me convert back?