Last year, three times per week, I would stumble out of the 59th Street subway station in midtown Manhattan, stupefied by the competing traffic jam of landmarks. Trump Tower shot up from my left as Christopher Columbus balanced himself on my right, claiming dominion over his stone pillar and the intersection that bears his name. Across the street, three golden steeds guarded the entrance to Central Park. Only in New York are monuments heaped upon one another in such quantity—and only the true New Yorkers (not the ones with the camcorders) have perfected the art of seeming utterly unimpressed by it all.
The real champions of this art, perhaps, were the carriage horses that lined my route along the southern edge of the park. The horses, adorned with bells and clownish hats, gave me a look of pure boredom, so perfect in fact that I was often nearly offended. Not even the clouds of pigeons that vied for their buckets of oats could bring a smile to these most perfect of poker faces.
But as usual, I was five minutes late. It was time to run.
Even at my new fevered pace, with my college textbooks swishing about in my bag, there were always people of all sizes and ages zipping past me. An upper-crust woman in this season’s Chanel power-walks by me (or through me if necessary), prancing along with a studded leash that leads to an overweight dog. The little beast jiggles along with his red tongue dragging from a sardonic expression.
I continued each day through the slalom course of taxicabs, celebrities and bagel stands. A few blocks more and I would see my destination, America House, the home of America magazine, where I worked a few hours every week as an editorial intern during my last year of college. It was my job last year to make sure that the diphthongs were properly ordered and the compound adjectives were duly hyphenated. Even the best theologian can fudge when it comes to perfecting a present perfect infinitive.
Few of America’s readers get to see behind the curtain, as it were, and discover just how it is that a handful of Jesuits (and their colleague Patricia Kossmann, the literary editor) churn out a couple of dozen pages of intelligent (well-grammared, may I add) text every week. It’s a full-time job.
From Sixth Avenue, America House looks like a sack of potatoes at the feet of glassy giants. Its nine stories of sternly unadorned brick seem almost well mannered next to its neighboring 50-story bullies. The street outside is afflicted with potholes and occasional crowds for Carnegie Hall. Vendors sell purses and knock-off cologne. You can listen to protest marches on Fifth Avenue as you peek up at the runners on treadmills in a second-story window. America House stands as an island of poverty, chastity and obedience in a vast sea of the over-sized and over-priced. Only two blocks away, on Fifth Avenue, people buy suits for $7,500 at Brooks Brothers.
Each day Glenda buzzed me in and asked about the latest developments on the hole in my shoe (yes, my socks are still getting wet in the snow). The lobby is tiled and immaculate, with that bookish smell that seems to be inherent to all Jesuit lobbies. America House was converted from a seedy hotel in 1965, and today houses the magazine offices while also serving as home to 24 Jesuits.
On the flight of stairs up to the second floor, I was reminded of America’s history by the framed covers that span the last nine decades of publication. Covers with Mao, Castro and past popes remind me that even this week’s issue will someday seem dated, or perhaps even silly. Our current events will also become antiquated. Future interns might wonder how it felt to cover the war in Afghanistan or Pope John Paul II, just as I wondered what the mood must have been when the Second Vatican Council broke.
The second-floor hallway leads to the editorial office. Its walls are overcrowded with personal notes from presidents (Eisenhower and Kennedy) letters from cardinals and faded pictures of past editors going back to 1909. It was just a few more steps at that point.
The nerve center is the editorial office. Four workstations, with just four computers, try to fill the large and Spartan space. The desks harken back to the Carter era, and the giant bookshelf that covers an entire wall is packed to the brim with Bibles, Korans, tomes full of encyclicals, colossal dictionaries and anything else that one might have needed before the advent of the Internet. The editor in chief’s office is adjacent, with simple furnishings, a simple fireplace and an ad hoc gallery of past editors. A non-editor Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, stands smack-dab in the middle of them.
The office still runs on paper, and it’s everywhere—in piles and haphazard heaps that take on the appearance of threatening avalanches, albeit in slow motion. Had this been my room in high school, my mother might have declared war, both on the paper and on me.
In this unembellished, straightforward space, editors would come and go, razzing each other as they thumb through their papers. Most of the hours were spent in silence, hunched over long manuscripts and computer screens. Outside these walls one could not help but be paralyzed by the flora and fauna of New York City. Inside, however, patience and a smiling attention to detail were the rule.
In some ways, it was an office like any other. I’ve had other jobs at other publications, and the Jesuits at America were no different, at least not on the surface. But the differences can be stark. At one newspaper I worked for, it was my job to report on a neighborhood’s home improvements. At America I edited articles on ultimate existence. George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor, reminded me not to look too serious and to say hello. Good will and laughter keep together what can be a terribly serious job, compiling a publication with a fundamentally solemn nature.
My desk sat in the middle of the room: a little spoke in the larger wheel. The first order of business was always the letters to the editor. If you sent a letter between November 2001 and March of 2002, chances are that I read it and passed it along with an evaluation to an editor. The hardest part of the job was reading the brilliant ones that would never see the press, either because there was no space for them, because they lacked a bit of discretion or because their author requested it not be published at all. From Texas came a grandmotherly “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” From prison came the words of those who claimed to be innocent, begging that the editors consider their point of view on a certain topic. Grown men opened themselves up as they tried to express—in large, craggy letters—how they felt about confronting evil in the world. Priests wrote voluminous tracts on theological nuances. In one hand was a letter of praise. In the next would be someone cursing his subscription to such an obviously vile publication: “Yes, this is a cancellation letter.”
If it were possible to be a fly on the wall of American Catholicism—peeping quietly over thousands of shoulders while listening to opinions from all across the country—then my job might have been as close as you can get. After six months of reading letters, I say with confidence that American Catholicism is a contentious, compassionate, sometimes impractical and practically impossible group of people bent on better things.
At the end of the day, I would rub my eyes as I walked through the old city, back to the subway. It would sometimes dawn on me that the sharpest contrast between the people working in America House and the people buying fur coats just two blocks away was not the bottom line in their checkbooks. The contrast was not between priestly collars and caviar. After all, as Americans, we all live under a well-guarded umbrella of security and enjoy the fruits of a corporate empire. The real difference was between a religion of personal empowerment and a religion of community. As an intern, I never saw anyone working for personal gain. You would be hard-pressed to find an intern elsewhere who could report the same observation.
America House is one of the few buildings in Manhattan’s long skyline of towers in which working for a living does not mean working for oneself. Individual autonomy is not the highest value in this sack of potatoes. It is an idea all the more important in a time such as ours, when the church is under attack from so many quarters.