The moment I stepped foot in the hoarder's house, I felt my lunch coming up. It's not that there was any single overwhelming bad smell—a six-week-old pot roast, an uncleared mouse trap, a mummified mother. Instead, a dozen mildly repellent smells played together symphonically. In the higher registers: dirt and sweat from piles of unwashed clothes; in the lower: dirty dishwater, mildew, and the memory of long-dead spider plants. Taken together, their theme was despair.
As I lit a cigarette, figuring burning tobacco could only improve the bouquet, my friend Laura beamed. "Told you it was a Calcutta sewer, didn't I? I figure I've got three weeks to get the place in livable shape before Dan gets back from the hospital."
Dan was the hoarder. A man in his 60s, he had, Laura told me, lived in the house since his birth. His mother's death, several years earlier, had given him the run of the place. Even in peak shape, Dan was as thin and fragile as an allegorical depiction of famine. Several days earlier, he had gone into the hospital to have a cancerous tumor removed from his prostate—a development that had left Laura feeling vindicated.
"I told him to get that prostate removed years ago, the last time he had cancer," she said, handing me an ashtray marked: "WINTER OLYMPICS 1980, LAKE PLACID, NY." "He told me he wanted to keep his options open. What options did he ever have?"
Community is one of those concepts that RCIA instructors tend to omit from the curriculum. It might not have a single precise definition. Or, maybe Catholics internalize the norms so thoroughly that few can subject them to the critical analysis that explanation would require. Or maybe they figure all the implications will become apparent in good time. If what I learned, and the manner in which I learned it, is in any way typical, I'm tempted to think the instructors are just afraid of scaring people off.
Before entering the Church, I divided people into three categories. The largest of these was the category of strangers. The second was co-workers, and—apart from the smokers, with whom I felt a natural, if distant, solidarity—I treated them as much like strangers as I could reasonably manage to do. The third was friends. Their number tends to hover between five and ten. Through them, I usually inherit a number of what George Costanza calls "friends-in-law," but we connect strictly on an ad hoc basis. Most relatives are strangers; a few are friends. Anyone who shows the potential to become an enemy, becomes a stranger.
This unfettered existence left me unprepared for life in the parish, where I found people moving in cohorts. I remember learning, in an undergrad anthropology class, about some warlike tribe—Zulus, maybe, or Iroquois, or Spartans—that raised age-mates communally before turning them loose, as cohesive units, on the enemy. This, apparently, is how unmarried parishioners array themselves: a regiment of young marriageables on the right flank; a battalion of no-longer-marriageables on the left flank; a reinforced company of gays in reserve.
Some Catholics have professed to find this arrangement strange. "It sounds so Protestant!" gasped one. The explanation might be that my original home parish has an historic connection to the local university—my alma mater. For that reason, it attracts a large population of students. A certain number of those, having declined a shot at family life, stay on long after graduation, bound by ties from the old days.
I never got sorted into any group. Not being gay, and being closer to 40 than 30, I gave the first and third groups a miss. The second just didn't suit me: in its conversations I noted an absence of sparkle that I put down to an absence of sexual tension. Once its members stopped thinking of themselves as young, they'd gotten down to the business of being old.
Here's where Laura came in. At 50, she was mutton; but in her limitless energy, and in the innocence of her malice, she dressed well as lamb. She had worked for a time in nearly every ministry, but always seemed to fall victim to some intrigue or other. "She won't even let me in the kitchen anymore," Laura once huffed, of a parish administrator who was bearing her some kind of grudge.
After thirty years in the parish, where she'd arrived as a single mother of an infant daughter, she knew everything about everyone. "That religious sister over there once came to Mass sunburned after sunbathing nude." "Fr. So-and-So is bipolar." "So-and-so hooked up with Such-and-Such when they were in Georgia, picketing the School of the Americas." I never believed these stories absolutely, but neither could I reject them out of hand. For someone so openly indiscreet, Laura had a genius for winkling out confidences. Imagining a sister pulling her aside, flashing an inch of crimson collarbone and whispering, "Thank goodness for high walls!" wasn't hard at all.