The Faith Healer
by Anne Whitehouse

During that winter, the New York City subways broke down frequently. I was living with my husband in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but I noticed that the problems affected the whole system, because I commuted all over the city for my job. I was conducting residencies in the public schools for an artists’ organization. I spent one day of the week at an elementary school in the Bronx and another at an elementary school in Brooklyn. Just after the first of the year, I began a program at a junior high school out in Massapequa, Long Island.

I got up early, especially when I went to Long Island. The apartment was dark. Nervous that I would oversleep, I usually awoke before the clock radio’s alarm and turned it off so as not to wake my husband. He was in graduate school. He stayed up late at night studying and slept in the mornings. After I got out of bed, I made coffee in the cold kitchen and drank it while I dressed by the hall light. I arranged my teaching materials in my canvas shoulder bag, put on my coat, and left with a subway token ready in my palm. I always tried not to have to wait in line at the booth in the mornings.

I was amazed by the sea of people that flooded Penn Station at seven a.m. I was going against the prevailing tide, out of the city rather than into it, and it was difficult to get from the subway into the station.

After I boarded the train, I relaxed. The train was pretty empty and dirty. At first I read the newspaper, then I closed my eyes and dozed a little. I had the railroad timetable in my hand. The conductor called out the long list of the towns that the train met, but then he neglected to announce each stop. When it got near the time for my arrival, I had to keep alert enough to read the signs on the station platforms. From the Massapequa station, I had to take a cab to the junior high. That was how I met Brother Bob on my first day. He was also waiting for a cab, and there was only one.

He was a short, stocky, light-skinned black man. A gray fuzz covered the back of his head, and its top was bald and shiny. When he turned around, I saw that he wore glasses and was dressed in a suit and an overcoat. I thought at once that he had a mild face, and that’s why I asked him if he minded sharing the cab, though he was technically ahead of me in line. “That is, if we’re going in the same general direction,” I said. “I’m not sure where the junior high is, but if I don’t get this cab, I’m bound to be late for my first class.”

“I’m willing,” he said. “I think it’s not far.” He had a West Indian accent. “I’m going to the prayer meeting in the Arena. We have them every Wednesday morning.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but since he agreed to share the cab, I decided to leave it up to our driver. We were both wearing bulky coats, and it took a few minutes for us both to settle into the backseat. I used the opportunity to quickly study his face. I guessed that he was about sixty, but his face was surprisingly unlined.

We told the driver our destinations. “Which is first?” I asked.

“The school is last.”

“That’s okay. I’m glad to be in the car. It’s freezing on those platforms.”

We pulled away from the station. I told myself to pay attention to the route, and then forgot to. My companion was speaking to me.

“Yes ma’am, every Wednesday morning, the sick and the weak in spirit come to our meetings, and they get cured. I minister to the afflicted. I have the power.”

I looked at him, this time openly. The light coming in through the cab windows was white and bleak. Behind the lenses of his glasses, his eyes were magnified. He spoke without urgency, his expression steady and calm. He seemed absolutely assured of himself.

“You mean, you’re a faith healer?” I asked.

“That I am. They call me Brother Bob from Barbados.”

We drove through a commercial district of shops and businesses and made a series of turns. I clutched my bulky shoulder bag in my lap. Brother Bob sat elegantly, his hands folded in his lap. I wondered if he would try to convert me, but he wasn’t anything like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who regularly rang my doorbell or the self-proclaimed prophets I often heard on the crowded avenues, who screamed of doom to passers-by. He didn’t seem to need anything from me.

“How do you do it?” I asked him.

He didn’t answer at first. Then slowly he began, “I don’t know. It’s God’s energy and grace coming through me. I sense trouble in people. It’s a gift, and I’m an instrument to help them. There it is,” he said, interrupting his explanation. “You can let me off here,” he advised the cab driver. “Then you don’t have to go around.”

I saw a large, ugly building with a big parking lot half full of cars and a sign out front like a movie marquee with removable letters. These advertised the “Evangelical Church Prayer Meeting.” Brother Bob gave me two dollars, his half of the fare. “Have a nice day,” he said to me, and coming from him, it really sounded like a wish.

