Magnification in Maplewood: An Ethnographic Essay

The intersection of Route 7 and Interstate 787 is one of the busiest traffic hubs in New York’s Capital Region, a swirling vortex of collector and feeder roads inhaling, redirecting and expelling commuters, long-haul truckers, delivery people, schoolchildren, and leaf-peeping day-trippers with equal and impersonal efficiency. For most people, this expansive exchange is nothing more than a point in passage, a course change made gentle through the physics of banked curves and the mechanics of baked asphalt as they travel from one place to another. But for the people of Maplewood, the cloverleaf is their place, or at least a part of it, tucked as they are into its southwestern arc, and washed by the continuous, oceanic sounds of rubber tires running over pockmarked pavement.

Maplewood is briefly visible off your starboard bow as you rocket downhill on Route 7 from Latham and sweep rightward and southward on your way to Albany. It does not have its own exit from the busy highways that loom above it, but is served instead by pitted, two-lane, Route 32, from which one may access the tightly-packed peninsula of half-a-dozen dead-end roads fanning out behind the hamlet’s three marquee, roadside attractions: Maplewood School, Spiak’s Restaurant and The Purple Pub. The cloverleaf pens and isolates Maplewood to the north and east, while an active railroad line and the sprawling AquaClear chemical plant define the limits of its western and southern borders. Near the geographic center of this small and surprisingly isolated urban community sits St. Basil’s Russian Orthodox Church, shoulder to shoulder with the two- and three-story walk-up row houses around it. It’s hard to imagine a modern zoning board granting such a placement for such a structure, although despite its size, you are not likely to stumble upon St. Basil’s unless you are actively looking for it.

The traffic noise from the cloverleaf provides a relentless white noise background as I sit in St. Basil’s parking lot on a Saturday night, windows rolled down, awaiting the start of the evening’s worship. My car is conspicuous in the largely empty lot, as most of the worshippers, most of them elderly, and most of them in small groups, walk to church from their homes in the blocks surrounding St. Basil’s. Five minutes before the start of the service, I follow a pair of women slowly up the Church’s grey stone stairs and through the pair of heavy brown wooden doors into a foyer, which incongruously features a little window to the right, just like a ticket box office, with candles for sale, and bulletins. The foyer is dark, and modest, and smells of incense and blue hair.

I enter the sanctuary and am immediately struck by the impact of having dozens and dozens of eyes fixed upon me. Not the eyes of the worshipers, mind you, who number a mere twenty or so, but the eyes of the icons, large and small, solo and group, that appear wall to wall, and floor to ceiling, around the entire worship space. The gazes of the saints do not drift heavenward, nor do they stare reflectively into middle distance, lost in rapture. They look directly down at us, the gathered worshipers, with visages clear and penetrating. These saints are not here to watch over us. They are here to watch us. The reaction of everyone in the room, me included, is to drop our eyes and heads submissively, and to not attempt to stare down the unblinking holy ones displayed before us in all of their majesty. The weight of their gaze also creates a palpable sense of resistance to approaching them too closely, and the worshipers who have arrived in the sanctuary before me are all clustered in the back pews, seemingly pushed back by the force of their presence.

I join those back-pew worshipers, furtively glancing about through downcast eyes to take in the opulence of the space. A massive crystal chandelier hangs above us in the center of the sanctuary, with smaller clones of in about the room in geometric patterns. The sanctuary is ripe with gold: there are two large, round plates that look like reliquaries, flanking the steps going up to what I presume to be the altar area, and most of the icons are bright with gilt and filigree, especially the ten life-sized ones in the front of the worship space, five on each side of a central archway with twin doors and a curtain drawn across its span. Black metal cross shaped trays on either side of the altar area are filled with candles in red votaries, and a small icon sits behind glass at the center of the altar area. The contrast between the wealthy majesty of the sanctuary and blue-collar, hardscrabble Maplewood outside is clear and evocative. There are riches here. And power.

Three older women enter the sanctuary after me and quickly approach the altar area, rapidly making the sign of the cross in front of the shadow-box icon, the two black candle stands, and the doors between the full-sized icons, then just as rapidly retreating to the rear of the sanctuary where the rest of us sit, eyes downcast. The ladies’ gestures in the making of the cross are different from those I’ve seen when visiting Roman Catholic Churches: their obeisance included an element almost like a curtsy, as they evoked the Orthodox foot-bar of the cross by dipping their heads low and reaching almost all the way down to the ground. When they reach their pew after paying their respects, one of the three ladies continues crossing herself while muttering prayers beneath her breath. She finishes just as the overhead lights come on above the altar area and the first disembodied voices emerge from a heretofore unseen and unnoticed choir loft above and behind us.

“Phew,” she says to her companions. “I made it!” These are the first, and only, words I hear spoken by members of the community after entering the sanctuary. As the choir begins to chant a litany, the curtain and doors across the central archway at the front of the sanctuary are opened from behind by the Priest, revealing that I hadn’t been looking at an altar at all. The true altar is behind the door, with another whole layer of opulence, gold, crystal and candles within, barely visible from where I sit at the back of the sanctuary. There are more icons behind those doors, and directly behind the altar is an elaborate complex of starburst reliquaries, arches, candle arcs, and what appears to be a large crystal dome; the overall effect is like looking at some fabulous clockwork mechanism, its purposes magnificent, yet unknowable.

