On Tuesday afternoon, December 2nd, 2008, I found myself in Salt Lake City, Utah. Along with the disadvantage of being in Utah, I was also next-to-broke and alone. I had helped my friend Mandy move to Utah for her new job with Sundance Film Festival. After dropping Mandy and her new roommate, Samantha, off at work in Park City, I was left with her car and nothing much to do. Even though I had a few drinks the night before, I was pretty chipper that morning. This usually happens to me when I have a few drinks and then have nothing to do the next day. Responsibility and finances are the only enemies of carefree living and I wasn’t thinking too much about either of those. Since I was out of town, I decided that both of those depressing thoughts would have to be dealt with on the return home.
I was in good spirits, possibly thinking about how I one day would like to live in a hotel or some other nonsense, and singing along with the radio as I drove back to Salt Lake City to sit alone in Mandy and Samantha’s apartment. Once I got there I was suddenly bored; a problem that usually can be cured by a television or the internet or a book… and while their apartment had no television or internet yet, I did have a book. It was The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie, and it started bothering me since it was about a plane crash and I was due to fly home the next day. It also reminded me of all of the vitriol held by the Muslim people against Rushdie, and reminded me that they still have a fatwah out against him for writing the novel. This got me thinking too much about plane crashes, terrorists, and terrorist-induced plane crashes to the point that I wasn’t in such a good mood anymore.
I tried reading The Darwin Awards, but that isn’t a book you can sit down with and become too engrossed. In my opinion, it would make a perfect book to be published in a tear-away calendar form. I could easily read one grim anecdote each day and be slightly amused and then throw that day’s moronically tragic tale into the waste-can.
I decided to get out of the house and explore the city.
My iPhone was not mapping things well for me. I had made it from Park City back to Salt Lake on memory, and I was surprised I had been able to find it so quickly, what with the overload of new sights and unfamiliar territory. With no internet map resources I was forced to try an archaic style of information gathering that required one to approach a stranger and ask them outright if they know how to get to a place. This is often less reliable than our modern directions because when asking a stranger, they more than likely will base them largely on landmarks, which is troublesome for out-of-towners.
I can hear in my head right now someone from Nashville presenting directions, “It’s over by where Lucy’s Record Store used to be…”
For out-of-towners, of course, this is a nightmare.
Nevertheless, I got in the car determined to find or see something interesting. If worse came to worse, I would do what I did the day before and sit in a coffee shop getting amped up on caffeine and tool around on the internet. I looked at the tallest buildings and steered that direction.
I hoped that this would lead me to the “sights” and like most cities, it led directly to the belly of the beast.
My fascination with Mormons began about ten years ago, when I was first told some of the crazy shit that they actually believe. Wait. No, it began much earlier than that. I remember as a child that I was extremely gullible to advertizing schemes. These days I hardly ever buy anything due to an advertisement, but I was moved to believe everything I heard on television when I was a child. My recollections bring back many Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints commercials. They all seemed to be about caring for the old, behaving, and one particularly was about lying. It had a jingle that I can vaguely remember, “If you tell one lie, it leads to another, then you tell another lie to cover each other…” They would sometimes have ads offering a free copy of The Book of Mormon, which as I child made me extremely curious. After all, I enjoyed the Bible stories from Sunday School and here was my family, fooling around and not even bothering to read the sequel.
I’m not sure my if mother ever gave me a solid answer about why I couldn’t call the toll-free number in order to receive a free copy of The Book of Mormon, which always confused me since it was free. I mean sure, when I asked for her to order me a copy of Dianetics after seeing its commercial, that cost money… I was used to being turned down on requests for things that cost money. To my mind as a child, it seemed like passing up a free lollipop at the bank. In retrospect, it was probably good parenting on my mother’s part to keep me away from that nonsense. If I was a sucker for commercials, then I would probably have been a sucker for a cult, and my mind needed maturity before I found out what both Scientology and Mormonism were all about.
To be brief, in Mormonism as well as Scientology, God comes from space, but with the Later Day Saints’ version, “God” had a bunch of spirit babies from whom “He” needs to find something to do. He consults his oldest sons, Jesus and Lucifer, and has them come up with a plan. Lucifer wanted to be savior, but God chose Jesus since he had a better plan. Jesus died on the cross, then came to America where he and a group of native Israelites fought a really mean crew named the Nephites and they became all but extinct except for this one guy (whose name might have been a bizzare attempt to caricature Italian-American immigrants) named Moroni. Moroni ostensibly wrote down these stories of the great battles, explained how cool polygamy could be, and a few things the Bible didn’t clarify because it was poorly translated. Luckily, Moroni’s ghost came to Joseph Smith and gave “the prophet” the golden plates—which were written in Egyptian that he somehow translated—thus beginning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: The Mormons.
I knew that much about it before I got there.
Slowly and surely I found my way to Temple Square. I found free parking on the street and began to make my way to the main square, but I decided that since I had parked in front of the Family History Library, I should check it out first. I walked in and an old woman walked up to me slowly, in such bad shape that I felt like I should help her, but as I reached out she waved me away and said, “I’ve got this” and then crawled up into a tall chair at the entrance that I suppose was her post.
