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Monday, April 1, 2013


On February 5, 1983, I prepared my first meal as the main cook of the Soup Kitchen sponsored by the Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village, the oldest standing Roman Catholic church building in Manhattan.  I was 34 years old and had just graduated from Columbia Law School.  I was also terrified.
I grew up in a large Mormon family.   If I count all my half-, step-, and full brothers and sisters in chronological order, I am number 9 of 14. Six sisters and two brothers preceded me, but I was the first child in my family to conclude that my stepmother was lost in the kitchen.  My initial reaction was to eat at MacDonald’s whenever I could (I worked after school as a sales clerk at Montgomery Wards in Las Vegas, Nevada, and could afford a 19-cent cheeseburger).  My second reaction was to buy The Joy of Cooking and, at the ripe age of 16, assume responsibility for major family meals, which I did without a hitch.  But cook for 150 people, with only 3 hours to prepare?  That I had never done before.
I was not the first Soup Kitchen cook at St. Joseph’s—that honor belongs to Patricia Dempsey, who convinced the church’s Social Action Committee to sponsor the Kitchen in 1982—but I began within a few months of its opening and remain its longest-serving chef.  Over the years I have watched the demographics change and the number of meals we serve fluctuate in relation to hard economic times for the poor.  In 1983, we served more women and families with children.  Now our clientele is almost exclusively adult males.  By the end of the Regan era, the number of meals we served on a given Saturday had climbed from 150 to as many as 700.  During Clinton’s last year we sometimes saw our numbers drop back to as low as 150.  For the past several years, though, our numbers have hovered around 400, but no matter how many meals we serve, I no longer panic.  I regularly toss off Soup Kitchen entrĂ©es in less than 3 hours, and the food’s not bad, either.  I would eat it.  The Social Action Committee, in conjunction with the City of New York, provides canned goods and many fresh vegetables for us to work with, but it has insufficient funds to purchase fresh meat.  (Canned meatballs and canned chicken are sometimes available.)  I therefore always pay for the kielbasa or other meat products I use out of my own pocket and am happy to do so.  I try to accommodate all.  On the weeks I cook, the Soup Kitchen turns out three versions of the main course:  one that includes beef or pork; one that has only turkey or chicken; and one that’s vegetarian.
My first two years at the Soup Kitchen I cooked every Saturday.  (Our original idea was to take up the slack from the soup kitchen at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which served no meals on Saturdays.  St. Vincent’s has since closed.)  When I found I had no time to do laundry before I returned to work each Monday (I was a Wall Street lawyer at the time), I simply purchased more underwear and socks and kept right on cooking.  By my third year, however, I knew something had to give.  My talent for churning out hearty meals in large quantities had been put to good use, but I had so little free time I worried about burnout—not as a lawyer, as a cook.  That’s when I hit on the sensible idea of claiming the second Saturday of every month as my own, a schedule I’ve adhered to ever since.  I celebrated my 30th Anniversary as a cook at St. Joseph’s on February 9th of this year.
No one has to prove he or she is homeless in order to eat at St. Joseph’s, although it’s safe to assume that most people who dine with us either are or are surviving on little.  People often think that being poor is such an intractable problem there’s not much one person can do to help besides donating money, but my Soup Kitchen experience shows otherwise.  I, with the aid of a few volunteers who chop cilantro, celery, and onions each week (not to mention kielbasa), have served over 150,000 meals to the poor.  And I’m one person.
Cooking, though, is not my only obsession.  I have another.
I was six years old when the first thing happened in life that seriously made me think about what is true or false and how honesty works in the world, or doesn’t.  Our car got wrecked.  My mother, who had been in the house when it happened, ran outside to find me and my little brother both in the driver’s seat and a gaping hole in the side of our garage.  I explained I was there only because I had seen what my brother was doing and had tried to stop him.  My mother didn’t believe me.  Nobody did.
My punishment was swift and harsh, and from my point of view, completely unfair.  To me, it wasn’t the car that got wrecked.  Truth did.  My parents’ version of what had happened, which I knew to be false, prevailed over my own, which I knew to be true.  That confused me.  It made me question not only those who had authority over me, but everything I had been taught, both at home and at church, about truth and honesty since I was an infant.
I was eleven years old before I figured out, in terms that made sense to me, exactly what had happened that day, and why.  I decided right then and there, much as I would later decide to teach myself to cook in order to have decent food, that when I was old enough to do the topic justice, I would write a book about truth.  And I have.  Three times.
The first time was in the mid-’70s.  We had no Master of Fine Arts program at my undergraduate school (then Eastern Washington State College, now EW University), so I convinced my advisor to let me write a novel that would be my “thesis” for a Master’s Degree in English.  The Committee that reviewed my work liked it and approved of what I wrote, but I considered it a failure.  It fell far short of what I had hoped to say.
I tried again in the mid-’90s.  I quit my job as head of half the litigation department at MetLife and stayed home to write fulltime.  After two years of solid work, I sat down at Henry’s, a bar in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side of New York City, and read the final product.  It almost made me sick.  My Master’s thesis had been better.  Fortunately, I still remembered the telephone number of my former boss, and when I called, he answered.  In the affirmative.