As the doors to the altar open, everyone rises, and the choir’s voices settle into long strings of words hung over open, unresolved chord structures, with breaks between the sections identified only when the dominant chords finally re-emerge, creating palpable senses of relief. The choir sings the entire liturgy, the words within the service subsumed into the effect of the chants themselves, which in turn becomes white noise, something that is heard, but not actively listened to. Except, that is, when the worshipers perceive the name of the Trinity being invoked, at which point they all make the sign of the cross, though not with the element I’d seen earlier of reaching toward their feet. There are clearly concessions made for the architecture of the pews.

The Priest wears a high-shouldered, ornate white cassock. As he works at the altar, his back to the sanctuary hall, head down, his robes move quickly and rhythmically as his (unseen) hands move through (unseen) motions before him. I can only occasionally view a thick shock of grey hair sticking out from above the built-up cassock collar, leaving the Priest looking from behind like some sort of opulent badger or other shovel-headed, burrowing animal digging into the holiness that lay before him, unseen by those gathered to worship there. When the Priest finally turns toward us, he holds an incense censer in his hands, and begins waving it rhythmically, circling the altar several times, then leaving the altar area to enter the main sanctuary via a pocket door behind one of the five large icons to my left. He walks the length of the central aisle to the back of the sanctuary, wafting fragrant smoke behind him, and then returns to the altar via another pocket door at my right, never looking at the worshipers, who in turn keep their eyes down as he passes. He is clearly busy in his commerce with the divine, and the worshipers seem intent on not distracting him from his ministrations.

The censer jangles as the Priest walks and waves it, its chains buzzing like the bottle-cap resonators nailed to African thumb pianos, keeping time with the never-ceasing chants of the still unseen choir. The liturgy is offered in a mix of English and Russian, and is very repetitive, with certain elements reoccurring verbatim several times throughout the ceremony. When the Priest returns to the front of the altar, he chants his own list of invocations, prayers and blessings, for names recognizable (our President, Watervliet’s Mayor, soldiers fighting on our behalf abroad), and not (presumably parishioners, suffering and seeking relief). When he finishes, he closes the doors to the altar area, remaining behind them, hidden from most of us out in the sanctuary. Some of the worshipers sit down for the first time in the service (me among them), though one of the older ladies to my left and a younger woman in front of us stay standing throughout the entire service. As the choir continues to sing, we can hear the Priest and his censer moving behind the closed doors, and occasionally catch glimpses of him through the gingerbread woodwork at their tops. Then the original cycle is repeated again, as the Priest emerges from the pocket door on the left, blesses the items in public view with incense, walks down and back up the aisle, and goes back to the hidden altar area via the right side pocket door, choir chanting and worshippers crossing themselves all the while.

The Priest opens the doors to the altar area again, and goes through a third cycle of ritual blessings, at the altar, down the aisle, back again. He devotes a tremendous amount of deference to the altar throughout the service, regularly bending to kiss it, or something laying upon it that we cannot see from the sanctuary. Except for the few moments when he paces purposefully down the aisle streaming incense smoke in his wake, the Priest’s back is toward the worshipers throughout virtually the entire service. His role is less one of tending to a flock than one of tending to the divine as it manifests itself on and around the altar. We cannot clearly see what happens there, though it is apparently of great importance and carries an active sense of urgency. There is a sense of watchful anticipation from the worshipers as the Priest works, as though they are hoping that everything turns out to his satisfaction, and thereafter to their benefit. Their role is passive while his is active, as their involvement with the service appears to be couched in terms of obedience and observation: they stand, they sit, and they make the sign of the cross whenever the Trinity is mentioned. They do not sing, they do not read from hymnals or prayer books, they do not interact with each other, or with the Priest.

After the third cycle of blessing the room, the Priest closes the doors to the altar area, and emerges through the left-hand pocket door to face and address the worshipers directly for the first time, making a few simple announcements about upcoming services. He holds in his hand a small gold cross. The sense of tension in the room dissipates as the worshipers leave their pews and walk up the aisle to greet the Priest and kiss the cross, moving in a counter-clockwise fashion around the shadowbox icon. It appears that the Priest has closely and successfully approached the divine, and then returned to share some small portion of it with those gathered before him. The heretofore unseen members of the choir end their chants, and leave their loft to file up the central aisle behind the congregation, equally eager to receive the blessings of the Priest, equally quick to adore the cross which he holds. They all leave the sanctuary more lightly than they entered it.

There are quiet, familiar conversations underway as the worshipers gather their belongings and leave the Church building, filtering out into the Maplewood neighborhood, the background murmurings of the unseen choir replaced by the background thrum of unseen traffic on the cloverleaf. A few people walk directly from the Church down the block to Spiak’s Restaurant, which seems to be doing hearty Saturday night trade as I drive slowly past it and turn up the steep Elm Street hill toward my home in Latham. St. Basil’s cemetery hugs the hillside on my left as I climb, the sprawling jumble of distinctive three-barred Orthodox crosses indicating generations worth of interments there, and a population likely greater than that of Maplewood itself today, with many of those buried there having no doubt worshiped at St. Basil’s as their descendants and neighbors did tonight, under the watchful stares of the Saints.

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