Excerpt from City of God by E.L. Doctorow, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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City of God

by E.L. Doctorow

City of God
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2000, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2001, 320 pages

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Behind me the financial skyline of lower Manhattan sunlit into an island cathedral, a religioplex.

And I come upon this peddler of watches, fellow with dreadlocks, a big smile. Standing tall in his purple chorister's robe. His sacral presence not diminished by the new white Nikes on his feet.

"Don't need windin, take em in de showerbat, everyting proof, got diamuns 'n such, right time all de time."

A boat appears, phantomlike, from the glare of the oil-slicked bay: the Ellis Island ferry. I will always watch boats. She swings around, her three decks jammed to the rails. Sideswipes bulkhead for contemptuous New York landing. Oof. Pilings groan, crack like gunfire.

Man on the promenade thinks it's him they're after, breaks into a run.
Tourists down the gangplank thundering. Cameras, camcorders, and stupefied children slung from their shoulders.

Lord, there is something so exhausted about the NY waterfront, as if the smell of the sea were oil, as if boats were buses, as if all heaven were a garage hung with girlie calendars, the months to come already leafed and fingered in black grease.

But I went back to the peddler in the choir robe and said I liked the look. Told him I'd give him a dollar if he'd let me see the label. The smile dissolves. "You crazy, mon?"

Lifts his tray of watches out of reach: "Get away, you got no business wit me." Looking left and right as he says it.

I was in mufti-jeans, leather jacket over plaid shirt over T-shirt. Absent cruciform ID.

And then later on my walk, at Astor Place, where they put out their goods on the sidewalk: three of the purple choir robes neatly folded and stacked on a plastic shower curtain. I picked one and turned back the neck and there was the label, Churchpew Crafts, and the laundry mark from Mr. Chung.

The peddler, a solemn young mestizo with that bowl of black hair they have, wanted ten dollars each. I thought that was reasonable.

They come over from Senegal, or up from the Caribbean, or from Lima, San Salvador, Oaxaca, they find a piece of sidewalk and go to work. The world's poor lapping our shores, like the rising of the global warmed sea.

I remember how, on the way to Machu Picchu, I stopped in Cuzco and listened to the street bands. I was told when I found my camera missing that I could buy it back the next morning in the market street behind the cathedral. Merciful heavens, I was pissed. But the fences were these shyly smiling women of Cuzco in their woven ponchos of red and ocher. They wore black derbies and carried their babies wrapped to their backs ... and with Anglos rummaging the stalls as if searching for their lost dead, how, my Lord Jesus, could I not accept the justice of the situation?

As I did at Astor Place in the shadow of the great mansarded brownstone voluminous Cooper Union people's college with the birds flying up from the square.

A block east, on St. Marks, a thrift shop had the altar candlesticks that were lifted along with the robes. Twenty-five dollars the pair. While I was at it, I bought half a dozen used paperback detective novels. To learn the trade.

I'm lying, Lord. I just read the damn things when I'm depressed. The paperback detective he speaks to me. His rod and his gaff they comfort me. And his world is circumscribed and dependable in its punishments, which is more than I can say for Yours.

I know You are on this screen with me. If Thomas Pemberton, B.D., is losing his life, he's losing it here, to his watchful God. Not just over my shoulder do I presumptively locate You, or in the Anglican starch of my collar, or in the rectory walls, or in the coolness of the chapel stone that frames the door, but in the blinking cursor ...

We made our plans standing in front of one of the big blue-green paintings of water lilies. It is a matter of when she can get away. She has two young children. There is a nanny, but everything is so scheduled. We had not touched, and still did not as we came out of the Met and walked down the steps and I hailed a cab for her. Her glance at me as she got in was almost mournful, a moment of declared trust that I felt as a blow to the heart. It was what I wanted and had applied myself to getting, but once given, was instantly transformed into her dependence, as if I had been sworn to someone in a secret marriage whose terms and responsibilities had not been defined. As the cab drove off I wanted to run after it and tell her it was all a mistake, that she had misunderstood me. Later, I could only think how lovely she was, what a powerful recognition there was between us, I couldn't remember having felt an attraction so strong, so clean, and rather than being on the brink of an affair, I imagined that I might at last find my salvation in an authentic life with this woman. She lives in some genuine state of integrity almost beyond belief, a woman of unstudied grace, with none of the coarse ideologies of the time adhered to her.

Excerpted from City of God by E. L. Doctorow. Copyright© 2000 by E. L. Doctorow. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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