The junior high was ugly, too, in a similar nineteen-sixties style. The secretary in the office directed me to the faculty lounge, where she said I could hang up my coat. The lounge was crowded with teachers, smoky, and loud. I overheard them teasing each other, complaining, and gossiping about their students. They were so engrossed in their conversations that they didn’t seem to notice me, and I felt too shy to introduce myself.

Except for one “accelerated” class, I found my students hard to motivate. They knew how to read and write, but they didn’t want to. When I tried to initiate discussions about life and literature, I had to struggle to get them to participate. I was surprised by how little curiosity they expressed about the world outside Massapequa, or even about each other. Their imaginations seemed cut-off and perishing. By and large, the whole experience was tiring and thankless, and, on my way home, I was surprised to realize that my encounter with Brother Bob had been the brightest spot.

“You know, he didn’t even try to convert me,” I told my husband that night.

“I’m sure he didn’t know you’re Jewish,” my husband said.

“No, and I’m not going to tell him. In New York, people don’t usually guess I’m Jewish because of my southern accent, but still he knew I wasn’t an Evangelical, and he didn’t try out any of the usual speeches. Not a word about Jesus dying for my sins. You know, I think he’s really nice. There’s a reassuring quality about him.”

“I find it hard to believe that he actually heals people,” said my husband.

“Yeah, I guess I do, too.”

But the next week, as I got off the train in Massapequa, I found myself looking out for Brother Bob on the train platform, and not just because I wanted to save the two dollars. I glimpsed him from the back, wide-bodied and short, walking ahead of me. Hurrying, I caught up with him on the staircase leading down to the taxi stand.

“Hi,” I said, “hi, Brother Bob.”

“Well, it’s you.” He smiled. “I wondered if I would see you again.”

“How are you?”

“Thank God, I’m fine. And yourself?” he inquired politely.

“All right. Do you want to share a cab again?”

“I’m agreeable.”

“How was the prayer meeting last week?” I asked him when we got into the cab.

“So many hurt, sick souls needing help. So many injured in body and mind. It’s our times.” He shook his head gravely. “So much evil. We’re drawing more and more of the afflicted to us. I live in Brooklyn, but I go all over, and this is our biggest meeting. There’s no end to the work. In fact, we’re hoping to televise these meetings.” He confessed this last eagerly.

“Really?” This news, which thrilled him, didn’t thrill me, but in fact tarnished the image that I’d been forming of him. For the first time, I felt let down. I wondered if this would-be television minister was like all the rest of them.

“What a wonderful way to reach people, to really enter into their homes,” he expounded, oblivious of my unspoken disapproval.

“Are you going to cure people over television?”

He replied seriously, ignoring the irony in my voice. “No, I can’t. That requires the personal touch. But television is a tool, a way to bring people to us, that otherwise we wouldn’t reach.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true.”

Maybe he was a fake, maybe he was for real, I didn’t know, but I cared enough for the rapport we had established not to want to challenge or antagonize him. Yet the idea of television publicity and the contributions that would undoubtedly be needed to pay for it made me more suspicious of his beatific smile, and I wondered how much self-satisfaction was behind his humility.

I wondered what the prayer meetings were like, if the worshippers carried on, crying and wailing and working themselves up into frenzies. I wondered what he did to cure the sick. I pictured people coming up to him in wheelchairs. He put his hands on them, and then they got up and walked away. Perhaps some people came with boils or disfigurements that instantly disappeared when he touched them. Let’s say I didn’t really believe in him, and yet part of me wanted to. I felt curious and half-afraid to see him in action.

I also wondered if the congregations attracted to these meetings were all black, and where they came from. There were very few blacks at the junior high school, maybe one or two to a class. In fact, a train conductor punching my ticket had told me the town was locally referred to as “Matzohpizza,” and it was true that most of the kids I taught were Jewish or Italian.

By the third week, I felt that I was settling into a routine. I recognized the cleaning lady in the women’s restroom in Penn Station, and I remembered which window to go to to purchase my round-trip ticket. I looked forward to sharing a cab with Brother Bob, but I didn’t see him on the platform in Massapequa. I was surprised by how much I missed him. While I was the only passenger, the cab driver followed a different route to the junior high, without passing the Arena. The drive was shorter, only about five minutes.