Then 9/11 happened.  I thought, because George W. Bush, our President, was a professed Christian, that our country was about to set a stunning example.  I believed he would help us show the world that a country could follow a course higher than the animalistic drive for revenge.  He would prove we could turn the other cheek because “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” and although I am a nonbeliever, I accept the New Testament’s idea that the only effective way to neutralize an enemy is to love him.  President Bush and a majority of the country disagreed.  And where are we now?  In need of eye patches.
On September 7, 2001, which was the second Saturday of that month, I cooked at the St. Joseph’s Soup Kitchen.  On September 10, 2001, a Monday, I started a new job as a financial planner at a branch office of MetLife, located in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  To downplay its connection to MetLife (and emphasize its proximity to the Main Street of American capitalism), the branch had been named Wall Street Planning.  Its manager and I had met earlier, in August.  We had agreed to leverage my public speaking skills by providing investment seminars to wealthy clients in our well-appointed conference room that overlooked the Statue of Liberty from the 89th floor.  Both of us hoped to make lots of money.
The next day, 9/11, I was on a flight to Phoenix, Arizona, refining the speech I intended to give that afternoon to incite the company’s top salespeople with entrepreneurial fervor, when we stopped in Memphis, Tennessee, for a scheduled ground transfer.  I boarded my connecting flight, we pulled back from the loading dock, and we sat.  And sat.  Then, after a short, cryptic announcement that our flight had been “grounded due to possible terrorist attack,” we pulled back to the dock and disembarked.  Minutes later, as I stood with a crowd of others glued to a TV screen that hung above the nearest airport bar, I watched the South Tower crash to the ground behind a newscaster interviewing dust-covered people who had just fled the site.  They looked as surprised by the deafening roar behind them as I was.  About a half hour later, I watched the North Tower fall, too.  My imagined future went up in smoke before my very eyes.  The jihadists had struck a blow against a pre-eminent symbol of capitalism, and what was the result?  A truth wreck.  Neither side was blind, but both sides saw only their own view of the world as correct.
MetLife came up with a swift relocation plan.  We were given an empty floor at its home office, then on the corner of Madison Avenue and 23rd Street.  Most people straggled back to work over the next few days, but everyone from Wall Street Planning looked shell-shocked.  Nobody spoke.  I worked on commission and therefore tried to meet with my manager to explore how we could launch our seminars now that we no longer had an 89th floor conference room from which to gape.  He kept cancelling our meetings.  Repeatedly, during those days, I would escape to a top floor of the clock tower on the corner of Madison and 24th Street, where my office as a MetLife executive had once been.  From there I could see the wisp of smoke that curled up from the pit where the Trade Towers had stood.  My mournful sadness in the aftermath of the greatest truth wreck I had ever witnessed curled up with it.
The last weekend of September 2001, I was at home cleaning my bedroom closet when a purple binder fell from an overhead shelf and struck my head.  At first I couldn’t remember what was in the binder, but once I opened the cover, I did—my last attempt at writing a novel.
No, David, don’t, I told myself.  You’ve been down this road twice before, and where did it get you?  Nowhere.  And where was I then?  In post-9/11 limbo.
I made myself a deal.  I gave my manager two months.  If he spoke to me in the interim, I would do my best to help him launch a plan for reinvigorating our office.  If he did not, then on November 12th I would whip out my laptop and go back to work on my personal albatross:  a novel about truth.
November 11th came and went.  My manager’s only communications with me beforehand consisted of more excuses for us not meeting.  On November 12th, I pulled out my laptop and upheld the other end of my bargain, but writing a novel, unlike learning to cook, didn’t come off without a hitch.  The first sentence I put to paper that day is not even in the book now.  I saw, over time, much more than the demographics of my characters change and experienced huge swings in the number of words I produced each day, from tens of thousands to none.  I watched the novel take on three or four completely different shapes, as though a Greek god were attempting to seduce me with one form or another.  Many times along the way I thought I had finished.  I would wrap up my newest final version, enlist a fresh batch of readers, listen to their views, reflect on them, and pull out my laptop again.  And again.  My oldest friends (and earliest readers), hearing last year that I was on my fifty-seventh revision, stopped accepting the word “rewrite” and replaced it with “excuse for not finding a job.”  Finally, on February 24, 2013, exactly eleven years, three months, and twelve days from the day I started, I finished The Book of Thompson:  A Mormon Tragedy.  This time, when I read the final product at Henry’s, I understood that I had done precisely as I’d intended—I had captured a truth wreck on paper.   I now have a greater appreciation for why my manager kept cancelling our meetings after 9/11.  He wasn’t there yet.  Neither was I.  Until February 24, 2013.
Was it worth it?  Was it worth spending every dime I had and every dollar’s-worth of credit (as well as every ounce of energy) to achieve a goal I came up with at the age of eleven?  I know what I think, but I want to hear your views.
In 1983, when I started as a Soup Kitchen cook, David J. Larkin, Jr. was a fledgling attorney on Wall Street.  Today I am an unknown author who has fed 150,000 meals to the homeless and can’t afford my next month’s rent.  That, too, is its own kind of truth wreck, but maybe, if someone agrees to buy the kielbasa next time I cook at St. Joseph’s, I’ll survive. 
The Book of Thompson:  A Mormon Tragedy is available on Amazon as a paperback and a Kindle e-book, in both a “full version” (495 pp.) and a “short version” (367 pp.).  Both versions tell the same story.  The “full version” describes in greater detail the main character’s magical thinking and contains reflections on his father’s earlier life that have been omitted from the “short version.”  Here are links to what’s available:
    Full Version ($18.99):
    Short Version ($14.99):

