Wednesday, January 16, 2008

There are, even in this age of the small world, still a few places I haven’t visited. As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about getting a job to finance some travel- the two most notable leads so far are a data-entry position with an Internet giant and one shipping and receiving for a small online bookseller. On the one hand I like the idea of slipping into the ranks of a large company, where I can see a lot of different levels of operation, meet people and exchange ideas; and of course there are the benefits of health care and retirement savings plans. On the other hand it would be nice to work in a tiny company, where any meetings are likely to be conducted around the water cooler and the most complicated chain-of-command involves yelling across a room. While weighing these two options is diverting and even somewhat amusing, I would much prefer to be working, because that’s what puts money in one’s pockets. Sadly I can’t take the plunge just yet because I am waiting for the Internet giant to follow up their expression of interest with an interview; in the meantime I have until Friday to take up the small company’s offer. It’s a dilemma, no doubt of that. I’m strongly drawn to the little bookstore, yet I can’t quite bring myself to abandon hope that the Internet giant is ponderously advancing in my direction with a sheaf of hiring paperwork in hand… So I’m moving slowly too, asking the little company to wait while I wait for the big company.

Drifty, the Molly Ivins bit was bad enough, but that dirty trick you played on Dr. Boynton was too much. Management are livid, they’re hopping mad. They want me to cut you down to four hundred words a day. They say you’ll never get any advertising if you don’t moderate your tone. They’re also not very happy about that picture of a church sign- neither am I, come to think of it. An all-nude choir is probably not so bad, but what’s with the girl and pony show? That doesn’t sound exactly legal, you know. And in a church?

Yeah, thanks, Ed. You haven’t gotten any nasty-grams from Molly Ivins have you? I mean, c’mon- she’s probably laughing her dead ass off up there in humorist heaven. It was funny, and besides, I was literally going to press when you told me about her- how could I have known, and didn’t I make a beautiful transition between death and life with the part about not letting it turn me against breasts? You can’t buy anything that good- it’s gotta just flow from the heart. As for Dr. Boynton, don’t get me started. I’m 99.9% certain I’m already being punished for that by getting the brush-off from the Internet giant in my job search. There aren’t any coincidences in this valley. Now, the church thing, hey, that’s just good clean fun. A girl and her pony putting on a show, why you can find that in any circus, from a back-lot one-nighter to a three-ring big-top. Don’t let the gaudy sign give you the wrong idea, San Pronto is a decent sort of town. Hell, they ran John Steinbeck out of this valley not so long ago, and he was innocent. Oh, you might like to know, I’m putting out the next chapter on the church today- right now in fact. Nothing but architecture and history in it, so don’t get your frillies in a twist just yet. And it’s a deconsecrated church. A fictional deconsecrated church. That’s got to count for something.

Continued from 13 JAN 2008
Mr. Gooden, the city’s real estate agent, said the church was not for sale but was available for lease terms of up to ninety-nine years, and asked me if I had seen the belfry. I hadn’t, so we went up to take a look, while Mrs. Norton went back to her home around the corner to feed her cat and check for phone messages. The foot of the spiral staircase to the belfry was in what looked like a broom closet at one end of the lobby, behind a metal door with a full length mirror fastened to it. Have you ever ascended fifty feet of spiral staircase at a dead run? Neither had I, but Mr. Gooden seemed to think nothing of it, so I took his unspoken challenge and followed as quickly as I could. All the way up, the close walls were lined with intricate stained glass windows depicting the various stages and events of the lives of the Non-Denominational Martyrs, more or less in order as far as I could tell, having been raised in a strictly denominational faith. I made a note to get up there with a camera later and photograph the stained glass, knowing a money-making opportunity when I saw one. Between the rapidity of our steep ascent, and the breath-taking views out over the harbor and the landward sprawl of town and country, it was a few moments before I could ask Mr. Gooden how old the church was and whether the belfry was part of the original construction.

The small wooden church, complete with belfry, though not yet the stained glass of the tower, had been erected on this spot in 1906, he told me, by a small group of Baptist orchard farmers who used it until 1933, when their congregation had dwindled so far that they could no longer raise the funds for its annual maintenance and it was sold to a Los Angeles dentist, who left it vacant for a year before selling it to the local public school district. Following minimal renovations, mostly temporary and easily reversible, high school classes were held in the lobby, the central main room was converted to a gymnasium with basketball courts and bleachers, and the administrative offices occupied the rooms behind the altar. The choir loft was home to the home economics, fine arts, and music departments, while the belfry was securely locked- the metal door was added in 1936 after some senior students were discovered smoking in the stairwell- and never entered at all except by the school’s groundskeeper. By 1943, thanks in part to the war effort, San Pronto’s high school classes were outgrowing the little church, and construction was begun on a new campus of modern low brick-and-timber classrooms across the trolley tracks on then undeveloped land along the edge of the harbor and the equivalent of two blocks closer to the heart of downtown; because of wartime austerity measures the new high school was not ready for use until 1946, at which time the church was sold to the city for use as an interim city hall, during the planning and building of a new civic center.

Mr. Gooden and I went down the stairs, locking the metal door behind us, and left the church, leaving a note for Mrs. Norton who would be back in a few minutes, to lock it up again as we would be going downtown to fill out some paperwork. While we were waiting to catch the trolley in that direction, Mr. Gooden continued his story. In 1950, when the new civic center was fully operational, the church was empty for only six weeks before, with all traces of its various secular sojourns removed, it was purchased by and became home to the fledgling First Church of the Non-Denominational Martyrs, whose founder, by coincidence, was the grandson of the Los Angeles dentist who had owned the church from 1933 to 1934, its longest period of vacancy. The Nondees, as Mr. Gooden called them, were somewhat traditional-minded and cherished the church for its community associations and inherent charm; many of the members were the children and grand-children of the orchardists who had watched over the little structure during its years of service in so many different functions. Other than modernizing the wiring and plumbing, adding thermal insulation and radiant floor heating, and changing the roof to metal, their only stamp of ownership had been the design and installation of the stained glass in the bell tower. (To Be Continued)

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