The following week it was snowing heavily when I woke up. I let the radio play, turning the dial anxiously, until I found a dee-jay announcing that the Nassau County schools were open. I considered going back to bed anyway, and then getting up in an hour to call the school and cancel, but I was already half dressed. I thought about how we needed the money, and decided to go ahead.

It was so early that the sidewalk to the subway hadn’t yet been shoveled. The falling snow was gritty, stinging my eyes like ice or sand. After one stop, the subway broke down. For half an hour, we were stuck in the tunnel before Ninety-sixth Street. I was grateful I had a seat, but it was still horrible. The subway car was filthy, and it stank. Its walls were covered with graffiti. Wearing their heaviest winter coats, people were crammed together so closely that I felt I could hardly breathe.

My heart raced with annoyance. The minutes crawled. There was no explanation at all of the delay. I glanced at my watch. I’d missed my train. I knew that everyone else was also thinking about being late. We were all anxious and helplessly resigned. I tried to calm myself. There was nothing I could do about it. The engine wheezed, and I saw the other passengers’ hopeful expressions. Then the engine died. More minutes passed. I felt faint and sick. Finally, after another wheeze, the subway started, and, like a wounded animal, in fits and starts, it lunged downtown.

At Penn Station, I considered going home, and decided against it. I’d already come so far, I reasoned, and if the next train was on time, I’d only miss one class. Because I had already made the effort, I didn’t want to give up now.

By the time we got to Massapequa, the platform was covered by a thick layer of snow. I left my footprints in it. Again, there was no Brother Bob. Perhaps he had already arrived on the earlier train, I speculated, or maybe he wasn’t planning to come at all. A bitterly cold wind blew across the platform, cutting through my heavy coat. The surrounding streets were almost deserted. Not a taxi was in sight.

Down at the taxi stand, the dispatcher told me that I’d have to wait half an hour for a cab.

“I can’t believe it.” I turned my face, so he wouldn’t see me burst into tears. I had tried so hard! Against my better judgment, I’d come so far, and now I had failed. I would miss my first two classes. I worried that I wouldn’t get paid, that I’d have to make up this day. I’d already spent so much money commuting, and it was wasted.

In this state of mind, I called the junior high school from a phone booth. The receiver was as cold as ice against my ear. The edge of my voice was ragged with tears as I begged the secretary to find out if a teacher was free in the lounge, who could come pick me up, so at least I could teach part of my second class. Hearing my desperation, the secretary complied, and about ten minutes later, Lois Sherkin, the teacher of the “accelerated” class, the one I’d already missed, pulled up to the station. She was the nicest teacher I worked with.

I thanked her profusely. “I really appreciate this. I feel terrible about missing your class. When I found out I had to wait so long for a cab after all that I’ve been through already this morning, I started to cry.”

“Relax, you’re here now, so don’t worry about it.” She was kind, and I realized that I’d get paid, even though I had barely enough time to give my second class an assignment, and I had to tell Lois Sherkin what I wanted her class to do in my absence. My third class was usually the dullest, and today was no exception. They weren’t even enlivened by the snow.

I chalked the day up to experience. I decided that, the next time it snowed, I’d play it smart, stay home, and make up the day later. I realized that I was always trying harder than people seemed to expect or even to want. I wasted my energy in efforts that didn’t matter.

But at least I’d get paid, I thought. That was the important thing. We were so poor that every dollar counted. My husband was a full-time student, and these artist’s residencies of mine were limited. I wasn’t always sure when I’d get more work. On the next Monday, I withdrew a hundred dollars from our joint checking account, hoping that I could make it last the week. I went straight from the bank to the grocery store. I felt a little nervous, carrying so much cash, but I needed to shop, and I didn’t want to have to make two trips. I spent twenty dollars and came out of the store with two heavy bags of groceries, the maximum that I could handle by myself. Over the weekend, the snow had melted, but the weather was still chilly and damp, and the wind was blowing. I was in a hurry to get home.

I didn’t notice the man right behind me when I unlocked the front door to my building. Without realizing it, I let him into the lobby. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, and, except for us, the lobby was empty.

