I’m looking for help. My new book, Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, will be published March 1st and I’m a great believer in the definition of a gentleman that says a gentleman is someone who never insults anyone accidentally. I don’t want to insult anyone from Coeur d’Alene, accidentally or with intent, so if anyone there is listening to me I’d be grateful for some of your time.
The following passage occurs in Zappa’s Mam (in fact on pages 295 to 302 of the paperback version). If you know Coeur d’Alene, please read this and tell me whether it’s going to upset anyone. I’ll be really grateful. (Ignore the bit about blow-up dolls—that’s actually about Buffalo, Wyoming and I’ll be posting something for them separately).
However hard the author works, books are sold on one or two incidents, one or two pictures. What people remember I90, Road to America for is Dan and Vern and their blow-up dolls, and the Church of Forgiveness.
I’d only been in Coeur d’Alene for two days and I was walking around getting my bearings when a man so fat you were surprised he could walk stopped me in the street. ‘My son, we must talk, you and I.’ He had a voice as deep as Paul Robeson’s.
Normal people cross the road at this point and walk on. Photographers with paymasters looking for a freak show don’t.
He held out a hand the size of a rugby ball. I shook it. ‘The Reverend Humphrey Catalan.’ Humphrey? He handed me a card; sure enough, that was the name he went by. His occupation: Pastor of the Church of Forgiveness. He wrapped a monstrous arm around my shoulder. ‘Let us break bread together, son.’
We caused a bit of a stir in the coffee shop. It seemed the Reverend Humphrey had broken two of their chairs in the past and now he was only allowed on the bench that ran round the booth at the back, but this was already occupied by four teens.
‘Stay cool,’ said my new friend. ‘We don’t mind sharing.’ With which words he eased himself through the entrance to the booth, sat on the bench and pushed effortlessly leftwards, sliding the four towards the end. I expected trouble. Instead, one of the youths stood up and raised his hands palm outwards. ‘Okay, Reverend. You win.’
They filed out peaceably and took seats around a table. The Reverend Humphrey beamed at them. ‘God bless you, William Kazsnowski. Tell your mother it’s high time she made her confession.’
The waitress stood beside us, pad in hand. ‘Making confession,’ she murmured. ‘Is that what they’re calling it now?’
Humphrey ordered coffee and blueberry pie with ice cream and double whipped cream. I asked for coffee. Humphrey said, ‘You should eat something, son.’ I told him I’d had breakfast only an hour earlier. ‘So did I, son. God’s work requires that we keep up our strength.’ He turned on me the same thousand watt beam he’d directed at the Kazsnowski boy. ‘Introduce yourself, my son,’ he boomed in a voice that might have been heard twenty miles away.
I handed him my own card. While he was reading it, I took the Olympus out of my pocket and shot him three times, bracketed for white balance. The fluorescent light was flashing and you never know what sort of light you’re going to get. He tucked the card into his waistcoat pocket.
‘So,’ he bellowed. ‘What’s an English photographer doing in Coeur d’Alene?’
‘Looking for the unusual,’ I said.
‘Looking for the unusual. Well, son, you sure came to the right place.’ Lowering his voice to a decibel count that probably wouldn’t carry more than two hundred metres, he said, ‘You have the most terrible aura, son. You know that?’
‘That’s why I spoke to you. You want to know what your aura says?’
‘Maybe. I’m not sure how many people I want to share the information with.’
He looked blank. The waitress slapped down an enormous slice of pie and two coffees. ‘He means he’d like it if you kept your voice down, Reverend.’
Humphrey began to open paper packets of sugar and empty them into his coffee. He looked at me. ‘That true, son? You shy?’
Walking away, the waitress said, ‘He’s English,’ as though that explained everything. Which, in Coeur d’Alene, possibly it did.
Humphrey shovelled pie into his mouth. When he had finished, he stood up, dropped some money on the table and made for the door. ‘Let’s go, son.’
I followed him out. ‘Thanks for the coffee,’ I said. He put his arm round my shoulder and began to walk. I had no option but to go with him.
‘I’ll give you a tour of the town,’ he said. ‘And while we walk we’ll address the subject of your vengeful spirit.’
‘Unforgiving. I never saw a more remorseless, grudge-holding aura in my life. That’s the City Park, by the way. You want to get a picture?’
‘I’ll come back for it. I don’t hold grudges.’
It’s a strange place, Coeur d’Alene. Americans will tell you it didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, which rather rudely ignores the Indians. Now it’s a resort and you get lots of normal people, or people who can pass for normal in the northwest USA, and they have malls and restaurants and stuff to amuse themselves in. There’s sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter and golf most of the time when it isn’t actually snowing. Good old friendly USA.
