. . . He that filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
-- Othello, III. iii. 159-161
"Hollis!" What have I done? Who found out?
When I visit our church in Garden City, I take the Long Island Railroad. Subway downtown to Penn Station, where I watch the board until it posts the track assignment, then down the stairs, board the train to Long Beach, take a seat on the north side of the car, so I'll be in the shade from the morning sun. The train pulls out under the East River and surfaces on the other side: stop at Woodside, then Jamaica. Get out of the train, cross the platform, board the train for Hempstead, settle in as it pulls away . . .
"Hollis!" Where you gonna run to?
Very few things are named Hollis. There's me. And there was my dad (deceased). And there is the village of Hollis in Queens, which is the first stop out of Jamaica on the way to Garden City. So if I hear these two syllables I assume I am the target. I jump to attention. Who else could it be? Particularly if the word is spoken with a certain stress.
"The next station is . . . Hollis!"
There's a voice who does the automated announcements on the city subway and the Long Island Railroad. His name is Charlie Pellett. He sounds automated. He's crisp, resonant, a bit peremptory, very Anglo-Saxon in a mixed city. His most famous line is "Stand clear of the closing doors." The consonants click off his teeth and tongue. No "stan' clear," no "closin' doors."
The routine words -- "This is the train to . . .", "This station is . . ." , "The next station is . . .", -- are so familiar that I do not listen. But That Voice pushes the place names. Subject and predicate lose their connection. It's as if The Voice had been interrupted; it now sounds alarm against the intruder.
"This station is . . . HOLLIS!"
It's like a signal to the others, those who are not Hollis; in a moment they will converge and throw me off the train.
There it is -- a fleeting paranoid ideation, prompted by the rarity of my name, by its assignment to place, and by the dubious authority of a Voice that is clear rather than corporeal.
But there is another prompt, an infantile memory. I go back to a two-bedroom house in Durham, North Carolina; a house that I left when I was eighteen months old. My crib was in the front corner room, where they put me for my afternoon nap. Sometimes I had other ideas.
I stand up in the crib, and start to climb over the rail. Suspended between crib and floor, I see a flash of light and hear the voice. "Hollis!" Caught in flagrante, halfway over the rail, I look around the room and see no one who could be speaking. "Go back to sleep!" says the voice. Caught in bad faith, exposed to a presence I cannot name, I sink down onto the mattress. There is no hiding.
My father was a preacher, and his voice to me all-creative. No doubt the reflection of sun on a car's mirror struck my eye through the window. No doubt from the back bedroom where he had set up an office, my father heard the creak of the crib and knew my mischief. With a disembodied word he could prevent it. He did not need to materialize, for his spirit was everywhere.
It was a long time before I could distinguish between the man of God and the thing itself. "This is my Father's world," says the song, and I loved the song, hearing it in two ways mixed. I was comforted to learn that "rocks and trees, the skies and seas" had been wrought by his hand, the hand that I held when I crossed the street -- it seemed plausible to me.
I'm still reading the trace of that encounter today -- though I may not know it, someone is watching, is ready to call my name, not always approving. And I may wonder what I have done, who knows it and how they found out, and when they will throw me off the train.
But if I stumble into goodness, I pray someone will see it. I am rarely asked to account for the The Name; those who use the word either know what they mean or think they do. But if The Name is really at work in the world, I think one of its tasks is to be the best audience. He sees not just a result but the pain that went into it. He won't cut me off after sixteen bars, before I sing my high note.