    Full Version ($7.99):
    Short Version ($5.99):

Monday, January 17, 2011

Is a Homosexual Lifestyle a "Choice"? Does It Matter if It Is?

Christian conservatives argue that God created males and females, ordered them to multiply and replenish the earth, making sex between them a divine imperative, and charge that same-sex acts are therefore against God’s (or nature’s) design.  They further argue a homosexual lifestyle is a “choice” made in contravention of that design and should not be governmentally endorsed by laws that give same-sex couples rights identical to those of heterosexual couples.  Gays and lesbians have countered that they were born the way they are and have no choice in the matter.  Their same-sex attraction cannot, therefore, be wrong or deviant, just different.  Is it wrong or abnormal for one person to have black hair or skin while another is blond or brunette and light complected?  Of course not.  The I-have-no-choice-in-my-sexual-orientation advocates therefore make a valid point, but I see things a little differently.

The first time I experienced an unintentional orgasm, I was fourteen years old.  My girl friend and I, two active young Mormons, were on a bus trip with the Las Vegas North Stake Youth Choir to Salt Lake City.  Our conductor, a single, smart-looking, brunette dynamo (who never married and never had any children), had decided to take us to “West Side Story,” the movie, after we had sung on Temple Square.  The movie had just been released, was playing in Salt Lake, but had not yet made it to Las Vegas.

I loved the movie—the pulsating beat of “America,” the romantic lyricism of “One Hand, One Heart,” and the comic preening that accompanied “I Feel Pretty.”  My blood was boiling.  On our way back home, my girl friend and I, in the throes of excitement, made out for hours.  At some point, my emotions boiled over, and I ended up with a big, gooey glob inside my shorts that soon penetrated my baby blue plaid polyester bell-bottoms, which, I was sure, were the most beautiful pants that had ever been made.  Did I have a choice in shooting my spunk?  To be honest, I didn’t even know it could happen.  It had taken me by complete surprise.  I would therefore say, given the level of stimulation I had achieved, that I had no choice in the matter—it had just happened.  Did I have a choice in making out with my girl friend, feeling her breasts through her sweater, and shoving my tongue halfway down her throat as she moaned?  You bet.

Sometime in the early 1980s, I, by then a married law student, was a columnist for “The Columbia Law School News.”  Another classmate, Chuck, wrote a gay column that always appeared either right above or right below mine.  Since our columns were accompanied by our mug shots, I knew what he looked like, but it was several weeks before I met him live.  We were at the gym.  The minute I saw him, I was intrigued by his energy and focus and found his intensity magnetic.  Over the next few weeks, we became close friends, and I finally got up the nerve to ask him about gay sex.  Since my only real understanding of gay proclivities had come from the media (this was just before AIDS broke as the so-called “gay disease”), I shared the common misunderstandings that prevailed at the time.  Until I met Chuck (who was given to Levis and black leather jackets), I thought all gay men wore dresses and, when engaged in sex, wanted to be women.  It did not occur to me that many, if not most, exulted in their maleness, had never thought of being a woman (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and most definitely wanted to be men.  I was aware of lesbians, but only vaguely.  I had a glancing familiarity with a few famous figures I’d run across in literature—primarily Gertrude Stein, Sappho, Colette, and Virginia Woolf.  But I was very unclear as to what it all meant.