But it started as a frontier trading post and went into mining and logging and gambling, and the people who did those things weren’t clubbable. Coeur d’Alene was where you got off the steamboat to try your luck at prospecting for silver, and where you got back on the boat to go home, or more likely to drift on somewhere else, when you realised this was not the place you were going to make your strike. There was no welfare state and no safety net and if you didn’t look after yourself in whatever way you could, you starved. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in that environment and beneath the tourist polish all that independence and egoism is still there.
That was what I was looking for in Coeur d’Alene and I90, Road to America shows that I found it. I took a lot of photographs, far more than got into the book. I got to love the place. There aren’t many places where I think, “I could live here,” but Coeur d’Alene is one of them.
And I spent quite a lot of time with the Reverend Humphrey. He summed up the spirit of the place for me. ‘Folks here will look after you if you need it, but we expect you to look after yourself first. Folks will pick up the slack if you can’t hack it all the way. But folks ain’t your first line of defence, son. Your first line of defence is you.’
I realised after a while that he was feeding me this stuff because I was British and he’d heard all about the British and what had happened to them. We were the brave little land that had helped John Wayne and Frank Sinatra win the war but now our hearts had been poisoned by socialism and we’d lost our self-reliance. This was the second time I’d been the brand someone was going to save from the burning, Melanie being the first someone, and I have sometimes wondered what it is about me that makes people want to rescue me like that.
When I showed Jessica my photographs of Humphrey, naturally I also told her about the man behind the pics. She said he wasn’t really a priest, he was a psychotherapist. Or maybe just a dabbler in self-help psychobabble. Whatever, she said. Whatever turned your crank, or helped you survive in this jungle. She was going through a bad time just then. I got the feeling that someone she’d thought of as her long term partner had just gone, but she didn’t talk about personal stuff to me and I couldn’t even tell you whether that someone was likely to have been a man or a woman. That’s how close we weren’t. But she did tell me that life was precarious. She said the most any of us could hope for was to get through to the day we died without ourselves deciding to chuck it in before then. If we could stand there at that moment and say, “Well, I made it. I’m here. I got through to the end. And in a minute I’ll be out of it,” that would be success.
All of which I’d already worked out for myself. But I didn’t say so. I might have questioned her tact, but Jessica didn’t know I’d got so close to killing myself I’d actually walked out onto the Severn Bridge.
There was one pic I showed her that I certainly didn’t show Humphrey, and it didn’t make it into the book, either. We’d arranged to meet and walk into town where I was going to buy him lunch. There was no-one in the church and the door to Humphrey’s house next door was open as it usually was. He’d told me many times just to walk in and that’s what I did.
It was a two storey house but Humphrey lived most of his life on the ground floor because stairs caused him difficulty. He’d had a stairlift fitted but it had broken the first time he used it. If the sounds had been coming from upstairs I might still have gone up there to investigate, because there isn’t much a photographer after a pic won’t do. But they weren’t coming from upstairs, they were coming from a room I’d never been in but which I knew was where Humphrey slept.
Of course I know I shouldn’t have shot it. I probably shouldn’t have shot two thirds of the pics I’m most proud of. But I did. The chance to immortalise the pastor’s huge naked rump as it rose and fell with astonishing vigour was just too much to pass up. You can always delete a pic you’ve taken and wish you hadn’t, but go back and grab the fleeting opportunity you missed first time around? Forget it.
Pictures capture what you can see. Good pictures also capture what you can feel. What I couldn’t get was Humphrey’s rhythmic grunting or the mewing sounds that were coming from beneath him. Who was doing the mewing, I couldn’t see. Whoever it was was almost hidden by the Reverend’s immense bulk and I remember worrying that she’d be suffocated. I could see from the position of her feet that she was face down, but her feet were all I could see.
Having got my picture, I went back to the front door, rang the bell and then slammed the door loudly as I re-entered the house. ‘Humphrey?’ I shouted. ‘Are you here?’
There was a bellow which I’m pretty sure said, ‘I’ll just be two minutes’ and I sat down to read one of the Church of Forgiveness’s newsletters. After a little more than two minutes, a small, neat woman with flushed cheeks who I knew to be one of the Reverend’s flock passed through the room, smiled shyly at me and departed. A few moments later, Humphrey arrived. He was pinker than usual and breathing quickly.
‘I’m sorry, Reverend,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t realised you were hearing confessions.’