“Now, what can I do for you?” she asked after adjusting herself a bit.
“I’m from out of town and I’ve never been here and was just checking to see what this place is all about.” That reply was probably the most honest answer that I delivered to any of the Mormons for the rest of the day.
She pointed me to an old man, who in turn pointed me to another old woman, and that old woman led me into a small theater where I was to sit alone and watch a Power Point presentation. I felt awkward, like I was imposing, as if I had rousted up the projectionist in order to watch a movie they weren’t showing when the theater was about to close. It basically explained what a fine facility that they’d created and how it was free to the public. I contemplated leaving at this point, but I didn’t know if that would be more awkward than sticking it out.
After the presentation she took me to the research room where tons of people were at computers reading and searching, and they all seemed to be on task.
“Does anyone want to help this young man?” she asked a group of volunteers who were all sitting around talking.
“I’ll take him,” said a very slurred and impaired voice. A young woman with some sort of severe affliction rolled over to me. “Follow me,” she said and wheeled her chair on over toward the computer.
“You’re lucky, she’s the best,” one of the other volunteers said to me as I walked behind her. I did not yet realized that this was a smart-ass statement by a rude volunteer. At this point I gave her the benefit of the doubt, that despite her affliction, she was really good at what she does.
And so began at least thirty minutes of sitting with a disabled young women, who turned out to be mentally handicapped as well as physically disabled. Her reading ability was low at best and most of her help consisted of barking at me to click links on the computer that I often knew weren’t going to lead us in the right direction, but I humored her along the way. I felt that in this situation it was more polite to grin and bear it than to ask for another person to assist me or to get up and leave.
Even though I didn’t have the best assistant, we did manage to click our way to a few of my family’s old census records, and I’ll admit that it was amazing to see photocopies of my great-great grandfather’s actual handwriting where in 1890 he wrote down the names of his family and their age. My great-grandfather, like myself, must not have known exactly who he wanted to be as he sometimes wrote his name as “Bailey Spurgeon Enoch” (the way I knew it), sometimes he spelled it “Baily”, and most peculiar was how on a couple of documents he was called “Spurgeon R. Enoch” who could be a different person were it not for the same address, same birthday, same wife, and same kids.
I told my helper that he was the only family member I was really interesting in and moved on. I have more information from family members who have actually spent some time studying the family tree and have mapped my father’s side back to arrival to America when it was still under colonial rule. Surprisingly, my ancestors moved from Pennsylvania to the south and have pretty much stayed in the Murray, KY/Paris, TN vicinity ever since. They never did much but farm and definitely didn’t trek across the country to find a place where they could marry a bevy of young women in peace. Maybe that is why I found the place so interesting.
Next I crossed the street and timidly walked into the Temple Square. I had no idea if people were allowed to just walk in or not. It was quite desolate, but I went in anyway, figuring the worst that could happen would be that I would be asked to leave by a polite but stern Mormon representative.
There was a help desk and an old man gave me a map and told me they have a tour starting every fifteen minutes and it would be a great thing that I “don’t want to miss”. I had thirteen minutes before the next tour arrived and it seemed as fine of a time as any to smoke a cigarette. It was open air, it was brisk, and no one was around.
Then I met a polite but stern Mormon representative.
“You can’t smoke that in here, sir!” he said, rushing towards me.
I apologized and noticed a problem that all smokers deal with when they arrive at a place that doesn’t allow smoking—there are never any ashtrays. I looked around before tossing it on the ground and stomping it out. “Oh, sorry!” One thing that I had learned about Mormons but forgotten was that they didn’t believe in cigarettes or caffeine. I’d gotten a cup of coffee earlier and it had crossed my mind to carry it with me. Good thing I didn’t. These are sins among the Mormons and from the look on his face, I may as well have been naked and making out with a same-sex lover up against the church. Thank goodness they are hungry for the convert or any number of things could have happened to me, from getting kicked out to getting my ass kicked.
I decided from this point forward I was going to try to play it cool. Try not to offend, just take a tour,see the sights, and hear all they have to say about it.
The main building housed their statue of Jesus in Space that they all are terribly proud of. I walked around and waited for the next tour to start. The Mormons ran their place like a well-oiled machine, everyone knew when the next tour started, and everyone seemed to know their place and what was going on. Two beautiful women began approached me and they seemed incredibly interested in where I was from and what I was doing. One of them, a gorgeous Brazilian woman named Larissa—who had some of the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen—began to chat me up and the words she said just flew in and out my ears, while in my head bad ideas were sprouting. “Yes, I think you do have a great thing going here. Yes, I was a little skeptical but I think you make some valid points. You’ve never been to Nashville? I would be happy to try and research some place we could go where caffeine and tobacco aren’t allowed so we can have a real good time. I could be married to you and attend this church with you, no sweat! I mean, if that’s what you want. And if they ever repeal those bigamy laws then what the hell? Oh sorry, I mean what the hey…”
Luckily for me, she was called to other duties and I was sent off with another Brazilian and a young Filipino woman, both of whom might have been pretty if I hadn’t just had my mind turned to mush by Larissa. They took me around showing me the various “attractions”, like a wax statue of Joseph Smith that had an eerie resemblance to Clay Aiken. I managed to hold my tongue and not bring up their similar features. They showed me a wax statue of an American Indian who was working on the gold plates.