Chuck filled me in (he was a strict “top” at a time when things like that more likely mattered but asserted that many others were not) and asked me what I thought.  I said I could appreciate what he had described to me and would like to try it myself sometime, if only to see what my reaction would be.  (As a former English major, I had long since learned not to judge a book by its cover.)  Chuck, who by then had dined at my house with me and my wife, Zena (not her real name), several times, gamely replied, “You can try it, David, but trust me—you’re not gay.”

In September of 1981, I accompanied Zena as she registered for the fall semester at New York University (NYU).  While she was completing her paper work at the Student Center, I dipped inside the men’s room and took a stall for the very real reason that I needed to use it.  I had not expected the hand that suddenly reached toward me from under the partition to my right, but when its fingers summoned me, I understood the invitation, and thought, “Shall I?”  Then I made a choice.  Regardless of the reason for which nature had called, I dropped to my knees and within seconds had experienced my first intentional guy-to-guy sex.

Was it good?  For me, it was terrific, a really big bang, and I was surprised by how much it made me feel like a man.  But did it change my life?  Yes and no.  As I thought about it over the next few days, I reached a conclusion that went something like this:  Well, that was fun, but am I actually unhappy as a married man?  Am I doing something that’s not in my nature?  No.  Does it make sense to give up the happiness and satisfaction I feel for something that might, in the long run, prove less rewarding?  Not really.  So, not feeling deprived in any way, and sexually fulfilled at home, I decided to keep things the way they were.  It had been an interesting experience, and I now knew I could identify closely with the feelings expressed by my gay friend Chuck, but I did not, as he said he did, have something inside me that compelled me to live a different way.

A few months later, on New Year’s Eve, I asked my wife if we were going to Times Square to watch the ball drop (that had been our tradition since moving to New York in 1977).  She looked up at me from her chair at the dining table, perhaps having made a New Year’s resolution, and said, “David, there’s something I think I’d better tell you.”  “Oh, what’s that?”  “I think I’ve fallen in love with my sociology professor at NYU.”  “Are you sure?”  “Yes.”

When I heard her words I felt a deep, sinking feeling, a pang of regret, a sense of loss.  Nevertheless, after wiping the tears from my eyes, I said, “Well, there’s something I guess I’d better tell you, too.  I think I might be gay, or at least bi-sexual.”  Zena, without missing a beat, said, “Oh, come on, David.  You can’t fool me.  I know you better than that.”

Fast-forward 30 years.  Zena, now on her second marriage, still lives with the man who was then her sociology professor.  I have had the same male partner for the past 15 years.  My partner of the previous 14 years remains one of my best friends.  All five of us often spend our holidays together.  All of us love each other.

My point is this:  What difference does it make if having a male lover, as opposed to a female one, was my choice?  It clearly was my choice.  Am I not entitled to make it?  Based on what authority?

Of one thing I am quite certain:  I—as the person given my particular set of genes and personality characteristics—clearly have the capacity to love and have sex with both men and women.  My innate nature allows me to choose among them and find the partner who’s best for me.  I’m not worried about the human race becoming extinct.  I’m more worried about treating the earth in a way that makes life sustainable, not only for us, but also for the many other species who suffer because of our ability to destroy or significantly harm the environment.  I’m more worried about overpopulation than the failure of some same-sex couples to reproduce.

Those who believe the Bible to be the only document by which people should live should face another issue.  In Egypt and other countries, where Christians are not a majority, they are sometimes the objects of persecution.  Do people choose to be Christians?  Of course they do.  If it were otherwise, then the world would be comprised of nothing but Christians.  Should people have the right to choose to be Christians?  Of course.  Then what underlying principle should be guiding us?

I believe that as long as what we choose does no harm to others, we should be free to choose it.  The pursuit of happiness—unless it infringes on the rights of or harms others—should be ours.  My choice of a male partner does not preclude my male neighbor from choosing a female one or my female neighbor across the hall from choosing a female companion.  All of us can be happy.  What matters is that we treat each other with dignity and respect and honor the choices each individual has made, provided those choices do no literal harm to anyone.