He smiled, gestured me to my feet, placed his arm round my shoulder and led me into the street. ‘Sustenance, son, I must have sustenance. I have quite an appetite today.’
I said I wasn’t surprised. I also said God would provide for his hunger, just as he clearly provided for his other needs. I suppose it came out a bit sour. All right, I’d never been religious and never had the opportunity but I did have some idea of what priestly decorum was supposed to be and it didn’t include banging the parishioners.
‘Son, if the Almighty is opposed to men and women doing what He made us to do, he ain’t never mentioned His opposition in my hearing.’
We had reached the door of a restaurant. I said, ‘Mexican do you?’
‘Sure, son,’ he said as he followed me in. ‘Mexican be fine.’ Quality didn’t matter to the Reverend. What mattered was quantity and he knew, as I knew, that he’d get that here.
All right, so the Reverend Humphrey Catalan wasn’t everyone’s idea of a priest. Coeur d’Alene has a lot of churchgoers and many would be likely to cross to the other side of the road when they saw him coming. There are four Baptist churches in town and he’d have been drummed out of all of them. The Catholics have got two and the Lutherans are also pretty big there and they, too, would have denounced Humphrey and all his works. He was a glutton and a lecher and he didn’t say no to a drink when it was offered.
But he brought smiles to the faces of the women he rogered. He cared about people, he wanted to see them happy instead of sad and he had a very clear idea of how that was achieved. Sometimes he wasn’t entirely serious and sometimes he was and he was never more in earnest than when he outlined to me the source of his Ministry.
‘Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord. Leviticus nineteen verse eighteen. But that was an instruction to the Jewish people about the Jewish people. But then in verse thirty-four it goes on, But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. But then came our Lord and the new dispensation, and when one of them who was a lawyer said unto Him, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? He answered him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew twenty-two, verses thirty-seven to forty.’
All of this delivered without a smile and in full majestic voice.
‘And your neighbour doesn’t just mean that sweet little thing with the big bazookas who lives next door, son.’ He laid his hand on my shoulder. ‘In this global village the Lord in His infinite wisdom and mercy has created, your neighbour is everyone and everyone is your neighbour. But what you need to take to heart, son, is Matthew eighteen, verses twenty-one to twenty-two. Then Peter came and said to Him, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. You think that means seventy-seven times, son? It does not. It means you forgive without limit.’
‘Why are you telling me this, Reverend?’
‘Your aura, son.’
My aura. Of course. Sure. As long as you believed A that I had an aura and B that he could see it.
We had a lot of conversations, me and the Reverend Humphrey, and he got to know all about me and my childhood, me and Miss Maguire, me and my mother, me and Poppy, me and Melanie, me and Wendy. ‘Seems to me, son,’ he said, ‘that if anyone has a beef with anyone it’s Melanie and Wendy who have one with you.’
There was a cultural thing here. I’d been born with a few serious handicaps and, yes, I’d overcome them but there was still part of me that was ready to accept them as a crutch and what the Reverend Catalan wanted me to know was that that was not the American way. ‘Other people were dealt shittier hands than you, and some of them did okay. A lot of people got much better cards than you did and some of them are in jail, or bankrupt, or dead. Or maybe a combination of those things. When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. And what about that maths teacher? What about Regus? He believed you when he didn’t have to. What about those teachers who gave up their time for you and didn’t charge a cent for it? Where do you get off holding grudges?’
‘I don’t hold grudges.’
‘What you have to do, son, you have to go through every single person you’re holding a grudge against in your mind and you have to forgive them.’
‘I don’t hold grudges.’
‘You believe that, huh? Forgiveness isn’t for their sake, son. It’s for yours. When you stand before the Lord on that last day He isn’t going to ask whose fault it is. He’s going to want to know what you did with what you were given. The parable of the talents, son. Matthew twenty-five, verses fourteen to thirty.’
I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. I said, ‘Since you know him so well, is God going to have anything else to say while he’s got me standing there?’
‘Sure is, son. He’s going to point out how many people went out of their way to help you make something of your life and He’s going to want to know what you did to give something back and who it was you gave it to. Not the people who helped you, ’cos by and large it sounds like those guys already got plenty. What you did for the people who couldn’t ever have helped you ’cos they had nothing. What did you spread around, apart from shit? That’s what your Creator is going to ask you on that fateful day.’
‘He’s got a pretty foul mouth on him, then? For a creator?’
‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain. Deuteronomy, son. Chapter five, verse eleven.’
So there you have it. The question: Is there anyone in Coeur d’Alene who could be offended by anything in that passage?