The paper cup did it.
I saw the preacher as I crossed the street on the square in front of the train station in Old Sacramento. I could hardly have missed him: a crowd ringed the square as he yelled his poisoned theology through a cartoonish black megaphone with “Director” painted on the side in yellow capital letters. He looked cut from the same cloth as most street preachers: better dressed than most, perhaps, in black khakis and a loosely draped black and white bowling shirt, and slightly long black hair with gray streaks, but with the commanding body language and fierce tone of voice common to such men (and they are invariably men). His assistants (or should I call them acolytes?) passed out slips of paper with a Bible verse to passersby. (I think it was from Revelations, but I refused their offerings so I am not sure.) A name and address was underneath the verse, no doubt for whatever fire and brimstone ministry The Reverend represented.
Our car was parked behind him, in front of the gangplank leading to the Delta King Riverboat Hotel where The Rocket Scientist and I had spent the night. I walked behind the street preacher, frowning, down the gang plank to retrieve our luggage while the Rocket Scientist went to argue with the manager about the lack of air conditioning in our cabin last night. I gathered the bags and dragged them back to Frank, RS’s red and black Mustang convertible. I dropped the bags next to the car, then turned to watch The Reverend.
Sacramento keeps the streets in Old Sacramento pretty clean. Not quite Disney World clean, but well enough that the paper cup from Round Table Pizza slowly rolling across the street caught caught my attention. The Reverend marched over to the cup and stomped it flat. “God will crush you like I crushed this cup!” He strutted (no other word, really) away, leaving the flattened cup lying on the ground.
I had had enough. I walked behind him, picked up the cup, and dropped it in the trash can that was no farther than a few yards from where the preacher was exhorting the crowd. “At least I have the decency to pick it up,” I snapped at the preacher.
He turned around. Still talking through the megaphone, he replied “I wasn’t done. I would have picked it up when I was done.” He turned back to the crowd, and started into his “You are all damned unless you believe the same sort of vindictive crap I do” routine.
I don’t argue with street preachers, as a rule. There’s no percentage in it. I’m not going to convince him, he’s not going to convince me, so what’s the point? But I couldn’t back down from this fight. “That’s a really horrible God you believe in,” I yelled at him.
Still talking through that ridiculous megaphone, he turned around and said “He’s God over both of us, whether you recognize him or not.” The crowd’s attention was drifting now: he was facing me, after all, not them. “Well, my God is a God of mercy,” I yelled back.
“Well, yes, God is merciful but he also punishes those…” At that point a silver car drove up. A bald-headed man wearing a black t-shirt with an official looking logo leaned over and asked in an authoritative voice, “Is he bothering you, lady?”
At first I thought if he was asking if I was harassing the street preacher. The Reverend started to protest that he had done nothing wrong, and the man in the car commanded “Be quiet. Lady, is this guy harassing you?”
Well, no, he wasn’t harassing me. I had chosen to engage with him, after all, and if I had kept my mouth shut he wouldn’t have said boo to me. Smiling slightly I said “No, I’m okay.” The man in the the car nodded and drove off. The Reverend turned face the square. Still talking through the silly megaphone, which might as well been surgically attached to his lips since he never removed it from them, he started talking about the First Amendment and how this was a free country…
At that point, the Rocket Scientist walked up. As I got in the car, I noticed that much of the crowd had turned its attention away from the square to a man on the sidewalk who was dressed as an Old West banker, with a vest and a bowler, who was making marionettes dance. The Reverend had lost most of his audience. I smiled broadly as we drove off, and when we were well clear of the square I punched the air. “Yes!!!!”
I wish I could have told him “Yes, it is a free country. Yes, you can stand in front of a square spouting your vision of a dark and angry God to the tourists, and nobody will wrest that stupid megaphone from your hand and drag you away. But that First Amendment right to speech and religion you claim to treasure doesn’t insulate you from me yelling back.”