“Who do you know in this building?” As soon as I saw him, I spoke up. We were both just inside the front door.

“I’m visiting my cousin.”

“Oh.” I was suspicious of him, but not scared. He was a tall black man, not young, maybe in his late thirties. He was neatly dressed in khaki pants and a windbreaker. Like me, he carried two grocery bags. I thought to myself, He could be telling the truth. I’ve seen a couple of black people in the building. Because I wasn’t scared, but suspicious, I forced myself to discount my suspicion. People are always being unfair to blacks, I thought. Having grown up in the South, I had seen it all my life, and I was always worried about being prejudiced. I forced myself to walk across the lobby, and he followed me. I pressed the button for the elevator, its door opened, I stepped inside, and he came in after me. The door closed. Even before he pulled the knife on me, I knew that I had made a grave mistake, because after I pushed the button for four, he pushed three. I knew that no black person lived on the third floor.

The knife was a switchblade. He poked its end at my side. “You think you’re so smart,” he said. “I want your money.”

He was much taller than I, and the elevator was small. I wasn’t looking at his face, but at the knife. I never doubted that I would give him my money, but it was taking me time to react. I felt hypnotized by the knife.

“I’m crazy,” he said, “I could do anything.”

“Don’t worry, I want to live.” Before I spoke, I didn’t realize what I was going to say. I must have dropped the groceries, though I have no recollection of it. I got out the wallet from my purse. He did not snatch it from me. I opened it. I think all this took no more than a few seconds, yet it seemed to me to be happening in slow motion, in which I realized with surprise that he was as frightened as I was. Inside the billfold part of the wallet, I had also accumulated bank receipts and sales slips. I reached for my money, and then I did something that was maybe crazy. I guess I just couldn’t stand the idea of giving him all of it. I withdrew three crisp, uncreased twenty dollar bills fresh from the bank. I kept one back.

He took them from my hand. Our fingers grazed each other. His head was far above me, and I still didn’t look at his face. He didn’t ask for my wallet or my wedding ring or my watch. Sixty dollars was more than I usually had on me, and maybe it was more than what he expected to get. I was wearing jeans. I didn’t look too rich.

Later it seemed unbelievable to me that all this happened in the interval that it took to get from the first to the third floors. It seemed to me that the whole time I was mostly thinking about the knife.

The elevator stopped, and the door opened. He stepped out. “You better not scream,” he threatened.

“I won’t.”

He snapped back the switchblade, and he disappeared. I remained in the elevator, while the door closed. He’d left his shopping bags behind. I saw that they were full of garbage.

I got out on the fourth floor, but I didn’t go to my apartment. Instead, I rang the service elevator. Ramón, the porter, brought it up. I burst into tears of relief when I saw him. “I’ve just been mugged,” I said.

While I waited in the laundry room in the basement, Ramón went out to phone the police from a pay phone in the street. Two policemen arrived quickly. I left my groceries in the basement with Ramón while I went with the policemen to the precinct.

I filled in forms, answered questions, and looked at photographs, but I didn’t recognize my mugger. Though I doubted that he would be caught, I felt that I ought to cooperate as much as I could. As I did what was asked of me, I thought to myself, I’m really very lucky. I wasn’t hurt, all I lost was sixty dollars, and I still have my wallet with all my credit cards and my driver’s license and my Blue Cross-Blue Shield card. I even managed to keep back some money, and that’s like a secret triumph. Really, I told myself, It’s not so bad. Yet when I remembered how the mugger had said, “I’m crazy, I could do anything,” my breath failed me, because I was thinking how it could have been.

I met the officer assigned to my case, who gave me his card. “If you ever need to reach me, call me at this number,” he said, “day or night. If I’m not here, someone else will be.”

“Thank you,” I said. I suddenly felt exhausted. I took a cab home from the precinct, a definite luxury in those penny-pinching days. The same busy streets that I saw all the time now seemed fraught with hidden dangers. I relived the events of the mugging. I wondered if he had followed me from the bank. No, he couldn’t have, I decided, for I’d spent so long in the grocery store. On the other hand…

My imagination wouldn’t stop. I saw mothers wheeling strollers on the sidewalks, and I wondered how they could stand to be so exposed. What if I had had a child with me? I thought, my nerves racing. Now terrors swept over me, but I was glad that I had remained calm in the elevator. I realized that my fear and surprise must have been numbed me.