“When do I get to see these gold plates?” I asked them.
“The gold plates aren’t here, they are returned to heaven.”
“Because we have The Book of Mormon, we don’t need them,” the Filipino girl said while looking at the Brazilian girl with questioning eyes that seemed to say that she wasn’t sure.
“How much do you think they are worth?”
“It doesn’t matter because we don’t have them anyway, but I’m sure they would be priceless.” They were both looking at each other now and I decided to lay off a little with the questions. I wanted it to stay friendly and was not really looking to debate. I was a voyeur that was peaking into their wacky little world, and I just got the feeling that there were some sick sexual secrets going on in this place. After all, the founder had forty wives. Most men don’t sleep with that many women in their lifetime, much less frequently sleep with that many women. It made me feel sorry for the two of them. Like there was something in store for them that they didn’t know was coming. Then again, my imagination could have just been running wild from being surrounded by these strange people and this strange religion.
We went to the Tabernacle and they demonstrated the terrific acoustics of that place. They told me that Brigham Young knew nothing about auditoriums when he built it. I told them I had heard he was a carpenter and they confirmed that it was true he was, but he was not an auditorium carpenter.
I hushed and watched from the back row, just me and four people in wheelchairs parked behind me, as they tore newspaper, dropped pins, and spoke as loud as if they were sitting next to me. I was truly impressed. They told me that the marble columns were made of wood and that a lot of people don’t believe it when they see them. I tapped one of them and heard an unmistakably wooden thud and told them they didn’t have to convince me.
I casually asked if this was a special day for the disabled and they told me it wasn’t. I wasn’t used to seeing this many crippled people outside of a hospital or nursing home.
We next went to the Assembly Hall, where the tour took a strange turn from being about showing me around to sharing scripture.
“Please read this,” the Brazilian girl asked me, handing me a highlighted verse from the book of Alma, a chapter of The Book of Mormon. I read it aloud and even though it was “translated” around 1830, it was written in the archaic Early Modern English of the King James Bible. “What do you think it means?” she asked me.
“That it is good to suffer.” I wasn’t sure because I was paying more attention to the language the verse was written in than what it said, but they explained that sure enough, I had understood the main idea. “Why is it written in language like Shakespeare, since you said it was translated around 1830? People didn’t speak that way then.”
I stumped them. After a moment of awkward silence, they suggested we move along.
“So when do we go to the Temple?” I asked. I knew that without sufficient Mormon indoctrination, I would remain persona non grata as far as the Temple was concerned, but I thought I might as well give it a shot. They explained that was only for pure Mormons and it was some to look forward to after service in the religion. I was allowed to walk to the Temple and look at it’s dark and looming spires and even take a picture. The closer I got to it, the more I really didn’t want to go in it, anyway. I began to take a picture and had to move as two people in wheelchairs needed to get past me. The place seemed to be a center for the disabled.
Our last stop was back to the beginning—at the large statue of Jesus in Space. They call the work Christus, which was admittedly a knock-off of a much larger version in a Catholic Church in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Catholic Church didn’t give Jesus an outer space background, though. That was a Mormon innovation, all the way.
They instructed me to look to the statue and say a prayer. Often I feel unsure of what I believe, but I knew I didn’t believe in this. I didn’t know what to pretend to pray for, and I felt weird praying in front of total strangers of a truly strange religion, but finally I opted to recite the Lord’s prayer. “His will be done,” I thought, “because I can’t make heads or tails out of any of this insanity.”
I was then set free to walk about the square, visit Brigham Young’s house, or watch a film based on the life of Joseph Smith. Looking at my watch I decided against all of the presented options, because before long it would be time to pick-up the ladies from work; back to the much different, much prettier Park City. I figured I might as well go ahead and head there, enjoy a cigarette and a cup of coffee during the time I had before they got off work.
I headed to Park City, asking only directions for getting to the interstate from a man in a cowboy hat, who happened to be the first in a line of six people who were all in wheelchairs moving along the sidewalk.
Sitting in the coffee house I had an ice coffee and thought about the large empire of the Mormon religion.
It all seemed like a well-put-together sales pitch. It was big enough that it must mean something, but I had no idea what. (That men can believe anything as long as nailing wives five at a time is involved, maybe?) It was showy. It was brilliant. The halls were clean. They didn’t drink, they didn’t smoke. They lived better and more pure lives than the rest of us. It was a widely known fact that this metropolis had little crime. They were honest. On the outside, this all looked like the happy and joyous experience that religion is supposed to be.
Perhaps, like Joseph Smith, I was taken with a vision. I saw a man in a wheelchair bump into one of the deceptive “marble” pillars and heard the thick thud of its hidden wooden core. Then I heard him softly saying the words, “What a sham!”