Mannequins and Mormons

VAGABOND

THE MORNING was dark and drizzly, ugly in a way that only New York can be. Snarling people, filthy streets, dog shit everywhere. Three cups of coffee hadn't done much for the head. Still bleary-eyed, still in a fog, still feeling the pitchers of beer from the night before. Groping my way down Broadway, wondering why the hell I was heading to the Museum of Modern Art to see Guernica and the rest for the hundredth time.

At the corner of 65th and Broadway, I noticed a building on my left. Spacious, modern and airy, looked like the home for Exxon or ITT. But instead a large sign in front announced, "Mormon Visitor Center. Guests Welcome."

I started thinking about Mormons. The only ones I'd ever known were my freshman proctor and his wife, and the only thing I knew about their religion was what I learned the time they invited my freshman roommates and me over for dinner. We brought a bottle of wine and, when the proctor answered the door, he looked at us sternly and said that Mormons never drink.

I hadn't given much thought to Mormons since, but, as I looked at the building, I got a sudden urge to go inside. At least it would be dry. Walking in the front door, I found myself in a large, empty lobby. The carpet was the deep, thick kind that absorbs most noise, the kind that you sink into as you walk across it. On the far side of the lobby sat a short, squat old man wearing a freshly pressed three-piece suit and tightly gripping a cane. As I walked in, he looked up at me eagerly.

"What can I do for you son?"

"Well, nothing really. I just kind of felt like looking around. I don't really know very much about Mormons."

"That's fine, that's what we're here for. If you'll just take this staircase behind me up to the second floor, we've got lots of people who will take care of you."

As I climbed the staircase, an inexplicable feeling of paranoia gripped me. With this nervousness reaching a peak, I walked through a large door at the end of the stairs and found myself face-to-face with a grandmotherly woman. Her gray hair carefully set, she had a kind, unwrinkled face. A badge on her chest proclaimed, "Sister Wood." Warmly grasping my hand, she told me how glad she was to see me.

WELCOME TO our Center. That was my husband downstairs with the cane, and we're both here because we're part of something so wonderful that we want to share it with everybody, and we especially want to share it with you. How much time do you have? It's a very special message, and I want to be sure that we have enough time."

I still felt cautious.

"Only about a half hour."

"Well, that's time enough. Before we start, why don't you sign our guest book? Just put your name and address down and that way we can always keep in touch with you."

The paranoia returned. Visions of Mormon missionaries gripped me. For all I knew, they'd be coming by my room night and day, proselytizing, smashing bottles of booze. I decided to give a pseudonym, but was somehow unable to think up on on the spur of the moment. For a few minutes, I stood in front of the guest book, drumming my pen, trying to think of a fake name, smiling weakly at Sister Wood. Finally, feeling more foolish than ever, I put down my first and middle names--"Cliff Myer."

"O.K., Mr. Myer, just follow me into this room and we'll see a very special show."

We walked down one of the hallways and into a small, well-lit room with several rows of comfortable, plush blue couches facing a stage. Nobody else was in the room. Sister Wood took me to the first couch, and we settled into it without speaking. Sister Wood stared at me for a moment, seemed to be sizing me up, and then started talking.

"Do you know anything about the Church of Latter Day Saints?"

"Not much."

"Well, we're a very special Church. I could talk all day about it. But we have a show that will explain it much better than I can. But I will tell you now that we believe in the Bible, believe every word of it, and we try to live our lives according to that faith. We also believe in the Book of Mormon, believe in it very deeply, and we try to live our lives according to that, too.

"One of the most important things to a Mormon, to any Mormon, is family. We believe very deeply in the family, in caring for one another. I'm a great grandmother, and our entire family is just as close as can be. We're from Salt Lake City originally, but we all do missionary work at different times in different places. When we're all home, we get together every Monday night for a family council where we talk about all kinds of things, about anything that anybody has on their mind. Sometimes we talk about God, sometimes about any problems we might have--marital problems, financial problems, dating problems, you name it. You know, it helps to have somebody to talk to when things are bothering you. You know that, don't you? And it especially helps when the people you're talking to are family, because your family understands and loves you more than anybody in the world. At least, that's the way the Mormons live."

"Now we're going to see a show that will explain a little bit more about the Mormon religion."

As if by cue, the curtain went up. The stage was set to look heavily forested. Towards the front, at one end, sat four remarkably life-like mannequins. One of them was facing us--the father. He looked young, in his 20s or 30s, with short brown hair combed across his forehead. He was flanked on either side by young children, a boy and a girl, who looked up at him expectantly. Across from him, with her back to us, was a woman--the mother. We couldn't see her face, but her blonde hair was curled and set, and she sat with her back perfectly straight and her legs carefully crossed.

The lights went off, and Father's lips began moving.

"Children, we're having a picnic here today for a reason. This is a very special place."

HE WENT ON to say that they were somewhere similar to the place where the gold plates of the Book of Mormon had been found. The children started asking questions, and Father unfolded for them (and for us) the story of the Mormon religion. He told about the appearance of Christ in North America a few hundred years before His appearance in Bethlehem, about how the people in North America eventually forgot Christ and grew fat and proud and wicked. He explained about how the last holy men--Mormon and his son Moroni--wrote down everything that they had seen on gold plates and buried them on a hill in a forest where they would not be found until people were ready to live once again in a holy way.

And Father told them the second part of the story, about how Moroni was sent from God to visit a youngster named Joseph Smith in upstate New York, about how Smith dug up the plates and began a rapidly growing and often persecuted religion, about how Smith led his Mormons west, settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, was shot and killed near there, and about how Brigham Young took over and ultimately led the Mormons to Salt Lake City.

As Father told different parts of the story, different sections of the stage lit up and showed other mannequins acting out the things he was describing--Mormon writing the gold plates, Joseph Smith finding them, and so on.

I tried to follow the story as best I could, but I kept getting distracted. At the beginning, Father's voice was slightly out of sync with the movement of his lips, and listening to him was like watching a foreign movie where the dubbing doesn't quite fit the speaker's lips.

After awhile, the voice and the lips got back in harmony, but I still couldn't concentrate--every time I looked at Father, I thought about the Talking Presidents exhibit at Disney World.

AND I COULD'NT figure out who was flicking the switches to get the whole production going. The fact that the whole show was for my benefit--with just me and Sister Wood in that empty room--made me even more uncomfortable.

The curtain came down and I looked over at Sister Wood. There were tears in her eyes. Full of emotion, she put her hands on my shoulders and said that family was really the most important thing in the world. She asked me to open my heart to God, and I told her I'd try to. Then she asked me if my time were up, and I told her I thought it was.

"Well, thank you so much for coming, Mr. Myer. I feel so good about the time we've had together. Come back again--we have lots of films and slideshows. Or if you just want to talk, I'm here most every day. Stop in again, won't you?"

I mumbled some thanks, and yes, maybe, I would stop in again. Sister Wood walked with me to the staircase, shook my hand and said, "God bless you."

I walked down the stairs, remembering with a kind of embarrassment the paranoia I'd felt as I climbed them. In the downstairs lobby, Sister Wood's husband waved his cane at me, waved it cheerfully.

And then it was back into the street and the drizzle.