If someone wants to be a Christian, fine.  That does not harm me unless, by banding together, a majority, which has made its own choice, tries to deprive me of making mine.  My choice is to live with the man I love, and I have never been happier.  Come.  Join us for dinner.  You’ll see what I mean.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why the Religious Atheist?

I was born the ninth child in a fifth-generation Mormon family.  Mormons have some beliefs about family life that are not shared by other Christians.  (Yes, Mormons believe in Christ.)  They believe that as long as everyone in the family remains worthy, they will dwell together after death.  When I was young, we referred to what followed death as the “afterlife,” but Church leaders decided that implied too much—that our individual existence ceased with death.  In order to clarify that we continue to be ourselves beyond the grave, the “afterlife” was given the somewhat cumbersome name of the “post-mortal existence.”

Mormon families who live together in the post-mortal existence don’t dwell just anywhere.  They will live in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom, in the physical presence of God.  Exactly how they will be housed there is a bit unclear, but we do know this:  When a man and woman marry in a Mormon temple here on earth, they are sealed together for “time and all eternity.”  Once sealed to a man, a woman joins her husband’s family.  Should the family she was born into also achieve the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom in the post-mortal existence, she will not live with it.  She will live with her husband’s family, just as her own male children will remain part of the family she has joined, but her female children, once married, will not.  They will belong to their men. 

My particular Mormon family will undoubtedly not arrive in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom intact.  My father died in the early 1990s, at the age of 83.  During his lifetime he was married in the Mormon temple three times to women who all outlived him.  He was divorced civilly from two of his wives, although he was never civilly married to more than one wife at any given time, and he remained married (civilly) to the third wife until his death.  He practiced what anthropologists call “serial monogamy.”  As far as the Church is concerned, though, because he took no action to dissolve his temple marriages while he was here on earth, my father remains wed to all three spouses in the post-mortal existence.  Should they all be worthy—and it is fairly certain that my own mother, who, like me, became an atheist, will wear her unworthiness on her bosom like a brightly emblazoned “A”—he would have a leg up on most of his contemporaries.  All three women would end up in the same post-mortal household, having joined the Larkin family.  My father has therefore already succeeded in achieving potential post-mortal polygamy (which the Church refers to as “plural marriage”), even though polygamy is against the laws of the United States here on earth.  God, incidentally, has no problem with that.

But one of the reasons my family is unlikely to arrive in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom intact is me.  I was excommunicated from the Church in the late 1970s, at my own request, after being charged with, and found guilty of, apostasy, defined as “denial of the Holy Ghost.”   I left the Church for many reasons, some of which I hope to explore through this blog, but at the moment I will say only this:  The housing situation in which I found myself as a child struck me as less than inspired by a perfect being, otherwise known as God.

I was grateful to leave behind what I saw as the closed-mindedness of my upbringing (the failures of our household, for example, could not be openly discussed and therefore dealt with), but I missed its warmth and support.  In fact, it took me several years to admit, but I missed church.  I missed association with people who seemed to have a purpose beyond themselves.  I missed people striving for perfection, no matter how far short of it they fell.  I missed a forum that provided the chance to give back to the community some of what had been given to me.  And I solved that loss by doing what made sense—I returned to church.

I did not go back to the Mormon Church, however.  I do not believe Church members would have welcomed an atheist in their midst.  I am told that my father, who made peace with me before his death, prayed every night he was alive that “the devil” would leave me.  But I have found several places here in New York City that have provided just the sort of community and support I needed.  I have been a soup kitchen cook at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Greenwich Village since February of 1983 (that’s 27 years and counting).  I sang in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church choir for 13 years.  I currently attend the Church of the Holy Apostles (Episcopal) in Chelsea (it runs the City’s largest church-sponsored soup kitchen).  And I feel at home there.

Why?  Because it is a thinking, caring community that puts into action the things it preaches, and it does so in as non-discriminatory a way as I have come across.  In the meantime, the church, which was rebuilt after a fire, provides an environment that embraces beauty, love, good music, fellowship, and service to the poor.  When they speak from the pulpit of Christ-like ideals, do I know what they’re talking about?  You bet I do.  Do I endorse them?  All of them that make sense to me.  Does it provide a space within which to yearn for the good, the best that can be achieved by all of us?  Absolutely.  Can I even say, “Praise be to God!” along with them?  Yes, because the ability to praise—the creation of a life that warrants praise—is what we all need.  The closer we get to it, the more godlike we will become, whether we dwell in God’s house in the next world or not.