Ramón had kept my groceries in the cold basement for me, and they were still salvageable. Profusely, I thanked him for helping me. After I went home, I didn’t leave my apartment.

I couldn’t reach my husband at school. He was either in class or in the studio. That night, when I told him what had happened, I cried. He took me in his arms and cried with me.

“It makes me so furious that something like this could happen to you, and I wouldn’t be there to protect you.”

“But how can you protect me all the time? No one can.”

“I know. I feel so powerless.”

“I do, too.”

The next day I didn’t have to teach, and I didn’t want to leave the apartment. I stayed in, and my husband called regularly. But I needed to shop at the fruit stand, and I said to myself, This is ridiculous. It won’t hurt me to go two blocks.

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and a lot of people were out. I bought a carton of milk and some vegetables, and left the fruit stand. I was waiting for the light to cross the street, when I spotted him, my mugger, from a block and a half away. He was standing in front of the drug store in the ground floor of my building, smoking a cigarette. I wasn’t close enough to see his features; I recognized him from his clothes. He was wearing the same clothes as yesterday.

Instantly, I felt adrenalin surge through me. In a second, I was trembling with nerves. I saw a phone booth nearby, past the corner. It was empty. I dialed 911. After I poured out my story, I was told that the police would come and to stay where I was.

But today the police took their time. As I waited, I watched the mugger from a block and a half away. I saw him finish the cigarette and start walking away slowly in the opposite direction from me. For a while I kept track of him, and then I lost him. I got tired of waiting, and I phoned the number on the card the officer had given me. He wasn’t in. I was told to wait for 911 to respond.

A patrol car pulled up at the corner. I approached the window. “Are you the ones for me?”

They weren’t. They were just making their rounds. I explained what was happening.

“He’s getting away,” I said. “Already I can’t see him. He’s gone past where Broadway curves.”

As I was speaking, a police van pulled up behind the patrol car. Inside were three policemen. They were the ones who had come for me. They told me to get in the back, and I did, and then I got nervous.

“Look, if I finger him for you, I want you to let me out first, before you pick him up. He knows where I live, and I don’t want him to see me. I lost sixty dollars, and I’d like to hold the line there.”

“All right,” said the cop who was sitting next to the driver, but his tone didn’t entirely convince me. Part of me felt relieved when we drove around all the neighboring streets without finding him.

“Are you sure you saw him?” asked one of the cops.

“Yes, because my heart started going like crazy. It’s true that yesterday I was looking more at the knife than at his face, but this man was wearing the same clothes.”

I filled out another report at the precinct, and this time, I made myself walk the half-mile home. I guess I needed to prove something to myself.

But I was still nervous, and I asked my husband not to work at the studio that evening. I was grateful for his steadying presence. He helped me to clarify my thoughts. “You know, in a way, the mugging was my own fault,” I reflected, “because I was suspicious. I should have acted on my suspicion, and when I saw that he was inside the building, said, ‘Oh, I forgot my keys,’ and gone back outside and waited in one of the stores for a while, until someone could check for me that he’d gone away. But I didn’t let myself do that, and you know why? Because of white guilt about black people. I thought I was being prejudiced. But you know what? I don’t think a black woman would have hesitated in my place if she’d been suspicious.”

My husband stroked my hair, concern in his eyes. “I know this was a terrible experience, but I wish that you could put it behind you.”

“But I’m afraid it’s not over. I got awfully nervous this afternoon when I saw him. I didn’t want them to find him. Will you go down to the precinct with me? I need to talk to the officer on my case.”

“Can’t you call?”

“No, I want to talk in person.”

My husband didn’t really want to come, but he wouldn’t let me go by myself. The officer who had given me his card the day before wasn’t there, but another officer, sandy-haired and middle-aged, came to speak to us.

I repeated to him what I had said to the policeman in the van. “What I want to know is, would they have let me out before they picked him up? I want y’all to get him, but what if you can’t keep him? I’m afraid for my safety. What if I see him again?”

