Hallelujah Man

Every night, the Hallelujah man wanders down the streets of the Upper West Side clad in a brown overcoat and a fedora hat. With a worn Bible and religious tracts in hand, he begins his nightly routine and proudly shouts for all to hear: "Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. God good. God good. God good. Glory, glory, glory. I love you. Thank you." Combined with the sounds of ambulance sirens from hospitals and the ceaseless honking of taxicabs, his proselytizing contributes to a familiar, yet distinct urban cacophony. 

            His performances began on a common place night during 2001, the same year that many in our City questioned the existence, let alone, the benevolence of God. The world seemed overridden with hate instead of love. The majority of Upper West Siders cynically surmised that the ravings of the Hallelujah man were merely a tamagotchi like fad and that our nights would soon become comparatively quieter, overtaken by secular sounds.  However, the optimist in me, viewed the Hallelujah man as the personification of perseverance. I was fascinated and often thought about opening up my bedroom window and shouting back at him, wondering what sort of reaction it would evoke.  Like many native-born- New Yorkers, instead of spending my youth constructing tree houses in the backyard or attending town football games, I occupied my free time by trying to find my place in the melting pot of NYC and struggling to understand the rhythm of the city and its crazy and unusual inhabitants, like the Hallelujah Man. Growing up in Manhattan acclimatized to accepting oddities, as part of the inevitable ebb and flow of every-day life.

            As I step out of my apartment and into my elevator, I’m immediately bombarded by my quirky, chatty, pick- a-little- talk- a-little neighbors. Their eccentric personalities eerily remind me of Kramer from Seinfeld and with their prolific encyclopedic facts that they love to share, they unknowingly proffer annoyance that trickles up my spine. Escaping these personalities takes much more cardiovascular exercise than flicking the remote control – but alas unfortunately I’m not privy to taking the stairs first thing in the morning.  My elevator has once again been redecorated by the “heirloom” - tomato growing hippies, who are campaigning against gentrification in Morningside Heights.  They organize political action campaigns to prevent the exclusion of the low-income families from the neighborhood, while advertising tomatoes that they hope will be bought at ten dollars a bundle. I bet that they barely rival those mail-delivered from Fresh Direct.

            Once I get outside, silently sitting in their cars waiting for street cleaning hours to conclude are the two next-door neighbors who redefine strange bedfellows: the rabbi and the infamously creepy owner of 1020, the bar beneath my building. I can't help but chuckle at the juxtaposition of the skinny rabbi's body with the protruding beer belly of the bar owner. They are silent but the words floating in their minds are discernible to me by their facial expressions. The rabbi gives me a look of disdain for missing his weekly Shabbat dinners, despite the fact that I am clad in a clear-catholic school uniform. The owner of the bar, wishes that I would save the uniform for the age when I'm legally an adult- which he has numerously informed me is only seventeen-years- old for those from New York City (a number that he finds fortuitously below the national average.)  As I heard to the subway, I walk down Amsterdam Avenue, colloquially referred to as the “Spanish block” by the bourgeois of the area.  Buying groceries at the local bodegas on this block required knowledge of Spanglish or at least above-average hand gesturing skills, I lacked both.   

            At night the rhythm of the Hallelujah man's words were comforting to me. As comforting as I presumed the sounds of chirping birds and night crickets were to those who grew up outside of the concrete jungle. And yet I knew hardly anything about him. I knew that his dogged evangelism withstood the boundaries of blizzards and heat waves. I knew that my parents and their friends talked about him amongst bagels and lox and were convinced that he was merely another crazy on the street. I knew that he was an outsider and I wondered if I were one too.    

            Despite my uncertainty of where I fit into the NYC melting pot, I was permanently addicted to the vibrancy of life in the city. I played dominoes with old men on the streets, ate foods from around the world, and young children splashed me in the face as they converted fire hydrants into makeshift waterfalls. But the water on my face tasted polluted, like acid rain. I  wondered what life would be like in simple and boring suburbia, how much easier it would be to be an insider in one of these homogeneous societies. I imagined swimming in the ocean instead of avidly avoiding the ire of the Hudson.  Learning how to drive a car on the open road, instead of shuffling passively into a crowded, overheated subway cart.

           But the simpler suburban life would mean giving up trips to watch hotdog eating contests and mermaid parades at Coney Island. Weekly visits to the Museum of Natural History, watching the Thanksgiving day floats inflated the night before the parade, eating the best pizza in the world, perhaps being given the opportunity to speak with the Hallelujah Man.

            One night soon after my eighteenth birthday, I quickly walked home to avoid the burning of the crisp mid-Autumn wind. As I walked past the infamous Tom's Diner, I recognized a familiar brown overcoat and fedora hat. Contrary to popular belief, much like the St John the Divine Cathedral and the sticky croissants of the Hungarian Pastry Shop, the Hallelujah man became a permanent fixture of the neighborhood, continually adding to its eclectic mix. I finally had the chance to talk to the Hallelujah Man, but before I could spurt out a word he put his hand on his lips to shush me. "Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. God good. God good. God good. Glory, glory, glory. I love you. Thank you.


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