The policeman’s eyes were serious, but he stroked his chin, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was hiding a smile. “They would have let you out,” he said, “but you shouldn’t worry. Let me tell you something. These guys aren’t motivated by revenge. He’s not going to remember you. He probably hardly looked at you. You know how all black people look the same to white people? Well, all white people look the same to black people, too.”

“What makes me nervous is that he came back the next day.”

“I guess he figured that the pickings were good. He’s probably a drug addict. Not too bright. Look, for these guys, it’s like a game. They figure, they get away with it ninety-eight times, and the ninety-ninth time they get caught and have to pay the piper. So they go to jail. They’re used to jail. They’re comfortable there. It’s no big deal to them, like it would be for me or you. Be sure to let us know if you see him again.” About to dismiss us, he offered a last thought. “We may call you to come in and look at more pictures. We may ask you to participate in a line-up. But don’t worry, there’s a one-way mirror. You can see them, but they can’t see you.”

“Give me a break,” I said to my husband when we’d left the precinct. “Could you believe that part about black people all looking the same to white people, and vice versa? It’s a typical racist comment. And do you believe they’re really ‘comfortable’ in jail?”

“I have no idea. That comment was too much, but maybe he’s right about not wanting revenge and paying the piper.”

“Maybe so, but, you know, it really doesn’t make me feel any better.”

I was still in a bad way. I didn’t sleep well that night, and I dreaded even more than usual the commute to Massapequa. Once again, the subway got stuck in the tunnel, but this time it was only for five minutes, and I was still able to make my train. I didn’t even try to read the paper, but closed my eyes. At the Jamaica interchange, I listened drowsily to the conductor calling out the names of the stations ahead, past Massapequa, all the way to the end of the line: “…Amityville, Copaigue, Lindenhurst, and Babylon,” he ended. The names had a nice ring, which I appreciated, but I was pretty tired.

“Hello, hello.” The voice was behind me on the Massapequa platform, but I didn’t mistake it. It was Brother Bob from Barbados. I turned, and he smiled his sunny smile, and I realized that I was truly glad to see him.

“Hi, I haven’t seen you for a couple of weeks,” I said.

“No, the snow kept me away last week. The rheumatism in my leg was acting up.”

“You mean you can’t heal yourself?” I teased him, and I discovered with surprise that I felt kind of happy. “I should have stayed away last week, too. It was very difficult to get here. I missed my first class, and most of my second, and, believe it or not, I burst into tears right here in the snow.” Embarrassed by my confession, I glanced away to the taxi stand. “I see a cab down there that looks like it’s waiting just for us.”

“Very good,” he said.

We went down the stairs, I first, he following, and got the cab. We gave our directions, and the driver pulled away, but he had to stop almost immediately at a traffic light. I felt Brother Bob looking at me intently, seriously.

“You know, I was worried about you. I thought to myself, that girl is in trouble. I wanted to see you. I felt it so strongly. Even if you’re not of our faith.”

“No, I’m not,” I said.

“But the Jews are God’s Chosen People.”

“How did you know I was Jewish?”

“I knew it when I first saw you.”

“But people don’t usually guess that about me.”

“No? I knew it at once. But it doesn’t matter. We’re all God’s children, after all, and this morning I thought to myself, I hope I see that girl, because she’s been through a bad time, and maybe I can bring her some comfort.”

We were moving, and I was quiet for a moment. The swish of the car over the streets and the exhalations of the heater wove a net of sounds under me. I felt suspended over the day, suspended over my life. It was as if I were looking back at myself from a vantage point in time: I had survived. A feel of gratitude washed over me, enabling me to speak.

“You know, I really was in trouble. Something bad did happen to me.”

“Of course,” he said. “I sensed it.” And he put his hand over mine, the same hand that the mugger’s hand had grazed, and I didn’t mind at all. His touch was gentle and somehow disinterested. I felt it was all for my benefit, but still I held back.

“A faith healer,” I mused, not caring whether he heard me or not. “And whose faith is it?”

Brother Bob smiled his enigmatic smile. “And would you need to ask that if you were healed?”